Friday, 13 March 2015

Not only 'mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun'

The view from the end of our road

Over the years we have had various guests from abroad who have bravely ignored all the dire warnings about the dangers of travel to Algeria, and have come and stayed with us and created some very happy memories with us. 

One group who came to stay with us for 8 days were of Pakistani origin but born and brought up in Kenya, after which they moved to UK from where a few of them moved on to Canada.  The only man in the group was a very good friend of my husband in England and he and his English wife had shown us a lot of kindness and support throughout the years we lived near them.  He brought along his two sisters, one of whom travelled from her home in Canada along with her 16 year old daughter.

One of my favourite views coming into Algiers Center from 'our  side
The morning after they arrived the two sisters were up on the terrace supposedly admiring the view of the sea but instead looking down into our neighbour’s back garden and shouting down ‘Asalaam Alaykum’ to them at the top of their voices…..neighbours we had very little to do with up to this point.  Soon after they went out to go down to the sea but somehow managed to wangle themselves an invite into the very same neighbour’s home which was in the opposite direction, bringing back home a plate of goodies. This was just the first morning and I started to wonder if our fragile relationship with our neighbours was going to survive their visit.

Their enthusiasm for soaking up as much as they could of the unique atmosphere of Algeria was, admittedly infectious and rather endearing, and they had a wonderful sense of humour which meant a lot of laughter echoed throughout the house.  The two sisters were older than me and, like all sisters, bickered which sometimes bordered on the point of a full-blown row, in the middle of which they would often stop and invite me to sit between them and relax.  I stared at them disbelievingly and told them I’d be safer sitting in a war zone!  They often chatted away in Urdu and then would turn to one of us and ask ‘what do you think?’  I dared not tell them.

Everything seemed to remind them of somewhere else…Dubai, Saudi, Kenya…etc.  Funnily enough nothing reminded them of Pakistan because contrary to their outward appearance and obvious Pakistani cultural preferences…none of them had ever set foot in Pakistan.  A few times it was on the tip of my tongue to say it all reminded me of Algeria but I kept quiet, and had my revenge when a few years later they returned to Kenya after many years absence and drove their brother mad by saying how much everything reminded them of…..Algeria!!!! 

Ketchaoua Mosque, Algiers
They loved everything and, to be honest even though they were exhausting in their wish to see most of Algeria (we are talking about a country 9.8 times the size of mainland UK) in 8 days, they were easy to please.  As fast as I chopped carrots for the dinner, they ate them exclaiming with every bite how they hadn’t tasted carrots like that in years.  The ate everything I put in front of them….as long as it was accompanied by a dish of rice and they were very much hands on in helping with the cooking and the washing up.

There were many times when we were outside and I was so grateful for wearing a niqab…for all the wrong reasons.  They totally ignored the fact that English and Urdu are not universally spoken or understood here in Algeria and just chatted away to every shopkeeper and vendor nevertheless.  They decided that they just HAD to make ‘mandazi’s, something my sister had introduced us to years ago, which were the Aisan version of a doughnut, but whereas my sister’s recipe did not include coconut it was essential in their recipe.  So off we went hunting down the crucial and very elusive coconut milk.  They would walk into a shop and ask for ‘halib’ and be shown the long-life milk cartons and then they would say ‘no, no…..we want COCONUT halib’ which invariably elicited a blank stare from the poor beleaguered shop-keeper.  Eventually it occurred to me to point to a Bounty bar and ask them for ‘halib’ made with that…and hope they didn’t bring out a chocolate milk carton.  Oh no…they didn’t have that kind of milk, but wait here a minute and they would go down the road and ask in the next shop if they had any.  So many times it went like that….the Algerian shop-keepers were so eager to please the foreigners and find them what they wanted.  We never  did find the coconut milk and they had to make the wretched things without them, which tasted fine to me.  Of course they couldn’t just make them with anything I had in my kitchen…….they needed a ‘tawa’ or griddle which they just had to borrow……… from the neighbours.

The Port of Algiers
They were very vehement in their desire to see the Sahara – coming to Algeria and not going to the Sahara was like going to Mecca and not visiting the Kaaba….their comparison….not mine.  So they piled into our car in the very early hours of the morning along with my daughter (and the flamin’ mandazis), and my husband drove them the 10 hours drive to the Sahara.  While my husband collapsed in a heap and slept for a while they spent their time walking around the beautiful sand dunes and taking pictures of themselves and the camels and picking up Desert Roses, which are natural formations of sand in the shape of roses.  They ate at the home of someone who was a friend of a friend of my husband, because, in Algeria everyone is a friend of someone.  They were offered a place to stay for the night but our guests were adamant that they wanted to return ‘home’.  So my husband drove them 10 hours journey back to our home, stopping once for a little rest on the way.  Our guests soon felt the full force of the lyrics of a song ‘mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun’, when they became really ill on the journey home suffering from sun stroke and dehydration.

They recovered quickly to attempt to see the rest of Algeria in the remaining time of their holiday and when they did leave, we all collectively collapsed in a heap.  But… be honest…..I would have them all back again tomorrow because, simply, they loved it here, they appreciated our efforts and they were very good fun, which is all I ever ask of a guest.

Port of Algiers