Outside of a few beautifully designed blocks in downtown Beirut and the American University of Beirut campus, the city’s landscape is evidence of a country torn apart by war over and over again. Social perception is culturally important – high-end fashion and expensive luxury cars are common (often the car’s owner can’t afford gasoline) – yet the community hasn’t invested in refurbishing its many devastated buildings.
“With your blond hair, I’m surprised you haven’t been approached by men who think you’re a Russian prostitute,” says my new friend, Aysel. “You’re lucky to be traveling with friends who are guys because they probably deter advances from local men.” Aysel is a German citizen of Turkish decent studying at the University of Beirut. She’s been disrespected in Lebanon because she is pretty and light-complected. My sister had a similar experience living in southern Italy.
Another new friend is a Palestinian refugee living in Beirut. Mohamed isn’t welcome to return to his home country, he can’t obtain Lebanese citizenship or a work permit, the U.S. will not consider his visa application, and he could be arrested if authorities suspect he is homosexual. He works three under-the-table jobs to send money to his family in Syria, yet he made time to plan a full day of touristing for his American visitors. We should take notes: he is kind with a great sense of humor, and he seems thankful to be hard-working.
To the tune of Pink’s Raise Your Glasses, my travel buddies like to sing “Why so Syriaaaaa?!”
War-torn landscape, prostitution and serious homophobia exist in, but do not define Beirut. The Téléphérique gondola takes you up the hill to a mountain village, Harissa, where you’ll find Notre Dame du Liban (Our Lady of Lebanon) keeping watch over the bay of Jounieh. You’ll also find a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean and coastal landscape.
A train and then gondola transport you to the peak of Mont-Liban (Mount Lebanon) to visit Jeita Grotto – caves that formed over a 4 million year period. White and red stalagmites reflect beautifully in the emerald water as you pass through on foot or boat. Outside the caves are several statues worth seeing and a small zoo, of course.
To celebrate a successful trip, we enjoy a traditional family-style meal and take a stroll along the seaside walkway. Above us, the night sky looks like a masterpiece painting. It’s a long walk to Rock of Raouché (Pigeons’ Rock) and we are only half way there when a middle-aged fellow stops his car to offer a ride to us. Abiding by local custom, Josh politely refuses three times in arabic before accepting the offer. Considering I’ve always been warned that hitchhiking can be a bad decision, it’s a little scary to get in the car with a complete stranger in a country reputed to be dangerous. But this is another example of misguided concern, as our new friend simply wants to do a favor for us. He exchanges phone numbers with Josh and promises to call for drinks sometime. Moral of the story: it’s good to be cautious, but great to take measured risks.