Beirut, Lebanon

Posted on May 17, 2011

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The flight from Istanbul went quick enough, then something caught me off guard as we landed: everyone started clapping.  I wasn’t sure if there was a high percentage of planes that didn’t land or get to their destination on time or at all, it was just, unusual?  Laughing it off, I came across something I didn’t think of (having only just planned on going to Lebanon the day before) – what money do they use?  What’s the exchange rate?  How am I going to find my CouchSurfing host? (head to couchsurfing.org if you’re curious, host and be hosted at people’s houses for free)  Thankfully there were three others in the same position and we all stood around the closest ATM trying to figure out what to do.  H&M had an advert on the wall for a jacket, so I weighed up how much it might cost in the UK and used that to work out what the rough exchange rate would be in Lebanese whatevers.

I get dropped off in the middle of Lebanon with a map on my phone vaguely guiding me somewhere.  The taxi driver had gone up and down this one road with me trying to find a club I was meant to meet my host at to no avail.  I head to the petrol station around the corner to find a phone, they work out I want a phone card and off I pop to find a payphone – suffice to say, he doesn’t answer.  I give it another couple of goes and nothing – I head back to the petrol station and one guy starts speaking English to me – I explain I’m trying to find my friend at this club and I’m a bit lost, he replies with “the club is across the road”.  Why I didn’t try and ask for the place when I first went in I don’t know. A small club set back a bit is sparsely populated and I try and find the guy I’m staying with and can’t see him, he’s still not picking his phone up.  A sign of things to come indeed!  I see him get onto the stage where a band is ready to play and endure an hour or so of some average covers and even more average original songs; not the best gig I’ve ever witnessed.  As I later find out, he seems to lie about his appearance regularly – the guy in the photos on CouchSurfing was not a bad looking fella, full-head of hair and quite youthful.  What I came across though was a balding guy with a long thinning mullet at the back – an attempt at clinging onto his youth which isn’t working and an equally charming attitude to match.  He was on Lebanese MTV once, boasts this as often as he can deem worthy of it to come up in any given conversation and grows tired quick.  His friends seemed nice enough but when we got to his place his parents looked anywhere but at me and the boasting continued – some album launch in the Virgin Megastore in Beirut, a distant relative of another Armenian musician in America and whatever else he felt proclaiming.  By the time he’d run out of things to talk about himself I’d uttered few words and felt like sleeping it all off.  I sleep on the living room sofa and I wake up to the parents walking through – again, ignoring me – and am told by my host that I have to get up quickly (it’s 9am at this point) and hurry up and get ready.  Puzzled by his urgency I guessed there was something serious or urgent happening, I ask what’s up and he tells me his family are coming around at 10am and I have to leave immediately.  I ask if I can jump in the shower quick as I’ll only be five minutes and he says no.  He leads me out of the apartment, down the stairs and points the way to the centre of Beirut and says to call him at 10pm when he’ll be finished for the day.  Baffled by this and the fifteen hours I now have to kill here and I regret not just finding a hostel the night before.  I feel sticky and dirty from the journey the day before and not having washed before heading out into Beirut and the heat has me sweating on my long walk in.  Perfect.

I left the Armenian quarter where my ever-so-welcoming host lives and the surroundings go from average slightly-grotty town to high-rise buildings (many in progress), designer stores, water-front clubs and pockets of excess popping up; one in particular being a French restaurant I was tempted by for breakfast, but then waltzed on by when I noticed a mixture of cars cosied up outside including a Ferarri 360 Modena with Dubai licence plate – perhaps telling me that it may be out of my price-range a little.  The buildings around it are in various states, some immaculately (and newly) built like the Armenian church and the French-styled buildings housing restaurants and boutique stores, to a gutted building with some grandiose plan for the continued development of Beirut into an alternative to Dubai.  Down into one of the main shopping and restaurant streets, the McDonald’s sits almost hidden behind it but nevertheless is filled with parents and children – adverts showing the latest new burger ready for order, the McArabia.  Down the hill and stopping at the bottom there’s a small clock-tower and kids playing football around it, more designer stores with few or no customers, but three or four armed soldiers with rifles mill about, casually holding their weapons strapped around their necks.  I recoil, glance around seeing the shops, the children playing football, the parents pushing prams and the general ease of the day and wonder how a shopping district needs soldiers guarding it, let alone ones with guns.  I see soldiers dotted about the city on their own or in pairs as I walked around, placed there in case of a Hezbollah uprising from the nearby refuge camps.  After a day of walking around the city it doesn’t feel too odd having gun-totting soldiers throughout the city.

I settled down at the water-front at a restaurant with helpful and friendly staff, none of which can speak English so a lot of miming and pointing is employed with varying success.  A kebab wrap is ordered, along with a nargileh (shisha) and chocolate brownie sundae.  One of the guys helps me with the Arabic numbers converting 1 – 10 for me onto paper, as car licence plates are primarily in Arabic and some prices are too, so knowing them is quite essential!  Here they top up the shisha regularly with hot coals, make sure it’s still going and do their best to help out.  My bill is $5 short, and I try and pay and explain the mistake but they just laugh.  I walk vaguely in the direction of where I think I need to head back to, hoping a taxi comes by.  Half an hour later I’m negotiating the price to a place that I can’t pronounce and the driver has little idea, eventually he guesses where I mean and we head off.  He stops next to the (Bourj Hammoud) roundabout I saw earlier in the day and recommends the Armenian sandwich place across the road.  So good he parks up himself and uses the taxi fare I just paid him to buy one.

The following day, I manage to jump into the shower before he comes to tell me not to or to usher me out of the house and use the rest of the day doing much the same as the previous, walking round, exploring a little more and reading.  Children with their father are fishing off a rocky pier, swimming out regularly to check the nets and untangle them and claim any spoils, I settle on a nearby rock jutting out of the ocean and think towards the next few weeks.  The bus station has regular people-carriers that leave for Damascus as soon as they’re full – so my decision is made!  When I get back, I pack my things up ready for the morning.  When I wake up, I go to collect my towel from the rails that hang over the street from the first-floor apartment window.. to find my £20 travel-towel that compacts into the size of a book is no longer there – flown away in the night is my best guess.  Less than two months of travel and I’ve already lost my towel!  But, my previously less-than-helpful host digs out a lovely old one with the Turtles on it, much to my amusement.  I was always Raphael, complete with the red bandana and cheeky smile.

In the morning I head down to the bus station – a piss-smelling undercarraige of one of the main roads, dank, dark and uninviting.  I find a people-carrier parked up who is making the run into Damascus with a couple waiting for more to arrive.  The usual biscuits and soft drinks are offered before setting off, the journey taking myself and a few middle-aged French travellers through the hills of Lebanon to the border, showing incredible views over the city.

My nargileh for the afternoon

A rare thing for downtown Beirut, something undeveloped and green

View from a gutted building

Children playing football, the clocktower and soldiers with rifles meander to the right (out of shot)

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Posted in: Lebanon