Friday, August 13, 2010

True, there aren't many airports in the desert

It's true, there aren't many airports in the desert. All the more reason, then, that you'd expect the locals to be able to give you directions to the nearest airstrip. My driver gave up asking. "They're from El Oued, they're all in-bred. Look at their hands, they've got toes instead of fingers. They don't even know what a plane is, they only know how to shag camels". Zahir paused before concluding: "And they're as ugly as the devil". 

"What, the locals?"

"No, the camels".

"Thanks for that, Zahir. And a good-looking camel, what does that look like?"

Zahir came over all French - his shoulders sighed "bof" - as he focused his attention on doing what Algerian men do best in life: scratching his balls. 

I got out of the car and sought out some local knowledge.


"Aéroport? Aeroporto? Aeropuerto? Um, Flughafen?" 


"The nearest brothel, please?"

El Oued

Unamused, the El Ouedians carried on walking by as though I was the crazy one, as though it was me who had toes instead of fingers.

"David Beckham?"

"Ah, Mister Beckham! Come to my house for a mint-tea and meet my daughter - very nice daughter. Strong thighs, sturdy hips. Wants to see snow and kiss David Beckham". 

"Ah, you speak French! Where's the nearest airport please? It's supposed to be a couple of kilometers from here".

"El Oued, this is El Oued. Welcome to El Oued. Welcome to my country".

"Yes, thanks, very kind. I'm looking for the airport - airplanes. You know, nnnnowwwww... " I stretched my arms out wide like an albatross, made plane noises (obviously), whirled around a bit and pretended to be a plane... obviously. 

A crowd gathered.

And then a bigger one. Lots of shouting, too - I couldn't understand a word, except (I think) some old bloke shouting indoors to his missus: "Oi, Margaret, come out here, there's this nutter pretending to be an albatross - an albatross in the desert, can you believe it? Bloody foreigners".

A chap with teeth and shoes appeared and everyone fell silent: "Mister White Man, what a bald, white head you have. I am the mayor - I am the mayor of all El Oued. All El Oued. Welcome to my country, welcome to El Oued. I am here to serve you. What is it that you desire?" 

Fantastic! Perfect French! "The airport", I pleaded, "Do you know where the airport is, please?"

"Which one?"

"Which one? There are two?"


"How many are there, then?


"Okay, okay... Do you know... Do you know what an airplane is?"

"Patronising git", I could see him thinking. "Mister White Man, we are not stupid here, we are not like the people of Ouargla... "

"Yes", I interjected, just to get my own back on Zahir, "where they all have toes instead of ..."

"Exactly. I know what an airplane is. That, for example, is one over there".

He took me by the hand and led me around the corner of the building.  Less than three miles away across the flat and dusty desert, sitting in splendid isolation on the sand, was an airplane. And next to the airplane was a tower topped by a radar dish. 

In the "old days", when I first arrived in Algeria, I would have scratched my head repeatedly and tried to work out what this mis-communication was all about. Now, I just clapped my hands, smiled as wide as possible (showing all my teeth, just to rub it in), shook everyone's fingers and exclaimed: "Magic, magic! I love your country!"

My new friends pushed the car until the engine spluttered into life and waved us off to the airport, "El Oued International Airport - Gateway to the Sahara" according to the weathered sign that greeted us on arrival.

Zahir, taking one look at the policeman manning the road block, spat: "Pay me now, I'm not going in there".

"But I need to get some change to pay you properly".

"Bugger properly. It's okay just give me 20 instead of 30. Bye".

"Um, okay, nice meeting you... " 

God, it was hot. But it was an airport, there was a terminal, there was some shade, I had some water. I sat down on my bag and tried to get some sleep - or some rest at least - until the plane arrived, although I was pretty sure she wouldn't be on it. Some more police arrived. I smiled and waved hullo. Some more police arrived. I smiled again. They started shouting at me; nothing unusual in that - it normally means nothing. What was strange, though, was that these policemen all had teeth. These were proper policemen. What are they doing here in the middle of nowhere?

To be continued


  1. Don't policemen have teeth in the south of Algeria then? They certainly do in the north but I suppose it's another world in the Sahara - never been there. Are there any British tour companies that operate there?