I was blissfully ignorant of what my travel future held for me when I boarded a plane in Memphis, TN, on February 15, 2020, headed via Toronto and Frankfurt, Germany to my final destination of Tunis, Tunisia. The plan was to spend 6 days in each of two North African countries—Tunisia and Algeria. This was my third attempt at trying to visit North Africa; twice before a friend and I had taken a Viking South Mediterranean cruise with port calls in Tunis and Algiers, and the ship failed to stop in one or both countries. On the first cruise, it was because of bad weather. The second cruise did make a port call in Algiers. A group of us got on a bus, and it took an hour to reach the first stop, the Martyrs Monument. We had hardly arrived when a member of the group fell down some stairs and hit her forehead, which then began bleeding profusely. The tour guide called the ship and the decision was made to bring the whole group back to the ship, because there wouldn’t be enough time before departure to take the patient back and then return to the Monument and finish the tour. I had really wanted to see the Casbah, but that wasn’t possible. And the guide absolutely forbade us to strike out and then return to ship on our own as departure time was not that far off. Now that I have been to Algiers, I understand why she didn’t want us wandering the city alone—but I am getting ahead of myself.
For my North African Adventure this year (Feb. 15-29, 2020), I decided against taking a cruise but going on my own on a land tour with a private guide. I had successfully added short excursions to a country or city after a major trip before—adding Borneo and Brunei to Indonesia, Taiwan to Japan and Bahrain to several other Arabian countries. This time, the whole trip was just me and my guide—a separate guide (or two) for each country. I have been a widow for 7 years, and in the first years of widowhood I was uncertain about pursuing travel on my own, but after a couple of trips as a single with the companies we already knew, I realized that I wasn’t the only woman traveling single, and that one can make new friends and sometimes find new traveling companions. However, for this trip I couldn’t find any takers so I decided to do it completely on my own. I had also planned three other group trips for the remainder of 2020, because at 82 I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to travel overseas that much longer. And having achieved my goal of 100 (actually it was 103) countries last year, I was going to shoot for all of Eastern Europe in 2020. As everyone knows by now, all overseas trips have been cancelled and probably won’t resume until next year, if then.
After an Internet search, I decided to use a company called Mosaic North Africa to help me with guides and arrangements. Mosaic North Africa is head quartered in Manitoba, Canada, and they were willing to arrange a trip for me as a single. My contact was Kevin Dyck, who lives in Tunisia, and he was a tremendous asset in helping me gather all of the information necessary to obtain an Algerian visa. Tunis was a snap—no visa required. But Algeria wanted my entire work history, a letter of invitation from the Algerian tourist company, and a detailed itinerary with dates and hotels. I sent my passport plus all of this other information to the Algerian consulate in New York City along with $160, non-refundable in event I didn’t make the cut. And of course, the postal fees for sending by registered mail. It took about three weeks, but my passport plus visa was returned and I was set to go!
The only thing I didn’t like about Mosaic North Africa was that they didn’t do flight arrangements, and I had not arranged my own flights since I retired years ago. Kevin said that if I was going round trip I would probably want to fly into Tunisia first, do that tour, take a flight to Algeria, do that tour and then fly back to Tunis to go home. That would have been nice, but it wasn’t workable. So I ended up choosing to fly into Tunisia (via Toronto and Frankfurt), then flying to Algiers, then going home from Algiers, also through Frankfurt and Toronto. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t, at least not always.
Before I left Memphis I had been reading about the coronavirus outbreak in China. This was of special interest to me as I had worked for many years as a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and our department was very involved in preparing for influenza pandemics. I knew that there was a new ban on travel to and from China because this new coronavirus appeared to be coming from there. However, at this time I did not know much about coronaviruses, and what I was hearing in mid-February was that the virus was contained in China. If only!
I had asked for special assistance in boarding/deplaning because of my age. It isn’t that I am physically unable to walk the distances, it is that I easily get lost in strange airports and appreciate having some help. I wish there was more consistency among airports in how they handle special assistance, but in my experience even bad assistance is better than none at all!
The man pushing my wheelchair spoke no English, but I had studied French in high school, college, and continuing education and remembered enough to carry on the basics of a conversation. I was slightly surprised to see how much French is still spoken in North Africa, as the departing of France from the region was not very pleasant. The French arrived in 1848 and didn’t leave until 1962. But French is definitely a second language and the children still learn it in first grade—English is also taught, but not until middle school.
