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