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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Terrific Tuesday in Rio

Most of our mission team is still up playing cards; the group has settled into a great groove. Our group of 12 is a nice mix of ages from 20s to 60s.

Officially, our work project is to prepare several rooms and bathrooms for the arrival of 72 youth from Dunwoody UMC near Atlanta on Saturday. (That group is spending most of its stay working at the camp, but they will spend a few days touring the sites in Rio and sleeping here.) We are painting, spackling, sanding walls and assembling bunk beds. The hospitality center has been renovated and expanded, and this is the final stage. Those who have been here in prior years will appreciate the additional space, including plenty of bathrooms.

Our unofficial job -- and the more important one, in my opinion -- is to play soccer, tickle tummies, chase toddlers and give as much love and care as we can to the students and staff of this special place. Our host Marion always tells us they appreciate our energy and enthusiasm as much as any money that we send or any work that we do.

As usual, they are feeding us entirely too much delicious Brazilian food. After a variation of beef enchiladas for lunch, birthday cake for snack and chicken stroganoff for dinner (with a strawberry tiramisu-type dessert), Eliete baked a cake for an evening snack. It was warm from the oven and worth every calorie. Did I mention we had cookies, fruit, cake and fresh bread with ham, cheddar cheese, cream cheese and Nutella for breakfast? It's like spending the night at Paula Deen's house.

The overeating and lack of exercise started to get to me, though, and this morning I ran up the steep driveway a few times, made some laps around the soccer court and climbed the many sets of stairs. I even did some "suicides" on the court and wished Coach Morris were here to see me (I used to get out of PE in middle school by offering to tidy up the coaches' office). Exercising outside at ICP is a bit like swimming in a bathtub, and I think I looked pretty odd to some of the parents arriving to drop off their kids. However, some of the moms also looked a little odd to me in their jackets, scarves and gloves! It was a chilly winter morning in Rio -- about 68 degrees. Pretty cute to see the kiddos in their winter hats.

After my exercise, we were invited to partake in the 9:30 aerobics class downstairs. Three of us accepted. Oh, my. This was honestly the most fun I've ever had in group exercise. Not sure what I enjoyed most: the hip gyrations (great for your core!) or the broomsticks we used for situps. It was like a combination of zumba and pole dancing, and most of the other ladies were in their 60s. Dr. Howell arrived from the airport in the middle of the class, but we couldn't get him to join in. I can't wait to do it again on Thursday!

The other moment of hilarity today was watching the three-year-old son of our van driver wiggle his fannie and sing the "la la ooh la la" part of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. Grace keeps playing it for him on her computer -- that is, when we're not replaying the pastor's extremely entertaining dance moves from the charismatic Sunday night church service. James and Kevin have both been told they need to step it up in the pulpit.

We really are getting some great work done but are having a wonderful time every step of the way.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gift of a Godson

In 2006, I arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the People's Central Institute (ICP in Portuguese) with a group of 35 youth and chaperones from Myers Park United Methodist Church. I speak Portuguese and had been to Brazil several times, but this trip was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life and a gift I can never repay.

Our group worked hard during about 10 days in July to renovate classrooms so ICP could open a remedial tutoring program to supplement its existing daycare and preschool. Within a month or two after we returned, ICP opened the tutoring classes, creating a safe place and after-school enrichment for about 60 children from the nearby slum.

One of the Brazilians who coordinated our team's labor was named Sergio. His bright smile, calm presence and affection for our group made him a fast friend. We worked alongside him during the week, and one night he asked if I would translate his story for the group.

Sergio has four siblings. When he was four years old, his parents would disappear to drink for days at a time. He and his brother would go to the street and beg for food while their older sister stayed home and cared for their baby brother. One night the police picked them up, and they were sent to various orphanages. Sergio went to the Ana Gonzaga Methodist Institute. As their parents made occasional drunken appearances at the various orphanages in subsequent years, he and his siblings had opportunities to be adopted, but their grandmother refused to have them permanently separated and eventually took them back into her tiny home. When they arrived in her neighborhood, many of the local children would not play with them because they came from an orphanage.

Sergio returned to Ana Gonzaga as a counselor, worked with street children and became a teacher. When I met him, he was unemployed but was soon hired to lead the new tutoring program. I returned to Rio in 2007 with a group of adult volunteers, and Sergio had been promoted to assistant director of ICP. He again shared his story with our team, confessing he was worried how he could continue advancing his career to help children because he lacked the money to finish college. Several members of our group decided we would pay for his tuition. Sergio graduated on time, and in 2008 we invited him to Charlotte as the chaperone for three Brazilian youth.

Last summer, our group hosted a baby shower for Sergio and his wife, who were expecting their first child. Pedro Lucas was born in February. One day last winter, Sergio wrote a note on my Facebook wall in Portuguese, inviting me to be the baby's "madrinha." I had to look up the word to be sure I understood. He wanted me to be the godmother! I accepted the invitation in all-caps enthusiasm and spent the next six months marveling at the gracious gesture, uncertain how to express how much it touched me.

One of God's greatest gifts to us is a kingdom in which ordinary economics don't apply. He creates abundance out of scarcity, exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. And God turns givers into receivers. I know Sergio feels deeply indebted to our church; I am simply the face of the many volunteers and generous donors who have helped him during the past five years. But as anyone who has ever been on a church mission trip can tell you, we arrive as eager, can-do volunteers hoping to be a blessing to others...and we return feeling powerless at our inability to reciprocate the love and hospitality we are shown by our hosts.

Sergio and I are the same age. Our childhoods were very different, but we each survived the impact alcoholism has on a family. My own experience was mild in comparison to Sergio's, but we both grew up faster because of what we lived through as children. And we both believe that God makes his presence best felt during our own worst moments.

