Sunday, August 26, 2007

An incredible day—Shabba (Chebbaa) Farms

We traveled to the south, a Saturday trip offered to new ACS staff to the village home of a long time staff member. We had no idea what we were getting into. We were unwittingly included in an elaborate birthday party, among other things. There were almost 20 of us in two Mercedes buses and the Headmaster’s car—T and I in the car. We went about 150 km to the southeast, stopping at the staff member’s village for a “snack” of roasted vegetables, homemade cheeses, pita bread, amazing fresh figs, grapes from the vine overhead, many kinds of cookies, candied pumpkin, quince preserves, pita bread, olives, and more.

The staff person‘s father was a major figure in the area. Among other things he had provided a library for a local school, a project to which ACS students had contributed by raising money and donating books. The school’s principal arrived and we left to visit the school, after acquiring a Lebanese Army escort. The library was quite impressive for a village school—6,000 books in three languages. Lebanese children study Arabic, French and English—all at once, from the third grade.

We noticed many, many unfinished buildings in the area. Two reasons were given. There are millions more Lebanese that live outside Lebanon than live here (4 million in Lebanon and something like 16 million in other countries). Many of them return to build homes for their relatives or themselves. Construction occurs when infusions of cash pour in from these people. Overseas Lebanese clearly contribute very significantly to the economy. And some of the construction is rebuilding following Israeli bombings from last year... We saw many rebuilt bridges that had been destroyed.

We were in the Shabba area, which is cut off from Shabba Farms, formerly free Lebanon but overtaken by Israel and now filled with Israeli “settlers”. I put it in quotes because it is a term that sounds so inoffensive, yet in reality their presence is absolutely an offense—the Israeli army overran and took over some of the choicest land in Lebanon. Shabba Farms is a rich area with fertile land, 14 villages, and plenty of water. The Israelis have diverted the water for other uses in their country and left the Lebanese in the 14 villages trapped, unable to leave or see relatives outside the “occupied territories”. They say if a goat wanders in from the free Lebanese side it is shot.

We got to go right up into the no man’s land next to the border. There is a UN post (we saw both Indian Sikh and Spanish UN peacekeepers—the Sikhs have UN blue turbans instead of caps!) on one hill, an Israeli installation on another, and an Israeli camera on a tower on a third. We waved. Beneath the camera tower is the yellow gate (see photo on left--below tower) where Hezbollah soldiers captured the two Israeli soldiers last year, the event that sparked the massive Israeli bombing attacks on Southern Lebanon last summer. We were not allowed to take photos of the UN post, but could fire away, so to speak, at the Israeli side. Wow.

The whole trip was made a bit bizarre by the fact that we were in a veritable convoy including a man, hired by our host, standing up through the sunroof of a car filming the whole thing. Besides the three ACS vehicles and the Army jeep in the lead there was the father's car and several others. We still didn’t realize this was a birthday bash.

After the border area we went to a beautiful spot along a river, where Tom joined the Lebanese soldiers and other locals in downing gulps of ice cold water from a waterfall (I declined). Then we were taken to a restored mill at another spot along the river. USAID and Mercy Corps had developed a museum at the 500 year old mill, which had been used to grind wheat.

Then it was time for lunch, only a couple of hours after the “snack” in the village. It was a restaurant at a beautiful spot along the river. Vast tables had been set. It was a traditional Lebanese “mezze”—plate after plate of delicious food to share. First a plate of pickles of various types and olives. Then humous, eggplant dip, salad, herbs with tomatoes, labne (yogurt cheese), fried cheese sticks, stuffed grape leaves, breaded balls of chopped lamb with garlic sauce, French fries (!), chicken, lamb tartare ( = raw!), small fried fish, and a few more I’ve forgotten. There was bottled water on the table but then they passed out Pepsi, orange soda, Seven Up, glasses of Johnny Walker red whiskey, arak (like ouzo) and beer to everyone, whether you really wanted it or not. Impossible to have a clean plate—you were immediately urged to eat more. I noticed a slim Lebanese lady across from me escape this threat by getting up and leaving the table several times… Then there was music---traditional Druze musicians in costume (white headdress like Saudi men wear, dark vests and dark trousers that are bulky in the crotch). First a lone singer with a one stringed instrument, who did a kind of musical improv singing praises to the host and various guest, including, of course, all of us foreigners who had deigned to visit them. Then the pace picked up and there was dancing. It was wonderful! The host (the father) danced with his mother, his daughters, his wife, even his two year old grandson, whose party it was. A line dance followed, and many of us joined in, including Tom and I. Later there was an Arabic rendition of Happy Birthday (familiar tune and including “Happy Birthday” in English at the appropriate moments), cake, and more luscious fresh fruit. A man in costume came around pouring “Arabic coffee” fragrant of cardamom, from a decorative pot (in Beirut all we’ve seen is Nescafe, though Tom did manage to find a pricy espresso yesterday). Another round of dancing (I want to get lessons!) and we made our goodbyes and took our sunburned selves off to the car.

