Recently the DG ran a travel piece on Libya, and I joked, "Oh, yeah, I'm definitely going to take my next vacation in Libya." (I am taking my next vacation in the British Virgin Islands, if you're curious.) I'm sure Libya has a lot of cool stuff to see, but are people really clamoring to travel to a war zone? Of course, you never know. I felt sorry for the American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned by Iran for hiking near the Iranian border, but I also wondered why were hiking there in the first place. There are a lot of places to hike. Why pick one of the most volatile places on earth? Why not go to the Andes, or the Himalayas, or the Rockies?
But I digress.
Anyway, this week I stumbled upon an interesting piece in Guernica, in which the writer Kate Grace Thomas describes traveling to Libya to write a travel guide for Lonely Planet, only to run smack dab into a revolution. So maybe people do go to Libya on vacation, after all. Here's an excerpt from her piece:
"As a freelancer, I was pleased that editors wanted my stories. They wanted soundbites from press conferences with the rebels’ National Transitional Council. They wanted analysis on Qaddafi’s most prominent son and heir apparent, Saif Al-Islam, and his now-curtailed plans for modernizing Libya. He had been close to modernizing his father’s regime when the revolution began. There had been talk of small gains towards political reform, of releasing some prisoners, of serving alcohol in some tourist hotels. But the moment he moved closer to the gearstick, wrapping his palm around his father’s like a kid learning to drive, the sandstorm began and trapped them behind a valance of dust. The editors wanted to understand why this began. They wanted to know when this would end. I wrote and sent them the stories. Days passed in a haze of smoke, adrenaline, deadlines.
But war was never my beat and my Libya stories were not supposed to be about it.
In December, before the revolution began, I had driven through the western gate of Ajdabiya looking for honey. Farmers sat in deck chairs by the side of the road, chewing on warm cigarettes and selling large amber jars of the stuff. Honey season was over, but the bees that fed on the shmari berry—a tart, orange fruit that grows up and down the Libyan coast—still produce liquid gold.
I smeared the honey onto crackers and pita, used the roadside stops as checkpoints while researching a Libya guidebook for tourists. The Libya guide wasn’t Lonely Planet’s most lucrative title, but for the last three editions it’s been a standalone book, with nearly 300 pages of reviews, recommendations, and information on ancient sites and desert safaris.
The guidebook I researched last winter was never published, put on hold when the Arab Spring surged into Libya that February. I was writing a guidebook to a country that no longer exists; a country where busloads of Italian tourists gathered around hotel buffets; where billboards advertised the Qaddafi brand—forty-one years, they sang, the leader’s face peering down at the cars on the highways like that of a god who thought he created them. The guidebook I researched was a guidebook to the past."
One country that seems relatively safe when compared to Libya is Morocco, and today The Morning News ran an essay about college students traveling to the country, and tracking down "whatever alcohol lurks in the sands of the Islamic kingdom." Funny, but when I was in college it never occurred to me to travel to a country that barred alcohol consumption. I just went to New Orleans, where drinking beer and cocktails was unlikely to result in trouble.
Here's an excerpt from the piece by Michael Pearson:
"Early one Sunday morning I drove through the quiet streets of Casablanca with 196 college students that I was leading on a summer voyage with Semester at Sea. I had recently read an article that quoted a line from a recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey: “The image of America has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in the United States.” So at that moment I was a hopeful guy—the archetypal innocent abroad—as we drove in 14 minivans on a four-hour ride to Marrakech, the Berber city that long ago gave its name to Morocco.
We arrived in time to go to lunch at a restaurant near Jemaa el-Fna, a tumultuous square swarming with tooth pullers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, and gawking tourists. One student disappeared that afternoon, and given the grisly history of Jemaa el-Fna (where, until the 19th century, as many as 45 criminals were beheaded in a day, their heads pickled and stuck on the city gates), I reasoned it might be wise to find him before he had the opportunity to break any Moroccan laws."