On My Way from Lebanon to Serbia

It’s 5:55 AM, Beirut time, and I’m finally settled at the gate, waiting for my 7:10 flight to Istanbul. From there, I’ll catch an afternoon flight to Belgrade. Even though all airports are basically the same, I’m looking forward to walking around the Istanbul airport during my four-hour layover. Everywhere in the world, big airports have a different feel—as do the people hurrying through them. Only cell phones seem to be totally ubiquitous.

I only slept four hours last night—or was it only three? Actually, by the time I fell asleep it was after one. I got up at four. After five wonderful days in Lebanon visiting my daughter, we met for one last dinner out—we split a lamb tangine and one with chicken and apricots—a delectable feast of Moroccan food after days and days of Lebanese mezze: wonderful little dishes of deliciousness: little fried pastries filled with sweet creamy cheese, perfectly spiced potatoes, baba ganoush, hummus with meat, chicken on skewers with garlic sauce, tabouli full of chopped parsley, tomatoes (and never bulgur, as we make it in the United States).  And always razor thin flat bread to scoop it all up in. Lebanon is a gourmand’s dream. Feasts topped off with glasses of arak with ice, with just enough water to make it cloudy, apple flavored sheesha smoked in a hookah.

What can I say? This food was remarkable.

The small black burner on the right heats up thin Arabic bread and then you spread it with creamy cheese, olive oil and zataar.

These are the coals that heat up the hookah when you smoke a shishah of flavored tobacco that flows through water. You’re not supposed to inhale. This habit is everywhere in the Middle East. The concept of not smoking does not exist.

The first few days of my visit, I stayed in Beirut. We made a day trip in a rented car to the beautiful Cedar forest Lebanon is famous for. And then we spent the last two days at a monastery in the Qaadisha Valley, hiking through magnificent Mediterranean hillsides, exploring small towns full of churches, monasteries, and small shrines. The weather was cooler there, perfect for hiking. There was still snow up on the mountains and the countryside reminded me of Crete. I felt so grateful for my healthy strong body and the fact that I could enjoy nature like this with my daughter.

Here’s me on the trail.

Olive trees.

These purple and white markers were the very reliable trail markers that led us on our way.

They are on rocks, trees, fences, telephone poles, buildings….just when you need them.

Lots of old stone structures along the way.

We walked through one small smelly village. Picturesque, but it smelled like this wheelbarrow: covered in manure.

A monastery, one of many, across the way.

Beautiful path.

Small mausoleums from Saturday’s hike.

And another.

And more.

Signs in Arabic and English.

I also got my wish to visit the Khalil Gibran museum—Gibran, best known in the west and throughout the world, for his 1924 book, The Prophet, was born and raised in the town of Bcharre, the main town in the Qaadisha Valley, and his crypt was in the cold dank basement of the monastery-turned-museum that we visited. Above it was several floors featuring his paintings and copies of The Prophet in dozens of languages. I hadn’t even known he was a painter.

This is the approach to the museum.

This is the view.

“The Face of the Prophet”

Original writings in his hand, in English and Arabic.

Copies of The Prophet from all over the world.

More copies.

 

A bit of his personal library.

By the time we made the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Beirut, it was 7:30PM. Eliza, always our designated driver—the drivers are insane in Lebanon–dropped me off at my air bnb where I showered off the grit of travel and sweat of hiking, put on clean clothes and started to pack. I tried to check in for my flight, but the online check-in screen for Pegasus Airlines just kept freezing up on me. I tried calling their Lebanon office on Skype, but couldn’t get through. Eliza told me they had a terrible reputation, so I started fretting about whether they’d accept my giant borrowed suitcase (giant because of all the comfort food I’d brought Eliza from the US). Even though I’d checked the luggage weight limits before I left the US, I was nervous after our last trip to the Middle East at Christmastime, when it took Karyn and I six days to get from San Francisco to Beirut—mostly through the screw-ups of United Airlines (and subsequent screw-ups by Turkish Air who refused to honor our transfer tickets). That was a true travel ordeal and now that I know how bad things can be, I don’t take smooth connections for granted. But that is another story.

Not being able to check in or reach Pegasus Air made me nervous, but then I had to let it go. Eliza had already booked my cab for me—they’d be picking me up at 4:45 in the morning. (And how strange to be so dependent on my daughter to do the things I used to do for her–because I don’t speak the language). And we arranged to meet at one of her favorite restaurants in the Hamra district for one last meal together—Hamra is full of lots of young people, shops, restaurants, and bars. Eliza told me to leave my apartment at 9 PM to meet her at the Starbucks in Hamra in time for our 9:30 reservation.

The way you get around Beirut is in what’s called a serveece, a cab that drives around with red license plates, basically looking for people to pick up and take places. It’s like a taxi, but much cheaper. They’re everywhere. Especially when you don’t need one, guys driving serveeces (how the hell do you pluralize that word?) slow down when you’re walking and give you a gentle friendly honk—as in, “Want a ride?” A serveece costs 2000 Lebanese lira per person, about $1.50 and can take you anywhere in the city—but they don’t take you door to door, they drop you off at the nearest main intersection. At busy times or if you want to go really far, they sometimes double the fare—and if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t ask for a serveece, when they pull up beside you, they’ll charge you a regular taxi fare, which is totally unnecessary in Beirut.

