Tripoli. Libya

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kym and I had our first trip away last week - Tripoli, Libya.  Austrade has a guy and his wife there so we went to see how it was all going for them.  Very interesting experience.  The challenges began before we left, as we had no visa - just a promise to be given one when we arrived and a visa number (due to Ramadan and then the Eid celebration the Libyan Consulate wasn't actually able to glue the visa into our passports).  Standing at the airport, finally convincing Emirates to let us on board, I found myself wondering - off to Libya, without a visa, what are we thinking!!  However, we were met at the plane by our man in Libya and his man from the office and after some standing about the visa was glued in and we were on our way into town.
 
The driving in Libya is pretty dreadful, in fact life in Tripoli is pretty tough on all fronts.  I found myself constantly being reminded of experiences from our other 3 postings, but here it was all happening in the one place.  They drive like idiots, and fast - wrong way up a 3-4 lane road, no probs.  Lots of accidents, we were sideswiped before we even reached the hotel (Eric also has an armoured Landcruiser, didn't seem to bother the battered little taxi though...), nobody bothered to stop.  The hotel was quite good, with a bit of a view to the old Medina (city) and the corniche (coast).  The rubbish everywhere was extreme - I have seen places with that much rubbish before, but not absolutely everywhere - the place could do with a recycling industry at the very least! Plastic is such a curse.  There were some interesting touches, like the 2 semi-submerged fishing boats in the harbour - left there as a reminder of the American bombing of Gadaffi's palace, and banners everywhere celebrating his 38 years delivering freedom and happiness to the oppressed (he has just begun a program to build housing for the poor, he must have had a lot on his mind these last 38 years). 
 
The weather was pleasantly cool and rainy after Dubai and the old centre, Martyrs Square or Green Square, (which I guess is named after the Libyan flag, a stunning piece of thoughtful design - it is plain green) has many dilapidated Italian buildings and small streets opening into little piazza's - some of the buildings are being restored and the area has great potential (found ourselves saying this a lot!) as it has a lovely European feel.  The local women wear traditional clothing with headscarves but we didn't see any face veils - the men in long tunics and pants. 
 
We had dinner at Eric and Cynthia's house with 4 of their friends - Dutch and Germans.  They were interesting to talk to and the German couple spent 6 years living in Oman and continue to go back there to go 4WD and camping so we picked their brains pretty hard.  There were plenty of war stories between them all - life is no piece of cake in Libya.  But they were all making the best of it and supporting each other, and the Dutch couple were on their 2nd stint in Tripoli and 20 years in the region.
 
Next morning Cynthia and I set off in rain with a driver as the boys headed to the office and a round of appointments - Kym was very jealous.  There was a lot of flooding in the streets, rain not being a particularly regular occurrence in this part of the world, and of course plenty of traffic accidents, which made for a slow start.  We traveled East for around an hour to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, which is a world heritage site I think (the notice was a little confusing and didn't mention UNESCO, but the 'community of nations').  This is billed as being one of the most impressive Roman cities outside Rome and it was truly magnificent, awesome and other big words.  To quote the LP guide 'It's a testament to extravagance with abundant examples of lavish decoration, grand buildings of monumental stature, indulgent bath complexes and forums for entertainment'.  And they are right - a huge site, a lot of the detail still present - large golden sandstone blocks, columns in red, green, white and grey marbles, detailed carvings and all set on the edge of the ocean which was, incidentally, running a very decent surf not often seen in these parts.  The sky brooding steely grey and occasionally the sun broke through causing the sandstone to glow. Wonderful colours - the sea either purple/grey or turquoise with golden, almost orange sand was a spectacular backdrop to it all.   First founded in 7th century BC by Punic refugees it came under Roman influence in 111 BC. There was a cruise ship in Tripoli and it's contents were at Leptis Magna - would have been nice without them but their blue and white umbrellas made them very visible and we managed to avoid them most of the time, having the place almost to ourselves.  We spent 4 hrs there - I wanted to spend 4 days.
 
Cynthia also knew of a Roman villa nearby, which is closed for renovation (it was discovered under the sand in 1974).  She had managed to talk the caretaker into letting her in once before and so we gave it a try - a small amount of money changed hands and we were in!  This was a very special experience.  To be wandering through a house where people lived 2000 years ago - beautiful mosaics on the floors and verandahs, murals on the walls, bathing areas, a children's room - some of the mosaics were made of tiny tiles half the size of my little finger nail - there was even a shower alcove.  The villa sits on a rock shelf right on the sea edge - the ultimate beach house.
 
On the way back we came upon a bad accident - it had only just happened - people were running to a bongo van carrying an injured and distressed child, and a large crowd of men were gathered around the car, rocking it quite violently - I guess trying to free the mother who was trapped inside, and who, I think, was already dead.  Quite sobering, but it didn't change the way the drivers continued on - all in the hands of Allah I suppose.
 
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the hotel, we met the men for a cup of tea and then had a quiet evening, everyone was tired.  Libya is a completely dry country, and although Kym laid claim to the only beer in the bar fridge, he was disappointed to discover it was alcohol free.  We had a lovely meal in the Asian restaurant in the hotel, accompanied by iced tea and felt the better for it next day (well I did).
 
Cynthia picked me up again next morning and we headed to the museum, which has wonderful statues, artifacts and mosaics from Leptis Magna, which added to the detail of the place.  It is a shame that there are only 2 statues on the site that we saw, but there is virtually no security and the whole thing is open to the beach.  I was told there is quite a problem with boats coming in at night and helping themselves. We had a short time in the souq in the Medina - not much there really and still a bit early for it to be fully open, but I bought a hand beaten copper pot from a lovely old fellow and a couple of silver bracelets from another guy - they were very friendly and spoke English. 
 
And that was that, another side swipe on the way back to the airport - not us this time but the car in front of us - uneventful but long trip back to Dubai - it is a 6 hr flight but on the return it goes via Tunis (further west) where we got to sit in the plane on the runway for an hour and a half, so it was about a 9hr trip.  A small amount of entertainment was provided by a passenger who was chatting up all the female cabin crew - he sounded just like Borat and at first I thought it was him.........but he tired after a while and we were left to a very ordinary entertainment system and what sleep we could grab - Emirates economy is no great shakes.  We arrived back in Dubai at 2am.  The airport never stops, 24hrs - there must have been at least 1500 people in the arrivals hall so immigration was tedious - people everywhere duty free shopping like it was midday - We were very pleased to fall into bed at 4am.
 
Tomorrow we are driving to Muscat, Oman, where Kym has a gig on Friday - not only the first day of his weekend but also his birthday so we decided to go together and make a trip of it for a couple of days.  The weekend here is Friday/Saturday and it is rather strange to have him go off to work early on Sunday mornings, but I guess we will get used to it.  Muscat is a 4-5hr drive, through the mountains to the Omani coast and then south along the coast to Muscat.  So that will be my next tale - hopefully not too hair raising or exciting - must remember to steer clear of the sand....
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