4 days in Lebanon

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Middle East » Lebanon
November 26th 2017
Published: November 28th 2017
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On Wednesday, November 22, I left Belgium and I took a plane from Köln/Bonn Airport to Beyrouth via Istanbul in order to visit my 2 good JCI-friends Dolly and Firas. I parked my car at a parking a bit outside of the airport. They were really nice and cheap (30€ for 4 days) and they even took pictures from all sides of my car to make sure when I come back there are no new scratches (on my way back it would turn out their pictures were bad and you can't see if your car was scratched or not so they don't have to take responsibility unless it's a really big scratch). The only wired thing was that I had to leave them my keys, but this way I can't lose them. :-) I arrived 2 hours early at the airport, so I had time for lunch and to shop for gifts. I like this airport, never too crowded and people are mostly friendly. The only person who was a bit disturbing was the police officer at the passport control. He asked where I was going and when I said Lebanon, he asked me : "What on earth do you want there? It's dangerous and there are bombings all the time!" Since every person had told me that, this wasn't making me feel any better, but Dolly would tell me later that it isn't true at all, it's rather quite safe there. The flight per sewas ok, even if it was delayed. Fortunately I had enough time between my flights not to have any problems. I didn't like the airport in Istanbul though. It was overcrowded, people were unfriendly and there was no free Wi-Fi... In Beyrouth it was the complete opposite : people were very nice, there was free Wi-Fi and it was pleasant. I was a bit afraid I would have some problems getting a visa, but it was the easiest thing in the world. There were almost no people at the desk for visas and in 2 minutes I had mine, no cost, no difficulties, perfect!

At the exit of the airport, there was already a driver waiting to get me to my hostel. He was very friendly but also very jumpy. He gave me some documents to fill out for the hostel, my keycard for the room and a ticket for free breakfast. He told me that he had lived 7 years in Essen, Germany, but couldn't get a visa, so he and his family had to come back to Lebanon. He said that in Lebanon, there are no rules for driving and that you get your driver's licence for free on your 18th birthday (later Dolly would tell me that there is actually an exam, but that you can bribe the officers easily and get it without exams). He also told me about the huge poverty in Beyrouth and in Lebanon. Salaries are not very high, but the cost of living almost equals Europe. Everything is quite expensive, especially rent. There is no health system, no social security and no help for old people. So, either you are rich and can afford it all, or you're not and you basically live on the street. He (and Dolly and Firas) also told me that most of the beggars living on the street are from Syria. Officially, there are about 2000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but unofficially there is almost double that number. This doesn't make it a dangerous place though, just sad...

Arriving at the hostel, they almost begged me to pay the next day and to just go to my room, they seemed pretty tired. So I went up and found a hot room, clean bed but almost no space for luggage, and a dirty bathroom with mould on the ceiling of the shower... Not the best hostel I've ever been to, neither the cheapest (+/- 20$/night), but quite ok in general. Staff is nice and friendly and breakfast very good and sufficient. Later I would discover the rooftop terrace with a swimming pool which is the highlight of the hostel.

The next morning, after breakfast around 10AM, Dolly picked me up at my hostel. I was really happy to see her after 3 years! :-D We went to her car and left Beyrouth because she wanted to show me other places in Lebanon. Going anywhere by car is awful and seems really dangerous (it's not so much though because everybody is careful). There are no rules about how to drive ; 2, 3 or 4 lines, who cares, as long as it fits. So as a driver you have to pay attention all the time, make your way and just squeeze in. Bends, crossroads, etc., first come first served it seemed to me. Crazy! I would never drive there! Same for people on foot, very dangerous since in many places there is no sidewalk or zebra crossing and you have to walk on the street. I must say, I was fearing for my life! But as you can see, I survived Lebanese traffic. :-)

First, we went to a place called "River Dog" (Naher el Kaleb). This place shows many commemorative plaques which evoke the successive advances of the Pharaonic, Assyro-Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Arab, French and British armies, summing up the entire history of Lebanon. I didn't know that Lebanon had been invaded by so many different countries and cultures! I was especially surprised about the French invasion. That's the reason why most of them speak at least some French and most signs are bilingual. We went up the hill to have a good view over the seaside and take some pictures. Dolly also gave me a Lebanese SIM card so I have internet everywhere and all the time and she can always reach me. :-) There, I could see that people in Lebanon don't value much cleanness ; they throw away everything just anywhere, which makes it dirty everywhere. It's quite sad, because it's a beautiful country....

