Rigodis Appling got her ﬁrst taste of adventure at age 7, when she was baptized in the Jordan River. Since then, the New York Law student has dodged drug smugglers on the Thai-Burmese border; been harassed in Morocco; been fondled in India; and in 1999, when her Indian university warned that Americans traveling to Pakistan would be killed on sight, “of course I tried to go.” Appling’s not insane (“I’m not sure about Iraq,” she concedes), but she’d like to add a new You went where? notch to her belt.
“What are you doing here?” the immigration officer asks with a quizzical but not unfriendly look. I explain that I’m an American journalist here to write about his country. He confers with two other officers, who hand my passport back and forth. An American? Woman? In Libya? This clearly stumps the panel. The other out-of-towners in the Tripoli International Airport at 9 A.M. are mainly European businessmen, who, in preparation for their trip to Libya, a dry country, were downing mini-bottles of Jim Beam on our ﬁnal approach. But they don’t garner as much attention as an American woman in jeans and a Banana Republic scarf tied lamely around her head.
No American has had a legal Libya stamp in his passport since 1981. And for a certain type of traveler—the one with a Sebastian Junger complex and visions of young bearded Arabs brewing weapons-grade plutonium in underground bunkers—that’s reason enough to go. After years of negotiations, Muammar Qaddafi has surrendered his WMDs and agreed to pay $10 million to each family of the Pan Am flight 103 victims in exchange for being welcomed back—cautiously—into the international fold. Travel sanctions have been lifted, and curious Americans are taking their first tentative steps into Qaddafi country.
Tripoli has been called the Riviera of the South, a sobriquet created by the Libyan government in a feeble attempt to attract Westerners. While the vast beaches and crystal waters are indeed Saint-Tropez quality, Libya’s capital city is a cluster of low, square, concrete buildings connected by sandy roads full of crater-size potholes. The streets are unnamed, there are no addresses, and telecommunications means owning a cell phone. The primary tourist attraction here is the Jamahiriya Museum, known for its classical antiquities and prehistoric art. But with due respect to the crumbling clay pots, the star exhibit is the light-blue VW Bug Qaddafi drove to overthrow the monarchy in 1969. Still, it’s not until I discover the medina, Tripoli’s expansive marketplace, that I really pay attention. Crammed inside the ancient Turkish walls are tiny shops selling rugs, scorpions suspended inside plastic key chains, antique silver necklaces, and assorted Qaddafi watches, plates, and coins. On my third or fourth trip to Mabrouk al-Shakshouka’s silver shop, the proprietor invites me to have dinner with his family—the Libyan way of saying, “What Axis of Evil? Let’s be friends.” In fact, almost every Libyan I meet is alarmingly friendly. “The problems between our countries are problems between the governments, not between the people” is a refrain uttered by so many that one has to wonder if “How to Greet an American” pamphlets were distributed prior to the first post-sanctions airplane touching down in Libya.
Restaurants in Tripoli are the turf of Arab men—women and Westerners are a rare sight. Most Libyan food is a spicy blur of fish, couscous, camel, and an occasional vegetable, so I choose restaurants based on location. Near the medina, el-Boree Restaurant is a good spot to kill time while the shops close for their late-afternoon reprieve. After dinner at al-Makulaat al-Lubnaniya, stroll the Gargaresh district and watch young Libyan men try—and fail—to pick up young Libyan women. The farther you travel from the city, the more beautiful Libya becomes. To the east are the well-preserved ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna; to the west is Sabratha, smaller than Leptis Magna but equally stunning with its vast amphitheater perched on the edge of the sea. Unlike the Colosseum in Rome, these ruins haven’t been trounced by flip-flops, ice-cream carts, or tour guides dressed like gladiators. There are no Plexiglas walls, NO DO NOT TOUCH signs, no directional arrows to the gift shop. And the urge to climb over the statues in the Temple of the Nymphs like a child on a jungle gym is overwhelming.
But it’s the desert that tourists write home about—or at least they would if Libya had a modern postal system. The only feasible way to get down to the Sahara is to fly. Three and a half hours and two landing attempts later, my guide and I arrive in Ghat, on the Algerian border. We’re met by our driver, Sa’ad, a perpetually grinning Libyan Tuareg (Saharan nomad) who barely speaks English but never stops trying. As we drive into the desert, the Land Cruiser’s temperature gauge tells me it’s 120 degrees outside. Saharan terrain is a lot more diverse than the golden talc pictured on the posters. We drive through planes of red sand, over miles of black rocks that resemble ground asphalt, and between jagged boulders that look more like the landscape on Mars than anything on Earth. (By this time, Sa’ad, noticing a habit of mine, nicknames me “Oh, my God.” “Oh, my God,” he says, “water?”)
The best way to see the desert is to pass right through the scrappy little towns and head for the dunes. Under Sa’ad’s direction, our “camp” for the night consists of mattresses we lay on the sand and a small fire he builds out of coal. For dinner, he cooks couscous, tomatoes, and camel meat and proudly serves his own homemade gin. Nighttime in the desert hovers around 80 degrees and is unnervingly quiet. The only occasional sound is the wind whistling over the mountains, an audible warning that I am about to get dumped with warm sand. “Oh, my God, are you okay?” Sa’ad asks from somewhere behind the Land Cruiser. I’m ﬁne—once I spit the sand out of my mouth and wrap my head in a light cotton sheet for the rest of the night.
The next day we set out for the Ubari Sand Sea—miles of dunes dotted with saltwater oases. Sa’ad maneuvers the Land Cruiser over 400-foot mounds of powdery sand, occasionally passing the blackened skeletal remains of burned-out cars. We drive to the Um-Al-Maa oasis, a long black lake lined with palm trees and shrubs, and surrounded by small mountains that look like they’re draped in plush copper suede. Sa’ad dives in the water, so salty that he immediately bobs to the surface. Waving for me to jump in, he calls out, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Americans traveling to Libya must go through a tour operator such as Arkno Tours (218-214-441-452 or arkno.com). At Tripoli’s five-star Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel (218-213-351-990; from $250), you’ll have Mediterranean views and CNN in your room.