“At this point, this was my situation. I was in a city I had never heard of, I didn’t know if I really even had a flight ticket, or better still if a flight even existed, Muad, my new Libyan facebook bff, had booked it on my behalf and that’s all I knew. I definitely didn’t have a visa of any kind, an absolute prerequisite to visit Libya, so even if there miraculously was a flight AND even more miraculously I had a flight ticket, then the chances of being let on the flight were slim, if I somehow talk my way past that, the chances of Libyan immigration on the other side stamping me into their country was slimmer still. Now, on top of all that the guy who ‘organised’ all this for me was a guy who I have never met, spoke to or heard of. I had no connections to him other than he was overwhelmingly keen for me to visit his wartorn, ISIS infested nation. What could possibly go wrong…“…..
Just 15 countries left, 181 already explored, you’d be forgiven for assuming it shouldn’t be so hard. And it shouldn’t be unless, that is of course, you’re planning to visit a warzone, then it becomes all the more difficult. I was facing that reality when I started exploring my options about visiting Libya.
I was finishing up my 2015 Cape Town to Casablanca African epic, and started to cast an eye on the countries I had left before I could be one of the few people to say they’ve been to every country on the planet. I knew Afghanistan would be tricky but possible, same for Pakistan, Turkmenistan and hopefully Eritrea. There was however one worrying country screaming at me, I had actively avoided it whilst I traveled around Africa last year for this very reason – Libya was waiting for me.
I’m not sure if you know but Libya has been in turmoil in recent years, they finally rid themselves of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 after 40+ years of the most undemocratic rule you could imagine. Civil war had scarred the nation. Now in the ashes, Libya was looking to re-establish itself. Then an opposition sprang up and the revolution wasn’t over, it was on going. To top it off, ISIS had swarmed into the power vacuum and established themselves in the east of the country, and they were gaining ground westward almost daily. Great time to visit, I heard it’s lovely this time of year, so my planning to visit began.
Rejection after rejection from even the most liberal of visa operators “Libya is at war” “ISIS is growing here” “Come back when it’s safe again”. The country appeared shut to tourists, and in all honesty I completely understood. Then I got a beep on my iPhone. Someone had sent me another msg on my facebook page.
Muad, a Libyan guy based in Misurata, central Libya, sent me a message completely out of the blue stating it was very tough to get permission to visit Libya right now, and that he loved to travel, he thought a trip to the every country in the world sounded amazing, and ‘if I would let him’, he would love to try to help me to visit Libya. Yes please Muad.
This was around November time. After a couple of messages with Muad, he began concocting a way for me to skip getting the visa and just flying straight into Libya, it sounded a little risky but I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained so on we went.
In December, Muad sent me a letter all in Arabic telling me he had had permission from the Department of Culture stating I was welcome in Libya and he enclosed the scanned letter. Amazing. I started to feel a little more skeptical though. Why is this guy so eager for me to come to Libya? Why is he being SO SO SO helpful? I’ve just gone viral for making quite a chunk of money online, am I being set up? Terrorist are all over Libya, is it that? The revolution in Libya was horrific, is it linked to that? I shelved those thoughts for a while and flew to London to collect some more tricky visas for other countries.
Whilst banging on the doors of countless embassies in London, I walked right past the Embassy of Libya. I thought I’d just double check what this letter said, and if it was valid. I explained my odd situation to the Libyan lady behind the desk, and she translated the letter for me with dismissive scowl. It essentially read “Please let Johnny in to Libya, cheers” or words to that effect. Will it work? I chirped in, already knowing the answer. “I wouldn’t board a flight without a visa, they won’t let you in, but it’s up to you”. Great.
I contacted Muad, now even more skeptical, and explained what the embassy said. “Listen Johnny, I know it sounds dodgy, but trust me, I have connections. Book your flight, print out this new letter I’ve attached and bring it to the airport, I’ll take care of everything else”. Errrrm. Ok. During this time I’m constantly checking Libyan news and I see ISIS encroaching further and further to the city Muad wants me to fly to, they’re now only 200km from Misrata, and people are fleeing from ISIS swords to Misrata daily, worrying.