Standing with the family on a large outdoor stage for the baptism, I held a squirming Pedro in my arms as the pastor splashed his head with water. Drops rolled into his eyes, and he cried at the pain. I tried to savor the moment but mostly focused on holding on as tight as I could to his chubby little body. And I marveled at the fact that that true wealth is measured in a currency only God controls.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Panzanella a la Lyns

It makes me so happy when I use what I already have in my kitchen and make something delicious!

Just came up with my own take on panzanella (Italian bread salad). Used mostly ingredients I had from making Greek chicken for supper club on Monday night. So, I cut up tomatoes, chopped fresh oregano, crumbled feta cheese, diced a red bell pepper and minced a little onion. Added some cubes of slightly stale bread that I dried out on low heat in the toaster oven. Drizzled it with lemon juice and olive oil. YUM!

I think the secret to this is eating it right away so the oil and juice soften the bread slightly, but not too much. It's the same concept that works in the fattoush salad I loved in Lebanon, only fattoush uses toasted pita chips. Sarah Foster has a recipe for cornbread panzanella, so this truly seems like a cross-cultural salad.

If you want a recipe for real panzanella, every summer I pull up this one from Gourmet that my friend Anne made for supper club years ago. With a glass of wine and some lemon ice cream, it's a perfect summer supper!

Roasted Vegetable Panzanella

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Love Never Fails

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (From 1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
While leading a church mission trip to Brazil, I was in charge of passing out tickets to the members of our group for a lunch at a Methodist camp. As I counted the tickets, I noticed there was one extra. Our host, a retired missionary named Marion Way, explained the ticket was for a young woman he and his wife were trying to help. She had come to the camp with friends that day, and Marion was buying her lunch.

As Marion explained this woman’s lifetime of failed efforts to get herself on track, she sounded like a lost cause. She had three children, none of whom she was currently caring for, and had abandoned one child at birth. Raised in an orphanage, this woman had been on and off drugs, and in and out of halfway houses almost her entire life. And she had recently decided to leave a group home and go back out on the street.

In typical American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps fashion, I thought, “Why help those who won’t even help themselves?” And then I remembered the words of my pastor, Dr. James Howell, from a sermon a few weeks earlier. His words hit me so hard, I pulled out a pen to jot them down in the middle of the sermon: “God doesn’t abandon us for our failure to achieve. Therefore, we shouldn’t abandon others for their failure to achieve.”

Our devotional that evening was from 1 Corinthians 13, a passage I’d listened to so many times at weddings that I’d dismissed it as trite and stopped really hearing it. Through Marion’s living witness, that night I heard in a new way the definition of love as patient and kind -- bearing all things with a hope that never fails.

I had to go all the way to Brazil to see the words I’d heard in North Carolina put into action.

Brazil Mission Trip

Next week I'm headed to the Instituto Central do Povo (People's Central Institute in English) with a group of 12 volunteers from my church. Known as ICP, the institute was founded in 1906 by an American Methodist missionary, so they are now celebrating 104 years of service to the residents of Rio de Janeiro's oldest hillside slum.

The phograph to the left shows you some of the buildings of ICP -- the arched windows on the right are the church. You can see the hillside community in the background. This is actually the oldest hillside slum (known as a favela) in Rio.

ICP is a pretty large complex with at least six or seven main buildings, which are all fairly old. So, there is usually a ton of work for us to do -- painting, cleaning and just generally fixing things up.

Here are Elyse and Ellen working away during our 2007 trip.

One of the highlights of the trip is our host, Marion Way. He is a retired Methodist missionary who has been at ICP since the 1950s. Marion is more like Jesus than anyone I have ever encountered.

He is patient, gentle and soft-spoken, and his capacity to forgive and give people second chances seems boundless.

To meet Marion and experience his grace-filled spirit is one of the highlights of the trip.

ICP started the first kindergarten in Rio, and the preschool and daycare now serve about 350 kids, ages 6 months to 7 years. Many of the children's parents have to commute to other parts of the city to work, so they drop off their kids early in the morning and pick them up late in the evening.
In 2006, with help from the building renovations completed by the youth team from Myers Park, ICP started a tutoring program for elementary-aged students. In Brazil, students go to school for only half a day, so ICP felt there was a real need for remedial tutoring to help keep kids on grade level -- and to save them from having too much time around the temptations that often exist in the slums.

I first went to ICP with a group from First United Methodist Church in Dothan, Alabama in 1999. It stole my heart, and I returned as a volunteer in 2002 for three months -- with gracious assistance from church, friends and family. When I arrived at Myers Park UMC, there was already a strong world missions program in place, with opportunity to add new sites. I am forever grateful to Rev. Joe Hamby for agreeing to take our youth to Rio in 2006. Since then, we have taken one or more groups from the church every summer -- this marks the fifth year.

Can't wait to see these smiling little faces again!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why "Popcorn and M&Ms"?

I was in a hurry to get this blog set up before I went to Lebanon and never took the time to explain the title, Popcorn and M&Ms.

So, in case you are wondering...

As a good Virgo, I wanted my blog title to be absolutely perfect -- a true reflection of my personality and interests and something that would make even those who don't know me say "I'm intrigued -- tell me more!" Like many, I'd love to blog my way into my own little media empire, so I figured starting a blog was my big chance to establish my brand. I don't even follow Chocolate & Zucchini or the Pioneer Woman, but I've certainly heard of them. So, the title had to be something pithy and catchy that summed up the essence of me and what I think I'm about. (That would be food, cooking, travel and new experiences.) Plus something that was easy to type and memorable -- and not already taken.