There seemed to be a big bottleneck in getting to the luggage carousel, but my assistant explained that they were checking our temperatures to make sure we weren’t infected with the virus. I passed and was dropped off at the baggage carousel. Once I found my bag, I went to the arrival hall—but did not see anyone with the expected card bearing my name. So, I went to an Information Booth and with combination of French and English explained that I was looking for my guide and who I was. They called him over the loud speaker and there he was—Nadhem! He was very friendly, spoke perfect English—as well as Arabic, French and Spanish (as his father was Spanish). He said he identifies politically as Muslim, but never goes to Mosque or observes dietary laws. He also drinks wine and beer. A perfect guide for an agnostic old lady who loves wine!
The Hotel Majestic in Tunis, where I spent the first two nights, dates from the early 20th century, had been modernized and was pleasant. The included breakfasts and dinner were fine, although buffets are buffets almost the same everywhere. The next morning, the first official sight-seeing day, Nadhem drove to the site of ancient Carthage, today a suburb of the capital city, Tunis. Not much is left, and what there is below the current “street level.” According to legend, Carthage was founded by the Phoenician Queen Elissa (better known as Dido) sometime around 813 BCE. Thanks to my high school Latin, I had read Virgil’s Aeneid, and was familiar with the story of poor unhappy Dido, who had led her people to North Africa and founded the city of Carthage, and her subsequent relationship with Aeneous, who loved her on his way home from victory of Troy and left her, broken-hearted, to kill herself. It turns out that Virgil had taken some liberties with his epic, as the Trojan war took place about 1194-84 B.C.E., over 300 years before Dido’s time. The Carthage we see today actually rose following Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Phoenician city of Tyre (near today’s Lebanon) and his march into North Africa in 332 BCE.
We then drove to an area that reminded me of the Greek island of Santorini with its white cottages and Mediterranean blue rooftops, but without the crowds. We had lunch at a nice café where I had fresh sea bass that was totally delicious! Fresh catch of the day, of course. The word “Tunis” means “tuna,” but that was not on the menu. The afternoon was spent checking out items for purchase in the Tunis Medina, which was crowded of course. Not being a shopper, I didn’t buy anything, but I understand that I am not a typical tourist that way. I got to see the Zitouna Mosque, which is only for Muslims, so I couldn’t go in—but the courtyard itself was very impressive.
The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and Nadhem and I went to the Bardo Museum. This is an amazing collection of mosaics depicting the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (264-146 B.C.E.) Romans called the people living in Carthage “Phoenicians,” and from that somehow we get “Punic.”
Next, we traveled to the enormous Roman archeological site in Dougga, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best Roman ruins in Tunisia. In fact, I found that all of the Roman ruins in both Tunisia and Algeria were far more extensive and better preserved, not to mention far less crowded, than the Roman Coliseum and temples on display in Rome itself. At Makthar was a huge Forum, Trajan’s arch, baths, amphitheaters, the temple with statues of Rome’s big three—Jupiter, Juno and Minerva —and a Vandal Church from a somewhat later era. We then drove to our 5 star hotel in the important Islamic city of Kairouan, the Kasbah Kairouan—a fantastic place! Wish we had had two nights there.
Our first visit was to the Grand Mosque Okba Ibn Nafaa—and my hooded jacket provided enough head covering for me to enter. The rest of the day was spent mostly in the car, with Nadhem entertaining me with stories of past tourist groups. At noon we were in Sbeitla with wonderfully preserved mosaics, churches, baptisteries—also temples, baths, and the Arch of Diocletian. The early Christians appeared to live in harmony with those who still followed the Roman polytheistic religions. Nadhem bought bananas and oranges which we shared for lunch sitting in the ancient Roman forum! Then it was off to the hotel in Tozeur—where I learned the lesson to bring my water from my room to dinner, as the hotel charged for tap water (filtered of course, but not commercially sealed). I left my bottle on the table and was chased by a waiter who explained that I had not paid for the water. I said that even in France they don’t charge for “eau de robinet, or tap water.” But I paid and left the bottle on the table. About 15 minutes later the waiter knocked on the door to my room, with the bottle of water—and the money I had paid for it. Of course, I gave him the money back, it was only a couple of US dollars (I think!)
