Friday, April 30, 2010

Saj lights up

Up in the mountains of Achout lives a delightful family. Mom Joujou (Jorgette), Dad Charbel and their three sons and daughter live in a concrete house where the fireplace is lit on cold nights, the arguile bubbles from the smoking room and friends gather in the kitchen for a chat with this happy family. That's when the saj isn't working.
When the gas is pumping and the saj flames are flaring, then it's a different story. Benches are carried outside, tables are shifted, and everyone congregates around this Lebanese masterpiece - the saj. Formed into an iron dome that sits atop a gas flame, the saj is Lebanon's answer to Italy's wood-fired pizza oven.
Joujou spent last night rolling balls of her homemade dough (flour, yeast, salt and water) into flat circles (the secret to perfectly rolled circles is to constantly thrown more flour over them), and then tossing them onto the saj, where she spread them with various toppings: zaatar and tomato (the zaatar is made with dried thyme and sumac from her own garden - mixed with roasted sesame seeds); mozarella; chilli-tomato paste; and kishk (a ground mixture of dried yoghurt and crushed wheat which Joujou makes herself every year - in Aug/ Sept when the sun and wind are out for the kishk to dry correctly on the rooftop). The result is a variety of flavoursome manoushe breads.
As Joujou dumped another manoushe onto our plates, the 20 friends (who all felt like family) broke off pieces to share different toppings with each other, adding a dollop of labneh, a slice of tomato or cucumber or olives to our tasty manoushes when we felt like mixing some flavours.
The night of manoushe-eating and arak-drinking (that's the colourless, aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink that turns white with the addition of ice or water) ended with some sweet dough creations. One was a calzone-type manoushe filled with wedges of butter (!) and sugar (!) - YUM (!!!); the other was a fascinating creation with tahini. Joujou rolled the dough into a massive circle, spread it with tahini and sugar, and then made a hole in the middle to roll it all up from the inside out - into a circular worm. From this, she cut sections off and formed them into a twirly-whirly circle which she then flattened into a normal-looking flat circle on the saj. Seemed like a rather roundabout way (excuse the pun!) to get from point A to point B! But the result was awefully tasty - especially when served with honey.
The evening ended with herbal tea - made from a lemon-scented herb straight from the garden - and a very, very full stomach. Sahtein!

Clockwise, from the manoushe that's being removed: mozarella, kishk, chilli-tomato paste.

Make da circle bigga!

Making twirly-whirly circles.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Personal pilgrimage

This weekend marks the start of May - the month of Mother Mary - the month that will see many Christian Lebanese taking to the roads by foot, walking all the way up one of Lebanon's mountains to the towering statue of the Virgin Mary at Harissa. Some will be walking all the way from Beirut (a 45-minute trip by car - and all uphill!).
I thought it a good time to conduct a pilgrimage of my own; one that would take me to the site where it all began... the place where the love that created me was sealed, where a lifelong bond was formed, where the Lebaneseness of me could start to be conceived...
Jumping off the autobus on my return from Beirut yesterday afternoon, I decided against catching a service up the mountainside to tall uncle's house, and rather put my two capable feet into action. After a gruelingly steep 15-minute walk (come on, I'm not exactly Miss Exercise!), I reached the end of my pilgrimage. Before me stood a massive white-stone building and dominating my upward gaze was a beautiful stone carving of Jesus Christ. I had reached the church of Jesu Al Malak (Christ Roi or Christ the King). This church, which can be seen from far way on the autostraat, is where my mom and dad said 'I do'. (Well, my dad contests that he's actually legally married, as he never understood a word of the nuptials!). I had only ever looked up and pointed the church out to others as we drove by far beyond on the road, saying that that's where my parents were wed, but I had never actually visited it.
Seeing the enormous staircase that I had only ever seen in Mom and Dad's photo album, I could just picture my smiling godfather uncle standing there, trying to avoid one of the women his cousin was trying to set him up with. I had to chuckle while photographing the steps. Inside looked much plainer than I remember from the albums, but in my heart it was even more wonderful than the magnificently frescoed Greek Orthodox church I had just visited in Beirut. As I walked closer to the alter, I could feel the butterflies flapping away in Mom's stomach as she neared the South African man she was about to be whisked away by; I could just imagine Dad standing there thinking how lucky he was to have met this Lebanese beauty a year previously while on vacation. And then I imagined the random thoughts that must have popped into his head while crowns were being swapped over his and Mom's heads - him not having a clue what was going on at his own wedding! I thought of Mom in the wedding dress that she hated - that had to be changed to look less frilly the day before the wedding - getting emotional when her cousin sang Ave Maria during the service.
And then I said a prayer. One of thanks for everything that resulted because of that day. For the love that has grown between two people. For the appreciation they have of each other and the way they care, love and accept. For the life they have given me, and the special siblings they provided me with. For the example they continue to set - in their faith and love of God, their long-lasting friendships, their emphasis on family, their help in their communities, their honesty, their integrity, their love for life.
I prayed that the love that bound them together that August day in 1978 will continue making them happy and growing together in peace, compassion and friendship. And I prayed that the sound of each one's laughter will always make the other one smile.
PS. Bhebkon KTIER!

