Algiers, Algeria

Didouche Mourad dusk

Cars and people on the rue Didouche Mourad at dusk

Algiers, Algeria

They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In Algeria, it probably begins with a cab ride.

There are other options. Algiers has a good and modern, if not very extensive, metro system. Oran has sleek, futuristic-looking trams (and extremely vigilant ticket inspectors). Everywhere has buses. But most of my excursions, certainly in Algiers, began or ended with a cab ride.

Finding a cab is a matter of either hailing an official (and slightly more expensive) taxi, or using one of two popular ride-share apps. I was never able to sign up for one of them for technical reasons, so I used the other one exclusively.

Summoning a cab with the app was often quite a lengthy process. First you enter your location and destination. The app then goes into a kind of extended trance, from which it emerges intermittently to issue reassuring messages encouraging you not to lose heart. Finally, it announces proudly that Mohammed or Selim is on his way to you, driving a black whatever, and will be with you in 8 minutes.

Cab drivers like to verify that you’re a real person, so they often call just to touch base with you before setting out. A good many of them gave up when they saw that I had a US number, unreachable from the local network. The app would then sorrowfully announce that Selim or Ahmed wasn't coming after all, and the search would begin anew.

If he decided to go for it anyway, the next phase would consist of watching a little car icon wiggle around on the map, as the driver tried to find some route from wherever he was to wherever I was through the winding and traffic-choked streets of Algiers. This was never a sure thing. Often, after a few minutes of wiggling, I’d see the little car suddenly head off in the opposite direction as Ahmed or Reda decided that it wasn't worth fighting the traffic, and would pick up someone else instead or just go home and watch the soccer on TV. The app would then tell me sadly that Reda or Salah wouldn’t be showing up, and the process would start over.

It sometimes took a while, but usually after three or four tries I’d get someone more desperate or determined than his peers, and a few minutes later Salah or Amine would pull up in a vehicle that might or might not match the description given in the app, and we’d be off.

In Algeria, instead of sitting in lordly isolation in the back, a solo traveler rides up front with the driver. By custom, this means that you also have to talk to the driver. Being mildly socially anxious and not entirely confident in French, I was initially somewhat nervous about this. I needn’t have worried. Like almost all the other Algerians I met, Algerian cabbies are lovely – warm and friendly and happy to chat about anything at all for as long as the ride lasts. Often, this led to genuinely fascinating conversations.

Among the other highlights:

Ali, a distinguished older gentleman, talked about the climate crisis and his work as a driver for Canadian climatologists the year before. I told him about the wildfires last summer and he observed that at least the smoke had probably taken care of the mosquitoes. He then told me that they had had ‘events’ in his village last spring and the police had shown up and fired off so much tear gas that they had no mosquitoes all summer.

Rafik asked me if I was a Muslim. When I said that I was not, he said piously “Inshallah, on te gardera avec nous.” (”God willing, we shall keep you [safe] with us.”) This was the first of several similar conversations that I had, and the low-key proselytization never felt aggressive or judgmental. Algerian Muslims are calmly confident that Islam is the best possible faith and, as generous and kindly people, they wish only the best for you. What could be better than for you to see the light – in your own good time – and thus be counted among the Faithful on the Last Day? Afterward, we talked about driving in Algiers and he told me “Y'a pas du code. Du tout.” (“There are no rules whatsoever.”) Other nations, he understood, had some kind of regulations governing behavior on the roads, but such a thing was effectively nonexistent in Algeria. He told me that he had a Mercedes at home, but never drove it in the city because the driving was so chaotic.

I don’t remember the name of the elderly driver of the official taxi that picked us up outide the Presidential Palace (blindly following Google Maps uphill, we started walking through the secure zone until a startled cop told us we couldn’t go that way and advised us to get a cab instead). At first he was a little put out when M commented that the official taxi rates seemed rather high, but I made a point of being formally, flatteringly polite to him. By the end of the trip we were all best friends. When we parted company, he told us that he was enchanted to have met us, and we assured him that the feeling was mutual.

With Farid in Oran, I talked about life in the United States. He had a cousin in Houston and thought he might go there to work.

Boumedyen told me that he had learned English from watching ”Gossip Girl”. We talked about his ambition of becoming a professional pool player like his hero Shane Van Boening.

Farid in Algiers wanted to know if I liked Algerian music. Our friend S had given us a good introduction, so I was able to name a few musicians I liked. Farid was eager to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, working his phone with one hand to play me his favorite songs as we lurched around all the hairpin turns in Ben Aknoun. “If this trip were longer,” he said regretfully, “I could play you so much good music.”

It’s odd to think of cab journeys being among the high points of a trip, but in some ways they were.