The story of our first days in Lebanon continued

Note: this post won't make any sense unless you read about our first 12 hours in Beirut.

In the evening, we returned to our hotel. Somebody at the front desk who didn't speak any English gave me the phone that Bassel had left for us.

We went upstairs to our room to rest our tired feet. Eventually, Linh raised the issue that I had been so blissfully ignoring.

“Are you going to call him?”, Linh asked me.

“I don't know. He didn't kill us last night, but I'm still not sure we should trust him.”

We rested a while, and actually found the Roland Garos final on the TV in our room. I watched it, Linh took a nap, and then we decided to go out to dinner. On our way out, we saw the hotel manager at the front desk (the one who had asked if Bassel was “okay” the night before). Since he spoke English, and seemed suspicious of the same man that we were suspicious of, we decided to seek his counsel.

“Can we ask your advice?”, I asked him.

“Yes, come, tell me the story”, he said, and he moved from behind the desk over to a couch in the lobby, and motioned to us to sit next to him.

We told him everything that happened the night before.

“We don't know if people are just like this here. We've heard people are very kind here, but we don't know if this is normal,” said Linh.

“People here are very nice, but it is like any country. There are good people and there are bad people. This man, I don't know, maybe he is good, maybe he is bad. I am the manager of this hotel, and I have been working in the tourism industry for seven years, and I have seen people, people, people, lots of people. I am very nice to my guests, you are like my family, but I have never given a phone to anybody.”

“Yeah, that does seem a little strange”, I said.

“I have never seen this before. And why? You don't need it. It is very strange”, said the manager.

“So do you think we should just not call him?”, I asked.

“No, you need to call him. He was very good to you. If it were me, I would call him and tell him to come get his phone, and when he is here you can say, 'Thank you very much for what you have done, but now we want to see Lebanon on our own.' Don't tell him you're afraid he is bad. Just tell him 'I want to touch people, I want to talk with people, I want to take the bus with people, I want to travel on my own so I can touch people'. And say 'Thank you very much' for what he has done, because he has helped you. This is what I would do”, said the hotel manager, who was quickly becoming my most trusted advisor in Lebanon.

I realized that to just not call Bassel after letting him take us from the airport to our hotel and agreeing to have him leave a phone would be incredibly rude. “Okay, so I'll call him and tell him that”, I said.

“It is up to you. It is your decision. But this is what I would do”, said my most trusted advisor.

“Thank you very much for your advice”, said Linh.

“You are very welcome. My name is Mazen, I am the hotel manager, and if you need anything, please come tell me. Normally I live here. Today I was gone because of the election, I have to go back to my village, but normally I am always here”, said Mazen.

“Okay, well could you help us later to plan something for tomorrow?”, asked Linh.

“Actually, tomorrow the election results are announced. I think maybe you should just stay nearby. We could cook together. Where are you from? Are you Chinese?”, Mazen asked Linh.

“We're from California, but my parents are from Viet Nam”, she replied.

“Do you cook? Can you cook Vietnam food tomorrow?”, asked Mazen.

“Oh, I guess. I don't know if I'll be able to find the ingredients here”, she said.

“I will tell you a market where you can find anything”, said Mazen.

“Okay, sure, if I can find the ingredients.”

“I think, just to be safe, you should stay here in the afternoon. We can cook together, spend some time together, and then the day after, I will help you see Lebanon. Okay?”

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

“I think there will be nothing, but maybe there will be something. Just to be safe, let us just stay together tomorrow, and then the day after you can go, and I will help you plan your trip, and travel very cheap!” replied Mazen.

“I heard that they announce the results in the afternoon. Do you think it'd be okay to walk around in the morning?”, I asked.

“Morning should be okay”, he said.

“Okay, well tomorrow we'll cook together. Thanks again for all your advice”, I said.

Now it was time to go upstairs and call Bassel. I've always dreaded declining invitations, and this time was no different. After staring at the phone and thinking about what I would say for a few minutes, I dialed his number.

“Hello?”, I heard Bassel's voice say.

“Hi Bassel, it's Gary.”

“Haha, yes, I know. You guys were out all day, it seems.”

“Yeah, we just got back.”

“When I dropped the phone off, they said you were already gone.”

