I thought I would have a few hours to mooch around Rome in the morning, but I found myself unable to prise my worthless body from my bed until after 10am. By the time I had breakfast and tried (and failed) to find a free wi-fi zone, it was time for me to take the train to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port and the place where the boat to Tunisia left from.
The boat to and from Tunisia was horrifically horrific last time, and this time it was no better. Same boat, same company, same unholy rip-off. For a start, the boat was two hours late boarding, which meant that I was left standing in the car-park like an unsuccessful prostitute for longer than would otherwise be sensible. Once (finally) on board, the horribly familiar interior of the Sorrento loomed into view.
I had a ‘deck’ ticket, which basically means you sleep in the restaurant. If you know of a comfortable way to sleep in a restaurant chair, I’d love to hear it. Luckily for me, I was one of the first on board (I ran) so I snagged one of the exclusive couch seats that run along the parameter of the room.
There are only three toilets between all the men on board (usually 100+) and none of them are urinals. Oh, and for some reason, the crew don’t clean them for the full length of the ‘cruise’. Which means within an hour, they are disgusting, within a day they are capable of making a grown man vomit at 50 paces. Nice.
The food is an utter rip-off (just a can of coke will set you back €2.50) and the company on board was less than illuminating. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke a word of English and so spent my time watching the entire first season of Lie To Me rather than do anything, you know, sociable. Ya boo.
This infernal continent. If I was following the original plan, I would have picked up my visas in Istanbul and continued on to Central Asia a month ago. But there were two nagging countries, two of the largest in Africa in fact, that had barred my entry, even by an inch. They were Libya and Algeria. I had tried to get into Algeria once before and Libya twice, only to find that they were not to be trifled with. And so it would add an extra month onto The Odyssey and cost me over £1000, but I had to do it their way, and (putting it mildly) neither of them like tourists very much.
Why would they? They have OIL! And the oil will last forever and ever and ever and there will never be a day when it runs out. And while the governments make all their money through the backhanders which the oil provides! Huzzah! And the commoners? Sod ’em. They can make do. They don’t need the millions of tourists dollars that flood into Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco every year. They’d only spend it on fizzy cola bottles and sherbet flying saucers. By the way – check out my new palace! Nice innit?
Well to cut a short story even shorter, I arrived in Tunisia a few hours late (naturally) and by 9pm, I was outside the Africa Hotel in Tunis waiting for my CouchSurf contact to pick me up. After a few worried moments in which I thought he wasn’t going to show up (sorry for waking you up Mand!) Djamel, or Dja (pronounced ‘Jar’) collared me on the street and took me back to his gaff. There I met his American girlfriend, the delectable Claire from California.
Dja is originally from Algeria, but he grew up in France and has been working here in Tunis for the last ten years. Claire on the other hand was one of those American Peace Corp LUNATICS who throw themselves head-first into Africa and expect to come out a stable and adjusted person. NOTE TO PEACE CORPS-WANNABES: Go to South America, India or SE Asia. Trust me. Africa will chew you up and suck you dry. You have been warned.
Anyway, while Claire and I compared travel scars, Dja fed us all beers and rounded off an unpleasant day on a horrid boat with a tremendously pleasant evening in the company of new-found friends.
I’ve made some big boo-boos in The Odyssey so far. Going to Cape Verde with a bunch of Senegalese fishermen, for one. Not just taking the DAL Madagscar on its route around the Indian Ocean for another. Of course, turning up in Tunisia without visas for Algeria and Libya last May cost me massively in terms of time and money, but the boos just keep coming. Today, I was planning to head to Algeria for the day, cross the border, tick the place off the list. Easy.
But instead, I spent the entire morning fighting with my damn iPod Touch in a vain attempt to get my Lonely Planet pdfs onto the damn thing so I wouldn’t have to take my laptop with me. In the end (and after losing all of my other apps that I had on there), I gave up and e-mailed them to myself (how staggeringly retarded, but let’s not go on about it here) and that seemed to work.
By 1pm, Dja suggested it was too late for me to head to the border today. I’m still tremendously (and uncharacteristically) tired and so I elected to head to Algeria on Monday instead. The ferry didn’t go back to Italy until Tuesday anyway… so what difference would it make?
