Category Archives: Beirut

From the Top of the World – Looking Back on it All

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As my last touristy act in the country of Lebanon, I took a ride on Jounieh’s Teleferique ride up to the tiny mountain village of Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. Though it was a bit of a cloudy day, the coasts were still clear enough to see all of Jounieh piled up around the Sea while we were cruising over a rich bit of forest below us. The 9-minute ride was peaceful and once we were at the top the cool, fresh air and breeze were perfect.

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After the teleferique, a funicular takes you to Our Lady of Lebanon, a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Lebanon, with her arms stretched out to the bay of Jounieh. There’s also a small chapel underneath and a large church in construction behind it.

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Dealing with the annoyance and frustration of having to be quick to avoid a guy who had clearly been following us the entire time since we got on the Teleferique got me to thinking about everything I would be happy to be done with once I left this country and also the things I would miss after living here for so long. So here’s my list:

What I won’t miss:

  • Pollution
    • It would be so much prettier without a brown cloud of smog hanging over the whole city.
    • Trash. Everywhere.
    • The air just feels dirty and heavy in Beirut, it’s so gross.
  • The awful congestion and traffic. Why are main roads (Gemmayze) only one lane and people are constantly stopping for stupid reasons in the middle of the road for no reason??
  • Tiny, tiny sidewalks that are so worn down.
  • Along the same lines, how Beirut is very unfriendly and unwelcoming to pedestrians.
  • Beirut was just ranked the number #1 expensive city in the Middle East. And it really is. Some things here cost the same, if not more, than they do in Boston.
  • Constantly having the same conversation with anyone I meet: who am I, why am I here, what do I do, where do I work, where do I live, how do I like it, where am I from, where are my parents from, etc, etc. After the first few questions I just cut people off because a stranger has no business knowing exactly where I work or my family history. Plus it’s so annoying always getting the same confused and exaggerated response from a Lebanese if they find out none of my family is Lebanese and I just came here all by myself.
  • Sleazy guys making comments or noises at you from the street or their car/scooter/shop (does not matter how much or how little you are wearing, if you’re remotely female-looking you will get this), including:
    • Hissing
    • Making kissy noises
    • Whispering “oh my god” or “beautiful” under their breath
    • Blatantly staring with no attempt to hide it
    • And much, more
  • Awful infrastructure
    • Internet is worse than some 3rd world countries
    • Regular and irregular electricity blackouts
    • No clean tap water
  • Evil cab drivers that try to:
    • Rip me off. Um, I’m not stupid, I know it doesn’t cost $10 to get to Hamra from Gemmayze.
    • Get me to marry them
    • Get me to go fishing with their family
    • Find out every detail of my life
    • Get me to ride in their cab by beeping at me incessantly on the road. Because obviously who would ever want to walk anywhere and I must be deaf or blind to not just see them and hear the first 20 beeps.

It’s not all bad though! There were things that I really loved.

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What I will miss:

  • Beautiful landscapes
    • The Qadisha Valley
    • The Chouf Cedar Reserve
    • The Bekaa Valley
    • Being on the Mediterranean
    • The views driving along the highway, with glittering blue water along one side and mountains covered in villages on the other.
    • Even though the beaches aren’t the best I’ve ever seen, there’s definitely an abundance of them and people to go there with.
  • Really amazingly preserved, and sometimes mysterious, historical sites. Even for someone who isn’t a history buff like me, just being at these places is something else.
    • Baalbek has to be one of the most amazing places in the country, along with one of my favorites
    • The Obelisk at Hermel
    • The Hippodrome in Tyre, the best preserved in the world
    • Beaufort Castle
    • Random places in the middle of Beirut. You’ll be walking along and suddenly “oh here’s a Crusader Castle” or “look at these old Roman baths in the middle of Downtown.”
  • The abundance of roof-top hangouts
  • All the things I got to climb while I was here. There are far fewer people yelling at me to get down here than anywhere in the US.
  • How getting anywhere in this country is an adventure. Sometimes I just want to be there already, but for the most part the journey is half the fun.
  • Skiing at night. That was way too cool.
  • The huge diversity and range of people here, in terms of religion, culture, lifestyles, everything.
  • Cheap transportation. A two-hour bus ride to the end of the country costs $2. Plus the drivers are crazy, in a grabbing-the-edge-of-your-seat-with-white-knuckles-because-this-van-may-flip-at-any-moment sort of way.
  • Mini-shops everywhere. If you ever run out of something essential at home you can easily walk half a block to a store that has all the basics you need.
  • Food
    • Fresh fruits and vegetables are incredibly cheap – $5-8 bought me tons of fresh produce for a week
    • Lebanese food is so delicious – koussa, my favorite example
    • The labneh and hummus here cannot be beat
    • Fruit cocktails! Seriously, what could possibly be better than a huge, colorful bowl of all sorts of fruit (banana, melons, strawberries, kiwi, ashta, and more) and strawberry and avocado purees, artfully arranged and topped honey, sweet cheesy fluffy, and a wafer cookie or some sliced almonds? I’m going to have to start making my own.
  • Meeting other foreigners who aren’t just sheep blindly accepting everything the news, media, and governments tell us. Just because Lebanon is in the Middle East doesn’t mean there’s a suicide bomber waiting around the corner to kill you.
  • All the opportunities I got to travel to new and exciting places and everyone I met along the way.

