Monthly Archives: January 2012

Look Ma, I’m a Cave Explorer!

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Finally! It’s nice to have a place I can consider my “home” while I’m here in Beirut. On Sunday I finally moved from the hostel (which was nice and in a perfect location, yes, but still a hostel nonetheless) to the apartment where I’ll be living for the next five months. The worst part was carrying my insanely heavy suitcases up two flights of stairs (no elevator, of course…) which I managed successfully, but at the expense of intense pain and soreness for the next two days in my back and shoulders.

I love how spacious this place is, I’m pretty sure the living room is the size of my entire two-bedroom apartment back in Boston, and it’s less than half the price. My roommate also seems great, I haven’t seen her much because her work keeps her busy but she cooked some delicious Lebanese food the day I moved in.

The real challenge living here will definitely be those stairs. Now, those stairs aren’t some ordinary stairs, that would be one thing. No, those stairs are a set of 140 (yes, I counted) that I have the pleasure of climbing every day to get home. That’s not including the 2 flights I have to climb to get to my front door once I’m in my apartment building. I guess I’ll be getting some decent exercise everyday for the next few months.


The highlight of this week was definitely a visit to the Jeita Grotto over the weekend. The Grotto is a point of pride and national symbol for Lebanon, as one of the top tourist destinations in the country thanks to the natural beauty of these interconnected, limestone caves that contain some of the most stunning formations I have personally seen. It was even one of the top finalists for the New 7 Wonders campaign (which turned out to be a huge scam, by the way).

Unfortunately, when we arrived to Jeita we discovered that we would only be allowed to access the upper cave, as the water level in the lower cave was too high due to the constant downpour over the past few weeks. The tour through the lower cave is done by boat on the river, which is actually the source of drinking water for a lot of Lebanese. So there would be no boat ride this time, instead we would only be exploring the upper caves, which is where some of the most amazing formations are anyways. One cable car ride to the mouth of the cave later, we finally set out into the surprisingly hot, ridiculously humid cave.

Even though all photography was strictly forbidden (why??) and they even had guards posted around to watch out for cameras and phones, we still managed to sneak a few quick shots in blind spots. The cave is amazing, with so many different types of rock formations, different colors everywhere, a neat little wishing pond, and even the world’s largest stalactite. It’s not a huge cave, only 9 kilometers in length, but it definitely makes up for that by packing all the cool things you would find in a few different caves other places in the world into one short trip.



The interesting sights didn’t stop once we left the cave. Down the road we found “The Guardian of Time,” a sculpture park, a caged squirrel, some monkeys and porcupines, and a mini-village on a hillside.




This was definitely a trip worth taking, for an entrance ticket to see one cave for less than $7 and only a short cab ride away from Beirut it makes an easy and affordable day-trip. I can’t wait for the spring to roll around so I can go back and have a chance to explore the lower caves as well.

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Taxes and Doritos

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I don’t know if it was from the jetlag that didn’t let me fall asleep before 4am any night or the unfamiliarity of being in a new place, but this week felt like forever.

Finally starting work was great, I got to meet the people I would be working with for the next few months and get acquainted with the office, which was located a few steps down the street from The Alleyway. It’s true what I heard about Lebanese hospitality, by the way. People have been going out of their way to make sure I’m happy and settled, even going so far as making me try all the delicious home-cooked food their mothers make for lunch. (Really, they don’t give me a choice! Not that I mind…). I also got to see the new restaurant they just opened, Amarres, on Zaitunay Bay at the Beirut Marina, the first location outside The Alleyway on Gemmayze. It’s a really charming French café and bistro with an excellent view of the bay and even better food. I could get used to all the good food here, that’s for sure.

I also had a chance to catch up on all the things from home that I didn’t get a chance to do because of how busy/lazy I’ve been. Though to be honest, I think prioritizing spending time with the people important to me who I won’t see for months is much more important than getting started on filing my taxes, which can easily wait an extra couple of weeks.

Speaking of income taxes, people in Lebanon don’t even have to file them. The government automatically takes the correct amount of taxes from everyone’s salary before it’s distributed. Seeing as I was sitting there trying to complete three years’ worth of tax filing, interpreting the convoluted lingo and processes, and sorting through four years’ worth of paperwork, I was more than a little wistful of their seemingly simple lives.

