First Day in Tripoli

I have had such an amazing day, it’s hard to know where to start. Tripoli is a sprawling city along the Mediterranean, but without the lovely harbor views that Italian and French cities have created. The harbor is a working,proletarian harbor, no frills. But still, my room looks out at the water and I was able to persuade a hotel staff person to fetch the special tool to open my Italian made window to let in some fresh air at last.
We started the day at the National Museum of Libya, which features Greek and Roman sculpture from various sites in some rooms, flint arrowheads in others, and in the most amazing display, Col Gadaffi’s pale blue Volkswagon from which he supposedly ran the revolution, his mobile office. He is a presence everywhere in posters high on walls in the museum, as well as a 4foot tall replica of his “green book” in a case in the museum. People were constantly walking by to have photos taken in front of his image. Our guide was a lovely woman who was an author and scholar and whose English was mostly understandable once you figured out the idiosyncracies of her pronunciation.
We spent about 2 hours in the museum and then headed for the old city suk, the markets. It was so wonderful to be wandering among the jewllery stalls, the carpet dealers and the leather and metalworkers with no one hassling you to buy. The attitude here is much more reserved, and it is so comfortable. We visited a very old mosque (16th cen) with a forest of columns scavenged from ancient sites in the old city. The columns were of every style imaginable, and were all painted white. There were glass chandeliers hanging from the low ceiling and carpets on the floor. Our guide encountered several old friends on our journey through the suk, including a man she identified as a leading author and sometime ambassador to a country I did not quite hear. He was rather handsome and dressed in a lovely dark suit, and seemed just a bit embarrassed to be identified. There was also a very old man who she embraced and a woman in the cultural museum.
Lunch was in a mediocre restaurant overlooking the harbor, with a tape of many old favorites repeating and repeating.Beatles songs done with huge orchestras, stuff like that. We then had the choice of returning to the hotel for a rest or returning to the suk. I went to the suk with 4 other intrepid travellers with the intent of finding replacement clothes for Edward who’s luggage did not arrive with him. We were picked up by a young Algerian guy who spoke French with Edward ( I tried but it has just been soooo long). He helped with the market a bit, and we all sat in a cafe and had coffee( very sweet, thick and with a hint of cardamom) and he smoked a hookah. Turns out what they smoke in those things, at least in Libya, is dried fruit. I did not try it myself, but the two men in our little group did and said it was not bad, a bit artificial flavored but interesting. Among our purchases was a toothpaste, packaged to look exactly like CREST, but with the name CRUST. I had such a laughing fit I thought I might fall down. We wandered some more, and eventually found our way back to the hotel,collapsing until the 7pm lecture. Our faculty lecturer is terrific. and this evening talked about how and what the Middle East is, how Libya fits into the different definitions of that, of Africa, of the Mediterranean etc. Our next talk will be on the ancient history of the area. He is clear and informative and interesting.
Our dinner was at a lovely restored building very near the arch of Marcus Aurelious where we all took pictures of ourselves in front it in the dark, with flashes.
So far, the group of 18 is remarkably compatible and mostly lots of fun. I’m looking forward to tomorrow when we drive to Leptis Magna, the Roman city about 1 1/2 hours west of here.