TAKE THE HINT
Stupidly I decide to take the plunge, I jumped online and booked a flight from London to Tunis, Tunisia and then from Tunis to Misrata, Libya on two separate tickets. I had to trust Muad if I had any chance of visiting Libya this year. London ticket confirmed two mins later via email, but an hour later Libyan Airlines cancelled my ticket to Misrata. At this point I was thinking there have been too many warning signs. Libya is one of the most dangerous countries in the world at the moment, now I’m trusting a guy I’ve only ever spoken to via facebook msg, and at that rate, maybe only six or seven times, the embassy told me there was no chance and now Libyan Air had cancelled my flights. Enough is enough.
I contacted Muad to tell him about my cancelled flight, and perhaps my cancelled trip. Not to worry, he went to the airport and bought me a one-way ticket to his city, in cash, I could pay him back when I got there. One detail though, I couldn’t fly from Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, I could ONLY fly from an obscure town in the south of Tunisia much closer to the Libyan border, a town called Sfax. Never heard of it? Me neither. Why can’t I fly from the Capital? Worrying.
I called my mum, my sis and my mates. No one would help this much, there must be something up, maybe I just won’t go, this is dodgy as it gets. Would ISIS go to so much trouble to kidnap one weird travel guy? Who knows. Those guys are mental.
LEAP OF FAITH
A couple of days passed and I calmed down. “F ٭ck it” I’m going, I’m doing it. Two days, one night in Libya, it’s my only chance. I fly to Tunis on Saturday night, sleep in the airport, head to the train station the next morning, jump on the 4 hour train to Sfax, wherever the hell that is, taxi to the airport there, beg immigration to let me on with my special ‘letter’, arrive in Libya, hope I don’t get my head cut off on some gruesome YouTube video. Perfect plan.
I love traveling in North Africa. Tunisia and Algeria especially have been very good to me, and their people even more so. Out of nowhere I told an Algerian friend of my plan, and apart from telling me not to go through with it, they said if I have to stay in Tunis one night then I should stay at their sister’s place, a refusal wasn’t an option. Two days later, that invite had turned into “I’m free, I’ll come to Tunisia and stay with my sister so you don’t feel weird”. Seriously, Algerians are ridiculously nice. So it was set. They had organized a taxi to pick me up from the airport, dinner would be ready, maybe even a cheeky bottle of red wine. Things were on the up.
The day came to head off into the unknown. I was legitimately scared and had been for a couple of days by now, nonetheless I proceeded bullheaded, swallowing as much fear as I could. I soon arrived at London Heathrow to check into the first leg of this madness. London to Tunisia. “Where’s your visa?” the Check In girl asked me . “I don’t need a visa for Tunisia”. “You do now, they are rioting on the streets of Tunis today”. Wow, this is not a good start. She explained if I had an onward ticket out of Tunisia then it should be fine. I showed her a screen shot of my conversation with Muad and the flight from Sfax in the south of Tunisia and begged her to let me on, she was cute and Italian and finally agreed. “You know there’s a strict curfew now, 8pm to 6am, you don’t arrive until 8.30pm, will you sleep in the airport?”. Feigning self confidence, I told her that I was aware and that I had made arrangements. Silently screaming to myself words to the effect of ‘WTF, WTF, WT F٭ ٭ king F’. So my taxi can’t pick me up, I have no way to contact the people in Tunisia, what am I actually gonna do. Could this get any worse? Again I thought, just cancel Johnny boy, head back when it’s safer, and when the travel Gods aren’t conspiring against you.
I thought these thoughts though, as I was passing my way through security and immigration. Before I knew it I was on the flight, wondering what the hell I’m gonna do when I arrive after a national curfew deadline.
And so I landed, got stamped in through immigration, collected my backpack, headed outside and… silence. An international airport in complete silence. The curfew was in full force, two stray cars picking up VIPs, three SWAT guys with Kalashnikovs and me with my backpack strapped looking about as lost as I possibly could. Wonderful. If this is Tunsia, what the hell is Libya gonna be like?
