Timonium to Timimoun: A Very Algerian Christmas Vacation

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 | Timimoun, Algeria

Maggie, tour guide Bachir, and Mom atop a sand dune, watching the sunset outside Timimoun.
My mother could be living a tranquil, delightfully simple life in suburban America if it wasn't for the disturbances that her dear beloved son sometimes foists upon her.

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.
This didn't resemble the comfortable destinations we had chosen for our Christmas meet-ups the last two years (Lisbon and Paris). And it certainly didn't resemble life back in Timonium.

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.
Mom doesn't run, doesn't eat weird animal parts, doesn't camp out, doesn't get dirty. Those are the rules (along with a few others I'm probably forgetting), and Maggie and I have long since given up on arguing them. Timimoun was, therefore, a stretch for Mom, touching the edges of her travel boundaries, but she is a willing sport when it comes to our Christmas meet-ups. "I'll follow my children anywhere," she is fond of saying.

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.
Algeria is, admittedly, an unusual destination—and not just for Christmas vacation. Only a few thousand foreign tourists visit each year at all, by the most optimistic of counts. But after nearly three years here I have seen just how under-rated the country is, and learned a thing or two about what parts of the tourist circuit are most worth visiting.

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.
Since they stayed with me at the apartment, the ladies also had ample opportunity to experience the most intense and unforgettable element of my life here: Bourek.

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.
I was grateful for Mom and Maggie's visit. Not everyone back in Timonium or Boston would be willing to uproot themselves at the holidays and relinquish the comforts of home in order to travel to a destination as peculiar as Algeria. But the ladies were good sports. And now, after enduring some rough car rides, unwanted mutton dinners, and the attentions of one very affectionate puppy, they have returned home in one piece, with a few new stories to tell. Who else back in Timonium gets to tell their book club they spent Christmas in the Sahara desert?

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.


adagurl said...

awesome photos!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks Ada :) And happy new year to you.

PhillySusan said...

Andrew, loved seeing your photos and hearing your side of the story. I am also of the "soaking in the sights" school of travel. Thanks for taking good care of our innkeeper.

Unknown said...

Great story! and you captured your mother beautifully ..."I just love doors!" Happy New Year.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Hi Susan and Meredith! Great to hear from you both and glad you enjoyed this account of our trip. Happy new year!

Unknown said...

it s always a good time with the family wherever around the world!! hope you enjoyed

Hadjer said...

"I have seen just how under-rated the country is, and learned a thing or two about what parts of the tourist circuit are most worth visiting" I've been there dear...Andrew you've a very interesting fascinating style of writing. It's not only informative it's also "Ibn Battuta-like". You strike me as a true explorer with the very interesting anecdotes you tell much like "Al Jahiz" as well."Rocky in some places, and elsewhere covered in sweeping dunes combed majestically by the wind".... Readers could also get to enjoy the adventure with you and even laugh at the funny moments you shared and reminisce about how they felt like in other moments. I enjoyed your articles about adventures much more than usual...was taken by the imagery you use...very beautiful. thanks for the adventure now I'll get back to real life :

Nassima BERRAYAH said...

You must visit National parc Tassili n'Ajjer... specifically Djanet :)

Unknown said...

Happy new year Andrew you and your family. Hope this year will find you with a good health and spirit. So proud of you and so happy for your amazing work here in Algeria my country. Wishing to you happiness and success. I hope that if I have a chance I will meet you and thank you for this great work. God bless you

Unknown said...

Happy new year Andrew you and your family.wishing to you success and happiness. Thanks so much for your work here in Algeria my country. I'm so delighted to hearing that. And I'm proud of you. God bless you. I hope if I have a chance to meet you I will to thanks you for this great work. Cheers you up from Algeria and hope that this year will find you with a good health and spirit

Unknown said...

Happy new year Andrew. Thanks for your work here in Algeria my country. Wishing to you happiness and success in your life. Cheers you up from Algiers. Hope that I have a chance to meet you and thank you for this great and amazing work. God bless you. Thanks

Anushka Sharma said...

I read your full blog and it was very informative, and helped me a lot. I always look for blog like this on the internet with which I can enhance my skills, Thanks for letting us know! Travel is my passion! Love to attend the conference. I really want to go there Travel Agents in Delhi

Rayane said...

I really liked this page it's all about the family. I loved your family including bourek, i also liked the photos there's definitely your touch in them. I hope that your family had a great time here in Algeria and enjoyed, and i hope they come back again ,with other visitors as well. Thank you for the work you're doing. :-):-):-):-)

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