Algiers1Algeria had not long been re-opened to tourists. That means it was likely to be a place untrammelled by wide-eyed visitors, an advantage in my book. The potential down side was that Algerians were unlikely to understand the expectations of an international traveller. And that proved to be the case. But having done a lot of homework on Algiers and what I might expect, the experience was edgy but not unsafe – despite some moments of concern throughout the trip.

I flew in from Paris at an hour of the day which I thought would give me plenty of time to scout Algiers on my arrival. I am in the habit of dropping bags as soon as I arrive at the hotel. A quick scout around helps me orientate myself. I know where the roads and lanes lead if I need to exit the hotel quickly. Okay, I am just naturally curious too.

However the flight was delayed and I found myself on the last plane into Algiers airport. The building was pretty much closed down and by the time I retrieved my bag I was one of only two or three foreign visitors having my visa processed. I wandered into an empty arrivals hall, with the handful of shops closed. And no taxis at the taxi rank. But there were about a dozen men standing in a noisy group, smoking and laughing. Dressed in jeans and leather jackets and sporting sharp haircuts they looked like any group of middle aged men anywhere around the world who should have been at home helping sort the evening madness of meal and children, but who would rather hang out with their mates. I was clearly lost and at a loose end and they detected it in an instant. One of the men detached himself from the group, stamped out his cigarette and sauntered over.

‘No taxis. Last one left late this afternoon.’

‘Is there a bus?’

‘No, but I can give you a lift if you like.’

I looked around to double check the taxi rank. Lights were clicking off across the airport and I watched the guards lock doors. I had a number of choices. Camp here over-night. Walk the long trek into Algiers. Accept the offer of a lift, which had been made at taxi rates – which I knew thanks to the homework I had done.

I accepted the lift. He offered to take my bag. I declined – it was an overnight bag but it had everything in it that I needed for this month on the road and it was not leaving my hands. He nodded and then invited me to follow him to his car. I followed him through an empty car park and then into an empty field, walking further and further into the dark. I fell behind, wondering what was going on when I spotted an old Renault in the dimness. My driver walked to the back of the car where I couldn’t see him and popped the boot. His voice floated out of the darkness.

‘Drop your bag in here.’

‘No thanks.’

I was on edge by now and ready to scamper. But he closed the boot, climbed into the drivers seat and leaned in and opened the door. I joined him and off we went. Thanks to the homework I had done, including Google Earth, I knew exactly where my hotel was in relation to the airport. And I also knew some key buildings and features which I was able to identify even in the dark. But that homework meant that I knew the route we were taking was not the most direct and as we drifted East away from where I wanted to go I started to get ready for the worst, including planning a handful of scenarios for getting out of this vehicle. Soon we were drifting up a mountain, down some tight lanes, past the mosque and pulling up at a door of a building that I was slow to recognise. After a few seconds I realised I was at my hotel, in one piece and with a grinning driver holding his hand out for his cash even as the doorman was fussing around my door. I shook the driver’s hand with relief, handed over his money and climbed out. He clattered off in his dusty old Renault and I entered my decrepit hotel – another story altogether.

Safely delivered. It was a good start! But I drew comfort from the homework I had done. It meant each decision I made was a risk assessment exercise based on good information, while my orientation across the city, while not perfect in the dark, meant I was not about to do something I would later regret. On edge, ready for anything, but remaining composed and collected. It meant I enjoyed a unique destination, connected with locals and achieved what I had set out to achieve.