Suspended in Constantine

  The two halves of Constantine cling on to either side of a massive gorge. They are united by a number of spectacular bridges and the newly built cable car system. The roads from the coast to the city, wind up the mountainside through rock carved tunnels, hanging out over sheer drops to green fields far down below. If Constantine existed in almost any other country than Algeria, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, there is virtually no tourist infrastructure.

  After checking in to the (not so) Grand Hotel, we went in search of the presumably shared bathrooms. It was easy enough to find the slightly smelly squat toilets but the showers were harder to find. There was a good reason for this - they didn't have any. There was a sink in the room and a bidet (with no water) - we would just have to improvise as best we could.

  As we went out to explore, we noticed that there was more women around than in neighbouring Annaba. All the cafes were still filled exclusively by men, but there were plenty of clothes shops for women and many of the younger ones went without headscarves. We made our way up through the busy, narrow shopping streets towards the monumental Sidi M'Cid suspension bridge, overhanging the gorge. Apparently, this is a very fashionable place for young Algerians to commit suicide. If you were going to splatter your shattered body across a pile of rocks you might as well do it in style. Bored looking young men hung around, dangling their legs over the precipe. Some of the houses closest to the edge seemed to be slowly sliding in and had clearly been abandoned. Other houses, in equally precarious positions, still had laundry hanging out of windows.

  We crossed over to the other side and traipsed up to the Monument of the Dead. This seemed to be a popular area for young couples to sit together, hand in hand. Veils would be discretely lifted for inquisitive kisses. My wife was approached by three schoolgirls (two with veils and one without) who seemed particularly curious and friendly. After the usual questions in broken English and a quick photo together, they joined us in queuing for the newly built cable car. It only cost a few pence and seemed to make sense as public transport in such a mountainous city. We joined another unveiled girl in the cable car. She looked more French than North African, had long curly blonde hair and wore tight fitting fashionable clothes. As we were pulled away and hung out over the abyss, she caught my eye.
  "Do you think this is funny?" she said.
  I began to worry that she might think I was laughing at them.
  "No" she said, "do you think this is fun?"
  Slightly relieved, I told her that Constantine had spectacular views and that the people were very friendly. This seemed to please her.
  "I love England", she continued.
  "Oh" I said, surprised, "have you been there?"
  "I love Princess Diana".
  "Eh?"
  "I love the Queen. She has hair like mine."
  This conversation didn't really seem to be going anywhere but we exchanged email addresses with everybody in the cable car before departing (I have yet to receive any emails from any of our new friends but I did write down the email addresses in quite a hurry and my writing is quite bad). The fact that young women would come and talk to us was actually quite encouraging. In some Islamic countries you only ever speak to men and many of the women remain hidden away.

  Later in the evening we ventured out again to find somewhere decent to eat and something to do. This wasn't wildly successful. There seemed to be remarkably few places to eat and even less entertainment. When the trendy young things in Constantine weren't throwing themselves off Sidi M'Cid Bridge there seemed to be very little for them to do. There didn't seem to be anywhere to go apart from a few terrible fast food places. We eventually settled on one of these places - it looked no better or worse than the others - and ended up with greasy undercooked grilled chicken and some anaemic, greasy chips. Most of our fellow diners - all men, of course - continued to stare at the old TV in the corner (showing what looked like Series 3 of Prison Break) while we unenthusiastically picked at our 'fast food'. Other than in hotel restaurants, I have to say that most of food in Algeria was rubbish.

  The next morning we had to decide how to deal with the absence of any showers in the 'Grand' Hotel. We filled up a mineral water bottle from the tap in the room and then poured this over each other while standing over the (non-functioning) bidet. I was careful to first pour a small amount of water into the bidet to make sure that it was actually plumbed in (following an unfortunate incident with a urinal in China I've become quite wary of incongruous bathroom fixtures). As clean as we were likely to get, we backed our bags and attempted to get a taxi to the bus station. Thinking that we had done quite a good job of explaining where we wanted to go, we were surprised to end up at the cable car station. My wife then attempted to mime driving a bus and when that failed drew a picture of a bus on her hand. By now, I was thinking that it might have been a good idea to have learnt a bit of French ('How much is it?', 'What's my name?', 'Where am I?' etc). It's all very well for Girls Aloud to just 'let the funky music do the talking' but that won't help you find the toilet. The taxi driver eventually dropped us right next to the bus to El-Oued - handing back the extra money we gave him to make up for wasting his time - and within minutes we were on our way to the Sahara.

 

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