Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Highlights of Lebanon: Days 3-4

Our third day--our last full day--we attempted to travel south, but encountered a few setbacks along the way.  First order of business was being stopped by some bribe-seeking policemen...They claimed we had made and illegal turn, that it was caught on camera, and if we gave them $40 they would erase the picture.  They didn't speak any English, by the way, and we only understood via sign language and a few key words we know.  Owen dealt with them and did a great job feigning ignorance and being bull-headed, so that eventually they gave up in frustration and let us go.
Sidon: Crusader castle
So, we raced off to promptly get lost in the middle of a madhouse-Beirut--crazy roads, crazy drivers, lack of signs, and rush hour.  Somehow, flustered and annoyed at the lost time, we finally made it out of the city and onto the southward-leading road.  The easy sailing only lasted so long, though, as we soon were involved in a car accident.  We are praising the Lord we all came out unscathed! 
Sidon: Crusader castle
Did I mention this was all on Owen's birthday? 

Sidon: looking at the modern city from the top of the castle
The car rental company brought us out a new car, and we moved on with our day.  Next stop: Sidon. For some reason, the region south of Beirut is significantly more underdeveloped than northern Lebanon; I mentioned before how it's easy in Lebanon to forget you're in the Middle East, but on the south side there are some poignant reminders.  It is less European, less developed for tourism, more run down, and has more of the typical shack-like shops that seems standard in poorer areas of the Arab world.
delicious hummus
Sidon was at least still touristy and nice on the main street.  We found a classy Lebanese restaurant right on the Mediterranean Sea and enjoyed a chance to relax and celebrate Owen's birthday (however somberly).  Then we toured the Crusader castle that jutted out into the sea, and went in search of the other archaeological remains.  They were all closed.  The kids had both passed out in the car by then, anyway, so it wasn't a huge loss.  As we left Sidon, we passed what looked like a large tell right on the water, but--so sadly--it turned out to be the city's trash dump!  Right on the beautiful Mediterranean shore!  I think a trash management program could be put to good use in this part of the world. 
the trash dump on the shore of the Mediterranean
Since the kids were sleeping and time was dwindling, we decided to skip the smaller sites on the agenda and head straight to Tyre.  On the way, traffic had been moving freely, then all of the sudden we hit a big traffic jam.  When we got to the source, we were shocked, and a little irritated, to find that a group of boy scouts had blocked off the road down to one lane so they could try to sell their goods to the constricted cars.  Only in the Middle East.  Further on our journey, the freeway just ended without warning--it was unclear if they had simply stopped building it at that point, or if they had blocked it for some reason, but we had to find a back way around. 
Hezbollah flags in Tyre
Tyre is in the heart of Hezbollah country, but really the only evidence of that is all the yellow flags flying from every lamp post, building, and car, along with the general feeling that the area is much more conservative than the rest of the country.  I felt it best to put on my long sleeve shirt, which I had brought in case of just such a situation.  The people were super friendly!  The man tending the ancient site was so happy to see us, especially because we had brought children, and let us in for free.  In this part of the world, children are like a golden ticket!  The locals use the hippodrome at the ancient site as a running track, which I think is pretty awesome.  Wouldn't I love to have a running track like that back home!
section of the hippodrome, pillar-bases on right side held up bleacher seating
Roman road, sidewalk, and triumphal arch
the Roman road leading West toward the sea
some tombs
It was another late night, so the next day we slept in, wandered around Souk Mikael where we had been staying, and took an extra hour or two getting to the airport (not on purpose--we were trying to get to the museum...oh well).  The kids fell asleep in the taxi on the way home from the airport in Amman and slept the rest of the night.  It was an exhausting, wonderful trip.
Souk Mikael
everyone loves having their picture taken!
Through the window of a restaurant--birds kept on a table...First reaction: cute birds! Second reaction: yuck.
just a taste of what the traffic can be like...no rules

