After several months of planning and preparation, we were finally off on another Big Trip. Right up until the last minute it didn’t quite feel real and on Friday we had a busy day in North Berwick, with me working from home for the day and Ness busily ticking off errands, while we also had the Inside Out team coming and going. Somehow we had managed to get everything done, fitted in a short walk along the beach and a couple of drinks in the convivial Ship Inn, and a tasty home-cooked dinner of Anderson’s bratwurst.
We were both semi-awake before the alarms went off at three o’clock this morning and managed to get ourselves up and out without being in too much of a daze. We had been tightly cuddled up, together with Baloo and Joey. Outside it was dark and freezing cold, and the streets looked icy. We carefully drove to the airport. The temperature readout showed -4°C!
The airport was busy, even at this early hour on a Saturday morning. With my newly acquired BA Executive Club silver status we were able to get into the lounge and had some breakfast before it was time to board our 6.30am flight.
Out of the window I could see the glorious spectrum of early morning colours, from blood red through orange, yellow, greens, and above it the deep blues up to the heavens. The flight was smooth and quick and we both caught some needed sleep. At Heathrow the more exotic aspect of the trip became apparent as we made our way to the international connections. There was that feeling of the world meets here. Again we briefly made use of the BA lounge, because we could, and then it was time to board our flight. It all went very smoothly. At the gate most of the other passengers seemed to consist of ex-pats and people on business travel, not tourists or backpackers.
The seats were good, at the back of the plane, i.e. behind the wing so we still had views, with views over France and Sardinia as we flew south. We caught glimpses of central France, near Clermont-Ferrand, with fields covered in snow. Later on I could see the southern coast of the island of Sardinia, still looking green and sunny. The Med looked fierce, with white foam crests clearly visible. Later again, closer to the North African coast, the Med looked azure blue. Finally, after flying for three hours, we sighted the coast of Africa. Oh, a minor detail, but I had a “special” breakfast served on the plane. I had put “seafood” as preference in my BA profile, ages ago, and this had been picked up so I got an omelette with salmon. I kept the little label in my written diary as a memento. (Yes, I’m a strange one…) By this stage we both switched from “it still doesn’t feel like we’re going on another trip” to “it feels as we’re back/still on our world trip”.
Coming in to land we got better views of the Libyan coastal landscape and it started to look quite different from ordinary European landscapes, with palm trees and sandy plots of land between the cultivated fields, and different styles of buildings, and a few empty modern roads. On the plane the announcements had been in Arabic as well as in English. The landing was smooth. The airport was small and rather dated. Almost as soon as we had come off the plane we were met by someone from the local tour operator, Jannat Tours. A customs or police inspector asked us if we had the required amount of cash with us (Amelia at Simoon Travel had alerted us to this new regulation just the other day, telling us to make sure we had at least $1,000 each with us). The formalities went easily with very little form-filling, and we both got stamps in our passports. Nessie’s is now looking very impressive indeed. Mine no longer as I had to renew after our world trip and the Dutch authorities punched three big holes right through the pages before returning it. In the hall while we were queuing we looked around at all the signs in the unfamiliar Arabic script, and there was our first (no doubt of many) portrair/poster of Colonel Gadaffi, and not far from it hung one of his many exhortations (ref. Green Book): “Partners, not wage workers!”
Once through customs we met our guide, the sympathetic Walid. He spoke good English and immediately came across as someone with a friendly and polite manner. I think he was as relieved as we were, and as we drove from the airport into Tripoli he explained how anxious he had been to find out who/what kind of people he would be accompanying for a whole month. He also explained how this was a rather unique sort of trip, how normally people only come for two weeks, and how our trip is something altogether different! The road from the airport to town was lined with many construction sites, with big new apartment blocks and concrete shells going up. Also lots of basic roadside stalls selling oranges. The traffic was rather chaotic, cars weaving in and out between lanes. Walid was easy to get on with, and will hopefully prove to be a good travel companion and enable us to access local culture and people.
Into Tripoli itself, past concrete walls that enclosed a military compound, where Colonel Gadaffi stays when he is in town. Everywhere we saw posters, and signs with the number “38”, which Walid explained that these referred to the 38th anniversary of the 1969 revolution which brought Gadaffi to power. Entering Tripoli we drove through rather untidy streets, with lots of crumbling and unfinished buildings, or maybe they just looked that way to my eye. I knew we had gone for a comparative (three star) budget hotel. We turned off the main streets, through some rather dirty looking streets with lots of holes and sections in poor repair, and with mixed populations, Arab was well as many African faces. At the airport we had changed currency, exchanging dollars for thick wads of dinar notes. Our hotel, the Al-Deyafa, looked basic but perfectly fit for purpose, not dissimilar from some we have stayed at in China, Malaysia, Vietnam. An airport style security gate had to be passed to get to the small hotel reception. Walid told us the area we had passed through was mostly Tunisians, Algerians, Africans, etc. Even on the short stretch from the airport to here we had started to gather how the Libyans see themselves, as better mannered and more courteous than their neighbours.
