Leap of Faith; How I Experienced Libya Tourism
“Libya tourism never seemed so far away. 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.”
“As if they’d believe I was here for Libya tourism, in this political climate. 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…“…..
Libya tourism; Is It Possible?!
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 experiencing Libya tourism. It was proving almost impossible.
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 (EDIT 2021: I did it, and took my mum on my travel to Afghanistan!), 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.
So I tried, and tried and tried once more. 15 Libyan embassies across Africa rejected my visa applications. I was stuck. Libya tourism seemed close for business.
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 ongoing. To top it off, ISIS had swarmed into the power vacuum and established themselves in the east of the country. Worse still, 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. This wasn’t the time for Libya tourism. 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. He stated it was very tough to get permission to visit Libya right now, and that he loved to travel. He thought a trip to 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 2015 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. Progress! He enclosed the scanned letter. Amazing. I started to feel a little more sceptical 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? Terrorists 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.
Libya Embassy London. Another Rejection
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. When I handed her my Arabic ‘permission’, she translated the letter for me with a dismissive scowl. It essentially reads “Please let Johnny into Libya, thanks” or words to that effect. It wasn’t official confirmation at all! Simply a request. Back to square one. “Will it work?” I asked her longingly, 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. Libya tourism is dead”. Great.
I contacted Muad, now even more sceptical, and explained what the embassy said. “Listen Johnny, I know it sounds strange, 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.
Cancelled flights to Isis Territory
Recklessly, I decided to take the plunge. I jumped online and booked a flight from London to Misrata, Libya on two separate tickets. First London to Tunis, Tunisia and then a separate ticket on to Libya. I thought this would avoid problems in London with a white guy trying to fly to Isis territory. I had to trust Muad if I had any chance of visiting Libya this year. My first flight was instantly confirmed two mins later via email. But within an hour 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. Libya tourism will have to wait.
I contacted Muad to tell him about my cancelled flight, and perhaps my cancelled trip. Not to worry, he said. Instantly Muad went to the airport in the Libyan city of Misrate. He 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. This is getting scarier, and weirder, by the day.
Leap of Faith To Libya
A couple of days passed and I calmed down. My thought process:
“F ٭ck it” I’m going, I’m doing it. Two days in Libya, it’s my only chance. I fly to Tunis on Saturday night, sleep in the airport. Next morning go to the train station the next morning, jump on the 4-hour train to Sfax, wherever the hell that is. Take 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. Stay for a couple of days. Perfect plan. What could go wrong“
I had spoken to some friends in Tunisia about my plan. They were worried on my behalf. I told them I would have to fly to Tunis first, to avoid suspicion. They invited me to stay with them for a few hours in Tunis, rather than try to sleep in the airport. I couldn’t have been more grateful.
Riots in Tunisia. Perfect
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 screenshot of my conversation with Muad and the flight from Sfax in the south of Tunisia on to Libya. I 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’. Knowing that in reality, I have no way to contact anyone in Tunisia, what am I actually going to 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 guns and me with my backpack strapped looking about as lost as I possibly could. Wonderful. If this is Tunisia, what the hell is Libya gonna be like?
The army 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 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 standoff wasn’t doing Mr Armyman or me any favours. But thankfully a late-comer from the same flight as me came to my rescue.
Bribing the checkpoints
“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 his to a driver, an awkward 15-minute wait with the army 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 army boys at each check-point to justify us being out after curfew. And on 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, right? 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 checkpoint.
Now, at this point, I should be worried that I am knowingly, willingly breaking a national curfew but my actual thoughts were ‘At least now if I go missing, this policeman will remember seeing me’, so I shouted from behind the guys heads “Hello, how are you” in full English, so he’d register my presence. I also thought that if anything dodgy was planned, they’d know the policeman would now know.
I sat back a little easier, 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 Arabic 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 5 am. 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 an overpriced taxi and was at the airport three hours early for my flight.
The Moment of Truth
At this point, this was my situation. I was in a Tunisian 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 Libyan 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 in Sfax airport and handed over my passport. There wasn’t another European in the building. 100% Arabs. 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 he 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.
Libya Tourism; Almost there…
In the boarding area, I waited for around forty minutes or so. About five minutes before boarding 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.
Nice to meet you Muad!
Muad, who I recognized from his facebook photo, walked up to me. He walked straight 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.
My Libya Visa
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.
The only tourist in Libya
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 all around. 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.
Staying with the Family
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, and all about Libya tourism, for other blog posts, but thank you Muad, you are an amazing guy, and sorry for every having doubted you, or your country.
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