Read here about my other Lebanese adventures: Beirut Dreams (2016)
I guess my life is a roller coaster. From the hectic traffic of Bangkok to rushing an Indian driver around Doha (when a lady announces me it’s weekend by the phone and the counters are opened until 2:30 PM and not 10 PM, like I thought and I have 50 minutes to do all the online work, find a cab – sometimes in Doha this can take one hour – and get to the other side of the city to pick them up) to get the tickets and permit to travel in my days off from…
work traveling. I get in time to the counter, where I don’t appear in the system, I try to reapply at the computers there, but the system fails a few times. The counter closes in 20 minutes, I am tired to the bones, just arrived from Bangkok, haven’t slept fro 27 hours, I am leaving tomorrow to Beirut, but I have no ticket, no approval (from the company), no suitcase and no rest. I let everything in God’s hand and then everything falls into place. The system starts working, I get the permit, the tickets do not need to be picked up because of an option I chose and I leave home in less than 10 minutes. I pack, sleep and wake up fresh and prepared for the amazing trip that was going to follow. I am in my pink dress in the airport watching the vivid activity of the cargo loading, passengers carried in buses, small maintenance cars, refueling cars, engineering trucks, tens of men in fluorescent vests, movable steps. May has been an extraordinary journey and the craziest month of my life. I swam in the hot storm in Tanzania, hugged the lions and went clubbing in Johannesburg, ate Russian food in Red Square in Moscow, discovered the beauty of Phuket, tanned in Doha, explored the crazy streets of Bangkok on a motorbike with my hair and skirt in the wind. I only slept to survive and realized the only constant is change. Especially in aviation. But the month is not over yet. Today I am off from traveling and I am…traveling. To Beirut to see the coast, the cedars and the remains of the greatest empires that ever existed. On the plane I read the inflight magazine and take notes from an article about Arabic food and spices, write down the following art exhibitions in Doha and make a list of to do things for the following months like applying for US visa and reading traveling journals. I watch a crap new release movie and I write down the only thing worth mentioning: “There’s no nobility in being superior”. The end of May and first two days of June found me in Beirut, a favorite destination I discovered alone. Every morning I woke up seeing the small waves of the Mediterranean splashing in the landmark of Lebanon, the Pigeon Rocks, from my wall size window and hearing the cars hawking (as I got to learn this is a national sport) from my opened balcony, where I have a table and two chairs to watch the sun rise and fall.
Actually, wherever I was in the room the view was spectacular – from the kitchen, getting out of the bathroom, while dressing up or applying make-up. The truth is that the place where you’re staying can change the whole vibe of your vacation.
Many years I chose average hotels thinking I’m only going to sleep there, which is always true for a traveller like me who does not waste time in the hotel. Fair enough, but not for this trip. Forgive me my dear Lebanese friends, but when I moved to Doha I was warned about the Lebanese pimps. Probably Everybody is aware of this because they raised an eyebrow when I’d say I cannot wait for my Beirut trip. Alone! – But what you wanna do there? – Visit the city, sit by the sea, walk and eat local food, see the remains of the most important empires that ever existed. They were not to impressed and still did not understand. With no success I told them what a beautiful capital and free city with great clubs, mountains collapsing in the sea, wide seaside walks, mosques and Christian churches mix. That was the image of Beirut I went with, but what I discovered exceeded my expectations by far. Mother didn’t say much about me leaving to Lebanon, a country that brings shivers down your spine when you only pronounce its name (ro Liban). – Isn’t there war in Lebanon? – No, mum, it’s a nice place. The truth is that I had no freaking clue. Of course, I knew there’s no war, but I hadn’t checked how safe it was, what precautions I should take. I knew it was the most free capital in the area and that was enough for me. Some friends had been there and some lawyer colleagues I had met at The Hague Academy of Private International Law at the International Court of Justice in Hague and I admire were originated here. – But you know, this famous Romanian poet (especially in the communist area, but also until hid recent death, one of my favorite. His poems were mainly transformed in songs that we sing at parties after many glasses of wine. I