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.
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"...