The next day we went to the Sahara desert and the mountainside oasis village of Chebika. Chebika was the site of an old Roman settlement that became a mountain refuge where the native North Africans, the Berbers, live. With Nadhem’s help I climbed to the source spring in the rocks. The canyon was used as a backdrop for two American movies–“The English Patient,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” both of which I had seen. This was really exciting! The Internet warns that Tunisia is a high-risk situation, primarily because of hostilities near the Libyan border. I figured that if Mosaic North Africa was willing to go, it was probably okay. Nadhem said tourism was so slow he was happy to get even one single lady! Perhaps others were more concerned about the coronavirus, but as yet no cases had been reported in Tunisia.
The next morning we set out for El Djem, where the best preserved Roman Coliseum in the world is located. Constructed between 230-238 A.D. and is believed to at one time have hosted between 30,000 and 45,000 spectators. It was enormous and in much better shape than the Coliseum in Rome itself. We could go down to the rooms where the gladiators awaited their battles. Best of all for me and for other visitors, but perhaps not for Tunisia’s tourist industry, it was almost deserted. Nadhem again bought delicious fruit for our lunch, and we ate seated among the ruins of El Djem.
Although not on our official schedule, in the afternoon we drove in a jeep (Nadhem was not the driver this time) to where Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame is said to have been raised on a desert planet, beneath two suns, in a landscape formed by heat, sand and dust. On the edge of the Sahara, director George Lucas had found his dream film location and named the film planet after the Tunisian village he discovered: Tatooine. More than 40 years ago, the film team set up shop in Tunisia and soon started filming in a variety of locations. There’s also the small village of Matmata, where Luke Skywalker was raised by his uncle and aunt. The house in the film is actually a hotel that was constructed in such a way as to remain cool in the desert heat – namely, underground. Along the way we stopped and I had my photo taken with a desert fox! The drive across the desert was rough, no roads and it was a good thing Nadhem had warned me to take my motion sickness medicine!
You might think that tourism here would be booming as Star Wars has millions of fans around the world. For many years, it was. But then terrorism came to Tunisia and the tourists stayed home, or preferred to go to the sandy beaches in the North of the country instead of driving the nearly 300 miles to the South, where Star Wars desert planet makes its home and where there is enough sun to completely dry out the landscape. I found the sets interesting, but rather primitive for what I imagined Hollywood was capable of. And although I didn’t know it during my visit, soon the coronavirus would arrive in North Africa and tourism throughout the whole world would come to a grinding halt.
The next day I left for Algiers. Supposedly there was an early departure, but the flight took off 3 hours late-and there was no food on board– just juice, coffee, tea and soda. I was glad I had brought along protein bars for my breakfast. I was so hungry I ate two of them! When the plane landed, I stood in line at passport control for about 20 minutes—then when I reached the agent, he asked for a form that I was supposed to fill out. Since I had been seated at the back of the plane, I was one of the last to deplane, so I was almost the last person in line. I dutifully took the form and filled it out, then got in line again. The agents didn’t speak much English, and my French wasn’t all that great either—but finally it came across that “retired” was not an acceptable occupation. So I said that I had been a microbiologist, which was true. Then they gave me a lot of questions about coronavirus, and I tried to explain that it had been years since I was in the lab. Finally they stamped my passport, and I headed toward the baggage claim—only to notice a man heading in the opposite direction with my suitcase!
I showed him my claim ticket, and he gave me the bag. “Ou est-ce que Je depart?” I asked in deplorable French. He pointed to a door, and I went out. There were people milling around, but obviously this was not the main arrival hall—I kept asking for that, but never finding. A man who had apparently been watching me came and asked me if I spoke French. “Un peu,” I responded. “Mais pas bien.” So we communicated in a mixture of French and English. I noticed that the bank in the room was closed, but I tried my debit card in the machine—it didn’t work. I would probably need local currency to get a taxi. I had an approximation of what the exchange rate was, and this guy said he would be glad to exchange $100 US into Algerian currency. I was sure the rate was exorbitant, but what could I do? I just hoped it wasn’t counterfeit. He also took me to a taxi stand, and I asked how much it would cost to go to my hotel. About $40 US, he said it was far. Actually he would have preferred the US dollars to the Algerian currency, but C’est la vie! I had already paid the tourist company for transport in advance, but they weren’t there and I didn’t know what else to do.