My friends Page, Neil and DeAnna -- and of course my sister -- were thus subjected to long lists of (mostly food-inspired) titles: Lagniappe Lyns, Make Mine a Double, I Hated Cheese, No Picky Eaters, On the Half Shell, etc. (If you like any of these better, it's too late.) I fell in love with the idea of naming my blog Sunny Side Up, but it is taken on Blogspot by someone named Eddie who posted exactly one "testing" message in 2003 and then informed us he was going to sleep. Not that I'm bitter. Not at all.

Anyway, at some point, I started reflecting on my love for unexpected combinations: figs and blue cheese, peanuts and Coke, apple pie and cheddar cheese. Yes, I realize these are not exactly revolutionary combinations, but they are all things that had a certain yuck factor until I tried them.

And then I remembered the first unexpectedly delicious combination I ever tasted: the time my mom served popcorn and M&Ms to my friends at a party. As a kid, I loved hosting slumber parties because my house was pretty much the perfect setup: a big backyard pool, a huge yard to play in -- complete with go-cart, and a sort of separate wing with a guest suite where we'd roll out our sleeping bags. My mom would always let us go for a "midnight swim" (which actually happened closer to 9 p.m.), and then she made us late night snacks. I remember being skeptical when she suggested my friends and I eat the popcorn WITH the M&Ms, but I did it, and it's now one of my favorite treats. There's nothing better at the movies.

How many things in life are like that? What is there that we've turned up our noses at but might find delightful if we just gave it a try? I think of this often when I travel outside of the U.S., and it's part of why I am willing to taste almost any local delicacy. I figure if someone else is suggesting that you sample something -- and encouraging you to break out of your preset opinions and prejudices -- it's usually pretty yummy. This has worked quite well with several things: bull's tail in college comes to mind. It has also failed miserably: there was an unfortunate moment when I was forced to decide whether I could swallow my sea urchin sushi without gagging all over my date. However, I'm pretty sure no one told me to order the sea urchin.

So, maybe the lesson here is to stick to what's being recommended. Then again, I'm sure I've found some things on my own that I never expected to love. Whether it's popcorn and M&Ms or something really off the wall, I hope my life continues to be full of unusual combinations that are unexpectedly delicious.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ma'salaama, Beirut

Well, this is it! Tomorrow morning we leave for the airport at 6. We transferred from Byblos to Beirut via taxi this morning and checked into a different hotel; this time we're on the waterfront Corniche near the landmark lighthouse. Staying in Achrafiye was fine, but this is a better location, and they would have put us in this area to begin with if it hadn't been for my eager beaver need to check all our hotels on Trip Advisor. The tour company has bent over backwards to make us happy, so they switched our first Beirut hotel after I read some awful reviews. The hotel room has some peeling paint and other aesthetic oddities, but it was clean enough, and we cared more about location at this point anyway.

Walked around the AUB (American University of Beirut) campus a bit and then took a long walk down the Corniche, in some of the same part where we were last Tuesday, but today it feels a good 10 degrees cooler. We ate lunch at a waterfront cafe with a great view; we even caught a bit of spray as the waves crashed around us.

Now we are sitting under an umbrella at the Riviera Beach Club in two terry cloth-covered lounge chairs looking at the lighthouse, watching the waves beating against the rocks below and enjoying a perfect breeze. Great way to end the trip -- relaxing and reflecting on everything we've seen and done. We head to Nibal and Tony's for dinner at 7 and are looking forward to a home-cooked meal.

P.S. Just saw a girl prance by in heels and a floral bikini, which reminded me I must confess I am passing off my black sports bra and black underwear as a bikini. Figured there was no sense wasting time going back to the hotel to change. ;-)

Monday, June 7, 2010


Even though we'd already spent two nights here, today was really the first day we got to know Byblos. What a great town! It reminds me a lot of Buzios in Brazil. Lots of chic open-air bars, cafes and restaurants. There is a whole string of bars in an old alley that are especially cool, and when we walked home from dinner tonight, they were even lively on a Monday.

I was dragging a bit today with the stomach bug, but we went and toured the ruins here this morning. Byblos is actually the oldest port city in the world, and maybe even the oldest continually inhabited city (if you look it up, it's contested -- kind of like determining the world's biggest waterfall). It was a big base for the Phonecians, and the alphabet was invented here -- hence the town's name from the Greek word for book.

We saw yet another Crusader castle and a neat little ampitheater; one unique sight today was a Phonecian king's tomb underground. It was a bit overcast, so it was nice to have a break from the heat.

Shopped a bit in the old souk and got some souvenirs. Chamoun treated us to fajitas for lunch because I needed a bit of a break from Lebanese food. (Will say, however, I am nowhere near as weary of Lebanese food as I was of Chinese food last year!) We bid him farewell and thanked him for everything he did to make our trip outstanding.

Took a mid-day siesta and then met Elie and the gang at Edde Sands, a private beach club within walking distance of our hotel. Oh my. What a place! I don't know if I've ever seen anything quite like it. Five pools, a private beach with beach beds and lounge chairs, restaurant, drink service, etc. I was sorry we didn't get there earlier to take advantage of our entry fee, but I really had to rally to leave the hotel room.

Frank and I cleaned up and caught the sunset from a landmark called Pepe's Fishing Club on the harbor, then we walked next door for another fantastic meal with 20 of our closest Lebanese friends. We had three kinds of calamari, tiny fried fish, delicious white grilled fish, and a spread of desserts I can't even describe. Amazing! The weather was absolutely perfect to be outside.

We are headed back to Beirut tomorrow morning for one last night in the city and are looking forward to a home-cooked dinner with Nibal and Tony. Not looking forward to the long flight home but so grateful for every experience we've had.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mountains, Mosque, Mediterranean

We are currently stuck in Sunday traffic in Jounieh, Lebanon's version of Las Vegas, developed during the war when the Muslims controlled West Beirut and the Christians needed a coastal playground during cease fires. It wouldn't really be on my list of places to visit, but it's the departure point for a cable car up the mountain to Harissa and a Virgin Mary statue that overlooks the sea and city below. Gorgeous views and a fun ride right past condos and balconies with laundry hanging out to dry.

