There have been a handful of times when I’m been traveling around Algeria and I ask “Where is the bathroom?” and I can just see a spark of panic flicker in the eyes of the person I asked. They would prefer if I didn’t need to use the bathroom. Like the time in the desert town of Bechar when my seemingly simple request to use the toilet at a university involved a car ride and a climbing up multiple sets of stairs past what looked like suitable bathrooms, only to finally use a bathroom that had no running water. Once I darted out of our car at a gas station somewhere halfway home from Bajaia to run to the loo after many hours in the car, which totally panicked the police escorts. “Where’s your wife?” they asked Adam. “It’s not safe for her to go in there!”
I recently traveled to Constantine on a work trip to visit an American cultural center, located inside of a university. Constantine is known as the city of bridges, but I sadly caught the merest glimpse of those gravity-defying bridges suspended over deep gorges, and didn’t take a single picture. It was a rather traffic-clogged day and we didn’t have much time in town. After our visit to the university, my colleagues and I arrived to the Ottoman-era palace of Hajj Ahmed, the bey or ruler of Constantine during the 1820s. I needed to use the bathroom. After all, I did leave my Algiers house at 6am, fly on a plane, had multiple coffees, and here it was nearing 3pm. Once again, my request to use the bathroom seemed to worry everyone and involved an administrative person leading me to what I think was a bathroom reserved for palace staff. To my mind, in order to be considered a bathroom, the facility in question must contain two of the following five amenities in addition to a working toilet: a sink with running water, soap, toilet paper, a bathroom hose, a wastebasket. This bathroom, although pristine, contained NONE OF THESE THINGS. There was a toilet that didn’t flush and nothing else. I was tricked into a panic-inducing and rather traumatizing situation of having a group of people waiting for me outside of the bathroom for a tour (a tour which would be photographed and possibly placed on the museum’s social media) and me inside contemplating if I should throw the toilet contents or myself from a window.
I will save you some details. Details that lingered throughout the tour of the extremely pretty palace. As I looked at the timeworn but still vibrant hand-painted murals depicting Hajj Ahmed’s journey to Mecca and tried to pose cute in front of stunning stain glass windows, I had a hard time getting over what might go down in history as my worst foreign bathroom experience. And after living for 10 years abroad in places like Yemen and traveling to places like India, Sri Lanka, Jordan, and many more, I’ve had my share of doozies. The trick toilet in the Constantine palace takes the urinal cake.
Soon after, we were en route to the town of Batna, two hours south of Constantine. I was starting to recover. The gorgeous clouds sure were nice. We had a nice dinner (grilled fish for me) and I crashed hard in my hotel room after a rather long travel day.
The following day, two of my colleagues and I met up with Youcef, a Batna native, for a tour of a few super impressive Roman-era sites. First, he took us to ruins of a castle.
Then we visited the Lambese Museum, a small museum in the center of Batna with an astounding number of Roman-era treasures.
I darted into the restroom on the way out of the Lambese Museum. It was a hole-in-the-floor type of situation with a door that didn’t shut all the way, but honestly, I’d seen a lot worse. That you could dump water from a bucket into the hole in the floor already made it a vast improvement over the previous day’s non-flushing trick toilet. I really didn’t think another thing about it and we were off to Timgad.
Timgad is a massive former Roman city, comparable to Jerash in Jordan. Especially cool was an amphitheater with one perfect little spot where you can hear your own voice echo throughout. It was a beautiful sunny but crisp day and I really liked traipsing around such a special site.
This was a Friday afternoon, a time when many things in Algeria shut down as it’s the most important prayer time of the week. Youcef took us to a little Algerian diner for lunch and I engaged in my usual “Does this contain meat?” Q&A with the waiter.
“Does this soup contain meat?”
“What about the broth?”
So I ordered what felt like a safe bet: A frite omelette sandwich. It is an omelette stuffed with french fries and served on a baguette. My Algerian colleagues and Youcef seemed to find this order funny and I wasn’t sure why. I added some spicy harissa, some mayo, and it was pretty tasty. We made our way to the airport, and flew back to Algiers, arriving home just in time to put on a polyester dress, a colorful silk scarf, some big glasses, and head to our French friend’s 1970s themed party.
A few days later, another colleague at the embassy alerted me that a Batna journalist had penned an article called “A Bucket and a Frites Omelette” that detailed a “high-ranking” (lol, categorically false) American who recently visited and was horrified at the state of the bathrooms in Algeria (that’s the bucket part) and the lack of vegetarian options (the frites omelette). The article basically asks if Algeria is ready for tourism if this is the state of things.
My first thought was oh great, in which other country does one’s embarrassing bathroom mishap make the freakin’ local paper? But as our intern translated the article for me line by line, I realized no one could have known about the bathroom at the palace and the article was referring to the hole-in-the-floor potty and bucket situation at the museum. Momentarily relieved to know that there are not hidden cameras in the bathroom in the palace, we moved on to the next part: The frites omelette. Which is when other colleagues told me that a frites omelette sandwich costs about 100 dinar, or less than a dollar. It’s the cheapest thing on the menu, she said, and thus it’s not worthy of serving a guest, especially a “high ranking” official. (Side note: Can I tell you how much I love working in an office with mostly Algerians as they’re always ready to explain all matter of cultural differences, answer my “How do you say…?” questions and generally clue me in when I’m clueless). I’d have made the situation better had I ordered a local dish, but the problem for me is most of the local dishes served in restaurants are stewed meats or meat-filled soups. Algerian cuisine does indeed contain a lot of vegetarian dishes, but these are considered too humble (ie inexpensive) to serve in restaurants.
For the record, I do think Algeria is ready for tourism. Yes, the public bathroom situation could use an upgrade, but I actually think the restaurant options are not bad. The history and natural beauty are wonderful. And I’ve said it before, Algerians are some of nicest, chillest, most open and generous people I’ve come across.
I’m not mad that someone used my trip to ask questions about Algeria’s infrastructure, or paint me as someone who goes to the bathroom a lot. (I swear it’s a normal amount). A storyteller myself, I can’t begrudge someone telling a story about me, and I find the whole thing quite funny — I mean look at that adorable caricature on the newspaper article and the headline is lol. I expect “A Bucket and a French Fry Omelette” will go down as one of my favorite cultural differences/living abroad tales.
To having a newspaper article written about you using the bathroom,
You have a wonderful eye for the details most of us would ignore, but which illuminate cultural differences in a down-to-earth, delightful way. Keep sharing!