Friday, December 18, 2009

This might be our last post for 2009, thank you for following our adventures this year. We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Our friends Michelle Serros (author/writer) and Dean the Greek (artist) are here from the states visiting. Their airline was kind enough to loose their luggage, or I should say my luggage that has stuff we ordered from the states so it looks like some customs dude will be enjoying the gifts Ana and I got for each other. Welcome to Egypt! Michele will be our school’s visiting author and will do a presentation on Tuesday. Immediately following her gig, a swarm of teachers will be piling into a passenger van headed for Cairo as 3 pm is the official start of winter break. The four of us will spend Christmas in Cairo and play tourist. On the 26th the plan is to meet up with Joseph and Lianne and get on a plane bound for Casablanca, Morocco. Inshallah.

We have been way too busy. I’m on the board for the events planning at The American Cultural Center and we had our Christmas party last weekend. Ana had her students art show and winter concert last evening. Our director is having her holiday party tonight with live music…there was also suppose to a belly dancer but was talked out of it. Belly dancing is frowned upon and is equated with immoral behavior and prostitution.     

Saint Malcolm had too many Jack and Cokes and is trying to kick Santa

Mr. Greg is passionate about music and antibacterial handwash

We got to see Santa!

Mr. and Mrs. Claus 

Krazy Kristal and KupKake Seth

Better late than never!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beirut Part Three

Our long Eid weekend was winding down and decided to cap the trip with a bus ride up to Jounieh; a bayside aspiring resort town located about 15 km north of Beirut. During the war the region was a safe haven for Christians. My impression was that it is more of a playground complete with a casino and a nightlife atmosphere evident by all the clubs and restaurants lining the streets. A passenger on our bus suggested that we pay a visit to the Virgin, meaning Our Lady of Lebanon aka Notre Dame du Liban-a bronze statue (painted white) situated on top of a steep hill overlooking the town and bay. He pointed out the most direct way to her was by taking the mono-cable gondola lift which is like a slow moving enclosed ski lift crossing over roads, a highway, and in-between people’s apartments (voyeurism with a twist). Not only am I’m terrified of heights, but enclosed spaces have been known to induce the occasional panic attack. Think of it as a buy one disorder get the second one free kind of Sunday afternoon.

The end of the line

The bus dropped us off on the side of the highway because that is how the transportation system rolls-you can get picked up and dropped off anywhere you want along a route. The trick was finding how to get to the other side. A friendly restaurant owner directed us towards an underpass. Once we arrived at the entrance to the gondola it quickly became the all too familiar dreaded feeling of waiting in line at a supermarket in Egypt, completely uncivilized. Fortunate for us, Ana and I befriended a couple of locals and we created an alliance keeping the infidels at bay and preserving the concept of a line with operation “wait your damn turn!” 

On the trip up

The line was long, almost an hour to purchase ticket plus an additional thirty minutes to get to the lift. Another passenger in queue fainted just moments before our gondola arrived, it was good boost to get my anxiety firing on all pistons. When our car arrived, we boarded and I immediately closed my eyes for the duration of the ride. I lied, I took an occasional peek at the surrounding scenery, especially into stranger’s apartments…kidding. The crescent shaped bay was stunning; it was the million-dollar view. Awaiting our arrival was the Virgin along with thousands of other thrill-ride jockeys and curiosity seekers. Our visit on the summit was short and sweet. We entertained the thought of returning to the bottom via a taxi until we learned a new pair of new sneakers might cost less. The trip back down was cake, we were slightly amused by passengers in passing baskets yelling random statements at us.

Notre Dame du Liban

The view

I chatted with my friend Patrick back in CA who once upon a time was a bona fide citizen of Beirut. He related his experience of going to see the Virgin in a car as scout badge worthy overcoming the trials of hairpin curves up and down the mountain. After some research I learned a bit of folklore that “unmarried” couples take advantage of the gondola to enjoy some intimate time together in the nine or so minutes it takes to get from point A to point B. Consider the above statement in the context of living in the Middle East where it is next to impossible for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel together. Sometimes you have to applaud people’s problem solving abilities.   

