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  aving spent about a week in Tunisia, a time of which I hardly remember more than the delicious Couscous we ate at small native restaurants, we continued by bus to Algeria.  
  n Algiers, Algeria's capital, we had to apply for the required visas for Niger. I remember this well because in the embassy building I stood too near to an electric heater. When I started to smell something burnt, it was too late, I had a big hole in the beautiful new dress I wore, which I had sewn myself shortly before leaving.  
Algiers street scene

We didn't spend more time than necessary in Algiers either, a busy, bustling metropolis where traditionally clad Algerians mixed with their westernized, French speaking compatriots.

  Traveling further southwards through Algeria, again by local transport, we passed many small towns. What struck me as remarkable, if not outright shocking, was the amount of drunks encountered in a country supposed to be Islamic. Some were actually lying in the roadside gutter: the perfect Arabic version of French clochards.  
overnight stop at an oasis
Our next stop was to be a place I had been looking forward to: Ghardaia, the ancient city at the gateway to the Sahara, set in a rocky, rust-colored landscape, spread out over seven hills and renowned for its holiness. At least that was what I had read about the place.
the bus we traveled by
  n first sight, the small town indeed looked like nothing much had changed in the last couple of hundred years. Bearded and turbaned men calmly went about their business, only few women were seen, tousled children peered from dark alleys and sad eyed donkeys tiredly nibbled the few blades of dry yellow grass growing at the roadside.  
  We soon found lodgings in a small inn, whose elderly proprietor looked venerable enough in his traditional garb to have us neglect locking our bags when we left our tiny room to have a look around town.  
  Feeling hungry, we first set out to find some restaurant. This was not so easy, nothing visible looked in the least like an eatery of any type. In a few buildings where the usual turban wearers could be seen holding drinking cups, but a quick look inside revealed nothing resembling food.  
Trying our luck with some passerby, we followed his given directions through a labyrinth of mud-walled alleys and passages, accompanied by a group of squealing kids. Finally we ended up in front of a big, closed door. Looking around, our escorts amid giggles mentioned for us to knock on the door, which as a result was duly opened by a rather astonished looking young man. We explained to him about our need for a restaurant, which as it turned out was not at all what that place was. Somewhat embarrassed, the man conveyed to us where we had arrived: At: the local brothel.
  Not exactly what we had expected to find in such a holy place! Now feeling embarrassed ourselves as well, we made for a hasty departure. Following the next lane leading in the direction of the town's center we ultimately found some small restaurant and had a simple lunch.  
Ghardaia, photo: web
  Back at our lodgings, to our dismay we discovered that our bags had been rifled through and a valuable golden cigarette lighter, a present of my mother in law whose initials were on it, was missing, together with a few trinkets we had brought along for presents. Calling for the owner of the hostel and confronting him with the theft, that infidel son of a sharmurta only grunted something, shook his head and returned to his desk. Well, so much for those pious looking elders!. We soon discovered that those places we saw them gathering at actually were bars.  
  he next morning we felt like having a good wash at the local hamam, to get the dust out of the pores of our skin. When I knocked at the heavy wooden doors of the women's bath though, I was told by the caretaker to come back in the afternoon; as the mornings were reserved for prostitutes.  
  I'm glad though I did eventually return later in the day, albeit the hamam was a rather basic and murky place, nothing like the domed marble constructions of Turkey with their artfully shaped and embellished basins, their arches and nooks, it was remarkable for the gorgeous women and beautiful children populating it. Feeling quite the ugly duckling I sat amidst those statuesque goddesses with their fiery eyes and black locks, their skins gleaming in rich tones of olive and copper, laughingly applying mysterious pastes to each others limbs. Children squealed while being scraped with pieces of the fibrous loofah gourds by grandmothers with pendulous dried breasts.  
  Sitting on my slab of stone, engulfed by a atmosphere heavy with hot steam and the odors of wet wood and clay, of bodies, henna and cheap soap mixed with the strange vapors of other, unknown ingredients hinting of secretive procedures and exotic potions, amidst a great deal of hubbub, laughter and shouting, I experienced a great longing to belong, to take part in the intimate female rituals of cleansing and beautifying happening all around me, passed down over millennia from one generation to the next.  
  One or two women approached me to inquire where I came from, to ask my age and if I had any children, but their dialect of Arabic was very different from what I had picked up in the Middle East, so any attempt at further conversation was futile.  
  aiting in the queue at the local bus station to buy our onwards tickets on the following day, there was another theft: a small transistor radio was stolen from our pockets. Ghardaia truly is the strangest "holy" place I've ever visited!  
  Generally I wasn't overly happy about the way of things  in Algeria, it was shockingly different from the Islamic countries I knew and loved. I had previously been to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I had always admired the general honesty and high morals of the inhabitants of those places, apart from the exceptions found everywhere.  
oasis along our route
  urther south we continued, passing hundreds of miles of barren desert dotted with the occasional hamlet or small town; down to Tamanrasset in southern Algeria.  
  There are no date groves in Tamanrasset, and just a few trees. Perched nearly a mile high in the Hoggar Mountains, it is the boomtown of the Sahara. Northerners criticize it as an austere place, where Islam is practiced strictly, alcohol is forbidden, and Arab women, even veiled, rarely venture onto the streets.  
The oldest building in town is a small adobe fort with crenellated walls which looks like a set piece out of a Foreign Legion movie. It was built by Charles de Foucauld, a French religious hermit who came here in 1905 to live among the fearsome Tuareg. At the time, Tamanrasset was an encampment of twenty straw huts. Foucauld, intending to found a monastery, chose it because of its isolation and poverty. He was a bit of a nut, and drew no followers. During the First World War various Saharan tribes revolted against the French, a faint echo of the European struggle. Foucauld took sides and began sending reports to the French colonial army. On the night of December 1, 1916, the rebels lured him out of his stronghold, bound him hand and foot, and shot him in the head.  
  After the war the French built a larger fort across the way, and Foucauld joined the French pantheon as a Catholic martyr in the cause of colonialism. The Foucauld myth still accounts for much of the tourism in Tamanrasset.  
  It was in Tamanrasset we saw the first of a series of small tattered posters and flyers attached to walls in small eateries and other public locations, bearing witness of Europeans tavelling by car who had gotten lost in the desert. A photo and the date where they'd seen last, often a long time ago, was all that was left.. Every now and than, the sun dried corpses of such unfortunates were found, whose cars bhad broken down or who just had lost their bearings and ended up in some forlorn valley far from the route they were supposed to travel on, running out of water within a few days.  
  We spent a very cold night sleeping out in the sand at the town's edge. To continue onwards, into Niger, we bought a ride on top of an old truck loaded with sacks of dry dates. We shared our means of transportation with about a good dozen local men and a also a young French couple.  
truck like the one we travelled on; photo:web
  Several times a day the truck stopped and all passengers descended to relieve themselves, to brew tea and eat some frugal fare.  
X and myself on top of the truck; on the right: the French girl
  ride of two days brought us to Ingal, a forlorn village of mud houses in Niger's Ténéré desert. Deciding on this to be the appropriate place to buy camels and start our adventure, we bade farewell to the French couple and the other fellow travelers. Eager with anticipation, we collected our bags and left the vehicle, which disappeared, obscured by a yellow cloud of dust, in southwestern direction.  
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