Oh, Beirut!

Oh, Beirut!  Oh, Lebanon!  Beirut, Lebanon has become our home over these past two years, and a home is never easy to leave behind.  We leave not just an apartment, but a home that became a reflection of our time here in the Middle East.   No longer will Tarek, the clerk at Calimera market where we would stop on our way home to buy food items, greet us with “Marhaba.  Kifak?”.

“Superman” Tarek

The call to prayer from the mosque on the Corniche will never again greet us in the morning, afternoon and evenings.  Rides to school with Mohamed in his junky Mercedes as he runs red lights, like most Beirutis, are now a thing of the past.   We  hope to be able to recreate zaatar manouches at home, but it won’t be the same as purchasing them with the point of a finger at the corner manouche stand.  The Marina is a nice place for a drink in Brattleboro, but meaning no offense, it is not the same as sitting on the Mediterranean as the sun goes down and we sip cold Almaza’s  and eat moutabal after a long week at work.

We will miss the gentle soul and shy smile of Wahija

Saying goodbye to Wajiha, our Palestinian cook was especially difficult.  No more ten dollar haircuts from my friendly neighborhood barbers.  And while work was grueling and so difficult at times, this is where we got to know and befriend people of Muslim faith, residents of Lebanon, and citizens from many countries.   Greeting  Mohamad and Karim, Ona and Ola, Hassan and Ali in the morning is no longer part of my daily routine.

Great haircuts for $10!

Byblos, Tyre, Baalbeck, Saida, Baalbeck, the Beeka Valley, Qadisha Valley, the Choufs, the old Damascus road into the mountains and now memories and some beautiful pictures.s

The closing of one chapter of life also means a new chapter begins.  The next chapter will be even more of an adventure  and will certainly last longer.  We are not going back to the same old, same old, but will soon be holding our first grandchild.  What could be better than this!  We also go back to begin retirement, or as much of it as we want, which should work well with the grandchild beckoning us to Washington D.C. regularly.

A few of the wonderful people we got to know at ACS

I would be more than remiss if I did not say how much I owe my life partner and love of my life Sharon who came to Beirut a bit reluctantly and bore the worst of the work load at ACS.  We had our ups and downs, but she hung in there and for that I will be eternally grateful.

More good people from ACS; Nada, Amal, Rana.

So, life goes on in its endless cycle of change.   Off to grandparenthood and retirement we go.

With my good buddy, Phil.

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The Bodrum Coast, Turkey

Overlooking the town of Bodrum, Turkey

Our last Beirut based travel adventure.  This vacation was about relaxing, and a bit of sight seeing as we needed to wind down from the work year before heading home.

We happened to arrive in Bodrum, Turkey, located on the shores of the Aegean Sea, during a terrible heatwave.  We walked into town but made our way back to our hotel after suffering through 104 degree heat.  The pool, shade covered lounges and AC in our room helped us refresh before enjoying a dinner of fresh fish back in town.

From our hotel balcony in Bodrum

After a leisurely morning  poolside we loaded up our rental car with our luggage and headed north to Ephesus, home of some of the best classical ruins in all of Europe and Eastern Asia.  The coastal road was gorgeous, and a light lunch (fresh fish of course) in the coastal town of Kusadasi was just the pause we needed before heading to Selcuk and Ephesus.  Our adorable boutique hotel  (Hotel Ninya) was located in a residential section of town with real character, including a 14thcentury library two doors away.  We got an after hours tour of the remains of St. John’s Basilica by a guide who took us through a hole in the fence for $20.  Dinner was Ottoman style on a rooftop overlooking the basilica.

Dinner on the hotel rooftop in Selcuk. An yes, those are real storks behind us.

Ephesus was impressive.  This area was the center of Roman culture in the Western Aegean for centuries before and after the birth of Christ, and grew to over 250,000.  The library, amphitheater, and mosaics in the terraced houses were beautifully restored.

The library in Ephesus

We found our way to the out of the way  and very Turkish village of Herakleia on the way back to Bodrum where we enjoyed yet another fresh fish meal on the shores of a lake.

The amphitheater in Ephesus. St. Paul spoke here, trying to convince the locals to convert to Christianity. It didn’t go over big.

Our last days were spent touring the coastal towns ofTurgutreis and Gumusluk, and sitting on the beach.    The perfect way to spend the last days of our “adventia before dementia”.

Inside St. John’s Basicica, site of John the Apostle’s grave…. or so they say.