Apparently there was some kind of political demonstration going on (I learned later that these happened every day). In fact, tourists are generally given a police escort, but taxis are not. I was able to send email over my iPhone to Kevin Dyke of Mosaic North Africa, and he was able to get me on the phone although I was unable to call him—but I was able to text him. I should also have had WhatsApp—but I didn’t and still don’t. Kevin told me that my guide was still at the airport, and I explained what had happened. Kevin said he thought I would be reimbursed for my taxi fare.
I was relieved when we arrived at the hotel to find out this was the correct hotel. I freshened up a bit in my room, and before too long my guide, Ghanu, and the local Mosaic North Africa manager arrived to apologize and promise all would go well from then on, and that I would get my money for the taxi ride back. Ghanu seemed very nice and spoke good English, plus several other languages. He explained that all Algerians speak and write Arabic and French, and those languages had been compulsory in grammar school ever since the French founded them long ago. English has been added for several years now as well, and now that the native Berbers have a written language, which they didn’t when the French arrived, it is also taught in Algeria and Tunisia. The hotels in Algeria did not have dinner included as did the hotels in Tunisia, and I was hungry—so Ghanou took me next door to a fast food place where I ordered meat and pommes frites (French fries)! They served quite a lot, so I got my fill, and I took what I didn’t eat back to the hotel to save in the room refrigerator for the next night.
For breakfast I had fruit, yogurt and hard boiled eggs, and of course café au lait, which I love. Ghanou was on time, and we set out for a museum of Roman artifacts. He did seem to spend a lot of time talking on his cell phone, and I pointed out that it was illegal to drive and talk on cell phone in the US. He replied that was also true in Algeria, but that his mother was ill, and he was the only one of eight children who didn’t have a family of his own, so he had to make decisions, etc. Whenever I stopped at a particular piece of statuary, he came over and translated the French/Arabic into English—I told him that I could read the French well enough myself, I would ask if I had a question about something. He seemed relieved to have more time on the phone!
After visiting the museum, we traveled to Tipaza to visit the famous Roman site on a Mediterranean bay. First a Berber village, then a Punic trade post, the Romans expanded it into a military colony named Tipasa. The colony was destroyed by the Vandals in the 5th century and by Arabs in the 8th century, and the modern city of Tipaza was established there in 1857. Like much of North Africa, the Roman ruins remained even if the Romans themselves were driven out or killed. The historic basilica is said to be the largest in North Africa. We had lunch at a local restaurant—I had the Salade Nicoise and Rafik fed a local cat with blue eyes several pieces of the lamb liver he had ordered.
On our drive back to Algiers, we stopped at a huge structure called the Tomb of the Christian. It looks like a huge beehive, perched on the crest of a hill. It is about 40 feet high, and around the base is carved a ‘dummy’ colonnade and two ‘dummy’ doors. The real entrance is below the dummy one and is about four feet high, but it was closed and we couldn’t go in. Ghanou didn’t seem to know anything about it, so I did a web search and discovered that the mausoleum was not Christian. It belonged to the Berber King Juba Il and his wife Cleopatra Selene, the child of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Anthony. The Berbers believe that the French didn’t want them to take pride in their ancestors’ accomplishments and so said that all of the great ruins were those of Rome. But, the pyramid-like structure does look more like Egypt than Rome.
We drove back to the hotel in Algiers, and I had my leftovers from the previous night for dinner, took a shower and slept soundly after watching a bit of American news on CNN (which I didn’t have in any of my Tunisian hotels).
The next morning, we left Algiers and drove almost six hours through the Kabilye mountains to the ancient Roman city of Djemila. On the way we stopped in Setif to visit the National Museum of Archeology, which is home to the amazingly intact mosaic Procession of Bacchus. Although the mosaics were originally the floors of a room, here they were mostly on walls. Of course, the view is slightly different from the original perspective, but more of them can be displayed on walls than on floors—and there is more room for visitors since they of course would not be allowed to walk on the mosaics! I asked Ghanou if the Romans themselves walked on them with boots or sandals, and he said probably not, they are too well preserved to have seen a lot of heavy shoe traffic.