Once again, I am amusing myself by reading the signs: Tommy's Hotdog, Hotel Dallas, Joy Nightclub. It is amazing how many things are only in English, e.g., a sign for valet parking. I can't remember if I already mentioned US dollars are accepted anywhere along with the Lebanese lire. The ATM even asks which currency you desire. Since the exchange rate is fixed at 1500 LL to the dollar, it's relatively easy to calculate.

We are enjoying the soothing sounds of Kenny Rogers and Barry White as we fight the Sunday beach traffic. Chamoun loves American music, including Yanni, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. (Maybe Yanni is not American, but I couldn't leave him out. When was the last time someone asked you, "Do you like Yanni? I love him!")

Just went to Jeita Grotto, one of Lebanon's most popular attractions. Based on the tourist infrastructure and number of people there early on Sunday morning, I'd say it's easily the busiest spot we've visited on the trip. We were a bit cynical when we first heard about it, and even though it was on our itinerary, I thought iit was something we could skip. But enough Lebanese people told us not to miss it that we started to think it must be pretty spectacular. There is an upper cavern with the world's largest stalactite, and the formations were absolutely fascinating. The lower cavern is filled with water, so you take a short boat ride in teal green water to see that part. Definitely worth the visit, and they had tons of signs up asking visitors to vote for Jeita Grottos on the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World:

Yesterday was a true study in contrasts. There was a bit of hotel drama, and we were literally caught standing in the middle of the Lebanese enjoyment of a good argument. I can't remember if I explained that we were spending two nights in The Cedars, which is a popular winter ski resort. We knew it would not be hopping in the off season, but Lonely Planet said it was a nice place to spend a few days hiking in the valley, so I thought it would be relaxing to be in a smaller town. However, once we got there, it was so quiet that I started to wonder if we wouldn't be better off cutting it back to only one night. We were told it was too late to cancel the reservation, which was understandable, but after we got locked into the hotel for the night, waited 45 minutes for breakfast and spent our meal swatting flies, we decided to hit the road early, absorb the cancellation fee, and spend an extra night in Byblos.

After breakfast we packed up the car and went for a lovely hike in the Tannourine Valley. It was far less strenuous than our hike on Friday, with beautiful views, wildflowers and shady cedar groves.

We headed to Tripoli, and this is where things got interesting. Chamoun is Christian and had never been to Tripoli, a predominantly Muslim city. We have noticed a difference in the Muslim areas -- it's not overt, but these are generally the poorer areas, and amid the posters of Hezbollah leaders and women in head scarves, there are sometimes a few looks or comments that make us think we should pretend to be Canadian. However, we have been reassured by a number of locals that these areas are safe for tourists to visit, and I think the risk of actual violence toward Americans or Westerners is pretty low. Someone told Frank that Hezbollah would not want to jeopardize its political standing by doing something anti-Western that would upset the current peace and relative economic prosperity. While other Middle Eastern countries depend on oil, Lebanon depends on tourism.

Chamoun made it pretty clear he didn't understand why we wanted to go to Tripoli. Well, it's Lebanon's second-largest city, with an enormous Crusader castle (maybe 10 times the size of the one in Sidon), a bath built around 1333, famous soulks (markets) and supposedly the best pastries in Lebanon. He basically had a bad attitude about being there which made both of us feel a bit uneasy. It was also hot, crowded and dirty -- definitely not somewhere for an inexperienced traveler, but also not unlike places I've visited in Brazil or China.

Fortunately, we happened upon a lovely guide who was giving our gowns at the mosque. He had lived all over Europe, and we spoke Spanish as I fastened the Velcro on my gown and hood (major KKK overtones, wait till you see the pictures). His shift was ending, so he offered to show us around the landmarks -- a good thing, since otherwise we had only my Lonely Planet for orientation. We got a quick look at the mosque (completed in 1315 and still in use) did a speed tour of the castle with him, and I stuck my head in the old baths. Chamoun was clearly disgusted by the city's grime and ready to get out of there, so we did. We had lunch on the beach about 30 minutes south at a nice club with clear turquoise water and pebbly sand.

I almost hate to be so candid about the stuff yesterday because Chamoun has been a delight on every other day. And considering that he told us he had to run into the woods and flee his home under fire at night -- and couldn't return for more than a decade -- I know he has reason to have strong feelings. But it didn't give us hope the hard feelings and hostilities in this country will be ending any time soon.

The evening was spent in an extremely random outing as we drove approximately 30 minutes to another town to go out for pizza with Chamoun and his girlfriend, basically passing the night fighting traffic instead of enjoying the evening in one of Lebanon's hottest beachside towns. (The NYT called Byblos "the Cannes of Lebanon" if you want to check out their article from last December.) Considering the fact we'd forked over $75 to have an extra night here, little Lynsdog was not a happy camper. I told Frank it seemed like staying in Charlotte and going out in Gastonia or staying in Tallahassee and driving over to Quincy for a night out on the square.