Then, we went to the Jeita grotto, which consists of two connected karstic limestone caves hosting the world's largest known stalactite. It was one of 14 finalists in the "New 7 Wonders of Nature" competition and it was absolutely amazing! I could have stayed there for hours to admire the cave! Unfortunately you couldn't take any pictures, you even had to leave your phone and camera at the entrance. Dolly told me the reason is that Lebanese people don't respect any rules and if you don't take their cameras, they will take pictures anyway.

After this stop, we went to Jounieh to take a funicular up a mountain to "Our Lady of Lebanon", a huge St. Mary's statue in Harissa. This shrine is an important pilgrimage place for Christians and Muslims in Lebanon (Lebanon is partly Christian, partly Muslim and, there, both, Shia and Sunni Muslims, live together). The view from up there was amazing! I liked it very much because it was quiet up there, not like down in the city where it is very noisy and chaotic. From there you could see exactly how bad the structure of Lebanese cities are, more exactly there is no structure at all. Buildings are built just anywhere which makes the places seem very crowded and chaotic.

Finally, we went to Byblos (arabic Jbail), a historic city supposed to have been built by the Titan Cronus between 8800 and 7000 BC as the first city in Phoenicia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a wonderful place, I was absolutely amazed ! Small, old houses, small paved streets, nice bars and restaurants everywhere. This is what I call a beautiful old town! :-) Dolly and I were quite hungry so we went to her favourite restaurant. She told me that when she was still a student in Beyrouth, she and her friends often took off and went to Byblos. I understand why, it's so lovely! She made me try Lebanese alcohol, a kind of Ricard, and a lot of Lebanese food. It was delicious!!! At some point, all electricity went off and she told me that, by day, they have public electricity and, in the evening, they get electricity from a private company and during the switch electricity just goes away for a few minutes. Strange... Another curious thing I saw there was that there were many cats walking around and begging for food. Dolly explained that everywhere in Lebanon are lots of street cats which is a bit annoying but not as bad as street dogs in Romania, for example.

Dolly's friend Tommy joined us at the restaurant. He's an artist who makes sculptures, paintings and mosaics. He didn't speak much English but he tried and we got along very well. He's a very nice guy ! After lunch/dinner, we went down to the seaside to have a beer and enjoy the sunset. It was beautiful and we had a very good time! I tried Lebanese beer and the Almaza one was ok, nothing special but not bad, and the Beirut one was awful... Then we went to Tommy's place where he prepared Lebanese coffee for us (they told me I had to try it) and where we saw some of his art. He's really talented! We also met his parents and his brother. They were very nice people and made me feel very welcome. In Lebanon, most young people live with their parents until they get married. It's only then when they move out.

Dolly and I went back to Beyrouth then to meet Firas and go for a drink. It was very hard to find a parking spot in Hamra and, again, I was very scared by the traffic. Thanks to Firas's help, we managed to find a paid parking. Dolly told me that even if she finds a spot on the street, she doesn't take it because your car can easily get scratched or be in an accident and nobody will contact you so that you will find your car broken and nobody will pay for the damage... We went to a cocktail bar which had very curious alcohol combinations... I, for example, took a dark rum with ginger beer... It was quite good though. We had a very nice evening catching up, talking about personal values, JCI and travels. Firas and I are both of the opinion that it's a person's own decision to be happy and relaxed or stressed and unhappy. It's all about what's important to you : money, work and recognition of others or freedom, time, happiness and being satisfied with yourself. At the end, I was quite tired, it had been a long day full of new experiences and that is exhausting. So they accompanied me back to my hostel and I tried to sleep, which wasn't quite easy since my roommates were talking about the afterlife and having seen or believing in ghosts... ^_^

