On my fourth morning in Algeria I woke to the sound of footsteps crunching dried pine needles. The sound made a wide arc around my tent then stopped at the dirt road. I heard the click of a car door handle then the sound of the door shutting.
It was still dark out. Savannah was curled in the tent with me. A five minute rain shower at night forced her inside. Around her was the dirt that had fallen off her through the night.
After laying awake a while in my sleeping bag, feeling the cold creep over my shoulders, I packed and crawled out of my tent. A hundred feet away a white sedan with three police officers inside was parked between some narrow pines. The officers had been there all night. One of them came out to greet me. He stood at the edge of the road and was only a silhouette until I moved closer.
He smiled, nodded and kept his hands in his pockets. When Savannah went over to him with her tail wagging he shuffled backward and looked down at her pleasantly.
“You’ve been awake all night?” I asked.
“Two hours I sleep.”
Part of me felt guilty about keeping these men awake. But I didn’t ask for an escort across Algeria. It was provided me at the entrance.
After packing I walked out of the forest. I walked past a recreational area with concrete tables for picnics and playing dominos. Then I was in Khadra, a small town with a long main street a few hundred kilometers from the capital of Algeria.
By tilting my fingers to my lips I indicated to the officers following me in their car that I was looking for a café.
The entire town was awake but only the cafés were open. Algeria was more like American than Spain in terms of schedule. Spanish shops opened at nine, closed midday, then reopened for a few hours at night. The Algerian people were praying an hour before sunrise and sipping coffee shortly thereafter. I loved it.
People were boarding blue and white Toyota buses. Children in neat uniforms shuffled to school.
I tilted my cart up and down curbs and navigated around lampposts. Savannah stayed beside my left leg. Her tail was curled high behind her. She was happy to be on the move.
Halfway through town the officer I’d spoken to in the morning asked when I was going to stop by turning his hand over at me. There was a café beside their car so I pointed at it then crossed the street to it.
I parked my cart outside. In the café were small circular tables and wooden chairs with red cushions and there were about a dozen men inside who leaned back or hunched over and sipped heavily sugared expressos from small red paper cups. The floor was linoleum. At the bar were two men. I ordered four expressos from them.
At the expresso machine a man sat two cups side by side then pulled down on the coffee press with his body weight to drip a rich brown coffee into the cups. I sat two silver coins on the bar. The four expressos cost a dollar.
Once the coffees were on the counter the police officer was beside me.
“Thank you.” He took a cup.
“Thanks for staying up all night.” I said it more in expression than words.
I carried the remaining three coffees outside and gave two of them to the other police officers. Then I sat at a small round table beside my cart. Savannah sat between my legs. The green and white police car was in front of me and the light from the sunrise was soft and orange and the bottom half of the trees lining the street were painted white and the white paint reflected the light softly so the town felt very calm even though there was a lot of noise coming from the café.
In a minute I was finished my coffee.
The town went on a while longer. I walked the sidewalk and the coffee had my heart thumping in my ears and behind my eyes.
When the sidewalk ended I walked on the dirt beside the road. The road had no lane lines so one sort of navigated it like a fish in a river.
There were more women outside than I saw in Morocco. Most often the older women wore robes, but the girls and younger women wore blue jeans.
Because of the coffee and the cops following just behind in their car I walked nonstop for four hours. I passed through a few towns, a few tomato fields, some grazing sheep, and lots of concrete and rebar houses.
When I finally stopped it was at the base of a valley. Ahead of me was a bridge over an anemic river and behind the bridge was a red hill similar to the red mountains I crossed in Morocco.
I was at the border of two municipalities so I was being passed from one escort to the next.
I shook hands with the two men who’d been following me since Khadra. They were both about my age. They’d taken over for the older men who’d slept in their car beside my tent. These two were replaced by six men but only three of which were out of the car to write down my information. They huddled over my passport laid out on the hood of a car. One of the officers was as tall as myself and had a square head as large as a half a cinderblock.
“Thomas the American.” He grinned. His teeth were sharp and smoke-stained but he was vibrantly friendly.
When I started walking again I could feel the previous four hours in my legs. The coffee had long-worn off.
I trudged uphill on the side of the road. One police SUV drove behind me while the other drove in front of me. It was difficult going because the side of the road was made up of rocks. The cart didn’t roll smoothly.
There was a wonderful view of the ocean. The horizon line was like a white thread across a blue blanket.
After just twenty minutes there was a picnic area on the opposite side of the road. I waited for the cars to pass then walked over to it and dropped onto a concrete bench. My thighs were tight. I rubbed them with my palms.
The cops doubled back and drove into the gravel parking lot. Four of them got out of their cars and were beside me moments after I sat down.
“Ouí. Fatigué. Hungry.”
I took a bag of cashews from the back of my cart and poured some cashews into my hand.
“Thomas.” The big-headed officer smiled at me.