Djemila has ruins of both a pre-Christian pagan Roman city—with thermal baths, theater, forum, capital, etc. Then later the Roman Christians came and built a cathedral of the heights—and they co-existed—I presume until Rome was defeated by the Vandals in the 5th century AD. After lunch, we drove about 3 hours to Constantine. We were staying at the Ibis hotel, a chain I remembered from France—and our car was inspected for bombs before we could enter!
I had taken the leftovers from lunch with me—meals here are very, very generous and not at all expensive. Apparently, the income from oil keeps prices in Algeria low. Or at least it did until the oil glut appeared a few weeks after I returned home. I read my emails, and my friend who was going to pick me up on my return asked me if I realized that I had an overnight layover in Frankfurt. I did not! I remembered vaguely that one of the original flights had been canceled, but somehow that 17 hour layover had completely escaped my notice. That meant I would need hotel reservations in Frankfurt for the night, which I did not have. Thanks to the Internet, I was easily able to find an airport hotel—but realized that I was going to need some Euros. Well, I could get them on arrival at airport—or maybe, I could just charge everything! I remembered that the people who provided special assistance in Germany weren’t allowed to take tips.
A phone call and email arrived next morning telling me that my guide Ghanou had to leave to attend to the problems with his family, and that a new guide, Rafik, was coming from another city and would meet me at 9 A.M. Poor Rafik had had to drive most of the night and had not arrived until 5 a.m. But he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel, and in fact seemed amazingly alert. He also talked on the phone, but he explained he had to make arrangements for all of the police escorts. I had not realized it, but almost all tourists in Algeria get police escorts outside of Algiers—which is perhaps too large a city to make that practical. When we are driving in the countryside, we have to change escorts according to whatever province we are in—but they were always ready and waiting for us, and we also get great parking places at the museums!
Our morning destination was the hillside Roman site of Tiddis. Tiddis is a former Roman city that today is in ruins, located in the vicinity of the city of Constantine. In the past Tiddis was the capital city of the Berber Kingdom of Numidia, then came the Phoenicians, then Romans, the Christians. Finally, it was abandoned, but today Tiddis is an authentic Roman site that makes the Gorge of the Khreneg where it is located quite interesting. It was beautiful–although because of the constant wind, not as well preserved as most of the Roman sites in North Africa are. I managed to walk most of it, except for a rather steep climb at the top. Rafik and I had lunch at a café near our hotel, and there was enough for me to take back to the Ibis hotel for dinner. When I got there, my key didn’t work—probably demagnetized from being too close to my cell phone. The cleaning boy let me in to put food in the frig and use the toilet. I had had no other choice but a Turkish toilet in Tiddis, which resulted in my having to touch a lot of surfaces I didn’t want to touch to get up and down. I had left my bag in the car with my hand sanitizer and by this time the news was full of information about COVID-19. I asked Rafik if there were any cases of the coronavirus in Algeria, and he said there was one in the north, someone who either was Italian or had just come from there. Later, I learned that Italy was one of the worst places in Europe for this virus and that there were many Italian laborers who work in the oil fields in Algeria. I hoped that I would not have to go into quarantine upon my return!
The city of Constantine is absolutely gorgeous–pun intended, as it was built on a mountain gorge, over which was erected a magnificent suspension bridge. We first visited the Museum of Antiquities, where we ran into a touring group of schoolchildren. They congregated around me, laughing and staring. Perhaps because my hair was exposed, and a different color—my original red has faded into something most call blonde, and gets lighter every year. Then there are the freckles, which they may never have seen either. They followed me from room to room, clearly more interested in antique me than in the antiquities of their country! Rafik led me to a room where there were some important mosaics, but the door was locked. A museum employee came over and explained that local dignitaries were coming later, and that they wanted them to enter immediately without having to get tourists out (except for the kids, we were almost the only people in the museum). Rafik got on the phone, made a call, and told me to wait right there. Within a few minutes, our police escort arrived, and Rafik almost hit the museum employee on our way in to view the mosaics! They were very nice, but I had seen many, many mosaics and I could have missed these without feeling deprived!
