Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shouf hike #2

Way up into the Shouf Mountains, formerly thick with cedars of Lebanon, we covered 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) of the Lebanon Mountain Trail, which was developed under a USAID grant and covers 400 kilometers. A lovely hike! Walnut and cherry trees in bloom, balmy air at 3,000 feet.

We crossed a stone bridge built “before there was money,” for traders on the Silk Road route from China to Baghdad to Damascus to the Mediterranean. The bridge, in a rather deep gorge, was the only connection between the Bekaa Valley and the coast. Now covered with grass, with a small river flowing underneath, it was an idyllic spot.

Toward the end of the hike we could have climbed up a rocky ledge to see a stone where animal sacrifices were made (by whom, we didn’t think to ask), but we were too lazy...

Other news: Presidential election delayed for 17th time!

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Wow. Tyre is on the coast, south of Beirut about two hours’ drive. It’s another world, a slower paced life tuned in to the sea. It is the place of ancient Phoenicians, who grew rich from the sale of murex—purple dye made from shells.

Within a half hour of arriving, a guy we had had a brief conversation with had paid for the fresh juice we had ordered, and another man walking by shared the peanuts he was eating with us. Everywhere we went people would great us with a bonjour and a smile. So nice. Our hotel was an old house in the Christian quarter, right on the beach.

In times past tourists have flocked to Tyre not only for the beach, but for the incredible
historical sites. To get to one of them we walked (normal people would surely have taken a taxi) along a main road that seemed to be lined with alternating car repair and live chicken shops. Go figure. We made our way to the site, Al Bass, a sprawling Roman city, UNESCO world heritage site, right next to a dense Palestinian refugee camp. We were the only visitors, alone yet again. There is a vast necropolis, with sarcophagi mostly from the 2nd and 3rrd century AD but some from 2nd century BC, outside the city gates. Also remains of a Byzantine church. A huge arch shows the entrance to the city, and an aqueduct lies beyond. Reportedly the latter was almost intact as late as the 19th century, but did not do so well in the 20th.

Beyond the aqueduct lies the real star of the show: the hippodrome—the largest and best preserved Roman hippodrome in the world. The track is huge—about three soccer fields long, with tight turns at either end marked by turning stones, and stone bleachers for 20,000 spectators.

Another site, along the beach, has a long colonnade leading to the sea, the remains of a pool for some kind of water sport, and a huge bath complex. Nobody there either.

Later, at the public beach, lovely sand, T changes into trunks behind a bush (the facilities don’t open until May) and went for a swim in the Mediterranean. A gorgeous place only marred by trash—fortunately fruits and vegetables and not glass or plastic, at least here. Odd to see lemons bobbing in the surf… The beach outside our hotel is rocky, and dotted with 3 – 5 foot long, 2 foot diameter sections of Roman columns that have washed up from somewhere, as well as small bits of tile and marble and even dishes, that may be relics of houses destroyed in the Israeli bombing of 2006, or ditto 1996.

More trash of the plastic bag variety here. Tom says the locals don’t see it. They went through 15 years of civil war, and occupation and bombing by Israel and they are just happy to be alive.

We see UNIFIL soldiers everywhere—UNIFIL is the United Nations peacekeeping force that has patrolled the Lebanese-Israeli border since Israel pulled out. We see small groups of Polish troops, Italian, French, Korean and the nice Indonesians who let me take their photo. Did you know the Israelis bombed a UN base in 1996, killing 100 of the 300 civilians who had taken shelter there? We saw a monument to the fallen UNIFIL soldiers. We think that if Israel and Helzbollah start shooting at each other, they can’t do it with the UN troops in the way. We hope so. For sure, if we hear UNIFIL is pulling out, we know it’s serious.

In the evening, there is a full moon over the harbor. After dinner we sit on the beach on one of the Roman column pieces, until the waves start to lap at our toes.

Easter: lovely church bells and the imam’s call to prayer.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

He wouldn’t say, but I can!

