Montag, 31. August 2009

Algeria, Appendix

... and that is my tiny chat algérien called Zizou, whom I found at the restrooms of Boumédienne International Aiport in Algiers! Or should I say, he found me? My vet told me it was a classic case of the pet picking its owner.
He suddenly sat there crying and shivering, when I was about to exit the men's toilet, while Said was waiting with my luggage in the check-in queue. I told the cleaning lady "Hey! Un chat!" but she just shrugged, so i picked up the little tiger, who immediately started purring. Just a few seconds later, I had already made up my mind and put him in a little laundry bag inside of my hand-luggage. The people in the check-in queue didn't bother, and - amazingly - the people at the luggage screening didn't notice. My hand luggage was scanned twice, in Algiers and in Paris, but none of the clerks discovered Zizou, who also didn't give himself away by crying, for God's sake. He seemed so relieved to be removed from that neon-bright and cold airport toilet, that the dark little nylon cave in my backpack must have made him feel like being back in utero! (he was only about 4 or maybe 5 weeks old when i found him) So except for a 1-hour-break on a Charles-de-Gaulle Airport toilet, he was sleeping in my backpack most of the time, and only taken out at the dinner table with my family later that night... who were very surprised, of course ;-)

He's spent his first 2 weeks in Vienna now, has already seen the vet, and is healthy and playful and growing fast. And as far as his characteristics go, I can definitely see some African blood boiling in him...

Samstag, 22. August 2009

Algeria, Part 2

It took me a while to settle down from the emotional rollercoaster ride that has been my 2nd week in Algeria, and to be able to write about it in retrospect. After I left Constantine, both minor catastrophes and small miracles seemed to happen to me alternatingly, in a twisting plot that could have made any movie writer envious, and that finally made this holiday the unforgettable trip I was hoping for.

I left to Biskra on Thursday, August 16, 2009 with a certain feeling and intuition that the highlights of my trip were still ahead of me. However, not even in my wildest dreams could I have predicted what would happen to me over the next (and last) 4 days in Algeria. I felt quite sick, and I knew I was on a tight budget (I had about 75 EUR left) but as it turned out, that was only the beginning...

I had split up with Salah, the brother of my pen-friend Hassina (with whom I had done most of the travelling up to that point), the previous night and decided to do the trip to Biskra on my own. He had been watching a soccer game with friends the previous night (Algeria beat Uruguay 1:0 in a friendly match, in case anybody cares) and i felt that by going on my own I was actually doing both of us a favor. Since meeting Hassina and her family in Ziama, he had been serving as my personal tour guide and companion, and although we got along fairly well, this was 1) not really planned and 2) a little difficult due to my lack in French and his lack in English skills. The fact that Hassina actually didn't travel around with me at all, was kind of disappointing, but i figured that maybe social customs in Algeria prevented her from doing this, and decided not to let this spoil my holiday. So I was even more keen on getting to Biskra, and hopefully seeing Timgad & the highlights of the Aurès mountains on the way.

That's why, when approaching the taxi stand in Constantine, I decided to rent a solo cab including a driver for the entire day (as recommended in my Bradt travel guide) since a normal collective taxi doesn't allow you to stop wherever you want. I knew I would be paying a lot more than for a normal, shared taxi ride - but I didn't want to miss out on some of the most spectacular sights of my trip. The taxi driver's name was Mansour, he was 45 years old, and bore a slight resemblance to Saddam Hussein. While he strapped my backpack on top of his taxi cab, my gut feeling already told me that I was in for a special ride!

I named him the "hotspots" I wanted to see: Timgad, Balcons de Ghoufi, and - on the way back - the spectacular El Kantara Gorge. With an early start, this tour can be done within 1 day, but since we left Constantine only at around 11 a.m. in hot conditions, I knew this wasn't an option. And since I wanted to spend one night in Biskra, the "Gate" to the Sahara, anway (I wanted to feel what it's like to be in 52° Celsius, hoping for the perfect place for HotYoga outdoors) I was extremely happy when Mansour suggested that we could spend the night in his taxi, and drive back to Constantine the next morning. I couldn't really afford to pay 35 EUR for a night at Hotel Zibane in Biskra anway. Mansour's initial price was 8.400 DZA, which is about 84 EUR and I told him right away that we'd have to settle for less. I had one last 50-EUR-note in my wallet, plus another 23 in Dinars, which I wanted to keep for some food and my final train ride from Constantine to Algiers on Saturday. I knew that as soon as I'd be back in Algiers, I would be safe - with my guide (or should I say, guardian angel?) Said Chitour taking care of me. I had always been in contact with him via SMS thanks to an Algerian SIM card, that I had put into an old mobile phone.