met him personally in the day my grandfather died) sang people are dying in Beirut. – Mother, both Ceausescu and Paunescu are dead now and the war got over about 20 years ago. What I got to know was that unrest still continued for many years getting at a peak in 2005 when the prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. To conclude, Beirut, at least the coast, the hotels area, the downtown and the sightseeing areas are very safe. Very safe! I know I like adventure, but I’m not unconscious and I walked alone until midnight on the streets of Beirut. There are police officers and gendarmes everywhere and you really feel safe. Besides, the people are not suspicious, so there’s nothing to worry about. Yes, I saw a 20 hot blooded young men fight, but that could happen everywhere (I saw the same under the Galata bridge in Istanbul in August and a woman was seriously aggressing a man in front of my hotel in Korea). But let’s start. I am in the airport and this extremely beautiful green eyed officer is questioning me. Purpose of trip, first time, do you have friends. Yes. Yes? Yes! It’s a problem? No… I know I’m suspect, wherever I travelled over the years, I am suspect, I am alone, young, look mature, I am confident, but sometimes act childish. I do whatever I feel and want and that’s suspect. Ok, he takes my passport and disappears. Then he invites me to follow him. I’m in a room with 4 border control officers and another Arab passenger. They are nice and speak English, but I don’t feel at ease. – Do you have a reservation at this hotel? – Of course I do. Here is the information. He calls the hotel, but they say cannot find any reservation. I show the online reservation and the number thereof. He asks about it through the phone. Nothing. He asks about my name. No. – Who made this reservation for you? I had done it before I flew to Bangkok and as I got to realize later. At this moment I knew what was going to happen. I worked on entry visas requirements and applications for quite some time and in depth. For some kind of miracle, the hotel confirmed the reservation and the talk officer started laughing and hung up. The other green eyed officer disappeared somewhere. The tall one said – Hey, tell them you told the officer I have no reservation. What is this? (amply smiled) I told him after how scared the situation made me. He laughed again. I travel a lot. Alone. And I look young and stupid. But I am not and I have a fantastic intuition. So, I trust people, but at the first sign I feel I run. The driver I had talked to before arriving was waiting for me, actually another one he sent who was a nice man, but spoke no English. Thank God for my Arabic lessons. In fact, in Beirut I spoke a lot of Arabic. Idiotic, wrong and not articulate nor conjugated. But the message got through and if I think about the struggle with Korea later that month, I’m quite good at speaking Arabic. As I’m thinking how to continue my story, it comes to my mind that I am crazy, but some things are not to be told. At least not now. A friend asked me what is the secret of having so much fun alone? Well the people who know me are aware of the most important ingredient – I love myself. Then, I plan ahead, I check the maps online, check distances, walk a lot, explore all I can, I’m not cheap on visiting, dining and having a good time, talk to people, ask for their help, listen to their stories. This has almost become a ritual of traveling which I developed more than 10 years ago when I started traveling alone. The airport is not far from the city and the way, like most of the outskirts of capitals is not appealing. What strikes me is the huge curtains that all flats have on the outside to protect them from the sun. They are obviously all different and the overall image is of improvised neighborhoods. But then these are flats not houses. Very contradictory. If something can be said about Beirut is that it is a capital of contrasts. There are chic cafes by abandoned buildings with graffiti – not street art. The driver speaks no English, so I pay attention to the landscape. The air is clean, mountain air which is breathable as opposed to the thick air in the desert, my home. Everybody honks and the traffic is an organized circus. I am in Daura Market, the busiest market in Beirut, a crazy place with all sorts of people. But I don’t know where I am, so I ask to go to downtown and I get in the first bus, where I was shown by a dirty cafe owner speaking English. There are two covered girls with their mother and little sister. They seem to know some English so after a few stops I ask then if this is going to city center. I say stops, because Beirut public transportation is crazy – as the driver smokes and drives slowly, a guy stays in the door hanging by one hand and asking people in shouting his lungs out.