Because of time constraints, our plans changed from spending a third night at the Ibis Hotel in Constantine to leaving early next morning for a place closer to Algiers and the airport. I asked Rafik about the police escorts—does it cost a lot to have them, why are the necessary? He responded that Algeria had undergone 10 years of civic unrest during which many policemen were trained—and that now that hostilities had diminished, they needed something to do! Anyway, we had about 10 police escorts for the rest of the day. They were really handy for getting us around long lines of cars moving at snail’s pace on the highway. Along the way we saw an ancient Numidian tomb 58 meters in diameter and 10 meters tall built about 150 BCE as the burial-place of the Numidian kings.
Next, we traveled to the UNESCO site of Timgad, begun by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 100 AD. With its square enclosure and orthogonal design based on the two perpendicular routes running through the city, it is an excellent example of Roman town planning. Timgad, located in a mountainous site of great beauty, 480 km south-east of Algiers and 110 km to the south of Constantine, is a consummate example of a Roman military colony created out of nothing. By the middle of the 2nd century, the city had spread beyond the perimeters of its ramparts and several major public buildings are built in the new quarters: Capitol, temples, markets and public baths, in addition to immense private residences.
During the Christian period, Timgad was a renowned bishopric. After the Vandal invasion of 430, Timgad was destroyed at the end of the 5th century by montagnards of the Aurès. The Byzantine Reconquest revived some activities in the city, defended by a fortress built to the south, in 539, reusing blocks removed from Roman monuments. The Arab invasion brought about the final ruin of Timgad, which ceased to be inhabited after the 8th century.
During our visit, there were very few people touring this vast site. We did meet a group of retired schoolteachers from Morocco; one of them was an English teacher, and she and I struck up a conversation about one of my favorite authors, the French-Algerian Albert Camus. One of Camus’ best-known novels, “The Plague,” (1947) described a fictional time when the port city of Oran, Algeria, was quarantined because of bubonic plague. I had downloaded a copy onto my Kindle to read on this tour, not only because I was coming to Algiers, but because of the coronavirus arising in Wuhan and beginning to make its way around the world. The teacher said that Camus was not read too much in North Africa, even though he was born in Algeria. His parents were “pieds-noir,” (black feet), a derogatory term for people of French descent who were born in Algeria, but had French citizenship.
She told me that most North Africans don’t know Camus and the ones that do don’t like him because he wanted to keep Algeria under French rule and keep the natives (both Berber and Arab) subservient to the French. She offered the opinion that Camus was perhaps more conscientious than the average Frenchman of the time period, and that he might react differently if he were alive today…but she may have said that just to please me. She also said North Africans don’t read many novels, as it isn’t part of their culture.
Rafik and I went out for lunch—chicken and eggplant on a skewer for me, fish and something non-carb for Rafik, who follows a keto diet and gives me his pommes frites (French fried). He says this diet has made all the difference in the world as to how he feels—and was why he could essentially guide me around the first day after two hours of sleep!
On TV in my room I learned that an Italian visiting Algeria has been put in quarantine for COVID19—I wondered if I might have to go into quarantine myself when I return to the States! There are 18 cases with 2 deaths in France, where some events are being cancelled, but not an important rugby match. The hotel front desk said that no flights from Algiers to or from Germany had been cancelled, just to Italy. So far, so good.
The next morning would be my last full day in Algeria. After breakfast, Rafik and I set out for Algiers, exchanging police escorts along the way. The police are always prompt and cordial, but the police car for one of them badly needed a new exhaust system. I felt guilty using a police escort for just me, but they didn’t seem to mind and said a warm “Au Revoir” as we arrived in Algiers. It was time for lunch, and Rafik took me to a wonderful fish restaurant overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea—no where else in the world is there such a blue as that! The fish had been freshly caught that same morning and tasted divine! Seated next to us was a couple from Lyon, France, probably in their mid-60s. The man had worked many years in London and spoke perfect English.
After lunch we went up the top of a hill, I believe the highest spot in Algiers, to visit the Our Lady of the Sea Catholic cathedral—and there was the French couple again! The neo-Byzantine cathedral is called Notre Dame D’Afrique and is remarkable: the inscription over the altar within, “Notre Dame d’Afrique prions pour nous et pour les Muselmans”(Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims), is a hopeful sentiment. The nearby Great Mosque of Algiers is one of the few remaining examples of Almoravid architecture, with a 14th-century minaret. I told Rafik that we could skip the Martyrs’ Monument, a strange and impressive triple-pillared concrete structure atop the hill, as it is the one site that I had already visited on the cruise I took where a passenger fell and hit her head and we all had to go back to the ship. Therefore, we went straight to the Casbah. I don’t know what I thought the Casbah was, probably a place to buy things, full of souvenirs. I had thought the phrase “Come with me to the Casbah” was uttered by Peter Lorre in the movie “Casablanca,” but I was wrong. Rafik said it was from a movie called “Algiers” from the late 1930s and it was Charles Boyer saying it to Hedy Lamarr!