Checking out the neighbors

Ana ensuring our safe landing

We returned from Jounieh hitting Beirut’s enormous indoor shopping center. I found a pair of shoes and lottery scratchers in Arabic. The supermarket inside the mall was giving out samples of wine, liqueurs, and yogurt.

We returned back to Gemmayze and paid a visit to Stewart at The Bulldog for a suggestion of a nice place to have our last meal. Joe Pena’s Tex-Mex was the verdict despite the mental scar of our Mexican food experience back in Istanbul. Call us Mexican food deprived, maybe we’ve been in Egypt far too long and our palates have gone astray but Joe’s attempt was admirable. It wasn’t quite like home but it satisfied our cravings. Thank you Beirut.     

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Beirut Part Two

We had met Stewart on our first night. Ana and I ventured around Gymmayze on a quest for a quiet place to decompress and found The Bulldog pub off the main path. The setting was quiet as the crowd was reduced to a couple of people gathered in a corner at the end of the bar. Our attraction to this establishment was the lonesome beer tap and my thinking was the last time we had seen a beer on tap was the first week of August, so it was a no-brainer that we would find ourselves enjoying a pint of Lebanese brew. 

Finding conversation with the locals was easy, Stewart was the owner and we talked quite a bit about the city and beyond. He had offered to take us on an excursion to Baalbek, a site of Roman period temple ruins near the Syrian boarder in the Bekaa Valley. He offered the right price and we accepted. I know this kind of behavior on our part might seem slightly radical, perhaps dangerous to our friends back home, I mean who accepts an invitation to go on a day trip in a foreign country with a complete stranger, apparently we did. 

Hard to imagine the scale

We decided on a time in the late morning to meet up with Stewart and his month old puppy Lizzy. Ana is deathly afraid of dogs so she rode shotgun while Lizzy slept on my lap during the almost two hour ride through mountains and valleys past military check points and over rebuilt bombed out bridges.

Ana in the corner

Baalbek/ Heliopolis (City of the Sun) was more than amazing. Ana and I had been to Rome and did all the obligatory sights and I must admit Baalbek ups the ante; there is no comparison. If someone told me aliens built the structure, such reasoning might not be far fetched considering the leading theory argues that the columns for the Temple of Jupiter were from Aswan, Egypt…meaning that 128 rose granite seventy-foot columns somehow arrived by land and sea. That my friend is the million-dollar question to this mystery of the ancient world. If you ever had the itch to feel insignificant, this is your kind of destination.

A fallen top...note the poppy carvings

Stewart entertained the thought of what the nomadic desert dwellers must had experienced upon their initial encounter with Baalbek back in the heyday, as to say when the joint was hopping. The poor Bedouins (or the equivalent) must have shit their camels when they crossed over the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range into Bekaa Valley and came upon Heliopolis. Never mind that there was probably opium and wine waiting inside. 


Baalbek is Hezbollah territory, in addition to postcards, books, and replica Roman coins at one of the many souvenir booths lining the entrance to Heliopolis you can also get a Hezbollah t-shirt and flag for your loved ones. About two kilometers down the road is a Palestinian camp located on the outskirts of town. I talked Stewart into indulging us in the experience of entering it. We definitely didn’t belong. Most of the kids had toy guns and were shooting at one another. I remembered playing Cowboys and Indians growing up, I wondered if they were playing Martyr and Infidel? We searched for a couple of souvenirs but settled on taking a couple of photos and that was the point we were brought into the command center for questioning. The head of the camp was enjoying his afternoon sheesha and had a small chat with Stewart in Arabic; this was enough to guarantee our peaceful exit. According to Stewart this was one of the more civilized camps in the country. Palestinians have no rights in Lebanon, in other words they don’t have much left to lose?

What me worry?

Outside the command center

Our trip ended with a visit to Caves De Ksara, the major wine producer in Lebanon. We tasted four offerings and toured the caves beneath the winery. The drive back to Beirut was quiet and pleasant.


Sight of the cave

One of the samplings

We skipped dinner in lieu of a small bucket of popcorn in the lobby prior to catching a film at the festival...there had been much talk about the film we wanted to see and the line was long. We made it into the theatre just as the lights dimmed and found our seats (yes, they are numbered) but we really could have sat anywhere. I counted 6 other people…so much for all the hype. The projector started to roll as did the Arabic soundtrack, pretty unusual beginning for a Swiss film I thought. No sooner than uttering those very words, we wondered out loud if we were in the right place. Oops. We did make it to the right show and on time thanks to a minor delay.