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Among the ruins

I was almost finished with this, when I must have touched something and lost it. I’ll start again, totally frustrating!
After breakfast we boarded our pink coach (tour bus) and headed for the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna. On the way, our local guide, Assad, told us a bit about life in Libya for him. We learned that the average salary is not sufficient to lead a comfortable life anymore, and that most families need two incomes. I was surprised to learn that when a Libyan wants to buy a car or an apartment, he can borrow from a bank, and pay interest. I thought that interest was forbidden in Islam, but perhaps things are changing in that arena also.
Tripoli seems to be reacting to the increasing amount of tourism and business in many ways. We had been instructed, and the Lonely Planet concurred, that tipping was not done here, and that bargaining with market vendors was also not done. After only a two days, I’m not convinced that either is still entirely true.
We arrived at Leptis Magna, about 90 min. away, and met with our local guide. He wore a headset so that we could hear him talk on our headsets without having to be right next to him or his having to shout. It’s a good idea, but it can result in some complications on a large site, as we found out. Our tour began at the arch of Septimus Severus, the Libyan born Roman emperor. It is a incredibly tall structure with unusual shaped pillars and wonderful carvings. We then proceeded along the old chariot roads throughout the site. The roads are really treacherous, and we had been warned that a woman on the earlier trip had fallen and broken her arm. I vowed to keep my head down. The walking was tricky and took lots of concentration. There were sudden holes, uneven blocks with gaps, and generally difficult terrain. I had my brand-new collapsible walking stick from REI, but I ended up carrying it instead of using it and eventually folded it up and stashed it in my backpack.
The site is huge, we walked for three hours and did not see it all. At certain points, we found ourselves wandering about in small groups of 4 or 5 far enough from the guide that we lost contact with the signal. Along with our small group, there were groups of Italians, Germans, Africans,other Arabs and who knows who else. Lots of people. It was easy to become sort of misplaced. Eventually, our main tour leader realized that half of his group was missing and had to hunt us down. I resolved to be a better guidee,I really did try. It was marvelous to see the Hadrianic baths, with the cold, tepid and hot pools and realize that the marble on the ground is the same that the Romans walked on in 100AD. Most of the marble on the walls was gone, stripped for other buildings later on. Still the site is magnificent, running down to the sea.The ocean was the most incredible blue, with darker areas and brilliant sun.
By lunch,we were all exhausted. Lunch was at the restaurant at the site, and we went to the museum afterward. The museum entrance features a huge (two story) image of the Great Leader, with adoring people looking up at him. I have noticed that the images of Gahaffi are all with an upward view, sort of up the nostrils. I think it is intended to make him look taller. It’s odd, but consistent.
We were supposed to visit another site after lunch, a Roman Villa recently excavated. However,even though we had the proper paperwork, and the previous group had been admitted, we were turned down. Our local guide tried to argue with the guy for about 1/2 an hour, but the answer was still no. In truth, most of us were so tired that missing one more site was not a tragedy, We mostly dozed in the bus on the way back.
Tomorrow, we leave early, 8am, for the drive to Sabratha, and then on to Nalut, in the mountains just south of here. We stay there tomorrow night, then the next day go to Ghadames. Look it up on a map!
The group continues to be cheerful and pretty easy going. Some folks are more tightly wound than others, but we seem to be having a pretty good time for a bunch of total strangers!

