Monday, January 4, 2016

Biking Beirut

Lebanon's rainy season commenced the day after Janina and I arrived in Beirut for some biking, but mostly to visit her daughter, Annia.  She has been living here off-and-on since 2003 working as a freelance reporter. Janina hadn't seen her in over two years, the longest stretch since she was born.  Rain, or its threat, limited our biking the first four days of our stay, but we were at least able to gain a healthy knowledge and appreciation of this war-torn city on foot, as Annia led us all over.

All that paled though when the rain broke for a few hours and I was finally able to unleash my Bike Friday for a full-fledged forty-mile ramble all about, and to search for a route out of the city, other than the main highway, for a ride to Tripoli, fifty miles to the north, in a couple of days when the forecast calls for some sunny days.  

I returned wet, but also exhilarated to have finally fully introduced myself to Beirut's much ravaged streets and also to have found a series of streets that lead out of the city and won't cause Janina and Annia too much terror.  It wasn't so easy to find an alternative to the highway, as Beirut is nestled up against the Mediterraen Sea with the mountains right behind and along the coastline for most of Lebanon's 140-mile border with the sea, limiting the number of roadways.

I knew a coastal road hugged the highway beginning shortly before Jounieh, where the country's premier casino resides on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean fifteen miles north of Beirut, but the maps I was consulting didn't show a clear way to reach it other than on the highway. But by biking through the port and then on a sidewalk along the highway for spell, I was led to a series of roads that will connect with the highway we want.  It won't be the most blissful of cycling, but there isn't much of that to be found in this car-packed city of few bicyclists.

Lebanon has the highest percentage of cars per capita in the world, largely due to its poor public transit system.  Most people resort to a car to get around, even though it takes for ever to get where one wants to go on the clogged, narrow streets, and then when one reaches their destination they spend almost as long to find a parking place.  People resort to any crevice they can find.  The law of anarchy that prevails in this land allows them to park anywhere.  It also allows them to ignore one-way signs and to slip through red lights and skateboard in supermarkets. But the Lebanese, despite their decades of unrest and war, have a compassionate side and don't recklessly endanger others in their flouting of the law.  When they proceed down those narrow one-way streets the wrong way, they do it with caution.  Of all the perils that one must endure here, speeding cars is not among them, maybe because it is virtually impossible to proceed at much more than a crawl.  Annia, who lived in New York for years and got around on a bike, says she feels much more comfortable biking here and isn't subjected to any of the antagonism inflicted upon her there.

The bicyclist could be the king of the city here, able to wend through all the slow-moving vehicles, but few care about being a king. A story on cycling in Beirut in yesterday's paper quoted a bicycle advocate who started the first bicycle messenger company in Beirut a little over a year ago.  He estimated that there are no more than two hundred active cyclists in this metropolis of two million. As in any cycling community, there are a few who make it their cause to get people out of their cars and on bikes. Someone has stenciled bikes here and there on roadways and on walls.  Imitation stop signs have been mounted urging the masse to give up their car for the bike.

A walkway (corniche) that extends for several miles along the sea past the city's signature Pigeon Rocks and a Ferris wheel and a long public beach and several private beaches is about the lone cycle way in Beirut.  A marked bike lane had been attempted elsewhere, but it quickly became filled with parked cars. Sanayeh, the only significant park in the city, other than the Pine Forest, which is only open on Saturdays, has a quarter mile cycle path around its perimeter, not much good for anyone other than a novice. Sanayeh is near Annia's apartment in Hamra.  Though it doesn't even fill a square block, it does offer a welcome refuge from all the bustle.  It is surrounded by a wall and has just one guarded entrance. It's guards don't carry weapons, as do many others outside of businesses and government offices.

Although there aren't any of those rental bikes in racks that have become ubiquitous in major cities all over the world, several outlets rent bikes.  Beirut By Bike has grown from one shop with sixty rental bikes in 2001 to four shops with 2,000 bikes. Janina was able to easily rent a quality aluminum bike for our two-week stay at a bargain $100 off-season rate.

Even though the sultry weather has limited our biking, it hasn't kept us from walking all over the city.  Even more than a cyclist, Annia is an ardent pedestrian. As the New Year was ushered in, she led us on an hour-long hike across the city from a New Year's Eve Sri Lankan feast back to her apartment down narrow streets without any lights.  Though there may be an air of tension in the city with Syrian refugees pouring into the country and the conflict across the border and heightened unrest in the Middle East, thievery, or at least petty thievery, is not a concern.  The biggest thieves are the government and the mafia.  

Lebanon is presently without a president or any strong government.  Mob lords take cuts on everything.   Electricity goes off for three hours every day.  Those who can afford it have generators that kick in during those three hours.  One has to pay the neighborhood mob for the privilege of having a generator.  As someone told us, "We pay double for everything, one fee to the legitimate supplier and then another to the mob for allowing it to go through."

A security guard in the park asked Janina and I how we liked Lebanon.  We told her we have very much enjoyed our stay with Annia and all she has introduced us to, from the architectural marvels in our wanderings to the wide variety of delicious foods, which is one of her areas of expertise, as she wrote about In her war correspondent memoir "Taste of Honey."  And we have especially enjoyed the many friendly people we have met, beginning with a trio at the Frankfurt airport who were on our flight from Chicago that was delayed by Chicago's first storm of the winter causing us to miss our connecting flying to Beirut.  They were the only other three going on to Lebanon, which we had to do via London. Our extra twelve hours of travel was made worthwhile by the several hours we spent with them giving us a preview of the genuine cordiality of the Lebanese.  

This woman in the park was no different.  She too spoke with warmth and sincerity, as if we were long-time friends.  She was happy to hear that we liked her country, as she made the choice to live here after spending fifteen years in the US.  She returned to her homeland after her three sons had grown up and all went to live in different places.  But she was frank when she asked us, "Do you realize how bad we have it here," and went on to tell us of all the hardships the Lebanese must endure. Among those is staying warm in the winter. Few buildings have central heating.  Everyone must make do with space heaters, as does Annia.  When the temperture plunges, as it did a couple nights ago when snow turned up on the surrounding mountains, all the space heaters go on, and off goes the electricity.  One New Year's Eve she celebrated as bombs were falling on the city.  Many of the damaged buildings still remain.

Another security guard, who only just met the woman, joined the conversation and shared his chagrin with the travails they must endure.  He was astounded that she had returned to Lebanon and hadn't stayed in the US.  Her only explanation was, "This is home."

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