So it came to pass that I was invited along as a guest of Aviareps representing Afriqiyah Air (Libyan Airliner) for an educational (tourism geek-speak for a trip to show tour operators possible tourism dives and spots in a new location) in Tripoli, Libya and one or two surrounding places. Myself, 4 journalists and a bunch of tour operators were to make up the party of 23.
Never having been overseas, or having bothered to get a passport before (to the great frustration of my in-laws who annually want to take us to Mozambique or Swaziland just a couple of km's away from there hometown), I was faced with the task of getting a passport within a month. Well, I'm glad to report that not only did I get a temporary passport fairly briskly, but my permanent passport (which I turns out I need to get into Libya) was ready only 3 days after my temp one. Well done, Bellville Branch, Home Affairs. Not just that, but my whole application process took 25 mins. Not bad, eh?
So, fast forward to the 3rd of November with me arriving at Oliver Tambo, JHB, to meet up with the rest of the VIP's (hehe).
Marcus Brewster, publicist and travel writer, was also one of the Cape Tonians on the trip. Right about at this juncture it was decided that we shall take portraits of Marcus at any possible arch in Libya. Hence he became "Arch"-Bishop Marcus Aurelius. The latter being a famous Roman arch in Tripoli.
So 8 hours later and a leisurely sleep later (business class just totally rocks), we arrived at Tripoli International Airport and was ushered through customs, about 300 different security checks and a small but quick baggage claim, before we were introduced to our guide for the remainder of our stay, Shukri. My first thought as I came off the plane was: "this smells like Lambert's Bay". My guess is the early morning breeze from the Med brought some fresh kelp flavours along. Anyways, we were taken to our tour-bus and we set off to Tripoli.
On our way into town, we passed Muhamed Qadaffi/Ghadafi/Cadaffi's (not even in Libya is the spelling of his name consistent) compound. We were advised by our tour guide to leave our cameras alone at this time, as taking pictures there would be considered a security risk and you might get in trouble. We learned at the airport from a South African doctor currently living there, that security in Libya is strict and that they keep a close eye on foreigners. Qadaffi didn't stay in power for 40 years by being trusting, I suppose. Anyways, someone, possibly the tour guide, made the absolutely phenomenal suggestion that we should get coffee from a coffee place in the Italian quarter of Tripoli (picture Lower Main Road Woodstock). He assured us this is the best cappuccino in Libya. We arrived at a nondescript building, of doubtful structural soundness where men in suits and other early morning dwellers were getting their fix for the day. The small little coffee bar/kiosk was packed. No signs outside, no branding, no nothing. It turns out the establishment is called "the Taste" in Arabic, but only if you asked you would know that. So here word-of-mouth and good quality coffee made the difference. I proceeded to have (ok, maybe excitement and fatigue made my biased, but maybe not) the best cappuccino I've ever had. In fact, none of our local over-branded, yuppie, upmarket coffee joints have anything on this place. I also proceeded to have sweet lemon tea (yumm) and a yoghurt drink, which was not bad either. I'm still not sure how I ended up with three drinks. This was the beginning of a realisation that Italy through Musellini had a huge influence on Libyan culture. Everywhere people were sitting at corner cafe's watching the day start. Everyone was having coffee. Espresso, machiato or capuccino.
We passed some locals having their morning coffee, chatting away and checking out the goings on, before embarking on their own day.This all seemed very French to the others in our party who have travelled before. I really took to the sociable nature of the Libyans about then.
At this point we were guided to the National Museum (a bit of a propaganda palace for Qadaffi) with amazing Roman, Byzantine and Greek artifacture.( Oh, we took a wee bit of a detour past the money changing place, where the R6.50 bought me 1 Libyan Denarii. Or rather US$1 bought me 1.23 LD. ) The museam, previously military HQ, is situated next to Green Square, a big square, much like the Cape Town parade, next to the ocean and a promenade that looks suspiciously like Seapoint, and next to the Medina (old city).
Once inside it was clear that mister Qadaffi is boss. Well, it sort of became clear with the billboards everywhere showing him in a variety of comically cheesy stances and sunglasses on our way into Tripoli, I suppose. Not intended that way, however. Our man takes himself way too seriously. However, all the billboards were decidedly pro-African Union (an association that Libya is mighty proud off, and also chairs these days). Libya became a member of the AU in 1999 and is so proud of this that their national airliner's logo is in fact the number 99. We can learn something there, I guess. Anyways, I digress. Inside the museum we were met with pics ofel presidente with international leaders, and even in the run-down ablutions we found portraits of him. Later I would see portraits of him in restaurants, hotels, shops and more toilets. Ablution facilities in Libya is still a bit tacky, especially with the no-toilet-paper-and-hose-pipe-bedet set-up. And a pic of the president staring down at you.
One of the first exhibits is a 1940-something Wyllis Jeep, that allegedly transported the Leader of the Great Jamahiriyah (Republic of... ) on 1 September 1969, when he executed a successful coo by first taking over the national broadcaster (see, this dude knows marketing and publicity) and then only marching on the monarch's palace and forces. Another exhibit is his 1300 VW Beetle, which allegedly was his mode of transport up and until his sudden presidency. It is alleged also by some in our party that the Arabic number plates on his Beetle translates to "My VW", but we couldn't be certain, as we don't read Arabic.
Here our touring company is pictured in the Roman hall. Seriously impressive artifacts, statues (which however has been castrated for the sake of Muslim decency and law), mosaics and seriously old marble history make up this spot.
After a gruelling tour of some of the oldest artifacts I'll live to see, we were guided to the outside world again, where we were met by a Masters student of Economy or Tourism or the like, dishing out questionnaires about our experience of Libyan tourism. As we had about 2 hours worth of experience, I guess we were a bit of a waste. An interesting conversation with him, however, taught me that he would never come and do his Ph.D in South Africa as it was obviously way too dangerous a place to come to. The irony of this conversation did not escape me. A desert wasteland governed by a dictator is safer than our "Rainbow Nation"? He would rather go to Ireland. I realised again that South Africans are so blase about our crime-filled society.
The Green Square, in old Tripoli, with a "Tourism Security/Police" vehicle parked adjacent. It took me a while to figure out that the tourism police was not there to protect us from the Libyan populace, but rather to protect them from us. They were friendly and helpful enough. We were somewhat of a novelty, as most tourists in Libya are from North Africa, or parts of the Middle East. Only recently have Europeans started making turns there. Americans aren't big on Libya yet, and I sense the feeling is mutual.
We were then taken to the Medina, but more about that next time. I'm still 700 images down on processing, and I'd like to show lotsa nice images from our walks there. Also, I will steer away from the chronological narration of our visit, and rather share interesting tit-bits of our stay and some happenings.
To answer a question I got fairly regularly on my return: no, I didn't feel unsafe there. In fact, I've never felt as safe in my own security complex as I felt there walking around with R100k worth of gear on my back among street traders. Secondly: no, it wasn't hellishly hot, as it is their autumn now, and we had highs of probably about 30 degs and high 20's. Generally not unlike Cape Town in early summer. Oh, and to photograhers: the light over there has a very warm feel, quite possibly because of a high density of dust in the air due to the proximity of the Sahara Desert, and also fog from the Med.
Till next time, Salaam.