Roman sites in Libya survived the war mostly unscathed, initial reports show

The recent fighting in Libya that toppled Gaddafi destroyed many lives and laid waste to many neighborhoods. Now that the country is beginning to rebuild, Libyans are taking stock of other effects of the war.

Libya’s beautiful Roman remains, it appears, got off easy. Earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha both survived the war without any significant damage. This news came from Dr. Hafed Walda, a Libyan scholar working at King’s College, London. Dr. Walda has excavated and studied Lepcis Magna for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, the new government displayed a cache of Roman artifacts that it says were going to be sold on the international antiquities market to finance Gaddafi’s fight to stay in power. They were found on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels in the trunk of a car driven by Gaddafi loyalists as they tried to escape. No word on what happened to the pro-Gaddafi fighters. One can imagine.

This brings up the question of how many more artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites, and if any made it abroad into the hands of unscrupulous collectors. Iraq and Afghanistan lost a huge amount of their heritage this way. Much of it disappeared after the main fighting, when armed bands looted what they could before a new regime was installed.

%Gallery-140657%Thousands of coins dating to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods have gone missing from a collection in Benghazi, the new Libyan government reports.

These are, of course, only initial reports in a country still subject to much chaos and uncertainty. Time will tell how much of Libya’s rich archaeological heritage has survived to attract the next generation of tourists.

I want to be one of the first of that new generation. Libya has always been high on my list of places to see and my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip there when all hell broke loose. Instead I spent two months out of harm’s way in Harar, Ethiopia.

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, Libya is a great place to go. The nation has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The two most popular are the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha. Both are on the coast and were founded by the Phoenicians. Libya was an important province in the Roman Empire and these two sites reflect that with their theaters, broad avenues, and large temples. Lepcis Magna was especially grand because it was the birthplace of the Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).

Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya include the Greek colony of Cyrene, the prehistoric rock art of Tadrart Acacus, and the traditional architecture in the oasis town of Ghadamès.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How to ride the tro-tro in Ghana, Africa

When traveling through Ghana, Africa, one thing that is inevitable, at least if you don’t want to go broke wasting all of your money on taxi fare, is that you will have to ride the tro-tro. The tro-tro is kind of like a bus system, although a bit more confusing and with a lot less personal space once on board. For first time users, it can be quite daunting trying to hail one (not going to lie, it took me a few days to work up the courage to figure these things out). However, once you learn how to use the tro-tro system, it’s fairly simple (and extremely budget-friendly).

Hailing a tro-tro

There are various tro-tro stops located around each city, and even if you’re not near one, you can often just wave one down on the side of a main road. Often if you look lost or like you want to go somewhere (or even if you don’t), the tro-tro drivers will ask you where you are going. People in Ghana are extremely friendly and helpful, so don’t be afraid to ask someone where to get a tro-tro to a certain destination. When traveling through Ghana, I never actually saw a posted bus route, so I found it helpful to carry a notepad and pen and write down the destination name when I wanted to ask how to get somewhere. From there, people would tell me where to pick up the correct tro-tro and where to switch lines, if need be. If you are traveling to another city, for example, from Accra to the Volta Region or Swedru to Cape Coast, you will need to go to a major station or bus depot to catch the tro-tro.Paying for the tro-tro

If you are traveling within the city, you pay once on board. You can usually assume the fare is less than 1 cedi, and you can always try to peek at what other people sitting in front of you are paying. I wouldn’t recommend letting on that you don’t know how much it is, because while the tro-tros are a lot less likely to rip you off than the taxis are, it still happens. If in doubt, hand the person collecting the money either a 50 pesawa coin or 1 cedi and hold up 1 finger to indicate that you are paying for just yourself (if you’re paying for you and a friend, hold up 2 fingers).

If you are traveling out of the city, you usually pay for your ticket before you board. There will either be signs posted for ticket booths or you will hear someone shouting the name of the destination. If you have bags, the tro-tro drivers may try to charge you a fee if you want to keep them in the back. While I have seen locals refuse this fee, I usually just paid it, as it was a always only 1 or 2 cedis, which I didn’t think was worth the hassle. However, that is up to you.

Departure times

With local travel you can usually expect to leave momentarily after boarding. However, if you are traveling to another city, the tro-tro will not leave until it is full. You have to remember that you are on what many people refer to as “Africa Time” in Ghana, so there is no set schedule. For example, when taking the tro-tro from Swedru to Cape Coast, it took about 10 minutes for the van to fill up. However, when I took the tro-tro from Accra to the Volta Region, it took 3 hours for the van to fill up, adding a large amount of time to an already long ride (5 hours). To put it bluntly, bring a book, because you may be waiting awhile.

Using the toilet

There are no toilets on board, which can be scary for long journeys. However, there is one option. You can tell the driver that you “have to urinate”. From there, he will pull over and you can go on the side of the road. This may sound funny now, but during a 5 hour tro-tro ride in which you you had to wait 3 hours for the vehicle to leave, it won’t be so funny.

Food and drinks

While you shouldn’t expect an on-board dining service, you don’t need to worry about going hungry or dying of thirst. Whether you are parked or moving, there will be hawkers on the side of the road banging on your window and calling for you to buy their goods. Some treats you can purchase from the window of your tro-tro? Plantains, nuts, fried yam and fried chicken, chicken fried rice, Fan Ice (kind of like an ice cream pop), bananas, water bags, apples, snail kebabs, meat pies, biscuits, and more.