“You want eat?” One of the other officers asked. “Sandwich?”
“Restaurant.” He pointed up the hill.
The officers convened. “One kilometer.” They all spoke with a French/Arabic accent.
“One kilometer? Let’s go. Vamos.”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
Up the hill the road flattened into a town of a few dozen buildings. On a corner was a restaurant with a colorful menu beside the door with empty white circles beside the dishes where a price could be written in.
Inside I had a toasted baguette with french fries and a sprinkling of ground beef. I thought there would be more beef in it. The french fries were oily which added some flavor but still the starch blended too much with the bread. I ate the sandwich because I was hungry.
The big-headed cop interrupted me constantly. He stood in front of me with his hand on a painting.
He flicked his hand downwards, in the opposite manner as westerners, to tell me to come to him.
“Come.” He flicked his hand again.
He pointed at the painting. “Algeria and Morocco. The border.”
“It looks beautiful.”
I could feel the tightness in my calves. It felt good to be seated.
“Algeria is very beautiful.”
I had food in my mouth.
“Algeria? How is?”
I looked behind me and saw four cops and four civilians looking in at me. Two of the younger officers were laughing at the big-headed cops’ enthusiasm.
The sergeant spoke to the big-headed cop in Arabic then the big-headed cop went outside with little loss in enthusiasm.
I was in better spirits after getting something in my stomach. And when I paid, the restaurant owner gave me half a baguette for the road. I tucked it in the back of my cart then left the town with the two police cars tagging along.
The road undulated to follow the hills along the coast. I followed the road around a high bend then descended into Le Guelta. Le Guelta was a town bordered by a river, the beach and the highway. The highway passed outside the town so that the town and the beach were to my left as I entered. To my right were new brick constructions and auto-shops. Beyond that was a pale valley with olive and fig trees.
On the other side of the bridge into Le Guelta were two police SUVs. My escort drove ahead of me so that by the time I reached the parked police cars there were eleven policemen waiting for me.
I shook hands with the three officers making up my new escort. One of them was young. He moved haughtily, as though spitefully knocking things over with his elbows. The sergeant wore Ray-Bans and didn’t smile.
I didn’t like them. I didn’t trust them. I suspected they expected a bribe.
The sergeant took my passport and only returned it when the sergeant of the previous escort told him to return it to me.
When I started walking again I was in town. People stood at the entrance of shops and stared as I walked by. Some men touched their right hand to their heart and said ‘salam alaykum’ – ‘Peace be upon you.’
The new escort followed directly beside me. It made for unpleasant walking. I could feel their eyes on me. When I looked left the sergeant and the young cop were staring at me.
“Thomas. How much money do you have?” The young officer spoke decent English.
“How much money do you have?”
“I don’t know. Four thousand dinar,” I lied.
“Four thousand dinar isn’t much.”
“My Algerian friend told me not too carry much. I’ll get more in Tenes.”
I only looked to the young officer when I had to. He was leaning out the back window.
“You want an Algerian woman, Thomas?”
He turned to the other officers in the car and spoke to them in Arabic. They all laughed.
“Thomas, give me your number.”
I gave him my number.
“I’m going to message you. You write me a note to come to America.”
“I come to America, Thomas. I have no money. Americans have many money.”
The sidewalk ended and again I was walking on the dirt beside the road. It was sunny but the sun was weak. In a dirt parking area was shade provided by a few tall bushes. The parking area was a little below the road. I went to the shade and parked my cart there in hopes that the cops would stay up on the road and leave me alone for a while. I’d only been with them for thirty minutes but I was exhausted. I didn’t trust them and I didn’t like them. I should have counted my blessings with the overly-zealous big-headed officer from earlier.
I laid out my tarp and sat against my cart tire.
Immediately the young officer came down to me. Even somehow managed to appear haughty even walking downhill.
“What are you doing, Thomas?”
“Taking a break. Lots of kilometers today.”
As the officer neared Savannah got to her feet, growled, and put her body against his shins. The officer backed away a little.
“She…” the officer bit at his forearm.
I wagged a finger.
“Savannah, come here.”
Savannah trotted to me and I tucked her under my arm. I only wanted to rest a little while but the officer stood there looking at me.
“Thomas, you get me a visa to America.”
“You don’t need me for a visa. You can just apply.”
“I want an American wife.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“You can write me a letter for to get into America.”
“How much money do you have on you, Thomas?”
“What does that matter?”
“What you said?”
“How much money do you have on you?”
“Four thousand dinar.”
“That is not much.”
“I’ll get more in Tenes.”
“I’m very hungry. What food do you have? I no have lunch.”
I gave him the baguette the restaurant had given me.
“Nothing else? What do you have in there?”
He tapped my cart. Savannah growled. My legs were sore, but I stood and opened my cart. My food was in a plastic crate buried under my clothes. The only food visible was a Spanish sausage. I handed the officer the sausage.