Today was back on track, since I got perhaps my best night's sleep of the whole trip. We did the cable car and caves before driving up to a ritzy hilltop suburb to meet Elie and 30 of his friends/family for lunch at Mounir, one of the best restaurants in Lebanon. (A Lebanese guy who owns Aria and Sonoma had suggested it to me, so I was jonesing to dine there and couldn't believe that was where Elie invited us.) It has beautiful landscaping -- lush colorful flowers and waterfalls -- and an amazing view of the sea and city below. The restaurant itself is enormous, but it was packed with long tables of big groups out for a leisurely Sunday lunch, complete with a hidden playground where the nannies can supervise the kids while their parents eat. Once again, Elie was the perfect host, making sure we had our fill of the delicious food -- mostly the traditional dishes we've been having, including the lemoniest, freshest perfectly salted tabbouleh I've tasted, and more of Frank's favorite, raw kibbeh. He also loved the mixed grill, which his grandmother used to make -- chicken, lamb and beef kebabs, cooked over hot coals at the entrance. Frank says the best part is the bread that soaks up the juices from the meat.

Elie's friends and family are delightful, especially his older nephew, who looked like a Lebanese Gordon Gekko from Wall Street with his navy suit, slicked-back hair and Ray Bans. I had a great time chatting with an older gentleman named Walid, a Lebanese political science professor. As usual, there was more food than anyone could have possibly eaten, and we finished with piles of grapes, cherries, peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon and some kind of soft cheese/yogurt drizzled with honey. Looking at the view from the table during the meal, it was hard to believe it was real.

Wish we could live it up in Byblos tonight, but we are beat! Lunch lasted from 1 to 4:30, and then we walked to Elie's sister Yola's nearby villa, with more breathtaking views, this time toward the east. Her late husband was a notary, which is more like a judge here, and it was neat to see the inside of such a beautiful home. In typical Lebanese style, they insisted we must extend our stay and spend a few nights at their house, but we said we need to go back to work and earn the money to return next year.

All of Elie's friends are impressed with how much of the country we've explored in just a week -- they say we've seen more of Lebanon than many Lebanese! Can't imagine there is another country with this much geographic diversity packed into such a small area (not to mention the friendly people and delicious food), and we intend to make the most of our last two days.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Qadisha Valley

The drive over the Cedars Pass was beautiful, and we stopped to put our feet in some patches of snow that remain on top. The road stays closed for much of the year, and it was still pretty chilly and windy at the top. Bought some almonds from a vendor who runs a little convenience store out of his station wagon; guess he drives over to wherever the tourists stop for photos.

Frank and I spent some time trying to find a word to describe the Qadisha Valley. Mine was "majestic" and his was "surreal." It is one place I almost wish we had a video camera because it's impossible to capture it all. I think we hiked for about three hours, leaving the car at one point, going down into the valley, and then climbing back up at another location and getting a taxi back to the car. The climb back up was pretty strenuous, but the views the whole time were spectacular. Along the way, we visited a number of monasteries, listening to mass being sung at one and visiting a cave that is home to a hermit from Colombia. Qadisha is a Semitic word for "holy," and the valley was a refuge for persecuted Christians for centuries.

We visited the Khalil Gibran museum this afternoon, which was a bit of a bust. Mostly art (portraits of a few contemporaries like Rodin and Jung); the burial shrine in a cave was the best part. I was intrigued by a book of his love letters but elected not to purchase them for $29 or a copy of The Prophet for $20. He was born here in Bsharre even though he spent much of his life in New York and Paris.

Headed to dinner tonight at a restaurant beside a waterfall that I hope is the place Steve remembers from the '80s. It was a toss up between that and the Mississippi Restaurant -- another contender for best American business name.

Frank wanted me to be sure to mention the occasional blackouts. The lights went out briefly just now when he was in the shower. It is usually only for a few seconds.

Currently enjoying a bottle of our Kasara chardonnay for happy hour.

Baalbek Sunset, Sunrise

Yesterday we went to the ruins at Aanjar, remains of an Arab civilization called the Umayyads. It was a city built around 700 AD that flourished for only a few decades because the Umayyads were conquered by other Arabs. We had a really nice guide who added a lot of perspective -- I have noticed all of the guides seems to be older gentlemen and theorize this is because if no tourists come, you just sit around and talk with your buddies all day. It's amazing how empty most of these sites are.

The Umayyads were ruling from Damascus, so Aanjar was just one of their cities. The guide said their empire even stretched to Granada, so it reminded me of my time in Southern Spain and made me feel like I am starting to connect the dots from my travels.

The brochure from Aanjar is one of the best I've ever picked up at a historical site. It calls the Umayyads "early recyclers" because they helped themselves to ruins from Roman and Byzantine civilizations. This is evident in the fact one of the columns in the palace area is dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Latin. I think the defeat of the Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the other Arab group may have had something to do with the split between the Shiites and Sunnis over the successor of Mohammed, but it was not completely clear, and sometimes my questions just confuse the guides.

We tasted wine at a winery called Ksara, which was started by Jesuits and is now owned by Lebanese businessmen. The neatest part are the ancient caves, which were rediscovered at some point in the 1800s and are a perfect environment for storing wine. They told us Lebanese wine production benefitted greatly from the time the nation spent under the French mandate. Naturally I bought a few bottles, which may be consumed before we make it home! I took notes of the ones I liked most and will be curious to see what we can find at home.

Lunch was in Zahle, known as "the bride of the Bekka Valley." We had schwarma, which are basically meat wraps. It had lamb, onion, mint and tomatoes, drizzled with a tasty sauce. Chamoun also got us a fried chickpea one, but I could only eat a few bites because I was so full from the lamb.

