Monday, April 10, 2006

The Sniffles

Okay, so a brief weekend delay while Lennart and I sniffled pitifully from the tour group cold that we both managed to get, and we played a bit of the latest(last) Myst game, and got a scratching post for Kem, who is beginning to settle in now. I think he's the most calm and patient cat I have ever owned or met; he didn't make a peep from the time we put him in his travel bag in the apartment in Gbg to the time he came out in the apartment here. He _was_ very worried, with shallow breathing and wide eyes and VERY hot ears, but he sat patiently in his bag. The scariest part was having to take him out of the bag at various security checks and carrying him through the metal detectors while his bag went through the x-ray machine. SO many people and noises and SUCH a scared kitty. But I held him securely while he tried to bury his face in my neck, and then the lady waved the wand over us both. He had many fans, though, telling him how cute he was. Kem wasn't interested in any of that, though, and was only too happy when he could get back in his bag and hide! Anyway, we're all here, safe and sound, and though he's not quite comfortable enough to get really good sleep anywhere but under the bedcovers, he's getting more relaxed each day, and getting back to his old tricks, like pushing things off nightstands and tables when he wants feeding in the night. So the outlook is positive. And as we suspected, he LOVES the really wide window ledges and sits there for hours. Will have to take a picture one of these days, so's you can see.

Meanwhile, Apollonia and Cyrene:

Our images from Apollonia...the Greek port built for the major Greek city of Cyrene.

Our images from Cyrene.

Cyrene was a stunning Greek city, and HUGE, spanning a very large area, with two theatres and many temples. Here there were many more mosaics and tessellated floors and feelings of guilt and joy while walking on them. There was no avoiding it, really, the other choice would have been walking on the walls. Or not seeing it at all, which I couldn't bear to do. But there was also a partially restored floor made of marble mosaic with the most beautiful patterns, and each square was different:














Here's one of the views that took my breath away. After spending a couple of hours seeing many astonishing ruins up on a hill, we trekked down a mountainside to have our lunch at the Temple of Apollo. Just as we were munching our sandwiches and basking in the great view of the temple, the call to prayer was sounded through a loudspeaker, and all was quiet but for an eerie musical Allahu Akbar chanting through the treetops. It was very surreal.




And finally, after a long, wonderful day exploring these ruins, we were bussed to Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, where we stayed the night in a government operated hotel which displayed translations of phrases from The Green Book for our edification:









(And though I haven't mentioned everything, and have certainly forgotten much, the one other thing I really have to point out from Cyrene is the Temple of Zeus. This is one of the most complete temples to Zeus remaining. Most columns still have their tops, and you can see clearly where the reflecting pool would have been. It was truly something to see!)

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Day at the Airport

The evening after Leptis Magna, as we bussed back to the hotel, we were told to rise at the crack of dawn so we could get quickly to the airport. We had a domestic flight to Labraq (east of Benghazi) at 9am. So we all checked out early, retrieved our passports (The hotels always took our passports there.) piled on the busses and headed out. We drove straight past the domestic airport (the old US military base) and people were confused. We drove to the international airport, and people speculated as to whether we'd actually come to the right place. But one of our local guides, Nadir, seemed confident, and said, "Just bring your bags over here, and relax. I will check us all in."

There was no one there at the check-in counter, so I'm not sure how he intended to do this, but we all stood around and waited:




A bit more than an hour later, approaching 9am, the sign containing the scheduled flights changed the flight to Labraq to "Delayed" and we were told to just relax, and they'd know more in about an hour. We found the local Libyan newspaper that's translated into English once every other week or something, and found some better seating:



Another hour and a half later we're told that there was something wrong with the plane, and we need to wait for the other plane to return from Benghazi (that flight had left about 20 minutes before) and we'd take that one. This is Libyan Arab Airlines again. We decide they must have a fleet of two planes. We're getting desperate and have to use the bathrooms. A ceramic hole-in-the-floor squat toilet, not especially clean. No toilet paper, but Lennart was equipped with spare kleenexes. The upshot of that was that you don't actually have to touch anything. "That's the whole idea with those toilets," says Lennart smugly. We wait:



Another couple of hours go by. Meanwhile, the number of cigarettes we've passively smoked approaches ten thousand or so. (Smoking sections or the concept of non-smoking don't exist here, which led to one night-time asthma attack in one hotel room. I'm guessing smoking wasn't around during Muhammed's time, or he'd have banned that along with drinking alcohol. My lungs would have preferred it the other way around.) We continue to wait:



After a few more hours, our luggage is finally accepted and we are shuffled into another part of the airport. (We've had to use the bathrooms another time or two.) Another tour group arrives, seemingly preparing for the same flight. How did they know it would be delayed? After another hour, we're finally boarding the plane! Wait, what's this? We recognize this plane! Why it's the same one we flew on from Tunis. Yes...same crooked decal on the bulkhead row...same pipes and wires showing in the same overhead luggage compartments. Yep, same plane!

