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Here, there, everywhere... A modest attempt at chronicling my around the world adventure over the next year (or so).

miami of middle east

SYRIA | Saturday, 6 June 2009 | Views [1329]

Our next stop- the embattled country of Lebanon. This was a recent addition to our tour itinerary, before we entered the Middle East we had not planned on visiting Lebanon. However, during our travels through the region we heard wonderful things about the country, the people oh and the food so we decided to take quick tour. Because we were the only whiteys on the bus we had to spend more time at the border getting our visas. At the border we met the nicest and friendliest border patrol person in almost all of our travels. He was very welcoming, his English was strong and he even gave us a good exchange rate when we had to turn in some dollars to Lebanese Lyre. The country is small so it does not take much to travel through it so we figured 5 days was enough. Our first stop was the shores of Tripoli where after going through at least 5 military checkpoints we were dropped off in the center of town. One of the first things you do notice after entering Lebanon besides the beautiful Mediterranean Sea is the presence of armed soldiers along many parts of the road. It is a constant reminder that the tensions between various factions held over from the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s have not disappeared, and as we quickly learned there are national elections on June 7. We also quickly learned once in Tripoli that like the border guard that issued our visas, Lebanonese are friendly and helpful. After exiting the bus with our bags I went to ask where we were at meanwhile Jessica was approached by numerous people to offer assistance. Once I returned to where she was with the bags she had it all figured out. We walked to the hotel that we wanted to stay at only to discover not only was this one full but so was the backup across the alley. We hoofed our way down the street to the third backup which was neither as nice or clean as the first two. No matter, we were only staying one night maybe two before heading down the coast towards Beirut. Tripoli is not a big city so it is easy to walk around which we did that evening found a great sweet shop, an internet café and dinner. Jess was still not feeling well so she had to be a little selective in her food choices. That night we decided to scrap going to Byblos on the coast and instead head into the mountains of Northern Lebanon to a town called Bcharre. So that morning we began the walking tour of old Tripoli which is known for its centuries old soap making. We had met some Canadians in Aleppo who had just visited Tripoli and told us about an old guy named Ali who showed them around the city as his hobby. After walking around for a little while we happen to run into Ali in front of Tripoli's oldest mosque, he promptly began our informal tour and preceded to take us around the entire old city in about two hours stopping to meet interesting old shop keepers, buy nasty Lebanonese coffee and some tasty freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. He told us he used to be an official tour guide for the city but now only did it because he liked to share the city with visitors. He had lived all over the world so his English and Spanish was strong, and he loved to talk. At the end we thanked him and bid him farewell as we had to eat some lunch and catch our minibus up the mountain to Bcharre. While eating lunch we met some young Lebanonese who tried to teach us some Arabic and shared stories of Tripoli. Late afternoon we boarded the bus for the 1.5 hour trip into the mountains. Just outside of Tripoli at one of our stops we picked up a guy named Ritchie, who was Lebanonese but had lived in Boston for 4 years. He was from Bcharre and was going home for the weekend and was happy to talk about everything Lebanonese including its not so glorious past. Turns out Bcharre where he is from is part of the Christian stronghold were many Lebanonese lived during the civil war. With the elections coming up tensions were indeed a little heightened according to Ritchie. Ritchie was a bigger fellow and kind of carried a wannabe Mafioso persona as he pointed out all the big houses on the hillsides owned by interesting characters. According to Ritchie you could make lots of money in Lebanon the only problem was with the bankrupt political system. As we wound our way up the mountain the valley split and villages began to spring up clinging to the sides of the rocks. It became clear this was an incredibly beautiful part of Lebanon and we were happy that we changed our plans. It was also the birthplace of the famous Lebanonese poet and artist Khalili Gibran which as it turned out is one of Jessica's favorite authors from when she was a young woman, they have a nice little museum dedicated to his life's work. So it was a double bonus for us and Ritchie wanted to meet later that night after we found our hotel for some nightlife. Bcharre or specifically the area above it is also famous for the last stand of cedar pine trees left in what once was a huge forest of them where wood was shipped to Egypt and beyond back in antiquity. It also had Lebanon's ski resort, yes they have skiing in Lebanon as was evidenced by the snow still clinging to the upper mountainsides. We checked into the again overpriced 'hotel' more like someone's house that they rented out the rooms for and met some Americans traveling through the middle east. We don't meet many Americans and it turns out they were teaching English in Egypt and Yemen so we wanted to talk about their experiences as we were interested in teaching English somewhere in the world.

