Saturday, April 24, 2010

Volcanic Ash and the Tuaregs!

Coming home from Algeria via Casablanca and New York to San Francisco on Wednesday-Thursday April 21-22 was Plan C. Plan A was Frankfort to San Francisco which was not possible until Friday, maybe. Plan B was Montreal to Chicago to San Francisco on Wednesday but that meant cash payment, which wasn’t immediately possible. While I did enjoy several extra days in Algiers courtesy the Icelandic volcano debris, when Tuesday came, I was ready to go.

So Plan C it was, with a long Wednesday night at JFK’s terminal 4. For I was able to purchase tickets via my booking agent in the States, bless her! I thought I would miss the connection at Casablanca but the flight was held for a passel of Africans financial experts flying into Washington DC for an economic summit. I lucked out. While it wasn’t a full flight, there were passengers from various parts of Africa, remnants from a tour group and a man from Brussels, trying to get home to New York, the really long way around.

So before noon Thursday, I walked in my front door, a little worse for wear. And thoroughly pissed at my shuttle service, which refused to honor my voucher as I had not given them a required three hours notice of any change in arrival plans. So it was the original $22 plus $35 to get from SFO to my place. They have heard from me.

Initially, it didn’t look too bad. I’d been in Southern Algeria, traveling in Tuareg country and finished up in Tamanrasset when news of the volcanic outburst and its affect on worldwide flights came through. I ws able to get to Algiers on April 18, but obviously, my immediate flight home via Frankfort was canceled until maybe, two days hence.

Comfortably housed the first few nights in a very French hotel in the center of Algiers, I and a fellow traveling companion took advantage of the situation and went on a long day’s tour of Algiers, the Casbah and the Roman ruins at Tipaza.

Algiers impressed me as very French with an Islamic flavor. Abut half of the women were covered but few of the men were in Muslim grab. French and Arabic were the languages of choice. English was a poor third. There was a mix of various nationalities. Several women who ran a nearby internet service were over joyed to talk with an American; they would have adopted me.

The Casbah showed the results of years’ conflict in the area. In fact, we had not only a guide but three plain clothes cops accompanying us. One I would liked to have photographed: a typical Parisian flic: tanned lined face, dark hair, small boned wearing a black t-shirt and pants with a blue jean jacket and tennis shoes.

The drive to Tipaza made you realize why the French fought so hard to keep Algeria - the fertile green fields were very enticing. The ruins at Tipaza are a World Heritage sight, located beautifully on the coast. They are not kept up and you can freely roam about, as the locals happily do. As I crawled up several areas, I knew that in the US, there would be warning signs and fenced off areas. Not here.

The next day, no flight, so a move to another hotel, and serious consideration of how to get home before I ran out of money - my Mastercard didn’t work in Algeria - and May rolled around. But frankly, I do thank Iceland for several unexpected days in Algiers.

This started with a two week trek - via Land Cruiser - in Southern Algeria, the land of the Tuaregs, the Sahara, the volcanic peaks, the ancient paintings and carvings: the Hoggar Massif and Atakor Mountains. Gorgeous, ever changing landscape. Starting in Djanet, returning to Djanet after a week for a day to restock and clean up before taking off again, to end up in Tamanrasset. a week later.

There were three of us: a Brit and two Americans, two guys and me! Plus the four Tuaregs: two drivers, a cook and our guide. It took them and the two vehicles to tote us and supplies. The Tuaregs were the feared fighting veiled tribesmen of yore, who had held off the French incursion until early 1900. No quarter given Like the Kurds, their territory has little to do with the Western imposed boundaries - they still inhabit parts of Niger, Mali and Algeria. According to our guide, southern Algeria receives little from the northern government. The Tuareg now manage with tourism, showing strangers the treasures of their desert and mountains and caves.

Djanet was a desert town; Tamenarsset the same though larger and more of a regional center. It was what was in between that made the trip spectacular. We camped out. Nights, I was rolled in a blanket, having neglected to bring a sleeping bag. There was a tent, but I chose to sleep under the stars. Glorious!

The routine was to have a leisurely breakfast of tea, bread and cheese. Pack up and travel with stops at various sites, unpack a lunch of a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, tuna and whatever else was about, all presented in style. A several hour respite to escape the hot sun before we took off again until evening, when we bedded down, with a hot supper of soup and stew.

We stopped to view exceptionally shaped sandstone/volcanic rocks and peaks and to photograph the drawings, paintings and carvings of years past. We traversed ergs, wadis, and oueds. We visited a Tuareg village, stopped at various wells, drove over non existent roads - in fact, our driver had a sixth sense directing him to where we needed to go, for there was no GPS.

I saw other tourists, maybe a dozen groups, riding, walking and cameling, during the first week, but only desert people the second week, until we got to Assekreme and the Father Foucault Hermitage, the last night on the road. .

Enroute, there were some two dozen bicyclists on the tough and hard road going to one of the highest peaks of the Atakor Mountains. We stayed in a basic dorm room at the hermitage with an evening in the main facility where we talked and danced with other guests, including a French-Algerian couple, two young professional Algerian women and various guides and locals. The hermitage cook played a mean oud with our guide providing rhythm on a jerrycan. A wonderful ending to the trek.

I spent a day wandering about Tamanrasset, visiting the Africans Market, checking out the local scene at a local cafe, stopping by our guide’s uncle’s home, and enjoying the atmosphere of the town.

Despite all, it was an exciting and marvelous trip. And I must admit, sans Iceland, I would not have had the several days in Algiers. Let me say, I found Algeria to be unique and safe place to explore. There was a fair amount of Security about in the Northern part but nothing on the level of Israel or other places I’ve visited. And no Blackwater/Cie types!

Three good books to read: William Langewiesche’s Sahara Unveiled and Michael Asher’s Sands of Death (about the Flatters expeditions) and Two Against the Sahara (story of a honeymoon trek).

Expenses The tour cost $3950, booked through Journeys International, Inc, plus 400 Euros local fee. In additional I probably paid an additional $250 for three nights hotel in Algiers. Also add another $150 for local tour services: the local guys, Cheche tours,who were our backup throughout the ash crisis. Extra meals were likely $60 - I ate cheap. Add to that extra airfare: $1459 (Royal Air Maroc) and$ 516 (United). Hopefully, I will get a refund for half fare from Luthansa.

Cheche tours was unbelievably helpful in finding us accommodations. Both Journeys and Cheche tours were superb in coming to the fore and helping with the travel problems. It was Journeys that finally got me home after it was clear neither Plan A or B was working. What more can I say?

Oh, I can say more: the day after I arrived home, I acquired a 20 pound, eight year old Blue Point to replace Tiffany, my twenty-plus year old Chocolate point-mix who died last year. Sam is now in charge!

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

I found your blog through, and I absolutely love it. You are so inspiring, and I hope to one day see and do half as much as you have seen and done.

Happy travels!