Strategy: Sleep as little as possible.
The self-proclaimed “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut welcomed us with open arms and an immediate reprieve from the daily routine in Amman. We arrived on Thursday night in a torrential downpour that forced all of us off the street and into the hotel’s small reception office – immediately foiling our plan to sneak three more people into the reserved two-person room. (We’re poor college students, you can’t possibly expect us to accept the luxury of individual beds when we can save money by sleeping on the floor!) Thus, we met our first challenge: After caving in and accepting two rooms for the first night, we were on our own the next day with no plans or reservations for the next four nights. Luckily, there was a cancellation at the hotel down the street and we were much more strategic about sneaking the extra guests in. Once settled into the alleyway hotel in the heart of Hamra district – with a trifecta of bars directly below our bedroom window – we were able to get on with the vacation…
We spent the first afternoon walking around the American University at Beirut, a gorgeous campus that would shame
most colleges stateside. Since the University of Jordan in Amman could easily be mistaken for Sierra College in Rocklin, we spent most of the visit in awe of a Middle Eastern campus nestled into green hills of trees and plants. And there was grass! Grass! We wandered down to the turf soccer field, which opens up to a panoramic view of the Mediterranean, and kicked the ball around with some students who live in the dorms on campus. As liberal as the area seemed at times, the university does have separate dorms for women and most students who live off-campus reside with their families in the city.
On Saturday, we took a taxi out to Jeita Grotto north of the city. A nominee in the “New Seven Wonders” competition, the pair of caves is one of the primary tourist destinations in Lebanon. Unfortunately, you’ll have to look up photos online because cameras weren’t allowed inside. I felt like I was on a movie set the entire time, with strategic lighting and all of the stalactites and stalagmites and…uh, that’s the extent of my elementary school knowledge of caves. The lower portion is full of water, so tourists are taken on boats through the cave. We made plenty of jokes about Lebanon reveling in its underground lakes – with water seeping out of the walls and ceilings of the caves – while Jordanians struggle to cope with the severe water shortage in their own country. Though photos weren’t allowed inside, we have plenty outside the caves. The views were spectacular, with steep, green hills separated by a powerful stream that rushed west toward the Mediterranean.
In an attempt to save money, we decided to take a bus back into the city instead of a taxi. After explaining our destination and receiving confirmation from the driver, we spent 10 minutes in the same traffic circle as he yelled at fellow drivers and pedestrians. And apparently the most efficient way to navigate this route was through a deserted parking lot with what can only be described as a small pond in the middle. So, we learned that service buses in Lebanon have the required capacity to ford a solid foot or two of standing water. We were finally dropped off at “Hamra” and realized that we were nowhere close to our hotel, only returning after an hour or two of walking in which we got turned around several times and became increasingly dependent on advice from local vendors. Don’t worry through, strength in numbers.
Sunday was our big exercise day I suppose, as we spent the entire afternoon wandering around Beirut with no particular destination or sense of purpose. We began from the Corniche, the waterfront path filled with people at all hours of the day and night, and walked towards the downtown area. Without warning, we walked past the St. George Hotel, where explosives equal to 1000 kg of TNT had been detonated in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2006. The crater it left in the street had since been repaired, but the hotel itself was completely dormant, with its face still covered in construction tarps. I didn’t see the memorial statue to the left of the building, but it was impossible to miss the massive “Stop Solidere” banner on the right side – a reference to the Hariri’s company and the bitter legal battle over rights to develop the waterfront property. We continued on through the city, passing dozens of modern high-rise towers and expensive cars parked along the streets. The red Mazerati and gorgeous Audi R8 managed to stand out from the countless Mercedes’ and BMW’s. Yet in a city that has seen more than its share of war in the past several decades, the evidence of violence was unmistakable; the new and old are all sandwiched together into the same piece of land sticking out into the Mediterranean. We turned down several streets to face buildings with bullet-ridden walls and empty window frames. The seriously damaged Holiday Inn Hotel – a central location in the Battle of the Hotels at the outbreak of civil war in 1975 – rises above most buildings in the district, a visible reminder of the threat of violence in this fragile country. On a whim, we decided to turn off the street into a local church, the traffic and people outside immediately silenced. We sat down on the pews to take it all in, overcome by the peacefulness of its gorgeous interior.