“Jetlag, we woke up early.”

“Anyways, I was going to suggest that we get out of Beirut. I'm with some friends, and we could take you down south to Tyre tomorrow”, said Bassel.

“Umm...”, I said as I prepared to begin my mentally rehearsed rejection speech.

But before I could begin, Bassel continued: “We're going to go stay in the mountains tonight, and then leave from there. I was going to suggest that you guys come and stay with us tonight.”

Completely knocked off balance by this last suggestion, I remembered Mazen's suggestion that I should be classy and thank Bassel in person for his help so far, and not reject him on the phone. “Are you nearby?”, I asked.

“Yeah, we could come get you.”

“Well, why don't you come here and we can talk about it”, I said.

“Okay, I'll be there soon. I'll call you when I'm there”, came Bassel's voice over the phone.

“Okay, see you soon”, and I hung up the phone.

“What happened?”, asked Linh.

“He wants us to go sleep with him in the mountains tonight”, I said as drily as I could.

Linh squished her face in worry. “The mountains! What did you say?”

“I said he should come here so we could talk about it. He's coming soon.”

Over the next few minutes my nervousness intensified. Not only was I preparing to reject somebody, but I was also confronting an increasingly scary stranger who wanted to take Linh and me into the mountains in Lebanon with him.

Finally, the phone rang.

“Hi, Gary? We're outside your hotel.”

“Okay, I'll be right down”, I said, and went downstairs.

Bassel, along with the driver from the night before, and two new faces was waiting for me in the ground floor lounge. The new people were  a man of medium build and a slim woman, all wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

“Hey Gary”, said Bassel.

“Hi”, I said, sitting down.

“So as I said on the phone, we're going to go my friend's house tonight, and then tomorrow go to Tyre. We can take you and Linh,” Bassel said, his tone eager and friendly.

“Well, actually, Linh and I sort of had our own plans. We'd already looked at some books and done some research and pretty much figured out what we were going to do”, I said, as kindly-yet-firmly as I could.

Bassel's expression immediately changed to one of disappointment, and the body language of his entourage showed displeasure with my response.

“Aah, I see. I just thought that you guys didn't know anything”, replied Bassel.

“Well, we don't know a lot about the country, but we know what we want to see, and we think we'd like to just travel on our own”, I said.

“Allright, well why don't you just keep the phone and you can call me if you need anything”, said Bassel.

“Well”, I began my further rejection of his kindness, “we have your phone number, and we can call you if we need to. We really don't need your phone.”

“You can keep it, I loan this phone to people all the time. Just ask these guys how many people have used this phone. It's not a problem, really. Also, it has my mother's phone number. You can call her if you need anything. She has a lot of connections with people in the government”, said Bassel, not making it easy for me to get rid of him and the phone.

“We really don't need it. We have your phone number, and we can call you. It'll just be an inconvenience for you to come pick it up later. Please take it”, I said, and handed it to him.

“Okay”, said Bassel, and he motioned to his friends that they should leave. It all seemed quite fast, like I had flipped a switch and the friendliness was gone and they needed to leave. Realizing that they were leaving, I hastily tried to express my sincere gratitude:

“Thank you so much for all your help”, I said, but this didn't get the typical, “Oh, you're so welcome” one might expect. In fact, I'm not sure it got more than a nod, and then all four of them were gone, leaving me sitting in the lounge by myself.

Mazen, the hotel manager, came over and asked “Everything okay? Tell me what happened.”

“Yeah, I told them we wanted to see the country on our own, and I gave him the phone back and he left.”

“Good. I don't know why he brings four persons, when you are only one. To me it is a little strange”, noted Mazen.

“Haha, yes, there were a lot of them”, I replied. “I'm going to sleep now. Thanks for all your help.”

“Good night, tomorrow we will have dinner together”, said Mazen as I walked up the stairs.

So I was rid of Bassel, who never did anything worse than give a couple of strangers a ride from the airport and offer to take them around the country for free. My first full day in Lebanon finished, and it was nothing like what I had expected; an empty, quiet city, tense with the fear of a violent election. Still, a beautiful city where we encountered many friendly people, Mazen and Bassel among them, but there were others.

What a first day.