When you’re in a serveece, the driver picks up other passengers. When you’re in a taxi, they don’t. Taking serveeces is really kind of fun.

I left my hotel at 9, as planned, sending Eliza a text before I left that I was on my way. As soon as I walked out the door, I knew I’d have no way to be in touch with her. I have no data here (no texting) and no phone service (no calling) in Beirut and I can only communicate using What’s App when I have wifi. I love What’s App. It’s free and you can talk to anyone in the world as long as you both have wifi. But now I was on the street, not in my wired apartment. So I was on my own.

I quickly realized that I wasn’t sure where to catch my serveece. They don’t have regular stops, but you do need to go to a place with lots of traffic and I didn’t know how to get to a big street or even which side of the street I should be standing on. I’d done a fair amount of this kind of navigation on our first trip to Beirut, six months ago, but I was out of practice. On this trip, I’d either been with Eliza, who basically led me wherever we were going—and I happily followed along, like a grateful, happy puppy–or I’d walked, mapping my route back to my Airbnb or to her walk-up apartment. (The app I use for that “Here”—works just fine off line for city navigation). But now I was going somewhere I wasn’t familiar with and where I chose to stand in the street, only white license plates were going by—regular drivers. Minutes went by like that.

Finally, one red-plated car pulled up beside me—it was dark and I was wearing black—not too smart. When I said, Hamra? he drove away. They do that if they’re not going that way or if it’s too far or if they don’t feel like it. Sometimes you have to ask four drivers before you get one going your way.

Ten minutes passed. No more red-plated cars came by. I realized that I was not standing in a good spot, so I started walking, but I didn’t know where I was walking to. Finally, I pulled out my phone and mapped my way back to Eliza’s neighborhood, because I knew a lot of red-plated cars drove by there. And I came to a giant busy traffic circle where the soldiers hang out, a place I knew, and I found a corner there. After a few rejections, one driver agreed to take me. I think he understood my butchered pronunciation of Hamra.

But when I said Starbucks, there wasn’t a glimmer of recognition on his face. Eliza had promised me they’d all recognize Starbucks, but apparently, she was wrong. The driver, an older man with a wrinkled face, drove me two blocks and then pulled over and started talking to me in rapid fire Arabic. I think he meant he’d only take me if I paid him as a taxi, and not a serveece. I’d been warned about this kind of bait and switch so I got out of the car. And then he backed up the car and frantically motioned me back into the car, and he took me far into the city (I knew it was far so I wasn’t worried, even though I had no idea where I was), and when we got close, he stopped, not at Starbucks but at a street corner, with a vague wave of his hand, he indicated the street I wanted. And then he refused to take the 4,000 lira I offered him, twice the ordinary fare. He waved off my money. I was confused, but he just wouldn’t take it. (Eliza later told me that if they don’t take you close enough to your destination, they don’t charge you—what a strange system!)

I started walking up the street he’d gestured to (forget street signs—there are none), flustered because I was late, hoping I was walking on the right street. But it did look like a busy hip neighborhood, vaguely familiar from a previous trip to Hamra, so I thought I was probably going the right way. But still, I wasn’t sure. And I realized how very different it felt to be out on my own than out with my daughter. She is fearless, comfortable in her skin, talks readily with strangers, and she lives here. She has a great sense of direction and orientation and can converse easily, changing from Arabic to French to English in a moment. A young blond American who speaks Arabic—everywhere we went, doors were opened for us. But now I was on my own, feeling afraid to talk to people on the street. Why? No reason—there are definitely English speakers around. And people everywhere I’ve been in the Middle East are friendly and welcoming. I’ve never once felt danger in Beirut—not walking home alone at midnight—not ever, not when passing the soldiers with guns. But now I felt shy, flustered, and I knew I was late. Finally, I saw a Costa Coffee shop. I knew they’d speak English so I went in and apologized for asking about their competitor, but I did—where’s Starbucks? The guy laughed and pointed down the street. I promised I’d come back and have a cup of coffee sometime—and went on to meet Eliza. I was 30 minutes late. She’d been concerned, and really, if I’d had a problem, I’d had no way to reach her—or vice versa.

Moments later, we were in Mezyan, a crowded restaurant—even on Sunday night, a band was setting up, and we’d been promised two seats at the bar. We ordered Arak and two tangines, and delighted in watching the nimble dance of the busy bartenders with their sharp Arab haircuts. Arab men take great pride in their personal grooming and these two were no exceptions. I was happy and relieved. I couldn’t imagine better company. The food was perfect—the right amount and every bite merited a groan of pleasure. I’d go back to Beirut just to eat those tangines again. And I loved this sign up above the bar:

I guess some things are truly universal—the addiction to cell phones being one of them.

It was after midnight when we took a shared serveece back to our respective neighborhoods. I got dropped off first. I’d handed Eliza the leftover lira I had left, saving 20,000 for my early morning trip to the airport. And when the driver pulled up at my drop off place, I said goodbye—something I’ve been practicing a lot as a parent with a child on the other side of the world.

