Welcome back: North Africa part 1

ancient and ornate north african doorway

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Nine hours to kill in the airport. I hunched over a Burger King coffee and read.

Traveling dehumanizes people. We turn into frantic, herded animals. Carrying our belongings with us everywhere: hanging over-stuffed carry-ons on wimpy bathroom stall hooks (and watching in helpless horror as a scarf or jacket slides to the floor), propping our feet on suitcases to pretend we’re relaxing when we’re really just looking out for our stuff, and even getting desperate enough to sprawl across the grimy airport carpet and rest our head on the knobby bulk of our backpack. I have done all of this, so I know. I also know about frozen water bottles and trying to eat my lunch before I check into an international flight… just in case they try to confiscate my hard-boiled eggs.

Seven hours on an overnight bus just to wait 9 hours in the airport. But I was feeling surprisingly human. A cup of coffee and a good book can do that, I guess.

A couple of hours later, I touched down in North Africa, only a little queasy. Not enough to use the handy baggie I was gripping. But just enough for the man across the aisle to eye me nervously.

I had the equivalent of $3.35 in my pocket when I emerged from the airport—not enough for a taxi. And the 40 cent bus was pulling away. I waited for an hour with a diverse crew of other penny-pinchers.

As the bus seats filled, I chatted with a young family that piled into one seat beside me. The 3 children were almost as charmed by me as I was by them.

“Auntie, how long are you here?” Ilyas, the oldest boy asked.
“Until Thursday.”
He was crushed. “So we won’t see you again? You won’t have time to visit us?”
“Ilyas.” His mother took him by the shoulder. “We have her here—” she tapped his heart. “And here—” she tapped his head.

When they got off the bus, someone rapped on the window behind me. Ilyas was there, grinning and waving his final goodbye.

Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the heart of the city. The landmarks had changed since I had lived there and it was hard to stay oriented in the dark. I missed my stop.

I jumped off at the next stop and walked, hoping to find a place to exchange my euros. But exchange stores had closed early this Saturday night. So had phone stores.

At random, I popped into a tiny store and asked the owner if he had any SIM cards. He pulled a box out of a dusty drawer and dug through it until he found one. He was scrawling my passport number on a scrap of notebook paper when I remembered I didn’t have enough of the local currency.

“No problem,” he assured me as I emptied my coin purse on the counter and offered to pay in euro.
“No problem. How much do you have?”
Together, we totaled $2.95—five cents short.
“No problem!”

Since he didn’t seem to care, I decided not to care either.

With my new number, I called my former roommate and made a beeline for her house. She wasn’t home yet, but had left the key with the upstairs neighbors. A short chat and a key later, I entered the apartment to find that I had been much anticipated.

Handwritten notes were stuck all over the house, guiding me to my bedroom, the shower, tea, and waiting food. After almost 24 hours in transit with very little sleep, such a welcome brought me near to tears.

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