“You should get out of the country,” the embassy official was almost begging me now. Calmly, he explained that I just needed to stay where I was. A special car would be sent, and I’d be whisked off back to the airport and flown away. I was warned of the immense dangers of travelling in Algeria, including the capital, Algiers. When I told him I was heading into the southern desert, I heard what sounded like a nervous breakdown on the other end of the line. He described Algeria as a country on the edge of collapse, and made the Sahara sound like Mad Max; but with more camels and less skin-tight leather. I conceded to the point about the camels, but emphasised that for now, I just needed to find an ATM.
Moments later I hung up the phone, after promising to be in touch. Being urged to catch the first plane out wasn’t the advice I had hoped for.
I had arrived in Algeria a few days earlier with enough money to last a month, and a debit card to pay for a flight I’d booked with the national airline, Air Algerie. Unfortunately, crisis struck when I arrived in the Algiers airport, only to find that the airline apparently didn’t have access to electronics. “Broken,” is what I was told by an Air Algerie clerk when I tried to pay for my flight with plastic. After trying a handful of offices around Algiers, I discovered that sure enough, foreign debit, credit or any other types of cards were not going to be processed by the country’s largest airline. Cash was the only method of payment. Unfortunately, after hitting up half a dozen banks around town, I discovered that foreign cards were not welcome anywhere. Every bank would recommend trying a different bank the next street over, and for hours I was led around town by the promise that the next ATM wouldn’t yell at me in robotic French to get lost.
I had even tried a handful of up-market hotels. In a country made famous for all the wrong reasons, the exteriors of most expensive hotels looked more like fortresses than luxury resorts. It was an eerie experience crossing no-man’s lands of barbed wire, roadblocks and sandbags to reach the gate of a high class hotel, and ask private security if I could try their ATM. I would be eyed over suspiciously, before being buzzed in. Past the gates bristling with defences, each time I found a netherworld that seemed strangely divorced from the bustling streets outside. Inside, the lobbies dripping with rich décor, with gentle classical music drifting on an artificial, air-conditioned breeze. I’ve developed a phobia for the lairs of the economic elite, but I was desperate to pay for my flight, so I braved the shiny, squeaky floors and complimentary breath mints. Yet even in these islands of decadence, the ATMs still spat out my card, and I would be escorted by tuxedo-clad staff back onto the street with nothing to show for my efforts except a pocketful of mints.
After my phone conversation with the embassy, I consigned myself to one last bank, which according to a legend circulating in diplomatic circles, accepted foreign plastic. Clutching the address in my hands, I followed a winding road through Algier’s wealthy, hillside suburbs. Below me sprawled the city centre- a mass of crumbling French colonial architecture huddled in a broad, glistening bay. Despite the image of Algeria usually portrayed abroad, the country is stunningly beautiful, and its capital is no exception. The first people to be drawn to this picturesque bay were Phoenician traders in the 3rd Century BC. For ancient merchants, the site was perfectly placed in the centre of the Mediterranean, with plenty of shelter for wooden galleys. Today, central Algiers is a mass of decrepit remnants of French occupation, dotted with memories of Byzantine and Ottoman rule. I soon found that the imposing basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique made a great landmark for navigating. Perched on a hill above the city’s ancient casbah, the basilica is one of Algiers’ most distinct icons, and a surprisingly impressive example of neo-Byzantine architecture.
Yet even with the basilica to navigate with, I still couldn’t find the legendary bank. Eventually, I came to a roadblock, manned by a handful of soldiers. I asked one of the grunts if he knew where the bank was. After peering down at the address I’d scribbled, he started barking orders at the other soldiers. Two more troops rushed over, and before I knew it I was being shoved into an olive-coloured van. The driver adjusted his beret, put on some rusty sunglasses and sunk his boot into the accelerator. It was yet another awkward moment, as I started pondering what exactly was going on. While we bounced down the street, the soldiers started asking me all sorts of questions about how I liked Algeria, where I was from, whether I liked pizza and just how much I hated European imperialism- you know, the usual get-to-know-you small talk. Then, just as I was starting to relax, the van lurched to a stop outside a bank. Brandishing their rifles, the soldiers jumped out the van, dragging me along. Sunglasses man gave me a nod and a pat on the shoulder, adjusted his beret again and left. Finally, with the aid of the Algerian army, I had found an ATM that would accept my card. At least, that’s what I thought until I tried to use it.
… It was out of order.
A few days later I dumped a paper bag stuffed with about two kilos of cash on the counter at an Air Algerie office. My family back home transferred me $200 for the flight, which in Algerian dinars translates to around a dozen bricks of faded notes. Even after having an awkward conversation with a diplomatic official, braving the up-market suburbs, descending into the terrifying world of expensive hotels, gawking at the basilica and hitching a ride with the Algerian army, my Algiers ATM adventure had one last stop. To collect the cash for my flight, I had to pay a visit to one of the world’s most incredible post offices: La Grande Poste d’Alger. Smack in the middle of town, this enormous post office looked like a whitewashed brick from the outside, but within seconds of passing through the front doors, my jaw dropped. Inside, the entire structure was etched with stunningly intricate designs. “It’s all so beautiful,” I gasped as I wandered around, peering at the minute details bleeding from every exposed surface, tears running down my face. Meanwhile, everyone else stared at me; it seemed as though nobody else knew that most post offices aren’t works of art. Eventually someone asked if I needed a doctor, and a few minutes later I left clutching a suspect-looking paper bag.