Monday, May 30, 2011

Highlights of Lebanon: Day 2

Our second day we headed north, tummies full with French pastries for breakfast--yumm!  First, we hit up Byblos--an impressive ancient city surrounded by a picturesque modern city.  We could've spend days at this one spot alone!  The ancient site represents almost all time periods in history, and is intimidatingly massive even though the full extent of it hasn't been uncovered.  (If you want more details on the actual archaeology, you might want to check Owen's blog.)  There was a beautiful old port where we walked out on the kurkar bedrock into the Mediterranean; the tide was out, so we dipped our toes and got an up-close-and-personal look at some crabs, sea apples, and other shallow-water sea-life.  There were some local guys out diving for something, and they waved for our pictures.  It was so relaxing to just wander along the sea-shore...there's something magical and calming about water.
feeling the ocean on our feet
the harbor, ancient tell off to the right
We had spent about 3 hours at Byblos, and when we were ready to go it was hot and we were tired and hungry.  So we piled ourselves into the muggy car...only to discover that Jack had turned on the lights before we left and the battery was completely dead.  Not the most exciting discovery when you have a whole country to see in 2 1/2 days!  We tracked down some really friendly young men in a Beamer, still in swim trunks since they had just come from swimming, who were able to scrounge up some jumper cables and get us on our way.
an old church in Byblos
one view of the archaeological site...it doesn't begin to show the expanse of it
The next stop was Tell Fadous-Kfarabida...I don't know much about it and didn't even get out for this stop.  Owen took Jack up, but Safita was sleeping in the car, and the whole site required a machete to traverse--covered in tall thorns and weeds.  We didn't stay long, although when we were ready to go Jack decided he was going to stay there by himself and play with the pile of rocks left by the nearby construction crew.  He is an independent boy, for sure; we even all got in the car and pretended to go without him, and he just contentedly waved goodbye.  The promise of ice cream was the only way to make him budge.  
Fadous from the road...nothing spectacular
On our way to fulfill that promise of ice cream (which we were all dreaming mouth-wateringly of at this point) was a "quick" stop at Batroun, where the Phoenicians carved an impressive sea wall out of the local kurkar stone.  It was a little hard to find, surprisingly--you'd think it would be easy since it's on the coast.  We've noticed a trend in Lebanon (and perhaps the greater Middle East) that the road-sign crew seems to think one sign pointing out the general direction is sufficient for aiding travelers in their journey; there is no succession of signs.  I think we spent half the trip getting lost and going in circles.  Anyway, at this stop Jack was happy throwing rocks into puddles, and even Safita tried her hand at it.
the kurkar wall on the right
throwing stones!
The Mussaylha Fort was a short stop off the road on the way to Tripoli.  It was pretty cool to look at, and had a very romantic and quaint stone bridge that you had to cross to get to it.  It was, unfortunately, fenced off and closed that day, so we were unable to climb up and explore, but still definitely worth a stop.  

Tripoli was much larger than we anticipated.  Again, it took us a while to find the old city, due to lack of road signs and/or helpful maps.  And once we found it, it swallowed us like quick sand.  It's MASSIVE--I think it's actually several souks all right next to each other, parts of it drivable by car and other parts pedestrian, just a mass of winding alleys perfect for losing yourself in.  And lose ourselves we did.  We were searching for the best sweets shop in all of Lebanon, according to Lonely Planet--a place called Raf'at Hallab Brothers.  The baklava we had there was worth the pain we went through to get there--it is seriously the best baklava I've ever had in my life: flaky, crisp yet tender, full of flavor, melty...it was like the sweet dew of heaven in your mouth.  We ordered one of each for there, and a box of our favorites to go.  
Tripoli souk
before dismissing this as just a picture of trash, take a closer look to see the giant bones in and around!
We had heard they had old-time coppersmiths in the souk, and have been in great search of reasonable copper items (I somehow have fallen deeply in love with copper), so one of our goals here was to find some copper.  But as I mentioned, we had gotten very seriously lost in the labyrinth and had no idea how to get back to our car; we began by trying to retrace our steps as best we remembered, and on the way the Lord answered our prayers by sending a very eccentric man dressed all in red plaid, and possessing an intricate knowledge of the souk, to guide us back.  And it turns out, he also was age-old family friends with one of the copper shop-keepers, and gave us a whole tour of the recesses of the shop where they make the stuff!  So cool.  Alas, it was too expensive, but it was amazing just to see how they do it. 
coppersmith's shop: production area
By the time we left Tripoli, it was after 6:00 pm, but we foolishly decided to try to fit in an excursion to see the cedars of Lebanon.  I think we thought it was much, much closer than it was.  The drive up was an incredible view, but it became a late, dinner-less night, and by the time we got to the cedars it was too dark to actually see them.  When we finally got back we had to endure kids screaming through showers and a midnight pizza run for hungry tummies, but eventually, somehow, we all got to bed. 

As an aside: My favorite things about Lebanon include:
1) They have curtains for their balconies!  
2) The architecture is the perfect blend of Arab and French, for such a warm, quaint look.  My favorite was when I saw a typical unfinished, run-down, poorly-constructed Arab-style concrete block house--with French shutters on it.  Shutters make all the difference!  I made a note to self: someday, when the only type of house we can afford is a run-down, fit-for-the-dump house, we will buy shutters, and all will be well. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Highlights of Lebanon: Day 1

Here are some of the more memorable highlights of our recent trip to Lebanon:
aerial view of Beirut & Mediterranean coastline
Monday morning we hopped on a 40-minute flight from Amman to Beirut, which Jack enjoyed and Safita tolerated just fine.  At the Amman airport, it's the first time I've experienced going through a separate women-only security line...and, similar to bathrooms, there was a WAY longer line for the women than the men.  Is it just the nature of women that in any given location there are simply more of us than men?  Anyway, it turned out that they were part of a group of originally-Lebanese-now-Australians who were on a pilgrimage, and they were quite friendly.
our Almond Blooms Guesthouse room

When we arrived in Beirut, we picked up our rental car and made a mad dash through the crazy city traffic, somehow successfully navigating the labyrinth of roads to our guest house.  The guest house, however, was impossible to find--it was a very nondescript place down an alley of the old souk and had no signs whatsoever.   The neighbors down the street didn't even know where it was.  So, it was a tiny place, but the room was nice and it had an AMAZING view!