The next morning, I woke up late, had a shower and went for breakfast (omelette, really good!). Breakfast in this hostel was very good, but I loved Lebanese food in general anyway. Can't imagine eating something there I don't like. After getting ready for the day, I tried to find a city map, but apparently there is none and there is no tourist information either... So I just followed Google maps to downtown and after some searching I found it. Downtown Beyrouth is quite nice, lots of historic, old buildings, but also many new buildings. In Beyrouth, you can find many new, beautiful, wealthy houses, but also many poor, deserted and destroyed buildings. It's quite interesting, really. At some point I arrived at a huge building and when I wanted to take a picture, military came and told me not to take any pictures. They even checked if I hadn't taken any pictures so far. Wired! One of them told me then that it's the Grand Serail (Goverment Palace) and since the political situation is a bit tight at the moment, they are very strict. Actually, following an invitation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, went to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia and resigned from there in a television statement. Rumour has it, he was held hostage and nobody in Lebanon believes the story he told. They refused his resignation and there are posters of him everywhere in Beyrouth. Very difficult situation. That's also the main reason why there was military everywhere, literally at every corner which made me feel like I'm watched everywhere... I continued my visit of downtown and was very impressed by the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque. I liked Beyrouth very much, architecture is beautiful and people (even military) are very nice and friendly, but I couldn't live there, people are too jumpy and traffic too loud. Contrary to what everyone told me before, it's not a dangerous place at all, there are no bombs, no terrorist attacks and no aggression on the street. I felt very safe all the time!

For lunch I went back to my hostel where I met Firas. He made me taste Shawarma with beef and with chicken, both of them super delicious! He showed me the university campus of AUB (American University of Beyrouth). It is very large, full of trees and beautiful buildings. I liked it very much! When Firas went back to work, I visited the archaeological museum of the university. Afterwards I strolled around and went to the bay. I can only say, it's very nice, but I was missing a place to sit down and chill at the beach (a place I would discover the next day). Before going back to my hostel and relaxing on the rooftop terrace, I walked a bit in the Hamra street but I was quite annoyed by all the Syrian refugees begging in the street.
I had some time left before meeting Firas and Dolly, so I had a cocktail at the bar and started reading a good book ("Hunger games"). Then I went back to the rooftop terrace to have my free welcome drink. I made friends with the bartender, Jaad. He's very nice and we talked about the Netherlands (he went there for holidays) and about camping. I promised him I would come back later for a good-night drink.
At 8:30, Dolly, Firas and Tommy picked me up to go to a Cheese & Wine evening. In the end, we decided rather than tasting some wine, to go to a bar from which you can watch over the wine fair and have some cocktails and food. A bit later Nadine joined us. Unfortunately, Dolly and Tommy had to leave early, but we continued and had a lot of fun. There was a really good DJ and we danced until 1AM outside, enjoying the good weather and atmosphere. Going home was fun as well : the three of us went back on her BWM cabrio with only 2 seats, so Firas and I had to share a spot. It was tight, but fun and we would continue driving like this the next day. Officially you can't do this, but many military (which function as police) saw us and nobody stopped us. ^^

The next day, Saturday, was already my last day in Lebanon... I spent the morning on my rooftop terrace reading and Firas joined me at 1PM. We went to downtown and I had the best falafel ever ! If you like falafel and you have never had it in Lebanon, it's like you've never tasted a real falafel. I can still taste it now, days later... Firas showed me the Jemmayze district and some other places before we went to the Zaituna Bay. It's a beautiful place with many bars and restaurants overlooking the yachts of Beyrouth. Around 4PM, Nadine came to pick us up. We went to the Bay Rock Café from where we had an amazing view over the Raouché Rocks, one of Beyrouth's highlights. Afterwards, we went to Badaro and to Mar mkhayel, two bar/party districts of Beyrouth where we had some drinks with Nadine's sister and her friend. At 12AM, we had to leave because I had my flight back at 3:45 in the morning. I was really sad to go, I could easily have stayed a few more days !

In conclusion, most people have no idea about Lebanon and will tell you that it's dangerous and that you shouldn't go there. In truth, it's a beautiful country, even if it's a bit dirty and has some political issues, people are really nice and welcoming and food is amazing. I can only recommend you to visit it !

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