Ah, well, we’ll come to that on Sunday, shall we?
That night Dja and Claire invited a bunch of their friends around and we all celebrated Mohammed’s birthday (fellow Piscean, I guess) like the Pagans we are by getting really quite fantastically drunk. So much so that I very nearly wound up getting myself arrested again by running into Dja’s flat and attempting to hide under the sofa when a policeman shouted at us in the street. Hee.
Tunisia is undoubtedly the most accessible Muslim country in the world. Morocco’s borders with Algeria are closed, and there’s a checkpoint every ten minutes through Western Sahara. Egypt requires a visa (humph) and although the Jordanian visa is free for Brits on arrival from Egypt, good luck with trying to near its borders with Saudi or Iraq. Even Turkey’s borders aren’t all open, the Armenian one has been shut to Westerners since forever. Meanwhile, plucky little Tunisia, sandwiched between unhappy giants Libya and Algeria offers a window on the culture of the area that could lead people to believe that it was almost liberal or permissive, which I’m sorry to report it isn’t. Human rights here are a joke, and women (especially western women) are still regarded as nasty little creatures which only exist to torment the otherwise pious and pure minds of the menfolk. Free and fair elections are as in the hazy, ill-defined future as the hydrogen fuel cell engine i.e., it’s never going to happen. Even YouTube is banned lest people slag off el presidente (who – AS USUAL – is beyond all worldly criticism).
Burned into my memory of Africa is a bumper sticker that I saw in Nigeria saying ‘Only God Can Judge Me’. Oh great, well do what you like then, you arrogant sod – murder, steal, rape, lie, cheat and scandalise because our human courts are obviously a figment of your stupid, religion-addled imagination.
Welcome to Africa, peeps. Checking the Islamic calendar, it says that it’s 1431. That’d be around right… absolutism, the ancien regime, the divine right of kings, the putting to death of ‘witches’ etc etc. The fifteenth century is alive and well and living in this, the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. No wonder Algeria and Libya make it so hard for us plucky adventurers to pay them a visit. But I’ll talk more about Libya (it is, I’m sorry to say, a pitifully hilarious place) tomorrow.
Today’s mission was to shake the hangover from my head and get as close to the Libyan border as humanly possible. After managing to lose one of my phones (damnit), Dja and I headed over to the train station and I nabbed a ticket for Gabès, the railhead not too far from the border with Libya. The journey was uneventful and lonely, I settled in with a copy of Sherlock Holmes and around 9pm we had arrived.
I could have pressed on to Ben Guerdane, closer to the border, but I decided to stop for the night. After being ripped off by a taxi driver who drove me around the block, I found a hotel that my brother Mike had texted me the address of (Gabès is too insignificant to merit a mention in the Lonely Planet), but it was full. I ambled down the road to the next one on the list, and it seemed decent enough for the price (£4). After checking in, I headed out to find something to eat. No such luck – everything was closed. Not a café, not an inn, not a sausage.
Alone, in a grotty bedroom in the middle of nowhere the seconds counted down to my 31st birthday. I tried calling Mandy in Australia again and again. She didn’t answer. Eventually I gave up, curled up into a ball and wished myself Happy Birthday.
Rising at 6am to crack on to the border, it is with tremendous chagrin that I must report the minibus to Ben Guerdane did not leave until just after 8am. But to cheer me up on the way to the ‘Gare Routiere’, a gentlemen who was setting up his market stall at the side of the road came running over to me saying that he knew me. This is a typical ploy in this part of the world (especially Egypt), but no, he did actually recognise me – “you’re the guy who’s been to 142 countries!” he said as he shook my hand.
But, er, how….?
“You were on television yesterday, on the news, I saw you!” The interview I did for the French news agency last Monday must have got around. Well, that put a spring in my step. I sat waiting for the damn minibus to leave (only when it’s full!) and woke myself up with a coffee. I eventually got to the Libyan border at 11am, two hours late – a little embarrassing for Mr. Time-And-Motion over here as I was to meet my guide and, I was later to discover, he had been waiting for hours.
Now I explained in the blog entry “Groundhog Day” about Colonel Gaddafi banning all Europeans from entering his pleasant little dictatorship, but did I also mention that even if you’re British, American or Australian and you get a visa, you still have to have a ‘guide’ to accompany you everywhere? Why? Because apparently otherwise us Westerners will steal stuff.
