Ten to Tripoli

Today’s slide show: Going in!

The last booze for a week, hopefully

Sitting in the Polo Lounge at London’s Heathrow Radisson, we’re 10 to Tripoli, inshallah. Just a few days ago, we were 16—with a wait list. There is still no people’s bureau (that’s Libyan for embassy) or consulate in Washington, D.C., so in order to obtain the all-important entry stamp for the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Americans must apply through an overseas mission. After failing in other European capitals, we settled on London, where a visa expediter promised delivery for an upfront fee of $150 each. But a week after the authorizations were promised, we have nothing. Our nonchangeable, nonrefundable tickets from London to Tripoli showed a departure 14 hours ago. We’re pinning our final hopes on a heteroclite Lebanese woman we met for the first time just yesterday. Early this morning, she took our passports and flew to Bonn, where through some mysterious connections she claims she will secure our visas. She promised to meet us here at 8. It’s now 8:45. If she doesn’t show, we turn around and go home, though first we’ll have to get temporary passports at the U.S. Embassy.

This little convention of seat-of-the-pants travelers was put into motion a few weeks earlier. Driving in California, I listened as NPR reported that the Bush administration was lifting most of its two-decade-old sanctions on Libya, including the travel ban, as a reward for Muammar Qaddafi’s pledge to scrap his nuclear arms programs and resolve outstanding claims from victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Since the late ‘90s, Qaddafi has been reaching out to the West in an effort to rebrand Libya, Africa’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, as an economic El Dorado. Once I reached an Internet connection, though, I found that the United States is continuing to list Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism. Still, a wanderlust was piqued.

A quarter-century ago, I was running a small adventure travel firm that specialized in expeditions to remote corners: the Abyssinian Rift, Hunza Valley, the Zambezi basin, the Amazon, Patagonia, the Tibetan Plateau, the New Guinea highlands, etc. Libya’s swath of the Sahara, with its mountains boiled out of the earth and its skein of wide wadis, was on my wish list, but political events put the destination off-limits for my modest goals.

In 1978, before rapprochement but after pingpong diplomacy, through a series of sublime accidents I ended up with a permit to escort the first American travel delegation to mainland China. At the time, China had no external air link and no internal tourism infrastructure, but Mao Tse-tung had decided to try tourism as a possible new source of state income. Through my little adventure company, Sobek, I had been conducting raft tours down the rivers of Ethiopia since 1973, through the 1974 coup that ousted Emperor Haile Selassie and throughout the communist-styled revolution that followed. The Chinese were assisting Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader who was, in a fashion, modeling himself after Mao, and so they turned to Ethiopia for suggestions for a U.S. tour company that might want to organize a first tour to China. When I got a call from Ethiopian Airlines inviting Sobek to take up the mantle, I was beside myself. We were granted a permit for 25 tourists, and I immediately crafted a letter to past clients, and inserted in an envelope with “Red Alert” bannered across the side. The tour itself was adventurous in ways new to me, largely because it was like being dropped onto another planet. Westerners had been forbidden since 1949, and the culture had evolved separately, like the wildlife of Madagascar when it separated from continental Africa. There were no signs in English; we were forbidden to speak with or touch a non-official Chinese person, even to shake hands. Every tour began with a lengthy propaganda lecture, and besides the classic sites—Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the gardens of Hangchow, the Forbidden City—we paid visits to cooperative farms, acupuncture clinics, and factories. It was an interaction with a slice of a culture now lost to time.

I felt Libya’s opening might be similar. For a moment, there could be an immersion in a very different world. But if the gates remained open, as in China, in a few years Libya would become an irredeemable blend of turo-dollared resorts, golf courses, nightclubs, and fast food.

So, before the NPR broadcast was over, I was on the phone trying to understand what it would take to organize the first U.S. tour group to Libya. I brought in Mountain Travel Sobek, the merged version of the adventure company I had founded in the ‘70s, and over the next weeks we figured out how to conduct a tour and how to get visas. We discovered that Hommes et Montagnes, a French company we worked with 20 years ago in the Algerian Sahara, conducts occasional adventure treks in southwestern Libya, and they agreed to outfit a camel safari through the Akakus Mountains. First, though, they warned us that the temperate season was over. If we insisted on going now, we would be into the Saharan summer, not a prospect for the meek. I pushed for going forward, knowing that if we waited until fall, the landscape would already be changing and boatloads of Americans would be scrambling to the shores of Tripoli.

Visas were a different challenge altogether. Belgium is the official intermediary between the United States and Libya, so we tried contacting the Libyan “embassy” in Brussels. But we could never get through. We had the same experience in Ottawa, Paris, and Malta. Finally, we found a visa company in London that promised delivery. I sent an invitation to a group of friends and Mountain Travel Sobek did the same; within a few days, we had a full complement of 16 folks ready to join me for a first foray into Libya. Photos, passports, and visa applications were sent to London, where they were translated into Arabic, plane tickets were procured; and we each went and purchased desert survival gear.

But a week before departure, no visas had been processed. There was no explanation. The paperwork had supposedly been sent to Tripoli, but approvals had not returned. We wondered if we had a ringer among us, a spy or an unfriendly journalist or someone on a black list. Pleas to Tripoli went unanswered.

So, I scoured the Internet, firing pleas to every Libyan I could find with an e-mail address. (Libya is quite wired, and Internet cafes abound. One of Qaddafi’s favorite words is “virus,” as in, “Viruses today are much stronger than cruise missiles.”) The day before flying to London, I received a call from Solieman Abboud, the owner of Tripoli-based Sari Travel. He said he was also a customs official in Tripoli and that he could get us into the country. All we had to do was meet his Lebanese associate Naziha Hassanyeh in London, hand over our passports, and she would make magic.

So, those of us willing to roll the dice are at Heathrow sipping gin and tonics and happily paying with plastic, hoping these might be last such transactions for a fortnight since Libya enforces a permanent ban on gambling and alcohol and accepts no credit cards. Then around 9 o’clock, Naziha proudly sashays through the door and opens our passports to proudly display blue and red eagle-logoed stamps covered with a round, dark blue seal. We are good to go.

No U.S. carrier is yet allowed to fly into Libyan air space, but British Airways has launched a new service, and we are at the BA counter for the 9 o’clock departure Monday morning, where the agent scrutinizes our passports and visas. “There is only one country that’s harder to get a visa for,” the BA agent says. “America.” Then she waves us through, and soon we are Libya bound.

As we begin our descent into Tripoli, the “White Bride of the Mediterranean,” I watch clouds scud over the landscape and see the runway wet from a morning rain. At the warehouselike terminal, we funnel in to meet Solieman Abboud, sucking on a Rothmans, on the arrival side of Customs and Immigration. He collects our passports and disappears between a cinema-sized poster of Qaddafi in his aviator Ray-Bans and a sign that says “Partners Not Wage Earners,” a bumper sticker sentiment from Qaddafi’s Green Book. A few minutes later, Solieman reappears and leads us past an empty immigration booth. At last, we are inside Libya.