 

14th Century library in Selcuk

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Riding in Style

Nothing but the best for my lady

Last year we both walked to work. I left around 6:35, whereas Sharon left the building with Kristina 10-15 minutes later.  Walking to work here has its pluses.  I tended to walk through the AUB campus.  This is one of the largest green spaces in Beirut.  The hillside campus provides a peaceful walk through tree and flower lined pathways that also provides some spectacular views of the Mediterranean.  The other option is to walk the Corniche, along the sea, obviously a good option also.  The problem with walking  was that it took 15-20 minutes to get to work, and for me especially, it meant I arrived at work either dripping in sweat (Aug- Nov and then April-June) or a bit tacky (Dec – March).  This year we both opted to take a taxi, thus allowing us to leave the apartment at 6:45.  We leave together, and arrive at school cool, calm and collected within a few minutes.

Mohamad at the wheel of his service taxi.

Our cabbie, Mohamad picks up three groups from our building each morning.  Sandra, the elementary principal and my buddy Phil get picked up at 6:30, Sharon and I go at 6:45, and the couple that live next door to us go at 7:00.  Mohamad speaks fluent English, having lived in the states for many years.  We enjoy talking local politics with him, particularly these past few weeks as the troubles in Syria spill over into Lebanon.

And boy, do we ride in style.  In a Mercedes, no less.   There are many, many beat  up, white Mercedes in Beirut that serve as service (rhymes with niece) taxis that charge 2000LL ($1.33) per person/ride to go anywhere in town.  Mohamad’s Mercedes is no exception to the rule.  We often joke with him about the guy he has locked in the trunk as the car bangs and clunks it way down the road.  Like most drivers in Beirut, Mohamad feels free to run red lights when he knows no one is coming.  At the same time he gets upset when someone else runs the light when he has the green.  Intersections are quite exciting each morning.  If nothing else, our rides to work this year are entertaining.

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Beirut by Bike

Beirut is not a particularly bike-friendly city.  In spite of this fact in the fall I decided that a bike would give me a much needed exercise option for this year.  While my riding has been limited to weekends due to work and traffic issues, the opportunity to ride once or twice a weekend has been great.

Getting to know the neighborhoods of Beirut has been one of the benefits of riding here.   Most weekends I ride with friend and colleague Phil, and we often head onto the side streets of various sections of Beirut; Achrafiyeh, Gemmayzeh, Verdun, Borj Hammoud.

Phil leading the way through Achrafiyeh

Each section of town has its own personality and appeal, and most still have some remnants of the old city intact.  Beirut is quite hilly,  so we get a nice workout chugging up the hills.   Thanks in large part to these weekends cruising the neighborhoods of Beirut, I know the city quite well.

As I mentioned, Beirut is not very bike friendly.  The traffic is heavy, drivers are not always on the look out for bikers, and there is always the chance a scooter will come screaming out of a side street, often going the wrong way, with little regard for anyone but themselves.  Riding here is a very defensive act.  Thus, rides are always early on weekend mornings when traffic is at its lightest.

Biking with Phil as part of a cancer awareness event

In spite of the drawbacks to biking in Beirut, I have enjoyed riding here.  It has been a main source of exercise, and riding along the Corniche, with the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean for a backdrop, is a memory I will hold onto well after I sell this bike and leave Beirut.

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Layers of Lebanon by Ellen Martyn

Relaxing at Pepe’s overlooking the Byblos harbor

We were fortunate to have our friend from Brattleboro, and world traveler Ellen Martyn spend a few days with us as she finishes up her amazing five month journey around the world.  She was kind enough to allow me to share her blog post on her time in Lebanon.  Enjoy.

At Baalbeck

The map on the airplane seat back showed that we were flying through the “Neutral Zone” somewhere between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A phrase like that should give comfort, I suppose, when flying into a country where people are currently being killed by their neighbors in Syria. Many people have questioned my sanity when I mention that my next stop on this adventure was Beirut. “Beirut? Aren’t you afraid?” I usually just mentioned that I have friends there, they feel safe and of course, I’ll be fine. The civil war ended years ago. Still, with things heating up in Tripoli in Northern Lebanon recently, I have had my moments of wondering if this visit was a good idea but the plans were made and off I went. As we flew along the coast, my seat mate, a Lebanese businessman who flies all over the Gulf countries, gave me an airborne tour of the city.

