Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Kindliness of the Lebanese

The The State Department may be advising against travel to Lebanon, but Janina and I experienced nothing but kindliness and welcome during our two-week stay.  Annia acknowledged she sensed a stronger air of tension in the country than she has experienced in the dozen years she has made Beirut her base, but it was something Janina and I were oblivious to despite the heavy military presence and occasional beggars and the knowledge that more than two million Syrians refigeess had been absorbed by this country no bigger than Conneticut.  

The Lebanese seemed unphased by the unrest and upheaval in the region.  All seemed normal to us.  Good-will and smiles were our dominant impression of the country, from the neighborhood orange juice salesman to the many random folk we encountered in our travels around the country.

When I took a spill on a patch of oil in a construction zone as Janina and I were biking to Byblos, twenty-five miles up the coast from Beirut, a worker rushed to help me up and pat the dirt off my back.  At Byblos the ticket-taker to the ruins unhesitantly told us it was perfectly fine to leave our bikes at the entry to the ruins and that he would keep an eye on them.  Afterwards he gladly led us to a hotel.  

We were invited into the home of the wife of the creator of a sculpture garden in the small village of Rachana.  Several people came to our assistance when the communal van we took from Baalbek back to Beirut dropped us off in the dark quite a ways from Annia's apartment.  It was easy to see why Annia has been happy to make Beirut her home.  She has a friendly relationship with the many small shop owners of her neighborhood, a refreshing change from her life in the boroughs of New York.

Her work for the Washington Post and Reuters and others, including being interviewed by the BBC during our stay, prevented her from joining us on our three-day ride to Byblos and beyond.  She would have enhanced the experience, but it was still a most enriching outing.  Janina had visited the ruins with Annia on her previous visit to Beirut four years ago, and was delighted to see them again, especially by making a bike ride of it.

Though our route along the coast wasn't particularly scenic, clogged most of the way with the sprawl of factories and businesses and residences, we did have glimpses of the coastline.  We took a break on a beach strewn with plastic bottles in front of a fenced in hotel. 

We were accustomed to seeing litter, as garbage pickup is haphazard throughout the entire country, organized on a local level.  Garbage is dumped randomly anywhere.  It wasn't as severe a problem as it had been during the summer, but the issue hadn't been resolved.

The billboards in the background for a plastic surgery company were a ubiquitous sight.  So too was the cedar tree tattooed on the woman's back.  It is featured on Lebanon's flag, the most prominent tree on any national flag.  Peru and Belize also have a tree, but they blend into a montage of elements.  The mountains of Lebanon were once covered with cedars.  But  like the American buffalo, few remain. 

Our ride to Byblos began most pleasantly when after a couple of miles from Annia's apartment in the heart of the city we joined Seaside Road and became part of a Sunday morning colonnade of cyclists, more than we encountered during our entire stay, including a club that was accompanied by a support vehicle.  We paused at a grotto with a small chapel honoring St. George.  It was speculated that it was at this site around 300 AD, George slayed the dragon that led to his canonization.  A nearby bay is also named for him.

There is no speculation about the history of Byblos.  It is acknowledged to be one of the world's oldest continually inhabited towns dating to the fifth millennium BC.  It is also known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet.  It's name is believed to have derived from the Greek word for papyrus and also to have leant its name to the Bible.  It's ruins, some Roman and others much older, lay along the sea and can be peered at from a towering Crusader castle built in the 12th  century.  There was much history to soak in as we took a couple hour meander among the excavated ruins.

The next day, rather than continuing twenty-five miles to Tripoli, we turned off the coastal road after eight miles for a steep two-mile climb past a smattering of olive trees to the small village of Rachana that was filled with the sculptures of the Basbous, three brothers, all deceased, and a son.  As we wandered amongst the first set of sculptures a vibrant red-haired woman emerged from a fairy-tale house and asked what language we spoke.  She introduced herself as Therese, the widow of Michel, the instigator of this project.  

He died in 1981 at the age of sixty. When she learned we were from Chicago, she said they had been invited there in 1973.  One of the highlights of their visit was seeing the Picasso sculpture. They had traveled the world exhibiting her husband's work.  They particularly enjoyed Japan, where they spent two months.  Two of her husband's sculptures remain there in the Uneo Sculpture Park.  She was delighted to learn Janina was an art critic and was interested in writing about Rachana.  She invited us into her home, a whimsical work of art itself in the spirit of Gaudi that her husband designed and built and gave us a booklet on her son's recent exhibition in Beirut and shared with us several of the books she had written in French.  She couldn't have been more charming.  When a few drops of rain fell, she insisted we stay until it passed, offering us some chocolates and more of her energetic stories. Not too many people venture to this small village.  There were no signs promoting it or leading us to it.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.

