Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lebanon - Some Interesting Travel Observations

I spent this past week in Beirut, Lebanon on a work-related assignment. We needed to work Monday-Thursday, having little time outside of doing the work we went there for. We did get Friday to play tourist for a day.

We hired a driver (Allo Taxi) for 10 hours ($175 -- split between a colleague and I) and went north out of Beirut to Jeita Grotto, Jounieh / Harissa, Jbeil / Byblos and spent a couple of hours in and around Beirut. The Jeita grotto is indeed a wonder of the world and Byblos is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet (7000 years).

After a week in Beirut and in area to the north, I have the following observations:

-- The people love their country and history; though they are not proud of their recent civil war which has set them back a few decades; a senseless war for the most part.
-- The country is every bit as safe as any American or European city or state; there may be areas involving refugee camps that might not be to fond of Americans.
-- Building is taking place on a massive scale; however there are still plenty of bombed out buildings right next to inhabited ones; bullet holes can be found on many occupied buildings.
-- They really don't like Israelis.
-- Soda cans still have pull-off tops; Pepsi dominates Coke.
-- There are no traffic control measures -- no lanes, lights, stop sign, yield signs; drivers are honking constantly -- for no apparent reason (other than taxi drivers hoping for fare even if you are moving in opposite directions).
-- Islamic call to prayer begins early -- at 5am in my neighborhood. It happens 5x each day but the morning prayer call is the most noticeable in the city. (It is one of the sounds that certainly lets you know you are far from home; I liked it).
-- Dress/clothing is more formal -- more dressy. No shorts and few t-shirts. Girls/young women wear high boots; women dress modestly. Over half of the population is Muslim so formal Muslim dress is widespread.
-- Spending time on one of the university campuses, students are about the same everywhere, though more formal in their appearance and seemingly less impetuous.
-- A very family-oriented culture.
-- The food is wonderful, in my opinion -- traditional Mediterranean delights. Mankoushé and Ka'ek are ubiquitous. They have American fast food; they even have Hardees. Bread is flat bread, almost like a Mexican flour tortilla but bigger, and is eaten at every meal. Thyme is a dominant food item (never ate some much thyme in my life).
-- Hubbly Bubbly (flavored tobacco smoked through tall water pipes with long hoses) is the social drug of choice. One waiter told us: "it is not addictive; it is just a habit."
-- There are plenty of shops; e.g., Hammra Street, that sell high end luxury items from furs, watches and jewelry.
-- Power is good generally but it does go out for a minute or two each day as they shift generators (they get supplies from bothy public and private sources)
-- Internet speed stinks and wifi is costly for the most part (few places offering free wifi)

I would recommend that if you are interested in a Middle East experience, Lebanon is a good place to go. English, although the third language after Arabic and French, is widely understood. Prices are similar to America. And there are plenty of things to do from the beaches to the mountains.

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