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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.

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