Libya week: a rapid trip ten months ago (part 1)

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Part 1 of The Rapid Traveler’s November 2010 trip, see also parts 2, 3 and 4.

Libya looks finally to dispose of Gadhafi and plunge into hopeful uncertainty. Last November The Rapid Traveler visited Libya. It is a country little-known beyond Gadhafi and Pan Am flight 103, but was once a thriving breadbasket of the ancient world. When peace pervades and Libya opens, tourists will rave at is treasures. To contextualize the events flashing on cable news, the next several days at Rapid Travel Chai will be devoted to a brief glimpse into a country that had the eerie quiet of totalitarianism. The story begins in Zarsis (Jarjis), Tunisa

A LandCruiser rolled up, leather-clad driver Kamel and my guide, Ali, hopped out, both with the slicked curls popular in Libya. (I embarrassingly confess to forgetting my guide’s name despite being able to picture him clearly; for convenience I call him Ali in this piece.) They had driven overnight from Tripoli. Before the desert they trolled the Tunisian markets for fruits and vegetables, remarking on the low prices and better quality than in Libya, an early indication of the economic misery wasteland ahead.

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The border was humming with French senior citizens piloting several dozen French classic cars on a trek from Africa’s top to bottom. Oh do I envy the French ability to vacation! Our crossing was uneventful, Ali saying some days it takes several hours, others a breeze. Back in the US it seemed a little worrying when I was asked to check that my name was written correctly in Arabic for the visa application, but the visa on arrival was correct.

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Qasr al-Haj

Government policy requires foreigners to be have pre-approved itineraries and always be in the company of a guide and driver. An expensive proposition for a lone traveler, so I scaled back my original ambitious itinerary, cutting out the Greek ruins (Cyrene, Apollonia and Ptolemais) and World War Two battle sites (Benghazi and Tobruk of the Cyrenaica in the east and the jewels of the Fezzan and Sahara, the Ubari Lakes. In retrospect, Libya was such a grim place that I am glad I only had a brief taste and got to explore spectacular Tunisia, where I could roam free.

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First stop was to sample the centerpiece of modern Libya’s cuisine: Turkish pizza. Not bad when diminished by two weeks of French-style breakfasts. The town had a hint of the mercantile bustle typical of border towns, but seemed more like a town after the railroad had gone another way.
The Jebel Nafusa, Libya’s barren northwest, is thinly peopled, only a few towns with distinctive Berber architecture. The great highlight is oasis Ghadames but limited time required a pass. Stunning circular fortified granary Qasr al-Haj was the consolation, with one hundred fourteen rooms over four levels. Other sites, such as Tarmeisa, were more crumbling than captivating. The day was still young and I crashed into the government itinerary restrictions. Nalut and Kabaw were tantalizingly close, but the only way to obtain permission would have been to drive to Tripoli and return with new documents. Nothing left but to pout overnight in Yefren, a deserted hotel to match deserted streets. Dictatorship is dull when not on a rampage. Tomorrow held the promise, though, of Roman Sabratha.

For trips to Libya, Sabri Ellotai of Sabri Tours is the expert and is back in business as of September 2011, ready to welcome tourists.

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