We didn't make it back to Byblos until after dark, returning to the same first-class hotel along the Mediterraen we had stayed at the night before.  And once again we seemed to have it all to ourselves. Our ride back into Beirut the next day wasn't as tranquil as our Sunday ride out.  By early afternoon the final few miles of the coastal road had turned one-way leaving the city.  That didn't stop the few motorcycles heading into the city from pushing into traffic on the fringe of the road.  We followed along until it became too harrowing for Janina.  The first three taxis we flagged down didn't care to take her and her bike back to the bike shop where she had rented her bike.  None spoke English, nor did the driver who finally accepted her.  

We showed him on the map where the bike shop was, but it wasn't so easy to reach through the labyrinth of traffic-clogged narrow streets.  It was only three miles away, but it took him an hour-and-a-half to reach it.  I was there in less than half an hour. As I sat waiting, I became concerned that she might have become a victim of a kidnapping, as the State Department had warned.  When she finally showed up, pushing her bike along the sidewalk with a big smile of relief, she said the driver had been frustrated by the one-way streets and had let her off a few blocks back.  She wasn't sorry to be relinquishing the bike.  It had been no fun for her riding in Beirut's dense traffic. We had only two days left and had no more need of the bike.

We had one remaining outing--to the country's premier archeological site and one of the most significant in the world, the Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley.  It was a two-hour drive from Beirut beginning with a climb over a 5,000 foot pass.  We did it the local way, via a communal van for just a few dollars, picking up and dropping off passengers all the way.  It was most enjoyable other than having to breathe the fumes of the smokers.  There was snow on the mountain ranges framing the valley, Syria on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, and along the side of the road as we reached the summit.

The van deposited us right in front of the ruins in the heart of Baalbek across the street from the legendary Palmyra Hotel that had hosted DeGaulle and many other notables.  We could see the six still standing columns of the Temple of Jupiter, the largest in the Roman Empire.  At seventy-two feet high, they are the tallest known columns built anywhere.  They are nearly two thousand years old.

They face the even grander Temple of Bacchus, surrounded by a nearly complete set of columms.  It is the best preserved building anywhere from the Roman Empire.  It was truly breathtaking.  Janina said, "Now you can understand the concept of monumentality."  As at Byblos, we were swept away by the incredulity of the experience.  We were happy that we had turned down the offerings of several would-be guides at the entrance and didn't have a non-stop patter rattling in our ears and could peaceably commune with our surroundings.

When we exited the ruins we were pounced on by a souvenir salesman just as we had been as we approached the ruins.  We regretted our immediate response of saying no, as the yellow Hezballoh t-shirt he was offering was a one-of-a-kind souvenir that would have been fun to wear in the right circumstances back home.  We didn't see anyone else selling them or any of the yellow Hezballoh flags that we saw flying here and there in this Hezballoh region, just stores selling firearms.

Our drive back was in the dark.  We were fortunate that one of the passengers was headed to the same part of Beirut as we were, so when we were dropped off, not at the congregation point that we had departed from earlier in the day within walking distance of Annia, but far away, we could join him in another communal van that he flagged down.

It was our last night in Beirut.  We bought one last bottle of orange juice squeezed on the spot on our way back to Annia's.  She was as sorry as we were that we hadn't returned with a Hezbollah t-shirt, almost enough so to make the trip to Baalbek the next day herself. Though we saw and did much, there is plenty to return for--Khalil Gibran's tomb, the Cedars of the Gods, the spot where Jeaus turned water into wine.  If Annia remains in Beirut, we'll most certainly be back.


dworker said...

Wow George. From my stereotyped thinking, I would have only expected to hear of misery and more misery. How great to have Janina's daughter as an in there.
I am seeing plenty of piled garbage here in India, decades old, and not because of garbage workers' strikes.

Alicja Pulit said...

Great adventure and commentary!
Glad you had a good and safe trip, we are eager to hear more details, maybe during a hike!
~Alicja and Cyryl