I was very much looking forward to getting to Lebanon and especially to Beirut. After eating nothing but chicken/lamb kebabs, shwarmas, hummous and falafel for over a week It would be nice to visit a cosmopolitan city like Beirut where my food choices would be much greater. Also the city has much more European feel to it than Damascus or Amman so I figured it would be a nice change.
My hotel in Hama had set me up with a service taxi that was going to be making the 4.5 hr journey to Beirut the next morning. At 9am the driver showed up and we hopped into his mercedes (not as nice as the one I had taken to the Krak but newer). We stopped just outside of Hama to pick up two more passengers (2 young Syrian men) and the four of us headed off to Beirut. None of the three spoke any english and in fact at this point I probably knew as much arabic as they did english so our conversations were not very long.
We reached the border and once again it was nice to have the driver there to show me where I had to go to get though Syrian and Lebanese customs. At the Lebanese entry I had to buy a visa for $20 US except they wouldn't take any US money, you had to pay in Lebanese pounds so I ran across the street and got some money changed at a store and ran back to get my visa. The customs guys were all friendly and spoke pretty good english. The border scene was a zoo into Lebanon but I made it through unscathed and we were on our way to Beirut.
We came into Lebanon at the northern border crossing in the country and as such got to drive all the way down the coast of Lebanon to get to Beirut. Lebanon definitely felt different than Syria. A lot nicer cars, much greener, and more mountainous than Syria had been. It was nice to be able to drive through half the country and see so much but I was happy to reach Beirut finally.
The weather had been great on my whole trip with temperatures in the high 80's to mid 90's (30-37 C) and Beirut was no different except that it was extremely humid. The rest of my trip had been in desert regions so the temperature and humidity were not much different than Denver in the summer. Beirut however was the hottest place I had ever been with the humidity. Within minutes of walking outside I would be sweating up a storm. My poor Canadian body wasn't used to this kind heat/humidity! Luckily except for my first day in Beirut it was fairly hazy so that helped to keep the temperatures down a bit.
I loved Beirut! In fact I ended up spending 4 days there, more time than I spent anywhere else. It reminded me of cities like Vancouver, Paris or San Francisco with its diversity. It was also a very pretty city with lots of hills, the cliffs along the sea and great architecture. Lebanon had undergone a civil war for about 20 years from the mid 70's to the mid 90's and it was interesting to see how the city had transformed in the five or so years since the war had ended. I loved walking around the city and seeing rebuilt areas next to bombed out buildings. It was interesting to walk down the former "Green Line" which divided the cities Muslim and Christian militia's during the war and imagine the devastation that had taken place.
Having a degree in Political Science I was very interested to talk to people about the war and find out what they thought now. I ended up discussing the issue with several people both muslim and christian and they all said they were happy the war was over, that they didn't know why it had started and no one really knew what they had been fighting for. Basically everyone was happy there was peace now and hoped that Lebanon wouldn't be implicated in the tragic events of Sept 11.
If anyone has an interest in the root causes and history of the war in Lebanon, two excellent books are Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk (which may be tough to find but I can lend you my copy) or From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (which I also have if anyone wants to borrow it).
It was my first night in Beirut and I had just gotten back from dinner and flipped on CNN when they announced that the US had started bombing in Afghanistan. It was a little surreal to be sitting in a hotel in Beirut as war was breaking out but I was not particularly concerned for my safety. The hotel I was staying in used to be a famous press hangout during the war and had a great english bar downstairs which I decided to head down to. For a Sunday night the place was pretty hopping and I ended up talking to some guys from the UN that were part of the Golan Heights Observer group. It was interesting to hear their stories and thoughts on the region and also their perspective on the bombing in Afghanistan.
The famous natural feature in Beirut is Pigeon Rocks and I wandered over to check it out my first day. It was pretty impressive and it was nice to sit on the rocks and watch the fishermen. In all my time in Beirut I saw hundreds of fisherman but never saw anyone catch anything.
I had a couple of days trips planned while I was in Beirut. One was to go to Baalbeck which was a great Roman City 2000 years ago and the other was to take a tour down to Sidon and Tyre two ancient fishing villages in South Lebanon about 10-15 miles from the Israeli border. I ended up having to cancel both of my trips and it was the only time on my trip that the world political situation affected me. I decided against going to Baalbeck for a couple of reasons. One was because it was the headquarters of the Hizbollah Group which was/is (depending on your perspective) one of the main terrorist groups operating in Lebanon. They were accused of being responsible for the US Marine barracks bombing and US Embassy bombing in Beirut in the mid 80's amongst other things. With the war in Afghanistan starting I wasn't sure it was wise to be there right now though supposedly they are very friendly to tourists and even have a gift shop where you can buy Hizbollah souvenirs or donate to the "cause". Finally, the Dutch couple I had met had been to Baalbeck and said that it wasn't nearly as impressive as Palmyra which I had already been to.
I had also signed up for a day trip with a tour company to go down to Sidon and Tyre. The tour company ended up cancelling the tour after 4 consecutive days of Israel buzzing the two towns with fighter planes and Hizbollah returning fire with anti-aircraft guns. I (and the tour company) felt it was probably best to stay away.
Beirut was definitely the most expensive part of the Middle East I had visited. Syria was dirt cheap, and Jordan was somewhere in the middle. Meals in Beirut were western prices though the selection and quality of restaurants was much higher. It was nice to have great italian food, thai food etc after days of eating kebabs.
The American University of Beirut was also an interesting place to visit. It is probably the most prestigious university in the Middle East and was also the only place I saw protests of any kind over the US action in Afghanistan (though the protest were mild, it was a little ironic to see them taking place at the AUB). It had also been the scene of many kidnappings during the war and even the assassination of the school president during the 80's.
There were also many more soldiers in Lebanon then anywhere I had been so far. I had gotten used to seeing the guys with sub-machine guns standing in front of government buildings in Jordan and Syria but in Lebanon they were everywhere. In fact I was even stopped a couple of times walking in different areas of downtown by soldiers who wanted to check my day pack. They were always very friendly after seeing there were no bombs in it. One asked me if I was a journalist having seen my camera and seemed quite happy when I said that I wasn't.
Downtown Beirut was very nice. It had been almost completely destroyed during the war and was now almost completely rebuilt. The architecture was very nice and very european.
After four days in Beirut it was time to leave and again I had the hotel arrange a service taxi for me back to Amman. The following morning I got a taxi to the Bus/Service Taxi Station. I ended up waiting an hour until the driver showed up then we went to pick up our other passengers. Again the driver didn't speak any english so there wasn't much conversation. After driving all over Beirut it began to seem kind of clear that the driver didn't know where he was supposed to pick up the other passengers. Finally after making a few calls we managed to find them and after driving around the city for a couple of hours we finally headed out of town. I ended up sharing the GMC Yukon with very nice Jordanian woman and her two Lebanese grandaughters. All three of them spoke english so it was nice to have a translator for the driver. It was a long trip about 6 hrs and involved exiting Lebanon, entering Syria, exiting Syria and entering Jordan. All of the border crossings were smooth and I usually ended up having to wait for my travel companions. Needless to say there was never much of a lineup at the "Foreigners" line.
We finally reached Amman around 5 pm and I was happy to settle into my hotel room for the night.