Retired Austin Travelers
Trip Report - A Quick Trip to Libya
A Series of Unusual Travel Events
A Quick Trip to Libya
June Landrum 

“Want to go to Libya?” Carolyn asked.  “Yes!” I replied.  Why Not?  We’ve been to many of the worlds hard-to-travel-to, considered unsafe by most, countries so why not add Libya to our list?

Travel arrangements made, visa secured, first negative Covid-19 test result received.

Fast forward to March 14, 2021.  Carolyn and I fly from Houston to Istanbul, where we received our second Covid-19 test.  The following day, negative Covid-19 test in hand, aboard Hahn Airline we flew 3 ½ hours to Tripoli.

We were excited and full of anticipation. 
During the trip Carolyn and I struck up a conversation with a young 19-year-old girl, sitting in the middle seat between us.  Reem was Libyan-born, a student, expecting to study Global Politics in NY as soon as Covid restrictions would allow.

We landed at the Mitga Airport, about 5 miles from Tripoli.  To exit the airplane Carolyn and I were lowered to the tarmac by means of a lift, used in many airports to assist travelers who need physical assistance to depart the plane.  Reem accompanied us – she was so much help both with the language and telling us what to expect once inside the airport.

We, and the other passengers, made our way to passport control.  Of course, I speak no Arabic and the curly-haired official scowling at my passport spoke no English.  Undaunted, I showed him a paper with the information I’d been advised Passport Control would want to know: How long would we be in Libya (6 days), why were we in Libya (as tourists), where would we be staying and who was going to meet us.  The paper I had was written in English, so Reem, as our go-between, was a huge help.

Finally, still scowling, but apparently satisfied we wished no harm to Libya, he stamped my visa.

We were in a rather large room.  Reem explained this airport was a former military installation. The airport we saw was nothing like the pictures I’ve since seen online.

There were no “Welcome to Libya” signs on the walls, no pictures of any of the famous, remarkable antiquities we were there to see.

There were no chairs or tables in this sparse room.  At the back was a wall with a door.  To the right of us was the familiar scanning machine for checking the contents of our suitcases and carryon luggage, and another scanning machine for us to walk through.  This seemed normal to us – nothing we hadn’t encountered before.

We were motioned to proceed to the back wall.

Our young friend Reem and others were in this room with us; some were talking to uniformed officials, and some were being ushered through that door into the back room.  I surmised all of us were waiting for permission to leave the airport.  Some exited the room and proceeded to leave the terminal.

I began to wonder what was lurking behind that door and wall!  

I asked Reem to call Abubaker, the local guide who we’d been told would be waiting for us.  She did, and shortly Abubaker appeared – he didn’t speak to us but went through the door into that mysterious room.  Carolyn and I said to each other “We’ll be leaving soon” – we’d been previously advised the local representative would assist with any entry issues.

We waited for what seemed like a long time.

Finally, Abubaker emerged from the room – I went up to him and he said “I’m Abubaker (which I already knew) and I just need to sort out some things.”  He walked out and we never saw him again.

His statement sounded optimistic: We waited and waited.  Carolyn had been sitting in a wheelchair, but I’d been standing all this time and frankly, was tired.  As previously written, there were no visitor chairs available.  I decided to sit on the floor.  No sooner had my bottom landed on the tile floor than one of the fellows who’d been “observing” us rushed over with a chair for me.  That was nice but should have been presented much sooner!  Other than that, we were offered nothing – no water, tea, coffee…but most of all, NO information.

After her own time spent behind that door, with a wave at us, Reem left without further word.  I desperately wanted to talk to her but felt to attempt that was unwise.

We finally did need to ask to visit the toilet.  As with many third-world facilities, the condition of the accommodation was such only one in dire need would use.    

We were detained in that room for a total of three hours.

Suddenly, without warning we were approached by three uniformed security staffers, one who, in heavily accented English, said “You’re ready to go”.  Just “where” we were going wasn’t explained.

Finally!  We were pleased –assuming finally we’d be leaving that dismal airport. We were ushered into the next room and as we walked briskly, we were handed rectangular pieces of paper we recognized as boarding passes!  Boarding passes back to Istanbul!

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“You’re going back to Istanbul” was the reply.

I asked for use of a phone to call Abubaker, our local representative.  A phone was provided, and I asked the owner to dial the number, which he did.  After the 4th ring Abubaker answered.   I identified myself and asked “What’s going on? Why are we being sent back to Istanbul?”

Abubaker replied he did not know – that all he was being told was that “From the top, the decision was we are not being allowed to stay – just no, we could not stay.”  There was no appeal, no recourse.    

During my conversation with Abubaker, Carolyn realized our checked bags were nowhere to be seen.  “Where is our luggage?” We asked several times.  I was concerned we’d never see those suitcases again.