The SWAT guys came over and spoke French to me. My French is pretty bad, but all last year in West Africa had honed my skills a little bit so I completely understood when he said that travel was banned, there’s a curfew in place. Naturally, I pretended I didn’t understand a word and smiled. The vaguely friendly Mexican standoff wasn’t doing Mr Swat or me any favours but thankfully a straggler off the plane came to my rescue. “Whatcha doing man, there’s a curfew, you know that?”. A Tunisian guy with awesome English. I explained my predicament and told him without wifi I can’t contact my friend. He whipped out his iPhone, set me up a hotspot, and let me use his net. Lifesaver. A quick, desperate call to my friend, then a call from her to a driver, an awkward fifteen minute wait with the SWAT guys involving me ignoring them/smiling at them/avoiding them, and finally a car pulled up. “Gammarth? You Johnny?”.
Two big guys about 40 years old were in the front seats, the hazard lights were blazing, but I didn’t really have a choice so I squeezed into the backseat of the tiny yellow Polo regardless. The guys paid off the SWAT boys and off we went.
We were driving down the motorway, where there were literally no other cars, we were completely alone and it was dark as pitch. It seemed a little sketchy but at least we were on the highway and nothing bad to me could happen on the highway. Screeetch, Michael Schumacheresque right turn off the motorway at about 90kph down some sidestreet. Right, there’s my safety buffer gone, where the hell are we going? More side streets, still driving ridiculously fast and we approach a police check point. Now, at this point I should be worried that I am knowingly, willingly breaking a national curfew but my actual thoughts were ‘Brilliant, if I go missing, this police man will remember seeing me’, so I shouted from behind the guys heads “Hello, how are you” in full English, so he’d register. I also thought that if anything dodgy was planned, they’d know the policeman would now know.
I sat back a little more easy, or as easy as possible when the Polo is whizzing around Tunis’s backstreets at twice the speed of light. After another twenty minutes of flinging around the backseat we arrive at the accommodation. Thank you Allah, Buddha, Ganesh and Stevie Gerrard. My nerves were on edge because of the Libya stuff tomorrow, so I was happy to avoid my YouTube beheading for at least another day or so.
The evening was amazing. Amazing Algerian food, Tunisian wine and an awful movie with Owen Wilson set in Thailand, all in a lush mountainside apartment, overlooking the beaches of Gammarth, with old friends. Not only that but they had bought my train ticket for me the next morning, and anytime I tried to pay for anything I was shot down and told to “Stop being so French”. Four hours sleep came and went and off I was to the train station at 5am, again breaking the curfew but I figured a morning curfew probably wasn’t as strict, and besides my train left at 6am so I had no other choice.
The four hour train journey soon became five, but Libya was up next so if the journey had become fifteen hours I’d have probably been happy enough. If I had missed the flight due to a train breakdown then it’s not my fault, I tried my best, it wasn’t meant to be. Obviously that didn’t happen, jumped out at Sfax station, hopped in a overpriced taxi and was at the airport three hours early for my flight.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
At this point, this was my situation. I was in a city I had never heard of, I didn’t know if I really even had a flight ticket, or better still if a flight even existed, Muad, my new Libyan facebook bff, had booked it on my behalf and that’s all I knew. I definitely didn’t have a visa of any kind, an absolute prerequisite to visit Libya, so even if there miraculously was a flight AND even more miraculously I had a flight ticket, then the chances of being let on the flight were slim, if I somehow talk my way past that, the chances of Libyan immigration on the other side stamping me into their country was slimmer still. Now, on top of all that the guy who ‘organised’ all this for me was a guy who I have never met, spoke to or heard of. I had no connections to him other than he was overwhelmingly keen for me to visit his wartorn, ISIS infested nation. What could possibly go wrong…
Here goes nothing. I strutted up to the check-in desk and handed over my passport. There wasn’t another European in the building. I was getting confused looks left right and centre. People wondering why the hell I was going to Libya I expect, I was thinking the same thing myself. The guy tagged my backpack, printed my boarding card and was just about to hand it to me. Wow, this is actually happening. “Just wait over there Sir”. I don’t know if I was frustrated or relieved at this point, but a man in a suit came down from upstairs and gave me an interview. Why am I going to Libya, where is my visa, where am I coming from. I confidently told him that my visa was on arrival due to special orders (huh?), and that I had my official permission printed on this piece of paper with a hundred and one governmental stamps on it. He looked pleased, and we were off again, right up until he told me to “Wait over there again sir, I need to check this with my station chief”. Bloody hell, this is stressful. Fifteen minutes later strolls back down smiling, hands me my boarding card and says “Safe flight sir”. It’s not the flight I’m worried about, I thought to myself.