We freshened up and walked down the hill to meet Ritchie at the St Saba cathedral which is right in the center of town. This is a beautiful cathedral which had been recently restored. We were kind of late meeting Ritchie but he was not there anyway so we waited around and finally he arrived. After a shitty dinner of hamburger/chickenburgers because nothing was open at 10:30pm Ritchie did not have a car in the village we met his cousin to travel up to Cedars for some nightlife. While we waited Ritchie and his cousin Charlie heard there was some trouble between some rival political candidates on the road going by our hotel up to Cedars so he advocated waiting at his apartment next to the cathedral until his cousin gave the all clear. That never happened, and in the meantime we bluetoothed songs from our mobile phones and watched the movie Slingblade while drinking some herbal tea. By 1:30am we were both exhausted so we bid Ritchie farewell and walked back to our hotel. The next day we planned on hitching a ride up to Cedars about 15 minutes up the mountain and then visiting the Khalili Gibran before catching the last bus to Beirut. The next morning after breakfast and catching up with the American English teachers we walked up the road towards Cedars to hitch a ride. We got picked up by a guy we recognized from the bus the day before. About 5 minutes into our ride we came around a corner and a big Mercedes was trying to pass on a curve coming down hill. We were heading straight towards him and did not quite miss the front as he stuck the driver's side door which caused us to careen into a telephone pole on the side of the road then crashed into some large rocks on the side of the road before coming to a dead stop. After quick check if everyone was ok we got out of the car as both our driver and the other driver started yelling at each other. Jess and I appeared to be ok, no blood or otherwise but maybe a little sore the next day. We were not quite sure what happened next as there is no insurance like in the US or police that come to the scene. More people began to stop and get out of their cars as ours was on the side but the Mercedes was parked right in the middle of the road into oncoming traffic. Our car belong the driver's older brother so he called him and he arrived a few minutes later in a taxi van that I guess he owned. The older brother and the other driver then began yelling at each other while more people gathered and we waited on the side. Our car was really damaged and not going to be running anytime soon, the Mercedes was not as damaged and after about 5 near miss accidents he moved it out of the road. The older brother told us to wait because there was some accident "decider" was supposed to arrive to assign fault and damages. Meanwhile they continued to argue periodically while we watched. No one seem to really care if we were all right but just argued back in forth. About 30 minutes later another car pulled up and parked in between the both cars and a guy got out, about a minute later he was screaming bloody murder at the older brother and the many men who had stopped to offer "assistance" had to restrain the two as they were about two come to blows. They got the new back into his car which drover away about 25 feet before stopping again with the guy jumping out and running after the older brother again screaming bloody murder. This was now happening all right in front of us and since we can not understand Arabic were not quite sure what to make of it since it seemed this new really angry guy did not have anything to do with what had occurred. The bystanders finally got this guy to leave and things calmed down, after which the older brother told our original driver, his brother to take us up to Cedars in his taxi. As we traveled up the mountain to our original destination after waiting about 1.5 hours on the side of the road we talked about the surreal experience that we had just been a part of. That conversation was quickly replaced by concern for how shitty our guy was driving again! Fortunately, we made to Cedars without further incident, quickly thanked him and jumped out of the van in one piece! The town of Cedars is more like a ski town with lots of chalet like hotels, ski rental places and a few restaurants, it looked like it would be quite charming during the winter. We walked up the road 15 minutes to where the stand of cedars lies, donated the entrance fee and walked around the trails through the trees. It was nice and relaxing, and a beautifully sunny day to be out walking amongst this last stand of cedars that had once been very important to the ancient middle east. All around there were trees, higher mountainsides with snow still holding on and a few ski lifts. One could only imagine how nice it could be in the winter. We headed back down the road to find a ride into Bcherre. We walked a little distance without much luck until a guy on an ATV came whizzing by and said he would give us a ride down the mountain. This seemed pretty unsafe and unintelligent considering we had been in a car accident just three hours prior but we also did not want to walk an hour down into the village. He took us both on but stopped after a little bit because it was too unstable with all three of us on so he took Jessica down and came back for me. After I met up with Jessica she told me he tried to get fresh with her but she put him in his place. He also did not take us the entire way into town so we hitched a ride with a young college student whose names was Jess and her boyfriend's name was Michael, must have been fate. She took us all the way to the museum and dropped us off which saved us some time.

The Khalili Gibran museum is set in an old monastery that Khalili used to visit when he was younger and very much enjoyed. Apparently one of his wishes before he died was to inhabit the property after the monks moved out. This never happened but his sister bought the property and after years of work in 1975 a group of his admirers turned it into a museum to honor Gibran's life. I did not know anything about his work except what Jessica had told me about but I did admire some of his paintings. This visit was much more important to Jessica and she enjoyed touring the small museum and the beautiful grounds which were filled with roses and overlooked the stunning valley below. Gibran's most famous work, The Prophet, was the book that Jessica had first read that got her interested in his work. Believe it or not they did not have any English copies in the gift shop but the museum found a copy and Jessica bought it for me to enjoy. It is a very special gift from a very special person that I will treasure for many years. We made our way back to the hotel to get our bags and await the bus to Beirut. Overall, Bcharre was one of our favorite places to visit in all of the Middle East and perhaps throughout our trip. The setting is gorgeous, the village is quant and the people are very welcoming. It is worth a visit for anyone in Lebanon or the Middle East.

