Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Well, I'm back safe from Lebanon. And we didn't even get to see one lousy assassination! The trip was amazing though - probably my favorite week of study abroad thus far. It was absolute, ridiculous luxury from start to finish, and I'm struggling to find anything that went wrong all week. Let's start at the beginning, I guess.

On Tuesday, Beckett, Allyson, and I boarded a plane to Beirut. Everyone else (all freaking nine of them) would be joining us on Thursday, so for two blissful days it was just three of us. The plane ride was probably the best plane ride of my life (excluding the business class trip from Tokyo to Chicago, of course). Middle East Airlines is awesome. The flight was under one hour, but we still had very comfortable seats, private TVs, and we even got meals! It was amazing. It definitely set the tone for the rest of the week. When we landed, we passed some Lebanese celebrity (seriously, this beatiful woman had a TV camera on her, people all around her, and two massive stacks of luggage with people pushing them for her) and entered the city of Beirut. We hopped in a cab and told him where we were going, but he stopped within about three feet and got out, screaming something. Next thing we know, he's ripping open the trunk, whipping some guy's suitcase in there, and then opening our cab door and shoving this man in next to me. So... I guess we're sharing a cab, then? Turns out our cab driver was on crack or something. He kept ranting and raving in the craziest, high-pitched scream for the entire 30-minute drive. He barely spoke a word of English, but since they speak real Arabic and not the bastardized Egyptian version, Beckett was able to translate most of it. And the guy next to me turned out to be really, really nice. At one point, we drove past a couple tents with Lebanese flags all over them, and he whispered to me, "Hezbollah. Shhhh. Bad." This wouldn't be our first Hezbollah encounter.

After dropping off our newfound friend, we arrived at "Talal's New Hotel," which still has bullet holes in it from the civil war a couple decades ago. New, indeed! We had read some reviews online that said Talal has attempted to molest several girls who stayed there, but at $7 a night he could molest me all he wanted! We were a bit wary about meeting him, and at first he was pretty creepy. He instantly started snapping at us, but once we got settled in our rooms, he gave us all free waters, and from that point on he was incredibly nice. And not once did he rape anyone! The hotel was actually really nice for $7. We shared one bathroom with about 20 people, however, which isn't such good news in the Middle East. One woman I only saw going in and out of the bathroom - and I saw her seven times the first day.

We threw our stuff in our room, took a little breather, and then set out to explore Beirut, not knowing what in the least to expect. We wandered into this area near the downtown, which was incredibly creepy. It was totally destroyed in the civil war and was recently totally rebuilt, so it's impeccably clean and European. It looks exactly like a part of Disneyland. Not only that, but it was completely devoid of people. We would eventually come to see that all of Beirut was frighteningly empty, but no one had a good explanation as to why. So we stood there, in the middle of this empty European courtyard, not knowing what to do. We picked a sidestreet, and immediately came upon a massive wall of barbed wire. Okay, dead end. We picked another road, and ran into several soldiers (unlike Cairo, these guys' rifles are most definitely loaded) and a series of roadblocks. We were allowed to walk through unbothered, but it was really unsettling. The problem is that this Disneyland area is directly next to all the governmental buildings, so it's unbelievably beefed up with security. Every once in a while soldiers would come up to us and check our bags at random in the middle of the street, and there were cement blocks, barbed wire, hundreds of soldiers, and even a couple tanks, all around the area. We likened the whole experience to the movie 28 Weeks Later - it felt as if Beirut had been wiped out by a zombie attack, and we were now among the first people to resettle the city under military protection. That's how strange it was. But eventually we got used to it.

We moved down to the considerably less-creepy Mediterranean coast, and sat and had drinks on a small pier at sundown. It was awesome. But our stomachs started rumbling, so we quickly set off to find our main goal for the night - sushi. We had all been craving sushi for the past two months, since we don't really trust the raw fish in Cairo, and since I hadn't had a good piece of sushi since the Tokyo fish market, I was going through some severe withdrawal. After about half an hour of wandering due to Lonely Planet's awful, awful maps (see every single one of my Japan entries...) we found the restaurant. What followed were the greatest two hours of my life. This restaurant was listed in Paris Vogue's "100 Best Restaurants in the World", and while I don't rely on Paris Vogue for any information whatsoever, I have to agree. The sushi beat many places in Japan, the service was awesome, and, of course, I was accompanied by two of the best people. Plus their fried ice cream was fantastic.

The next morning, we hired a private car (it sounds way pricier than it really was) to drive us down to the southern parts of Lebanon. See, Lebanon is incredibly tiny, so even the furthest attractions from Beirut are at most only an hour and a half drive. The driver didn't speak much Arabic, but was fluent in French, which Beckett also happens to be, since he lived there for a year. So we got along wonderfully with the driver, Beckett translating for all of us. On the way to Tyre (pronounced "Soor" for some reason), we stopped at the city of Sidon for about an hour. We saw an old crusader castle, which was kind of cool, and then wandered around a nearby market, where we saw all sorts of crazy things like decapitated goats and puddles of blood and stuff. At the end of the market was the "soap museum", so - why not? - we went in. The place was actually kind of cool. We got to see how soap was made. I swear it was interesting! Beckett and Allyson bought some soap, since they hadn't brought any along with.