We walked back to the west of the city and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean, with the Corniche becoming more and more crowded as darkness began to creep over the city. Small fireworks were lit on the sidewalk and out over the water, as families brought picnic dinners out to the benches and couples strolled along for a romantic evening together. We saw girls in hijabs roller-blading by and adults power-walking between the crowds, both impossible feats in the dangerous streets of Amman. Though things tend to quiet down in the late afternoon, nighttime sees a re-emergence of life and energy in the city. Since our evening wouldn’t begin for several hours, we found a small French restaurant on the water for a delicious seafood dinner.
After rendezvousing with the rest of our group at the hotel, we took cabs to a popular club to enjoy our last full night in the city. Upon returning around four in the morning, we picked up breakfast and went back down to the Corniche to watch the sunrise. Eager to take advantage of the little time we had left in the country, we found a taxi to take us to the civil war museum and were treated to a gorgeous morning drive through the hills outside the city. We passed a number of small villages with Muslim families outside preparing their lamb for the Eid al-Adha feast that night. The museum held a number of real artifacts from the wars – including destroyed helicopters, tanks and missiles – and our taxi driver gave us a personal tour of the location, including a tunnel used to move militants and equipment during the conflict. Though I’m sure we looked a bit out of place – we were the only visitors at those early hours – everyone was exceedingly kind. Our driver must have enjoyed our company and ability to converse in Arabic, as he offered to take us to the airport early the next morning as well, blowing kisses as we exited the taxi.
In the afternoon, we waited over two hours to ride the telefrique, a cable car from Jounieh to the mountain peak that holds the Lady of Lebanon. Though I spent my time in line sandwiched between Arab men who grew increasingly impatient with the snail’s pace at which we were moving, it turned out to be well worth the wait. We had arrived around 2 p.m., but our ascent in the cable car coincided perfectly with another gorgeous sunset over the water. The basilica atop the hill was exceptional and the views of the Mediterranean and surrounding coastal cities were the most memorable from the entire trip. Having been awake for 38 hours – and knowing that we’d made the most of our time in Beirut – we reluctantly packed our things and caught a short night of sleep before leaving for the airport at 6 a.m. the next morning.
It took me less than two hours on Friday to realize that I’d completely fallen in love with Lebanon. Though Amman will always be my first home in the Middle East, it simply cannot compete with the beauty of Beirut. From the lush, green hills above the city, we could look west to the Mediterranean and east to the snow-covered mountains of Syria, appreciative that Assad’s repressive violence hadn’t crept over the border just yet. After all, Lebanon has already suffered through more than its share of conflict in the past century – see Sabra and Chatila or the Civil War of 1975-1990 – and the liberal culture is balanced by the lingering tensions in the country. While the ghosts of its past warn against another slip into sectarian violence, Beirut still manages to epitomize everything that’s good about multiculturalism. We were able to use Arabic in taxis, French in restaurants and English at the bars. We met college students from Saudi Arabia eager to exchange phone numbers and Facebook information. We could stay out all night and hear DJs sample Bay Area rap, yet take a taxi immediately after and witness a display of weapons and machinery from a war that had raged just five years earlier in the same place.
It was strange to experience this range of human nature in such a short period of time and within such a small space of land, but I suppose that was the real value of the trip. My experience in Lebanon wasn’t about political coalitions or foreign occupation or sectarian violence – though all very real factors in its national identity – but about the brief interactions we had with all of the Lebanese people in their tiny country. Considering these positive interactions and the huge potential for future growth in the city, I have every intention of getting back….as soon as possible.