For my first journey of 2014, setting off in February, I had done quite a lot of planning in advance. I had arranged Couchsurfing hosts all the way down through Germany and France.
My first new country was Liechtenstein. I had arranged some Couchsurfing for a few days with a Ukrainian student, studying at a university there. I slept on the floor of her room. I also talked to some other students there, all from different countries.
Liechtenstein is strange in that it occupies one side of a mountain range. It’s only from neighbouring Switzerland that you actually see Liechtenstein. From the country itself you look out to Switzerland.
I found some good walking there by dint of exploring. The first afternoon I found some intriguing marked trails leading up through the forest. The next day I continued up. It was late winter, the snow had gone from the lower slopes and signs of life were appearing in the forest, notably pink gentians*. It was wonderful to see. It had been a long time since I’d climbed any mountains (there are only minor escarpments in Oxfordshire). I felt so good, like I was twenty years younger. (This was, as it turned out, only the beginning… ). The third day I climbed up to the edge of the snow. My intention was to hitchhike back down the road. I was only wearing Crocs, and to get to the road I had to wade through about 50 metres of snow. It was a painful process, fortunately I avoided frostbite on my feet.
Coming down I had two lifts from real Liechtensteiners, so then I get a bit of a taste of local life. In a way it felt a little bit like an island here, seeming that across the river which marks the boundary there was not land but sea.
I had arranged some Couchsurfing in Menton, on the southern coast of France, primarily as a base to visit Monaco, because I had no luck finding any in Monaco itself. I had arranged to meet my host at the bus stand in Menton. He turns out to be a young man tremendously tall. We took a bus up the hill to a village called Castellar from where we walked to a remote cottage. The first night he was pretending that he lived there. But the second night I found out that the house belonged to a family friend, and he was allowed to use it. It was a very nice spot, quite close to the Italian border.
When I was Couchsurfing in Menton I spent a day in Monaco. It was quite interesting to walk around and just see what was going on. There was a very nice walk along the coast too, and also some gardens. I was happy to find some nature there even in this highly built up place.
My final night in France was in Marseille, with a hospitable, well to do family, in their big house. The room was very smart and everyone was very polite. It was very interesting seeing how the father and the son got along together. The man who was always smart seemed a bit stern at first, but he had a very apt sense of humour which struck me as very French.
From Marseilles I took a ferry across the Mediterranean to Oman in Algeria. Most of the passengers on the boat were Algerians, some of them had masses of luggage, I ended helping one lady getting onto the boat. It was a full day and night’s journey. Everyone was very friendly, one lady even offered me a bunk in her cabin for the night.
I had arranged four Couchsurfing stays in Algeria. The first was in Oman where we landed. The young lady was waiting for me outside the port. She lived alone in the family house, as her mother had since died. Her father lived somewhere else. She was engaged to be married. It was a fully arranged marriage by her father. Anyway she said she was very happy with the man her father had chosen. She wasn’t allowed to meet him indoors, only outside in public places. She had a small shop selling clothes, in which she employed another girl, and sometimes I met her there.
The next day I wander around, finding a way up a hill. Here I meet with three friends who had come there for the day from another town. Then I am walking around with them. A and her father had arranged to visit *’s sister in Algiers. So we set off very early one morning in the car along the motorway. At a certain junction we rendezvoused with my second Couchsurfing host, *, who was quite a different character to the quiet and respectable elderly man who was A’s father. * was an experienced Couchsurfing host, the one who had sent me my letter of invitation for my visa. He told me he usually asked guests to bring him a bottle of whisky, as he quite liked drinking. He had travelled a bit in Norway too. I got on better with his wife and sister who lived next door and worked in the city. One day I went with her in her car, and looked around for the day.
From Algiers I travelled by train to L, where I met my third Couchsurfing host. The stay had been arranged by a man called *, but when I got there it turned out I was to stay with his friend (I should say girlfriend), who lived with her parents. They were a very friendly family. One afternoon the father drove us up to the mountain in his small car. We drove up to where there was snow, and they took some photographs. There were quite a lot of others up there too, doing the same thing, and it was quite slippery coming down on the snowy road – but we made it. On the Friday Nesrine’s father went out, as was his custom, in the morning to a coffee house to meet with his friends, whilst Nesrine and her mother (I think her sister was there too) did a ritual cleaning of the house. Then for lunch they had a special traditional dish which they had with yoghurt drink.
The next place, Constantine, I stayed in a hotel, though even there I met up with the local Couchsurfing representative, Ramy, and walked around with his friend. There is a spectacular viewpoint at Constantine, and a few places beyond where I met a man who was pretending to be a policeman.
My final Couchsurfing was at Tougghourt. I wasn’t really in the full Sahara there, but it was getting more like desert. I decided to go there by train; though there were practically no other passengers, it seemed most people preferred the bus.
This was a similar situation to that in *, in that it was a man with whom I had arranged the visit, whilst I stayed with a young lady, B,who lived with her parents. In fact I never met Redha, as he worked in the oil fields in the desert for three weeks at a time, and he was currently away. (But for several years afterwards I used to chat with him on Facebook, until he got married after which he became less active in social media).
My hostess was a young lady called *, she was a teacher at the local school, a very smart and intelligent lady. When dressed for outdoors with her scarf and coat she looked almost middle aged, but without it, inside the house she appeared younger, still she seemed a very mature 22. I could see her parents were very proud of her. * wanted me to go to the school with her in the morning. So I went and helped with some of the classes, which turned out somewhat less organized when I was there. Everyone was very interested to see a foreigner in their town. In the afternoon *’s father drove us around a bit. He owner a date plantation which he had inherited from his father. But the dates were no longer harvested, and it just got used by people for picnics. He was considering whether to build on it. I told him, no he shouldn’t, it was nice to have some trees around the town.
After I left Redha asked me to write a piece about Tougghourt, which I did, and he translated it into Arabic. It was a novelty for Tougghourt to receive foreign visitors.
From Tougghourt I travelled to a place near the Tunisian border where I ended up staying quite a few days on a hotel as I caught a bug. Maybe it had something to do with the stress of being a constant source of attention when Couchsurfing. In Tougghourt there had also been a severe dust storm and I may have got sand in my ears. As a consequence my ears became blocked so I couldn’t hear my own voice when I was speaking, so I didn’t know if I was shouting or whispering.
As a consequence of staying the extra days I needed to change more money, which you did in the market. When I had changed money in Algiers, my host’s son had taken me to a certain part of the city, and you changed it through the window of the car. He was very careful to find a particular man, as he said some of them gave out fake money.
I’d forgotten about it. But after I’d changed some money in the market I look at it in the hotel, and I see that the notes were not at all as finely printed as others I had. However it wasn’t too obvious, and as I’d got them to pay my hotel bill that’s what I did. The receptionist knew me well enough by then, he didn’t even count it, just took it and put it in the drawer.