Allyson can't believe all the soap.

We then drove on to Tyre. Our driver had to get back to Beirut to get his car fixed for whatever reason, so he knocked $10 off what we originally agreed to pay, and pointed out the bus station to us. We then spent about an hour wandering around these unbelievable Roman ruins. At first, it was just a massive Roman graveyard that was pretty much in ruins. But upon further examination (and climbing over barriers and whatnot) we discovered some awesome stuff. Most of the tombs were still filled with Roman bones, which blew our minds. Some were really piled high. We also found a couple small, hidden mosaics, and some really cool carvings and writings. The place was enormous, and just when we thought we were getting to the end of it, we turned a corner, and suddenly we were standing in an enormous Roman stadium. It was completely shocking, and we were stunned into silence for a second. We climbed all over the seating and explored the corridors below the stands, and loved every second of it. It was probably one of the coolest things I've ever seen. When we were done, since we had nothing to do for the rest of the day, we walked down to the beach, which sounds so simple. We had to walk past huge military encampments with all sorts of guards and tanks and barbed wire and towers with huge guns. But we never once felt threatened - it's just not something you see every day. Once we got to the Mediterranean, we found an awesome, deserted hotel, where we sat on the beach and had a late lunch. So far, two perfect days.

But the day wasn't quite over. When we returned to the hotel, we discovered our friends Oskar, Katie, and Tim had checked in, so the six of us decided to go out for dinner. We went to this place we had read about that offered 15-course meals for $35, as well as an open bar. Seriously. When we showed up, the place was practically deserted, so our awesome waiter Sleiman knocked $5 off the price for us. As if we weren't going to stay in the first place! So for the next two-plus hours, we ate piles and piles of delicious food that never seemed like it would end, and drank normally very high-priced wine. We definitely got our money's worth, especially since I kept asking for seconds on everything, which Sleiman would always kindly oblige. He then tipped us off to the best places around town, told us who to talk to to make sure we get the best service, and tried to return some of our enormous tip. What a classy guy.

The next day, I woke up sick. Perhaps I had a little too much meat? Well, shpuking or not, I had no time to stop, so the six of us set out to explore Beirut until the other six arrived. We were actually semi-dreading doubling the amount of people with us. All we managed to do in these five hours were eat some crepes and see the campus of the American University in Beirut, which left us extremely jealous and wondering why we didn't study abroad there instead. When we arrived back at the hotel, Emily, Megan, Elizabeth, Laura, Graham, and Catherine had arrived, thereby doubling our group size for the rest of the trip. Fantastic.

The following day we hired a minibus, since 12 of us would no longer fit in a private car. The driver was really nice, but only spoke this really strange mixture of Arabic and Spanish, which meant that it took both Beckett and I to translate every other word to figure out what he was saying. We couldn't figure out where he was from that he would speak this crazy blend of languages, since he didn't understand, "Where are you from?" in either Spanish or Arabic. The plan was to go wine-tasting, but when we arrived at the vineyards, we learned that nothing was open since it was the last day of Ramadan. So we continued on to the second part of our day, the ruins at Baalbek. These ruins are listed as among the best Roman ruins in the world, but not many people ever come to Lebanon to see them, so we were really excited. And they were incredible. It was several massive temple complexes, with thousands of giant pieces of carved statues, inscriptions, and paintings all scattered around the ground. One of the temples, the temple dedicated to Bacchus, was still almost completely standing, and it was breathtaking in its massiveness. There was only one problem: Baalbek is in the homeland of Hezbollah. And since it was the last day of Ramadan, things were a bit wild. First, we heard the call to prayer broadcast around the city. Okay, nothing new here. Then the call to prayer turned into some guy screaming in Arabic, which Beckett was able to understand a few words here and there to get the gist - most of what he was saying was stuff about America. And he wasn't screaming because he loves us. Then the gunfire started. They weren't shooting at anyone in particular, just up in the air to celebrate, but still. Our driver warned us that almost everyone in the city is Hezbollah, so we should keep our eyes down and say we were from Canada, but we were not expecting this. For the next hour as we explored the temple, it sounded like outside the complex was a war zone. The sound of AK-47s firing into the air was really nerve-wracking, and once the noise started getting much louder and nearer, we decided it was time to move along. But the temple was really amazing. On our way out, we passed two kids running around playing with what looked like real handguns but were probably just filled with BBs. Although, really, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't.

On the way back, our driver found a vineyard that was open, so we did a little bit of wine-tasting. 12 college kids know nothing of wine-tasting, so we mostly just got some sips of free wine and then wandered around the building. It was up in the hills, which were absolutely beautiful and reminded me a lot of Tuscany. For the first time in literally two months, we weren't surrounded by noise. No honking horns, no screaming, no Amr Diab blasting from every radio and stereo. It was absolute silence, and I enjoyed every second of it. When we returned, we went back to the sushi restaurant, since it was Catherine's birthday and that's what she wanted (I may have influenced her decision a bit by stressing how great the fried ice cream was). Both our waitress from the other night and the owner of the restaurant remembered Beckett, Allyson, and myself, which made us feel pathetic and wealthy at the same time.