We arrived at Baalbek around 3 p.m. and checked into the historic Palmyra Hotel, a colonial-era relic that has hosted a number of famous guests. Their photos line the walls, along with black and white snapshots of the ruins and drawings by Jean Cocteau. I need to Google him, but I guess he is a notable French artist; his work reminded me a wee bit of Picasso and Dali, so I assume he was a contemporary. The manager, who has worked there since 1955, told us Charles de Gaulle spent three years living in room 30 during WWII when his troops were camped nearby. I would not recommend staying there if you have a low tolerance for dust, but I absolutely loved it. Our room overlooked the ruins, and we had both dinner and breakfast on a nice balcony off an enormous upstairs living area. We practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Baalbek is home to some of the largest and best preserved Roman ruins in the world. It was a site for sun worship in Phonecian times, and when the Greeks conquered the area, they named it Heliopolis (city of the sun). Construction on the Roman temple began in 60 BC, and what I found most interesting about the site is the way it demonstrates the shift in the Roman empire from polythiesm to Christianity. There are three temples -- Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. The guide pointed out several spots where you can see how work was unfinished, for example, a relief of Cupid never fully carved because the beliefs had changed. The columns of Jupiter, the largest temple, are the biggest columns in the world, but only six remain standing. The Bacchus temple is the best preserved, and even though it is smaller than Jupiter, it is actually larger than the Parthenon. We spent about an hour after the tour just sitting around marveling at it all and enjoying the fact we were own our own time and didn't have to hop back on some tour bus.

Had a few "Lebanese moments" (to quote Neil's Aunt Jackie) when we were waiting to cross the street to the hotel and saw a succession of four beat-up old Mercedes drive by with women wearing head scarves. Contrast later that evening when we saw two women, one with curly blond hair, driving a new red BMW with the top down.

One thing that amuses me is the way some businesses seem to use English words in their name to add class and panache. My favorites so far were Jewelry Florida and Barbie shoes. It is precious to see the little kids staring at us, and after I say "hello," they say "what's your name?" or something else they've learned in school. We are grateful French is still used for greetings and casual conversation, since I can say "bonjour" and "merci" much better than their Arabic or Lebanese equivalents.

Today we are driving over a mountain pass to arrive at the Cedars, a popular ski resort near the Qadisha Valley. We had a low tire this morning, which worried Chamoun a bit since it is Friday and many stores are closed for the Muslim holy day. As we tried to find a tire shop, Chamoun said, "Frank, your job looking left and right, see if anyone open." They determined there isn't a hole, so we aired it up and hit the road again.

Just made a quick pit stop at a monastery run by some rogue nuns who broke with the local Maronite bishop and literally built their own convent. Girl power! Chamoun knows them and promised they wouldn't mind the drop-in visit. It's even better than Quincy!

Better stop typing before I get car sick!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Into the Mountains

Checked out of Beirut hotel yesterday morning; took some pictures from the roof for Steve. He remembers being up there with a bunch of fellow journalists after the Feb. 6, 1984 Moslem uprising that drove government troops out of west Beirut. (He was the UPI Beirut bureau chief and is now a colleague of mine at the bank.) I am pasting from what he emailed me about that night before the trip: "That was the event that precipitated the withdrawal of the Marines and other Western forces. We were up there at night, and I could see three battles going on simultaneously. Christians and Moslems were firing at each other across the Damascus highway a couple of miles away, while traffic roared down both lanes. The tracers almost looked sublime. Nearby, up in the Shouf, the Druze were exchanging mortar fire with Phalangists up in the mountains of east Beirut. Then all of a sudden, the USS New Jersey opened up with its 16-inch guns a few miles off shore, firing into the Shouf in defense of the Christians. The whole night sky was lit up -- have never seen a sight like it. We were mezmerized. I was standing alongside our photographer and we saw tracers coming at us from the Damascus highway battle. They seemed to be arcing up lazily. We thought they looked beautiful, then realized we'd better duck! Bullets were hitting the side of the hotel. It was insane ...

I was asleep in my room the next morning when a fighter jet from the Lebanese Air Force (they had about 5 planes) roared right over the hotel and broke the sound barrier, heading for a landing, no kidding, on the coastal highway north of the city."

I think there was more, but it got truncated. Perhaps Steve will write a special guest column for my blog after he reads my travelogue. His perspective and reflections were invaluable during my trip preparations.

Drove into the Mt. Lebanon range and visited Chamoun's home. Was at least 10 degrees cooler -- a welcome change. Met his mom and dog Caesar. His family had to flee during the war in 1975 and remained in Byblos for about 15 years. I had skipped breakfast but ate fresh cherries and mulberries and plums from his garden. Sublime!

Dropped by a monastery built in the 1840s and met the one priest still in residence. Upstairs bunks used to sleep at least 20 monks. Would be a great place to stay if you were backpacking. The priest let us into the secret cellar where the monks used to hide when Christians were being persecuted; we entered through a trap door in the floor and went down a short staircase. The cellar stays cool in summer and warm in winter. They still grow grapes there for wine, but now the priest has to hire laborers to help with the farming. View from the bell on the roof reminded me of how I imagine Tuscany looks.

Walked a bit in the Cedars Reserve, the country's largest protected forest. Chamoun is an expert hiker and nature guide and explained the Lebanese cedars are the shorter, fatter ones while the Moroccan cedars are taller and more slender. They call the Lebanese trees Cedars of God because the pine cones grow up toward heaven, unlike most coniferous species. The purple and gold wildflowers are gorgeous amid the dark green trees.

Lunch was one of the coolest eating experiences we've had. We stopped at a local bakery, and the owners (a couple in their 70s) fired up the oven and rolled out dough to make us a sort of thin, crispy flatbread pizza -- one with lamb and spices and one with cheese. It was served with fresh mint, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. We wanted something light, and it hit the spot.

Visited Beittedine Palace, built in the 1700s by Emir Bashir, who ruled Lebanon during the Ottoman empire. Reminded me a bit of the Alhambra -- unbelievable mountain setting looking down over a lovely valley with rose gardens in full bloom and courtyard fountains. Highlight was probably the elaborate bath rooms -- wish we'd had a guide to learn more about how they worked, but one was not available. It looked incredibly sophisticated for the era, complete with some sort of enormous water heater.