Roman ruins in Baalbeck

Lego like tall buildings worked their way up the steep mountain hillsides, one box like structure stacked up next to its neighbor. The city hugs the sea (the Mediterranean) and every bit of land seemed to be covered with tall buildings except for the green space of the American University of Beirut which is next to the school where Sharon and Michael work. Close to the airport, on the southern end of the city were low lying shack like buildings. My new friend explained that refugees moved here during the 15 years of the war and that a solution to what to do with them was yet to be found. When we landed after 9 hours of flying and 4 time zones west, the sun gave me a beautiful sunset as a welcoming gift. I could see fireworks from the plane window -another welcome. What a delight it was to get off a plane in a foreign country, go through passport control and customs and see familiar faces welcoming me. It has been a really long time since anyone met me at an airport. Sharon and Michael are friends and colleagues from home – a teacher and principal who decided to spend two years working in a foreign country. They generously shared their apartment on the 8th floor with me for this long weekend and planned my tour of Lebanon. The first day, though, they had to work so I was on my own to explore the city.

On stage in Byblos

Beirut has been called the Paris of the Middle East and indeed, the beautiful walkway along the sea feels very much like the south of France. The stores are filled with designer fashions and an unusual number of lingerie shops (apparently there are some surprises under those women covered in black robes and head scarves). French is evident in the same way as English although Arabic is the primary language. Since Beirut is still recovering from the war years, there are certain things that make it unique in places I’ve visited. There are bombed out buildings evident in many places, cement structures left empty and scarred, including the Holiday Inn where the “hotel war” of 70′s was fought. I can see the looming hulk of the building from the apartment as well as the street where Terry Anderson was kidnapped.

The Holiday Inn in Beirut

As I spent several hours wandering the city, though, I never felt unsafe. Navigating was tricky as one of the things missing here is street signs and addresses. I knew the general direction I was going as the sea surrounds two sides but I never found the new downtown, totally rebuilt since the war. I saw a few Lebanese police on one corner finally and stopped to ask them to point on my map where I was. He said he didn’t speak English but did speak some French, so I worked through the rust in the French section of my brain and discovered I had walked almost twice as far as I thought south into a Hezbollah controlled area of the city. Maybe the tank next to him should have been an indication that I wasn’t where I thought I was but I later learned he was probably just guarding a special person or place. Still, I made a quick retreat back towards the Hamra area where the city from the war years had been left more or less intact. I was starving after walking for hours and sat myself down in the first restaurant I found. There is a reason why the Lebanese are known for their delicious cuisine. After all the rice of Asia, I ordered an entirely different meal. I started with tabouleh (a salad of parsley and tomatoes) and mixed grill which is a variety of tasty meats. It was delicious. (and incredibly pricey after my cheap Asian meals). Sharon and Michael helped me to try all kinds of Lebanese meals from the fatoush salad and kibbeh (ground lamb breaded and fried) starters to manaeesh bi zaatar – a flat bread kind of pizza served with an interesting mixture of spices that we bought off the street.

Sharon and Ellen in Byblos

By the sea, we also ate the most expensive but delicious fresh caught long skinny fish which we ate with a garlic filled paste that also goes well with French fries, Belgium style. After lunch, I found my way to the coast where I saw two huge rocks in the sea known as the Pigeon Rocks. I walked down the hill, past the military with their guns and razor wire, past the amusement park and past young children with their robed grandmothers playing in the ocean. With some navigating difficulty, I finally found my way to Sharon and Michael’s school. In Sharon’s 4th grade classroom, I was the living geography lesson describing my travels briefly and answering their questions. As this is an international school, children wanted to know if I had visited their home countries from Russia to Holland (and no, I don’t know if I passed one girl’s grandmother’s house in Amsterdam). On the way back, I explored a little museum filled with antiquities. My mouth dropped as I realized that some of this pottery and even glass was from over 7000 years ago. That evening we enjoyed dinner and drinks with a couple of colleagues. I learned more about the lives of these international educators, some of whom travel to postings for a few years in different countries around the world. We ate dinner in the new downtown, a Disney-like place with its brand new buildings not yet having achieved much in the way of character. The area is built around a French-type Place d’Etoile (star place) but with ancient Roman ruins, a rebuilt ancient mosque and an old Christian church all next to each other. There is a bullet scarred monument called Martyrs Statue, all that’s left of an area which used to be a tree-lined beautiful park. Michael and Sharon had rented a car for the weekend so I could see more of this Connecticut sized country. In looking at the map, they showed me the route that they had hoped to share with me. Unfortunately, because of the unrest, they had been advised to stay away from one road where we might become kidnap victims. Instead, they asked if I was comfortable visiting a place about 10 miles from the Syrian border where we would be safe but if the proximity was too unsettling, we could go elsewhere. I’m glad we went. We drove a couple of hours up and over steep mountains, through various military checkpoints and past Bedouin settlements to Baalbek, an ancient town.