The evening ended at Club 43 (non-profit, and volunteer run establishment) two doors down from our guesthouse. We ordered hummus and baba ganoush and were served a complementary shot of what might have been a Lebanese version of a margarita. The cafĂ© makes their own beer and wine and when I tried to order a glass of their homebrew I was initially denied, the server said that it wasn’t that good and offered me a commercial brand. Now, that made me more determined to try one and after much coaxing my request was finally granted. It was more drinkable than Egyptian beer. I also tried their red wine and thought it was pretty decent. It seemed most patrons came for the open wine and cheese menu, why wouldn’t you, for $30/person you can have all the cheese and wine to your heart’s content. The Club offers themed nights such as movie, karaoke, and there was even a poster for a non-smoking evening-that was literally the event.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Beirut Part One

Driving from Alexandria to Cairo on the eve of the Eid holiday was not the smartest choice we could have made, we came within an hour of missing our flight. Once we boarded the plane, it occurred to me that Beirut’s Middle East Airlines lost their entire fleet of planes back in the day as a means of retaliation from Israel; our hope was that the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze, etc. would behave. In the back of my mind lays the thought of how fragile relations are in this region of the world and can turn at any moment. When the taxi dropped us off at Mady’s Guesthouse, despite the late hour, Ana and I felt deserving to venture out for a night cap in one of the establishments lining our street. We settled on The Bulldog; a friendly low-key English style pub. As far as I know it was the only joint that had brew on tap. We chatted with the proprietor Stewart who would later be a most gracious host for the duration of our visit.

The following morning started off with “spaceship for sale” tagged on the wall between our guesthouse and a grocers market. This statement reaffirmed the hip Gemmayze neighborhood was the perfect location to spend our holiday.

We looked for it. 

This empty box was outside our guesthouse, guess they knew I was coming.

The majority of our first afternoon was dedicated to browsing retail stores desperately on a quest for shoes and apparel since Egypt is littered with clothes that aren’t suitable to our tastes; I know that sounds snobbish, but we try to steer clear of mismatched patterns and plastic sequins. Solids are more our taste. Call us boring.

A view of the hood.

Typical buildings in the hood.

Lunch was spent at Le Chef, a quaint hole in the wall serving traditional Lebanese home cooking with a rotating daily menu. The French-Arabic-English speaking owner (?) shouted “welcome” to every person entering his establishment. The service, food, and atmosphere were exceptional, Ana tried the mloukhieh; meat and chicken over rice accompanied by an onion/garlic/lemon juice sauce, a bowl of soaked mlukhieh (think spinach), and dried aish (flatbread). The idea is to use your fingers to shred the meat on the mound of rice then drench the threesome with the onion/lemon broth followed by a generous pour of the slimy mlukhieh (the result is akin to a beach covered with kelp) finally add pieces of broken bread and enjoy. If you don’t follow the exact steps or add the appropriate amount of toppings patrons in the vicinity are more than anxious to offer you their unsolicited advice to correct the errors of your ways. Like most restaurants in the area, in addition to serving food, cigarettes and drinks of all variety were available including Arak-a traditional highly potent anise flavored clear alcohol drink that is mixed with water (1:2 ratio). I passed because if it is anything like the Raki I had from Turkey then I know how quickly an evening can turn problematic.

I'm going to steal this name. 

See a theme?

It was our luck to be in town for the start of a European Film Festival, so a movie per night was in order. Expect full reviews in the near future. The night ended with another visit to The Bulldog.

Sure, why not.

French Beirut Crack.

During the day, its’ hard not to experience the pain of the city and country’s past, somehow I was sadden because everyone we met throughout our trip had been directly affected by war in one or another. Despite the large death toll and destruction, people remained friendly, kind, and cautiously optimistic. There had to have been some serious reconciliation in order for people to work together and rebuild a country and city they love; their spirit of tolerance and acceptance is unmatched. Though the stability of Lebanon is still a work in progress, there is no doubt they will overcome.