The Casbah itself is a walled central area of any north African city, but especially of Algiers. It is an old and dingy outside but elegant inside living quarters that residents have fought hard to retain when the authorities wanted to tear it down and build other structures. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so its future seems secure. Rafik wanted to take our car to the top of the hill, park it and walk down through the Casbah and then take a taxi back up the hill, but it took him 30 minutes to find a parking place! Algeria’s tourist business is slim today, but you would never know it at the Casbah. We got to go inside one building that at one time had been a church but today is a museum. Upon reaching the bottom, we tried again for about a half hour to get a taxi—we almost took the Metro, but Rafik bribed a taxi driver so we made it back up the hill and to our car.
It had been a very eventful day, and I really wasn’t hungry, so I ate a Protein bar, packed my bags and went to sleep. Next morning, Rafik took me to the airport and filled out the form I would leave to exit the country. I had packed my carryon for the night in the Frankfort Airport Hotel, so checked my main bag through to Memphis, my final destination. My backpack went through the X-ray just fine, and I put it back on and headed toward the gate when a young Arab woman came over with a metal detector and felt me up and down. I did have on a money belt (no metal and I had walked through the detector without setting it off). She frowned and told me to take it off, so I pulled it down and stepped out of it. She then told me to pick it up. Well, I am 82 years old and in order to pick it up I said I needed something or someone to hold on to—which she wouldn’t provide or didn’t understand, so I tried kicking it into the air and catching it, but that wasn’t working. A gentleman from the airport staff picked it up and handed it to me, and I opened it for her inspection. She saw it was just money so she frowned and let me go. I think she was disappointed!
The Lufthansa crew was really great, and even put together a gluten-free meal for me with leftover fruit and yogurt from the previous breakfast flight! Landing in Frankfurt, I was met by my special assistant. When I went through German customs the agent looked at my passport and asked me what my final destination was. “Memphis TN USA” I said. He frowned and snapped, “This is Germany, why are you coming here?”
“To spend the night because I have a 17 hour layover,” I responded.
“Why didn’t you say so,” he grumbled as he stamped my passport and returned it.
My assistant put me on the shuttle to the Raddison Airport Hotel where I had made my reservation online. Luckily, they had it. The room was sparse and small, but TV provided me with the latest information on the coronavirus epidemic. More cases were being detected worldwide. At least travel had not been restricted from Europe (although in retrospect, what we learned about the coronavirus entering the Eastern US from Europe, perhaps it should have been!)
I had breakfast in the hotel, and rode the shuttle to the airport and was met by my special assistant who took me to my gate. The next stop was Toronto, also a difficult airport to navigate, so I had ordered assistance there as well. No problems, good gluten-free meals, and I finally landed in my hometown of Memphis in the late afternoon. I really didn’t need assistance there, but there was a young man in the line of wheelchairs who was holding up a sign with my name on it, so what could I do? And he was helpful when it came to getting the luggage—and me—to the pick up line where my very special friend Eddie was there to update me on the latest virus news and take me home.
At the time, I had no idea that COVID-19 would soon be pronounced a pandemic. For years I had worked with virologists who were preparing for another influenza epidemic. That would have been bad, but our scientists knew how to make influenza vaccines and could no doubt speed them up. This new coronavirus, however, behaved in strange ways and there were no clues of how infectious it was, how dangerous it could be, what kind of illnesses it caused. I thought about Camus’ book, “The Plague,” about a fictional bubonic plague in Oran, a large port city of Algeria. Camus envisioned the whole city of Oran being quarantined for several months in the mid-1940s. His book was allegory. This was real.
Soon, the three other trips I had planned for 2020 were cancelled. I had felt that at my age this would be my last year of overseas travel—being there is not so hard, but getting there is, and I don’t envision that it will improve. However, I am so glad I went to North Africa, and if it is my last overseas adventure, it was a great one!