Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Algeria 2012: VIP escort

Just a little side trip, very quick!
Uh-huh, kidnapped again.
And we're off to a neighboring village, where we tour the new hospital. They call it a hospital, but it's really a small clinic treating emergencies, obstetrics, and children.
It's a nice place, light and airy and clean. This is in great contrast to the last time I toured an Algerian hospital service, in 2004. There the ceilings soared but the plaster was crumbling everywhere, the paint peeling on every surface, the floor tiles cracked, patients 4 to a room, or packed in 12 to a ward. A hygiene nightmare, impossible to clean try as they may. This is a good start; I hope they maintain this beautiful new building. 
It's maintenance that's the problem. The Algerian state has buckets of oil money to finance new buildings and highways. But once constructed (and often badly constructed), there's little interest in keeping anything nice. Whether a hospital or a residence for visitors, or the spanking new university we just had our meeting at. The whole culture needs to change, and not just at the top.
We are met by the director of the clinic, who is thrilled to show his establishment off to such distinguished guests. In the kitchen a table is set for 6, and naturally we stay for lunch. A quick lunch. Couscous, light as feathers. No meat, please, we prefer to eat lightly after days of feasting. Then yogurt and fruit. They're phoning for us (again!) from the Residence. Our ride to Algiers is ready, so we don't stay for tea.

My rug has been packaged up in a "suitcase" of tough, clear plastic. I toss in the heavy picture book of the region, the paperback guide to the region, and the boxed plaques comemmorating the congress for both myself and my boss. The rest goes into my backpack, with the sack of dates as hand luggage. I have three times as much stuff as when I arrived.
Our luggage goes in one car, Remy and I in another. We are told to wait just another 5 minutes, please. More waiting?
Two police cars show up. They are our escort, sent to clear the way.
Oh, my. We really are VIPs. It's hard to accept that sometimes. I'm just a regular person. I have an American passport, yes (whose value I barely appreciate), and a certain expertise in my domain. I don't feel I've done much to merit all the pomp and accolades.
We don't get on the freeway right away, perhaps to give our escort the opportunity to get the sirens and horns going as we elbow our way through a neighboring town. Then it's on the Chinese-built freeway for an hour with nothing much to do. The countryside here is a lot like Arizona, around Flagstaff.
This whole freeway, from Algiers through Bordj and Setif toward Constantine, is built by foreign contractors. The Japanese did a section which is very nice. Some parts of the Chinese sections are cracked and uneven already, and who knows what the good-looking parts will be like in 10 years.
I wonder why they Algerians don't just build their roads themselves. Millions of people here have nothing to do. They might have to bring in some engineers if they lack expertise, but how much training does it take to perform the bulk of the work?
We come to a poorly-built section, and it's hard to believe it's a new road, or that local labor would have done any worse. The next section is under construction still, and we see the fenced camps where the Chinese workers are housed. Nothing there but barracks, dirt and barbed wire.
The traffic is shunted off to a heavily-used 2-lane road that follows a long river gorge. Our escort now has something to do as we put on a show of sirens and lights and elbow our way up the center. The road is 3 cars wide. Two cars and a truck if it's not too close to the drop-off. But not two trucks and a car. Fortunately, there isn't too much oncoming traffic.
At the top of the canyon, we pull over to change escorts (which change every time we cross a regional boundary), and wait for the relief team. All the cars we just passed, pass us in turn. Children wave at us.
Nearer Algiers there's more traffic, and our new front car drives as if he's on his own. It's all our driver can do to keep up with the weaving in & out, but the way is still fairly clear and our baggage car manages to keep up too. For the last bits we have a motorcycle escort, and here things really get nerve-wracking as they blast their way through what are now 3 divided lanes of cars, trucks and busses, where nobody pays much mind to the lane markings. We have plenty of time to catch our flights - there's no reason to push our way through like this.
Make way! Make way! Professors coming through!
The luggage car falls behind and is lost in the tide of traffic. They take an extra 20 minutes to join us at the airport parking lot.
And that's it.
More goodbyes, more promises to return, and Remy and I are airside with time to kill.

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