First 12 hours in Beirut

update: check out some pictures from my first morning in Beirut.

Our last flight of a very long journey was from Istanbul to Beirut. The flight was extremely noisy, with babies crying and people conversing very loudly, even though it was around midnight local time. When the plane touched down, many of the passengers cheered and applauded. I don't know if this was Lebanese people celebrating their return to their homeland, or just a bunch of passengers who, like me, were glad to get off the plane and away from the terrible wailing of infants.

We got off the plane, purchased our inexpensive tourist visas, and went to await our luggage at the carousel. This is usually one of my least favorite parts of traveling; I am exhausted from a long series of plane rides, and I've finally arrived at my destination, only to have to wait for what seems like forever for the conveyor belt to spit out my bags. Even if throughout the journey I have been happily conversing with my travel partners or reading something interesting to pass the time, now I can do nothing but stare at the opening from which my baggage always takes so long to emerge.

This time was different. As I stood next to Linh, staring glumly at the Producer of Bags, a sound from behind us broke our concentration.

“First time in Lebanon?”, someone asked.

Startled at this interruption of my stern staring, I turned to see a young man, thin and wearing a sleeveless undershirt that made him appear more thin, with dark hair that was so short it made him appear even thinner. He had fairer skin than most of those awaiting their bags.

“Yes.”, I replied.

“I think you'll like it. People are very nice. Just watch out for the taxis”, he said. He spoke in perfect English, though to me he sounded a little bit Eastern European.

“How much should we pay to get from here to the city?”, Linh asked him.

“It depends on where you are staying. Do you have a hotel?”

“Yes. We have a map,” said Linh, holding out our trusty Lonely Planet guide book.

“Ah, that's a very good location. It's near everything.”

“So how much do you think the taxi should cost?”, I asked.

“Actually, I have a friend outside who is going to pick me up, and we could take you to your hotel.”

“Oh, do you live near there?”, I asked.

“We live in Achrafiye, but it is not too far. We can take you.”

Linh and I looked at each other. I had read and been told that people in the Near East are extremely kind to strangers, but I was hesitant to be so trusting so quickly.

Maybe for lack of an excuse to decline his offer, other than unfounded suspicion of evil-doing, after looking at each other and having a ten-second conference (“You think it's okay?”, “Yeah, I guess”, raising eyebrows, shrugging), we said “Okay, that would be great.”

As we waited for our bags next to this stranger, thoughts of being sold into sexual slavery competed in my mind with images of being left, passport-less and penniless on a back-road somewhere in Lebanon.

Our bags came out, and the man helped us carry them to his car, where we met his friend. The thin man introduced himself as Bassel, and then introduced his also-thin friend. We got in the car and Bassel's friend started driving.

Basel turned from the front passenger seat and asked us, “What do you know about Lebanon?”

“Not very much. What should we know?”

“Well Lebanese people just want to live life. In 2006, there was a war between Israel and Hezbollah. When Israel bombed one part of Beirut, the night clubs just moved to a different part of town, and people kept on partying. If a Lebanese person wants to buy a twenty thousand dollar car, but he only has five thousand dollars, he will buy it, pay for it until he can't afford it anymore, and then sell it. People just live for today here.”

“Wow”, I said.

“Can you tell us a good night club to go to?”, asked Linh.

Bassel told us the name of a street where we could find lots of clubs. “But tonight and tomorrow you can't go to the clubs, because there is an election.”

“Oh yeah, we heard about that”, I said.

The driver slowed down as we approached some big cement blocks and some soldiers standing in the road: a checkpoint. He rolled down the window and one of the soldiers looked inside. Arabic words were exchanged, the soldier stepped back from the car, and we drove on.

“Because of the election, there is extra security,” explained Bassel.

“Are you going to vote?”, I asked.

“I will go and just put an empty ballot, just so that they see that I have voted”, he replied.

“Why don't you want to vote for anybody?”

“They're all crooks, they're all liars.”

“So why are you going to cast an empty ballot? Do you get fined if you don't vote?”, I asked.

“No, but in the future, they may give me problems, it is better if they have a record that I voted.”, was his rather vague reply.

As time passed, it seemed we were indeed going near the center of Beirut, and not to some remote place with many ditches filled with the corpses of unwitting tourists.

“I have an extra phone I can leave at your hotel. I'll leave you my phone number, and you can call me tomorrow. I'll show you around Lebanon. I sometimes do this for friends.”

“Are you a tour guide?”, I asked.

