As soon as we had crossed into Algeria, it was clear that something wasn’t right. Our shared taxi was slowing down and speeding up, and staggering from side to side on the winding hillside road, like an overloaded, drunken donkey. To the side, lay a sharp, deep drop from the mountain to the surprisingly verdant valley.
Nong Buff, my tiny Thai-born wife, and I, had managed to find a shared taxi leaving from just outside the Medina in Tunis. As we had been warned about Tunis taxi drivers, we were very careful to agree to a price before we left (60 Tunisian Dinars). All the way from Tunis, and up the steep mountain road to the border post, the driver had seemed fine. Once we had finally cleared customs and officially entered into Algeria, he seemed to lose his mind. As we continued to veer from side to side, we received a good beeping from a car coming up from behind. For a minute or so, the driver seemed to regain his senses but as soon as the other car had passed, it all went wrong again. While drifting around a bend – on the wrong side of the road – he suddenly swerved to avoid a dozing cow.
I began to wonder if everybody simply went mental as soon as they entered Algeria. This theory was starting to grow on me – it could go a long way to explaining the 100,000 or so killed in the nearly ten-year-long civil war – when we almost drove into a warning sign (with a picture of a cow on it). By now, I really felt like I ought to say something – I didn’t want to spend my holiday being dead. As I leaned forward, I noticed that he had a mobile phone in pieces on his lap. He was struggling to put it back together – presumably with a new SIM card – and clearly had more important things on his mind than actually looking where we were going. As I was just about to suggest that we pull over while he sorted out his phone, he finally managed to put it back together.
Once we reached the bottom of the hill, scruffy buildings started to appear along the edges of the road. Although some appeared to be inhabited, many seemed to have been abandoned before they had even finished being built. Bored looking young men hung around propping up the crumbling wall. There hadn’t been anywhere to change money at the border post and it was the weekend so the banks were closed. The driver pulled up at the side of the road and asked us to change money with a rather shifty looking ’friend’ of his who suddenly appeared. We declined, as we had no way of knowing what the exchange rate should be.
After another couple of hours of driving through unexpectedly green farmland and occasional outbursts of semi-built and semi-abandoned buildings, we arrived at the Mediterranean port city of Annaba. The driver made a point of parking and walking us up to the Hotel Saf-Saf. We handed over the agreed sixty dinars but he wanted another forty. I’m guessing that he took us up to the hotel reception so that he could pocket a commission but they weren’t having it. From what little French I could work out, he asked the hotel receptionist to tell us to give him another forty and they asked us if we could give him another twenty. We said no and started filling out the checking in form as best we could. He then asked for ten. I eventually gave him my remaining Tunisian coins (around six dinars) to get him to go away, and a big smile broke out on his face. ‘Good luck’ he said, in English, and cheerfully left.
After dumping our bags in our surprisingly pleasant room, we wandered out into the small market in the square outside and down to the main walking street, the Cours de la Revolution. We strolled past the dozens of French style cafes almost exclusively patronised by unemployed men who could seemingly nurse a single espresso for several hours. We eventually decided to join them and attempted to order a regular coffee with milk. I did what I thought was a fair demonstration of a larger coffee mug and Nong Buff mimed milking a cow. The waiter nodded encouragingly and brought us some espressos. A man at the next table introduced himself to us. He lived in Canada but tried to come back to Annaba every year to visit his family.
“I know Annaba very well” he said, “don’t wander about here at night”.
Being careful not to get too lost, we continued to explore. We had yet to see any other tourists and were attracting quite a lot of attention. Groups of idle young men would stare at us as we walked past. Some would smile and say “bonjour”. As an extremely petite oriental lady, my wife was of particular interest.
“I think they wonder what an oompa-loompa ching-chong girl doing here” said Nong Buff. One of them plucked up the courage to ask us where we were from. He seemed willing to accept that I was English but wasn’t having it for Nong Buff.
“No you’re not” he insisted, “you Japanesey”. When she replied that she was, in fact, from England, this seemed to confuse him. “No” he said again, more hesitantly, “you Japanesey”. Eventually, we agreed with him and headed back through the market to Hotel Saf-Saf for a meal of couscous before it got too dark.