Location: Tripoli, Libya
I'm back in the internet cafe today so I thought I'd update yesterdays entries. There was a major change in tourism for Libya today, but I'll come to that in a minute.
Today the group headed to the Tripoli museum, but I ditched out so I could start work on some of the trip reports and send off an email to Kev (my boss) to let him know how everything was going. I had an email about him about passport translations but it didn't become apparant how important that was and how lucky we all are until we got to the embassy. In the afternoon, we (bar our one Kiwi) all walked over to the Australian consulate to vote in the election. When we were there the consul told us we were extremely lucky to get into Libya, as two days ago the Libya officials, without warning, had started demanding translations of passports in Arabic, and were turning away anyone who didn't have one!! If we had arrived two days after what we did, we would NOT have gotten into Libya, and CHRIST would I have had a mess on my hands!! We would have to go back to the Australian embassy in Cairo, and gotten an official translation there. It would have been to TOTAL DISASTER. So Al-Humdullah (Thank God) for that!!!!!!
We all got translations to exit Libya, but of course our Kiwi didn't come, so tomorrow everyone's going to head to Leptis Magna (THE site of Libya) while I get a translation of his passport and try to catch them up in a cab...all part of the job...
Location: Tripoli, Libya
It was with a heavy heart I left Istanbul and it's delight, the stunning city that has become my second home, but it was not without some excitement and nerves at what I had ahead of me! The Cairo to Casablanca has been the talk of the company ever since it was announced by the boss, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up running the second one ever!
I had about a week in Cairo to organise everything and to research all things North African. I spent 90% of my time either at the office, the internet cafe or the Algerian embassy. Everyday I was getting more and more nervous about the trip, as I'd had very little communication with anyone about exactly what was going on. I'd heard terrible things about the first trip to run, but after a Skype session with the leader of that trip and a frantic last minute re jigging of the Tunisian itinerary, I felt confident at least, I know what I was supposed to be doing.
Day 1: Cairo
Off to a flying start...
I've been relying on my phone alarm to wake up lately, having misplaced my alarm clock. Somehow, somehow I manged to set the alarm for 7pm, instead of 7am. Due to this fantastic stuffup I woke up (luckily) 20mins before the group meeting was supposed to start! Instead of being well prepared with all my notes, memorized passengers names and things, I scrambled downstairs without having had breakfast. Noone was in the lobby yet, al-humdallah...
The group meeting actually went pretty well, and everyone seems able-bodied and keen for the adventure ahead. I was worried about the ages of the passangers (all 50+, one man 70) but generally they seem pretty fit and experienced travellers. I guess we'll all be tested on the road...
After the meeting, we met the lovely guide Ola, and all headed off to the pyramids! It was a pretty horrible day with dust and rubbish blowing around even more than usual. Due to the unusual starting time of the tour, it being the first time I'd made it out to the pyramids with a guide, and the traffic coming back, I misstimed things a bit. We all got back to the hotel at 4ish without having had lunch and feeling tired and grumpy. I ditched the pax, and headed over to the office to download all the pretrip info. We caught up again for dinner at GAD, a great little local takeaway place on the main street of downtown Cairo. Everyone seemed to be bonding pretty well (myself included) and I began to have some pretty positive feelings about the group and how things would go.
Day 2: Alexandria
As the costings haven't been worked out for the trip yet, I managed to fit in a private transfer from Cairo to Alex. Not very intrepid, but made my life the little bit easier. We piled in and left at 7am, and arrived about 10:30. After driving around a bit trying to find the hotel, we checked in and met our guide in Alex - Soha. I really like Soha, she is a very very good guide and a really interesting person. She's very religious (and tries to convert everyone to Islam), but also very open and is excellent for interesting conversation. Her city tour included an old Greek theatre, the very Egyptian-influenced Greek tombs, lunch at a great local resteraunt, and tour through the new Bibliotech, an Egyptian attempt to replace the ancient Great Library of Alexandria. I almost lost someone at the library but he showed up...For me, it was interesting to see a different side of Egypt - Alexandria is much less chaotic than Cairo, and much cleaner. Our day finished quite late and I ended up running around trying to find a decent seafood place for dinner. I had to run back along the corniche to get back to the hotel in time...collapsed at the end of today, already very tired and its only day 2...not a great sign.