The money for Mansour was well-invested, because having a private chauffeur through the Aurès Mountains proved to be invaluable that Thursday. Mansour dropped me at Timgad at 1 pm, where I quickly toured the Roman ruins and took a picture of me under Trajan's Arch.

After a quick lunch we continued through the Aurès Mountains, habitat to some local Berber people called Chaoui, who speak neither French, nor Arabic, but a Berber language instead. We stopped several times to take pictures, take rests, and buy some fresh fruits and water supplies from the local people. And we got along great! Mansour's French was not much better than mine, so we communicated on "eye level"; i told him why I had come to Algeria, and how the trip had been so far. We laughed a lot, and Mansour had a way of turning his ignition key and producing a big blast from his exhaust pipe, which, he claimed, was "keeping the terrorists away". This was good news, since we had to take a slightly less frequented and potentially unsafe road, because as it turned out, Mansour had never actually seen the Balcons de Ghoufi himself! It was already mentioned in my travel guide that many people in Algeria don't even know this place, which is sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of Algeria - a massive gorge filled with hundreds of palmtrees and little houses clinging on to the steep ravine. Driving along the "circuit touristique" (a kind of lookout road on top of the gorge), the sight really does take your breath away, and Mansour stopped several times, clearly in awe of the place himself. And except for a handful of Algerians, we were the only tourists there!

From there, we had about 50 km left and after a little cool-down in the oasis of M'Chouneche, we arrived in Biskra in the early evening hours. And that was where my fortune turned... first, I discovered that I had apperently lost my portable phone in the oasis; then I dropped and broke my SLR camera; but the worst thing was the serious argument with Mansour that I suddenly found myself in! All the money I had didn't seem to be enough for him anymore, and he blamed me of fooling him in front of all the other taxi drivers at Biskra terminal, who were slowly gathering in a circle around us and listening to our discussion, as I helplessly tried to defend myself in ragged French. It was like going from heaven to hell in just 10 minutes, and when he finally took all my cash (except for maybe 15 EUR) and announced he would go back to Constantine alone, I was devastated. How should I spend 2 nights in Biskra and get back to Algiers with just 15 EUR?! I begged him to give me his address, so I could send him the remaining money, but he wanted none of it. He refused talking to me for the next hour, as we sat at a table, side by side, with him taking a nap after the long drive, and me counting my options. I already pictured myself spending the night on the dirt track of the taxi stand, on top of my backpack, half-sleeping and half-sick.

But when Mansour opened his eyes again, he patted me on the shoulder, told me that our argument "est déja oublié" ("already forgotten"), led me to a food stall on a street corner, and bought us chorba (spicy chickpea soup) for dinner. He even wandered the streets of Biskra with me afterwards, in search of a cheap hostel, which we indeed found - the "Auberge de Jeunesse 19 Mars Biskra". I had to spend 30 minutes at the local police station (again, Mansour drove me there) before it was confirmed that I could check in. The Biskra Youth Hostel charged only 1,50 EUR per night (!), was protected by a huge fence & a menacing guard-dog, and since the hostel is almost empty in summertime, I even had a room all by myself! I said goodbye to Mansour, checked in, had my first hot shower in 1 week (the temperatures in Biskra make it one of the more likely places for hot water in Algeria), and pulled a mattress and my cotton sleeping bag out on the marble terrace, to sleep under the stars. Finally (although not the way I expected) it was exactly the "cathartic experience" I had hoped for, although my body wasn't even up for HotYoga anymore. The sickness I had arrived with was now joined by diarrhea from the street meal (or tap water?), and I had to spend the better part of the next day in the hostel recovering. But despite the ugly cockroaches in the shabby restrooms I felt like in heaven, simply because i was safe.

The next day I returned to the oasis, to look for my mobile phone, which ended in an almost 4-hour-custody with the Algerian army because I hadn't taken my passport with me and couldn't prove my identity. I'll spare you the details, but in the end I was allowed to search for my mobile (which, of course, I didn't find) together with Youssouf (another funny taxi driver who spoke even less French, but wore fake Ray-Bans and tried to convince me to convert to Islam...), escorted by the Algerian Gendarmerie with their brand-new Nissan 4WD patrol cars, and guarded by their impressive rifles!

After spending another night on the marble terrace of the youth hostel I finally spent my last few Dinars on some fresh dates (Biskra produces the famous Deglet Nour, the finest dates in the country) and a bus ticket to Algiers on Saturday morning. Since I had absolutely no cash money left, I even got invited for a full lunch at some restaurant during a lunch stop somewhere on our way through the Hauts Plateaux (imagine someone giving you a free meal at Rosenberger because you ran out of money on the motorway)! And after the 9-hour bus ride, and earning a lot of curious looks from my fellow Algerian passengers, I finally arrived in Algiers Saturday afternoon, where Said picked me up and accomodated me in his house again. It felt great to be back there, and after a short rest, he took me to see the Monument in Algiers, buy a few postcards (that I hadn't even been able to afford in Biskra), and have a wonderful last dinner with his family, who listened with amusement to all my crazy stories. After spending a last night in the damp heat of Algiers, he took me to Boumediène Airport the next morning, where I boarded my plane at 10:30 a.m.