From the autostraat

How much fun it must be to walk down all those stairs in your bridal gown.

Where rings were exchanged and the love was sealed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Just your average day (part II)

Oh, and one last thing... every average day ends with just another average sunset over the Med. Sigh. Life's tough.

Just your average day

Catch a lift down to the highway to jump on a ride to Beirut with out-and-about cousin's friend. Wait on the side of the highway alongside burning garbage. Driving on highway, pass gentleman reading newspaper in car while driving. Hop off at the Corniche to enjoy breakfast tartine while peacefully staring into the sea. Twelve-year-old boy whistles as you walk past, and then proceeds to follow you. When you sit down on chosen bench, he places himself next to you, legs nearly touching. Pretend not to speak his language and ask him to move in English. He puts his arm around you. You jump up in shock and walk towards the Corniche railing while he goes to tell his friend about his conquest. Return to your bench. He comes to sit down again and you ask him to please go away (in English). He tells you that you're pretty (in Arabic) and asks if you'd like to take a walk with him. You jump up again and he gets up all excited, thinking that you're ready for that walk. Part ways and hold back your tears of shocked personal-space invasion.
Rush past all the exercising ladies in their hijabs and nearly die when dodging the cars while crossing the road. As you walk towards Hamra, an endless drone of hooting accompanies the stares elicited by the city's seedy men. Ignore the calls welcoming you into their stores: ahla wa sahla. Instead, you wonder how cars find parking in these busy streets, how scooters manage to squeeze between two parked cars, and how anyone ever gets out of these tight spaces.
Find refuge at a sidewalk cafe, only to be accosted by old men selling lotto tickets and young girls insisting you purchase Chiclets (chewing gum). The smell of chocolate croissants is never very far away - probably around the corner from the old man sitting outside his store on a plastic chair, smoking a cigarette while playing with his worry beads. Trendy students walk by in their tight-fitting leggings and extravagantly large handbags, briskly bypassing the big clothing shoppers popping in and out of every boutique in their abayas. Western tourists give themselves away by ignoring all the hooting and tooting with the help of their iPod earphones. The Sri Lankan and Phillipino workers are already used to all this noise, and scurry along between jobs.
Pay for your homemade mint lemonade, and make your way towards the Beirut Slow Food passageway. Taste all your favourite local dishes in their healthy versions - no sugar, wholewheat, baked not fried, no meat. Decide you prefer authenticity and leave after giving your thumbs up to the cedar-tree honey. Heading back to out-and-about cousin, you pass a sale at one of your favourite clothing stores. Try on six items, be tempted by three (one only for the winter; one maybe too short) and walk away with one: the R100 pair of jeans!
More hooting, staring and welcoming chides en route to out-and-about cousin. Then the ride home: top-down convertible blasting Robbie Williams, with Lebanon's mountainside to the right and the Mediterranean to the left. Oh, the diversity of it all!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Make way for the highbrow