Tom has gotten some pretty wonderful feedback this week. A parent strolled into the principal's office at ACS and wrote out a check for $10,000, praising the gains made by his child as a result of the efforts of the Academic Support Team (read Tom--one of his students!). (Can you imagine that in public school in the U.S.?!). And then another parent let him know that her child had refused all after school activities for two years, until Tom offered Board Games this session.
What a guy!

We went to the farmer’s market a couple of weeks back. I spotted a heart shaped potato. I asked for a kilo of potatoes, and said I wanted that one for sure. The farmer gave me the heat-shaped one as a gift. :-) The total was 2,250 lira. I had 2,000 and a 10,000 note. He indicated the 2,000, refusing the 10,000 though I could see he had change. Then I admired a lady's stuffed grape leaves and she insisted on giving me one. Then, at another stall I chose a few small tomatoes, and that seller refused payment for such a small quantity. Lebanon!


The sidewalk and street on a nearby corner were being torn up and we wondered why. To my astonishment, a stoplight is being erected--the only one for miles, on a relatively quiet intersection, in a land where the power is out at least 5 hours a day and the other stoplight is completely ignored. Weird!


There are a lot of small shops--five I can think of in a three block radius--that sell exclusively "faux bijoux" = paste jewelry of an elaborate nature, and purses, the flashier the better. One with fur pompoms caught my eye...


We get Thursday off for the Prophet's Birthday and Monday off for Easter (oddly, not Good Friday--rumor has it the person representing the Christians when holidays were set for the week fell asleep and missed it). We are going to Tyre (the Arabic name is Sur) tomorrow--that's south, on the beach! Tom says he's Tyred of talking about it. I ask if he's Sur?

I will stop now.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Three day birthday celebration

The first treat came from Friday from those fine ladies at Refugee and Immigrant Family Program, my former colleagues in Tacoma, who got themselves arranged in front of a white board decorated with flowers and “Happy Birthday Kristine,” and sent me the photo of their smiling faces. A wonderful gift, to feel connected, loved and remembered. Next, we had splurged on tickets to the Soweto Gospel Choir, at a venue in the hills outside Beirut. Great concert! Then, Saturday morning we learned that Tom’s efforts had won us a key to the roof of the building. Yay—sky! There is rather a tangle of wires and satellite dishes up there, but we can take a couple of chairs up and enjoy a peekaboo view of the sea in two directions and a mountain in the other, and, well, the sky we don’t get from our third floor apartment. Another lovely gift! Then we went to our sweet coffee lady and she gave me a present, too—a lovely scarf. They make so little money at their coffee stall… Such kind people—she is so patient, helping us use our few phrases of Arabic. And she is going to take me to a jeweler across town to see if they can re-solder my wedding ring that was cut off. She doesn’t want me to have to pay the high prices of the local jewelers in our area.

On with the birthday… We went to a store I’d been wanting to check out, and bought two serving dishes from Jordan—pretty! Later, new friend Francoise brought me a lavender cyclamen—wonderful! Then we went to an Armenian restaurant I had been wanting to try. It took a taxi ride and some exploring, but we found it, tucked down a side street with no sign. It is in Gemayze, a picturesque part of town where the architecture has been preserved, and which apparently did not suffer major damage in the civil war or Israeli bombings. Beautiful, ornate older buildings, with a French feel. The restaurant had oriental rugs on the floors, and volcanic stone walls. We had been advised to make reservations at the restaurant. Tom had called and asked for 6:30. They say, “6:30?,” surprised. Tom offers to change to 7:00. “No,” they say, “we will open at 6:30 for you.” We are so unfashionable. Even when we left at 10 to 8 we were still the only ones.

Next day there was a hike to the Shouf Mountains. Only 45 minutes from Beirut, the Shouf are steep and mostly tree lined, plunging to a network of deep ravines. Home to the Druze, a religious group that branched off from Islam long ago but are quite unique. From on high, glimpses of the sea only about 10 miles away. We hiked for several hours (got my tree fix!), along the mountain sides and down to a waterfall. Wildflowers everywhere. One highlight was seeing a flock of storks overhead, way high. They looked like old style airplanes, their wings extended but not flapping, as they rode some kind of current through the valley. Even without binoculars you could make them out. Heading back to Europe from Africa.