Day 3: Marsa Matruh
Everyone was packed up and ready on time but our driver couldn't remember the address of the hotel and was about 1/2 an hour late...typical Egyptian...anyway, we got away about 9 (once he'd worked out how to get out of the city) and drove to the WWII site of El-Alemain. This is a really significant place in terms of WWII, it was here the Allies finally checked Rommel's rampage across North Africa and the tide of the war began to turn.
We arrived to Marsa Matruh, an Egyptian resort town in the afternoon and found out Rommels museam, really the only attraction in town, had closed about 1/2 an hour before we arrived. Some headed down to the beach, and me and a few others headed down to the internet cafe. I managed to locate a place for dinner without too many problems, and even a place for a last beer before dry Libya!
Day 4: Cryene (Libya)
The day began quite comically! We were all sitting around half asleep at the 5:30am breakfast, when a stream of water started pouring down the side of the building. We all just sat there staring at it for about 15mins, just presuming everything was ok and it was the air conditioner of something. Someone went upstairs, and it turned out there was a huge puddle of water coming out from one of the rooms! One of the pipes had totally exploded and water was POURING out everywhere! Luckily the lady had put all her stuff on the bed and so it wasn't my problem, but I felt sorry for the guys at the hotel!
We left at 6am and got to the border by about 9am. The Egyptians, in their usual style, were slow as a wet week and trying to extract bribes from myself and the driver. Neither of us were about to give in, so it took us about an hour to get out of Egypt. We met our Libyan operators at the border and got through ti Libyan side with minimal fuss - a nice change.
First stop over the border were the war memorials of Tobruk. Unbelievable, the Prince Andrew (of York) had been there an hour before we arrived! Damn unlucky not to catch him! There was an early remembrance day ceremony, and there were wreaths from the various embassies and a few individuals. One was incredibly touching.
It was a letter laid on the grave of a young British man who had dies in 1941 when he was 24. The letter was from his wife, now in her eighties, talking about how she still missed him and was proud of what he had done. A few people walked away from that with tears in their eyes.
Today was originally broken into two days, so invariably with the border crossing, Tobruk sites, and hours of travel we missed our last planned stop, a ruined Byzantine church, but planned to fit it in tomorrow instead. We got into the hotel quite late, about 7pm. The hotel seemed very nice, although strangely, I was put in a completely different part of the hotel to my group. On the way to my room I was stopped by a you boy, about 16, and propositioned in no subtle manner. I don't know if the hotel had anything to do with this but he was clearly a prostitute...I felt really sorry for him but in the end had to tell him pretty strongly to get lost...eesshhh!
Day 5: Cyrene
Today turned out to be a real highlight, probably the best day of the tour so far. We left nice and early, and our first stop was the museum of the site of Cyrene, a Greek city dating from 7th century BC. The museum, although small, had some great statues and was well worth seeing. We spent the next three hours touing the site, which was fascinating and quite well preserved (it's also a UNESCO site). The highlight was definantly the Temple of Zeus, a huge and really well preserved/restored temple that would have been very impressive in its day. We had planned to have a picnic here, but just as we were unloading all the food, the dark clouds that had been threatening all morning released themselves, and we we forced to run for cover in the bus. All seemed lost, but Idris, our Libyan guide, suggested we take our picnic to one of the Greek tombs inthe side of the hill. We did so, and it proved to be a fantastic lunch. Eating homecooked Libyan food in a 6h century BC Greek tomb with the rain pouring down outside will be one of the enduring memories of the trip for all of us!
After the rain had died down, we went to see the Byzantine church we had missed yesterday (pretty unspectacular - there was some puppies there though!), and then onto Apollonia - the port of Cyrene. It was great, Apollonia is right on the Medeteranian Sea; the wind had really whipped up after the rain and it was very exhilarating being there. The theatre is one of the best located in the world, the stage there being about 7 or 8 meters from the sea.
We got back around 7pm again, and just had a light dinner at the hotel after our mammoth meal for lunch. Everyone (myself included) is very tired.