Finally, I've found a place where I fit in. Amid all the dark-haired, curly-haired, thick-haired, very-haired people, I'm just another one of a super-hairy race. Where I stood out in South Africa with my dark features and hairy arms, here I blend in in the sea of constant waxers, shavers, epilators...
Conversations about unruly eyebrows are commonplace; moustache woes are normal (and can actually be called moustaches instead of upper lips); finding solutions to calming the curls is a constant headache. But it's all understood. Back home, it would be hard to help people comprehend that my eyebrows needed to be plucked every second day, that bleach was my only defence against other facial hair, that without gel I could not tie my hair into a ponytail, and that I didn't even own a hairbrush because of the fluff-puff it would turn my crowning glory into. My Silk Epil epilator is my constant companion. If I travel without her, wearing jeans everyday is my only saving grace. The epilator, my tweezers, bleach and wax strips - they're all top on my to-pack list. They came with me to Lebanon.
But here it's okay if the facial hairs grow a little. People know you'll be sorting them out this weekend. Although we're all in the same, hairy boat up here in Lebanon, we're also in the boat that takes us to the beauty salon every second week. There's one (or three) around every corner. They're thriving businesses. If you can make a killing off deleting what makes a nation's people identify with each other, while adding another aspects that links them all, then I say 'all hail the person holding the thread'!
Threading is the way most therapists work here. It's a super-fast manner for removing hair, and even manages to get rid of those ingrown ones. I went to smiley cousin's therapist, Laure. Holding the ball of thread down on the ground with her foot, she held onto the string of thread with her mouth, and then maneuvered it between the fingers of both hands - and there she had it: one of the most lethal weapons known to hairy Lebanese women!
Eyes closed and pulling my lids down for tautness, I felt the plucked hairs come raining down on my cheeks. Laure managed to shape my eyebrows into the Lebanese symbols of a well-kept woman in no time (that and my upper lip took five minutes in fact), leaving me feeling rather naked under my much-reduced hairline.
While fitting in here with all my hair, I feel the most Lebanese I ever have now that I've removed it.

Before and after. Note the fabulous arch created. You may also see that the hair closest to my nose is a little thinner than the rest. This is because it's only been allowed to grow since March, when my Lebanese cousins visited me in South Africa and commented on how we South Africans take too much hair away from the inner part of the brow nearest the nose. I started grooming mine into Leb brows ever since then. Yay for me - it meant less plucking!

The threading process being carried out on someone else.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Globalisation in the Middle East

Today I visited my mother's former university. What was once Beirut University College (BUC) is now known as the Lebanese American University (LAU). There happened to be a conference of Arab-related talks taking place on campus, so I quickly found myself seated in an auditorium listening to a guy giving a talk about 'Arabs and Concepts of Globalization'. During this talk, I discovered that France has an eatery called Beurger King Muslim, Lebanon has a diner called Guns & Buns (where you can order a Viper sandwich), and Fulla is the Muslim counterpart of Barbie - all jazzed up in a hijab and all! Two other interesting things: The Burj al Arab in the Muslim state of Dubai actually displays the state's tallest cross; and if you're keen for a nose job, there are some banks in this part of the world that offer plastic surgery loans!

If you're interested seeing some in advertising in Beirut, check out the blog run by the guy who presented the talk:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Filling up

When tall uncle called to ask if I'd join him for lunch at Moulin d'or (French for 'golden mill'), I gladly accepted. When I think of Moulin d'or, I think of Jean. Those of you who have visited Stellenbosch's Lebanese restaurant Man'ouche will know Jean: the big, gold-chain-wearing chef with the strange accent who flirts with all the girls. Well, he arrived in Stellenbosch straight from Moulin d'or's kitchen. He and the tall uncle recognised one another instantly when the tall uncle visited me in the Cape - a true coincidence at the time.
So off we went for lunch. Mine was a man'oush topped with Lebanon's hakewe cheese (similar consistency to feta, with the same richness), with a brown crust - which, the menu says, makes it 'light' - and ordered it mashrouha (extra-thin, therefore extra big). Mine was made in the furn (pizza oven) but some are made on the saj (a round dome).
I could also have chosen zaatar (a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac), labneh (Lebanese cream cheese), lahme beajine (a creamy mince-meat mixture) or kashkaval (pronounced ash-awem here; a popular cheese made in Bulgaria), but I chose my local cheese and I loved it - as you can see by the empty plate!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The smell of safety