The driver honks like crazy if the people seem not to acknowledge the shouts. So she says I’m in the wrong bus and I get off without paying under a suspended subway. I’m walking by the street and everybody honks. I see another bus heading the opposite direction. This time I use my Arabic and I find out the bus leaves in about 5 minutes. I want to beat myself – not because I am in a totally dangerous possibly situation, I don’t care for that, but because of how frustrated I fell for not speaking Arabic. The driver was cute – and reminded me of the one who is indirectly responsible to me destiny change, someone I met in 2012, in a chili summer by the sea – and was seated in a passenger seat and what I think was a fat controller was smoking seated between the driver seats. As I got to know later, nobody rushes here, everybody smokes, there’s no stress and no problem in deviating from the route of the bus to show me the coast and the best mountain view and take pictures of me with the view by the driver almost stopping the traffic. There are about 20 degrees and it is nice. The style of the city is a terrible mixture in these neighborhoods where I am now. Everything looks like in the 80s and it actually looks like after the war. The flat buildings are old and dirty with huge sun protective curtains. But before that, there was no rush either. It was just me and the driver speaking in my bad Arabic – I doubt his was any academic one. He stopped to have coffee and offered me one, I declined. Then he offered me a cigarette. I declined and he lid one. Then he honked at the coffee shop boy to bring 2 waters and a coffee and change. He came fast. The driver gave me one bottle water and a coffee biscuit he has by the speed changer stick. Then he called the bog again to ask him to write his number in – irony – Arabic numbers, the ones we use and Arabs don’t. Then other people join and he drives with about 20 km per hour staring at me sometimes literally almost crashing in the side of the road. He’s not rushing at all and when passengers complain they’re asked why they don’t take a taxi in the sweet local style. We’re finally at my hotel, I have the money prepared (I don’t know how much it is, but I prepared the biggest bill I saw he is handling with other passengers) and he doesn’t let me go out and we’re alone again. He wants to show me all the coast and I don’t mind. In the most beautiful place, he does not accept my money, I get off and he insists in joining me (man, you’re working! – he didn’t seem to care) and then in taking me back to the hotel which is one hour walk now, but I want to stay so I enter a cafe to make sure he leaves. He was another stranger being kind to me, one that I took the time and patience to communicate with, one that took me exactly to the place I wanted to reach just 1 hour after reaching the country, which, otherwise, I might have only seen second day.
At the hotel, my reservation was not appearing in the system. Again, this extremely nice receptionist found a room for me and upgraded it to a deluxe apartment with sea view with discount, only because I have the job I do, which is yet another advantage next to my never ending chain of benefits at my workplace. Meanwhile all this was settled I was invited in the lounge to have a complementary drink and enjoy the free wifi.
I have some things to arrange urgently and they send me a taxi to follow me around. He drives me past Zeituna Bay, Phoenicia Hotel and further in the city and shows me the important places. The bay is beautiful, but some parts of the city are filled with abandoned buildings with wooden shutters and the flat buildings look miserable. The cedar is everywhere and I imagine there is a big difference between the plentiful and the impoverished. If I had an advice for traveling it would be to give each country a chance and explore it. You might just discover a jewel like Beirut! My first day in Beirut is in a lovely afternoon of the last day of May, which happens to be a weekend day. I change in a quite short simple blue skirt and I go out of the hotel. Alone. Even though it is an Arabic country, people do not look at me too insistent, even though the little girls look at me dreaming – maybe of the freedom that runs through the air in my hair – and men start singing when I walk by. I cross the street from my hotel to get closer to the Pigeon Rocks. There is an opening and I walk on a wild terrain, like a countryside street with some improvised stirs and I start going down to the water which is about 200 m away. There are a lot of people, with children. Some hust watch the water, others brought their cars, parked by the cliffs by the water and listen to music, others are eating, some ride the dody horses and camels in the steep terrain, others try to sell some small crap.
As I get by the water, there are more and more people inviting me to take the boat trip through the rocks. I trust a woman, but she wants the money in advance. Whatever! She tells me it is for the guy and shows me the lofty lighthouse.
The trip costs 20$ and it s worth it.
The girls shout when I pass i love you and men stumble. I smile at everybody and literally enjoy every breath of mountain and sea air. This place is really contrast all the way. The luxury hotels are 2 minutes walk, but then there’s this.
Here I take my favorite picture of the trip, that picture that for me says 1000 words. Human and sea. Wind, water, sky.
I am filled with excitement as the sun is going down hiding between the waves of the Mediterranean.
The last shades of orange of the sunset I see from the rooftop pool by the sea. After changing in an oriental dress I start walking, what was going to be a 15 km walk down the seaside and back. On the wide pedestrian area by the sea the people are walking and evidently feeling great. Some are selling flowers on a thread, which I bought too and wore as a crown.
There are all sorts of people from kids to seniors to coffee boys, teenagers on rollerblades, fanatics and joggers. Others run a bike from Beirut by bike. It is very safe, as I’ve been told. It is clean and the street lamps have movement sensors. Nice restaurants are facing the sea. The music is loud in the cars parked with the windows opened. The men dance and laugh. Some women speak on benches, having that attitude of being worried about something there’s nothing to worry about. Nobody has a sad face. The background noise is completed by the waves hitting the calcareous rocks. Everybody is still honking and sometimes cars drive with the music so loud that everybody pauses their discussions. Older men are wearing suits and well-trimmed mustaches and chic old fashioned back in fashion glasses frames. A bus rides with the lights inside turned on and with music playing and the men dancing sitting down. The girls are pretty, having prominent cheekbones and perfectly dyed eyebrows. The people look free. This is an Arabic country starting with the year 635, but only 60% are Muslim. You can spot the mountains behind the fog of the clouds. Other men dance from their shoulders and hold hands. The military men are handsome and I don’t know why I feel they all have green eyes and I still see the eyes of the immigration officer. I entered a restaurant that I had spotted since the adventurous ride with the bus. Now it’s already nigh t and the fourth waiter that is called to see the miracle – me, someone speaking English – speaks English and I don’t need to make a fool of myself with my Arabic. I occupy the best view table. By myself two 30 old men play a dice game. The restaurant has fresh fruit and the city inspires me for flavors of orange and strawberry. I get the freshest fresh in the ideal combination. A Carole Samaha song is playing and I eat smooth and real hoummus.