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Sabratha and the desert

Hi everyone,
Please understand if I don’t respond individually to your responses to my emails. I have limited time to do this, and so I’m focusing on communicating. I do love to get your reactions!
Today we drove to the ancient city , in ruins of course, of Sabratha. It is on a site looking out to the Mediterranean, and the sea today was an incredible blue. This place has ruins from the Punic or Phonecian period as well as Roman. More is laying on the ground, lots of sandstone blocks in piles. But also marble mosaics, carvings and and incredibly restored theatre that rivals the Forum in Rome for grace and beauty. I was so happy there, it was serene and beautiful. Lunch,as usual, was soup, salad,chicken with olives and fruit. We all drink lots and lots of water, but I discovered “bitter soda” today.Not bad, a lot like non-alcoholic campari with sugar added.
We climbed into the pink bus for the 3 hour ride to Nalut, in the Jebel Nafous mountains. For the first 2 1/2 hours, it was flat out desert. Sand, little scrubby green stuff that camels and sheep can eat. We did see camels, quite a few. And sheep. We stopped for a coffee or soda in a tiny town where we were the attraction for several men who just stopped across the street from the cafe and stood and watched us. As the bus pulled away, they left. Not much goes on in that town, I guess.
It was hot there, really hot and dry, and this is still March. But soon after that we turned off the first road and headed up into the mountains. The road became a switchback and climbed quickly to about 500meters (1500feet). It was cooler and windier there. Along the road, when there are retaining walls, was a huge mural of the Colonel’s famous Green Book. Much to my surprise, there are 3 volumes of it! I’ll bring at least one home to study.It’s a take-off on Mao’s little red book, I suspect, and wildly popular here.
Libya is surprising to me in many ways. So many young people speak English, for one thing, or want to. In this tiny town, in the back of the post office at 9pm a guy is playing the guitar while managing the internet “cafe” (computers, no coffee).There are 6 computers, all busy with both locals and tourists. I can hardly believe that I’m sitting here in this tiny town. The hotel food was better than expected, especially after seeing the rooms! Mine is a tiny single, with a not very clean carpet, and my own bathroom with the most amazing green sink! it is a color somewhere in between pea green and avocado, and is shaped like a flying saucer.The lighting in the room is particularly weird,with a blueish light bulb in the bedside wall mounted lamp that totally erases color. Interesting effect. While it is far from elegant, it is very friendly, with a plate of nuts and candy on the bedside table. The high-rise hotel in Tripoli was gorgeous, but far from friendly to it’s guests.
Tomorrow we drive 4 hours south to Ghadames. We are there overnight, explore the underground ancient city, then fly to Ghat for our desert adventure. I’ll try and email once more before we head in our 4 wheel drives into the Sahara for two nights. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get in touch after that, could be a few days.
I’m having a wonderful time, my travel companions are terrific and varied. Lots of opportunities for conversations with lots of different people. Great luck to have such an interesting and friendly group.  Perhaps this tour thing isn’t such a bad idea!

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:24 am  Leave a Comment  

A quieter day

I woke up around 6am, and turned off the air conditioner and opened the window. Soon I heard the sound of the call to prayer from a mosque, a sure way to know I’m not at home. We had breakfast and set off to tour the ancient (everything is ancient) granary and village site very near the hotel. From a distance it looks almost like a part of the hillside, since it is made from the same sandstone as the surrounding hills. The major site is the granary, where the residents stored their olive oil, wheat and dates. It resembles a stone and cement mini-storage facility from about 1000AD. The small caves with wooden doors are on many levels, reached by stone steps cantilevered out from the walls. Some caves have pottery jars to hold oil built into the sides of the cave, others have shelves.  The granary winds around and around, up and down steps and a hillside. I felt that I had entered another world. Then we saw a mosque, built into the hillside also. It had very low ceilings, and  its own cistern for the ritual washing before prayer.Windows look out over a valley.
Then we saw the oil press, where a donkey or camel, with its eyes covered, would walk in circles pushing the huge stone grinding wheels around on the local olive harvest. Apparently, when the harvest is ready, they worked 24hours a day in shifts to press all the olives. Niches in the corners of the room held oil lamps which left black soot on the walls.
We then boarded our pink bus for the long drive south to Ghadames. It took about 3 1/2 hours across the desert. At first there were some low trees, bushes. As we went further and further south, the vegetation got smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sand and rock. We did see lots of camels out there, and some right on the road. One baby was nursing from it’s mother, and another mother was sitting on the ground with two babies next to her. We had to slow way down and sometimes stop and blow the horn to get the camels off the road. It reminded me of the bison at Yellowstone, with longer legs.
Even with the air conditioning on in the bus, it got hot. The sun was beating in through the windows and it is really strong. When we finally arrived at the hotel, it was lovely to get off the bus. Tomorrow we will tour the old city of Ghadames, where no one lives anymore, but there is a restaurant where we will have lunch. ( there are no toilets allowed in the old city, so lunch will be relatively brief!)
After lunch we fly on a chartered plane to Ghat, in the far south. We stay overnight, then get into the 4wheel drives for our desert adventure. It’s hot here, and incredibly dry. On the road I noticed a series of oases following a raised hill area, an escarpment. There  must be an underground stream all along that ridge. Seeing the green in the desert is actually an amazing experience. It feels biblical and spiritual in a way. The amazement of the life in the midst of the dryness and bleakness of the desert is an emotional experience hard to describe. I expect the desert part of the trip, with a nearly full moon, should be fantastic.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to write again, perhaps not for a few days. I hope all is well with everyone.

