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Tales from the road: Libya to Sweden – overland

Come let us go a’ roaming,
the world is all our own
Half its paths are still untrod
and half its joys unknown
The road that leads to winter
Will lead to summer too
All roads end in other roads
where we may start anew

Peeling for free
I knew nothing about sand coming going to Libya, I can clearly see now. After growing up in the evergreen landscape of Sweden and living in cities most of my life, sand has always fallen under the categories of sticky, itchy, ugly or dirty. It’s what they spread on the winter streets here to prevent slippery sidewalks, what the neighborhood cats peed in at the playground and what you dropped your sandwiches in on the beach. But I had seen pictures of the reddish sand dunes of the Sahara, and those looked nothing like the grey sand beach dotted with bird poop and rotten seaweed I remembered from the local lake beach in my town. And when the idea came to mind that the desert ought to be my next destination the sad sand experiences I’ve had vanished like a mirage in my sand-sea dream.  
   The Sahara (Arabic for desert) stretches all the way across north Africa, from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east. It’s the world largest desert and reaches into more then nine countries. Out of those Libya became my pick, after a quick round of research. It was a country yet saved from the masses and I remember I did read somewhere that the most impressive sand seas where to be found right there. 
   Libya is for most either an unknown country somewhere in the north of African or resembles only to the long lasting dictatorship of Mr Gaddafi, one of today’s longest sitting leaders. For years, Libya was isolated from the outer world but after putting the nuclear program on halt and working through the aftermaths of the Lockerbie bombings the leader is now the so called new best friend of the west. A rich such; the country inhabits an abundance of oil sources and natural gas and no matter the interest from foreign investors, Gaddafi have managed to keep them on a safe distance.
    The county has been opened for tourism since late 90´s but is still restricted to organized tours only so I joined forces with a group of Swiss travelers, lead by our eccentric guide Kathy and accompanied by the Libyan guide Yoseph and our six drivers. In 4×4´s we went roaming the desert, finding a new campground every night where we pitched our tents among the dunes, lit the fire and saw the moon pass and the Milky Way stretch its splendor over us. And after spending 10 days out in nowhere Sahara, I now have a whole new set of different connotations for the word sand. 
   Pure white, beige, reddish, golden, black or traditional sand colored. Hard, soft, smooth, dusty or more like pebbles. Still or whipping, depending on the wind. Flats or dunes. On a distance or in our eyes. Eating in the sand or eating the sand. Sailing over the dunes or digging the car out of them. The incredible silence, serenity and peace of being alone in the middle of a sand sea, or the thunder, chaos and fear when being in the middle of a sand storm. No matter what washing, brushing off, shaking or airing; the constant present of dust in our luggage, clothes and hair, and the extra skin of fine sand that we all just got used to after a couple of days. Real life Sahara, and peeling for free.
   I’m back in Tripoli now, the capital of Libya with the lush Mediterranean coastline as the northern city limit. Inevitable I brought sand with me and this morning my bed was covered with the golden souvenir of Sahara, it will probably take another couple of days before it’s all gone. And for the first time in my life, I can truly say that I’ll miss having sand around.

