The curtains part, revealing wonders

North AfricaAfricaTripoli (Libya)TravelTrips and VacationsPolitics

"Inshallah" means "God willing" in Arabic. It's good to know if you visit this Muslim country on the north coast of Africa, now open to Americans after 20 years of U.S. sanctions.

The thaw in relations cracks open a tantalizingly closed door. On the other side are such marvels of the ancient world as the ruins of Sabratha and Leptis Magna; the vibrant capital city of Tripoli, poised between dilapidation and rehabilitation; 1,250 miles of Mediterranean coast; oasis towns still visited by camel caravans; and the intelligent, self-sure Libyan people, who met me with eager curiosity on my visit in late April and early May.

Best of all, Libya, like China in the 1970s, remains largely untouched by the despoiling hand of commercial tourism. There's a prevailing air of naiveté and freshness unlike any I've ever felt.

Visitors have been trickling into Libya all along. It received 300,000 foreign tourists last year, mostly Europeans drawn by Libya's fabled Roman ruins, considered the best outside Italy, and its sandy Saharan south, which in the last decade has taken the place of strife-torn Algeria as a destination for desert treks.

There's nothing easy about visiting Libya, especially for Americans. A U.S. State Department warning, citing the country's sponsorship of terrorism, remains in effect, and tourist services are unsophisticated. Except for the new Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in Tripoli, accommodations are rudimentary. At tourist sites, printed information is scant, and guides speak halting English. Changing dollars for Libyan dinars is an ordeal; credit cards are rarely accepted; alcohol is banned, in adherence to Muslim law. And just try to get a visa.

At the time of my visit, tourists could enter the country only as part of a group, with a letter of invitation from a tour company. So I joined a desert trekking party organized by Mountain Travel Sobek, a Northern California adventure travel company. The journey, billed as the first American tourist venture into Libya since travel sanctions were lifted in March, featured a week of hiking in the Acacus Mountains near the Sahara oasis town of Ghat, followed by a three-day extension seeing the sights around Tripoli on the coast, which interested me most.

Because I am living in Paris, I applied for a visa at the Libyan consulate there. After gathering the necessary papers and having the first pages of my passport translated into Arabic, I got a visa in a week.

*

A farewell drinkMy fellow trekkers from the U.S., whose visas were applied for at the Libyan consulate in London, weren't as fortunate. Two days before the group planned to rendezvous in London, their visas still hadn't been issued. Ten of the 16 people who had signed up for the trip flew to London anyway, hoping to get the documents before the flight to Tripoli.

We gathered on a Saturday night at the Polo Lounge in the Heathrow Airport Radisson Hotel. Gin and tonics flowed freely, though no one was quite sure whether they were imbibing one last time before a dry week and a half in Libya or drowning their sorrow over not getting to go. Because I had a visa, mine was a farewell drink.

Trip leader and Mountain Travel Sobek co-founder Richard Bangs, a veteran of first descents of wild rivers in China and Ethiopia, wasn't about to be left behind. He contacted Soleiman Abboud, a Libyan tour operator, and in so doing let a genie out of a bottle. Abboud arranged for an associate to fly to Bonn, Germany, get the visas from the Libyan consulate there and return to London, delaying the group's departure by just one day.

Meanwhile, I flew to Tripoli, where I was met by Ludovic Bousquet, a Sahara Desert guide for Hommes et Montagnes, the French company with which Mountain Travel Sobek had subcontracted to organize the trekking part of the trip. With him was local Libyan guide Bilal Aghali, a willowy fellow in a billowing white robe, who told me immediately that he was mentioned on Page 203 of the Lonely Planet guide to Libya. (He is.)

They took me by van to Aldeyafa Hotel, on a street in downtown Tripoli surrounded by construction sites; nine hotels are due to open here in the next year, they said. The rooms at the Aldeyafa were small, ugly and airless, but the baths were sparkling clean and oversized. Breakfast was yogurt, muesli and Nescafé.

The three of us headed out to see the city on foot. Bilal immediately pointed out a white Hyundai. "They all came at once," he said. "Everybody has them. We call them anthrax."

When I marveled at the fake Christmas trees in shops along Omar al-Mukhtar Street, named for a martyred hero in the resistance movement against early 20th century Italian colonial rule, Bilal said they would be used the next week for decorations in celebration of the prophet Muhammad's birthday. Then he showed me how to cross the street in Tripoli, where the roads aren't divided into lanes, there are no stop signs and vehicles move in herds. You walk out bravely, with a raised hand and index finger pointing heavenward, as if to say, "Fail to stop at the risk of Allah's wrath." It worked.

