My first visit was on a gas tanker and it was to the port of Arzew. At that time we weren't allowed ashore because some months earlier two seamen had failed to return from ashore. They were never seen again and were suspected to be buried somewhere in the desert. Seamen did occasionally 'jump ship' but never in such an inhospitable location.
So, nothing of note then? Well there was one peculiar thing we did that I feel is noteworthy. We had a snowball fight. Can you imagine shirtless seamen in 100 degree heat running around throwing snowballs at each other, it was pretty good fun. So how was this done?
It was due to the cargo of methane we had on board. The pipes were frozen and up to 6 inches of snow collected around them. It wasn't perfect snowball snow but it did the job. A couple of years later I went back to Algeria on another ship. I wouldn't have been so annoyed at not getting ashore when in Arzew if I had been to the next port first.
Annaba was a whole different ball-game and unfortunately nobody told me the rules. It was a couple of years later and this time on a chemical tanker with a cargo of sulphuric acid. The problems in Annaba began immediately. With no facilities in Annaba itself to accommodate our cargo, a convoy of road tankers were organised, we would fill them directly from the ship and they would do a 40 mile round trip. It was hard to tell how many were used but I estimated four.
This unsatisfactory method of discharging cargo meant our stay in Annaba would be almost a week instead of just one day. Despite this I was in quite high spirits, being ashore in any foreign land was a privilege, an unsolicited adventure of sorts, and finally I would touch terra firma in Algeria. If I had known then.........
Algeria had disappointed so far but in Annaba shore leave was allowed. I actually managed one run ashore without getting arrested. It was nothing spectacular but I was just glad to get off the ship. The group I was with, went to various hotels to drink. We were drinking bottles of wine and became quite drunk but were in good spirits. Things changed a little when the next bottle was opened and an insect (cockroach?) was floating on the top.
After such a find, a different tactic was employed the next day. We decided to get semi-drunk on board then go ashore and drink cola. It was then I found myself in trouble. As if being warned by some divine source, mayhem occurred just as we were about to go ashore.
One of the road tankers came back but the driver had forgotten to close a valve. As the ship pumped the cargo into the tank it shot out the other end spilling sulphuric acid all over the quay. The mistake was noticed and the valve shut quickly as the acid fizzed angrily on the sandy quay (this was 25 years ago they may have concreted the quay by now, I don't know).
Not having studied chemistry, the Algerian dock workers thought it a good idea to hose the acid away. A cloud of vapour suddenly engulfed the whole area as the water and acid reacted violently. Seeing the cloud coming our way carried by the breeze, we covered our faces and ran through it to get ashore.
A few days later when washing my jeans, they came out of the machine with small holes all over them, as if they had been shot by a shotgun.
Ignoring the omens we went ashore but I only made it as far as the dock gate. By the gates was a police building where visiting seamen had to get their passes stamped before going into the town. Having drunk a lot of beer on board the ship, I felt the urge to pee. The pass stamping process was slow and my 'urge' became a 'must do and now'. Hand firmly clamped on genitalia, I hopped from one foot to another as I asked the Algerian police where the toilet was. They ignored me.
I left the building but only went 20 yards before the police came running after me. They dragged me back to the side of the building and pointed at the tell-tale wet patch. I was given a mop and bucket and it didn't take Einstein to figure out what the police wanted me to do, even with the language barrier. The irony was the Algerians didn't speak English and I didn't speak Arabic, but unknown to me I could have communicated via French which was the second language in Algeria. I knew enough from school.
It was a ridiculous exercise as I mopped up the sandstone wall of the building and the puddle on the loose sand below. Afterwards I was taken inside the building and dumped in a cell. The cell was completely bare. It was about 10' long, 6' wide, with a high ceiling. Opposite the door was a barred glassless window too high up to reach. It was the only source of light and ventilation. The heat inside the cell was intense and I took off his T-shirt.
On the floor under the window a gutter ran the width of the cell. Holes at each end connected to other cells either side. I looked at the cell walls and took a coin from my pocket. Scraping at the sandstone with the coin, it crumbled. I estimated I could dig my way out of the cell in a few hours. At that point I was still a little drunk and unconcerned about my predicament, I was just mad for missing out on a run ashore.
By now Algeria had certainly made an impression on me, but not a good one. It did however provide me with a tale to tell and something to look back at and laugh about. Okay I was wrong to piss against the police station wall but what choice did I have, what would you have done, just pissed your pants?
"They haven't decided what to do with you yet" he said hesitantly.
"How long?" I asked rolling my eyes.
"Six months, maybe"
Apparently the Algerians didn't just see my pissing against the wall as a need to answer the call of nature, the flag on top of the building led them to believe I was deliberately insulting their country.
"We're doing what we can" the Chief Steward assured me.
"Well do it faster!" up until then I had been just mildly pissed off but now I was fuming.
The Chief Steward went away and I tried to go back to sleep. It was then I saw water flush down the guttering and a turd sailed through my cell and out the other end. Jeez! Soon after a guard opened the door and passed me some mush in a tin bowl and a mug of water. I looked at the food which looked like some kind of rice dish. As I looked closer I saw it was alive with weevils. I decided to go on a diet, though I drank the water.
On the second day I had another visit from the Chief Steward who told me the Chief of Police was coming to the ship to see the Captain. I was starting to go nuts, I hadn't been let out of the cell at all. Again I refused the 'meal' I was given. It wouldn't do me much good eating the slop if I couldn't keep it down. The next time the 'shit-chute' was flushed - it actually looked as though someone was at one end throwing buckets of water into the guttering - the water stopped and I was left with a turd from who knows where in my cell.
That was the last straw, the next time it flushed and cleared my cell of neighbouring cells faeces, I blocked up the hole with my T-shirt and trainers. Time went on and I'd almost forgotten about blocking the hole up until I heard yelling coming from the next cell (I guessed there were three occupants), they must have been ankle deep in piss and shit, I laughed. I still had an inane grin on my face when the cell door flew open.
Three guards came in and saw what I'd done. I looked at them. Two skinny guys and a short fat bastard in charge. They started beating me with truncheons and though I fancied my chances on taking all three out, I rolled up into the foetal position and let them have at it. It was worth it.
I was let out the next day without incident. Apparently the Chief of Police had been bribed with 1000 cigarettes and 3 litres of whisky. I know this because the Captain told me it would be deducted from my wages. Of course I was also confined to the ship for the rest of the stay in Annaba but you couldn't have dragged me ashore.
On the ship in the crew bar I saw the 'Latest Betting' board where the 'sympathetic' ship-mates had speculated on my punishment. 6/4 for 6 months hard labour, 3/1 was a 1000 lashes, and it was 100/1 I'd get my dick chopped off. Thank God for corruption!
Would I go to Algeria again? What do you think.