|Maggie, tour guide Bachir, and Mom atop a sand dune, watching the sunset outside Timimoun.|
Mom lives in Timonium, a suburb several miles north of the rather rougher Baltimore City neighborhood where she raised me and my sister Maggie. She works at a nearby Catholic girls' school. She goes to book club every week, the gym every day. Her street is quaint and suburban, the lawns all perfectly manicured. The only pedestrians are joggers, dog-walkers, and hop-scotching, jump-roping, bike-riding, unsupervised kids. Every second car that drives by is either an ice cream truck or a fire engine going to extract a kitty cat from a tree.
At Christmas, every window in Timonium is trimmed in festive lights. But rather than enjoy the holiday peacefully at home like her neighbors, Mom accepted my invitation to visit me in Algeria. Maggie joined from Boston. And so several days before Christmas we found ourselves squished into the back seat of a 4x4, careening across rough desert roads and jolting over sand dunes deep in the Sahara.
|On the outskirts of Timimoun, narrow lanes trail off into the palm groves.|
No, this was Timimoun, an oasis town in the heart of the Algerian Sahara that resembled Timonium in name only. Known as la ville rouge for the red color of its traditional mud-brick construction, the city is surrounded by wide stretches of date palm trees and beyond them, the desert. Rocky in some places, and elsewhere covered in sweeping dunes combed majestically by the wind, the desert looked harsh and inhospitable even in winter. Come summer, midday temperatures here top 50°C (122°F) for weeks on end.
Out of the 10 days that Mom and Maggie spent in Algeria, we passed four in Timimoun, following an amiable local tour guide named Bachir around his town's prime tourist sites. Bachir cloaked his tall frame in a traditional robe and blazer. With his head covered in a white chèche wrap, only his weathered hands and face were left exposed. A white streak of perfect teeth split his face each time he smiled, which was often, as he greeted friends everywhere we went, like a small-town mayor at a little league baseball game.
Bachir led us on foot through the markets, museums, public squares, and palm groves of Timimoun, explaining everything from local holiday traditions to irrigation practices to architecture in his well practiced French. As we wound through the old town's sandy alleyways, I translated his explanations while fiddling with the knobs on my Rolleicord, Maggie snapped pictures on her phone, and Mom dawdled behind, head cocked back in childlike wonder. Every few minutes, Maggie or I would realize she was missing, look back and call her. But Mom prefers to soak in the sights slowly, and gives little importance to keeping up with her long-legged offspring. "I'm not running," she would say when she finally reached us.
|Maggie posed beside a (rather unnecessary) road sign indicating the presence of sand in the desert.|
As for Maggie, she doesn't bat an eyelash at a desert vacation. A budding globetrotter in her own right, she has racked up some impressive notches in her traveler's belt in recent years, even going to some destinations I would not dare attempt. (The Bahamas? I shudder at the thought!) But seriously, when she hacked it for several days last year in northern Mozambique—a place that tested even the limits of what I was willing to endure—she definitely proved her mettle. And she had already come to Algeria once before, on a short trip to Algiers the previous year.
Maggie's biggest challenge is food. As a vegetarian, she is accustomed to the struggles of finding meat-free options in places like Algeria, where vegetarians are a foreign species. She has learned to pick her way through perilous menus—as well as the inevitable meat dishes she is often served by bewildered chefs. (Mom, though omnivorous, relied on my French to navigate the menu. So she felt betrayed when I divulged, on the last night of the trip, just how many times she had unknowingly eaten mutton.)
|We spent the day after Christmas touring the Roman ruins at Tipasa, a UNESCO World Heritage site.|
Besides walking tours with Bachir, our stay in Timimoun also included several 4x4 outings to outlying villages and points of interest in the surrounding desert. Along the road's plainer stretches, Bachir kept us entertained by telling old tales or trying to teach Mom to count to 10 in Arabic (a project that met with limited success). Between the excursions, we relaxed back at our hotel, the Djenane Malek, in the café overlooking the palmeraie. Maggie and I took several walks in the palm groves below while Mom stayed back and read. On our final night, the hotel organized a concert by a local gnaoua music troupe, some 20 drumming and chanting men strong.
Apart from the visit to the desert around Timimoun, I hoped to show Mom and Maggie the life I live and the sights I love in and around Algiers. We perused the streets, monuments, and limited shopping options of the capital. We joined my good friend Karima for a family lunch outdoors in the unseasonably balmy December weather, shopped for groceries and baked Christmas cookies, and spent time with my friends at a lavish Christmas Eve dinner and cocktail party. We explored the Casbah—where Mom tried to photograph all the doorways ("I just love doorways!")—and toured Tipasa, the Roman ruins that ring a gentle bay of the Mediterranean east of Algiers. We had a drink on the terrace of the Aurassi Hotel, overlooking the city, and a farewell dinner at Djenina, the capital's best traditional restaurant.
To help Mom and Maggie make sense of what they were seeing, in our downtime I showed them some essential films—The Battle of Algiers and L'Algérie Vue du Ciel. Though I did my best to brief them and offer frequent explanations, throughout our touring Mom asked questions I could never have anticipated. "Do they have laundromats here?", "Do Algerians eat whole wheat baguettes?", and at every new destination, "How did you hear about this place?" (She asked this question with such frequency that within a few days I had developed a standard response: "In the Yellow Pages, Mom.")
|In Algiers, I tried to show Mom and Maggie some of my favorite downtown haunts.|
My rescue project, now aged six months, had by this time nearly acquired the strength of a full-grown dog without losing any of his puppy energy. Together, we tried to sap that energy as much as possible on non-destructive activities each day. Usually this meant taking Bourek for a morning walk or several, though the love he developed for Maggie often inspired him to overcome his fatigue and continue to annoy her well beyond the limitations of his typical nap schedule. When Maggie donned the Christmas present that Mom bought for her—fuzzy sheepskin slippers—Bourek was officially head over heels, and followed Maggie everywhere, nipping her at every waking hour. Colossal effort, many treats, and many takes were necessary to achieve the appearance of shared Christmas joy in the photo below—and even then, it lasted only for an instant. Ah, the holidays with family!
|Bourek the elf-dog would like you to know that he participated in this holiday scene under protest.|
More of my Rolleicord photos from their trip can be found in my online albums (Algiers 2015, Timimoun 2015, Tipasa 2015) or in the coming days on my Instagram account.