Lebanon: Beirut, Baalbek

December 22, 2003

Here I am, on another mad dash through a country far from my culture but close to my heart. I've only been on the ground in Beirut for about two hours, but already Lebanon feels just about right. It was an easy flight from Chicago, thanks to some good luck with British Airways and those clever Boeing engineers. When I checked in at O'hare, the attendant told me that the flight was full and that as a result they were bumping me up into business class. Compare that with TACA from last winter. I assumed business class just meant a little more leg room, but when it actually came time to board, I was astonished by the luxury. I looked at my boarding pass, and then at the seat marker. Repeat. Repeat again. The seat was more of a cockpit that I had to myself. The chair was like a Laz-E-Boy, and reclined all the way down. I had my own TV and upon sitting down a stewardness brought me a tall glass of orange juice, not the thimblefull you normally get.

Immediately after liftoff (as in two minutes from leaving the ground), another stewardness came by and brought me a glass of Charles Heidseck champagne. And then another. And then a third. A quality filet mignon dinner, complete with an actual Greek salad (I swear goats made the cheese, not normal, pedestrian cows) and a fat slice of chocolate something or other. It was actual restaurant stuff, not the normal swill you get on airplanes. To finish everything off, I had a scotch and soda and then snuggled in to try to sleep and beat away jet lag. Oh, and since this wasn't an American airline, all the booze was free.

I arrived in the bustle of Heathrow feeling as if I had slept at home. Since my flight was ontime, I had about five hours to kill in the international terminal before I my connecting flight to Beirut. The international terminal at Heathrow is a wonderful place to walk around, as there are flights to places that I've never heard of and it is fun to watch the people who line up and wait for these flights. I caught some sleep when I could and then boarded my flight to Beirut, which was full. I didn't get an upgrade to business class on this one, but did get to sit next to a couple of Syrians who were pleasant and made for good row partners. Again, the booze was free (on British Med) and the wine came in 500 ml bottles. You got two at a time. The almost 5 hour flight was smooth and comfortable, although I was now beginning to run on empty.

My head was fuzzy from a general lack of sleep and much flight time when I set food in the Beirut airport and made my way through customs. Not thinking, I bought too many visa stamps and then stood in the wrong line for a while, but eventually once I got to the window of the immigration officer, I was processed in about 30 seconds and walked out into the warm night. I just wanted to sit in the air for a while, but I knew that this would not be possible. The second I came out, a tout for a taxi approached me and there was no hope of getting some time to myself. If I told him no, another would simply show up. Still, the scene was not nearly as chaotic as in Kathmandu a couple of years ago, even if it wasn't as relaxed as Managua.

The tout used a cell phone to call a waiting taxi, who roared up and whisked me away before the taxi police could stop him. Several registered taxis gave us dirty looks as we roared out into the night air on the freeway. Beirut was lit up like an American city at night: Lots of neon and flashing lights and this made it feel familiar and comforting. The driver dropped me off at Talal's New Hotel, which is a backpacker place near the ocean in a run down looking part of town. Again, my foggy head gave him $24, despite knowing that I should give him more like $10.

There were several specimens of the long term traveler species, including several Japanese, some Germans, and a couple of Australians, and four or five Lebanese acting as staff or just hanging out. The staff spoke excellent English, which thwarted my plans to try out some Arabic. A bed in a dorm run ran me $6 and there are 16 oz beers in the fridge for $1. I dropped my stuff and realized that I was rather hungry, which meant a trip down to a small shop for a sandwich, an eclaire, and a couple cans of Turkish malt liquor (Mount Everest brand). I sat in the shop and tried some Arabic on the shopkeeper and a group of youths who had come in for food as well. It didn't go very well, but it was fun trying and I learned how some words were properly pronounced.

I felt better after feeding and walked back to Talal's through the black night for a shower, a couple more beers, and then some time in front of a TV with the staff. The manager drew me a map and gave me instructions for getting to Baalbek tomorrow, although they seemed rather confusing given that there was a bus station around the corner for buses to Syria. Since Baalbek is over that way, I thought I'd just walk over to bus station instead. I called it an early night and snuggled into bed before the other tourists (or, travellers as most tourists in the developing world prefer to be called) returned from the nightcluds.

I felt refreshed in the morning and set out for the bus stop early in the morning. Rather surprisingly, there was no one there. Not a tout, not a bus. I stood for a few minutes before a taxi pulled up and discharged a couple of western businessmen with luggage. This seemed promising and they asked me if I was going to Damascus. When I told them that I was heading to Baalbek, they told me that I needed to be at the other bus station on the other side of town. I walked back down the street and found a taxi to take me to the COLA bus station for the low price of 3000 pounds. The taxi whisked me through town, picking up various fares along the way and dropping them off at other spots, before finally setting me down in the bustle of the bus station, appropriately filled with people, drivers, and vendors. It didn't take me long for someone to see my confused look and approach me. I mentioned Baalbek, and he pointed down to some mini-vans. I walked a few meters and said to another man, "Baalbek?" He pointed further one. "Baalbek?" This time, success. There are no markers for which bus is going where, so you have to ask or know beforehand. I bought something that looked like large pita for breakfast and the vendor broke it open and dumped some various spices inside it. I had to sit for a while in the van before it filled, but I had my bread and it was nice to watch the scene at the bus station from the quiet of the van.

It took about 45 minutes for the van to mostly fill and thus for us to leave the station. The driver battled through the thick traffic around town, trawling for more fares (he got two more) and stopping to pick up a load of oranges and some coffee. You don't go anywhere fast, it seems, in Lebanon. Once we got out onto the highway, the driver floored it and did the normal developing world driving thing. One way signs, stop signs, and lanes meant nothing. The only things that we slowed for were the many military checkpoints. I didn't quite see the purpose for them, as we would just slow to 15 kph and watch the solider wave us through.