The flight to Labraq was fairly uneventful until I started feeling really nauseous. It felt like we were going back and forth, up and down a little. Not turbulence. It's a bit misty out the window, and dark. Lennart says he feels like something's wrong. Gear goes down...descending...rapid ascent...gear goes up. Fly above the cloud level...make some turns...fly below the cloud level...gear goes down. Descending...descending...about 100 feet off the groud, the plane makes a SHARP bank to the right and I about lose my lunch, everybody gasps, some oxygen masks in the back drop down, and we make a bumpy landing.

Before landing, a pilot in our tour group said to his girlfriend, "Don't be alarmed, but we're coming in at an angle to the airstrip, but I think we'll be able to correct."

He said that two approaches were made (the gear down twice thing) and the first was probably a visual approach (typical here). Labraq is a new, and very small airport, unprepared for nighttime landings, and with no real ground equipment to speak of. And the plane has no gps or other kind of equipment now required for landing in Europe, which is why this airline isn't permitted to fly there. But we made it, and when we landed, the Flight Crew Purser said something LONG in Arabic, and the locals on the flight clapped and cheered. Then in English he said, "It was very bad weather, but a good plane and a good pilot."

The pilot in our group said that he probably WAS a good pilot to have finally landed, but that had it been ANY other major airline, he would have been fired anyway since it is just too easy to scrape the wing doing a turn so low like that.

Lennart and I just breathed a sigh of relief to be alive (Lennart probably also breathed a sigh of relief that I'd let his knee loose from the vice-grip I'd had it in during the landing) and gratefully got on the busses to the next hotel. The ride to the hotel was uneventful for us, because we weren't in the bus that broke down. ;)

More tomorrow from Apollonia!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Libya, Day One and Two

I'm skipping over Tunisia for now, since it's SO normal (read: European) comparitively.

Maintenance and upkeep are not things that Libyans do. They're all good at putting up the new shiny things, but once something breaks down, that's pretty much it. The first glimpse we saw of that was on the Libyan Arab Airlines plane from Tunis to Tripoli. We didn't know it at the time, but this airline is not permitted to fly to Europe, because it is not up to the regulation standards. We weren't surprised to hear it though. We boarded a quite old Boeing 737 (thank goodness for Boeing's skill at building quality planes to start with) that had clearly never been cleaned once it had come into the hands of this airline. Nor repaired. Wiring and ventilation pipes were clearly visible in the open overhead luggage compartments. There were no seat assignments, this was a seat-yourself affair, which tended to fill up from front to back, foregoing all logic. (It bugged Lennart, I could tell. "So inefficient!" he was thinking.)

Otherwise, the flight was pretty uneventful, and we landed in Tripoli with our passports and bizarre visa documents (1, 2, and 3) in hand, prepared for the worst. Especially considering that they got Lennart's passport number wrong, and had written my date of birth the same as my passport issue date. We got in line, and got up to the booth (I think they like creating useless extra jobs here. In this booth, they had one person to look at the passports who then handed them off to another person to stamp the passports. Plus another person further toward the exit who checked the passports once again. They also consistently had anywhere from three to six people taking tickets/boarding cards...rechecking boarding cards...tearing the little stub off the end of the boarding cards...rechecking the boarding card stub...and so on. Keep this in mind for later updates.) where the first guy looked and us, and looked at our passports, and looked satisfied and handed them off to the second guy. He looked at our passports and looked at the visa papers...put one of the visa papers in a file...called over a third guy to check the visa papers...much discussion. He stamped my passport and handed it to me. More discussion. Pointed to Lennart's passport and how the number didn't match the paper. Lennart shrugged and shook his head, while the guy babbled in Arabic. The second guy babbled to the third guy. The second guy changed the passport number on the paper, stamped Lennart's passport, and handed both the paper and the passport back to Lennart. Why he bothered changing the number, we'll never know, as there were no other people interested in seeing that paper during the whole rest of our stay there.