I finally made it out to another part of the city on Friday when I went to visit another NEU student on co-op here in Hamra, near the campus for the American University of Beirut. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely was not what I saw! The sidewalks were big enough for at least 3 or 4 people to walk side by side, there were so many people out walking around, tons of little shops and restaurants and bars open and bustling. All the complete opposite of the tiny, crowed, older-looking Gemmayze streets. I later found out that the couple streets we walked around on were recently completely re-done, and the rest of Hamra still was old-style and looked just like Gemmayze. We were both more than amused when we ordered baked nachos and cheese at the bar we went to and realized halfway through they these nachos were, in fact, Doritos. Ah, the Lebanese way of doing things…

Saturday was a beautiful day out so I took advantage of the rare sun and warmth to walk downtown and explore the area a little better. There’s so much interesting stuff in that part of town, brand new shopping malls next to ancient Roman Baths, huge Mosques and Churches (most memorably, the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque and the St. George Orthodox Cathedral), and monuments to fallen soldiers (Martyr’s Square). It definitely calls for more exploration at a later date.

Because what would any city be without a giant sequined camel?

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Never before in my life had I been so jetlagged from traveling. After waking up at 2 in the afternoon, I only managed to go find some food before getting chased back inside by the rain, which had been falling since I got here, and passing out again, waking up well after it was dark. I made it outside and was happy to see it was no longer raining, so I took this opportunity to explore the area I was staying a bit.

First impressions included the tiny sidewalks, construction everywhere I could see, drivers who acted like they only just discovered their cars had horns and felt like they had to test them out thoroughly, and the general run-down look of most of the buildings and roads. Looking past this, I saw long staircases leading to mysterious depths, huge trees, and hidden greenery, peeks of the Mediterranean Sea and smoky mountains in the distance, a huge mosque next to an equally large cathedral, and a huge, silver-sequined camel on a staircase between two clubs. Along allthis I heard a jumble of Arabic, French, and English in the streets and restaurants, and I realized there was so much to this city and these people and  I would only be experiencing the tip of the iceberg in the few short months I am to live here.

After the weekend of rest it was nice to start working Monday morning and have something to do during the rainy days.

 

En Route to a New Adventure – Beirut!

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It was only when I was in London Heathrow, fighting to keep my eyes open, that I realized getting only 4 hours of sleep the night before I had to take an overnight transatlantic flight was probably not a good idea. Oh well. To make up for it, I found the comfiest chair at the Nero Caffe in Terminal 1 to take a nap while I waited for my 8 hour layover to be over and to be on the plane to Beirut.

I still had mixed feelings about what was going to be a very long trip abroad,  my first time traveling completely alone to a destination halfway across the world where I would be living and working for the next half a year. Ever since I started considering this co-op in Lebanon, I was more than pumped to go and have my grand adventure. Only after I accepted the offer and it was time to buy my plane tickets did the little doubts and worries start trickling into my head. Not to say I ever really considered not going, though. I made a commitment, a little uncertainty never stopped me from taking a chance before, and there was no way it was about to stop me now.

So as I sat, uncomfortably trying to catch up on some much-needed rest and wondering if they were going to kick me out of the café, I could only wonder how over-my-head I was about to be. But this great unknown only excited me. Hey, who knows when the next time I’ll get chance to live in the Middle East for half a year will be?

Plus, I was pretty excited about my co-op, a five month internship at The Alleyway, a company consisting of a couple bars, a couple restaurants, a clothing boutique and a tanning salon in Gemmayze, one of the most exciting nightlife hotspots in Beirut. The whole thing sounded pretty fun and interesting, and I was pretty optimistic that it was something I would not get bored of easily. It will definitely be a change of pace from my last co-op working at a small nonprofit in Cambridge. I think this will give me a good taste of a very different type of business, one that is probably more in line with whatever it is I will end up doing after school.

 

Fast forward 13 hours later, past one of nicest planes I’ve ever been on with the best airplane dinner I’ve ever had (thank you BMI!), past a surprisingly easy trip through customs and security at Rafic International Airport, past a taxi ride where I knew I was going to get ripped off  and could do nothing about it, past finally arriving at the hostel and meeting the owner, and I was settled into my room, ready to clean up the travel grime and snuggle in my warm and comfy bed for a long, long sleep.

And sleep I did.