Backpacking Through The Revolutions Of North Africa

Backpacker Billy Six is currently walking and hitchhiking across Africa. i i

Backpacker Billy Six is currently walking and hitchhiking across Africa. Eric Westervelt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Westervelt/NPR
Backpacker Billy Six is currently walking and hitchhiking across Africa.

Backpacker Billy Six is currently walking and hitchhiking across Africa.

Eric Westervelt/NPR

For much of Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year dictatorship, Libya has largely been terra incognita. Few Western tourists traveled around the country. And now, amid the ongoing conflict between Gadhafi's forces and rebels, there are almost none.

But one intrepid backpacker from Germany is defying the statistics. NPR's Eric Westervelt found him in eastern Libya this past week, and it wasn't their first meeting.

I first met Billy from Berlin in Cairo's Tahrir Square during Egypt's tumultuous uprising. He asked if I'd take his picture next to the army tanks and heavily armed soldiers guarding all entrances to this epicenter of popular revolt.

The 24-year-old adventure tourist says his name is Billy Six. He pulls out his German passport. Sure enough: Billy Six. He says his parents grew up in communist East Germany and wanted a practical, proletarian name.

Despite his dirty blond hair, beard and blue eyes, Billy tries to blend in. He dresses in the traditional Muslim garb of rural North Africa, the long dress-like jalabiya, and a white skull cap.

He is currently walking and hitchhiking across Africa. He says he lives cheaply, takes the occasional odd job, but mostly relies on the kindness of strangers.

In Egypt in February, things were getting tense and violent, as Hosni Mubarak defiantly clung to power. While tramping in southern Egypt, Billy was detained by Mubarak's feared plainclothes state security men. Through it all, he says, he remained blissfully calm.

"I want to go to the places where I don't meet all those tourist people who do their normal stuff," he says.

Keep going even though there's trouble?

"Yes. I mean, there's trouble nearly everywhere in Africa, so it's not a new thing here," he says. "I didn't see anything bad — until now. And they arrested me some times, talking and asking a lot of questions — many funny people who were very, very important. But they let me out and everything was OK. Hakuna matata."

In Egypt during the revolution, I thought I'd seen the last of him. But a month later, there he was again — Billy Six in Benghazi, the Libya tour! Onward into the fog, the revolution, the war, quasi-civil war, or whatever you want to call Libya's ongoing conflict.

I began to think that Billy Six was either adventurous to the point of recklessness, or a brilliant German intelligence asset, or maybe just mad as a German hatter.

"I found my way to God during this travel, and he is supporting me and guiding me," he says. "And also I meet a lot of nice people."

To some people, it might seem a bit crazy going into places where there's revolution and war.

"Maybe I am crazy," he says, "but therefore I really know now what is going on. I also know these are not dangerous people. These are very, very nice, friendly people. They try to help me."

Billy says the Libyan rebels have been welcoming and kind. But after he wandered into the largely closed Benghazi airport and snapped some photos, there was trouble. The revolutionaries locked him up and took away his camera.

But it was only for a day. They were more puzzled than angry and let him go after realizing he's no security threat — he's just Billy Six from Berlin.

"They said, 'OK, you are our friend. We give you everything back. We don't want to harm you, but please take care for yourself,' " he says. "This thing with the airport shows you that these people are different from Gadhafi's men."

Last I saw him, Billy was down on the docks in Benghazi's port trying to see if he might be able to catch a ride on one of the few boats making the dangerous, long voyage to Misrata, the western Libyan city that's been under deadly assault for weeks from Gadhafi loyalist troops.

Billy Six, off to Misrata. Hakuna matata.

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