I took a secret trip recently. Fortunately, my academic director is never going to read this, so I feel it should be alright to divulge a few of the secrets before I get home. Unfortunately, that same logic didn't work out as well when I put a post on couchsurfing announcing our arrival and friends from school decided that day to sign up for couchsurfing (because I introduced them to it) and to check that same message board. Horrible luck, but no harm done.
The main reason for the secrecy of the trip is that I could technically fail my program if they found out about it. Also, we may or may not have been traveling to multiple countries with state department travel warnings and the propensity to break out into civil wars and skirmishes with Israel.
Eh, all in a day's travels.
So throwing all unreasonable caution to the wind (we held on only to the basic sort of caution that you should naturally keep about you when traveling), we jumped on board with Bilal, our fearless international taxi driver, and after a 5 hour wait to enter Syria and a quick drive through the mountains, we found ourselves wandering around with suitcases in tow in the middle of downtown Beirut. Perhaps I should explain that "we" is myself and 4 girls, just so you can get a better picture.
Like any good backpackers, we had done minimal planning and even less in terms of reservations or anything of the sort. Looking rather lost and tired after 12 hours on the road, we stumbled in the general direction of the hostel district and managed to solicit directions from a couple nice bar goers and one friendly Lebanese guy who actually walked us to what he thought was the hostel we were asking about. It wasn't. But it worked out just fine.
That night we went to a classy French cafe filled with locals chatting and flirting over bottles of wine. On the wall was an excerpt from the Little Prince and a lot of quotes about freedom of thought. It was cute, it was out there, it was pricey, it was Lebanon. I felt bad for ordering a bacon cheeseburger (especially traveling with 3 vegetarians), but I haven't had bacon since May and I've been craving it.
It was delicious!
The "reason" or catalyst for our trip was supposedly to see the Beirut Rock Festival. It was three nights of international acts featuring Peter Murphy, Yann Tiersen, Aqua de Annique, an Armenian girl, and a lot of metal the last night which we decided wasn't really worth attending. Overall, good music, especially Yann Tiersen who had a mostly instrumental sound with fantastic musical transitions which frequently involved him rocking the hell out of a violin.
As Beirut is known for it's night life, we of course did a decent bit of going out to the bars and clubs. The second night, a few of us couchsurfed with Danny, and also got to go joy riding with him and his friend Fadi in their convertibles up and down the Corniche by the sea. Also, the last night we went out until about 5am bar hopping and finally heading to BO18 (an underground club with a retractable roof that opens and closes throughout the night to reveal the stars above) to dance away our last few hours in Lebanon.
Despite all the activity, my favorite part of Lebanon was definitely the solo adventure that I took up to Bcharre to see the famous Cedars of Lebanon and to explore a bit of the Qadisha Valley. I have noted before that it is difficult to travel solo for long periods of time, but it is also tough traveling in large groups. So three days in, I took off early in the morning and caught the public buses all the way up into the hills where I found a completely different part of the Middle East.
Snow topped mountains where the ski season will soon be underway, quiet mountain villages full of Maronite Christians, orange trees changing colors in the crisp fall air, and the last remaining grove of Cedars all set this beautiful valley an unthinkable distance away from the daily life that I know in crowded, arid, urban Amman.
I took a taxi up to the Cedars and walked around by myself for an hour in the heavy mist that rolled slowly over the mountains all day. It was cold, it was beautiful, I was all by myself in the grove, it was very holy (the meaning of Qadisha).
I turned on an album that my friend, Richie, gave me of a number of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic prayers and songs. It was peaceful. I listened to a chanted version of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer for a while. I think that something I've missed in Amman is the ability to get away and have an opportunity to just sit somewhere and contemplate away from people. I just want to walk up on a mountain and pray. There are lots of hills in Amman, but not much chance of getting away from people. I need to do this more often.
Eventually, I retreated back to Bcharre by foot, armed with a hot cup of Nescafe to ward off the cold and the potential rain. The fog lifted and the view was beautiful. However, about an hour into my hike I realized that I probably wouldn't make it all the way back down to town before the last bus left for Beirut.
This was a problem.
I stepped off the road to relieve myself and figure out my next step, but heard a car coming and hurried out from behind the barrier to try to flag it down. Too late. It drove off down the road and around a bend, crap. Then the car reappeared coming back toward me and stopped next to me. The driver gave me the normal sign for "what do you want" or "where are you going," which is a quick twist of the hand starting with the palm facing down and ending with it up. I explained my situation as best I could in Arabic and he told me to get in.
In the conversation that followed, I answered the usual questions that are directed at me by most of the Arabs that I meet here (and fortunately I have gotten pretty good at this typical introduction): the incredulous what are you doing here?, where are you from?, what do you do? The one thing that struck me was his response when I told him that I am American.
"What are you doing here? We are Hezbollah."
"No problem. America, Hezbollah, same thing."
It was quite a ride. While I am pretty sure he was not actually a member of Hezbollah as he was a Maronite Christian, I can understand the sentiments and the feelings of animosity that America garners over here. But all political differences aside, you discover when you travel the world the great weight of humanity that binds us all together. And that's a beautiful thing.