Visited the village of Deir al Kamar, which was largely created during the rule of Fakhreddine, the first ruler to unitfy Mt. Lebanon with the coastal cities in the late 1500s. He was exiled to Tuscany in the early 1600s for creating an alliance with the Medicis (threatening the Ottomans' hold on Lebanon) but brought back much of what he learned in Italy, including ways to enhance silk and olive oil production.

Side note: we are currently driving on a two-lane road and just got passed on both the left and the right simultaneously. Traffic fun continues.

Watched the sunset and had a light dinner of mezze in the courtyard of a smaller palace built for one of the emir's sons. It is now a hotel with rooms for the bargain price of $300 and $600 suites. Lots of what looked like wealthy Saudis watching their kids in the pool. Gorgeous setting, but we checked out the rooms and thought the price was a bit steep.

Then again, Frank and I both had evening showers that we ranked as some of our worst ever -- an odd handheld contraption in a corner that was basically just a drain and a shower head. Thank goodness I tried it again this morning with hot water and figured out how to hang up the handheld spout on the wall. Scratchy, crunchy towels completed the experience. But it was a quaint, clean family-run inn and a nice place to spend the night.

We are now in the Bekaa Valley, the nation's major farming region. Just made an unexpected stop at a Jesuit monastery and farm where they produce dairy products distributed all over Lebanon. Bought some olives and eggplant in oil (grown on the farm) and and cherry liqueur. Snapped a quick pic of the Syrian border. Now we are headed to a winery and two sets of ruins -- Roman at Baalbak and Umayyad (Muslim civilization) at Anjar. Another awesome day is unfolding!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beirut Birthday

Yesterday was our full day in Beirut -- and Frank's birthday! -- so we made the most of it. We had given Chamoun the day off because we realized we could navigate the city on our own and thought he would enjoy the free time before we hit the road today. We left the hotel pretty early and walked around our neighborhood, Ashrafiye. It's a Christian area in east Beirut that was home to a pretty wealthy, educated population when the war started, and it's a part of the city that supposedly still shows more French influence. There are a number of fabulous old mansions built in the Lebanese/Ottoman style, and we found a few gems, but most have not been restored or maintained since the war.

The main thing I wanted to see was a museum in one mansion; unfortunately, it was was closed due to construction of a new condo tower nearby. We later heard those condos are selling for $20 million, so it sounds like the rebound is well underway.

Construction was the theme of the day. We were blown away by the amount of building going on in the downtown area -- and what's been completed already. I've mentioned Rafik Hariri, the Sunni who was prime minister in the 90s/early 2000s before being assasinated by a car bomb on the Corniche in front of the landmark old yacht club. (Incidentally, his assasination also sparked demonstrations that led to the final withdrawal of Syrian forces around 2005.) He made his money as a developer in Saudi Arabia, and he and others formed a development corporarion called Solidere that seems to have had sort of eminent domain powers over the reconstruction of downtown. If you ask me, it's been beautifully done, and the new construction includes a landmark mosque that is now a signature image for Beirut. However, he and his partners are criticized for making a fortune from the project while shorting others on what their land was worth -- not to mention the conflict of interest with his public office. But it seems to me he was a huge force in getting Lebanon on the positive track where it is today, and he was popular among the Christian community as well. Anyway, just outside the mosque Frank and I visited Hariri's memorial -- which also memorializes the seven bodyguards killed with him. Then I suited up in an abeyya (head to toe black polyester; they keep them at the entrance) and we went in the mosque. Yes, we got a photo -- in a corner when no one was looking so we weren't disrespectful. The place was almost empty since it was between the five daily prayer calls, but I thought it was peaceful and full of God's presence.

We walked all around the new part of downtown, including a souk project that is basically an outdoor mall of extremely high end shops -- at one point, we passed La Perla, a Porsche dealership and the new Four Seasons. Jackhammers and construction cranes were everywhere. Lebanon is sort of a playground for the more conservative countries in the Middle East and -- hard as it was to believe in yesterday's sweltering 90-degree temps, they come here to escape the heat in other countries! (It really is much cooler in the mountains, as we experienced for ourselves today; many Beirutis escape to the mountains for the summer, commuting to work in the city.)

We walked down the seafront Corniche a bit, but it was so fiercely sunny, I was worried my lily white complexion was frying to a crisp (I swear we saw some German guys getting third-degree burns at the resort pool in Tyre). So, we hopped in a taxi and did a quick drive-by of AUB (American University of Beirut) and then went to lunch at Le Chef -- a landmark in Gemmayze visited by Anthony Bourdain and recommended by Food and Wine. It was exactly what I'd hoped -- a tiny hole in the wall full of locals eating some of the best food we've had. We loved the stewed eggplant with tomatoes and rice; also had perhaps the best fattoush (salad with crispy pita -- I see this becoming my summer staple!) I've tasted and some good artichokes with other veggies. Also lamb kebabs with yummy garlic yogurt.

Walked from there to the National Museum, which I enjoyed as a break from the heat as much as anything else. They have relics from all of the ancient cities here -- things like sarcophagi, religious relics, ancient glass, etc. The best part was a mini-documentary about the 1990s restoration of the museum and how they protected some of the larger items by encasing them in concrete during the 15-year civil war.

We freshened up and met Chamoun and his girlfriend at a Sunni beach club that was highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and a friend of a friend of Frank. Oh, my. Chamoun had never been there, and somehow I missed the fact they do not serve alcohol. Nothing like toasting your birthday with a near beer! Chamoun and Paula brought a cake, and it was such a lovely surprise. We watched the sun set over the water and then drove about 25 minutes to a suburban area to meet Leigh Ann's dear client and friend Elie, a developer from New Orleans who left Beirut at age 17 and is here visiting his family. He invited us to join them for dinner -- as an intimate warm-up to the 30-40 person Sunday lunch to which he also invited us.