But there, fate had another incredible chapter to add to my "voyage fou"...

Mittwoch, 12. August 2009

Algerien, Teil 1

Nach genau einer Woche in Algerien finde ich nun erstmals die Zeit laenger im Netz zu surfen, und meine bisherigen Eindruecke ein wenig zu ordnen und zusammenzufassen. Diese Verschnaufpause kommt aus mehreren Gruenden gelegen: erstens fuehle ich mich gesundheitlich nicht auf der Hoehe und hab soeben 2 Aspirin eingeworfen, zweitens brauchte ich schon dringend mal einen Abend fuer mich alleine, und drittens befinde ich mich jetzt an einem Wendepunkt der Reise: ich habe mich heute von der feuchtwarmen Mittelmeerkueste verabschiedet und bin jetzt auf dem Weg ins Landesinnere; das heisst in Richtung Sahara.

Zu diesem Zweck hab ich mir heute ein Hotelzimmer in Constantine, der Hauptstadt Ost-Algeriens, geleistet. Constantine liegt etwa 160 km im Landesinneren und bietet sich als Ausgangspunkt geradezu an: die Stadt thront majestaetisch auf einem Hochplateau und wird von einer tiefen Schlucht durchzogen, ueber die mehrere spektakulaere Bruecken (nichts fuer schwache Nerven...) fuehren.

Die Stadt selbst hat eine lange und wechselhafte Geschichte vorzuweisen und sowohl die Mittelmeerkueste, das Aures-Gebirge mit den beruehmten roemischen Ruinen von Timgad, als auch Biskra (das Tor zur Sahara) sind in nur wenigen Stunden Fahrzeit erreichbar. Und genau dorthin moechte ich morgen - nach Biskra, wo zur Zeit Temperaturen um 50 °C an der Tagesordnung sind. Selbst die Einheimischen hielten das fuer eine verwegene Idee (der August ist der heisseste Monat und eigentlich wird eher der Herbst oder Winter als Reisezeit empfohlen) aber man kommt ja nicht alle Tage in die Sahara (und schon gar nicht nach Algerien) also moechte ich unbedingt noch Sahara-Luft schnuppern, und eine Nacht in Biskra verbringen, bevor es dann am Samstag mit dem Express-Zug in 6 Stunden zurueck nach Algier geht, wo mein Reisefuehrer (und in vielerlei Hinsicht meine engste Vertrauensperson waehrend dieses Urlaubs) Said Chitour hoffentlich wieder auf mich wartet. Ich kann von Glueck reden, ihn kurz vor der Reise im Internet "aufgetrieben" zu haben; er hat mich schon bei meiner Ankunft am Flughafen in Algier herzlich empfangen, grosszuegig bei sich einquartiert und mir mit seinen guten Englischkenntnissen den Einstieg in das doch sehr fremdartige Land enorm erleichtert. Mit ihm hatte ich am 2. Tag auch den perfekten Guide fuer die faszinierende Kasbah von Algiers und die roemischen Ruinen von Tipaza. In die Kasbah haette ich mich alleine wohl gar nicht getraut, und es wird auch nicht empfohlen - die verwinkelte Altstadt ist ein Armenviertel und gleichzeitig ein Labyrinth mit vielen "dead ends"...

Auch in Tipaza waren Said's Erklärungen Gold wert. Waehrend zahlreiche einheimische Touristen nur von Steinhaufen zu Steinhaufen zu wandern schienen, liess er mit seinen Ausfuehrungen die Stadt regelrecht vor dem geistigen Auge wiederauferstehen. Besonders hab ich mich auch ueber das Albert-Camus-Denkmal in Tipaza gefreut: dessen Roman "Der Fremde" hab ich naemlich zu Schulzeiten gelesen - es war mein erster Eindruck von dem Land, und die Stimmung die das Buch transportiert, kommt der Realitaet erstaunlich nahe.