The Temple of Bacchus at Baalbeck

My brain tried to synchronize all the layers of the people that inhabited this place from the Phoenicians (founders of our alphabet) to the Romans, each leaving their mark. There was evidence of people living in this area over 7000 years ago and we could still see the foundations and walls of their buildings! The largest Roman ruins in the world remain standing here including a temple with some ceiling portions still intact. A guide took us through the huge area pointing out the carvings, the huge stone columns, and explaining the multi-layered history of the ruins. Imagining the thousands of slaves who cut the giant stones, moved them for miles and were able to create these huge structures without machinery was mind-blowing. To think that they have withstood earthquakes and warfare and still be so intact was amazing. On our visit to Byblos the next day, the sense of awe remained. Right next to the beautiful blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, was the same harbor that the Phoenicians used in their trade and the Romans used to put their mark on this place. There was a castle from the Crusaders, a theatre from the Romans and a temple built in 3000 BC by the Amorites. We clambered underground to see the tombs that have been there since 2000 BC and climbed up to peek into the windows of a 18th century home. We did our own acting on the theatre stage and just settled into the beauty of a perfect blue sky day, clear enough to see Beirut about 25 miles south down the coastline. Bright pink flowers added another layer of color to the palette and added to the charm of this quaint seaside town. As we settled into our harborside restaurant seats to enjoy more Lebanese food (this time freshly caught fish), we watched bride after bride, carry her huge wedding skirts to be photographed by the sea. Parties of families ventured out past the harbor wall in sketchy open boats where we could hear their shrieks as the big waves bobbed them up and down in the open water. Here was the place where the alphabet was created and so many thousands of years later, people were still coming to enjoy this beautiful spot. In the meantime, just up the coast another 15 miles or so, soldiers were trying to keep the fragile Lebanese peace from exploding into violence yet again. I remember learning about the Fertile Crescent in junior high and hearing about the war in Beirut as I was becoming an adult. I never really understood all the ancient history and couldn’t pass a test on the prehistoric eras or all the things happening in the Middle East right now. Still, being here has been not only an education but a delightful time filled with sunshine, good friends, good food and a whole new set of experiences. I’m glad the Syrians didn’t scare me away.

The colors of the Mediterranean only highlight the Roman and Phoenician ruins of Byblos.

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“Go Ben Hur!”

The view from our hotel room in Tyre

A weekend away was just what we needed to prepare ourselves for the frantic dash to the end of the school year and our packing to head home.  We enjoyed visiting Tyre with Tim and Francoise back in the fall of 2010, so we booked a room at the same seaside place we stayed with them.  While less than fancy, the fact that the place sat directly on the water,  had a decent restaurant with outdoor seating, and a magnificent breakfast balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, all made up for what it lacked in sophistication.

A portion of the hippodrome chariot track

After a stop in Saida for a falafel sandwich, and a few wrong turns that led us into the hills of southern Lebanon, we found our way to the hotel by noon on this sunny Saturday.  We lounged on the deck for a few hours, enjoying the sunshine and vistas, some hummus and a couple of cold Almazas before we walked to the ruins of the Roman hippodrome, considered the best preserved Roman hippodrome in the world.  If you have seen Ben Huryou undoubtedly remember the chariot race.  In the movie that scene was set at this site in Tyre.  There are several sections of seating preserved or reconstructed from the stadium, which sat 20,000 in its time.

A portion of the stadium seating

The easily recognized chariot track, the sections of seating and the turning stone, or metea, that the chariots raced around, made it very easy to envision toga clad residents of Tyre cheering on chariot racers.   A collonaded road, with a large Roman arch marked the entry to the Roman city and is part of the historic site.  For some reason, marble and stone sarcophagi from the 2nd and 3rd century AD are found along the road leading to the arch.  Unfortunately, Lebanon has done little to promote this incredible site.  There are no guides, brochures or anything in the way of explanation of any part of this large and amazing archeological site.


The triumphal arch, gateway to the Roman town of Tyre

Our walk to and from the hippodrome took us through the small but bustling souks of Sour,  as Tyre is known by the locals.  The fishing harbor is undergoing renovation, and if they clean up the area and the water in the harbor could be an attractive little area.