I could spend more time in Tripoli, which has about 1.5 million people, a fourth of Libya's total population. It has been many things since the Phoenicians founded it about 500 BC: a Roman colonial hub that sent grain, slaves and gold from central Africa to the Imperial capital; an outpost of gilded Byzantium; home port of Barbary pirates; and the seat of colonial aspirations of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before Libya gained its independence after World War II. It sits beside the Mediterranean, all white and toothpaste green, decorated everywhere with portraits of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi, not sure whether it is going to join the 21st century or continue to molder on the North African coast.

In the city's heart, on Green Square, where both Kadafi and Mussolini addressed crowds, I found a lone touristy gesture: a man with a tawny gazelle, skittishly posing for pictures with visitors. Streets to the east, with shuttered balconies and Baroque plaster molding, speak of the Italian colonial period, which started in 1911 and left many Libyans fluent in Italian, eating pasta and bearing Italian last names.

To the west of the square are the walled old city and castle, which date largely from the era of the Ottoman Turks from 1500 to 1800 and house the Jamahiriya Museum, where I saw much to admire and intrigue: its extraordinary cache of sculpture, mosaics, coins and other treasures from the classical world; Roman friezes from the triumphal arch in Leptis Magna; a polished marble statue of the Three Graces from the Greek satellite city Cyrene in eastern Libya; and Kadafi's battered green VW bug, which got him around while he engineered the 1969 coup that toppled King Idris I.

In the labyrinthine old city, there are Roman arches and columns, the handsomely restored old British consulate, which is wrapped around a courtyard, that sent expeditions into the Sahara (claiming the lives of 150 explorers in the 19th century alone), and shops selling little more than battered tin plates and onions.

Never once in my peregrinations with Bilal and Ludovic and later on my own did I feel endangered. I saw only one sign of hostility toward Americans: a newspaper cartoon posted in a shop showing a ghoul rising from the White House. Mostly, I was happy to put politics aside and simply enjoy the faces of the Arabic-speaking Libyan people, a beautiful dark Syrian-black African-European Caucasian mix. Most women were veiled but stylish in long, sleek skirts, tailored jackets and spike heels; Kadafi has encouraged their education and participation in the workforce.

*

A Roman landmarkThe next morning I went by taxi to Sabratha, an hour's drive west of Tripoli on a good highway through countryside that reminded me of Southern California. At the dusty, unprepossessing entrance, I was paired with an English-speaking guide.

Sabratha, one of the smaller Roman colonial cities in North Africa, thrived on its undulating stretch of coast in the 2nd century, then, like Leptis Magna, was buried in sand. Italian archeologists began working concertedly at Sabratha in the 1920s, and some of the statues and mosaics found there are now displayed in a small museum on the grounds. But much of the site remains unexcavated, the guide told me.

Among its chief glories are villas with private baths, including one with the words "Bene Laba" (Latin for "good wash") inscribed in a mosaic on the floor. Sabratha's monumentally colonnaded Temple of Isis, built from 30 BC to AD 14, looms by the beach, waves occasionally spilling over its foundation. The nearby 2nd century theater is exquisitely intact, designed to amplify actors' voices and keep the audience cool by funneling ocean breezes through doorways on the backstage wall.

I returned to Tripoli and was installed in the 28-floor Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel, overlooking the ocean west of the old city. The hotel looks part space shuttle launchpad, part Mormon temple. It opened a year ago as Libya's first deluxe hotel and has all the obligatory bells and whistles: a spa with a smashing indoor swimming pool, numerous restaurants, room service and 300 handsomely decorated chambers.

I had an algae scrub in the hammam, or bathhouse, where as I disrobed my attendant said, "Don't worry, madam. You are in five stars."

The staff, however, would be hard-pressed to win two, so inexperienced they could have come straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. A fax I marked "urgent" was never sent. I was charged for mini-bar items I never used. My laundry wasn't collected as promised, and when I called about it, a man in the housekeeping department shrieked that he had other clothes to wash and could not get mine done.

*

At Leptis MagnaThe Mountain Travel Sobek group arrived, bright eyed and expectant. We had a lavish paella dinner that night at Al-Marjan restaurant downtown, arranged by the amazing Abboud, who had met my fellow travelers at the airport and escorted them through customs and immigration. The group, all Americans, had various reasons for visiting Libya. Robert Wright and Alix Hartley of L.A. were in it for the desert adventure. Ann Duncan of Seattle, who had spent part of her youth in Tripoli, where her father worked as an engineer in the 1960s, was on a sentimental journey. In all, the group ranged in age from about 35 to 65 and ran the gamut from bank examiner to Hollywood agent.

