Thursday, June 09, 2011

Libya before the war: part one

Sometime last October I got an email from a company I've never heard of called Bestway Tours. I had met them at a trade fair and had complained that the Libyan government was discriminating against American tourists since we had reestablished relations in 2003.

Well, after seven years, the State Department had finally gotten the then supreme leader Colonel Mommar Gaddafi to issue visas to American tourists and Bestway was going to be one of the first to send a group over there... Would I like to go?

Of course I would! One thing on my bucket list was to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, and you can't do that without going through Libya. Besides, the lure of the forbidden called to me. This trip was going to be really expensive, but dammit, it might be my only chance. Looking back, it very well might have been for a long time to come.

So I took it.

From the start, there were problems. First there was the visa. On a number of occasions in previous years, Libya had announced that they were going to start issuing visas and then reneged at the last minute. It was even more troubling when I was told that we wouldn't know whether or not we would get them until three days before we were due to take off. This spooked quite a few of the group. The large number of people who originally expressed interest began to drop out. I didn't know how many until I got there.

I got the visa over the Internet. It wasn't like those you usually get from other countries that was pasted or stamped on your passport. No, it was a large document in closely spaced Arabic (they provided a translation), that I had to show again and again to various airline people to prove I actually was going to get into the country legally.

After a stopover that was just short enough that I couldn't get out of the airport, I finally got to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. I flattered myself into thinking I was going to be the first American tourist to get in after seven years. Nope. Two people were ahead of me on line. I got through customs with little trouble, and met my guide, an elderly gentleman named Mohammed. Then I found out how big my tour group was.

There was me and this other guy. That was it. Of the 15 people who were going to go, 13 chickened out. Fortunately, they didn't charge me extra for the single supplement.

So there were four of us: Me, Mohammed, the other guy, Bobby, and our driver. It was going to be a surreal experience.

Libya has had a surprisingly large tourist industry. Once you're there it's not hard to see why. The southern coast of the Mediterranean was the nicest place in the Roman world, and the Greeks and Phoenicians before them had done a humongous amount of building before the great tsunami of 365 AD turned everything to rubble.

Then the Vandals came, then the Byzantines took it, and finally, the Arabs. The tribal Berbers gave up on civilization, and no one really cared about the ruins enough to use them as a quarry. So you have some of the best-preserved Roman cities there in Libya. Gadaffi's sons had decided that luxury tourism can be profitable and gives the country a good image. So except for Americans, rich archeology fans were welcomed with open arms. Ports were built nearby so that cruise ships could dock and dump lots of money on the Gaddafi family, which would trickle down to the locals.

Bobby and I would take the standard, authorized tour of the archeological sites, most of which were approved by UNESCO as official World Heritage Properties. Who knew that the timing would be so perfect?

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