Back to Beirut, losing the Army escort, passing through several checkpoints and across the Bekaa Valley, descending into the city from the north, its lights below and the Mediterranean beyond. An incredible day, and a marvelous place.

Other notes:
· Saw our first Lebanese stoplight last night, in Beirut
· Tried Lebanese wine, from one of the Bekaa Valley’s 17 wineries—not bad!
· We have a telephone—number is: 961 (that’s the country code) 1-355-132

Thursday, August 23, 2007

We're here!

We’re here!

Flying in, skimming over the Mediterranean, bit of orange haze in the air, apartment blocks, palm trees.

On the highway into town, billboards on either side of the freeway: one is Nasrullah, the head of Hezbollah, in a robe and turban; across from it is a man in a suit of the latest design from Paris.

The apartment is huge—maybe 1,000 square feet, three bedrooms, a balcony overlooking a quiet street and a hotel (The Mayflower) across the way. We are on the third floor, and use a small “lift” (holds three friendly people) that thankfully has an emergency call button. People are envious because we have so much space, are in a great shopping area, and have CENTRAL AIR CONDITIONING. The floors are gray marble, the walls freshly painted concrete, the furniture modern and all new. In fact everything is new—all the utensils, plates, broom, trash cans. They have even stocked the basics in the fridge and left a bag of essentials—soap, trash bags, matches, TP, cornflakes (!). There is a gas stove with 6 burners, a washer dryer, one full bath (incl. bidet)—shower has great water pressure YAY!--and two with toilet and sink. Cam better get here soon so we can justify all this space!

Downstairs we have a wonderful, smiling concierge named Mohammed—there at all hours. The building has no number, but a name (Shatila). The streets are, for the most part, not labeled either, or they may have names that change from block to block. Best to know landmarks to tell people the way. Traffic is rather thrilling, though the experienced can feel the flow and practice relatively safe pedestrianism. We are doing lots of walking. It is hot—40 ° C today (not sure exactly but body temp. is 37°…). But we hear that come September 1st it starts to cool down. The streets are surprisingly clean and also safe—women walk alone at night with no fear. And stores are open and people are out late—if you get invited to dinner it’s at 9 pm.

The school has kept both of us busy with orientation activities: meeting the 19 new teachers, meals out and at the school (GREAT FOOD!), including tonight on the rooftop with a sea view, walking tours, etc. They seem to be offering me (Kristine) a part-time job tutoring…I am considering it. I would be job sharing with another “trailing spouse,” amazingly also from Tacoma. She has a TESOL certificate and I keep pushing her as the more qualified, but they seem to think I can do the job as well. I do want to enroll in Arabic class, and the one at a French-speaking university sounds the most interesting. I may get to meet with the head of the UN Human Rights organization locally, too, and ask about jobs. The only thing that could possibly tempt me to do full-time is a UN position that fits. So I do want to check out that possibility. But English with little kids does sound really fun, too. And I have my wonderful RIFP colleagues to turn to for help on tutoring ideas! Please stay tuned…

It’s an incredible place. Beirut sits on 5,000 years of history. There are ruins galore to explore. Next weekend we go to a huge cave, where you can take a boat in at one end and a cable car to reach the other. We also go to the south of Lebanon to a farm in a disputed area where the Hezbollah are active. [Don’t worry—things are calm] We had to supply copies of our passports in advance so there would be no problem passing security checkpoints. We also were invited to a farmer’s market outside Beirut and a jazz club with an oud player, but those will have to wait. To say people are “resilient” seems so superficial—people have lived through so much. It makes them crazy and it makes them so very strong and deep. I feel so fortunate to meet them.

People speak Arabic as a first language but many also speak English or French. We have had no trouble getting around, except for getting quite lost the first day before we had a map and our bearings.

The women are stunningly beautiful. Maybe 30% wear headscarves. At the school, among the teachers there only two and both are new. The Elementary School principal remarked how wonderful it was to have scarved women teaching Arabic, as in the past this was forbidden at ACS. Now it is OK . And they are lovely—I am so glad to know them.

All for now!

Writing from Seatac

Writing from Seatac at the Air France gate, reflecting on what a wild 10 days we had before departure! It was a series of unexpected hurdles, punctuated by moments made magnificent by friends. Let’s see, the Friday before, Cam had lost his credit card. He was due to leave on a major trip to Africa this Friday at 6 a.m. At least he had his passport, which he’d had to overnight to Washington, D.C. the week before. We had gotten through Moving Sale #2, wherein not a lot had sold but a massive flow of STUFF downward and out to the garage had resulted, which was very positive. A steady outward flow ensued, with a parade of trips to various charities and the recycling place over the next week.

