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 landmark
The 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 Magna
The 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.
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