Gunshots and Peacock Shrieks in Bou Saada

Back in May, we were part of a caravan down to the desert town of Bou Saada, known for being an oasis between the mountains and vast desert. Adam and I departed Algiers with our Norwegian friend in the back seat and joined up with the convoy, members of which were mostly diplomats from various countries, which meant we’d have Algerian authorities leading and tailing us the whole way. After a few early stops on the side of the road for roll call from the Algerian police, it became clear they were worried about not being able to account for Le Norvege, who was tucked away in our back seat, so us kidnapping a Norwegian became a fun joke for the rest of the trip. Even more so when we forced our hostage to listen to an hour-long podcast we’d saved just for him on a Norwegian phenomenon that he already knew well about but that shocked us: Norwegian public TV broadcasts “slow TV.” Like really slow TV: A four-day fjord cruise where the camera is mounted on the bow of the boat; a 8-hour slow roast of pork where the camera is mounted in the oven. Norwegians love it, apparently. I think I get it.

After driving for about four hours, with all the annoying stops on the side of the road while the next town’s police force waited for us to drive us to the following town’s police, we arrived to Bou Saada. I noticed a pickup truck (the ubiquitous-to-this-region old Toyota HiLux) that looked to be carrying several generations of family members driving erratically in front of us, honking its horn. I realized, with a start, a long shotgun hung casually from the driver’s left arm against the driver’s side door of the truck. “Ummmm, that dude has a gun,” I said to Adam and our Norwegian hostage when suddenly – BOOM! – he fired the gun and it was VERY loud, fairly close to our car, and the bullet kicked up a ton of dirt and gravel as he abruptly got off at an exit. It was an alarming welcome to Bou Saada and my first read of the situation was “We are not welcome here.”

But when our multi-car caravan pulled up in front of our hotel – a pretty tile-front structure in the middle of dusty but kind of charming street – there were two gunmen on horseback giving us what I learned was a traditional Bou Saada welcome: Deafening firing of blanks. Nothing says “rest your feet here, oh weary traveler” like trying to find parking and pulling in your suitcase amidst dusty air and frantic horses and painfully loud gunshots, but also wanting to take photos of this spectacle.

The entire weekend was planned by our Dutch friends, who are the social epicenter of what’s become a very fun international friend group in Algiers. The Dutch are leaving very soon and they’ll be missed terribly. One very special and decadent thing that these friends have started: They always hire local bands for parties. And this weekend was no different. It was a smorgasbord of music, including the chill-yet-energetic desert vibes of Imarhan, a band who’s often on mine and Adam’s Spotify playlists at home. It was so cool to see them in person. And just for our private party!

The hotel itself was pretty nice, but the outdoor oasis in the desert was VERY nice, lush with palms and all sorts of gorgeous flowers, a beautiful pool, storks flying over, and even a few resident peacocks.

On the second morning, Adam and I arranged for our American yoga teacher from our time in Morocco (who has since joined the Foreign Service, actually) to Zoom in and lead a yoga class. It was lovely to do yoga in the hotel’s outdoor space, and the best part was when Alex of Yoga Raha instructed us to open our mouths and make whatever noise comes out, the peacocks joined in with their musical shriek.

One day we had a group lunch to Fromagerie Kerdada, and I was elated to find out that there are delicious cheese in Algeria, as I am always on the hunt for good cheese. And while Algerian cuisine hasn’t really done it for me, I did finally try the spicy tzviti that I’ve heard a lot about and I can confidently declare it to be my favorite Algerian dish. It is basically bread cooked in some veggies and a spicy tomato sauce and served (just for show) a tall wooden bucket. The cheese and butter at this place was excellent, too, and I really like the addition of date syrup as I’m all about that savory and sweet combo.

I went to the museum of Nesreddine Dinet, a French painter who fell in love with North Africa, converted to Islam, and lived in Bou Saada. His paintings are luscious and beautiful (especially one with female nudes that is reportedly only shown to foreigners) but as is often the case in museums that were also the studio of the artists, I was more interested in the building itself.

Following the museum visit, I joined a group who was touring around the town. Not a whole lot to see, but I enjoyed the pale yellow desert hues and slow pace of life.

One of the major highlights of the whole weekend was we all went out to the desert dressed in our “desert chic” outfits, traipsed over sand dunes, took tons of photos in that magic light, and sat down for a meal in the Sahara Desert, which is an experience that just never gets old. The gun-shooting horsemen were there, of course.

After the night in the desert, most of us spent the following morning relaxing at the pool until after lunch, and we then drove back to Algiers, where we hit a crazy dust storm that meant our car looked even worse than normal for weeks until I finally washed it. But you can’t go to the desert without getting a little dusty. Or without losing a bit of your hearing from gunshots. Gunshots that turned out to be a desert welcome, not a menacing warning sign.

To Bou Saada,

Emily

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