Saturday, September 08, 2007

In which Mr Blog overcomes his fear of horses in the sands of Libya

Al Jazera bubbles melodically behind me, flashing images of Sydney and the APEC conference behind me. In front of me is quite possible the worst cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.

I’m in a funny place. An airport business class lounge with no alcohol. Usually the presence of free booze means you don’t have to drink airline coffee, but here it’s brown sludge or orange sludge, which carries a worrying warning – “Danger of sugar” – on the dispenser.

As Maximus would say: “At my command, unleash hell…” This must be what it’s like.

Welcome, Legion of Fans, to the Great Arab Peoples Socialist Jamahiriya – the country formerly known as Libya. (Ok, still known as Libya, but the official title is more catchy, don’t you think?).

I’m at the end of my trip. I’ve been too busy interviewing people all week to blog. And, besides the internet connection in Tripoli’s premier hotel didn’t work. The office one, where I was working some days, is reportedly bugged.

I’ve narrowly avoided being arrested by the Tourist Police (whose job is to harass tourists); wandered through Roman ruins; practised by Russell Crowe impersonation (“husband to a murdered wife; father to a murdered son…”) and done a couple of Elvis numbers at a substantially intact Roman theatre; and had a brush with death at a horse racing meeting.

In between those highlights, LOF, absolutely nothing of interest has happened to me. Which is what I like about Libya. Allow me to explain…

Arriving here in the Jamahiriya (such a good word), I was half expecting to be clapped in irons, or possibly expectorated upon, being an ally and (very occasional) supporter of the Great Satan that I am. At the very least I expected a “Bush number 10” or two as I walked the souks of Tripoli’s old quarter.

Having been hassled to an inch of my life in Zanzibar’s stone town (and told that all westerners simply want to make war on Islamic people), I was half expecting a bit of the same in Libya. (in the case of the above allegation, I certainly wanted to make war on the individual concerned, and Mrs B had to restrain me from snotting him).

But back to Libya. Nothing. As I walked I received the odd “Salaam”, the occasional nod; but mostly I have nothing to report. As a foreigner in this part of the world, it’s quite nice to pass unnoticed. In my view, there should be more indifference around the world.

I’ve reached a pleasant point in life where I no longer feel compelled to treat every visit to a new country or culture as THE most AWESOME experience of my life.

I’m a bit ambivalent about Libya, in fact. Nice enough, but a bit one dimensional. Very easy to get around; very friendly and all that caper, but – as you can tell so far – nothing much to write home about.

The Tourist Police episode is a bit of a beat up. I arrived at the quite astonishing ruins of Leptis Magna (ruin doesn’t really do it justice – it’s more like a lost city) and proceeded with my two pommie colleagues to go off sight seeing. Our drive was parked about 100 metres away, enjoying his air con far more than any bunch of old rock. A smartly clad policeman in khaki beckoned to me (I hate that) and said, via a somewhat sleazy looking tourist guide “go and get your drive and bring him to me.”

“No.” I said.

The other thing I like about being 43 is that I’m no longer scared of developing world authority figures. It’s a fine line between knowing one’s rights and being locked up sometimes, but after 12 years on the dark continent I like to think that I can see a shakedown coming an African kilometre away (and that’s a long way, LOF).

Anyway, the khaki-clad one became more agitated and the tout insisted that I walk across the car park and get the drive.

“Bugger off,” I added. It’s nice to be old and cranky, isn’t it? I had a lovely tour of the lost city of Leptis (ruin doesn’t do it justice). And that’s the end of that not-very-interesting, but satisfying story (imagine the publicity for the books if I’d been arrested by the Gaddafi regime for not fetching my driver? Damn).

My brush with death at the horse meeting coincided with the (sort of) conquering of my fear of horses.

Me, the photographer (I was in Libya doing a magazine story) and our contact got invited to a race meeting out near Tripoli airport. I find horse racing and other equestrian events about as interesting as cricket, which is to say not at all. I went expecting nothing, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Somehow we ended up in the veterinary stables, being escorted about by a rotund, affable Libyan vet, who had trained in Nicaragua (as evidenced not by a framed degree, but several pictures of the good doctor arm-in-arm with some very comely senoritas).

We went, dutifully, to watch some showjumping, which was so boring it reminded me of 20-20 cricket. Anyway, we wandered away in search of better photo opportunities and found ourselves on a sandy field, confronted by a line of men in traditional flowing white robes, mounted on some very impressive Arab chargers.

They walked, line abreast, up the field and the crowd of male spectators ambled along behind them. We joined the throng. It was an agreeable late afternoon and the photographer was happy. When the photographer is happy, I am happy.

When the horsemen reached the far end of the field they abruptly turned and, on some unheard signal, broke into full gallop – this time charging straight towards the crowd!

Let me tell you, LOF – I ran! Along with every other man and boy on the field in this impromptu “running of the Arabs”. The horsemen were giving no quarter. This was a race, with humans (on foot) reduced to little more than speed bumps or traffic cones.



Fantastic photo opportunity.

All in all, like nothing else I experienced all week.

After our breathing returned to normal we toured the tented encampments of the horse owners and riders and a crow of Arabs persuaded me to do something very unnatural (behave, Ali G).

I was forced, perhaps on pain of being forced to read the Tripoli Post (the country’s august daily English newspaper), to mount one of the horses (behave, Ali G).

As if I hadn’t pooh-poohed once that day already, I manfully cocked a leg and was assisted into the saddle.

“El ‘awrence, El ‘awrence,” the crowd of assembled robed warriors chanted. (actually they laughed).

I’d only been on a horse once before in my life – at age 17, I believe. All I recall of that event is a cracked collarbone, which still aches in the winter, and a hitherto lifelong conviction that I would never ever, get back up in that saddle. Well, I did, but it still doesn’t make sitting on an animal right.

I may blog some more on Libya, but my business class flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg (I flew half way through this post) is about to board and I would hate to miss the pre-takeoff champagne.