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Backpacking Through The Revolutions Of North Africa

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Backpacking Through The Revolutions Of North Africa

Backpacking Through The Revolutions Of North Africa

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For much of the 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship, Libya has largely been terra incognita. Few Western tourists traveled around the country. And now, amid the conflict between Gadhafi's forces and rebels, there are almost none. But one intrepid backpacker from Germany is defying the trend.

NPR's Eric Westervelt found him in eastern Libya last week, and it wasn't their first meeting.

ERIC WESTERVELT: 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.

What do you want? Take photos of the tank?

Mr. BILLY SIX (Adventure Tourist): The tank, yes.

WESTERVELT: There's many tanks, you know? I think we can do that.

The 24-year-old adventure tourist says his name is Billy Six.

Mr. SIX: My name is Billy. Travel Billy. Billy Six.


MR. SIX: Yes.

WESTERVELT: I've never met a Billy Six. I've met Billy Seven...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. SIX: You've met Billy Seven?


Mr. SIX: I've also want to meet him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WESTERVELT: 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 traditional Muslim garb of rural North Africa, the long dress-like jalabiya and a white skull cap. He's 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.

Mr. SIX: I want to go to the places where I don't meet all those tourist people who do their normal stuff.

WESTERVELT: Keep going even though there's trouble, yeah?

MR. SIX: Yes. I mean there's trouble nearly everywhere in Africa, so it's not a new thing here. I didn't see anything bad until now. 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 okay. Hakuna matata.

WESTERVELT: 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 on-going conflict.

I began to think that Billy Six was either adventurous to the point of recklessness or a brilliant German intelligence asset - Double-0-Billy Six or maybe just mad as a German hatter.

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

WESTERVELT: To some people you might seem a bit crazy? You're going into place with revolutions and war.

MR. SIX: Maybe I am crazy. 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 tried to help me with everything they could do.

WESTERVELT: 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.

MR. SIX: They said okay, you are our friend. We give you everything back, we don't want to harm you - but please take care for yourself. This thing with the airport shows you that these people are different to the Gadhafi's men.

WESTERVELT: 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.

MR. SIX: Hakuna matata.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, eastern Libya.

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