I mean, what?
Where does Gaddafi get off accusing me of being a thief? The fact that he’s been systematically stealing BILLIONS of dollars from his own country since 1969 doesn’t seem to phase him. Oh well, I guess only God can judge him and all that crap. Well, I’m quite judgemental myself and I (like most Libyans) will be more than happy to see the nasty old tyrant drop dead. However, since the guy is an absolutist monarch (quick note to fascist dictatorships around the world – adding the worlds ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ to the name of your country isn’t fooling anybody, you know) his son is probably going to succeed him – the usual case with long-serving Nazis such as Fidel Castro (succeeded by his billionaire brother) and Omar Bongo (succeeded by his billionaire son) – in elections which nobody in their right minds would regard as ‘free’ or ‘fair’.
Luckily for me, my guide was a really nice chap. I’m not going to tell you his name, as this blog entry is going to be tremendously critical of Gaddafi and I don’t want my guide getting into trouble.
With my Arabic Translation in my passport, and the promise I was going to pick up my visa on the other side, the Tunisian border guards (them who had given me a flat ‘interdit!’ last May) stamped me out and waved me through. Made me think I should have pretended I was meeting a guide last year and got over the border line, just a few meters away…
In… into Fortress Libya. I had finally, FINALLY, made it into country 143 (it should have been country 67)
It had taken me a month to get here, but here I was in Libya, on my third attempt. I met my guide on the Libyan side and he got me through the formalities amazingly quick. He then took me for a drive inside Libya. Since I was already over the border and it would not be helping me along the way, I was happy to explore the place that had cost me hundreds of pounds to step foot in.
And what is there to report? Libya is remarkably similar to every other North African/Middle Eastern country; you don’t see too many women out and about, the food isn’t great and it’s not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (that would be Britain, if you think about it), it’s more of a big fat desert with a bunch of concrete hovels lining the road. Nice! I would desperately like to visit Leptus Magna and see the Roman ruins, but there’s no time on this trip, so I had to make do with a little kebab and (yes it IS everywhere!) a bottle of Coke in the town of Zuara.
Once inside the borders, the security was not too strict, and I didn’t feel the oppressive hand of the so-called security services that one encounters far too often in West and Central Africa. Green flags fluttered everywhere (great design guys!) the irony of this being one of the least ‘green’ states on the planet is, I’m sure not lost on you.
My guide was sad that I wasn’t staying longer. With the embargo against European travellers, thousands of people involved in the nascent tourist industry here are now out of work. But does Gaddafi give a damn? Nah, he’s too busy playing goofy political games. The Libyan people are stuck in a 1984-esque nightmare in which they are constantly told that they are in power, that they have a say in the future of their country, only to be beaten down by that iron boot if they – shock horror – dare question the wisdom of their crazy unelected leader.
Of course, Gaddafi has always been as mad a bottle of badgers. In the 1970s, he spent a few days in the desert and wrote his infamous ‘Little Green Book’, possibly a companion piece to Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. You think that a little unfair? Well it’s not. They were all mad fascist dictators with a messiah complex and all wrote a book saying how they think people should act. Self-help books written by psychotic nutcases! Great! What next? Cooking with Stalin? Dog Grooming by Pol Pot? Flower Arranging by Idi Amin?
Hold me back.
Why the hell are people like this still in power? Is it just me that thinks that a seat in the UN should be aspirational, not a catch-all for every government on Earth, be it a fascist hellhole, a narco-state, a kleptocracy or (in the case of Somalia) a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Membership of the UN shouldn’t be an automatic given, it should be earned, through peace, democracy, freedom of the press and free and fair elections.
Or if you want every damn sovereign state in the UN, lets have a points system in which truly democratic states are rewarded with greater voting power (ie. Britain gets 100 points, Guinea gets 1) on resolutions – this would do away with the need for the security council, as no nutbag dictatorships would get much of a say in anything anyway.
