20 camels please!

“Mister Kloet?”
“I want 20 camels!”
“Excuse me? Who is this?”
“This is Ahmed from Libya! I have your son and his wife. I want 20 camels or I will never let them go… ”
“Oh hi Ahmed… black ones?”
“Don’t take me for a fool Mr. Kloet, white camels naturally… those pesky black beasts are worthless!”
“Ok ok… can I now speak to my son please?”

The tone was set. The moment we entered Libya we were at Ahmed’s mercy. He insisted we called my parents, immediately, using his phone (resistance is futile against Libyan generosity). As soon as I had dialed, he grabbed the phone, and in his best Arab-English accent played the hostage game, showing a side of Libyans we had not entirely expected… humor!

My parents visited Libya as part of an organized tour, late 2009. Ahmed acted as their tour guide, and seemed impressed by how well they were accustomed to travelling in the desert. Little did he know that my parents, well in their sixties, had spend a lifetime travelling the world, and seen their fair share of arid environments. They got along extremely well, and when he heard about our trip, he insisted we contact him.

Ahmed took time off to accompany us. Not a holiday, he just plain refused to guide any tours during the 10 days we planned to be in Libya. This seemed crazy to us at first, until we arrived. Hospitality is not only natural to the Libyans, it is boundless and a matter of pride. We were visiting guests, and thus Ahmed’s responsibility! Feeling totally secure from the moment we arrived, we dived headlong into this country of mysteries, contradictions and misconceptions.

Some words about paperwork and formalities. To our understanding, you can arrange three types of visa to enter Libya. You can be invited by an individual (this involves lots of paperwork for him and is extremely time consuming, but cheap). Alternatively you can be invited through a tour company (a little less paperwork but more expensive). Finally, you can opt for complete freedom, arranging everything with the Libyan government by yourself (nigh to impossible, hurdles and hurdles of bureaucracy and extremely expensive). All three options have to include a full day-by-day itinerary in Arabic, a translation of your passport, special stamps to enter the south, the invitations to show who is responsible for you, and lots of patience. The Libyan government, army, police and secret service all insist that these formalities, including the hundreds of various checkpoints, are for your own safety. To us Westerners this is incomprehensible at first. Actually, it feels threatening to know the authorities keep perfect track of your whereabouts. It will dawn on you slowly though, as you become familiar with the hospitality and friendliness of the Libyans, that most of these formalities stem from the incredible sense of responsibility they feel for their guests. As the emptiness of the country expands before you, it will start to make sense. This country is huge and thus hazardous. You can really lose yourself here… as we would find out in the future, but that is another story.

This contradiction brings us to the misconception that Libya is not safe for travel. We have not yet travelled safer anywhere in the world. The hospitality, responsibility, humor and unbridled interest of the people in the goings-on outside of Libya make this country extremely traveler-friendly. We can now speak from experience, and have made the decision that we will return to this wonderful country as soon as we find an opportunity.

The Mediterranean coastline of Libya (1600 kilometers!) is rich in history, with settlements of the Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks. One of the oldest settlements is Sabrata, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is a welcome relief after the hustle and bustle of Tripoli. It radiates peace and quiet, and presents some fair examples of Roman architecture. The site does however feel slightly artificial. Most structures were destroyed in an earthquake centuries ago and have been rebuilt, and lack that authentic aspect we so enjoy. Though highly impressive, we kept our fingers crossed for the larger and better-preserved sites of Leptis Magna and Cyrene.

If humor is not the trait that identifies Libyans, it is their passion for little surprises. Ahmed had arranged for us to have dinner and stay the night at his sister’s house. Her incredible hospitality soon had us stretched out on the floor pillows, exhausted from playing and talking with her lovely four children and tasting some savory home cooking. A lovely woman Melody told me later. She refused to meet me, as her husband was away for work, and I was kindly refused further entry into the house than the annexed guest room. Ahmed tried to surprise her as well, by having me wait at the front door and coaxing her there. She saw through his trick at the last moment, and headed back to the kitchen laughing, stating “the prophet Mohammed stands between us!” Showered with little gifts we left the next morning, me bewildered by having stayed with someone I had not even met. Melody still talks about Ahmed’s sister, and the time she spent chatting in the kitchen about her kids, Europe and our plans.

Well rested we headed out towards Ghadames, the next World Heritage Site on our itinerary. We met up again with Harry and Elk, our friends and travel companions. From here onwards, we would travel with them to the south through the great Ubari Sand Sea to the Acacus Mountains, the petro glyphs of Wadi Methkandoush, the Ubari lakes and back up along the coast to Egypt.

Ghadames is a unique oasis town, a mysterious network of dark alleys interspersed with bright views of the sky above and the gardens beyond. The town lies on the crossroads of the old caravan routes that connected nowadays Libya, Algeria, Niger and Chad. The old town breathes history through its covered streets, where you can feel the ghosts of ancient times surround you. Simply explained the town is an interconnected set of self-supporting villages protected by a communal wall and defense system, each village housing several hundred people with familial ties. Business, prayer, and gatherings took place on the street level, which was forbidden for women. The levels above provided housing and served a defensive purpose. Every several meters the streets (more like tunnels) are open to the skies, providing opportunity for the defenders to wreak havoc from above on any invading force. In peacetime these open areas served a rather different purpose. From here the town women could ‘safely’ do business with the merchants below, using baskets and ropes. The most impressive feature of Ghadames however is the rooftop level. Every house has a ‘roof terrace’ for cooking and living in summer, which connects to the whole town through an intricate system of narrow walkways (actually the walls of the houses). This area was strictly forbidden for men: a sunlit world where women could freely mingle, walk, raise their kids and live without the veil.
In order to appreciate the wonders of Ghadames fully, we advise travelers to use a professional, local, guide. We are glad UNESCO and the Libyan government are restoring Ghadames to its former glory and encouraging the remaining local residents to create opportunities for responsible tourism in the area.

Ghadames is the end of the tarmac when you drive straight south towards the Acacus mountains. The route to Al-Aweinat is adventurous, and includes some of the world’s largest sand dunes. If navigated well, you will not be closer than 50 kilometers to the Algerian border at any time. With full diesel tanks, water tanks and food for a week we headed south, accompanied by Harry and Elk and their desert-equipped truck, GPS-systems, a satellite phone, and now two guides, Ahmed and Mussam. Feeling completely confident, we headed south towards an adventure we did not really expect…

To be continued.