Monday we found out that UCLA did not grant Ben a parking permit. We had given him Tom’s Mazda, which we had driven to San Francisco, and parked at Aunt Margaret’s house awaiting his return from Zambia.

Tuesday we were honored by a wonderful gathering of friends at Laura and Greg Grimstad’s house. The food was excellent, the weather perfect, and it was small enough that you could really talk to everyone. What wonderful friends we have! More on that to come.

Because Cam’s credit card had been lost, the plane reservation for his flight from Africa to Beirut had not gone through, so we had to fax my credit card and ID to Ethiopian Airlines, Meanwhile, we were still waiting to hear back from Botswana about the safari the boys were planning to take. Numerous emails had gone unanswered. Ben and one of the other volunteers in the Zambian refugee camp were counting on Cam to arrange the trip, and only three days remained before Cam’s departure. Finally, on Wednesday, they responded. Cam had to get to the bank to wire money for the trip.

Wednesday we found out that both our car and homeowner’s insurance would be canceled. This despite assurances a month earlier that there would be no problem. So Ben not only has no parking but can’t tag on to our insurance, but he has a car loaded with his stuff in a city 8 hours drive from his school… We emailed him, sent the title to Aunt Margaret, and wished them well in finding some solution to that dilemma. With five days to go before we left for Beirut, there was nothing more we could do. As for our van, we debated trying to sell it, but decided to leave it in the garage and try to reinstate the insurance next summer, cancelling it when we leave again. As for the house insurance, we were referred to an agent for renter’s insurance, which we got, at nearly twice the former rate, requiring a trip to Seattle, avoiding the closure of multiple lanes of I-5, to deliver a power of attorney, which we had to formulate, along with pictures of the house, and other documents. We were treated to dinner by the Kirbawys. Lovely time at East West CafĂ©.

More than once, friends stopped by with gifts of packing boxes and offers to help. Honestly, if you every need to know how rich you are, leave a place and see how your friends turn out to support you! It’s been just amazing.

On Thursday we sold the Toyota. I felt as if I was moving in circles, but the shelves were becoming more bare and the six bins we were packing in were filling, so I must have been accomplishing something. Cam’s credit card arrived, 18 hours before his departure. Ben called from Zambia and was shocked at the price of the safari, much higher than quoted. The woman who had wanted to go with them couldn’t afford it at that price. Calls and emails to Zambia. Thursday evening we went to dinner with Cam’s friend Sam’s family and his new girlfriend Jessie. Another lovely time!

Friday we woke at 3:00 A.M. to propel Cam to the airport for his 6 am flight. Allowing 1 ½ hours was not sufficient; Tom watched Cam sprint down the hallway to the gate, clutching his bag and his pants, with five minutes to spare before departure. He made it, we found out, because he called us at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning from Johannesburg, when his credit card didn’t work. Saturday. The bank wouldn’t open until Monday. In his first days there, he was going through all the back up cash he had brought for his two month trip in Africa.

Saturday morning three of Cam’s friends came to move the furniture to the second floor. It took them two hours. Saturday afternoon the Ukrainian refugee ladies took over, cleaning for three hours. But there was still alot to do.

Sunday afternoon the Hunters stopped by to bring us treats, help if they could, and say goodbye. Shortly afterwards the dishwasher refused to drain and Tom got out the snake.
No luck. Kris still feverishly packing. Laura Grimstad called to see if we would like to have pizza, and could they help in any way? Her timing was exquisite… Laura called for pizza and the marines: Greg and Laura and Greg and Amy all came. Tom went to rent an electric snake, and all went to work on the clogged drain, packing, deep cleaning of the of the kitchen, weighing the 10 suitcases we were taking (up to 80 lbs!), and more. It was fun, and magical too, to have to many helping hands. We really couldn’t have made it out the door without all the help.

Monday we were greeted at 8:00 with hot coffee and pastries by Amy Hunter, Angel in training. At 9:01 we were at the bank, getting Cam’s situation straightened out. At 11:00 Kevin Grimstad loaned his muscles power to weigh the bags. Only one came in under 50 pounds so the jettisoning began: out went the chess set, the Thai food and the crayons. Next it was the big French dictionary and the snowshoes. Ah, but this allowed room for my pillow and Harry Potter.

Off to the airport, Laura our chauffeur. Hard to believe we actually made it! And all 12 bins and bags fit in the car. Things went very well at the airport. They didn’t charge us for overweight bags. Laura captured our last US moments on camera, and we headed off to security, where we and our carryon bags were thoroughly searched. I guess it was the Beirut destination. Or maybe the sleep deprived look.

Huge sigh of relief getting on the airplane. Charles de Gaule airport in Paris, sprawling, crowded and yet chic—so French. More to come……..