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Divin’ it Up!

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I finally got my Open Water Scuba Diving Certification! Woooooo!

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Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to scuba dive, relying on your own air is so restrictive, but at the time I was too young, then it turned into being too broke, too busy, whatever. A couple months ago I found a coupon for Living Social to get the Open Water IANTD Scuba Diving Certification from NISD here in Beirut for 50% off so I snatched it right up. I got started as soon as I got back from Jordan and 1 class, 6 dives, and 1 test later I finally have my card!

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NISD is at the Beirut Marina right next to Zaitunay Bay.

I think it was definitely way better getting it done here; it’s so much more practical than the certification programs I was looking at back in the US. Those included a bunch of classroom hours and pool time before actually making it into the water. For the program I did here I spent a couple hours watching some videos about diving before making my first skills dive in the sea instead of a pool. Practical instruction for assembling and caring for gear are done at the dive center with your gear so you can practice while you learn, and then underwater skills are taught and learned underwater before a quick swim around if the instructor thinks you’re ready. Fortunately I was with a pretty competent group so our instructor took us around for a while before leaving the water.

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After the skills dive, I did 5 more dives over the course of the next 4 weeks and then yesterday headed over to the dive shop to take my test and get my card. I’m glad I finally got this out of the way! Now I don’t have to worry about being allowed to dive at any cool places I visit and can start thinking about getting my certification of Advanced (30 meters) and Deep (40 meters) Diving, since Open Water is only for 20 meters.

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The launch site.

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Lebanon is not the most exciting place in the world to dive though, the underwater landscape is pretty dull, no corals or anything, and a lot of the really cool shipwrecks and stuff are pretty deep – way too deep for Open Water. However, I got to see some cool animals and all the people at NISD are really friendly and cool so it was a great experience nonetheless.

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Octopus under a rock.

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Eel.

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Octopus hiding.

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Eel.

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Sunset over the Marina.

To the Chouf

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Slowly but surely, I’m crossing things off my “Lebanon Bucket List.” Last week I took a day off work to venture down to the Chouf Cedar Reserve. The Chouf is Lebanon’s biggest nature reserve, stretching down the length of the Barouk mountain below the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon used to be covered in cedar trees, now thanks to the destruction brought about by war, human development, pollution, and general carelessness about the state of the environment, what remains of the Cedars is a measly quarter of what they used to be. What’s left though, is still pretty awesome, so I hope the Lebanese really take more care to preserving it.

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Times like these are when I really wish Lebanon had a better public transportation system because getting to the Chouf could definitely be easier. It was easy enough taking a bus from Cola to Beitedinne for 3000, but that was about as far as it went. At that point we had to find a cab and negotiate with the driver to take us all the way past the entrance to the trails and then wait for a couple hours while we explore before driving us back to the bus stop. I was with an Arabic speaker so I thought everything would be taken care of when suddenly the cab driver turns to me as says “portugues?” Um…what? I guess that works too. Turns out this guy lived in Brazil for 30+ years, so we hit it off and I ended up doing all the negotiating with him since he spoke Portuguese and Arabic. Turns out, I’m not nearly as bad at Portuguese as I thought. I was able to hold my own throughout the entire conversation pretty well. Well enough that he actually invited us over to his house to meet his wife afterwards, before driving us back to the bus station.

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Anyways, we finally got to the Chouf and spent a good couple hours walking around, throughout the trees and on some paths with beautiful views of the valley and mountains. According to our cab driver, some of the trees are over 2,000 years old, and those ones are definitely the most epic. It was really nice getting out of the city and getting some clean, fresh air for the morning. We didn’t stay too late though, as we had stuff to do back in Beirut later in the afternoon so once we headed back down to the cab so our driver could take us to coffee before boarding the bus again for the 1 hour ride back to the city. It was actually quite perfect for a half-day trip, really relaxed and without the huge commitment and extra effort that comes from full-day or weekend trips. Though the contrast between the city and the country was even more striking coming back in the middle of the day, with the heavy, oppressive air weighing down on the streets of Beirut. I’m really glad I finally had the chance to make it out there, it was worth it.

