Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Losing Company and More Thieveries
We also lost the girls that day, though not to the Arabs.
They had planned to go farther with us, as far as Tunis, but the delays had put us so far behind schedule that they were already due back at their hospitals in London.
I felt very sad as I watched their steamer sail for Marseilles. Though ours was hardly a trip for women, those Kiwis had borne up beautifully. Where other girls would have constantly complained about the sun, the sand, the beds, the food, the bugs, and the flying crabs, Barbara, Mira, and Liz seldom lost their high spirits or good humor, proving a credit to their country and their calling.
In the morning we’d been eight, by evening we were only five, and I found myself wondering about those. As for Al and me, I knew that, one way or other, we would finish the trip. But Willy was disturbed about the slow progress of the expedition and some of the unexpected hardships of the journey. With Manu, it was a case of money. He had received neither funds nor word from his publisher. And with Woodrow, it was a question of health. Unable to adapt to the demands of life on the road, he was often ill and frequently homesick, and had begun to talk about leaving us in Cairo. All this with the worst of the trip to come.
Sometime during the night, as we slept, our camp had a visitor, an uninvited visitor who cut the cover on our small storage trailer and stole a suitcase loaded with wine r clothing, mountain-climbing equipment, and spare photographic equipment worth more than $500. We reported the theft to the police and they turned it over to the army, but the army was less interested in catching the thieves than in learning what a bunch of Americans were doing camped on a beach with ropes and crampons and telephoto lenses. We were released only after hours of interrogation.
What with the belligerent wildlife, the thieving visitors, and the antagonistic political atmosphere, none of us were eager to remain in Algiers; but we had to stay two more days because the cracks in the trailer needed welding, and the generator on the Jeep had burned out and needed rewiring.
It was incredibly difficult to find anyone to handle the jobs because almost every skilled auto mechanic and machinist in the country had either been killed or had fled back to France during the war which had taken 130,000 lives and exiled a million. We went to a dozen gas stations, but that’s all they were-gas, oil change, and a grease job-with not one mechanic at any of them. After hours of searching, we found a welding shop and a man in it who could rewire our generator.
“What do people do here if something really goes wrong with their cars?” I asked him. “What if they have trouble with the brakes, or the steering, or if the valves need to be reground? Who takes care of it?”
- Photo caption on page 99 of the printed publication.
After we were burglarized one night while camped on a beach near Algiers, Steve tried to explain the situation to two Algerian army investigators, but they were more interested in who we were than tracking down the thieves.
“If you look on the street,” he said, “you will find your answer. Hundreds of cars sit idle and their owners have to go on bicycle or by foot. When something breaks it is finished. There is no one here who can do the work, and there are no parts to do the work with.” I asked him what the government was doing to prevent this.
“They are putting up signs telling us to be patient,” he sighed. “They are broadcasting on the radio we should tighten our belts. They are writing in the newspaper that land reform is coming, that the first years of the socialist revolution are always difficult.”
“And do your people believe the signs and the radio?” Al asked.
“In the beginning, we believed. In the beginning we were so happy to have independence we believed anything. But now we see things are not as we would like. Ben Bella is doing things we do not want. We want to be peaceful, to grow prosperous, to enjoy our neighbors. But Ben Bella has other ideas: he wants to be big man in Africa and he wants Algeria to be big power. He makes friends with Nasser, with Russia, with China. He thinks he uses them, but we think they use him. Once we were at peace with our neighbors. Morocco and Tunisia were our friends, and helped us win our independence, but Ben Bella has made them our enemies. We had no quarrel with the Jews until Nasser persuaded Ben Bella to join his Arab League. We are only partly Arabs, and we are not Communists-we don’t want Nasser and we don’t want the Russians and we don’t want the Chinese. We are what you might call a Mediterranean people. Our strongest ties are to the Mediterranean and to the French. However we may try to deny it, we are still French in attitude and behavior. We have driven the French out, but we keep their customs. We like their way of life, their culture, their attitudes. We do not want to be driven farther from them. We should make friends again with our neighbors and with France and live in peace and prosper.” “That makes wonderful sense, but why aren’t things working out that way?” Al asked. “Ben Bella!”
“If the others are as unsatisfied as you, I imagine he’ll lose the next election.”
“With Ben Bella there will be no more elections. He will make himself dictator and try to stay president. No, there is only one way, a coup d’etat. I only tell you this because you are Americans, and I am sure you have no great love for Monsieur Ben Bella. He will not be president for long. Within a short time he will be dead. We have planned well and we will overthrow him soon. But I do not think it will be safe for foreigners in Algeria when the revolution comes.”
“How can you overthrow him? His palace is surrounded by hundreds of soldiers with machine guns. You wouldn’t have a chance,” Al said.
“I have spoken too much already, but you will see … We will overthrow him very soon, before the Conference meets here. The Conference is a Chinese trick to take power in Africa. We will not have it. As for his guards, have no fear, for the army leaders are with us. There, your generator is finished.
I hope you have a good journey. And remember, leave Algiers as quickly as you can. I hope ours will be a happier country the next time you are here.”
It was probably wishful thinking, but we decided not to take any chances: we’d make tracks for Tunis in the morning.
Though we doubted the robbers would return to our camp, we realized it was possible. So as not to be caught unawares again, we stuck forked twigs in the sand in a circle around the cars and storage trailer, and ran a piece of string through them to a can full of rocks balanced on a twig in a hole under the camper beside which Al and I unrolled our sleeping bags. If anybody approached the equipment, they’d trip the string and rattle the can enough to wake us.
It was black and cramped under the camper, and I was sure the flying crabs would find us, but we managed to fall asleep. Hours later I heard something, but it wasn’t the can rattling: it was someone unzipping the windows of the Land Cruiser. Al was also awake, Blackie’s .38 at the ready. We slipped out from under the camper and got into position.
I flicked on the lantern. It caught three mean-looking Arabs, their arms full of our supplies. Al shouted at them to drop the stuff.
One of them did, but all three ran into the dark. We gave chase. Al warned them to stop or he’d shoot. But they kept running. He fired twice into the air, but they kept going.
Then he fired at them, trying to hit their legs, though it was difficult to see in the moonless dark. On the third shot I heard a groan and thought I saw someone fall. Together we rushed to the spot. There, on the beach, next to a flying crab, was my safari hat and our binoculars and some of our clothing. The sand was torn up, but we could see three sets of tracks moving up the beach, the one in the middle dragging, and here and there a spot of what looked like blood.