I am thinking about my crazy day in the middle of an outdoors by the street and the sea garden with leaves touching my shoulders almost, about the bus drive, about the ways of Beirut, of the city, about how nothing is accounted. Lady in red is playing now and I remember singing this song with a Lebanese friend and fellow colleague in front of the Library of The Hague Academy of International Law. I’m looking at these flowers and thinking about how I don’t like to receive them in a normal bouquet. For that matter, I don’t think a man ever gave me flowers, maybe just for events. Because I don’t look like the girl that likes flowers. And I don’t. Only if they’re special – flowers in the lounge of a star hotel wrapped in today’s newspaper, carrots with leaves bought in a market in Vienna where he rented an apartment for us, the flower he drew on his private jet to remember me when we’re not together, flowers in faraway destinations. Otherwise no.
As in all Arabic countries, here coffee is drunk at night. The coffee boys stay in the street and the cars stop to take the cup, they give the small change and continue their way in the lights of the night. I can hear the birds singing.
My connection to this place and the memories from there is so strong that I cannot write well. 1st of June I wake up, wear a colorful dress go to the city centre. now that I got the drill with the bus, I started to like it. A ride with the bus, besides being so cheap to almost being for free, it is so much more interesting than a boring taxi with a polite taxi driver. Again I miss the stop and get off a little further.
By the sea, there’s an ad to a famous car saying adventure – it’s in our DNA. For sure adventure is in mine. I walk in the posh streets of Beirut’s downtown. Stores are awesome, so fancy and so many. This is a shopping destination that can rival many world capitals. It is not a cheap place and if you pay by card the commission is 30%. Even so, Beirut Souks is amazing. At first, I thought there are more souks, like the one in Doha, with fabrics and Chinese stuff, but apparently it is a place with many outlet stores on more levels with cafes, restaurants, entertainment areas. The architecture is beautiful and the contrast between the columns and the elecrtric stairs that are actually outside linking the fancy stores street to the opened mall area is very pleasant. There are many dresses stores and haute couture stores. The truth is that none does it like Arabs do. This area is friendly and the people are elegant. Everyone smokes and you can drink in public. They offer free wifi and they have polite info desks. There’s even a I love Beirut letters place where everyone takes pictures, right next to a minaret, as you come out from the souks, where I met a big Spanish family to whom I took the best pictures while I spoke to them in their language. I got so excited I forgot to ask them to take a picture of me.
High end stores employees take the bags to the Maseratis of the customers. There are vertical gardens by diamonds stores and street art. Everything comes with an either sea or mountain view or both. Contrast is everywhere, that’s why, of course I love the city. Beirut is an occidental, fancy, high level, sophisticated destination. In this area of the city roads are wide and very clean and well arranged, with small trees by the pedestrian area, making it look like a small park. I cannot believe how insired I was to come here. I am at Nejmeh Street and I’m thinking about the famous Law School that was allegedly somewhere under these rocks. Then I remember in a second of my first year of university, the Roman Law course, my fast evolution, the thousands of hours of work and study. How ironic my life is. Now everything seems that it was erased from my path and I have no regrets. I am in Beirut and my job is traveling the world. Yes, I’m a lawyer and I worked quite a lot on quite a few international cases, I studied international law, but there’s nothing more international than this. The pigeons gather around the tables of the terraces in Najmeh Square. My hair is caressed by the wind and some spiritual mixture in the air.
The people are dressed chic and with taste in this fancy area where the embassies are. Silence and serenity. I walk towards Amin Mosque and I hear the Christian church bells and a few seconds letter the call to prayer from the minaret starts. I enter St. George and I light two candles. One for the death, one for the light of the the way in life. From inside the church I see the mosque of which it is separated by a wall only and a river of blood. It is weird to see Christian symbols next to Arabic characters. I encircle the mosque to get inside.
For a second in the black abaya, in the mosque, I forgot where I am.
