Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Our Road Trip back to Ireland in a Pepsi Can Part 1

Tariq Ibn Zyad Ferry
In the late spring, early summer of 2005 my husband and I (lost our minds and) decided to take the children and drive back to visit my family in Ireland, taking a road trip through France and England and half way across the South of Ireland in the process.

Our first hurdle, apart from saving up the money of course, was obtaining a 7 seater car.  In Algeria, as long as the two people driving in the front of the car are wearing seat-belts, they don’t pay much attention as to how many are piled in the back…. unless of course people are hanging on to the car doors for dear life, when then they may possibly be stopped by the police….. possibly.  I have seen people sitting in the front passenger seat with a child on their laps but the police, to give them their due, are fairly strict on this issue and I have known people be stopped for this infringement of the law.  But I have also seen, with horror, drivers with children on their laps.  They are usually only driving locally and not very far, and have obviously reasoned to themselves that this is perfectly harmless.  Idiots.
But driving on the Continent necessitates a car seat and seat belt for each of the 7 of us, so off shopping we went for a 7-seater car to replace our 5-seater Kango.  With all the expense of travelling abroad, shopping and feeding us all for several weeks, we needed to find the most inexpensive vehicle we could find, which turned out to be…..a car made in China.  My husband and I went car shopping together, so I can’t really put all the blame on him, but, I have to admit that when I saw the inside of this particular vehicle in the showroom, a tin can came to mind, and my eldest daughter promptly nicknamed it the Pepsi Can.  But my husband was full of enthusiasm and…. what do I know about cars anyhow
View of Algiers from ferry

We drove it for a few weeks before our trip just to make sure that it was in good working order, and were satisfied that it would take us all the way to Ireland and back, and off we went.   We had a big delay in the port of Algiers and, at one stage, had to empty the contents of the car which was no easy feat considering how crammed tight everything was packed into the Pepsi Can.  Finally we took off from the Port of Algiers on an uneventful and quite pleasant journey overnight to Marseilles….. at least pleasant for me, not so much for some of the children who just lay prostrate with travel sickness for part of the journey.  As we stood on deck to watch the Port of Marseilles come closer, we saw a lot of speedboats come right up to the ferry and their drivers and passengers shouted at us ‘Marhaban Bikum!’, Welcome!  We had our very own Algerian welcoming committee!!!!  (Don’t know how they knew WE were on board!!!).

Leaving Algiers
We disembarked in the early afternoon and shortly after leaving the ferry, I heard a noise, and, fearing that there was something amiss with the car my husband drew up in a lay-by, only to discover that the noise continued.  As it turns out, the noise wasn’t from the car at all; it was the noise of hundreds and hundreds of CRICKETS!  As we drove on the motorway, every now and again a car would come up behind us, flashing their lights and beeping their horns and then they would pass us waving and smiling at us.  Obviously Algerian Registered Cars were a rarity and appreciated by the emigrant Algerians.  At one service station, an Algerian came up and told my husband how happy (and emotional) he was to see the car as he hadn’t seen an Algerian registered car since he had left Algeria quite a few years previously. 

As we made our way up the motorway, my husband noticed a warning light on the dashboard and decided to pull in at a service stop and let the car cool down.  Little did we know but this became the pattern of our slow but steady progress on the motorway to Calais.  My husband and I spent so much of that journey with our eyes peeled to the gauge watching for that warning light and trying to figure out what caused it, and what we could do to prevent it.  Sometimes he would drive to the petrol pumps and turn off the engine, and once he had filled the car, he would push the car over to a parking space in order to let it cool down.  Not once, in all the time he had to do this, did anyone offer to help him push the car or ask him what was the matter.  Sometimes people would just stand and watch, and I can’t begin to tell you how lonely I felt, how isolated, and….. how homesick for Algeria it made me.  My husband’s one fear was that we would break down and need mechanical help as he knew it was astronomically expensive to find parts and labour in France, especially without knowing where to go to get the best kind of help
When we didn’t need petrol my husband would park the car as far away from the service station as possible and would try to grab forty winks while the children and I freshened up, browsed the small shops in the service station and sat in the grass in the warm sunshine. I was quite surprised at the lack of choice of vegetarian food available in the service stations in France.   But there were times when the curiosity of a European would get the better of them and they would come up to the car, walk around it and discuss it with great wonder, and, if my husband showed any sign of life at all, they would ask him what kind of car was it, where was the engine etc. etc.  My husband was always polite while inwardly screaming ‘leave me alone and let me get some sleep!’

We passed many articulated lorries from different parts of Europe, and there was a Lithuanian one in particular with which we developed a ritual.  We passed him out the first time, then we had to stop and let the car cool down, and then, when we drove up the motorway again, we would pass him out again, and he would beep at us, then we would stop again, and pass him out again, doing this over and over again all the way up the motorway to Paris!  I often wonder if he thought he was hallucinating and just beeped to make sure he wasn’t losing his mind, watching this Pepsi Can overtake him over, and over, and over again.

Just outside Paris we pulled into a service station late at night and had the dubious delight of being questioned by a couple of customs agents who came up to the car and asked us where we had traveled from, to which my husband, being the seasoned traveler and native Algerian that he is, gave them just the minimum information and told them we had traveled from Marseilles.   They then looked in the car and asked us if we were carrying any alcohol or cigarettes (hang on a second while I look under this Qur’an….. or maybe they’re packed in with the children’s clothes!).  They poked around the car and were considering asking us to unpack the back of the car, where the children were sleeping, wrapped up against the night time cold, but relented and let us pull over to a quiet corner so my husband could get some shut-eye.

We resigned ourselves to missing our booking for the ferry from Calais to Dover, but happily there were ferries every half hour and we didn’t have to pay any extra.  I wish I could say the crossing was as happy, but Hovercraft does not make for an easy crossing of the English Channel, and we were all so sick during the hour’s crossing.  I spent most of the time on deck along with our eldest son, my husband found a seat and fell asleep and the others all spent the time in the toilets either throwing up or trying their best to prevent themselves from doing so.

We finally made it to England and dry land Alhamdulilah, and drove up to London where we stayed in a friend’s house for a couple of weeks before we travelled on to see my family in Ireland.  My husband’s first task was to take the Pepsi Can to a mechanic in the hope of finding out why it kept overheating.  This took up most of his efforts especially as one mechanic suggested he get a specific part for it, and, as there are no Chinese car dealerships in England (probably the whole of Europe) he would have to somehow import it from Algeria, which, with the most efficient Algerian grapevine he did manage to acquire, but not before our booked ferry to Ireland.  We borrowed a 7 seater from a friend and drove across the South of England from London to Swansea from where we were booked for a ferry to Rosslare.  Even that journey was disturbed by an occasional flashing warning on the dash board every now and again which worried us, but which we discovered after we had arrived, was not anything serious.  After a three hour night journey over the Irish Sea we drove across the South of Ireland to my native Cork.
White Cliffs of Dover

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