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Monthly Archives: August 2012

All trips have high points and low points. This much is inevitable. Usually my lowpoints are days of low energy or moodiness – those moments while being a tourist when the only fix is food, caffeine or alcohol. My last week in Lebanon, however, marked the most definable low points in traveling that I have ever experienced. To be fair, they were coupled with equally memorable highs. Regardless, week 12 of my travels will be unforgettable.

We began the week with a trip up to Harissa, a religious monument to Our Lady of Lebanon in the mountains with a stunning view of the coast. You take the teleferique, a ‘gondola lift,’ from the coast to the mountains, which covers a fair expanse of mountain and highway alike. We had the unpleasant experience of hopping on board just before the power cut (which happens for a couple hours every day), and were left, swinging precariously, directly over the highway. After a few panicked minutes, the generators kicked in and we continued to our destination.

Monday was my first definable low – we had a relatively low-key day, baking and relaxing before returning  to Beirut for the rest of the week. After a while, I realized that my phone had been missing and found it in the soapy depths of the sink where it had been sitting for several minutes. Try as we might, there was no revival, which was mildly concerning considering the fact that I was to spend the rest of the week alone in the apartment in Beirut. That evening, we toured downtown Beirut, which was abuzz with Eid lights and celebrations.

Tuesday was one of the most incredible days of my entire summer; Hady picked me up early in the morning, and we headed to his favorite spearfishing beach, further north even than Byblos. We arrived at a completely deserted stretch of pure, turquoise Mediterranean. We spent the day snorkeling, sunning and sipping chilled rose, before returning to Beirut for dinner and drinks. Never before have I experienced a beach like this one – water so warm it was like swimming in a spa, and so clear you could see the pebbles on the bottom from the rock formations above.

Wednesday we wandered Beirut by day, spending time in some of the lesser-known areas with uncharacteristically low traffic and pollution, and architecture that could pass for Paris or Rome. Wednesday night was another lovely party in the mountains, where I reunited with three of my favorite Lebanese from Caux, Hady, Joy, and Eliane.

Temple of Bacchus, my favorite Roman deity

Thursday was a day of recovery and relaxation before heading inland for our final and most incredible adventure, Baalbek. When I planned my trip to Lebanon, Baalbek was the one must-see item on my list, and the one adventure that seemed to keep getting foiled. Cars to borrow and rent were in short supply – it seems that, with the influx of Syrians to Lebanon due to political upheaval, cars were being rented and not returned. After a week and a half of trying, we finally found out that we could take a bus, which was pleasantly cheap and convenient. I had been feeling relatively ill for the past few days and wasn’t exactly excited to sit in a small, smoke-filled bus for two hours, with no possible exit along the way, but once we were on the road, things started to improve.

Raja, if you look very closely, and the six remaining columns of Jupiter’s temple

After a mere hour and a half, two bus rides and a taxi later, we found ourselves agape at the threshold of Baalbek, the largest Roman temple of Jupiter, which was built on a site that has been continuously settled for as many as 9,000 years. Baalbek has been built upon and occupied and excavated by generations of empires, from pre-Romans, to the Romans, to the Mamlukes, to the Ottomans, and even the Germans, and was apparently a Hezbollah target in the 2000’s. Remarkably, the event that did the most damage to the ruins was an earthquake, which demolished the majority of the 54 columns of Jupiter’s temple, to the point that only six remain. Columns and mosaics were taken to the Hagia Sophia, but the grandeur remains, and I was just as amazed as I had hoped and expected. Our guide was incredible, regaling us with stories and history, explaining the symbolism of the architecture and details of the epic parties of the priests and vestial virgins in the Temple of Bacchus, and of course, professing his love for us. The tour was incredible, made more so by a know-it-all priest, the rare breeze, and the constant cacophony of a nearby military training ground. These sounds were initially highly unnerving – Baalbek is, after all, only 30 km from the Syrian boarder – but quickly faded into the background.

There are two kilometers of underground caves and passageways, currently filled with wine.