As we left Beirut we began to make the big climb up and out of the oceanside plains that hold Beirut and approach the icy mountains that loom over what used to be called The Paris of the Levant. Lots of smog and haze sat in the plains, hemmed in by the mountains, but I was so enthralled with where I was that I didn't care very much. We topped out and then began the rapid descent into the Beka'a valley in which sits Baalbek. The Beka'a is where many of the hostages taken during the Lebanese civil war were held and was where Hezbollah got their start. Hezbollah, which literally means Party of God, was one of the groups that, through some dubiously ethical tactics, fought the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as well as the US presence. Backed by Iran, they started as rebels and progressed to a political movement.

As we roared into Baalbek, I was greeted by the grim visage of the Ayatollah Khomeni painted on many buildings, and even street signs. He was usually accompanied by twin, crossed AK-47 rifles above his head. Still, I never even thought about the wisdom of visiting such a place. The van dropped me off at a market looking area and it took me some time to figure out where I was in relation to the map in my guidebook. I changed a $20 bill to have some change for small things (dollars are readily accepted, but change is given in pounds) and then walked about town to get a feel for the place.

Baalbek is about the size of Leon, Nicaragua, which seems very odd, given the ruins in its midst. The ruins date from Roman (even pre-Roman) times and sit in the middle of a modern town. This is something that, perhaps, could only strike an American (or Canadian) as odd, given out relatively recent history.

Comfortably oriented, I set off to the ruins, which were mostly empty of people. I paid the 12,000 LL entrance fee and enjoyed having the place to myself. I immediately began to compare Baalbek, the ruins, to Copan, the Mayan ruins I had visited last winter. Copan, while very nice, had an artificial, museum like feel to it. Baalbek was just Baalbek. It seemed to be preserved as a whole and had no roped off areas or places where you couldn't go. I slowly picked my way through the ruins of the temple complex before moving on to the main attractions, namely the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus.

I played around with the massive pillars of the (never completed) Temple of Jupiter, before skulking along the base looking at some of the ornate carvings that adorned the temple.

This set me up nicely for viewing the Temple of Bacchus, set lower down. This was the real treat, as it was an actual whole thing, rather than just some pillars.

I scurried down to the temple and was delighted to find that the lack of ropes continued. This allowed me to scramble and explore to my hearts content. I walked the perimeter a few times before venturing into the heart of the temple itself.

Off to one side of the temple was a museum that held some displays about the history of the temple complex and its discovery and preservation. Nice, but not as good as the actual temple complex itself. In the confines of the museum, I was able to discover that I had a tail. A man in a green coat had been following me about the museum, although not in a threatening way: There were no security people anywhere close by, and I assumed that he was something of a caretaker. He followed me, at a distance, out of the museum and around the temple perimeter a few times. I can't imagine he was too happy to have to follow a peripatetic visitor around much.

To give my shadow and my legs a little break, I took a rest in some grass near the steps on the backside of the Temple of Bacchus and soaked in the whole feeling of the place. It really was terribly exotic, I thought, to be sitting in Baalbek right now. I sat for about a half hour and saw that, as I was close to the entrance station, my shadow had split, assuming that I would be leaving shortly anyways. Indeed, my rumbling belly seemed to want me to leave and get some food anyways. I also needed to find a place to stay for the night, although this didn't seem like it would be very difficult to arrange.

I walked back into town and bought a shwarma (compressed, roasted lamb with various pickles, vegetables, and sauce wrapped into a large flat bread) and nice pastry (phyllo soaked in honey and pistachios and stuffed with a sort of sweet cheese). I walked around town for a bit, stopping to talk with a vendor who wanted to sell me some Hezbollah trinkets, and asserted that Baalbek was great because there was no alcohol here. I moved on and bought another shwarma from a different vendor. Same kind of lamb, but stuffed with different things. Street food is definitely the way to eat when traveling, I thought.

I walked to the outskirts of town to check out a mosque that I had seen on the way in from the back seat of the van. It was closed for renovations, but had a plaque on it that asserted that it held the remains of Hussein's daughter. I couldn't immediately place Hussein, but remembered that he had been one of the early Caliphs. On the walk back into town the muezzhins began their call to the faithful. The thin, beautiful, haunting call was to remind the followers of Islam that now was the time to pray. They made the call five times a day and it lasted for about two minutes. Although I could only make out the start, understanding of the words was not necessary to understand what it means. The powerful sound at first seems mournful. However, upon closer listening, there is an intonation of joy, sort of like a very somber, serious person saying in a deep and grave voice that now it is time to celebrate. It was one of the most splendid things that I had ever heard. It was just a human voice, but the emotion that it carried was what set it apart. I was looking forward to hearing from the muezzhins later tonight and tomorrow and the next day.

I bought a plastic cup of espresso from a truck-side vendor after the call to the faithful was completed and then wandered about a bit to find a place to stay. The Hotel Shuman appeared and it seemed clean and pleasant. I got a room in a dormitory, but was the only one staying there. It was cold in the Beka'a and tourists stayed away. I even had a view of the ruins, all for 10,000 pounds (about $6). I took a shower and went out for another round of shwarma before retiring for the night. Around 6 pm, one of the hotel workers came in to light the oil heater in the center of the room, for which I was rather grateful as the temperature had dropped to close to freezing. The blankets were thick, though, and I turned the heat off after a couple of hours of reading and went to sleep in anticipation of tomorrow, for I was headed to Syria and Damascus, the world's longest inhabited city. Terribly exotic, I thought.