This would help the domestic opposition’s cause… at the moment, what incentive is there for your typical camouflage-clad Aviator-wearing African Fascist to clean up his act? NONE WHATSOEVER. They have oil, or gold, or coltan, or diamonds. As long as the rest of the world needs the commodities that they control, the rest of the world can go to hell. As a matter of fact, so can their own tiresome populations. UN sanctions? Bring them on! They only end up killing the hoi polloi and 99% of those loooosers are not needed for the extraction of commodity A or B anyway, so wot me worry?
Sadly, this is the case in more countries than I care to mention, Libya just being one of them. Imagine an entire population – Zimbabwe is a good example – waiting for one man to die so they can be free. You think they’ll erect statues to Mugabe? They’ll be queuing up to spit on his corpse. You want to be great? You want to go down in history as a hero? A leader of men? Stop looking at your own bank balance and look to the happiness of the people you claim to represent. If you’re in charge of a sullen land (Mr. Brown) you might – just might – be doing something wrong.
After lunch, we drove back to Tunisia, past the lagoon and out of Gaddafi’s sandbox adventure. My guide was good enough to take me back to Ben Guerdane, leaving me at the shared-minibus station. I said my goodbyes and if I ever return to Libya (if they let me after I post this entry!) I’ll be giving him a bell. If anyone reading this fancies a bit of a desert safari through the realm of Tripolitania, get in touch with me – this guy will get you through the border quick smart and he won’t rip you off.
Did I mention it’s my birthday today? Maybe I should’ve. I was hoping to get back to Tunis for about 10pm, and have a few celebratory drinks with Dja, Claire and their mates. But hope doesn’t set you free, carving a hole behind your poster of Rita Heyworth with a rock hammer will set you free and today my rock hammer was out of order.
It was midnight before I returned, too late for Dja and Claire’s mates to be out on a school night. But we made the most of it, I had a few beers and settled down for bed at around 2am. I had conquered one of the forbidden kingdoms, I had to be up early in the morning for Fortress Algeria…
Interestingly, I’ve now spent a birthday in Europe (25), America (1), Asia (2), Australia (2) and Africa (1). Do I win a fiver?
You know those moments when you realise you’ve made a MASSIVE mistake and your stomach drops away? Like when you text someone that the text message was about, or you find you missed two pages of the exam as they were stuck together, or discover that she’s actually a ladyboy? I had one of those moments yesterday. When I was stamped into Libya, I flicked excitedly through my passport only to discover the awful truth – my visa for Algeria expired that day, 28th February, yesterday.
I have never had a visa where the validity period lasted less than a month before – this one lasted just two and a half weeks. It never even occurred to me to look. I slapped my forehead like a Keystone Cop and muttered that this was another fine mess I’ve got me into.
WHY DIDN’T I GO TO ALGERIA ON FRIDAY?!?!?
Crikey – it didn’t seem like too big of a deal then, I could go on Monday – the ferry back to Italy didn’t leave until Tuesday anyway, it made no difference, right?
Wrong. It made ALL the difference.
Damn you Algeria. Damn you to hell. As I found out last time I was here, you can’t get an Algerian visa in Tunisia unless you are resident here, otherwise it’s back to London for you, young man.
Back to London?!
I would really, really like to get this whole silly adventure finished some time this year, I really would. I can’t afford to be making cock-ups like this, Graham you looooosertic.
Despairing for what else to do, I set off for the border anyway. Perhaps they won’t notice, maybe they’ll let me in anyway (they did in Nigeria and Cameroon), perhaps they’ll agree with me that it still is 28th February. In Hawaii.
Perhaps not. After a four-hour journey to the border I was to find that no, the visa was invalid and they weren’t going to let me in for love, nor money (I offered both).
Drat and double drat.
The border guys were friendly enough though. The guy I gave my passport to, his eyes lit up when he saw I was from Liverpool and he instantly wanted to talk to me about football. There was another guy who looked a little like Peter Sellers who spoke very good English and he was chatting to me about how welcome I was in Algeria, and how good it was to have tourists again, especially ones from England… things were looking hopeful… but then the boss came out, said an emphatic NO and I was sent packing.
All that time and effort for nothing. Nothing!! The Tunisians invalidated my exit stamp and back I came. I hopped a taxi back to Tabarka, the first town after the border, and then plunged back into a louage (shared minibus) for the disheartening trip back to Tunis.