My absent husband
I got married in Tripoli. It was one of those spontaneous decisions that just kinda’ happened, simply cause of the greener grass and the irresistible offer for a life easier to handle. 
   The start of my life as married was a visit to the family of one of our drivers in Libya. We drank tea, and his wife asked me how old I was, and then if I was married. The answer no made her look at the mother of the family, and then the sisters. Why not? At that age? My guide Kathy, took care of it; “that way she get no headache”, she said and laughed. What did pushed me into it though was when I happily explained for the man at housekeeping at our hotel that I wasn’t married, not at all, actually, and he replied with asking how much money I wanted to marry him. Enough of that, and immediately I had a ring on my finger.
   The difference between cultures and the optimistic Arabic men, made me realize that for my own good and sanity, I better step into the role of a married woman, and do it good.
   I’m no longer a single woman and a helpless prey traveling the Middle East, I have a husband and that gives new weight to my constant no’s. It doesn’t stop the constant whizzing and all the comments, but it does help me out of a lot. A married woman has a different aura of respect and of being inaccessible, and now, I simply start all unwanted conversation with a remark about my husband.  I’m not looking for a boyfriend, I don’t want to stay in your flat, I don’t want breakfast for free. I’m married, you see.
   My husband, though, is always somewhere else. He’s in the hotel, or at his work. He has already seen the pyramids, visited the museum, got caught up in a sudden deadline. I’m just out walking, doing some shopping, a quick visit to the market. I wouldn’t stray far from him and I can’t stay long. He’s already waiting, and usually, I’m already late. But yes, we’re happily married. You could call it a love story. We’ve been married a year now, in fact, we’re working in the same business. To bad he’s sick today. As always.
   My wedding ring wouldn’t stand an inspection, though. I bought in a dollar store in Malmö the afternoon before departure and got a bottle of shampoo for the same price. The ring is already filthy from the pollution and salty water.
   The divorce? Any of these days, and I’ll score the backpack, the Libyan tea, the camera and my precious blanket. This way I get no headache.

After camping in the vast and still desert, the multi million town of Cairo was the worst continue my trip could possibly get. I flew in here, but now I start the overland excursion, from Cairo to Umea in the north of Sweden. So the Egyptian capital was in a way the start as well, but the horrendous traffic, the awful hostel I stayed in and the crowded streets, pushed me close to giving up on the spot and fly straight home.
   I hung in though, knowing by experience that the first days on a trip are never the best ones and traveling is something I work my way in to. Egypt went from being a hard to work country to a really pleasant experience as soon as I left the Cairo-craziness and got more on ease with changing towns, being on my own and carrying my luggage. And I have to add a little line about what will be my strongest memory of the Egyptians; there amazing sense of humor. There was always something they could joke about or make fun of, and never have a laughed so much with locals before, even if I think it was a lot more of them laughing at me then with me… 
Bye for now, Anneli

Water math
The Middle Eastern countries and its many friendly citizens have seen problems come and go for centuries now. If it’s not the crusades or the Romans, it’s the British, French or the Americans. Religion, the black gold, native settlers and foreign fingers in this boiling soup have all added heat to the matters.
   There is one issue though, that haven’t quite reached the priority of the oil, and unfortunately it seems as if the crises is growing faster then the amount of attention. The Middle East is standing on the verge of a serious shortage of clean water, and it’s a relevant guess to believe that when man has drained the oil from beneath, this will be the next cause for war.    
   See if you can follow me on this one; the countries in the Middle East are home to some 287 million people, that’s 4,5% of the world population. Still it only receives 2% of the worlds annual rainfall and are supposed to share 0.4% of the of the worlds recoverable water supplies.
   Decades of wars have let out chemicals and toxics in most water that can be found here, poverty, sprawl, poor sewage systems and inadequate education are worsening the problem. Turkey is building dams on the heads of Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that decreases the water to Syria and Iraq. Egypt has already threatened with military action against Sudan if endangering access to the Nile river water. In Jordan, the largest source of water for human consumption and the deserts the only permanent wetland, the Azraq oasis, is running dry. That will force the settlers around it to move and will leave 20 species of fauna at the threshold of extinction. Israel has been criticized by Greenpeace to foul the Jordan river with industrial sewage. Sudan, and Egypt, have raised their voices against Libya for threatening their underwater supplies. With all rights, listen to this:
   Colonel Gaddafi has his own grandiose solution for the desert covered country of Libya; The Man Made River. It’s just as simple as complicated; to tap water from the basins underneath the desert and pipe it to the costal cities via enormous tunnels.
   The Sahara was once a lush savannah and hides an enormous amount of water. The underground basins are estimated to be in the size range of thousands of square miles, some of them lie deeper then a mile down. 
   The leader himself calls the GMMR the eight wonder of the world and it’s the biggest and most expensive development project ever seen. The Libyan government claims that the two biggest basins hold a volume equivalent to 220 years of the Nile River flow. But the tunnels are created to pipe around 800 000 gallons per day to the narrow coast line, and the critics says that the underground water is only estimated to last for 50 years. What if they’re right? Recent data holds that the water was stored between 14.000 to 38.000 years ago, and now they might empty it in 50 years. Read that again: thousands of years to fill up, empty within this century. This is, by the way, estimated to coincide with the last oil being pumped from the Libyan underground. No oil and no water. The consequences are for the grandchildren of my new Libyan friends to face. 
   You might wonder why you would care, but the lack of water leading to the lack of food, diseases and a potential full scale war and the death for many is something that ought to concern us all. The lack of water in one part of the world means lack of water everywhere.
Start excluding for yourself; if you take away the saltwater, the water capped in icebergs, and the inaccessible sources of water; you’re left with 1% of the total amount of water on this planet. Then do this math; how many people are living without water today, how much of that 1% is polluted and how much clean drinking water did you send down the drain last time you flushed a toilet? Do your math, and consider our equal responsibility of all of our grandchildren.
p.s No, I’m not married. Sorry if the sarcasm didn’t quite come across. It’s just a fake ring, to scare off those who won’t take a simple no for an answer. Read it again and you might see what I’m talking about d.s