Besides the historical sites, we really enjoyed drinks, dinner and breakfast sitting feet away from the Mediterranean.   The weather was perfect, the water was refreshing, and the Almaza was cold.  Just what the doctor ordered.

Waiting for Ben Hur to round the metea

Fishing harbor scene

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The Golden Triangle – A tour or Northern India

At the majestic Taj Mahal

India is a very large country, and knowing we did not want to be on the road constantly, we chose to do the classis tourist tour of northern India known as “The Golden Triangle”.  Thus, our itinerary landed us in Delhi where we were picked up by a driver who took us straight to Jaipur.  We spent three nights in Jaipur, three nights in Agra and three in Delhi.  While we would change this itinerary if we were to do it again, it was a good introduction to northern India and it allowed us to relax as well as beat the pavement touring.

One of the seven gates into old Jaipur

Jaipur, or the “Pink City”, is a relatively new city built in the 17thcentury a few km from the Amer Fort.  We could have spent more time in this area, as there is much to see.  The fort, our elephant ride, the Wind Palace, and the remarkable observatory were all great sites and experiences.  It was quite hot during this part of our trip, but our hotel, the Jas Vilas, was a wonderful spot to retreat to after a day of touring in the heat of India.  Riding the streets of Jaipur, particularly in a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) was great fun, as it gave us a sense of the density, noise and regrettably, the filth of much of the city.

Amer Fort, built in the late 15th century

Our ride to Agra, home to The Taj Mahal, was interspersed with several stops that made the day’s journey memorable.  The Abhaneri Step Well, built in the 9th century for ceremonial purposes, is a unique and fascinating place to visit.  We visited a Hindu temple from the same time period next to the step well.  We stopped in a more recent and very gaudy temple and were struck by the simplicity of its interior.    The picture of us sitting with the man who sold us a cheap tweed rug will be more valuable to us than the rug he talked us into buying.  This whole side trek allowed us to ride through a bit of the countryside where we saw local women harvesting wheat by hand, a local school, and couple of small villages.  The ride was fascinating.

Riding up to Amer Fort

Inside Amer Fort

At The Wind Palace in Jaipur. Ladies of the court would watch the streets from the stone latticed windows in the Palace.

The city of Agra is an incredibly smelly, dirty and altogether nasty place.  That fact that one of the most stunning buildings on Earth is located here is disappointing.  Three nights in Agra are unnecessary, but the stay did allow us to take one day to purely relax by the pool.  Not a bad thing.

One of the two mosques flanking the Taj Mahal

Inlaid precious stonework found throughout the TM

The Taj Mahal is a study in symmetry.  It is an octagonal building that looks identical from front, back, side to side.  Two mosques sit beside the Taj; one was built for the 22,000 workers who worked 22 years to build the Taj,  the second one was built for the sake of symmetry only.  The Taj Mahal is a stunning place that deserves the accolades it receives.  Being there in the off  season was great as the crowds were small.

The Bajhandari step well, built for ceremonial purposes in the 9th century. Amazing!

At a 9th century Hindu temple

Women harvesting wheat

Our train ride to Delhi was interesting.  We did get an air conditioned car, but it was anything but luxurious.  Unfortunately, we did not get a picture of the Delhi train station and the sea of humanity found there.

Great Indian food at the rooftop restaurant in our Delhi hotel

Riding tuk tuks in India...cheap and fun....and safe enough

At India Gate in the heart of Old Delhi

Can you name a tourist site in Delhi?  Well, we couldn’t, and while there are sites to see, we spent most of our time shopping, walking the streets, and riding around in tuk tuks.  The best part of our stay in Delhi was the food at our restaurant, which sits atop the roof and was a very pleasant place to eat breakfast and dinner.  Most food was cooked in a Tandoori oven, with meat, fish and veggies put on skewers and place inside the round, pot-like oven.  Nan bread was slapped onto the inside wall of the oven.  Everything we had was perfectly seasoned, tasty and cheap.

The other fun part of our stay at Shanti Home was the walk to the metro station.  The walk takes you through a VERY crowded, vegetable and fruit market that doubles as a bus loading area.  The area is full of people, noise, flies, and garbage….and men pissing against walls.  We learned to keep our mouths closed as we walked through to avoid eating a fly or two.  Sharon comments that our cameras needed smell-a-vision in order to fully grasp the aura of the place.  But again, this is India and part of why we chose to visit urban areas.

In the "Pink City" of Jaipur

At the Red Fort in Agra

After a hot day of site seeing in Jaipur!

After a spur of the moment rug purchase on the side of the road.

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