Back at home, we grab the microphone and head down the hill to T’s school to Skype Ben. He will be leaving for Thailand in a few days. So good to connect with him, and bask in all the connecting from afar.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Addicted to guns

Things in Lebanon are at the same, tense standstill. Yet the construction boom and life for the ordinary person on the street go on. The rumor now circulating is that the reason the Saudis and Kuwaitis recently told their citizens with families to leave and that the Americans have posted warships off the coast, is because Israel is preparing to invade Lebanon again. The rumor goes on to say that the recent shooting in Jerusalem was a kind of set up so that invasion could be more justified. Eight people died there, after 125 were killed by Israel in an offensive in Palestine the week before (the former, I assume, got more press in the West than the latter). Hamas are Sunni Moslem Palestinians in Palestine, and Hezbollah are Shiite Moslem Lebanese. They are all poor and powerless except for the guns. How the Israelis and the Western spin machine could manage to link the two is a wonder. Both are anti-Israel, to be sure, and both are vengeful—Tom says they are supposedly religiously-based but so addicted to guns their God has changed. The rumor goes on to say it may be all a bunch of saber rattling just to pressure the Lebanese toward a political resolution.

Other, lighter:

Tom went to the dentist for teeth cleaning this week. The flavor of the rinse? No mint or sissy tutti-frutti here: thyme!

The blog control is now coming up in German

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Weekend update

Another day trip, this time to a wetland marsh in the west Bekaa Valley. Important [bird] stopover point on the migration route from Europe to Africa and back. Fun to hear frogs, but we were too big a group (45 people) to see many birds. But across the road from the marsh we took a great trail in a nature preserve along rock-studded hills and through a wonderful forest for a couple of miles, ending at a church with a Mary statue in marble (she was stepping on a snake with an apple in its mouth). Another statue of a saint was set on a base of geodes.

Last night we had dinner with new Lebanese friends, also Friends, who, amazingly, live on the same street just a few doors down. But I met them in Broumana, and hour and a half away (at least the way I get there, by taxi and bus) at Meeting. Lovely people, with two kids at universities in America (NY and Texas). Dinner at 8 pm, SEVEN dishes (most prepared by the live-in housekeeper): humous, stuffed grape leaves (vegetarian, for me), greens with fried onions, spinach pies, rice with fish filets and a sauce, kibbe (lamb and bulgur balls), and a shrimp pasta salad. Mmmmm. Followed by an artistic mocha cake (from a bakery), a fruit salad, tea and chocolates. After dinner we heard gunfire, which turned out to be celebratory “joy fire” = firing in the air, after some politician’s speech. Honestly.


NEWS: Of all the idiotic, STUPID things to do—the U.S. has surprised everyone (and positively dumbfounded some of us) by sending in three warships to hover off the coast to show “support” for the Prime Minister—how could that possibly help?!?

The last thing Siniora needs is to be flaunted as a U.S. puppet. The main problem here is outside interference, and the U.S. has now ratcheted up the tension in a most unnecessary and unconstructive way.

I do so appreciate that I may criticize my government. I may, and I do--freedom is important. ------What were they thinking?!! It was an arrogant and disruptive act of intimidation and I am disgusted and ashamed.


Musings of the week:

1. The UNWRA monthly time sheet. You mark “X” for present, “H” for holiday, “W” for weekend, and “R” for riot… One “R” this month—the day schools were cancelled for the Hariri rally.

2. I think I’d rather be old in almost anywhere but America . The 60 – 70 crowd moves with purpose here, men in suits can be seen riding motorbikes, running small shops (into their 80s actually)—no shuffling steps, no defeated gaze. Wild generalizations, of course, but there is some truth. I think of Asian countries, where age confers respect. I think I would (will?) feel so insignificant and patronized as an old(er) person in the US.

3. The place we hiked last week is known as the “Holy Valley”

4. The blogger “dashboard” where I enter the website to post a blog, first appeared in English and at some point switched to Greek, then Arabic. Tonight it appeared in German! I love the wild unpredictability of life overseas