Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beirut, Lebanon

Place d'Etoile in Beirut.

After a good morning at the temple complex, it was time to head on to Beirut. Getting there would mean riding on the major road between Damascus, Syria and Beirut, Lebanon. That road would be a major highway with tons of honking, speeders, and generally unpleasant. Following advice from Eddie to not be a purist and force myself to bike the unpleasant parts, I decided to catch a minibus.

My favorite shop window in the Beirut souq.

When I tracked down a minibus, the standard bargaining scenario where they want to overcharge me occurred. They tried to charge me 4 times the normal price because I had a bike. I was not having it walked away. I found a cabby who did not speak English. When this happens, we negotiate via my cellphone. This is normally not an issue, but I was working in Lebanese Pounds. He was working in US dollars. I am still very confused why a country's businesses would focus on a currency that wasn't theirs. The taxi was too much. I let my cheap nature get a hold of me and opted to bike.

Part of pigeon rocks.

After a couple hours biking into a vicious headwind on the busy road between Baalbek, I was nearing the even busier road that joins Damascus and Beirut. Fighting the wind had worn down my agitation at bargaining. Also, I had unknowingly let myself get dehydrated so I wasn't biking well. I flagged down a minibus and was able to patiently bargain with them. It cost me 1.5 times regular price for me AND the bike. That was a lot more reasonable. I took it and was happy to be out of the wind.

I saw lots of soldier and women, but never a combination of the two, especially with a moustache.

I arrived in Beirut as it was getting dark. It was dark before I found my hotel where the over eager host once again promised things, like fixing the scale and shower, that never happened. Oh well, I found something and it was perfect for two great nights of R&R in the hip Gemmayze district. It wasn't the cheapest place., but I was too tired to care. That isn't quite true. I took a pass on the >$200 Ramada that I wandered past.

Beirut's version of the Souq.

I loved Beirut. It was exactly the taste of home that I needed to mentally recharge my batteries. It has western food. I understood how things worked more. There was a ton of English. Things were easier for a change. Don't get me wrong, it is still a Middle Eastern city, but because it has so much European influence, it didn't seem like it. I have deemed it Middle East light and I think people love it so much because they get a taste of the Middle East without really leaving what they know.

Cafe culture is alive and well on a street off of Place d'Etoile.

This line of thinking got me wondering, what does a modern Middle Eastern city look like? I have heard Dubai,but haven't seen it yet. Would I see the obvious signs of money and chain stores there and just call it Western influenced? Can there be a rich Middle Eastern city without the stuff I call Western? Do I just associate rich with Western and half-squalor with Middle Eastern? Certainly there were Middle Eastern cities, like Damascus and Aleppo, with their nicer downtowns. However, they also had their traditional poorer areas where each store and trash pours on to the streets that are very Middle Eastern. Are the richer cities with their McDonald's not Western influenced, but just globally influenced. In the USA, I believe our downtown's have plenty of non-Western imports, especially in the electronics realm. When I say Western, do I really mean global? Any one have some more useful thoughts on my ethnocentric slant?

Le Rouge hit two homeruns, one for a great meal and one for the no noise pollution sign

I think my finest 'taste of home' moment in Beirut was at Le Rouge restaurant, a french restaurant. I had mint lemonade and a Parisian sandwich with apple and white cheese. These were phenomenal after too many long days of market food, but the clincher was their sign in the window which said noise pollution sucks. I also dove into the guilty pleasures of peach ice tea and caprese sandwiches. The best and worst one was probably heading to an 'American' diner. I was curious what it would be like. It wasn't a diner. It was way too nice, but they did give free refills which is pretty much unheard of in Europe and the Middle East. A taste of home that I didn't participate in was the five or six American fast food chains conveniently located right outside the American University of Beirut.

I love that all these American institutions are across the street from the American University in Beiruit.

One building on the campus of the American University of Beirut.

I didn't participate too much in Beirut. I walked. Then, I walked more. I saw my favorite mosque to date, the Mohammed al-Amin mosque. The way it was built has great angles, but I think I fell in love with the coloring in the sun. I saw more armed guards than anywhere else in Lebanon. I thought there was a major event in town like the G8, but they were there for daily protection. It made me a little nervous. I am curious who they are guarding against. Is it the Israeli's who they cannot seem to stop anyway? Is it Syria where it is also the case? My personal guess was they were warding off a class riot or war. The disparity between the Palestinian refugee neighborhood/camps and the glitz of central Beirut less than 3 miles away was extraordinary.

Mohammed al-Amin mosque

Old shot up skyscrapers with new ones going up across the street.

The corniche along the sea is where a lot of the money seems to end up. It was amazing to see one skyscraper (maybe the old Holiday Inn) that had a ton of bullet holes in it because snipers used it during the civil war right beside a new building going up, right beside another tower of luxury condos. It makes sense because Beirut is rebuilding for the second or third time this century, but it is still jarring to see the signs of war beside opulence. The Lebanese people are amazing. I can't imagine rebuilding my city for the second or third time in my lifetime. I guess home is home though.

Cookie dough is not a well defended sweet shop. It is a kid's clothing store. I question their priorities.