Libya is a country that if you had asked any of us a year ago if we would be traveling there on this trip, the answer would have been a flat out “no.” Due to the ever changing situations there and also in Syria, our route changed and on August 1, we found ourselves on the Libyan side of the Libya/Tunisia border…a place that few Americans have ever been.
Getting to this point is no easy task as we had to convince Tunisia to let us out of the country. The border between the two nations is officially closed and the Tunisian authorities did not believe that we would be allowed entry to Libya, thus potentially stranding us in “no-man’s land,” but well within sight and earshot of them. After talking with them on July 31, they agreed to let us spend the night at the border and would let us pass the next morning. Though, the next morning took some more convincing and finally we were allowed to cross.
Upon arriving in Libya, we found that because the borders were “closed,” there were no customs officials or really anyone of any capacity to take care of our carnets, insurance, declarations, or even passport stamping. Due to the fact that we are Americans, we have to have a guide, and lucky for us, our guide Shukri was waiting at the border and got a border guard to find the stamps and officially stamp us in. The thing about Libya currently is that there is no real government and thus no real authorities, police, military, etc. This means that not having the carnet stamped, not obtaining a license plate, or not having insurance isn’t really a huge deal. Our hope was that when exiting the country, this would not be an issue (it wasn’t.)
We weren’t entirely sure what to expect driving across a country that had just had a revolution, but we knew the checkpoints would be numerous. After driving less than a mile we hit our first checkpoint. The guard seemed very confused as to why there were two American cars with four Americans coming out of Tunisia. He checked our passports, thanked us for the United States’ support of the revolution, and offered us bottles of frozen water. He was the first of many people we met in Libya that were genuinely excited to see Americans in the country.
The checkpoints are different than any other we had ever encountered. They would vary wildly depending on what was locally available. Some of them had stacked shipping containers parallel to the road on either side and in the middle and then placed shipping containers above to create a sort of gate. Others would put lengths of rope used to tie up boats across the road as speed bumps, while others used oil drums to create a slalom through which one would have to slowly navigate. The guards also varied dramatically from heavily armed groups to an individual or two with a pistol. Most of the checkpoints had between 1-3 technicals with mounted anti-aircraft guns, 50 cal, or other large caliber automatic rifles. As we got closer to major cities, there would usually be a tank as well. The most interesting part of the whole checkpoint concept was that all of these individuals were “rebels.” As there is no military, all of these people were volunteers, and with no government, none of them were paid. They were all there of their own accord because they love their country and want to protect it. Never once did we feel unsafe going through the checkpoints. One of the guards near Benghazi upon finding out we did not have a Libyan SIM card, gave us one and proceeded to talk to us daily as we traveled across Libya.
One of the things that became visible as we spent more time in the country, and that was mentioned to us by everyone we talked to, was that almost all of the citizens were armed. We joked that it was like Texas (but with a lot more brandishing). Only once did we drive by an individual actively firing his weapon unnecessarily into the air. Shukri was extremely critical of such behavior and most people we spoke to had given up their weapons and were working to encourage their compatriots to do the same.
For me personally, the highlight of our entire Libya experience was the InterNations get together that we attended in Tripoli. Like all of the other InterNations members we had met, these were individuals with an interest in travel, living and working abroad, and bringing people from different cultures and backgrounds together. The reason this stood out so much from everything else that we did was because we got the personal stories of the individuals, their families, and views on the revolution. It was completely eye-opening and as a person who followed the events as they unfolded on CNN, I realized how much news agencies sterilize the news and gloss over the stories of the average person. For all of us, I think this was the point where we truly realized how amazing the people of Libya were. They weren’t focused on the past 42 years, the atrocities, the lost money, or what could have been. They were looking to the future, looking to build a better, stronger Libya. This was a view we found all over the country and though it took shape in different ways in each person, we saw everyone working towards a common goal of the rebirth of Libya.
After having been to Libya, it is hard to imagine that it will take more than a few years before Libya is a prime tourist destination. We had the pleasure of visiting several Greek and Roman cities and they were breathtaking. The amazing thing is many of these sites are only about 20% excavated. In Apollonia , for example, the ground is littered with broken pottery and mosaics. We would pick up pieces that if found in the Forum in Rome would make headlines. They were so plentiful that if we had tried to avoid stepping on them it would have been impossible for us to walk through the city. Each city had its own appeal and memorable attribute. Cyrene, which is in hills above Apollonia offered spectacular views of the Mediterranean; Sabratha possessed on of the most amazing theaters we had ever seen. Leptis Magna, however, is the star attraction. It is the largest preserved Roman city in the world and with as much excavated as there is, it is hard to imagine that 2-3 times as much is still buried. To entice those who love history and ruins to come to Libya; we didn’t see a single other visitor at any of these sites. It is a far cry from the thousands of people that one will encounter at any other major Roman ruin.
Our route across Libya took us along the highway that follows the Mediterranean coast. While this didn’t allow us the ability to go deep into the Sahara, it did give us the opportunity to see all of the cities that played an integral role in the recent revolution. Misrata was incredible for a few reasons. First, the shear amount of damage done to the city is unbelievable. Second, the notion that Gadhafi would do this to his own people is just sickening. Lastly, and most amazing, was the fact that the bottom floor of almost every building was repaired, the businesses were back, and there were people on the street rebuilding and moving forward. Misrata is home to a fantastic museum that, while rough around the edges, provides an extremely complete view of the ups and downs of the revolution. It has pictures of every man, woman, and child killed in the battle. It houses children’s drawings, artwork and jewelry made from ammunition shells, and many of Gadhafi’s personal items. The prize item is one of his silver AK-47s. Interestingly, they have a box of his grooming products that was found with him in Sirt. One of the more interesting displays features many home-made RPG launchers, guns, and mortar launchers that the rebels used to repel Gadhafi’s troops.
Entering Libya, there were no expectations, and upon exiting, we all found ourselves thankful we had been able to see a country that is in the midst of lightning fast change. We encourage everyone to go see everything Libya has to offer, but give these two recommendations. First, only go during Ramadan if you want to lose weight. Literally NOTHING is open during the day, and even in the evening it is very hard to find restaurants. Those restaurants that are open generally will start serving around 9:30-10PM. Secondly, use Libya Travel and Tours to set everything up. They were ridiculously helpful from day one. They were the first tour company in Libya post-revolution and are extremely helpful with every element from the time you start the visa process till you are gone from Libya. Also, they were extremely understanding when we need to change our dates and booking numbers (car troubles and minus one Ann). Thank you Jill and everyone at Libya Travel and Tours!