We got settled and changed, then went to the Dog River, which, apparently, was difficult to cross in antiquity, so all the conquering nations who passed bragged about their success with carvings on the rock cliff.  There are a whole range of inscriptions, from Assyrian and Egyptian to Napoleon to more modern French and Arab. 
this is what the Dog River looks like today
Napoleon's inscription, which he placed directly over a Ramses II inscription...so cocky (and unfortunate)
Left: Assyrian inscription, Right: another Ramses inscription
We ended the day at a delicious Italian restaurant, complete with fresh mint lemonade.  I could tell the kiddos were exhausted, because for bedtime Jack eagerly crawled into his bed, lay down, and fell asleep (it's NEVER that easy!).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lebanon: Preliminary Thoughts

Last night we returned from a very quick but eventful trip to Lebanon!  The country is beautiful and we had a great time, but are all worn out from the rigorous itinerary we raced through.

on the airplane
It's funny how before we went, Jordan still seemed like a foreign country to me...Now that we're back from yet another country, Jordan seems strangely like home.  Before we went, I naively thought that driving couldn't possibly get more crazy than what we've already experienced here in Amman or years ago in Greece, but I was wrong--it most certainly can!  If driving in Amman is "every man for himself," then in Lebanon it's a big game of Russian roulette bumper cars. 

mountains of Lebanon from the plane
It also was fun to gain more perspective on which things are universal Middle Eastern-isms, and which are unique to each country.  Lebanon was #5 on my "Middle Eastern countries visited" list (and hopefully not my last!).  There are striking differences between Jordan and Lebanon, as well as striking similarities. 

Universal Traits of Middle Eastern Countries:
  • friendliness and hospitality
  • people are trusting, accommodating, helpful (We still haven't paid our hotel bill from Lebanon because we didn't realize we had to pay cash, but the owner said, "No problem; I'll email you my bank information and you can send the money after you get back."  So trusting!)
  • poor waste management...translated: trash EVERYWHERE (In Sidon, they have a trash dump right on the shore of the Mediterranean!  Sad, sad, sad.)
  • crazy driving
  • focus on community rather than individual
  • people LOVE children and are very assertive with their affection
  • people always want their picture taken
  • inefficient/non-stable electricity (my own opinion, may not be shared universally)
  • healthy food consisting of vegetables, bread, and meats...tomato-cucumber salad is a staple
Differences Between Jordan and Lebanon:
  • Lebanon has a strong French influence, evidenced in their architecture, language, prolific patisseries, relaxed dress code, and European culture.  Jordan, though definitely not lacking Western influence, still holds to a more conservative Arab culture.
  • Lebanon is on the coast of the Mediterranean, so it has an abundance of water; contrasted to Jordan's desert-like quality and water poverty.    
  • In Lebanon, it's easy to forget you're in the Middle East; not so in Jordan.  
  • The water-orientation really seems to be key in Lebanon's liberalism, along with the lingering French influence.  As Owen has said, it seems like the coastal towns all the way down tend to be more influenced by what they face...namely, the West. 
More details on the trip to come!
view from our guesthouse window

Friday, May 20, 2011

These Little Piggies went to Market

We went to market!  The Abdali Market in Amman happens every Friday, and is like a huge flea market.  The large majority of wares are used clothing, shoes, purses, and toys, but they also have some random things like cooking knives and a hodge-podge of household items.

High view overlooking the tarp-covered market area.

It was a fun experience.  The air smells rightly of must, body odor, and nose-burning smoke.  Ringing across the market is a chorus of men shouting, advertising their goods.  The light underneath reflects the color of tarp above, so you find yourself wandering through red-tinged, green-tinged, blue-tinged light, with the occasional spotlight of bright sunshine glaring through the cracks.  The different sellers' areas all blend together so that it sometimes is quite unclear who is in charge of what, and it's like an endless maze of used STUFF...most of which strikes me as, well, junk.  Especially the toys.  They have tables and tables of toys, and almost every single one of them is broken and dirty.  But, it was fun to look through and laugh at surprising finds!  Like a Taco Bell toy--who knew it existed?
anybody know what this does?
However, we did find some great treasures!  Here's a look:

"Princess" pants, 3 JD (these are new, if anyone wants some, let me know--super light, super comfy!)

twirly skirt, 2 JD
vintage cute, or out-of-date ugly? well, I like it!  3 JD
knock-off "Sharpei" markers, 0.5 JD
knock-off Armani cologne, 2 JD (the real stuff is Georgio Armani "Acqua di gio" and costs around $70 for this size)
Next on our market list is to check out the main souk (market) in downtown Amman to hunt for pretty scarves and fabric (my mind is swimming with ideas of what to use it for!).