In the boarding area, I waited for around forty minutes or so. About five minutes before boarding a very large gentlemen, about 45 years old, marches up to me and says “Are you Mr John”. “Ermm yeah” “I’m Mr Mohammed, friend of Muad” “You go with me on airplane, I help you”. He shakes my hand and is missing the top of his thumb and one other finger. My paranoia is going into overdrive, how the hell does this guy know who I am? Did Muad arrange someone to escort me? This seems really off, and why has he lost a chunk of his hand? War? Bombs? Eurrrgh, this wasn’t good. My head spinning in every direction, I sucked it up and boarded the plane.
The flight was only an hour long, maybe a little less. I woke up at 4am that day, but sleeping was the last thing I was capable of doing on that flight. As soon as the flight landed I made sure I was the first one off, I wanted to get to immigration, see how that panned out, and avoid my new friend Mohammed at all costs. The way I saw it was he spoke little to no English so couldn’t help me, but he was twice my size so he couldn’t certainly hurt me. And off I went like a shot.
My plan was short lived, I arrived at immigration in the airport first, but after one look at my ‘invitation letter’ and my Irish passport the officer set it aside and said my new favourite words “Please wait over there sir”, so I stood in the naughty corner for almost an hour while every other passenger disembarked and was stamped through immigration. Mohammed had reappeared looking meaner than ever, he was on his phone standing right beside me while officiers were buzzing around my paperwork. Mohammed turns to me decisively and says “Muad is here”. Here we go I thought.
Muad, who I recognized from his facebook photo, walked up to me, passed immigration and shook my hand. He had two friends with him who seemed to know every police man in the area, Mohammed was now all smiles and I thought this is gonna go very well, or very very badly.
As soon as I took a second to look at Muad again, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, Libya was still going to be dangerous, but any danger I faced in the next couple of days wouldn’t be posed by Muad. He had one of those warm, kind faces, all helpfulness and humility. His friends disappeared into another office with three of the immigration officials and policemen. Muad and I were the only people left in the entire immigration room, nothing stopping me from walking right into Libya proper. Which of course I didn’t.
We chatted and chatted and chatted. Muad’s English was as close to perfect as anyone can get having never lived overseas, American accent and everything. He was telling me about how he had obtained the letter for me, all his friends who had helped, all the connections that were relied upon. He told me about his own travels and all I could think was how lucky I was to have met this guy.
Soon after Muad’s friends come out from the office, asked for a $80 ‘admin fee’ which is passed over to the appropriate authorities, and I get handed my passport back, complete with Libyan visa. AMAZING.
AMAZING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE
Muad, his friend with all the connections and I march through the airport, everyone had left at this point and it should have appeared eerie in any other context, but not now. I was in my most difficult remaining country, country 182/196, and I wasn’t getting kidnapped and uploaded to youtube, a win win win allround. I felt so guilty for ever doubting this guy, but the brain plays tricks on us. They wouldn’t even let me carry my own bag, amazing hospitality, as I should have known after my experiences in Algeria, another country with tricky politics but beautiful people.
A hotel was out of the question, I was to stay with Muad’s family in a local village just outside the city of Misrata, where I would meet his two sisters, his mother and his revolution war-hero cum international linguistics Professor father, a brilliant man. My next two days were one of the best travel experiences of my life, full of hospitality, revelations, insights into a complicated country and a greater feeling of trust in mankind. I’ll save that for other blog posts, but thank you Muad, you are an amazing guy, and sorry for every having doubted you, or your country.