Dja recommended that I try at the Algerian Embassy here in Tunis. I wasn’t optimistic, but any port in a storm and all that. The guys on the border reckoned I could ‘easily’ extend the visa for free. I believed that as far as I could spit. I spent a good hour in a taxi fighting through the traffic going to the wrong place (the Algerian consulate moved last month!) and eventually, at 10.30am, I was at the embassy waving my passport about and pleading for an extension. It expired on my birthday, for heaven’s sake… my birthday!!
I was left waiting for an hour or so, and then I was told I needed a hotel booking, so I headed over to the café across the road and prayed that they had wireless. To my immense relief, they did. Lindsey Bennett, my most excellent chum from my schooldays, was conveniently visiting Mandy in Oz, and she speaks much better French than I, so I found the hotels on the internet and set her loose on them. It took an absolute AGE, but eventually, we had email confirmation from a hotel in Annaba, the first big city after the Algerian border. By this point, Claire, who was only working half day, had finished work and had come to meet me (work just being around the corner – you see, sometimes the island conspires to help me out) and so we rushed over to her school and got the hotel reservation printed out (god knows how I would have done that without Claire).
I presented my reservation, passport size photos and photocopies. The lady in the embassy told me to come back tomorrow and ‘a decision will be made’. It sounded ominous.
I knew from bitter experience that the Algerians will not dole out visas unless you’re a resident here. I hoped against hope that they would make an exception for me, since my visa only expired 48 hours ago. I did not like the idea of a decision being made any more than Doug likes the cone of shame.
So Claire and I had an afternoon in Tunis with nought-else to do and so I suggested a little trip to Carthage, the third great city state of the Med, forming a trading/fighting partnership with Ancient Rome and Athens. It was a fairly short trip on the train, but I (sadly) must report that, just like the Temple of Artimus at Ephesus, there ain’t much left to see. But squint your eyes, use a bit of imagination and maybe you’ll see it as it was before the Romans razed the place to the ground and then (for good measure) sew salt into the Earth so nothing would grow.
We were on top of a large hill overlooking the harbour, which was once housed a circular colonnaded dock with a smaller covered boat depot in the centre, also circular, with long thin wooden vessels sticking out the middle like bicycle spokes. The city would have risen up via shops, dwellings, bath-houses and amphitheatres until it reached the now-ruined palace in which we now stood and as perhaps Hannibal once stood before setting out with his army of elephants to cross the Alps and eating a census-takers liver.
Just imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the hapless Romans when this brilliant nutter turned up on the Northern Frontier with a load of elephants looking for a fight and you’d never seen an elephant before. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I’d do is get all Legolas on Dumbo’s ass – I’d run for the hills and hope they couldn’t climb trees.
So after a quick scan around the museum (as always I love the sculpture, hate the broken bits of pottery) we headed back to Tunis. Claire had to go teach her night-class, but as she had a hot shower in her gaff (Dja didn’t) she let me use the facilities while she was away. Bad move! The place was a one-room dwelling and as such I managed to flood her entire flat! You see when you take your glasses off to have a shower, you can’t see too well and you really can’t see that the water is leaking out all place, and when you notice that the water isn’t draining as it should, it’s already too late. Nightmare!
So I did my best to mop the mess up and sheepishly opened up my laptop to check my emails and read the news.
What THE HELL?
“BBC to Axe 6music.”
What? Seriously, WHAT?
A few months ago, I was invited to a facebook group called “help save 6music!” or something. I dismissed it out of hand, wary of the far too many daffy emails saying that hotmail/Wikipedia/the child abuse section of the South African police force/the UN was being shut down and that only my digital Hancock at the bottom of the list could save it from oblivion.
But there it was on the BBC website: my favourite radio station, BBC 6music is to close. At first I thought I was seeing things. Maybe my brain was just aching from all the Algerian nonsense, I don’t know. But there it was, unarguable… the BBC were going to close down 6music.
ARE THEY MAD?!
It would seem so. The thing is this: there is no alternative radio station to 6music. There are awful local commercial stations that provide a decent alternative to the chundering ego-fest of bad DJs and worse music that is Radio 1. There are local BBC stations, such as Radio Merseyside, that might as well be called Radio 2 and a bit. Radio 3 is in direct competition with Classic FM and Radio 5live covers the same ground as every talk radio station in the realm.
