Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Paris of the East

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit Beirut with a couple of the interns that are at my university for the summer. It was an incredible experience...I love Beirut! We had sort of a wacko itinerary (which made me realize that I'm getting older!). We worked all day Thursday and then headed out to the airport at 10pm. Our flight left at 2am and we arrived in Beirut at 4am. We took a cab to our hotel and were able to leave our backpacks there before venturing out for the day. We found a cab and told him to bring us to Gemmayze street, which is an area with pubs and restaurants that we had heard stayed open 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, when we climbed out of the cab, there was nothing but shuttered buildings. Oops! Undeterred, we started walking. We stopped to ask a few random people who also happened to be out and about at 4:30am, but no one knew of an open restaurant. One of them pointed us in one direction, so we started walking. We suddenly realized that all the buildings around us were semi-destroyed with gaping bullet holes. In case you don't know the history of Beirut, Lebanon went through a horrific civil war from 1975-1990 and another massive military conflict with Israel in 2006. Most of the city was destroyed during the civil war (if you've seen the movie Spy Games, it takes place in war-era Beirut). Much of the city has been rebuilt, but there are still some areas that aren't safe for westerners. Anyway, we decided that we probably shouldn't keep walking in that direction, so we turned around. Finally, we saw a small hole-in-the-wall store that was open. We went in and asked if they sold beer (Kuwait is a dry country, so we were all looking forward to having a beer in Beirut). Turns out they did, so we pulled up some rickety patio chairs and had a specialty lebanese-brew called Almaza. It was good!!!! When we were done, the friendly older gentleman who ran the store/restaurant offered us coffee on the house. It was true middle eastern coffee (read: mud espresso in a dixie cup...strong enough to put hair on your chest!). While we sat there, more elderly men strolled up. Pretty soon, it was us and about 10 older gentleman. In broken arabic-english-french, we sat around and chatted. It was such an odd experience, but so fun! Turns out our store was actually a restaurant, and the owner was making home made pita bread in a brick oven! So we had some incredible sandwiches, and then explained that we were trying to get to Baalbeck, which is an ancient ruins site about 1.5 hours outside Beirut. He happened to have a taxi driver friend, so he called him up. At 6am, a Mercedes pulled up and our taxi/guide jumped out. We negotiated the fare and off we went!

We spent Friday morning at Baalbeck, which is in the Bekaa Valley. The drive itself was incredible...it was so cool to get to see some of Lebanon outside Beirut. We had to go through multiple checkpoints (soldiers with machine guns, tanks, barbed wire, etc). Baalbeck itself was amazing. It contains ruins from the past 4000 years (including Bronze Age, Phoenician, Roman, and Greek ruins). I've included some pics below. The Bekaa Valley is the political seat of Hezbollah, so we also saw a lot of Hezbollah flags and very few foreigners. When we finally got back to Beirut, we crashed at the hotel for a few hours before heading out to see the nightlife. The city itself is an interesting blend of modern beauty and war-era destruction. It sits right on the Mediterranean, and it's simply beautiful. The people are hospitable and incredible friendly (a nice change from daily life in Kuwait!). It was HOT and HUMID, so we basically spent 24 hours trudging through 90+ degree heat, dripping sweat (which is why I look like I was in a sauna in the pics below...hehe).

On the second day, we visited the national museum, which was almost destroyed during the civil war. It sits on the Green Line, which was the partition point between the Muslims (primarily palestinian factions and syrian troops) and the christians. It took heavy shelling, and the museum workers protected ancient archeological finds by constructing concrete bunkers around each piece. It was refurbished in the late 90s as the city began to recover from the war. We also visited American University of Beirut, which is incredibly beautiful. It basically looks like a series of villas nestled in the midst of a wooded area and sits right on the water. I definitely fell in love with it. During our meandering, we also got to see the old Holiday Inn. The hotel was finished shortly before the civil war began, and became a prime location for snipers during the war. It was heavily damaged and still stands empty. The only inhabitants are the pigeons. I included a picture below (tall white building). We spent some time in the downtown Beirut area, which looks like a parisian cafe area. Prior to the war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the East. After the war, it was described as Paris post-Apocalypse.

We ended the second day with some incredible lebanese food and headed back to the airport. Our flight left at 3am, we got in at 6am, and went straight to work! So basically, we slept about 10 hours in three days, but it was so worth it! I love the city...and it was incredible how free it felt after 7 months in Kuwait. I'm hoping to go back again in the fall...and perhaps it's the next "it" place when I move on from Kuwait! Here are some pics...I have a ton more on my facebook page. The first pics are of the Baalbeck ruins. There is also a mosque that sits in the downtown Beirut area, a pic of me overlooking the water at the university, Kevin (one of the interns I traveled with) and I at a local pub, the view of the water, the Holiday Inn...and an amazing sunset picture taken at a restaurant where we stopped during our second day. Enjoy!


ZK said...

so...maybe I am the first person to say this...or maybe I'm not...but...you crazy girl.

donna kushner said...

loved this and your pics on facebook that I finally got to look at, I hope I can go there someday!