“No, we both work for the Beirut Marathon. We work in IT, on the timing systems for the marathon”, replied Bassel.

After a few more minutes of driving, Bassel announced, “We're here.”

He helped us get our bags out of the car, and his friend the driver stayed in the car.

“I didn't know there were any two star hotels in this part of town.”, remarked Bassel as he carried our bags to the door for us.

“Yeah, we're cheap.”, I said. Maybe he's disappointed we're not staying at a nicer hotel because that means we don't have very much money for him to take from us, I thought.

Bassel knocked on the locked door of our hotel until the sleepy-looking manager came and let us in. Bassel spoke to him in Arabic, explaining that he would come back in the morning and leave his phone. He wrote down his name and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to us.

The driver honked from outside and Bassel went outside to see what was up.

The hotel manager looked at us and asked, “Is he okay?”

“Yeah, I think so”, I said.

Bassel came back inside and said “I have to go, but I'll leave my phone in the morning and you can call me.”

“Okay”, I said.

“Thanks so much for the ride”, Linh said.

Bassel left, and Linh and I walked upstairs to our room, showered, and collapsed on the beds.

“I'm glad we're alive”, I said.

“Haha, yeah, me too”, said Linh.

And with that we went to sleep.

The next day we woke up early and went out walking. It was early Sunday morning, at which time it seems Beirut's streets are always quiet, but today, the streets were nearly deserted. On the Corniche, a sea-side boulevard, we saw a few men fishing, many closed shops, and quite a few heavily armed soldiers. They were standing on corners, riding in heavily armed caravans, and sitting atop armored vehicles. We were more curious than scared, but the atmosphere was a little creepy, to say the least. We made our way over to Hamra, which our Lonely Planet guide told us was a happening place to get breakfast. It was also very quiet, but we at least found a couple of places open.

After eating, we decided to check out the the American University of Beirut (AUB), which is apparently one of the best universities in the region. It has a really beautiful campus. We wandered, looking at the buildings and some of the artifacts adorning the lawn before the school's museum. We found a tree dedicated to a president of the university who had been shot and killed during Lebanon's civil war. Later we found the Bechtel Engineering center (just like home!), on the steps of which were engraved some words commemorating the dean of engineering who had been shot and killed on those very steps. The violence of these past events was difficult to imagine on that sunny, extremely quiet morning.

More wandering took us to AUB's tennis courts, where we heard people speaking English. It was the day of the final match of Roland Garros (a tennis tournament), and I wanted to know where I could watch it on TV, so I decided to ask these English-speaking tennis players.

“Oh, normally you could just go to a bar, but today there's an election, so everything's closed”, said the shortest of the four players.

“Yeah, everybody's gone home to their villages where they're from to vote, so Beirut's empty”, said another.

“You could try the Phoenicia. It's a really big hotel downtown, they'll probably show it”, said another. The others agreed this was a good place to watch the game.

“How long are you going to be in Beirut?”, asked the short one.

“Four more nights”, I replied.

“Oh good. Today there's the election, and tomorrow the results are announced, so everything will be closed today and tomorrow, but after that, you should get to see Beirut in full bloom”, one of them said, eliciting laughter from the others.

“Do you have any suggestions for what we could do tomorrow?”, asked Linh.

“It might be a good day to go and see some archeological sites”, said one.

“No, I think everything in the whole country will be closed. The election isn't just in Beirut, it's everywhere. Also, in the afternoon, they're going to announce the results. If you here anything that sounds like firecrackers, you should go inside”, said another.

Shocked, I asked “Do you think there will be fighting?”

“Probably not, but sometimes people here shoot into the air to celebrate. They don't realize that what goes up must come down.”

“Last year when Hezbollah took over the west side of Beirut, we were all stuck on campus, we couldn't leave. In the morning we came out to play some tennis, and there were bullets all over the court. We had to sweep them off before we could play.”

(Some hearty laughter from all four men)

“Yeah, it might be a good idea to just stay in your hotel tomorrow.”

“Okay, well thanks for the advice”, I said, preparing to end the conversation and leave.

“Are you all professors here?”, asked Linh.

“Haha, well in a sense. You're actually talking to the president of AUB, and the president of UA (?), another university that's near here. The head honchos,” said the short one, pointing to two of his tennis partners.

“Wow, we're honored”, I said. We all shook hands and said goodbye. They resumed their tennis match, and we resumed our walking around the campus.

For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, we just walked around, exploring. More to come...