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Out of the desert

Three days in the Sahara was just enough to feel a sense of it. We have orange sand and dust everywhere, and can’t imagine how to get my suitcase clean! Our arrival in Ghat was memorable. We left the plane at the nearly deserted airport, walked through the minimal terminal, and hoisted ourselves into 4×4’s driven by turbaned and veiled(in some cases) Tuareg drivers who were to be our companions for the next three days.The hotel there is not worth the time to describe it,it was awful. The next day we loaded our gear in to the old Toyota Land Cruisers and headed off for the desert. We drove for what seemed like a long time, as the scenery changed into rough rock outcrops with sand in huge dunes all around. The landscape at times reminded me of pictures of the moon and Mars. Enormous fields of black rock, looking like it had been dropped from the sky. We stopped and had lunch in the shade of a large rock overhang and a tree or two. Almost all through the desert there  are trees in areas where water accumulates underground. It is surprising to see fairly large trees of various varieties in low areas.
After lunch, and the female bonding experience of locating an appropriate spot to pee, away from the group but not too far, we headed out further to see examples of the paintings and carvings left in overhanging areas of stone. Some were spectacular examples of drawing depicting animals and people. Some of the carvings, those of elephants and a hippo that I saw yesterday, really were thrilling.
We spent the night in a private campsite, erected for us. I had my own tent, rather cosy. Dinner was prepared for us and was really good. Couscous with vegetables and meat, I felt right at home. We ate a tables under the stars in the center of the tents. The toureg drivers had their own camping site just a bit away from us, and they prepared their own meals. After dinner I asked if there was a spare mat to put down on the sand so that we could look up at the stars. Several of us did so , and it was lovely. Later, in the middle of the night I got up and went out of my tent and saw the whole landscape illuminated by moonlight. I wish someone else had been up at the same time to enjoy it with me.
I’m too tired to write more tonight, and there is so much more to tell. Today we drove to the Ubari Lakes and went all over the gigantic seemingly endless sand dunes. At the lake that is the best known, some of the men went swimming, discovering that the water was extremely salty, and cool on the surface and hot below! I began a sketch but had to leave before it was much done.
It continues to be a wonderful experience, if not exactly as the brochure had described it. I’m enjoying myself and that is the main thing.

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Back on the coast

Dear Everyone,
I finally re-connected with an email opportunity. I don’t have much time since we are having the first of two closing dinners tonight. Our faculty lecturer has to leave early for a committment in Berkeley.
We spent two days in the area around Cyrene and Appolonia, the eastern side of the coast of Libya, near Egypt. Our first day was lovely, cool and windy and we walked from our hotel to the site of the Greek city of Appolonia. Next day was raining , but we persevered and toured the city of Cyrene, also known as Cyrenica. It’s a huge site, and we could not see all of it especially since the rain was sheeting down at times and the stones get really slippery. We had lunch in a restaurant in a cave which was the usual food, soup, salad and chicken! Our hotel had a buffet dinner with some really great vegetables and not great meat things. Last night they had stuffed baby squash that was quite good. And we all scrambled for the desserts, since most places just serve fruit ( bananas from Ecuador or mealy apples).

Today we packed up and left the hotel for Benghazi, visiting more sites along the way including Ptolomeis, and a bunch of others. We rolled into the hotel around 6pm, found our rooms and went for a short walk. I can’t believe this is almost over. It’s been wonderful and sort of like a dream in many ways.

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 1:03 am  Leave a Comment