With the group at last assembled, we revised our itinerary. There was time to visit Leptis Magna the next morning, then depart for the trek the following day.

Leptis, a two-hour drive east of Tripoli, is vast and remarkable. It was once the terminus of a trade route to sub-Saharan Africa, one of about 600 colonial settlements on the coast of North Africa that fed the empire's talent pool. By 200, a third of the senators in Rome were from North Africa and a native son of Leptis Magna, Septimus Severus, had ascended the throne of the Caesars. The partly reconstructed arch near the entrance of the site was built to commemorate his visit home in 203.

From that arch, toppled Corinthian capitals, cracked columns, floors with mosaics still clinging to them, temples and forums roll down to the sea. We stopped at the Hadrianic Baths, which had cold and hot pools and still-intact marble toilets. We ambled down the great colonnaded street that leads to the port, posed for pictures at stalls in the market and sat for a spell in the amphitheater, imagining the brawls between exotic beasts and gladiators.

Though the spell of ancient times was strong, there were, at every turn, groups of Libyan schoolchildren to break it. Some peeked at us shyly, others stared boldly, then burst out laughing. We had been advised to be careful about photographing the camera-phobic Libyans, but clearly, no one had warned the kids about snapping pictures of us. They all wanted photos of themselves with the Americans.

In the end, their eagerness to know us, despite the war in Iraq and every vilification of the West I imagine they'd heard, is what I'll remember most about being a part of the first American tour group to Libya. There will be many more, inshallah.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Going to Libya

TOURS TO LIBYA:

Here are some of the companies offering tours to Libya. Prices are based on double occupancy:

Mountain Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Suite 4, Emeryville, CA 94608; (888) 687-6235 or (510) 594-6000, http://www.mtsobek.com . The desert and cultural sites. Dates and cost: Nov. 5-17, Nov. 19-Dec. 1 and Dec. 17-29, beginning at $2,890, excluding international airfare.

Archaeological Institute of America Tours, Boston University, 656 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02215; (800) 748-6262 or (603) 756-2884, http://www.archaeological.org . Dates: Sept. 18-Oct. 2, $7,295, including airfare from New York; Oct. 19-30, ancient lost cities of Libya (sea journey), $6,995, excluding international airfare.

Geographic Expeditions, 1008 Gen. Kennedy Ave., San Francisco, CA 94129 or P.O. Box 29902; (800) 777-8183 or (415) 922-0448, http://www.geoex.com . Date and cost: Sept. 2-18, the coast, Ghat and Ghadames, $4,575, excluding international airfare.

Travcoa, 2424 S.E. Bristol St., Suite 310, Newport Beach, CA 92660; (800) 992-2003 or (949) 476-2800, http://www.travcoa.com . Dates and cost: Oct. 4-17, Oct. 18-31, Nov. 1-14, Nov. 8-21, Nov. 15-28 and Nov. 29-Dec. 12, Dec. 20-Jan. 2. The 13-day tour is $6,995; 14-day tour, $7,495. Neither includes international airfare.

Adventure Center, 1311 63rd St., Suite 200, Emeryville, CA 94608; (800) 228-8747 or (510) 654-1879, http://www.adventurecenter.com . Includes Mediterranean ruins, Tripoli and cliff-top villages. Dates and cost: Oct. 16-23 and Dec. 23-30, land only, $1,210 and $1,243, respectively; Oct. 9-23 and Nov. 13-27, $2,035; and Dec. 18-Jan. 1, $2,079.

Distant Horizons, 350 Elm Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802; (800) 333-1240 or (562) 983-8828, http://www.distant-horizons.com . Historical, cultural and contemporary tour. Dates and cost: Oct. 11-25 includes two nights in London, $5,540, including round-trip airfare from New York.

Universal Travel System, P.O. Box 7050, Santa Monica, CA 90406; (800) 255-4338 or (310) 393-0261, http://www.uts-travel.com . Includes archeological sites and Tripoli. Dates and cost: Sept. 24-Oct. 2, Oct. 29-Nov. 7 and Nov. 26-Dec. 3; land only from $2,750.

Hommes et Montagnes, 125 Avenue Jean Jaurès, LP 223 F-38506, Voiron, France, 011-33-4-76-66-14-43, http://www.hommes-et-montagnes.com . The longtime French Sahara Desert specialist will be sending several treks into the Libyan Sahara in the fall, starting at $2,150, excluding airfare.

TO LEARN MORE:

Among helpful websites: the State Department's http://www.travel.state.gov and, for background, http://www.libyaonline.com and http://www.lonelyplanet.com .

— Susan Spano

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