First Days in Lebanon

So I arrived in Beirut on Tuesday and the trip went pretty smoothly overall. I realized that I have a love for really long airplane rides; it is a weird chunk of suspended time where you are an in between space (literally) and really cannot do anything other than think. Also, in the months leading up to this trip, I was so busy getting last minute things done that the flight actually gave me a chance to process that this trip is actually a reality.  I also really love the feeling of knowing you are landing somewhere totally foreign and watching from the window as the city grows from a mini conglomeration of buildings to an actual city and just thinking about all the things the place has in store for you. It is so exciting.

Once I got to the airport in Beirut, I claimed my luggage and went through customs with absolutely no problem. In fact, the woman at immigration asked me why I got a visa. She said “next time, you don’t need a visa for Lebanon.”  So with a sigh of relief I walked out of the airport and eagerly looked around for someone with a sign holding my name. I had called the night before and confirmed my reservation with a hostel and they assured me they would send a driver to the airport to pick me. After about 20 minutes of wondering around the airport, I realized that the driver is probably not coming. A man who was convincing me to get in his taxi let me use his phone and the owner of hostel said, “No, Roxana we didn’t send anyone and we don’t have any room for you because you didn’t call to confirm.” With slight panic setting in I explained that I did call and thankfully, I took down the name of the person I talked to. She asked me to hold on and then said, “Come on down, we have a bed for you.” I am already learning that clearly no does not really mean no but rather everything is negotiable.

The ride from the airport to the hostel was pretty short and really the only thing that indicated I was in the Middle East was the Arabic script and posters of Iranian president Ahmadinejad lining the streets on the outskirts of the city. Once I got to the hostel (and was charged double by my taxi driver) the owner showed me to a tiny room with two bunk beds and one single bed and said “ok, your bed is up there.”  With a bit of hesitation, I climbed up the little ladder, sat on my bed and gave myself a pep talk by telling myself that I will adjust once I get settled in. So once I calmed down, I went out into the lobby and started talking with other travelers who were staying at the hostel. I soon realized that one of the highlights of my trip will be the amazing, interesting people that I will meet and day one certainly proved this to be true.

Profile of some of the people I have met so far:

  • A Filipino guy who is the host of a political talk show in the Dinner at Le ChefPhilippines, as well as a journalist, on the board of a beer company and an honorary diplomat for the Georgian consulate in the Philippines (he apparently got drunk with some Georgians in South Africa one night, became friends with them and they appointed him as the Georgian Consule-CRAZY!)
  • A guy from Iran who traveled to Lebanon to apply for his student visa to study urban design at a University in Texas. The day I arrived, he told me he was rejected by the American consulate because they speculated “he would stay in the states and not return to Iran.” He was pretty upset but also seemed excited to meet someone who spoke Farsi.
  • A retired psychologist from Spokane, Washington (so random) who worked in the jail system for about 10 years and once she retired, decided she would take a year and a half off to travel the world.
  • A German guy who is riding his motorcycle all the way from Germany to South Africa.

Lebanese Eggplant DishThe night I arrived, we all went out to dinner to the only restaurant I actually knew about in Lebanon, Le Chef (I saw it on Ant hony Bourdains show on Lebanon) and had a traditional Lebanese meal which actually was really similar to Persian food. I was so relived to spend my first night in the company of other people.

The next day I got up and walked around the city of Beirut on my own. I just got a map and started walking without any real aim or purpose. Beirut, which is on the Mediterranean coast, is absolutely beautiful and right now it is a perfect temperature of 75 degrees. The first thing I observed about Beirut was the complexity of the city. You see the beautiful mosque and ancient churches directly next to Gucci, Hermes, H&M and every other designer or contemporary store you can imagine. My guide book explains Beirut as a city with “one slipper in the middle east and one Jimmy Choo planted firmly in the west.” My initial day in the city, I really got a feel for the European influence on Beirut, especially in the downtown area. The streets are very clean, people are driving fancy cars, there are hundreds of new developments of upscale townhouses or condos and generally you don’t see a lot of striking poverty. On a walk around the American University of Beirut seeing the youth interact and the beautiful landscape I thought to myself, “Wow, people must really be happy here.” It’s hard to believe that this is the same city that has experienced two wars and over 20,000 casualties within the last decade. Though you really don’t feel the effects of this history as you walk around the city, once you begin to scratch at the surface a bit,  the trauma and damage is so evident. You see buildings with hundreds of bullet holes in them and monuments commemorating the many who have died as well as the green line which once separated the Muslim and Christian quarters of the city. The city is now in a scramble to completely rebuild Beirut and you can see major construction sites (which are apparently funded by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the many Lebanese expatriates living abroad) rapidly going up. This area of new construction is so beautiful and chic but seems unreal or imitation like. Walking around, I was reminded of the hotels in Las Vegas like Paris or Venetian. The reconstruction and architecture capture the old designs and esthetic, yet are lacking the character old historical buildings. In a way, the rebuilding of the city reflects how Beirut is attempting to heal by covering up the years of pain and warfare the city has endured; erasing all the scars to forget the past.  Also, the impact of instability on the people does not go unnoticed. People seem hardened and not as willing to interact with outsiders as other countries I have visited. Though you often see people relaxing, indulging in decadence and sitting at coffee shops, there seems to be a heaviness to people’s lives in the city that is masked by cosmetic buildings and sites yet the scars are permanent. 