Phoenix the bird
I’m writing from Beirut, the capitol of Lebanon. I know what you’re thinking, cause I’ve been thinking the same. War, bombs, destruction and suffering. 
   It wasn’t even a year ago last time, in July 2006, that Beirut was the target for another of the Israeli raids. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time now and a year ago I considered leaving my ongoing journey through the States and go to Lebanon instead. Last summer I sat in the north of Sweden looking at the news thinking; it could have been me. I could have been there now.
   The spring of 2007 Beirut is modern, clean and organized with people driving stylish cars and looking like cut straight out of any European or American fashion magazine, everything the Middle Eastern charm is not. There are buildings bearing the traces after decades of war, the south of town more then the rest. That’s where the Muslims live, and wars nowadays are sophisticated and well targeted. But in the centre of town, around the holes in the ground and the few bombed buildings that remain in the shape of skeletons, a large scale development with new hotels, congress centers and massive condo structures are rising like Phoenix the bird from the ashes. And downtown, a newly built shopping area can boast smoothly paved walkways, international restaurants and landscaped tree lines where Starbucks are rubbing against Mango, against a glass-facade banks and London style nightclubs.
   Still, I can’t help thinking that it can be me the next time. The Swedish foreign department advice against travels to any part of Lebanon and this has actually been the first Middle Eastern country where safety is discussed among other travelers. I came here yesterday afternoon, the ocean was breathing hard against the shoreline and the clouds gathered in heaps over the mountaintops. Two young guys came to my help when navigating my way through the streets. They gave me a possible explanation of the governmental no-no for Lebanon tourism; “today it’s peaceful” they said, “but it changes in no time.” One of them pointed down the street. “Right there”, he said “was where the prime minister got murdered two years ago. You never know. Now it’s peaceful, but it can change any minute.” He swept his arm towards the busy road. “Any of these cars can explode. Anyone. You never know.”
   But today, yet another day in peace have passed under the Lebanese sky. Never mind the military presence with tanks and checkpoints or the occasionally barbed wire fences, today the people of Beirut walked their dogs along the promenade, the waiters laughed at me when I giggled in solitude over my book and two old men played backgammon on a marble bench at the marina. Joe, the guy straightening out my map-issue claimed he wasn’t scared. “What can you do?” he said. “We live here”. Just as the man from Palestine told me on a bus the other day; “We can’t be scared”, he answered on my question about Jerusalem. “That’s our home, we must live.”   
   It’s April 2007 and Lebanon is not a country in war, nor is the rest of the Middle East, with a sad exception for Iraq. And oddly as it might sound, I’ve never felt as safe as a traveler anywhere else before. When being in other parts of the world stories about robbery, mugging and rapes are everyday topics, here it doesn’t even seem to be thought of. There’s no hostility against westerners and the rumor that Americans would have a hard time can’t possibly be started by anyone ever setting foot here. 
   In Beirut the people I’ve met have willingly shared a slice of their daily life, I’ve been invited on wine and cheese and roamed the countryside, marveling over roman ruins and snow capped mountains. Whatever the foreign department says the waiter will still laugh at me and my silly book, and the people all over this region will keep on living their lives; going to work and school, paying their bills, drinking tea and wine, watching soccer on TV and not being scared. What can they do? They must live.

