Rising at 6am to crack on to the border, it is with tremendous chagrin that I must report the minibus to Ben Guerdane did not leave until just after 8am. But to cheer me up on the way to the ‘Gare Routiere’, a gentlemen who was setting up his market stall at the side of the road came running over to me saying that he knew me. This is a typical ploy in this part of the world (especially Egypt), but no, he did actually recognise me – “you’re the guy who’s been to 142 countries!” he said as he shook my hand.
But, er, how….?
“You were on television yesterday, on the news, I saw you!” The interview I did for the French news agency last Monday must have got around. Well, that put a spring in my step. I sat waiting for the damn minibus to leave (only when it’s full!) and woke myself up with a coffee. I eventually got to the Libyan border at 11am, two hours late – a little embarrassing for Mr. Time-And-Motion over here as I was to meet my guide and, I was later to discover, he had been waiting for hours.
Now I explained in the blog entry “Groundhog Day” about Colonel Gaddafi banning all Europeans from entering his pleasant little dictatorship, but did I also mention that even if you’re British, American or Australian and you get a visa, you still have to have a ‘guide’ to accompany you everywhere? Why? Because apparently otherwise us Westerners will steal stuff.
I mean, what?
Where does Gaddafi get off accusing me of being a thief? The fact that he’s been systematically stealing BILLIONS of dollars from his own country since 1969 doesn’t seem to phase him. Oh well, I guess only God can judge him and all that crap. Well, I’m quite judgemental myself and I (like most Libyans) will be more than happy to see the nasty old tyrant drop dead. However, since the guy is an absolutist monarch (quick note to fascist dictatorships around the world – adding the worlds ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ to the name of your country isn’t fooling anybody, you know) his son is probably going to succeed him – the usual case with long-serving Nazis such as Fidel Castro (succeeded by his billionaire brother) and Omar Bongo (succeeded by his billionaire son) – in elections which nobody in their right minds would regard as ‘free’ or ‘fair’.
Luckily for me, my guide was a really nice chap. I’m not going to tell you his name, as this blog entry is going to be tremendously critical of Gaddafi and I don’t want my guide getting into trouble.
With my Arabic Translation in my passport, and the promise I was going to pick up my visa on the other side, the Tunisian border guards (them who had given me a flat ‘interdit!’ last May) stamped me out and waved me through. Made me think I should have pretended I was meeting a guide last year and got over the border line, just a few meters away…
In… into Fortress Libya. I had finally, FINALLY, made it into country 143 (it should have been country 67)
It had taken me a month to get here, but here I was in Libya, on my third attempt. I met my guide on the Libyan side and he got me through the formalities amazingly quick. He then took me for a drive inside Libya. Since I was already over the border and it would not be helping me along the way, I was happy to explore the place that had cost me hundreds of pounds to step foot in.
And what is there to report? Libya is remarkably similar to every other North African/Middle Eastern country; you don’t see too many women out and about, the food isn’t great and it’s not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (that would be Britain, if you think about it), it’s more of a big fat desert with a bunch of concrete hovels lining the road. Nice! I would desperately like to visit Leptus Magna and see the Roman ruins, but there’s no time on this trip, so I had to make do with a little kebab and (yes it IS everywhere!) a bottle of Coke in the town of Zuara.
Once inside the borders, the security was not too strict, and I didn’t feel the oppressive hand of the so-called security services that one encounters far too often in West and Central Africa. Green flags fluttered everywhere (great design guys!) the irony of this being one of the least ‘green’ states on the planet is, I’m sure not lost on you.
My guide was sad that I wasn’t staying longer. With the embargo against European travellers, thousands of people involved in the nascent tourist industry here are now out of work. But does Gaddafi give a damn? Nah, he’s too busy playing goofy political games. The Libyan people are stuck in a 1984-esque nightmare in which they are constantly told that they are in power, that they have a say in the future of their country, only to be beaten down by that iron boot if they – shock horror – dare question the wisdom of their crazy unelected leader.
Of course, Gaddafi has always been as mad a bottle of badgers. In the 1970s, he spent a few days in the desert and wrote his infamous ‘Little Green Book’, possibly a companion piece to Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. You think that a little unfair? Well it’s not. They were all mad fascist dictators with a messiah complex and all wrote a book saying how they think people should act. Self-help books written by psychotic nutcases! Great! What next? Cooking with Stalin? Dog Grooming by Pol Pot? Flower Arranging by Idi Amin?
Hold me back.
Why the hell are people like this still in power? Is it just me that thinks that a seat in the UN should be aspirational, not a catch-all for every government on Earth, be it a fascist hellhole, a narco-state, a kleptocracy or (in the case of Somalia) a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Membership of the UN shouldn’t be an automatic given, it should be earned, through peace, democracy, freedom of the press and free and fair elections.
Or if you want every damn sovereign state in the UN, lets have a points system in which truly democratic states are rewarded with greater voting power (ie. Britain gets 100 points, Guinea gets 1) on resolutions – this would do away with the need for the security council, as no nutbag dictatorships would get much of a say in anything anyway.
This would help the domestic opposition’s cause… at the moment, what incentive is there for your typical camouflage-clad Aviator-wearing African Fascist to clean up his act? NONE WHATSOEVER. They have oil, or gold, or coltan, or diamonds. As long as the rest of the world needs the commodities that they control, the rest of the world can go to hell. As a matter of fact, so can their own tiresome populations. UN sanctions? Bring them on! They only end up killing the hoi polloi and 99% of those loooosers are not needed for the extraction of commodity A or B anyway, so wot me worry?
Sadly, this is the case in more countries than I care to mention, Libya just being one of them. Imagine an entire population – Zimbabwe is a good example – waiting for one man to die so they can be free. You think they’ll erect statues to Mugabe? They’ll be queuing up to spit on his corpse. You want to be great? You want to go down in history as a hero? A leader of men? Stop looking at your own bank balance and look to the happiness of the people you claim to represent. If you’re in charge of a sullen land (Mr. Brown) you might – just might – be doing something wrong.
After lunch, we drove back to Tunisia, past the lagoon and out of Gaddafi’s sandbox adventure. My guide was good enough to take me back to Ben Guerdane, leaving me at the shared-minibus station. I said my goodbyes and if I ever return to Libya (if they let me after I post this entry!) I’ll be giving him a bell. If anyone reading this fancies a bit of a desert safari through the realm of Tripolitania, get in touch with me – this guy will get you through the border quick smart and he won’t rip you off.
Did I mention it’s my birthday today? Maybe I should’ve. I was hoping to get back to Tunis for about 10pm, and have a few celebratory drinks with Dja, Claire and their mates. But hope doesn’t set you free, carving a hole behind your poster of Rita Heyworth with a rock hammer will set you free and today my rock hammer was out of order.
It was midnight before I returned, too late for Dja and Claire’s mates to be out on a school night. But we made the most of it, I had a few beers and settled down for bed at around 2am. I had conquered one of the forbidden kingdoms, I had to be up early in the morning for Fortress Algeria…
Interestingly, I’ve now spent a birthday in Europe (25), America (1), Asia (2), Australia (2) and Africa (1). Do I win a fiver?