Day 6: Bengazi
Today was mostly about getting from A - B via a few points of interest. We left bright and early at 8am and headed out towards Qsar Libya, and fantastic museum with very interesting Byzantine mosaics. There was a hitch though - we've been in Libya for two full days now and no one has any money yet. We've been relying on borrowing money off our guide (who has been given money for this purpose by his company) but everyone was pretty keen to offload some of their Micky Ds. We stopped at the central bank at the first major town on the way. Unbelievably, the bank has a working ATM, but as Intrepid has told everyone to bring cash for Libya, everyone wants to change the US$ they have and spend them, as we're all carrying around silly amounts of $$. The bank is really suspicious of counterfeit US$, and so it takes them forever to process our measly requests of about $200US each. While we're waiting, a tall lanky guys starts pacing around the bank orating in Arabic. We all thought he was just a crazy, but when the odd "George Bush" and "Iraq" came up in his speech, I started to get a bit worried. The banks security didn't seem too concerned, but our security man* looked a bit worried for the first time. He spoke to the bank security and to my relief pretty soon he was bundled off, protesting vigorously.
Qsar Libya proved to be well worth the stop, with some really unusual mosaics uncovered from the floor of a 6th century Byzantine church. Rather than being good because of their artistry, these were interesting because of their subjects, which inluded some very strange monsters and one of the only representations of the Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Very unusual for a church.
Next stop, which involved a significant detour, was Ptomlais, another Greek city similar to Cyrene. This was totally lame, there's almost nothing lest standing, and the only significant thing (a huge underground cistern) has been so badly restored with concrete that it looks like it was build as a WWII storage depot. I am recommending we take this off the tour as it involved a significant detour off the road and is really lame (and I'm a ruins buff - I think Troy is cool)!
Bengazi, our stop for the night turned out to be a very poor city with crumbling buildings and youths hanging around everywhere up to no good...not exactly a great stop on grand tour of N. Africa. the only thing to see was the citys souqs (bazaars), which our guide offered to take us to as part of an orientation walk. It turned out to be more of a disorientation walk - after being taken very much the long way to the souq (which was lame anyway) everyone was pretty pissed off and tired and I was stressed about my lack of control over the whole situation. To top things off, I was told that our flight times to Tripoli the next day had changed and we were to leave at 6am instead of 8am. What can you do...? Anyway, I found a decent place for dinner (Turkish - I felt homesick for Turkey) everyone felt better and we all got an early night.
So far, Libya has been, well, interesting. The place is totally falling apart, with a huge rubbish problem and by far the most uninspiring architecture I've ever seen - just unpainted concrete boxes everywhere - it hurts my eyes!! I think its a great lesson to any would-be revolutionary. Ghadaffi (whose picture is everywhere) may have started the republic with some great ideas, but he clearly has no idea what he's doing. Libya is the third richest country in Africa, but none of the oil wealth generated is visible anywhere. It's a very depressing place...
* Our security guy is a total spiv. It's hilarious, he looks really shifty, wears dark glasses and can't go for more than an hour without a smoke.
Day 7: Tripoli
We had to be up early again for our flight to Tripoli, the capitol of Libya. The flight was fine, all was very normal (except they left the cockpit door open the whole flight!) and we arrived in Tripoli about 9am. As the federal election is coming up, some of the pax had organised to do it in Tripoli - good for them! So as we arrived early we went to the embassy on the way to the hotel, who told us to come back between 3 and 4pm. Our new Libyan leader, who was with us just for Tripoli and turned out to be a mojor partner in the company, took us for tea/coffe while we waited for our rooms. we checked in, had some lunch, and then, to my disbelief, the guide said he had to take off for an hour to do something "important", right as our tour of the Tripoli Medina was about to start! Unbelievable. We all thought meantime we could head off to vote while we waited for him. We got halfway to the Australian consulate, when he called and said he was waiting for us...so we all walked back. I hate this kind of disorganization...it's really unprofessional. Anyway, his tour was very good, if a bit long, and everyone, exhausted after so many early mornings crashed. I too am totally exhausted, but I thought I'd get started on this entry to let you all know how things are going over here. Soooo, now I have I am off to beeeeeeddddd...