n 1991, I was one of six Americans granted a tourist visa for North Korea. Of course, it's possible that only six Americans applied for a visa, but at the time I felt I had won the equivalent of the travel lottery. My intention was to write a North Korea profile for Weissmann Travel Reports, a destination information service.

However, to get the visa, I had to lie. The application stated that no visa would be issued to journalists, and I worried the word "report" in the name of my company would result in my application being rejected.

So I said I was an accountant. Having lied made me paranoid, and from the moment I left my house, I told anyone I met that I was an accountant.

I flew to Beijing for a train to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The woman sitting next to me on the plane from Tokyo to Beijing asked me what I did. "Accountant," I said. Good answer, it turned out -- I later saw her in the lobby of my hotel in Pyongyang.

When the train from Beijing reached the border with North Korea, an immigration officer boarded and asked for my passport. He saw it was a U.S. passport, left briefly, then returned with two armed soldiers.

He motioned for me to come with him. "Arrest," I heard him say. "What?" I said. "Arrest," I heard again. "Why?" His English wasn't very good, and he thought a moment. "OK to leave train," he said. "Have a rest."

My paranoia heightened. My tour guide was an intelligence officer who, at every hotel we checked into, asked what my occupation was. "Accountant," I would say, and he would look at me skeptically. After the third time, he asked what an accountant was, and I told him. "You know, it's very strange, they told me you were a journalist," he said.

All of which is to explain why I've never been to Libya, and why I'm very excited that travel restrictions for Americans have been lifted. Because I had an opportunity to go to Libya a few years ago. All I had to do was lie.

I met a man at a trade show in Europe who said he could arrange a visa for me. "I'm an American," I said. "No problem," he replied.

He gave me some paperwork to fill out. "By the way," he said casually, "you're not Jewish, are you?" I knew a lie would get me a visa, and the truth would not. I remembered the uncomfortable paranoia of being an accountant in North Korea. "I am," I said. "So sorry," he said. "I could lose my license if I put a Jew on a tour. No offense."

I considered that Libyans would likely find it difficult to get a visa to Israel and told him that no offense was taken.

One need not look as far away as Libya and North Korea to conclude that geopolitics are the natural enemy of the curious traveler. But if a peaceful, welcoming trip to Tripoli is possible in 2004, what dare we dream for 2005? Kabul? Baghdad? Port-au-Prince? Havana?

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See the front-page feature story in the March 8 issue of Travel Weekly for more on this article.


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