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Journal Entry:

Monday, October 30, 2006 11:22:41

Arabia 2006: 4 - Algeria to Libya

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The wireless internet in the hotel worked great last night, so messages were sent and received - including a gem from Continental telling my the KLM flight from Amman to Amsterdam has been cancelled and suggesting I call them to discuss it. It said they had tried my contact phone numbers, but couldn't reach me - something that should have been obvious as I left Costa Rica on Continental on Oct 22! I expect cancellations, but KLM took me by surprise.

This morning we headed west out of Algiers in brutal traffic, which thinned out once we got out of town. We drove along the coastline for about 75 km until we came to the ancient city of Tipasa. The modern city is built over part of the old city, but most of the ancient city is in a protected area. The drive was a lot more interesting than to the east. The standard design apartment blocks exist, but most cities and towns had personality and the scenery along coast was ever changing.

Tipasa (or Tipaza on some signs) was originally settled by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC. The Roman city covered some 60 hectares, and was protected by a 6-meter high wall with 36 guard towers around the landward side. About 40% of the city has been excavated, including the 3,000-seat sports centre, 2,000-seat theatre, the market place and the site of what must have been spectacular homes or palaces on the water's edge. The main Roman road from cities to the west and on to Algiers is well defined and easy to walk along.

As with Djemila there was a water and sewer system running under the city. Water travelled 5 km via aqueduct, serviced the city, and then drained into the ocean. The baths, military barracks, stables and a huge basilica, built in the 4th century shortly after Constantine made the Roman version of Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, are very clear to see.

My handlers had a lunch meeting in town, so left me on my own in a marvellous outdoor café covered by grape vines, built into the original wall. They had beer and wine, so the specialty fish was well accompanied. I thought I'd make a getaway to wander through town, but hadn't gone half a block before Leila caught me and said Faycol was ready in the car. She had bought me a small pottery souvenir of the city.

After a stop for ice cream I was delivered to the airport. I'd paid for first class, so there was a lot of finger pointing as to why I was booked in economy - first was now full. Faycol had originally told me there was no first class on this flight. At least there was a flight! There was no problem changing the two tickets (Algeria Tunis & Tunis Tripoli) for my boarding pass. The airport is new, clean, air conditioned and quite comfortable, which was just as well as I had a wait of almost 4 hours for my flight. Announcements were only in French.

Boarding was a stop and go process, but we finally boarded the bus to the plane. There are jetways at the airport, but they don't use them for some reason. Passengers scrambled aboard the flight in a mad rush, sitting wherever they pleased. I had someone removed from my seat, as it was a bulkhead aisle seat where my feet could stretch into first class.

Being in the front of the plane I was one of the first to immigration, where no landing card was required. I'd expected difficulty, but the officer was cheerful and quickly stamped me through, and the customs people just waved me along. There were various travel companies with signs, but no one for me, so I waited and then walked the line of agencies again and again. After asking an employee of another company about my agency and receiving a shrug, an English-speaking taxi driver approached and asked if he could help. After I explained my predicament, he took me to a place where telephone cards are rented, and called both emergency numbers I had. One was a wrong number and the other wouldn't connect, so I headed for the Elkabir hotel in his cab.

He was an interesting fellow by the name of Fwzi. When we arrived at the hotel I got a receipt from him for taxi fare, and his cell phone number, as if I was on my own he was my backup plan for a tour. When reception informed me I had no reservation, I gave them the emergency numbers of the travel agency and was soon connected with one of the managers, Nasser Edeeb, who was at the hotel in a few minutes.

When he arrive he explained that they had been meeting flights for two days, as no one told them the flight I was to arrive on - for some reason they expected me on British Airways from London! At any rate, a hotel room and an 8:30 AM pickup for a tour was quickly arranged. After getting an email off to Chi at Bestway Tours to bring her up to date on what was going on, I headed for a much needed bed. It was after 1 AM.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The hotel bills itself as five star, and looks it from the outside, however the inside shows its age and a lack of maintenance by the stained carpets and furniture, a leak in the bathroom plumbing, the neighbours plumbing which wails when turned on and worn towels and bedding. The government Social Security department owns the hotel. The service is good and rooms reasonably spacious. It has a great internet café that is inexpensive, fast and open late.

Nasser and my drive/guide arrived 15 minutes late, so the driver and I left right away. Tajer (spelling?) is an excellent guide. He is a former teacher, has travelled and is quite knowledgeable. We pulled in for gas, which cost a surprising 11.5 cents per litre. He tried to explain the currency to me, but it is confusing, as there are dirhams, piastres and dinars. Dirhams are not used much any more apparently, although they appear on the laundry list at the hotel. The come in one thousandths, but I'm not sure if 1,000 is one dirham or one piastre.

Unlike the French in Algeria, the years of Italian colonialism have left no mark. Tajer explained that they built no schools, hospitals or other infrastructure, basically using the Libyan people as slave labour to export crops and resources. Italian was never widely spoken.

We arrived at the ancient city of Leptis Magna, about an hour east of Tripoli, where we hooked up with a local guide. The city was founded about 1,000 BC by the Phoenicians, then was taken over and expanded by the Romans about 120 BC. The population peaked at around 70,000. Its water supply was from rain catchments, wells and a canal system starting from springs 20 km away, which was then channelled into a sophisticated system of water supply, drainage and sewers.

Although only about 1/3 of the city has been excavated, the walk around it covers miles - it is the largest ruined city I've visited. Many of the old buildings are in remarkably good shape for having survived earthquakes, tidal waves and burial by sand. An excellent theatre from the 1st century AD held 7,000 people. The sports and recreational facility, built in 126-127, has a large sports field, swimming pool, hot, warm and cold baths, sauna, steam bath, massage room, indoor sports courts, showers and public toilets - all with piped in hot & cold water and a sewage system.

The close connection with the Phoenicians was evidenced by bilingual signs in Phoenician and Roman, and in the joint trade council hall. The theatre and a large market area was donated to the city by a rice merchant. The market area included measuring devices for bulk products such as grain, for liquids such as olive oil and for three different systems of measurement for cloth, both for the sale of yard goods and for tailors to use for measurements.

We broke for a sandwich to give aching feet and knees a rest, then drove to another part of the city where a coliseum with a capacity of 12,000 people and a race track (Roman circus) for horses and chariots was located. The coliseum, built in 160 AD, is in excellent condition, and we were able to wander through the inner rooms where wild animals and prisoners were kept, and where gladiators readied for battle. In the ocean in front of the coliseum is an oil port, where bulk tankers unload bunker oil for the electrical generating plant nearby. There is also a desalinization plant for drinking water.

Another drive took us to a second century Roman beach resort, with baths, sports facilities and rest areas. There were murals and mosaics in quite good condition. A sand beach adjoined the facility.

On the way back to Tripoli we stopped at a resort hotel for tea. There is a lot of garbage along roads throughout the area, with plastic bags scattered everywhere. On the way to the resort we crossed part of the Great Man Made River project - a mega project to bring water from an aquifier under the Sahara desert 4,000 km away to Tripoli. I'm told the pipes are 4 meters high and 7 meters wide, and that there is a pumping station every 5 km.

Libya is 90% desert or semi desert, so must import 75% of its food. The population of 5,800,000 have free education. The literacy rate for men is 92.4% and women 72%. A free medical plan gives the country an average life expectancy of 77 years. The proper name of Libya is "The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya".

I'm going to get this away tonight, as tomorrow will be very full with the exploration of another Roman City, a tour of Tripoli and a midnight flight to Cairo.