After we’d taken in our fill of the ruins and snacked on cri cri, my favorite Lebanese nut (peanuts roasted with a crunchy shell), we boarded yet another bus, heading west to Ksara, one of the biggest wineries in Lebanon. We tasted the wines and were given a tour of the caves, remnants of the labyrinthine passageways that the monks who previously inhabited the site had left behind. We began our return trip to Beirut, and after an hour or so of sleeping, I awoke feeling distinctly unwell. We made it back to the apartment before I became sick in earnest, but then spent the rest of the evening vomiting what was surely every bite that I had eaten in the country. My saint-like friend Raja stayed with me until I finally fell asleep, and I awoke a few restless hours later to the news that my grandmother had passed away. While I had made my peace with my grandmother’s inevitable death before I departed in June, the news, and the proximity to my return, were upsetting, and I have never been so happy to land on US soil as I was the evening of the the 26th.

While I will always remember my two weeks in Lebanon with fondness, I am overjoyed to be home, reunited with my friends, family, wine shop, and dog. As mind-blowing and amazing as this journey has been, I am happy to remain in California for the foreseeable future and make my time here as incredible and adventurous as my three months in Europe and the Middle East.

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Try as I might, I am not a city girl. I grew up in a small college town full of trees, and I went to college in a small college town full of trees. While I find cities overwhelming, I also find them enchanting, full of an art completely different from nature – sometimes subtle, sometimes overt.

Beirut, Lebanon

Globalization AND urbanity – Edinburgh, Scotland

Overt art – Basel, Switzerland

My favorite aspect of cities – street fairs! – Basel, Switzerland

 

When I described my itinerary to friends and family in May, the final destination of Lebanon raised the most eyebrows. From an American perspective, I begrudgingly understand this; before I worked in an international NGO I had never met a Lebanese person, I knew “Beirut” as a drinking game rather than a destination, and I didn’t understand that all the delicious Mediterranean cuisine I loved so much came from their region. Three summers in Caux, however, found me itching to see the sights all my Lebanese friends described so lovingly.

My initial impression of Beirut was mixed. While the young man in passport control had told me I was beautiful, should get a job in Lebanon, and didn’t charge me for a tourist visa that the website claims they demand, I found the city overwhelming – as if LA and New York had been pushed onto the island of Manhattan, plus Arabic, heat and humidity, minus street signs and traffic laws. Half an hour after putting my suitcase down in the apartment and taking a service (French pronunciation – ser-VICE – a taxi that takes you anywhere within Beirut for 2000 L.L) to Hamra and digging into my first ever authentic Lebanese meal, I was completely won over. Seriously. The food alone is enough to make me a convert.

We had a late lunch in Hamra before meeting up with Joanne’s college friends in Zaituna Bay, a grouping of pubs and restaurants on the water, for drinks and desserts. Like all the Lebanese I have encountered, Joanne’s friends speak flawless English (and usually French, as well) and have advanced degrees, from places like Cambridge and Cornell. (no big deal) As it was getting pretty late, we headed north to Byblos, where Joanne’s family lives, to spend a few days on the water.

Byblos is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is the root of “Bible” and latin words for “book” because of its papyrus production. It is home to ruins galore – from the Romans to the Crusaders. We spent the days wandering the ruins, and the nights in the bars and souks. Joanne’s mom introduced me to the kind of home-cooked splendor you wouldn’t find in restaurants, and her sister introduced me to the infamous “doudou shot” – a shot of vodka with lemon juice, tabasco and an olive. Try as I might, I still despise olives, though the shot itself won me over instantly – refreshing and invigorating.

After a few days in Byblos, we made our way back down to Beirut, before another one of our Caux friends, Hady, rescued us from the heat and escorted us to a gorgeous party in the mountains. On Friday, I was introduced to even more culinary delights at Barometre, a hole-in-the-wall leftist restaurant in Hamra which makes some of the most delicious fattoush (my favorite salad ever), spiced potatoes, sausages and chicken livers I have ever had. I guess I’ve also never had chicken livers before, but they are shockingly delicious – all soaked in a thick, sweet sauce, eaten scooped up in a pita, washed down with a cold glass of arak, an anise-flavored Lebanese specialty similar to ouzo. Saturday was a day of rest, followed by a visit to Centrale, a beautiful bar/restaurant in Gemmayze. It was built inside a tube made to look something like a military bunker, I’ve been told, and was designed by Bernard Khoury, one of the most famous architects in Lebanon, who also designed BO18, one of the best-known nightclubs in the world, inside a refurbished bomb shelter.

More updates and adventures to come – for now we’re off for a day in the city, and are planning our final adventures before my departure, Sunday morning.