I set four alarms and was out the door of my apartment by 4:30, dragging my giant suitcase, a backpack, my purse, my c-pap machine and a huge brown furry Beduoin coat around the corner to the hotel where the taxi was meeting me. The coat was something I’d bought in Petra, in Jordan at Christmastime, when all my warm clothes, including my down coat, gloves, scarf, long johns were lost in transit (eventually found, but too late to help me with the bitter cold weather in the desert). I’d ended up buying this HUGE brown furry Beduoin coat which basically fits two people and is extremely warm. All the men wear them and we all loved that coat. Karyn and Eliza and I would drape it over our laps while we rode in the back on jeeps over the desert dunes. Jordan in the desert in December was freezing. At the end of that trip, we’d left the coat behind.

And throughout the winter, Eliza made great use of the Beduoin coat in her cold apartment. But now it’s May. Beirut is warm and getting hotter, with humidity in the air, and she had no more use for it, and she certainly wasn’t going to schlep it along on her travels, so I’d agreed to take it home to America and the only way to do that was to carry it. I have a long history of bringing home unwieldy awkward, hard-to-carry items from my travels. And they seem all the more precious because of the hell I went through getting them home. And so it will be with the Beduoin coat. It’s bigger than any two normal coats and it’s not squishable like my high-tech down coat. I have to either wear it (and it goes down to my shins and is way too warm) or fold it up and carry it in my arms like a small overheated toddler. At least the coat doesn’t squirm.

The Bedouin Coat:

So there I was, in front of the fancy hotel I didn’t stay in, a bit sad to leave Beirut, a tiny bit hung over from the arak, burdened with far too many belongings, waiting in the crisp morning air. And five minutes early, there was the taxi, and fifteen minutes after that, we were driving up the final road to the airport.

The Lebanese love billboards; they’re everywhere and often it’s the same billboard over and over and over and over again. This week there was a billboard I saw dozens of times advertising a trip to the United States that you could win by buying shoes. At least that’s what I got from it—it was in English, but still pretty cryptic.

And now, just as I was about to reach the airport, mixed in with billboards for a Roaming App, an iPhone 7, and a cruise line (all in English, some with Arabic, some not), was a billboard of one of these giant faces of bearded men you see all over Lebanon—especially in the south where Hezbollah is very present—the billboards all have the Hezbollah symbol in the corner and the men in the pictures are martyrs from the war. And here was another somber bearded guy, his face huge, staring at me as we drove by. Just moments from the airport, we passed through two checkpoints with soldiers in black and white patterned uniforms. We were easily waved through—just as I’d always been with Eliza. Checkpoints are a fact of life in Lebanon.

It’s strange to be in a city with a military presence but to never feel danger or threat or oppression. The soldiers in Beirut are always friendly and smiling and laughing—with guns slung over their backs. They are friendly and helpful. Of course, I am an American woman. If I was a young Syrian man, my experience might be very different. But still, I’ve never felt anything but safe and welcomed here.

Inside the airport, I checked in and unloaded my giant suitcase. Then I stood at the flight departure board, Beduoin coat folded in a huge pile in my arms, and waited for the names of the flights to change from Arabic to English—ah, there it was, my flight: 7:10 AM, Sahlba to Istanbul. Boarding in an hour.

Everything inside the airport went smoothly. I had to fill out a pink exit card (with instructions in French and English) before going through customs. I’d done this before; I knew the drill. In addition to wanting to know my passport details, where I’d stayed in Lebanon, whether I’d been there as a tourist or on business, they asked for my first and last name and my father’s name, and it felt strange to write out A-B-R-A-M, the name of my long dead father, just to get out of the country.

I had to go through security screening twice during the check in process–the kind where you put your carry-on on a moving beltway, but I was never asked to remove my shoes or to take out my laptop. And my water bottle remained full and unaccosted. Traveling in different places, it’s strange how security differs from place to place. It was effortless leaving Beirut, strange after having gone through the most extensive searches I’ve ever gone through in London and entering Canada on my way here.

I did run into this sign on my way through security, and I was very grateful I was not flying to London. I’m afraid this will soon be the norm everywhere.

As I wandered through the airport toward Gate 17, I passed through the duty-free area. Mixed in with the familiar Estee Lauder, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Clinique was a bright pink display of packages Lebanese sweets: baklava, giant piles of nuts, pistachio filled cookies glazed with honey, confections oozing with sugar, names unknown to me. They were works of art, but my teeth ached just looking at them. But they were so pretty!

There were they typical warnings about tobacco you see in other parts of the world.

And then there I was at my gate.

At the other end of this flight, and my long layover in Istanbul (where hopefully I’ll find breakfast), and another long flight (where I hopefully will sleep for a few hours), I will arrive in Belgrade, Serbia, the second leg of my journey. I will be working there for the Incest Trauma Center, leading a workshop to train women from five Balkan countries about how to use writing as a healing tool with their clients. I am very much looking forward to a new country, a new culture, a new teaching experience, and new friends. I’m sure I will be busy while I’m there, but I hope to keep posting!

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