Arab Spring Break
Credit: Courtesy Chris Jeon
Chris Jeon landed in Cairo on August 23, 2011. School didn't start again for another month, and he had told his parents he was going sightseeing in Egypt. He brought one pair of jeans, three shirts, a leather jacket, a pair of Converse, and two condoms. He hopped a bus in Cairo and headed for Saloum on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

The rebels guarding the border were playing FIFA soccer on a PlayStation when he arrived. Jeon waved at them. They glanced at his passport and went back to their video game. "OK, cool," Jeon said, and simply walked into Libya.

It looked like the moon: empty, burnt-brown desert stretching for mile after mile. The front lines were 500 miles to the west. Jeon didn't speak Arabic and hadn't done much research on the region, but he'd read the Wikipedia page on Libya and watched a bunch of YouTube videos documenting the war. He particularly liked one that showed a group of rebels chanting in unison after a victory – he'd never felt that fired up about anything. The momentum had shifted, and Qaddafi's grip on the country was weakening. With the support of NATO airpower, the rebels were now attacking Tripoli. Qaddafi was in hiding but issued a statement saying the government was ready to "turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents." Jeon wanted to find the fighting before it was all over.

At the border, Jeon caught a taxi for the rebel capital of Benghazi, where he planned to hitch a ride to the front. But the taxi was stopped at a checkpoint about 10 miles outside the city. Three rebels peered in and motioned the foreigner out of the car. They asked who he was, and Jeon struggled to explain that he was a UCLA student looking for the front lines. One of the rebels asked in broken English if he was a North Korean spy sent by Qaddafi. The taxi took off, stranding him there. The rebels grew impatient: Who was he here to see? Could anybody in Libya vouch for him?

While at BlackRock, Jeon had emailed the only two people in Benghazi who had posted on CouchSurfing.org, a website that helps travelers find free places to stay. One guy had responded that Jeon should call him when he got to Benghazi. Jeon dug out his number and gave it to the rebels. It was the middle of the night, but someone picked up. Jeon could hear yelling on the other end. He figured that this was as far as his Libyan adventure was going to go. The rebel hung up.

"OK, your friend coming," the rebel said.

A half hour later, a sleek BMW 7 Series sedan pulled up at the checkpoint, blasting Justin Bieber on the radio. A guy was sitting in another's lap in the passenger seat, even though there was no one in the back. The passenger door flew open, and Ayman Amzain, Jeon's couch-surfing contact, bounded out. He had long hair and no front teeth.

"Kreeez!" he said in a high-pitched voice and planted kisses on Jeon's cheeks. He stepped back and took a good look at Jeon.

"I thought you'd be blond," he said pouting. "And maybe taller."

Amzain was a 31-year-old medical student who lived with his parents and dreamed of moving to San Francisco. The appearance of a Californian in Libya was probably as close as he'd get to his dream, and he was thrilled that Jeon had come. In fact, he didn't want him to leave. He tried convincing his new friend to forget going to the war. But after four days of hookah bars and music videos, Jeon grew restless.

"I was living in a cloud of hairspray and Justin Bieber music," he says. "It was like the revolution wasn't even happening."

Amzain reluctantly arranged for a friend to drive Jeon toward the fighting. He wrote a letter in Arabic and told Jeon to show it to anyone who asked questions. The letter read, "Hello. My name is Chris. I am from the United States. Please help me to go to the front lines. Thank you, and thanks to God."

Amzain kissed Jeon on both cheeks and told him to come back soon.