We spent about half an hour in our room, unpacking, repacking, etc. I had forgotten all about the art of packing efficiently and we both had very full backpacks, partly due to the big thick sleeping bags which take up a lot of space. I changed out of my Rohan trousers – I had felt a bit like a retard wearing these as the hems kept sticking to my socks, making me look rather odd. Then we met Walid again in the reception and drove into the centre of town.
Tripoli is not a pretty city at first sight, with lots of concrete, either somewhat dated and crumbling or just generally not very well built, alongside newer constructions, but we also noticed many old “Italian” buildings and houses. We parked somewhere near Al Saaha Alkhadhraa, Green Square, also known as Martyrs Square, and went for a stroll around the centre with Walid. Many people greeted him, and vice versa, with friendly good-humoured exchanges of salaam aleykum (“peace be upon you”) and hand shaking, and we did our best to respond with our best wa-aleykum a salaam’s. The people seemed genuinely friendly. We did attract quite a bit of attention but it was entirely non-intrusive, with surprised smiles creeping across the faces of people when they saw us. We were definitely the only tourists, or “westerners” for that matter.
We walked along Sharia 1 September and headed to Green Square. We stopped here and there to exchange some greetings with Walid’s friends, shop owners or just people along the street. We went into a fantastic local cake shop which sold a colourful variety of baklava and all sorts of other sweet cakes. We shared a slice of pistachio cake with a glass of lemon juice. I am glad we have Walid to help us out with basic phrases and manners, which makes communication a lot easier and we have access to the local culture. The shop owners seemed a little bemused, as well as pleased. We were definitely a bit of a novelty for them!
We carried on walking, talking with Walid, and at Green Square he picked a spot for a good viewpoint to tell us a little about the place, how it was here that the regular processions take place in celebration of the revolution. A large portrait of Gadaffi hung above a wooden stand from which he and other dignitaries would stand to watch or speak. The square is now mostly used as a parking area, but still in regular use for the processions. Along one end were the walls of the medina, the old city, al souq al khadim. The weather was lovely, nice and fresh and bright, with clear skies and sunshine. Perfect Mediterranean weather. By now it was late afternoon and the light was starting to fade. Earlier Walid had told us about prayer times and we now walked up a parallel street, away from Green Square and to the large Jamal Abdul Nasser mosque. At prayer time it was not possible for us to go in and Walid left us with his bag while he went in, and we wandered along and around the square in front, the Maidan al-Jezayir (Algeria Square), and admired the beautifully lit up mosque against the backdrop of intensely blue sky. We didn’t feel at all ill at ease, as we did for example in Lima, although we were aware of the attention, especially from the many police. Under the tall arches opposite the mosque there were little tables where men were sat drinking coffee and tea and smoking fragrant nargileh, water pipes.
We met Walid again after he had done his prayers. The atmosphere reminded me of Kuala Lumpur and Brunei, with the muezzin’s call to prayer and the mood of collective prayer. We bought some stamps at the post office on the square. This was in a large lofty-ceilinged building. The colourful stamps were carefully presented to us. Walid explained how Libyans try to be extra courteous towards foreigners and women. We walked up another street, to the former royal palace, now the National Library, and then back to the square. Along the way we greeted and were greeted by shop owners and pedestrians and were made to feel very welcome.
Back at the square we stopped to have a tea and coffee, sat by the fountain under the tall arches, with the nargileh-smoking men here and there, others watching footie on a television set that had been put out. After the drinks we drove a short distance to the restaurant that had been booked for us, a smart tourist-class affair right next to the impressive old Roman arch of Marcus Aurelius. This was of the traditional four-gated kind and was lit atmospherically. At the Athar restaurant a table had been booked for us. Walid left us while we had dinner. There were only a few other diners and the atmosphere was formal yet relaxed. A musician played some suitably Arabic music on the keyboard, most of it pre-programmed in the keyboard. He wandered off to leave it playing by itself while he got himself a coffee or something. The food was good. Small breads with houmous, olives, harissa and baba ghanoush, followed by tasty lamb soup (made us think of the substantial Hungarian soups), and grilled fish, with an Irn-Bru kind of soft drink, the traditional beverage, from a large jug the waiter kept us topped up with, and a rather disappointing fruit salad to finish. We were both very full.
Walid came back to collect us after the meal and drove us back to the hotel and then he headed home himself. The air felt wonderfully fresh. Back in our room we spent some time writing our diaries before getting into bed and promptly nodding off.
Impressions of day one? Very positive, but we’re also aware that Libya is a still a poor and developing country, with all the familiar signs of poor buildings, concrete shells and rubbish and litter scattered freely, and roads in poor repair. Somewhat chaotic and haphazard. On the other hand, it feels very welcoming and friendly. We’re hopeless at understanding the language but we’re making do with salaam aleykum and shokran, “thank you”, for now. It does feel as if we are simply still continuing our world trip, with the familiar routines of life out of backpack and budget hotel rooms coming straight back.