“You can have this. Full of pig.”
“No pig for Islam.” He dropped the sausage back in my cart.
I closed the cart and sat down. The driver came down, smiled at me, and stood beside the young officer.
The young officer tore away at the bread. A pistol hung in a leather hostler on his hip. I could see the wooden handle and the burnished barrel. His uniform was green and looked itchy.
“You have nothing else?”
I buried my hand in the back basket of my cart until finding a tomato a man had given me the day before. I tossed the tomato to the young officer. The driver laughed and gave me a thumbs up then he slapped the young officer on the shoulder and walked back to the car.
The young officer walked back to the car too.
For a few minutes I had peace. The ocean was across the street and I could hear the waves. On the beach was a shed with cracked white paint and there was a green and white beach umbrella and a couple sitting beneath the umbrella who were the only ones on the beach. Many of the beaches in Algeria were plagued with trash, but this one was clean. It was a small beach, tucked between a tetrapod and the natural rise in the land.
The young officer finished the tomato and bread and came back downhill. He was making his way toward me when my Algerian friend called.
“Amar!” I answered loudly to let the officer know I was occupied.
“Tom, how are you?”
Amar was from Algeria but granted political asylum by the United States during the Algerian civil war in the mid-nineties. Amar was my boss for a few years. We installed rooftop solar systems together. He spoke English perfectly well but with an incredibly thick Arabic accent. The accent made Amar sound harsh.
“I’m good, I’m good. Resting in the shade right now, looking at my escort and the ocean.”
“That’s good, man, that’s good. So, man, how is everything there?”
“It’s good, no problems. I’m covering more ground than I thought I would. I thought because of the short days that I’d only cover eighteen miles a day, but I’ve been walking twenty-four miles pretty easily. The temperature is perfect.”
While Amar and I spoke the young officer stalked in front of me like a hyena waiting for a lion to leave its kill. After five minutes the young officer couldn’t wait anymore and came over to me.
“Who is that?”
“My Algerian friend.” I said it almost in defense of my right to be in Algeria.
“He lives in Algeria?”
“He lives in America but he’s from Algeria.”
“He lives in America?” The young officer’s voice cracked to authenticity for the first time. It seemed until that moment he wanted to believe, but didn’t actually believe it was possible for an Algerian to move to America.
Amar’s thick English entered my left ear, “Tom, let me talk to him.”
I handed the officer my phone.
Amar and him were speaking in Arabic. The other two officers were asleep in the SUV.
After five minutes the young officer returned my phone and I spoke to Amar.
“What were you talking about?”
“Tom, you have to understand what you are doing is very strange. It’s very strange, Tom. You know it’s hard for him to believe that you walked all these places.”
“Give him my number. He wants information on how to come to America. I told him I would help him.”
“He was asking me to write him a letter of recommendation.”
“Tom, give him my number when we are off the phone.”
There was a silence.
“Okay, man. I’ll let you go.”
“Okay, Amar. Thanks for calling.”
I gave the young officer Amar’s information. He was much more pleasant after that. His air of arrogance had diminished.
“You’re a crazy man,” he said.
I laughed. “I know.”
The young officer returned to the SUV. A tiny white pickup with a tiny bed and tiny wheels pulled up to the police car. The officers all climbed out and bought dates from the back of the pickup. I sat on my tarp and enjoyed having no officer staring at me. After only a couple of minutes of solitude I felt more rejuvenated than from the half an hour of sitting before.
The officers were eating off a a plate on the hood of the SUV.
“Thomas! Come. Eat.”
I ambled uphill. The older officers were talking with the date vendor.
The young officer and I stood side-by-side over the dates. The dates were sugary and the way the fruit slipped off the long seed made them a pleasure to eat.
I was picking away at the dates just fine when the young officer handed me a stem of them unnecessarily.
“For you,” he said.
I took the stem with about twenty golden brown dates attached to it.
“Thanks. They’re delicious.”
“I’m going to send a message to my American friend, Thomas.”
“I’m going to send a message to my American friend.”
“Do you think I can get a visa to America?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always been a citizen.”
“I’ll message you.”
I finished a few more dates then took the stem of dates back to my cart. I started walking again. The police drove beside me but after a few miles the escort changed and the new escort watched me by driving a few hundred meters behind. At the top of a hill there was a place were cars turned off the road to look out to the coastline. I stopped there and sat against a boulder which had been painted white. Ahead of me I could see where the road was cut into the mountain and the great blue Mediterranean. The three officers of the new escort got out and came over to me.
“How are you?” Only one of them spoke a little English. My French was still terrible.
He gave me a thumbs up. “Take you time.”
They went back to their car and milled about over there. Savannah turned onto her side and was snoring. The mountains were rocky. Trees with pale green leaves and knotty branches clung to the soil.