But what of BBC 6music – the ‘alternative’ music station? The truth is that there is no alternative, I guess that’s why we call it the alternative station. I suppose Xfm or MTV2 back in the 90s could have held a torch to it, but these days, forget it – the only British radio station that plays the music I like (and I like a lot of music) is Radio 6.
Apparently, this is to save money, all the £8,000,000 a year that is spent to keep things up and running. Don’t forget – the BBC pays a blanket fee each year to PPS and PRS so they can use all the copyrighted music they want, that money just goes on wages and production costs. A bargain if you ask me – it breaks down to less than £1,000 an hour of broadcast. Compare that to, say, EastEnders, and you’re easily looking at £1,000,000 for each hour of broadcast.
Anyway, the BBC are now going to have one hell of a fight on their hands, on the day of the announcement 100,000 people joined the facebook group to get this dumb decision overturned.
What’s funny is that if the beeb suddenly announced it was closing the BBC3 television channel, I reckon the facebook protest group would consist of about ten people and a lost dog. I can’t see too many people having their nose put out of joint at the loss of such must-see TV as “Snog, Marry, Avoid?”, “Three Non-Blondes”, “My Penis and Me” and an utterly superfluous repeat of that night’s Eastenders.
Anyway, if you’re not from the UK, I guess you won’t have a clue what I’m on about, but if you head over to bbc.co.uk/6music, you might get a hint at how much this plucky little radio station has become a national institution in less than a decade. If you are from the UK, please join the facebook group.
Whilst I was still Raging against the Machine, Claire returned to the flat with a young student who was getting some extra English tuition as I walked over to the front door to let them in my foot went SPLOSH into a rather large puddle of water that I had somehow missed when I was cleaning up earlier. God, how embarrassing. I apologised profusely to Claire and then got out while the going was good.
You can’t do a lap of Africa. It’s impossible, I think. You could try to, as you can try to get across the Darien Gap that separates Central and South America, but you’d be very lucky to make it. You see you can go like this (off the top of my head): Morocco > Western Sahara > Maurtania > Senegal > Gambia > Senegal > Guinea-Bissau > Guinea > Sierra Leone> Liberia > Cote d’Ivoire > Ghana > Togo > Benin > Nigeria > Cameroon > Gabon > Congo > DR Congo > Angola > Namibia > South Africa > Swaziland > Mozambique > Malawi > Tanzania > Kenya > Ethiopia > Sudan > Egypt > Libya > Tunisia > Algeria…
But then you’d get stuck in Algeria… the border between it and Morocco is closed, has been for years, and is very unlikely to open any time in the future. You could probably make it through to Western Sahara, but there are so many Moroccan police checkpoints there, I think the only way you could do it would be with forged papers (never a good idea). Which is a shame, as driving a lap of Africa could become the new adventure holiday extravaganza.
If you’re frickin’ insane.
I guess your best bet would be to come over on the ferry from Spain to Morocco and go back on the ferry from Tunisia to Italy and just leave Algeria out of the equation. Which is a shame as the people of Algeria would probably quite like to see you.
I got to the embassy first thing in the morning and handed over my passport and another thirty quid. Things were looking good. I had to wait an hour or so (typical) but presently the lady returned with a my passport, and in it was my visa, the illusive access-all-areas pass to Algeria.
I rushed back to Dja’s place to pick up some stuff, and then (after a major argument with my taxi driver who purposely took me all around the houses) I jumped in a louage back to the bloomin’ Algerian border for the THIRD time of asking. I didn’t want to be hanging around, so as soon as I arrived in Tabarka I was in a cab and on the border. I got there at about 3pm.
The border between Tunisia and Algeria is up in the mountains and boy was it cold and wet and miserable. The Tunisian border guards laughed at me – silly English bloke going back and forth. The jolly Algerian border guy who spoke English was excited to see me, but a little perplexed as to why I could just, you know, extend my visa. I told him that I was just as perplexed as he was. He asked me how long I was staying. I tried to explain that I’d only be here for a few hours, but he was having none of it – he had already set me up to get a lift in a shared taxi to the town of El Kala, a few miles down the road. It dawned on me that I was going to have to bite the bullet and stay the night. After all this palaver, if I left tonight they would think I was up to something, and I have no intention of being thrown in an Algerian detention centre.