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Sufism Electro

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Last night was night five of the Beirut Spring Festival! The Festival started in 2009 by the Samir Kassir Foundation, inspired by Kassir himself, as one of the things he believed in was promoting tolerance and diversity through the arts and getting the public involved with free events. The week was made up of a lot of dancing, singing, and performances portraying a wide range of styles and messages as well as a lecture about the Arab Spring and films about life that speak to people across cultures.

Unfortunately I missed a lot of the events because I found out about them too late, but I managed to get myself up to speed in time for last night’s performance by Mercan Dede and the Secret Tribe. This group from Turkey fuses together Sufi and electro music, along with a whirling dervish, to create a captivating and unique show. Dede believes in the power of creating a universal language that speaks to everyone by blending natural sounds with the electronic. So while he hangs out with his DJ set, occasionally chiming In with a wooden flute, the Secret Tribe, made up of 4 members, play the kanun, clarinet, darbuka (drum), and a variety of other instruments.

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I really loved the mix of the two, the organic and the electronic. The blending of new and old is definitely my favorite way of listening to traditional music. The performance itself was high energy and melodic, though it slowed down significantly when the dervish came on stage, but that’s just the nature of the whirling dervish dance music. It lasted for the perfect amount of time, too. By the time I was ready to leave they had just finished up their set. Based on the people I saw in the crowd, Dede is doing a really good job at accomplishing his goal of a universal language of music that speaks to everyone because I saw so many different type of people in the crowd, from ages to heritage to culture, everyone was represented.

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I’m sure it also didn’t hurt that Samir Kassir Square has to be one of the coolest places in Beirut to host a lovely outdoor concert and the whirling dervish had a light up skirt. I wish I could find more stuff like this in Boston.

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Bourj al-Barajneh – How the Other Half Lives

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A while ago a friend of mine, currently teaching English in one of the Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, Bourj al Barajneh, invited me to join him and some other volunteers for a weekend activity with some of the kids there for the first time. We were going to be volunteering in a bi-weekly program a physical therapist set up in the camp for disabled kids in the camp, since so few resources are available to them and they have no options for professional therapy at all.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures while in the camp, apparently you have to get permission from General Security to take photos inside. I’m not surprised either, with the conditions. Everything is so cramped, with only a couple main roads and then tiny, winding alleyways between buildings for people to walk through. From the outside you would have no idea that there’s an entire city hidden behind a couple nondescript buildings, and then you walk down a tiny alley and it’s like night and day. You have to live there for a while to be familiar enough with the area so that you don’t get lost all the time. It was bustling with activity and noise, even on a Saturday morning. Palestinian refugees are only allowed to own businesses inside the camps, which keeps all the Palestinians inside and everyone out for the most part. It’s very difficult for Palestinians to get jobs anywhere outside the camps unless they’re extremely qualified and it’s hard for them to get into any of the biggest universities, both due to expense and discrimination.

Back to business. My friend knows his way to his school by now, which is where the therapy is held, so we find our way there soon enough. The director of the program was there already getting started with the activities for the 5 kids. For their therapy they do really simple, but hands on stuff that lets them be creative, artistic, and have fun, such as painting, coloring, making creations out of tissue paper (one girl made the most amazing pictures with hundreds of tiny balls of rolled-up paper) and just hanging out and socializing with each other and us. Despite the hurdles these kids face they’re still so open, happy, and friendly. They don’t let their lot in life get them down because they know they’re still alive and surrounded by people who love them and things could always be worse. I think a lot of people I know who are always complaining about stupid little things in their life should take a lesson from this kids and maybe be a bit humbled in the process and get some perspective, realizing all their whining and woe-is-me is so useless when people like the Palestinians living in a camp like this still manage to enjoy what they have instead of constantly moaning for more.

After we hung out with the kids for a few hours, they were sent home and the director took us around the camp on our way to another kid’s house. This kid had received surgery a few days earlier to relieve some extreme pain as a result of his warped legs. He was so small, probably only around 10 years old, resting on the only bed in a one-room house shared by himself, his parents, and his 2 sisters. It was only through the generous donations of nonprofit organizations working in the camps and doctors working pro bono that he had managed to get the surgery in the first place, and his family was struggling to come up with the $50 to pay for a leg brace that would keep the efforts of the surgery from reversing. Again, despite all this, they accepted what they had in life and worked on making the best of it while enjoying everything and everyone they had. This kid was happy about the simple toys we brought him and that we just came to hang out for a while.

Just being with this family made me appreciate what I had more and being here I’ve found myself not wanting more thing to fill my life, but the company and experiences of friends and family. Though I’ve encountered some less-than-stellar folks here, there have also been the ones that I’ve been able to become true friends with. These people I will miss when I’m gone and make an effort to see again when I can. Because really it comes down to the people. You can have all the stuff in the world but without anyone to share it with you can’t hope to be happy with it all. I guess this means I can’t wait to go home.

