I arrived in Beirut last night after a weekend in London for my friends 30th birthday. As I stepped off the plane I could sense there was something strange going on. As I collected my bag and headed for the taxi stand, there was a clear military presence at the airport. I got into my cab and the driver who barely spoke any English mentioned there was trouble in Beirut but I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. The streets were basically empty except for numerous military vehicles and armed checkpoints, it looked as though they had declared martial law-I was a bit unsettled.
As I arrived at the Le Meridien Hotel, I noticed a lot of activity in the lobby and there was a clear press contingent. After checking in, I asked a cameraman I saw what was going on and the BBC employee mentioned that there were at least 7 people killed after a clash between the Lebanese military and some Shiite protesters tonight. This made me fairly uneasy especially it was only 10 days or so after a car bomb rocked a US embassy vehicle, killing several people. The cameraman saw my trepidation after he told me the news and asked if this was my first time to Beirut, I nodded and he said, “Welcome to Beirut”. I thought it was kind of funny yet morbid so I sat down with him and some of his cronies-heard some awesome war zone press stories and had a beer before I went to sleep because I was thoroughly exhausted from a long weekend in London.
I woke up at 6am to catch a city tour of Beirut and the outlying suburbs as it is not currently safe to travel too far from Beirut. Beirut itself is actually quite beautiful. It is called the Paris of the Middle East and I can see why. The center of downtown is called Place d’Etoille and it has been totally redone and is really great to see and walk around. They have all the same Gucci type stores you would see in Paris or New York for that matter, plus numerous Porsche and Ferrari dealerships, etc. Their harbor is dotted with huge modern yachts as well. It’s funny becauise you never think that places like Beirut are known for having lots of money but it is a coastal town right on the Mediterranean and has a lot of interests in the region acting as the main port of entry into the Middle East from Europe.
The Corniche is a long coastal road that runs along the Mediterranean in Beirut. It is a gorgeous walk and passes Beiruts most famous site, the Pigeon Rocks. These two rocks are very reminiscient of the formations on the Great Ocean Road in Australia. Fancy hotels line the Corniche and it is really shocking just how many nice hotels there are in Beirut. I was thinking, I can’t believe they ever all fill up, especially with political tensions as high as they are in Lebanon, but they were building new ones as I was there including a new Four Seasons-go figure.
An interesting encounter I had was actually at a food stall. I was grabbing a bottled water and an older Muslim woman heard me speak English and asked where I was from. Sometimes I will say Canada depending on the situation and who I am dealing with when traveling alone in less safe destinations. However, I felt I could speak freely here and I did say the US and she spoke English very well and mentioned she has lived in Calgary, Alberta for the past 20 years. She said she arrived in Beirut 10 days ago and it was her first time back in 20 years. She also went on to say that she wanted to leave because she was so scared about the recent deadly attacks. She said that was the reason her family had left in the first place in the 1980s. I wasn’t exactly sure what to say but I said I thought she’d be fine. I found that a really interesting exchange though and kind of illustrated how so many Lebanese are affected by these negative events.
After seeing all of Beirut and having a great Shawarma lunch I hired a private driver to drive me to Damascus, Syria. The landscape of Lebanon changed dramatically along this drive. I went from warm, palm tree lined coastal beaches of Beirut to snow covered, freezing cold, pine tree lined mountains overlooking Syria. The best part of the drive was seeing up close and personal how the Israelis bombed the strategic transportation spots within Lebanon last year when they had that brief war with Hezbollah within Lebanon. We passed bridges that spun large canyons that were clearly blasted to bits by rockets and were unusable. The Lebanese had to make makeshift roads through the canyon floors to keep the flow of goods going during the war and now traffic is diverted to new less convenient routes.
My time was short in Beirut and in Lebanon but I found the time I had to be very enlightening and really interesting. Beirut was totally different than I expected it to be. Everyone I met was very friendly and my driver Jihad-yes Jihad was super helpful and informative and made an excellent tour guide. I am in Damascus right now about to go exploring and heading to Aleppo, Syria tomorrow for a day trip. Check back with me tomorrow.
RANDOM THOUGHT OF TODAY
Does it make sense to anyone why at European style hotel buffet breakfasts they have the smallest glasses ever. I mean they are like little dixie cups that you had in your bathroom as a kid to brush your teeth with. If you actually want to drink some orange juice or whatever you have to fill up like 8 of them to equal one regular glass. Wouldn’t it make sense to just have bigger glasses? You would save on dishwaher space and make life a lot easier for guests so they don’t have to keep getting up and down to get little bits of juice and the hotel staff wouldn’t have to pick glasses off your table every other second. Just a thought…