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Stranger than Fiction

Reading thrillers by Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum, SLAC Contract Administrator Ginger O'Reilly often fantasized about adventures and exotic landscapes. When she married a real-estate attorney whose passion for travel rivaled her own, her life began to imitate the pages of her favorite fiction.

Over the past 12 years, O'Reilly has visited 65 countries. Last year alone she visited Namibia, Victoria Falls (between Zambia and Zimbabwe), China, Tibet, Romania, Croatia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro and five of the Canary Islands.

"It makes me feel so lucky to be an American when I come home," she said. "We take so many things for granted here."

O'Reilly has seen and experienced things that Fleming and Ludlum couldn't prepare her for. She compared the "treasure trove of cultural wonders" in Burma to stepping back in time.

Tribes, largely untouched by outside influence, populate the hills there, and the chiming of bells from Buddhist temples, or pagodas, ring throughout the day, O'Reilly said. During her visit, women and children were amazed by her white skin tone and brushed their hands against her cheeks and arms.

O'Reilly and her husband are sometimes required to solicit government guides during their travels, including their recent trips to Burma and Libya. In Burma, the guides made it a point to let them know that they risked imprisonment if they were overhead saying anything negative about the government. The guides thought anyone could be a spy, O'Reilly said.

O'Reilly doesn't appear to be faint of heart, but she did have apprehensions before going to Libya, where tourism began only after the U.N. embargo was lifted in 1999. She had read warnings that cautioned tourists to dress and act conservatively.

Yet, in the end, it was only the arrival itself that was a hassle. After initial annoyances attaining travel visas, O'Reilly and her husband arrived in Tripoli, the capital which is known for its historic mosques. No guide met them at the airport as had been planned. After waiting for 45 minutes, the couple arranged for alternative transportation to their hotel, where the concierge called the guide, who rushed over.

"He seemed surprised to see us," O'Reilly said. "He had been told that the government wasn't letting any Americans in, and said that we were the only Americans let in at that time."

O'Reilly credits her Libyan guide with showing them a fabulous time. She said the only risk she observed was the livestock crossing the two-lane desert roads as locals roared by at speeds exceeding 100 mph.

O'Reilly said it was the trip of a lifetime. She camped underneath a "blanket of stars" in the silent dunes of the Sahara, explored Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins—including the temples of Apollo and Zeus in Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony—and ate camel stew on the shore of a Saharan lake.

"We've made the most wonderful friendships around the world," she said. "We send hundreds of postcards out during our annual Christmas trip."

Of all the people encountered in her travels, O'Reilly said, perhaps a group of Burmese children left the strongest impression. After taking a ferry to a village, she was handing out candy when she found herself swarmed by 20 children.

"There was no squabbling or fighting," she said. "They shared everything."

Matt Cunningham, SLAC Today, February 20, 2008

Above image: Ginger O'Reilly and her husband camping in the Sahara Desert.