Beach Season, My Favorite Time of Year

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A few weeks ago it was Byblos public beach. I tried to make it all the way up to Batroun but traffic was killer (thanks carpet factory, for catching on fire and blocking the only highway). The free beach there is decent, small but nice, and surrounded by fancy shmancy private beaches.

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That’s one thing I will never understand or accept the requirement to pay to go to the beach. I can understand paying for parking or using the lounge things, but to access the sand? It’s almost evil. And it’s not even as if the beaches in Lebanon are world-class, because the beach I went to every week it was warm enough in summer in Florida was way nicer. Maybe I’m just spoiled…

Anyways, not counting the awful traffic that doubled the one-hour minibus ride, my first beach trip in Lebanon was a success. Being on a beach just makes everything in life better. I also got a chance to test out the new henna I got in Istanbul, finally! I was a little rusty at first but then it all came back with the ease I have of being able to draw pretty things on people.

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The next weekend was a private (ugh. AKA expensive.) beach in Tyre (Sur). It was really beautiful and they had lounges so we didn’t have to lay in the sand. As much as I love beaches, I kind of hate sand. If I can avoid it getting all over me, I will. Sand in my stuff, in my hair, all over my skin is no bueno.

After hanging out at the beach for most of the day, we walked through Tyre to the famous Hippodrome, apparently the most well preserved hippodrome in the world. It was really cool, walking through the ancient necropolis, finding a couple tombs with bones (!!) in them. Through the triumphal arch and into the arena, just a small section of seating is left standing after thousands of years of wear and tear, war, and natural disasters, but it is enough to see how epic the stadium was back in its heyday.

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The van ride back was actually kind of eventful. Not only did we see a gigantic pelican being teased by some guy on the side of the road, a collection of old-school horse carriages on the side of the road, and the famous Saida pile of trash, but we got caught up for a while in traffic resulting from burning tire roadblock. That was fun…except it wasn’t. I don’t understand people’s obsession here with making a statement by blocking traffic, its just annoying rather than effectively conveying a message.

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Oceana was next, thanks to a coupon I found online for half off the normal (expensive) entry fee. In Damour, it’s a short 20-30 minute ride from Cola on a normal day. The beach itself it nestled in a banana plantation about 10 minutes walking from the highway and looks pretty fabulous. All slinky black and white with a pool that had a bar inside it, it was definitely luxurious. The sun was hot and strong that day, and only frequent dips in the cool pool and a strong breeze kept us from roasting alive. The sound system there was fantastic, I could easily tell why they had big parties there at night, but seriously, 3pm on a Saturday is a little early to start bumping the club beats full blast.

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The next weekend I made it over to one of the private beaches in Byblos, Bay 183, thanks to another half-off coupon. It was pretty decent, a couple cool pools and some good food but the service kind of sucked. I guess you can’t have the best of everything. I was just enjoying my time out of the polluted Beiruti air with the fresh sea breeze (one of the reasons beaches are one of my favorite places in the world) when the smell of paint thinner invaded my nose. And stayed there. For the next two hours until we left. Looks like I can’t even get fresh air at a beach here…Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

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There’s still a few more I want to explore, I would be more than happy spending the rest of my time here with the sun, sand, and salty water as my companions. And that’s how it will be.

Into the Deep: Qadisha Valley

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Even though it’s in the Middle East, Lebanon is definitely NOT a desert. I don’t think there’s even any desert in the whole country. And here’s some proof for you:

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A couple weeks ago I tagged along an AUB (American University of Beirut) International Student Group trip with a couple of people I know taking classes there on a hiking drip down Qadisha Valley. I was wearing sandals of course, so I got some weird looks and the hike leader told me it would be difficult for me not wearing sneakers. Except I was the only one who was able to take my shoes off and stick them in the nice, cool river rushing along the valley. I don’t even own sneakers…and I don’t see any reason why I should get any.

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It was really relaxing, being in a lush green forest again was so refreshing, especially considering the difference in air quality between the valley and Beirut. Near the beginning of our walk we visited a Maronite Christian convent and an church from back when the Maronites took refuge in the valley.

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At first I thought this was the Blablabla tree…and then I just realized it was a no talking allowed sign. Oops.

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We ended up at a restaurant and had a good mezze lunch before driving up to Bcharre (where Ski de Nuit a couple months back) to visit the Khalil Gibran Museum. This guy was a great artist, but he was all sorts of crazy, having his coffin on display in the basement. To each his own, I suppose.

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On the way back to Beirut we stopped to get some ice cream (yes!) and saw some interesting things to see and play with…

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I really want to do some more hiking after this, especially in the Chouf Cedar Reserve. It’s all about keeping an eye out for opportunities at this point.

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