I am in Lebanon and outside, from the terrace that is the entrance of the mosques you can see the sea.
I sit with my back against one of the four pillars of the mosque which sustain its cupolas.
In the interior there are floral and geometrical motifs or Coran inscriptions, like all the other mosques (representations of Allah and the prophet are not allowed – see the recent and less recent events). The cupolas of the mosque are blue as the sea on the outside. In the mosque it is cold and through the arched huge windows I can see the Christian cathedral where I lit two candles…
Corporations employees smoke outside their sad buildings in their sad black suits with white shirts. I walk on the street and I am handwriting this. They look at me because I write while walking with my left hand. The truth is that they look at me because I am free and it’s quite rare to see someone free walking down the street. I looked for some place to eat, but everywhere it was full of corporations lunch break people, the least thing I wanted to see. So, I walked to two more hours and then saw a restaurant I liked first time I saw it that morning.
This is how I work. I see something and I know. I’m decided that moment. That’s why I take decisions so easily. That’s how I shop, that’s how I chose to move to different countries, that’s how I chose my university. That’s how I’ll get married. I will see and know. The waiters are very nice to me, again. They offer me the best view table again, even though it has 6 seats. I tell them, like all the people I met how much I love Beirut. I’m almost leaving and I talked to a waiter for about 30 minutes sipping my rose wine. I ask for the check, he leaves. I ask for the check again he says it’s on him. I insist, but I end up leaving thanking him. Martyrs’ Monument is revealing in front of me, on blue background – th sea united with the sky. I walk by art galleries and luxury tailor, expensive decoration and jewellery stores across the military bases patrolled by men with machine guns and what is going to be a Zaha Hadid building to go see the sunset by the pool at 17th floor. On my way I stop to buy handmade souvenier made of wood from Mr. Abdul’s shop. …and walk by some restaurants
It is morning and I am in Zeitunay Bay ans watch the boys washing the yachts by a glass of wine an breakfast by the water.
I am looking at the yachts parked from a terrace. There is a wooden platform between the bay and the restaurant/cafes area which runs parallel and encircles the bay.
It is my last morning in Beirut, so I chose this place to gather my thoughts and have breakfast before going back to Doha. A swallow jumps left and right on the grass in front of my table. On my left there are the most expensive apartments in the Middle East. One small apartment $30 million. And I thought that The Pearl in Qatar was expensive with $1-2 million per apartment.
However, this is for the wealthy, but one Lebanese told me that during the summer everyone – rich or not so rich – rents a chalet by the sea and has a holiday there. He told me that this is why people are so relaxed.
When you are in such a beautiful place you realize that all small quarrels of life are so small and meaningless. So much peace here. Some people are exercising and some have very well toned and tanned bodies. It is almost 10 and it is getting crowded. Some people are so well groomed yet in yachting or beach attire. Same story – everybody is enjoying. In the silence of the morning and the breeze of the sunny wind I’m thinking that I want to be there. Everywhere. To be able to say I had breakfast in Zeitunay Bay, I took a boat through the Pigeon Rocks, I saw the Roman Baths and where the famous Law School was, lit candles in St. George Cathedral and prayed in Amin Mosque, to have shopped in Beirut Souks, caught the sunset on a rooftop pool. To have enjoyed every moment, made friends, tasted the local wine and wonderful hospitality.
We took off over the sea. It is grandiose. Mountains and sea.
I remember the yachts form the port and the serenity there. The silence of mind, the most precious of all. The two covered ladies in black next to the most beautiful black yacht listening to musing while swinging their legs towards the water, seated on the wooden platform by the bay. All I want to see is what I do – the wing of an airplane and the waves of the sea. I’m watching The Notebook (I know, I’m pathetic) in Spanish. I’m going back as a better person from a destination that gave me everything.
Arabic music is playing in the Mercedes taking me to the airport, the sea is in the right and pink flowers in my eyes and also on my dress. I for sure belong here. Beirut has been an all-time favorite destination and experience. Even now, after two weeks, after having just come back from Singapore and packing for Cape Town, I still think about it. In Korea I dreamt about it and I advertised it to the people I met since. The lesson is not to label a destination from the first impression and actually, this is a life lesson which applies to places, people and situations.
What I am planning for my next trip in Lebanon? Visiting the rest of the country, the National Museum, the Statue of Virgin Mary in Harissa (the Lady of Lebanon) and Jeita Grotto and go clubbing – I’ve heard Iris, White, Caprice, Cherry are all classy and high level. Gemmayze Street was also recommended to me as a popular street filled with pubs.