The restaurant was a chic spot called Babel that was straight out of Vegas. It's a new hot spot known for having an innovative take on and beautiful presentation of the Lebanese classics. Elie's wife, sister, son, nephews and a friend were there, and we feasted (there is seriously no other word for it) on three courses -- cold mezze, hot mezze and mains. Elie kept piling my plate with something new: "You have to try this." "Have you had schwarma yet? This one is a wrap." "You've had hummus, right, but have you had it with meat?"
The highlight for me was finally getting to try the raw kibbeh Frank has raved about so much. One of his faves was the chicken livers, which he said he had forgotten since his grandmother last made them for him 20 years ago.

To sum up the meal: I even needed two plates for dessert. They brought out a flaming chocolate cake as the piano played happy birthday. That was joined by the rest of our other chocolate cake, two Lebanese desserts and a mountain of fresh fruit. Holy cow. Thank goodness we washed it all down with arak to aid digestion!

As if treating us to a fabulous dinner wasn't enough, Elie and his nephew couldn't believe we hadn't been bar-hopping yet, so they took us to Capitol, an outdoor rooftop bar overlooking the mosque, and the Beirut location of the Buddha Bar. I am pleased to report they serve caipirinhas in both locations!

They dropped us off at our hotel at 2 a.m., and we called Leigh Ann from the car to thank her for the connection, putting an end to a pretty cool Beirut birthday.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roman ruins, Crusader castle and a big ol' walk through Beirut

Wow! What a day. Our driver/guide Chamoun met us at 8 am -- actually, I was asleep because we didn't know when he was arriving, so he very kindly waited while we had breakfast. He will be with us all week and is really more of a hiking guide. We know that because of the half-inch thick packet of articles about himself -- in French, English and Arabic -- he had for us in the car. He is an ultra-marathoner and ran about 90 kilometers from the Syrian border recently. We were very impressed with his careful driving, and he apologized for the Beirut traffic bedlam: "Sorry about the traffic; you know in Lebanon everyone makes their own way." He has been to the States a few times, including a visit to an American girlfriend in Tennessee. I got a big laugh when he told us "her father did not like me. He is a redneck person."

BTW, Chamoun's pick up sign for us said "Mr. Chatman and Mrs. Snipes." I laughed even harder than I did yesterday when the one at the airport said "Mr. Chatman and Mr. Smith."

Given the fact Chamoun's last clients were 24 men from Dubai who asked him to pick up eight prostitutes and some of the renowned Bekka Valley hashish, I'd say he's in for an easy 10 days with us.

First stop was Tyre, one of the country's southernmost cities -- only about 12 miles from the Israeli border. Tyre and other parts of southern Lebanon are mentioned in a few Biblical stories, and King Hiram of Tyre supposedly supplied Solomon with cedar wood to build his temple in Jerusalem. We were invited to peek into a 250-year-old house under revovation for some wealthy person -- new construction by Tyre srandards because the city dates back to 3000 BC. The water views from the home's balconies were gorgeous. From there we walked around the harbor full of fishing boats then headed to site one of the city's Roman and Byzantine ruins. A long colonnaded road leads to the southern harbor, used when Egypt controlled Tyre -- which I believe was before both the Phonecians and the Greeks. (Wishing I'd brushed up more on my ancient/world history before this trip -- Mr. John would be in heaven.) The pictures may begin to do it justice, bit quite simply it was awesome and picturesque at every turn. We were particularly intrigued by the ruins of a rectangular arena they think was a pool used for a spectator water sport.

I must say I feel about as tacky touristy as it gets walking around in my hot pink hat, but it was a necessity -- the sun was really beating down, and a black pashmina in my backpack from another trip really saved the day (or at least my neck/shoulders from sunburn).

Ruins site two was equally impressive -- inland, but with a huge necropolis (burial ground) and (according to Lonely Planet) "the largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome in the world." It once seated 20,000 for chariot races.

We lunched with Chamoun at a very nice resort restaurant. Sadly, the beaches in Tyre are some of the country's best, but tourism is still down given the travel warnings many countries still maintain. Our lunch of hummus, fried kibbeh, chicken kebabs, calamari sauteed with garlic/parsley/lemon and fattoush (salad) was delicious. They even brought "free" dessert (I'm sure the price was factored in there somewhere) of fruit and ground pistachios with cream and cake soaked in something yummy.

On to Sidon, which is actually at least 1,000 years older than Tyre and may even date back as early as 6800 BC. There are interesting stories in the guidebooks about how both Sidon and Tyre were conquered by Alexander the Great. Sidon rose because of its trade of murex -- a mollusk that produced a purple dye. (Is this reminding anyone of "Lydia, a seller of purple cloth"??) We toured the sea castle built by the Crusaders; Sidon changed hands at least five times during the Crusades. We then walked through what seemed a never-ending maze of covered souks, but most of the stalls were closed since it was by then about 5 pm. There was a very well-restored khan (travellers inn) with two stories -- visiting merchants and others slept upstairs and left their horses downstairs. The late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a Sidon native; his family and other philanthropists have beautifully restored some of these sites, including was a soap factory, our tour of which was actually much more interesting than it might sound!

Then back to the hotel, where I was determined to make it up until at least 9 pm. We went on a two-hour walk that included a few unexpected turns, but it was still fun. Not many street signs to be found (though the ones they do have are, thank God, usually in French too) so navigation is challenging.

TV news coverage is wall to wall on this Israel/Turkey incident, but more on that later -- the political comments are certainly eye-opening.

Thanks for reading along -- feel very lucky and grateful to be here!