Sometime last October; I got an email from a company I’ve never heard of called Bestway tours. I had apparently met them at a trade fair and had complained that the Libyan government had been discriminating against American tourists since we had reestablished relations in 2003.
Well, after 7 years, the State Department had finally gotten Gaddafi to issue visas to American tourists, and Bestway was going to be one of the first to send a group over…would I want to go?
Of course I would! One of the things 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 was going to be really expensive, but dammit, this might be my only chance. Looking back. It very well might have been.
So I took it.
Already, it seemed there were problems. First there was the visa. Libya had announced that they were going to start issuing visas on a number of occasions in pervious years, and they always reneged at the last minute. This was even more troubling when I was told that we wouldn’t know whether or not we would get them until only three days before we were due to take off. This spooked quite a number 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 is 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 the various airline people to prove I actually was going to get into the country legally.
After a stopover that was just short enough so that I couldn’t get out of the airport, I finally got to Tripoli. I flattered myself into thinking I was going to be the first American tourist to get in, in 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’s 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, who’s name was Bobby, and our driver. It was going to be a surreal experience.
Libya had a surprisingly large tourist industry. Once you’re there it’s not hard to see why. The south coast of the Mediterranean was the nicest place in the Roman World, and they, 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, and then the Byzantines took it, and then 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 a bunch of some of the best-preserved Roman cities there are. 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.