As far as my personal experience, I have already had my ups and downs.  It is such an interesting feeling to be alone in a city where no one knows you or anything about you.  It grants you this bit of invisibleness that is so unique to traveling on your own. Since Beirut is the type of city where I don’t immediately stand out as an outsider, I was able to walk around and just observe. I realize that in my daily life, I am always going or doing something, talking to someone or getting a million things done. For the first time, I had some time to just be with myself, think about things and take in my surroundings. I guess that is what traveling is about-reminding you that there is more to life than our daily routines and the bubble we live in. 

That evening I got a small taste of the nightlife in Beirut which is amazing. Myself and a couple of others from the hostel went out to dinner and then to the roof top bar in Gemmayze, a trendy area of Beirut, and had cocktails overlooking the city with a live DJ playing new and old school rap music-not your typical image of the Middle East. Yesterday was my first day outside of Beirut and I definitely saw another side to Lebanon. Not only did I notice more poverty, and the more traditional Middle Eastern culture but I also noticed the many different political parties that are vying for power in Lebanon. During our trip, we even got stopped at a checkpoint and were all asked to show our passports which kind of scared me but later found out is really just a formality.

Our first stop on our day out of the city was a small vineyards just a little southeast of Beirut where we went wine tasting. It was kind of odd to find a vineyard in the middle of a pretty conservative area of Lebanon but the winery was beautiful and interesting because caves that were used hundreds of years ago to store wine were recently discovered and restored. On our way back to Beirut we stopped in at small town Aanjar, with an ancient 8th century Umayyad city which was only rediscovered within the last 50 years. I am not really an archeology person but this place was absolutely amazing. We found pottery pieces dating back to this time and the best part was it was totally empty so we had time to walk around and look at all the different sites. All in all, one of the best parts of my day yesterday was getting a taste of the diversity of the country and actually being able to interact and see people the people of Lebanon as a result of using public transportation.

As for my personal state of mind, I am not feeling too lonely since I am always around others who speak English and I can find virtually everything I could possibly need here but there is a sense of solitude that I am finding hard to adjust to. It has really hit me that I am on my own. Even though I will meet people and can go places with people I truly am by myself, and will have to figure things out on my own in a way that I have not done before. Also, I am struggling with the idea of not having a place or anything to do other then travel. I have realized that other travelers are really into site seeing and going to archeological sites, museums etc and basically just always on the go. Although I also enjoy the occasional tourist things, this is not really where I draw my excitement from. I really feel fulfilled and excited about a place through connecting with people and absorbing the culture. So far in Lebanon, this has been hard to for me to do-I have met plenty of foreigners and backpackers which has been great but not exactly what I am looking for. Today, I had this realization that I could totally go through my whole trip as a tourist, tagging along with other travelers, speaking English and having a great time. But this is not why I took an opportunity to travel for 8 months. Gaining depth during this trip is going to be a challenge and something I am going to have to be intentional about, not something that is just going to come to me naturally as has been the case in my other international experiences. I am going to have to cultivate relationships with people and find ways to get on the inside as an outsider.

I also know that in order to stay sane, I need to establish ways to keep myself grounded and stable, even if that means staying at the same hostel for two weeks or taking a day out to write a blog or email. Always being in flux will not allow me to absorb anything because I will constantly be in transition or adjusting.

So all in all, it’s been a good start. When I think about the fact that it is only day 3 of 8 months, I get a little nervous and scared and wonder if I can actually do it, living the life of a nomad for 8 months, but then I just take the advice of a past Bonderman recipient who told me to “chill out, read a book and have a cup of coffee or tea and you’ll feel better.” So today that is exactly what I am doing. We’ll see what tomorrow holds.

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