My fifth language
One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered here is the lack of a common language between me and many of the locals. Many, or some, depending on where, speaks English, but
it didn’t take me too long before I could start figuring out a general pattern in the most basic of English vocabularies.
   “No problem” is everything that is as it should be. No “it’s ok” or “yes I really want to do this” or “no, I don’t want that”. Just “no problem”. The word “finished” has also proved to be one of those with multiply use. I’m done eating, I’m leaving town or instead of the question “are we there yet?” An other great way to ease out the differences in this for all of us foreign language is to simply take away all the words that aren’t absolutely necessary to get the message across; “Me go Aleppo tomorrow. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey. Buses, buses, buses to Sweden. No more flying.” That’s my itinerary, explained in this new, fifth language of mine.
   With or without a common language, it’s the patience that will get me the furthest. In what now seems like an eternity ago I came to the tourist empty Egyptian town Port Said. At the bus station, I quickly became the main drag of attention. Within no time I had a crew of volunteers, all willing to help me get to my hotel. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Arabic. And no one, absolutely no one, spoke English. No one knew the address I showed them for my hotel and nor did they recognize the name of it. Well, they mixed it up with the headline of that chapter in my guidebook and thought I was looking for “Hotel Sleeping”. 10 sailors in suit showed up, a taxi came and the driver got involved, my book was passed around and an older man yelled and pointed towards town, the driver yelled at the sailors and the sailors yelled at me. All in Arabic, of course.
   The taxi driver took me to Serena, the fancy hotel in town, where it all started over again. The parking guard, his friend, the front desk staff and the piccolos. “Hotel Sleeping” they all repeated.
   We finally found the hostel, on the other side of town. I paid the driver twice the agreed money and inside sat a man alone behind a desk and greeted me in Arabic. He first held one finger in the air, yes, I’m alone, and then he made the sign for sleeping by putting his hands together and leaning his cheek against them. One night I said and he replied in Arabic. “I don’t speak Arabic”, I politely answered, and he spoke to me again in Arabic, but louder this time. I shook my head “I don’t speak Arabic”, I said. He pointed at the chair, and I sat down.
   Outside the office building look-alike hostel the cars passed by. A torn Egyptian flag waved next to a British and a French one. A TV shouted in the background. Both me and the man sat silent for a while, contemplating the situation. Then I asked if he had a map over Port Said, he made the sign for one and for sleeping and asked me something in Arabic again. I looked around for someone to help us translate, but the whole building seemed to be empty. I didn’t know what to do but told him, again; “I don’t speak Arabic”, as if that hadn’t come clear already. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for that, for my ignorance and frustration. That it ought to be my responsibility learn their language, and not for him to know English, that isn’t in fact either of ours first language.
   He spoke to me again, but slow this time, as if it would make it easier. Now the TV played some music, and I saw people jumping over the flickering screen. The man laid his hands on the desk, I drank some water. Then I got up and took my bags. Shukran, I said, the only word I knew at that point; thank you. He remained silent.
   I found another hotel, and in a store nearby I got to use the phone to call my friend and one of the guys there took me with for falafel and coffee. The day ended better then it started, and now I’ve learned some Arabic; at least I can navigate through the standard greetings, and even show of both slang and my newly won skills in writing my name, to the impressed cheering of many….
See you all in Turkey, Anneli

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