Eigentlich heisst es ja dass, wer einmal seinen Fuss nach Algerien setzt, immer wieder dorthin zurueckkehrt. Aber so interessant und faszinierend ich das Land auch finde: nach nur einer Woche freu ich mich schon auf mein vertrautes Zuhause und die mir vertraute Kultur. Ich verbringe hier zweifelsohne einen sehr interessanten, abwechslungsreichen und hoechst ungewoehnlichen Urlaub. Said hatte mir bereits vorweg eroeffnet dass es absolut unueblich ist, von einer Familie nach Algerien eingeladen zu werden, vor allem wenn es sich dabei um eine Internet-Brieffreundin, und noch dazu aus der als konservativ geltenden Stadt Constantine handelt. Und er sollte Recht behalten - unmittelbar vor meinem Abflug wollte sie die ganze Sache kurzfristig per email abblasen; dies konnte ich zwar verhindern, aber unmittelbar nach unserem Treffen am 8. August im Badeort Ziama Mansouriah bekam ich gleich einen arabischen Decknamen (Skandar, das Aequivalent zu Alexander) und allerlei Alibis umgehaengt, wieso ich mich bei Ihnen aufhalte. Ausserdem wurde ich danach die meiste Zeit mit ihrem Bruder "auf Achse" geschickt, den Rest der Familie sah ich meist nur zum Fruehstueck und Abendessen wieder... welches aber stets ausgezeichnet war. Generell schien die Familie recht reserviert, es gab keine "herzliche" Gastfreundschaft im engeren Sinne - dafuer aber auch keine "falschen Herzlichkeiten" - die Gastfreundschaft beschraenkte sich eher auf praktische Dinge. Ich wurde immer ordentlich bekocht, auf kleinere Dinge (Bustickets etc) eingeladen, und ganz allgemein hatte ich das Gefuehl dass man immer ein Auge auf mich hatte - oft mehr als mir lieb war.

So nett das Quartier fuer algerische Verhaeltnisse auch war - mit dem durchschnittlichen oesterreichischen Urlaubsbungalow hatte es immer noch herzlich wenig gemeinsam. In einem eher schaebigen Viertel, in unmittelbarer Naehe einer Militaerkaserne gelegen, gab es haeufig Stromausfaelle und nur zu bestimmten Zeiten Fliesswasser; die abendliche Dusche wurde aber zum Glueck immer von der Mutter in einem Wasserkanister fuer uns aufgehoben. Dasselbe galt fuer die Toilettenspuelung; gluecklicherweise bin ich von groeberen Magen/Darm-Problemen verschont geblieben... was aber jede Wohnung in Algerien zu besitzen scheint (und sei sie auch noch so schaebig), ist eine Satellitenschuessel, meist sogar gleich mehrere davon. In den grossen Staedten bieten die paraboluebersaehten Wohnbloecke ein Fotomotiv der besonderen Art. Sie sind so haesslich, dass es schon fast an abstrakte Kunst grenzt. Allerdings ist es ziemlich traurig sich vorzustellen wie in jeder dieser winzigen Wohnungen eine Generation vor ihren Fernsehschirmen hockt, sich von franzoesischen Sendern berieseln laesst, und von einem besseren Leben traeumt.

Waehrend des 4taegigen Aufenthaltes mit der Familie konnte ich die Kuestenstadt Bejaia, sowie einige Straende in der Umgebung (Les Aftisses, Tichy, Rochet Noir) erkunden - und dabei wurde mir klar wieso man nicht unbedingt zum Baden nach Algerien kommt. So schoen die Kueste zwischen Jijel und Bejaia auch sein mag - die touristische Infrastruktur ist rueckstaendig, die Straende sind ueberfuellt mit Einheimischen (an verschleierte Frauen am Badestrand kann ich mich einfach nicht gewoehnen), die Verschmutzung ist mehr als bedenklich, und dazu kommen noch die laestigen Verkehrsstaus an der schmalen Kuestenstrasse. Ich fuehlte mich oft unangenehm an den Film "Gomorrha" erinnert, den ich letztes Jahr im Kino gesehen habe - ein Film ueber ueber die sueditalienische Mafia, und tatsaechlich ist dieser Kuestenstreifen Algeriens ja nahe zu Sizilien gelegen, und erinnert in vielerlei Hinsicht daran.

Deshalb freue ich mich jetzt umso mehr auf den abschliessenden Hoehepunkt meiner Reise - das Landesinnere, und die Abgeschiedenheit und Ruhe der Wueste. Bereits waehrend der etwa 2stuendigen Taxifahrt nach Constantine war deutlich zu merken wie sich die Vegetation, Temperatur, und gleichzeitig auch die eigene Stimmung veraendert.
Nachdem ich die Nacht zuvor eher unfreiwillig mit einem Haufen Algeriern campen "durfte", war mein Koerper heute ausgelaugt und meine Stimmung echt am Tiefpunkt angelangt. Aber bereits waehrend der Fahrt empfand ich den warmen und trockenen Sahara-Wind extrem angenehm - es fuehlte sich an als ob jemand einen heissen Foen durchs offene Fenster hereinhaelt, und der Entspannungs-Effekt war aehnlich dem beim Betreten eines Yoga HotRooms... und natuerlich hab ich morgen meine Matte mit im Gepaeck - denn wo, wenn nicht in Biskra, ist der perfekte Ort fuer "HotYoga" im Freien?