To the security staffers’ credit our swift withdrawal was paused while someone hunted for our belongings and returned with the bags.  I was relieved but did wonder if those bags would find their way to the plane for Istanbul.
We boarded a small bus and were transported the short distance to the waiting airplane. As I stood in the doorway of the bus, I raised my cell phone and asked the nearest security man if I could take a picture of the plane.  “Yes”, he replied.

As I snapped the picture a hand came up and another security man hollered “Not allowed!  Against procedure”.  Security Man #1 who had given me the original permission tried to intervene, but Security Man #2 again exclaimed “Against procedure!”  I meekly put my phone in my pocket, not knowing if I had captured any image or not.

The picture, above, that I did find on my phone says worlds about our noticeably short stay in Libya.
We boarded the full plane and located our seats. I was seated next to a 50-ish woman dressed in black.  We exchanged “hello’s”.

I immediately pulled out my journal and began a brief record of the series of recent confusing events.

After takeoff, the lady next to me and I tried to have a conversation, but her English was limited to about 10 words, and my Arabic was non-existent.  Her name was Asma.  She told me:
  • Her husband had gone to California 7 years ago OR
  • Her husband left her 7 years ago, OR
  • Had died 7 years ago and had gone to heaven.
  • (Because of the language barrier I wasn’t sure exactly what she told me.) 
  • She had 2 children, twins – a boy and girl - now adults, and she showed me her cell phone picture of the pair.   
I wanted to continue this difficult conversation to somehow build a bridge between this woman and myself, knowing I might be the only Westerner she had ever or would ever meet.  I noticed a ring on her hand, and I expressed how pretty the jewelry was.  She immediately took off the ring and thrust it at me –” You take” – I was aghast!  I objected strenuously, but she would not take the ring back.  She did ask me for my picture, and we exchanged cell phone selfie pictures and a hug. 
I pulled out my passport to examine what, if anything, Libyan officials had done to the critical document.  On my Libyan visa I found a new stamp, which I later learned meant “cancelled” or “no longer valid”.

So much for trying to use that visa again!  Frankly by this time I’d seen all of Libya I cared to!

During that 3 ½ hours back to Istanbul our situation began to sink in on me: We were going to land at a huge airport in a huge city after midnight. No one in Turkey knew we were coming, no one would meet us.  We had no hotel reservation waiting for us.  We were very tired and stressed by recent events.  We were on our own in the middle of the night.

I prayed for a clear head.  

I felt calmer and as I further considered our situation, I remembered a spur-of-the-moment hotel Carolyn and I had stayed overnight perhaps two years ago located inside the shopping area of the Istanbul Airport.  What was the name…what was the name…?

I finally remembered the Yotel Hotel and could only hope they would have a room available.

We landed and were met with a wheelchair and attendant for Carolyn.  The official at passport control was confused by the fact I’d only left Turkey yesterday and was now, at 1 AM the following day, returning.  Not wanting to give more information than necessary I said we’d just made a quick trip to Tripoli.  He mumbled, searched his data base (for a link to terrorism, no doubt), and let me back into Turkey.

After locating our luggage (yea, all bags made it!) the next step was locating the Yotel Hotel in this huge airport.  Explaining to the wheelchair attendant where we wanted to go, I had no confidence he understood our need. “Taxi?” he asked…” No, YOTEL HOTEL”.  I’ve been fooled before by non-English speaking people, wanting to be helpful, indicating they knew what I was saying when in fact they did not.  This was no time to be taken on a wild goose chase.

I asked to go to the Duty-Free shop in the area, thinking that at an establishment offering high-end goods there would be someone who spoke English, even at 1 AM.  I was so relieved when the salesperson in the shop confirmed that the wheelchair attendant was familiar with the Yotel Hotel and would be able to take us there.  Carolyn and I, the wheelchair attendant and a porter with our luggage walked and wheeled to the hotel where they did have a room for us.

It was 4 AM before I could text Phil, to let him know we were safely back in Istanbul.  Text sent, I turned off my phone as I wasn’t ready to have that conversation just yet!

After a few hours’ sleep and breakfast, Carolyn and her travel agent got to work to quickly and successfully created a schedule for us to make up for the lost Libyan days.

But that’s another story!  
I always collect coins from my travels for my nephew Evan.  As I had no opportunity to snag a Libyan coin while in that airport, I texted Abubaker in Tripoli and asked if he could manage to get a few coins to the last hotel we’d be in Turkey at the end of our trip.  He sent three coins, one for Evan, Carolyn, and me, and I’m grateful to him for that act of kindness.

The ring Asma gave me will remain one of my favorite travel souvenirs!

Carolyn and I didn't see much of Libya, but we certainly have a good travel story!