THUMP! Down came the entry stamp. I was in.
Halfway to El Kala we got stopped by the Algerian security forces. ‘Oh god, here we go’ I thought, wishing I had got out the taxi 100 metres down the road and walked straight back to Tunisia. They took me out of the car and took me to a small building at the side of the road and asked me a ton of questions. For some reason they were completely convinced I was an American, so my British passport didn’t half weird them out. Yes folks – my LAST Francophone African country and LO AND BEHOLD I get a ton of grief of the Powers That Be. What a SURPRISE!
Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cameroon, Congo, Djibouti and now Algeria… what is with the old French colonies, man? I can see the meeting of the Algerian Liberation Army in the 1950s:
REG: What have the French ever done for us eh?
Barry puts his hand up.
BARRY: Squat toilets?
REG: Yeah, well, they did do that…
STAN: Introduced dizzying levels of bureaucracy?
REG: Okay, bureaucracy… and…?
JUSTINE: Unjustified arrogance?
REG: Fine. Okay. Apart from the squat toilets, the dizzying levels of bureaucracy and the unjustified arrogance, WHAT have the French ever done for us?
STAN: Incompetent plumbing?
After half and hour they let me go and I arrived in El Kala before nightfall, checking into the Marsa hotel. My room smelt of effluent and the television only had one channel, but for four quid including breakfast I wasn’t going to start complaining. Something you should know about Algeria – everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) closes at 6pm. I went out at seven to try and find a bite to eat – all I found was a ghost town. I wandered about in the dark for about an hour before I stumbled over a little café which was showing the football – a pre-World Cup friendly between Serbia and Algeria. Serbia won 3-0. Bodes well for England eh?
I grabbed a hamburger (traditional Algerian dish I guess) and after the final whistle, returned to my lonely hotel room and fell fast asleep, dreaming of the day when I can tick the last that one last country off my ‘Africa’ list. At this rate, that day may well be many months away.
The town of El Kala was undoubtedly a rather pleasant one, a sleepy fishing village that would have gone down will with the tourists before the civil war of the 1990s that ripped Algeria apart and set the tourists packing, presumably for Morocco instead.
In the centre is a dilapidated old cathedral, beautiful in it’s worn, craggy features and down in the water are hundreds of little wooden fishing boats, much as it would have been in the past and yet still is today. I filmed some kids playing football (they demanded!) in the streets and grabbed myself a cup of coffee before jumping a taxi back to the border. No Algerian Security Services this time, just a clear run back to Tunisia.
A boat would be leaving from Tunis for Italy at 8pm tonight and it had my name on it.
At the border I was thankful that my English-speaking friend wasn’t there, it would have been just too awkward to explain that I couldn’t stay in his country any longer, he was so keen for me to come in, stay for a while and have a great time. In the shared taxi back down the mountain to Tabarka in Tunisia I got chatting with a lovely guy called Achraf who worked in Algeria and told me that I had really missed out not seeing Annaba – apparently, nothing new had been built there since the 1950s. Sounds like my idea of heaven. Could you imagine a concrete-less town? Hell, I’ve been around the world and (I-I-I-) I can’t find my unmarred city.
But that will have to be an adventure for another day. By the afternoon I was back in Tunis. I met up with Claire, giving her a towel I bought to say sorry for flooding her flat. We then went on a most excellent adventure in search of food and beer. After saying my goodbyes, I headed back to Dja’s place, catching him when he finished work to say ta-ra and grab my backpack.
A taxi to the port and a purchased ticket saw me doing all I needed to do to get on with The Odyssey – I was FINALLY heading back to Istanbul after a completely unwelcome, immensely costly and time-consuming back-track.
Well it’s taken me the best part of a year, but I’ve done it, I visited every African nation it is possible to visit overland. Eritrea will have to wait until I manage to find some way to get there on a boat, but for now I’m done with in this infernal, infuriating place.
Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!
The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.
1. From Argentina to Guyana
2. Caribbean Castaway
3. From Cuba to Tunisia
4. Arrested In Africa
5. African Rough Road
6. Congo Chaos
7. Africa Island Hop
8. Pyramids Or Bust
As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!