The next day, we decided not to hire a private anything and try out the bus station right down the street. It was actually shockingly easy. All we did was walk up to the bus station, and suddenly we had 30 people around us, trying to pull us onto their buses. So we walked up to the first bus, said, "Jaina Grotto?" and he said, "Yes! Yes!" while the other bus drivers also yelled, "Yes! Yes!" They really, really wanted us Americans to get on. So we played the drivers off of each other until we got a ride for 1000 pounds - 67 American cents. The Jaina Grotto, by the way, is the most popular attraction Lebanon. It's this massive cave with some incredibly impressive stalagmites and stalagtites. It was really cool, but compared to the ruins we had been seeing the past few days, it was kind of bland. The whole place was pretty entertaining, though. With the price of our tickets, a ride on the gondolas up the hill was included, so we jumped in the carriages, expecting a long, beautifully scenic ride through the Lebanese hillside. Instead the entire ride took about three minutes. The entire ride was about 100 feet long. It saved us from maybe a five minute walk. Naturally, we milked every second of our pathetic little ride.

Our penultimate day was spent in the town of Byblos, the oldest consistently-inhabited city in the world. We explored some more ruins, which couldn't compare with those at Baalbek and Tyre, but were still pretty cool. Since the city has constantly been lived in, there were Roman ruins on top of ancient Egyptian ruins, which were all in the shadow of a massive Crusader castle. The park was enormous, but we all got pretty antsy within an hour, since we could see a really nice beach and we had all brought our bathing suits. On our way out, we noticed every single kid in the city running around with these sticks of wood. We were making fun of them, but then we found the store where they were sold. Beckett and I started having a sword fight with the sticks, and suddenly the fun of the sticks was revealed to us. So we instantly bought two. For the next three days, we were inseperable from our sticks. We tapped them on walls as we walked, had swordfights with them, turned off light switches with them, and even snuck them on board the plane on the way home. Believe, me a long piece of wood with some leather wrapped around one end with a thumbtack stuck in it is much more entertaining than it sounds.

The rest of the day was spent at the beach. It was part of this country club/hotel, who didn't mind us using their beach chairs. Since it was a country club, the place was filled with really beautiful people, all of them filthy rich. They all had trophy children, but the funniest part was that they all had a Filipino nanny. Every single one. So we were surrounded by beautiful Lebanese people, beautiful children, and Asian nannies. But everyone was really interested in us, especially a woman from Ohio who had married a Lebanese man and now lived there. She couldn't believe American college students would take a vacation to Lebanon. The place also served some amazing iced tea and delicious food - right down from the salad to the calamari to the strawberry cheesecake (the best I've ever had in my life). Once again, it was ridiculously luxurious, especially considering the fact that it was a Monday evening, so we knew at that moment all our friends back home were waking up to go to class. Suckers!

Our last full day, everyone that came late wanted to see Tyre since we had been talking it up (perhaps a bit intentionally to get them to go away for a while), so Beckett, Allyson, Elizabeth and myself hopped back on a bus to Byblos. We spent the entire day at the beach. It was the greatest day ever. All we did was swam, played in the sand, ate delicious food, napped in the sun, and watched beautiful people. We stayed to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean, and then had some dessert before returning home. Beckett ordered a fruit bowl, which he took to mean a fruit salad but was in fact a giant plate stacked with four whole bananas, five whole apples, three kiwis, two mangos, and various other unsliced fruits. I couldn't decide between the strawberry cheesecake and the banana split, so I just got both. See how hard study abroad is?!

The next morning, we settled our bill with Talal (under $50 for a seven night stay, internet access, and many 2-liter bottles of water), jumped in two cabs, and headed back to the airport. It was no trouble getting out of Lebanon or back into Egypt, thereby completing our flawless trip. I didn't even get sunburned from lying on the beach all day, for the first time in my life. To tell the truth, we were kind of dreading our return to Egypt, since Lebanon was such an Eden. And the second we got back, we remembered what we had left behind. It took nearly half an hour to get out of the airport parking lot, since our taxi drivers kept getting stopped by corrupt cops (as if there's any other kind here) demanding bribes. When the taxi drivers refused to pay the ridiculously high bribes, they were denied exit with passengers, so we were tossed on the side of the road. Ah, Egypt. Good to be back.

One last thing:

Everyone in the Middle East has a coke nail. You know, where their pinky nail is half an inch or longer, the better to cut coke with. So one night, one thing led to another, and long story short, I now have to grow a coke nail for an entire year on my left-hand pinky finger. If I do, I will get $365. Five people are chipping in, and we all signed a written contract. The experiment ends October 13th, 2008. Here's where we're at right now:

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