Then we went through the metal detectors on our way OUT of customs...everyone beeped...no one cared. Some people went around the metal detectors instead of through them. No one cared. We were met by one of the local guides and taken to the restaurant for dinner with the rest of the tour group, had dinner and returned to the hotel for some nice sleep.

Next day we really got down to business. The original plan was to head to Sabratha, but plans were changed, and we went instead to Leptis Magna. It seems our group leaders had heard that many of the cruise ships carrying more eclipse chasers would be visiting Leptis Magna on the day we had originally planned to see it, so they thought it'd be better to avoid the bigger crowds. I am so glad we did.

Leptis Magna was a fairly major city of the Roman Empire during the time when Carthage was a major power. Read Wikipedia's snippet about Leptis Magna.

Just walking through these ruins was amazing. The baths still have great slabs of marble still covering the floors and some walls. Many many columns are still standing upright (though admittedly, many of these have been re-stood up by Italian archaeologists, just the fact that they're still intact is marvelous!) and you can clearly see many of the carvings and reliefs in the surfaces of the various facades.



The arch of Septimus Severus:





Marble steps down into one of the baths:





The communal marble toilets:





The forum:





The temple of Bacchus:





The marketplace:





Another incredible temple, though I forget to whom it's dedicated:






A nice shot of the theatre:






The amphitheatre...where the cirkus was...gladiators and whatnot:





Those are just highlights. More pics from Leptis Magna to be found here (though they're slow loading, cuz they're high quality). No peeking on other days, now. I'll be posting further updates! :)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Back!

Back in Sweden (taking cat to NY tomorrow...wish kitty luck and easy travel!) and boy is it a relief to go to the bathroom with an actual toilet and with actual toilet paper!

Libya really was an adventure. The Lonely Planet guidebook we bought, though only 4 years old, is already noticeably obsolete in many areas because Libya has been changing so rapidly since various embargoes have been listed in the past years. Dress for female tourists is not so strict anymore (Meaning, if your shirt has short sleeves, or your pants are bitchpants, that's okay, but you still shouldn't expect to go into any mosques without proper attire...this isn't Saudi Arabia, but nor is it Tunisia.) and prices have increased considerably (1 dinar is roughly equal to 1 dollar, and things like, say, a can of Pringles (Yes, they had Pringles!) costs about the same, but gas is only around 1 SEK per liter!). But even though there has been more of an influx of tourists during the past couple of years, Libya is still amazingly unused to tourists, and the eclipse brought, for them, a startling number of pale people into their midst...numbers they'd never seen before, and probably will never see again in their lifetimes. To me, it was a bit of a disconcerting thing to be constantly stared at by every single person while walking down the sidewalk. While driving by in the buses, people would wave; adults...usually you only see kids doing that in most places I've been to. Another thing the guidebook mentioned was that people, being muslims, did not like their picture taken. This has taken a vast turn with the invention of cellphones with digital cameras. At the eclipse site, we were inundated with loads of young Libyan men, all asking if they could take pictures of us with them, and groups of them would come, each wanting a shot taken with his cellphone camera. We, the pale tourists, were as novel to them as the sights we saw were novel to us.

We passed wonderfully large billboard images of Colonel Qaddafi staring dreamily at his goal of a unified Africa, and visited some extremely stunning Roman and Greek ruins, remarkably intact. Beautiful mosaics, columns and baths covered in marble, huge temples and theatres, all of which we could go right into and almost feel the spirits of those who'd been there before.

Lennart's still fixing the image directories, and I'll put up the links to those when finished, as well as a few smaller tales of events and one moment of sheer terror. Meanwhile, I'll include a couple of pictures:

Part of the tent city in the middle of a very flat part of the Sahara. The nothingness you see in the distance was all there was to see, outside of our little temporary city:





The air conditioned internet tent from my previous post:





Locals watching us watch the skies. Note that they're all men. There were some women at the site, but they stayed well away from us strange people:





Me in my eclipse watching garb. It was SO hot from the sun...I had soaked my pareo in water and wore it on my head to cool off and avoid sunburn. I got several comments from fellow tourists as to how fashionable I looked, and LOTS of locals asked if I would let them take their picture with me. I guess I looked pretty silly. :)





One quick preview of some of the ruins, here's Lennart standing in the wonderfully preserved theatre of Leptis Magna: