Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Out of the Sandbox

I began my journal entry last week with, "April 21/13 Sunday, 9:30am, Beirut, Lebanon."  NICE!!  For this girl, who's always dreamed of traveling but always stayed home to hang out with her horse, this was pretty surreal.  But, in other ways it wasn't.  Maybe you could say I'm getting jaded now that I'm an expatriate and all, but being in Beirut just felt pretty regular.  While at the same time it felt SO FREAKING AWESOME because I was out of the sandbox!!!

A big part of the ease I felt there was partly due to the green and the hills that surrounded me.  Now THAT felt more like it.  Home seemed like it was just a quick look out the car window rather than a 19 hour flight away.  But probably the biggest reason why Lebanon seemed so easy to be in was because, through a random connection with a friend at my compound, I met a cool guy who decided to be exceptionally welcoming to me.  Ziad, over the course of my weekend became a great friend and, as you'll come to find out, an actual saviour.  I'll get into that later.  For now, let's concentrate on all the awesome things about Lebanon that Ziad introduced me to.

I knew I had needed this vacation and I got exactly what I needed and then some.  Riyadh can be a cool place in many ways, but it's a brand new city.  Everything is shiny and fresh, which is good.  For me, though, it's given me a new appreciation for places with history and places that have had time to develop character.  Beirut has TONS of that. Let's put it into perspective, the Romans lived there!  It's been a key port of trade since the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century (and probably earlier...keep in mind I'm just doing quick Google searches here).  Some crazy history resides in the streets of Beirut.  Even recent history that shapes not only the streets, but also the minds of Beirut's citizens.  This is a result of the civil war that lasted for 15 years and only ended around 1990, and with remnants of unrest still effecting the city and country as recently as 2005.  Character is something Beirut has in spades.  Oh, and the people.  They smile!  In Riyadh, there is a general sense of negativity among the people there.  I still haven't quite put my finger on it, but it seems that everyone is always simply waiting to either be dealt with negatively or is ready to deal with someone else negatively.  It's really not my scene at all.  Often I find people look at me suspiciously when I'm my usual smiley self.  Ah, but in Beirut people have smiles on their faces for no other reason beyond their own inner happiness.  They don't take themselves too seriously.  It's something I had taken for granted back home.  I appreciate positive people so much more now.  And the green space.  Oh the green space, how I've missed it.  If there is anything I will never ever take for granted again it is green space.  I appreciate every single blade of grass, every quivering petal, every fluffy bush, every towering tree so much more after having spent three months among the beige sand.

Having fun with Ziad at Bike Generation
I appreciated Beirut and Lebanon in general to the extreme.  And I also appreciated Ziad for introducing it to me.  It's like the Universe looked down upon me and said, "Bonnie needs a stress-free vacation." And so it introduced me to Ziad.  First priority for me during my stay in Lebanon was to go biking and Ziad made sure it happened.  Easily enough, considering he knew basically every bike shop owner and outdoor gear store manager in the country.  My first day was spent traipsing all over Beirut and surrounding metropolises (grammar tangent: I SO wanted the plural of metropolis to be metropoli...alas, it was not to be) to find all the proper attire for biking as well as, of course, a new bike for Bonnie!  The excitement of this still lingers.  Not only did Ziad make sure I found everything on my list, he also gave me the opportunity to interact with the people of, not one, but three different bike shops.  For those of you not familiar with biking communities, the bike shops are the hubs of the biking world.

Bike shop boys working on the bikes.
The people who work there are the Googles of any search for biking worthy spots and activities happening in an area.  And, they're just plain awesome people.  If you want to meet friends in the biking world, a bike shop is the place to go.  It felt so good to be amongst like-minded people.  It was awesome to see guys fixing spokes, adjusting levers, cleaning cogs, and all the other random bike repairs and maintenance activities.  It brought me back to when I used to sit around, beer in hand, watching the guys at Red Shred's doing the very same stuff back home in Williams Lake.  The guys at the Lebanese bike shops did not disappoint.  They were uber welcoming.  One of guys at Bike Generation, Saeed, who I  had been in touch with via e-mail before I visited, had even put my arrival in his calendar!

Saeed's calendar entry reminder of my arrival.

The scene at Torino Express
To celebrate a successful day of bike shopping, Ziad took me to his favourite pub, Torino Express.  Oh my gawd, I love this pub!  There are not enough exclamation points to express how much I love this pub.  It is basically a closet in size, and it is OLD.  There is character built upon character built upon character here.  And you know what that attracts?  People with character.  Pretentious businessmen and high-heeled, face-painted club-hoppers walk on by, this place is not for you.  This is the watering hole of authentic hipsters and beatniks and just plain "real" people.  One of the bartenders looked like he just rolled out of bed, put on his hunter camouflage ball cap and green fisherman's rubber boots, and came to work.  His comment to a girl of,"Don't ask me what you should drink...if you don't know what you want how the f*&% am I supposed to know?" simply made my day!  Especially considering he gave me his very matter-of-fact opinion of bike riding in the city directly following that (of which he is very well versed, rubber boots notwithstanding).  With the excitement of my day, plus the fact that I was in pub heaven, add to that the bartenders were friends of Ziad's, you can rest assured I was quickly put on the road to a very drunk night indeed.  Thankfully I had Ziad, and my friend from Riyadh, Alexis who had joined us for the night, to assist me in my drunken endeavor and to ensure I made it safely home to my excellent hostel.

Shouf Biosphere Reserve
Next day was for riding and it was going to be a day of riding to get over my hangover.  Luckily I had experience in this and knew I would be perfectly fine.  First thing was first, though, I needed sustenance and leftover pizza was on the menu.  I mention this because it will be a poignant point in an upcoming paragraph, so keep it in mind.  Somehow in my stupor I managed to get all my new gear together and, with Ziad's help, loaded everything into his truck and off to the Biosphere Reserve in an area called Shouf we went.  It was not going to be a fairweather day.  Luckily, I do not melt when it rains (I'm not that sweet) and so I remained game for a day of wet pedaling in the mountains.  Wet and cold pedaling I should add, as it did snow as well.  We got to the Reserve and I was in heaven!  Oh green wide open spaces, how I had missed you!!!  I may have been so excited that I left our helmets behind at the Reserve Ranger's hut before we drove a little further into the Reserve.  Crap.  No matter.  The ride involved tame terrain and I was going to be taking it easy due to my self-induced headache anyway.  Nothing was going to lessen my happiness at this point in my Lebanese adventure.  I was in the middle of nature, the elements beating down on me, with my ass on a bike.  Life was awesome!!  And it remained awesome, all through my rain and mud soaked socks and shorts and my shivering body while I pedaled up and down the rocky hillside.

Countryside near Shouf

At the end of our ride, the Reserve Ranger (and yet another of Ziad's friends... I swear, Ziad is the Mayor of Lebanon), Houssam, picked us up and took us to his hut to warm up by the wood stove and drink tea he had made for us.  Soon after we found ourselves dry and hanging out at Houssam's nearby beautiful guest house eating peach preserves and dates and drinking Turkish coffee.  Remember how I said being in Lebanon felt pretty regular?  This is what I meant.  It was like I was simply home, hanging out with the people I had known for a lifetime doing regular everyday things.  And yet, I was half a world away from home.  Gratitude isn't even the word for how I felt about life at this point.  And it didn't end there.  On the way home we stopped at this random, would never have seen it, tiny indecipherable side-of-the-road eatery that made flat bread on a huge convex shaped pan-like contraption.  They spread an orange mixture called mankoushi kishk onto it and it was delicious.  But the best part was that the mother, father, and son all were there talking with us and making food for themselves to eat as well as me and Ziad.  And, of course, Ziad soon discovered that the father had actually worked with his father.  I'm sure the father asked Ziad in Arabic, "who's your father?" in typical Cape Breton Islander form in order for this information to be discovered (for those of you reading this that are not from Cape Breton Island, don't be concerned if the humour of the last sentence is lost on you).  The feeling of being "down home" was never ending.  It continued right on to visiting Ziad's parents and having his father hook me up with a sweet deal for getting my bike onto the plane with no extra luggage fees.  It pays to have connections with airlines.

"Private" property
With my biking needs settled, my belly full, and my heart glowing from all the Lebanese love I was surrounded with during my day I called it a night and slept soundly to be ready for a day of touring the streets of Beirut.  Ziad, yet again, led the way and not only showed me Beirut by foot but also gave me a lesson in its recent history and current events.  A post-war city is an extremely interesting experience, especially the aspects of learning how it is being rebuilt.  It's especially intriguing to learn about the ways in which government can be corrupt all the while their constituents are simply relieved that there is peace.  Frustrating and understandable all in one breath.  During my lessons we walked along streets filled with new, privately owned, buildings housing nothing because rent was too high, we passed walkways and waterfront gardens harbouring signs that said "Private Property" although it was designed to look anything but private.
Protesting against private companies taking over public space.

Beautiful new, yet empty, buildings

Hanging out at the waterfront

We soon came along to the publicly owned areas again where I experienced men fishing off of bridges and others diving for their catch of the day.  Ziad took me through the American University of Beirut campus where he had gone to school.  Yet again, everywhere we went Ziad was greeted with people who knew him.  I swear, if he doesn't run for a seat in government in the next 10 years I may disown him as a friend.  The campus is gorgeous and oh so green!  I was reminded of the University of Vancouver campus and was instantly greeted with that ever familiar feeling of academia and expanding minds.  It made me reminisce of school and reminded me of how much I loved it.

 Off of campus we went
Chatting with the divers.
and back into the city filled with tiny streets, never ending masses of cars, old buildings, and randomly placed shops.  We ate delicious Lebanese food, shopped for souvenirs, checked out the Roman ruins, until we found ourselves back at my hostel to call it a day.  I still had one more day in Lebanon before I went back to Riyadh and, for some strange reason my belly was bothering me.  So, off to bed I went to nurse my crampy tummy and get ready for my last day in Lebanon, which I had hoped would be a day of biking.

American University of Beirut

Cool apartment building
At the souvenir shop, checking out some vintage t-shirts made during the civil war.

Alas, biking was not to be on the menu for the next day.  In fact, nothing was on the menu for the next day as, if you'll recall that leftover pizza from two days prior, I had contracted food poisoning.  I have never been in so much pain as my stomach protested the unwelcomed bacteria that was running rampant inside of it.  I couldn't move and the only person I could think of that would be able to help was, of course, Ziad.  My knight in shining North Face arrived and, God love him, he packed up my suitcases without complaint and carried them to his truck while I somehow managed, in cramped and  bended state to get in and be driven to his place where I eased into bed and tried, unsuccessfully, to be a gracious guest.  I didn't make my flight, even though Ziad had worked so zealously to get my bike packed up in a box and ready to go on time.  I was so embarrassed.  Ziad's mother and father even stopped in to help.  I did my best to drink the tea and eat the plain rice that they offered.  The only thing that seemed to work was ginger tea and the miracle pills that Ziad's father had given me.  I was miserable and had no idea how I was going to manage to get home in the state that I was in.  I tried so hard to think of all the positive things that were
Roman ruins

A church and a mosque as neighbours.
happening, such as how an amazing family came together to do whatever they could to help me feel better.  It didn't work very well.  I, essentially, just wanted to die.  I was a sad state to say the least.  Somehow, the next day I started to feel well enough to get up and to the airport.  Unfortunately, Ziad had gotten an emergency call regarding a juvenile sea lion that had been separated from it's pod and he was away for the day.  Oh, right, I hadn't mentioned that Ziad is an ocean conservationist who runs a non-profit organization called Purple Reef and is also a diving instructor when he's not being an amazing tour guide and newly appointed nurse.  So, while Ziad was off saving a sea lion, I was shuffling my way through the Beirut airport, bike in tow, trying to get to Riyadh without having my stomach explode in front of the traveling masses.  I managed and got back to my apartment with my dearest new pedal-worthy traveling companion.

It took six days for me to get back to work after the food poisoning hit.  Talk about an extended vacation.  While resting in bed, suffering through stomach cramps and watching episodes of The Tudors and viewing biking videos on PinkBike, I was able to think of how wonderful my trip to Lebanon was.  It's not often that you get to travel to a place and experience the "real" people that make it what it is.  This is the way travel should be and the Universe gave me a wonderful gift to have been able to see Lebanon like this.  As usual, I am oh so grateful for my life.  This particular portion of my life happens to be no exception.

In Joy,

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