The bus to Beirut took way too long mostly because we navigated through people driving through the streets of various cities waving election flags and signs, and honking horns. Ok we get it, you support so and so, enough already! We got to Beirut later then we thought and were dropped off after dark somewhere that we had no idea where it was in the city. We hailed a cab who of course did not know where he was but managed to find the hotel. We were going to meet our new American friends we met in Bcharre, Nater Tater (Nate) and Qbert (Quincy) in Beirut at one of two hotels. They hail from Berkley, educated at Brown University, Nate has been teaching English in Yemen and Quincy is starting med school in July at UC Davis. The first one had no dorm rooms and the double was way overpriced so we walked to the second one close by where Nater Tater (Nate) and Qbert (Quincy) had already gotten a room with four beds. They were out on the town so we made ourselves at home, me in the cot because there were only three beds and got ready for bed. Nater Tater and Qbert came back and we said our hellos and went to bed. The boys went south for the day and Jessica and I toured the city. Much of Beirut is ok, about 75% of it is new within the last 10 years. There are tons of huge new buildings, fancy shops and lots and lots of expensive cars. It seems if you do not drive a German car you can not live in Beirut. Of course there are also reminders of the civil war like the bombed out old Holiday Inn building which is still standing in the midst of all the new construction, big holes and all. Apparently, it is still structurally sound and there are plans to do something with it like open it as a hotel again! After walking for several hours we made it to the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus which is located right on the Mediterranean Sea and is quite large. We walked around campus, had some lunch and just relaxed amongst all the students milling about. Towards the end of the day we made our way back after finding a really nice grocery store that had lots of things we had not seen for a while like peanut butter. Nater Tater and Qbert came back and we made plans to go out for shisha after we made dinner. After our dinner of pasta and cheese we both crashed while the boys spent time on the internet so we both decided to stay another day and leave for Damascus the following day. We got up late the next day and the boys convinced us to go the Jeitta Grotto outside of Beirut for the morning. IT was a 20 minute taxi drive away and although a bit spendy and Disneylandish, the caves and boat ride were pretty cool. Unfortunately, I have no good pictures because photography is not allowed underground. This is Lebanon's most visited tourist attraction, with good reason it is quite cool, even better then the Lewis and Clark caverns in Idaho! We made our way back to the hotel and split up in search of an internet café in A/C. The Virgin Megastore was reported to have one but did not so we made our way back over to the AUB campus for one near there. We found one, spent some time there and then made our way to the cornice along the water for the sunset hoping to run into Nater Tater and Qbert. We enjoyed the nice sunset even though the coastline and water are dirty and polluted but apparently cleaner then it used to be, really? I guess we get spoiled in the US with our clean beaches and water. We did run into Nater Tater and Qbert, found some quick dinner then smoked shisha together to end the evening. The next morning we got up semi-early, made our way to the bus station to find a minibus taxi to the border. Nater Tater and Qbert were also going to Damascus so we went all together plus Nater's got some Arabic skills which helps considerably when negotiating things like transportation. We got a minivan to the border and submitted our passports for the long visa wait to enter Syria again. They also have a nice duty free and some grass, so we ate lunch, read and took naps. After 4.5 hours and $16 each we got our visas for Syria. We walked across the border, found a minibus to Damascus and we were once again in Syria which we both quite liked as having missed the country a little. The minibus dropped us off just outside the center of the city, we caught a taxi and traveled back to the hostel we stayed at during our first visit to Damascus. Jess, Nater Tater and I were all happy to be back in Damascus as we all love the city. It was Qbert's first time so we wanted to have a nice dinner, same place I ate my birthday dinner ate before we left the next day for Amman.

Before dinner I caught a shave with the little old barber on the same small street as our hostel. I had been growing somewhat of a beard since November so he had to do a little extra work but I always wanted a shave with a straight razor. It was pretty nice and smooth although my neck was a bit sensitive. He left the big fumanchu moustache for looks and we were off to dinner of mezze and mint lemonade. Dinner was again excellent but the mint lemonades were late and too sour, oh well we know how they are supposed to taste! Some ice cream dipped in pistachios to finish off the night and we were all set. Jessica and I were catching the mid-afternoon bus back to Amman so the next morning we said farewell to Nater Tater and Qbert, did some shopping for cheap sundries like shampoo, spent some time on the internet and caught the public bus to the bus station. We left our new favorite city Damascus behind for Amman so we could complete our final leg in the Middle East tour in the Big I otherwise known as Israel were we are meeting my best friend Julio and his wife Linda. This is so exciting for us since they are the only two of either our friends or families to come visit us somewhere in the world, can't wait! Look for the Israel blog soon…..Until then mas alama and shuckran for reading.

Tags: bcharre, beirut, khalili gibran, tripoli

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