What to expect

For one, don’t expect to have very much space. Usually, the tro-tros will try to pack as many people into one van as possible. Once, on a short ride (thank goodness!) from Kaneshie Market to Tema Station, I was so squished in to the tro-tro that I literally couldn’t bend my arm to get my money out of my purse. Also, don’t expect your seat to be firmly locked into place unless you are on a newer tro-tro. There will be a lot of bouncing going on. Make sure you’re aware of your personal belongings at all times. While I didn’t have too many problems, I once had a hawker try to reach in and grab my camera. And lastly, be prepared for anything. I’ve taken simple tro-tro rides where I’ve sat next to friendly locals who would ask me about myself and tell me about life in Ghana. I’ve also taken some more chaotic tro-tro rides with sermons going on, people singing gospel music, salespeople shouting product pitches, and loud music blasting from the speakers (in Ghana, the stereos are often on at ear-bleeding volumes).

Overall, tro-tros are a safe, cheap, and convenient (though sometime unreliable) way to travel around Ghana, and can often provide you will cultural insight and interesting travel stories to remember even after your trip has ended.

Ancient palace discovered in Sudan

Archaeologists digging in the ancient city of Meroë in the Sudan have discovered what they believe is a palace dating to 900 BC.

The team discovered the building under the remains of a later palace. It’s believed to be the oldest building yet discovered at the site, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Kush had several great cities and exported iron all the way to China. From 747-656 BC, the Kushites ruled Egypt as the twenty-fifth dynasty. The empire lasted from about 1000 BC to 350 AD before being conquered by the Empire of Axum in Ethiopia.

Meroë is one of the greatest archaeological sites in Africa. It has more than 200 pyramids, although they’re smaller than the largest Egyptian pyramids.

For a long time Meroë and Kush were understudied in favor of the more famous Egyptian civilization. Now scholars are beginning to realize that this Sudanese civilization contributed a lot to Egyptian culture.

Meroë is two-and-a-half hours north of Khartoum and it’s feasable to do in a long day trip. If you’re not going to the Sudan, the British Museum in London has a whole room dedicated to this civilization and its art.

Image courtesy Sven-steffenarndt via Wikimedia Commons

The Obama pen: weirdest African souvenir ever?

Obama is big in Africa. There are Obama shops, Obama hotels, Obama t-shirts, even Obama: The Musical. A craze of naming babies Obama hit the continent when he was elected. Even better, the proud parents could fill out the birth certificate with an Obama ballpoint pen.

I came across these in a shop in Harar, Ethiopia. A friend of mine worked for his campaign, so it seemed the perfect gift. The box proudly proclaims the virtues of “Quality+Econmy”, promises “maximum writing pleasure and comfort”, and offers a one-year money-back guarantee. How CAN´T you buy this amazing item?

So why is Obama so big in Africa? There’s more to the craze than the fact that his father is African. Many Africans told me they see him as an inspiration, that no matter where your family is from you can make it big. Some also see his election as a hopeful sign that the U.S. is getting beyond its racist past. There was some serious Obamamania in Africa when he got elected but, like in the U.S., that initial enthusiasm has cooled off somewhat. Now Africans are questioning his policies, asking why he hasn’t created closer ties with Africa and why he’s helped some Muslim nations in their struggle for democracy and not others.

It looks like no president’s honeymoon lasts forever.

[Note for the easily offended: the crack about the birth certificate was a joke. I am not a birther. You can tell because all the words in this post are spelled correctly]


Africa’s new middle class benefits travel

Africa’s middle class is growing.

The African Development Bank says one in three Africans are now middle class. While the bank’s definition isn’t comparable to the Western definition–the African middle class makes $2-$20 a day–the lifestyle is similar. Middle-class Africans tend to be professionals or small business owners and instead of worrying about basics such as food and shelter, their main concerns are getting better health care and getting their kids into university.

The bank says the countries with the biggest middle class are Botswana, Gabon, and Tunisia, while Liberia, Mozambique, and Rwanda have the smallest. The BBC has an interesting photo gallery profiling members of this rapidly growing class.

So how does this affect travel? With an growing middle class you get more domestic tourism, good news for non-Africans traveling in Africa. More regional airlines are cropping up, and comfortable buses provide an appealing alternative to the bone-shaking rattletraps familiar to travelers in Africa.

It also makes consumer goods easier to find. This generally means cheap Chinese exports of even worse quality than what we’re accustomed to in the West, but in bigger cities quality goods are readily available. There’s also an increasing number of nice restaurants and cafes geared towards locals. Internet access is also improving.

During my Ethiopian road trip and my two months living in Harar I benefited from Ethiopia’s middle class. Mobile phone coverage is available everywhere except remote villages and the wilderness, and although the Internet is slow, there are Internet cafes in every town. Improved education meant there many people who could speak English and who could help me learn some Amharic and Harari. Often I could take a more comfortable “luxury” bus rather than be stuffed in a local bus with an entire village of passengers. Self-styled budget travelers may turn their nose up at spending an extra two dollars to be comfortable, but the middle class buses are quicker and you’re more likely to meet someone you can talk to.

In fact, I made some good friends on the luxury bus to Harar. A group of Ethiopian pharmacy students showed me the town and gave me insights into their lives. University education is free in Ethiopia if you pass a rigorous entrance exam. The government even pays for your room and board, and you pay them back by working a government job for some time after you get out. The students I met will be setting off to villages to provide basic health care.

Nearly all these students, and in fact nearly all middle-class Africans I’ve met, yearn to go to the West. One even called her country “a prison”. While heading to the West may be a good career move, it hurts the continent. As one African pointed out in the BBC photo gallery, the money it takes to get to Europe can start up a nice business in Africa.