Ah, the delicious-smelling joy of being in the safe house! (This one's for you Cupcake and Belly Dancer!)
On the menu today: ablama. Boil courgettes before frying them lightly. Slit them enough to stuff a mixture of fried mince and pine nuts in the centre. Line them tightly in a pot and boil them in a mixture of tomato paste and water. Serve with rice and laban (thick yoghurt).


On the menu last week: sheesh barrak. Fry mince meat and make it into balls that you cover with dough to resemble a sombrero. Strain laban (thick yoghurt) to get rid of lumps and boil it while mixing continuously. Add the sombreros and chopped coriander and garlic and continue to stir so that the laban doesn't form a thick crust on the bottom and sides. Serve with rice mixed with vermicelli.

This time kafta balls (left) were also added to the sheesh barrak.
This sombrero (right) isn't the best-looking one, but it gives you the idea.

Sheesh barrak (mixed with kafta balls).

Monday, April 19, 2010

The dream crashes

Yes, the bubble has burst and the dream has come crashing down - all the way from a fourth-floor apartment in Furn Al Chebbak. I should have known the minute she spoke to me last week without looking me in the eye! The biggest tell-tale sign ever! But she was so sweet, and she sent me a lovely SMS about how much she's looking forward to living with me. Little did I know that she was probably more looking forward to having someone to clean after her.
The state of that flat was so bad when we arrived yesterday that my poor yoga aunt and tall uncle were left wondering whether I'd lost my mind in taking it. Turns out the skew-look girl never got a maid after seeing me last Tuesday (as she said she would). And then she proceeded to tell the yoga aunt and tall uncle that the maid was coming yesterday. On top of that, the only reason we went to drop off my things at the apartment at midday yesterday was to get the key as arranged. Turns out she never thought of making the copy during the week, and now realised that everything was closed on Sundays. So we went for nothing, because I had to be dropped back last night after going up to the mountains for lunch. Upon arrival, it was clear that the maid had not come. Oh, now the story was that she wasn't getting back to her and would come today for four hours. When I left at 2pm today there was still no sign of the cleaning lady. How do I know this? Well let's take the entrance hall for a start. It's a massive entrance - large enough to be a dining room for 20 people. But it's sparse - the only things visible are the straw paper, cigarette wrapper, coins and random sock occupying its dusty floors.
While yoga aunt and tall uncle peered into the dust cloud, I tried to see the experience as a random occurrence - a party weekend perhaps. But I was disturbed as soon as my family members left and I heard the sound of loud arguing. Straining to hear what skew-eyed girl and loud man were discussing, I found myself bumping into French boy - one part of the French couple living in the third room. We exchanged pleasantries without me registering any of his vital stats, still using my ears to translate the arabic conversation in my mind. French boy gave me the low-down. The man was the owner of the flat. He's wasn't happy. He really wasn't happy. Skew-eyed girl has not been treating his place well. He's so not happy.
In the meantime I met the other half of French couple: French gal. She's lovely; they both are. I was sad to hear they're leaving, as I was suddenly regretting my decision to move here. I cannot be left alone in this pigsty with skew-eyed girl! French boy didn't really want to talk badly of skew-eyed girl, and left it to French gal. She was more than willing to share. As it happens, French gal never knew French boy when she moved into the apartment that he was sharing with skew-eyed girl. After two great weeks of partying with skew-eyed girl, French gal and boy got together. It seems skew-eyed girl didn't like this idea and things turned sour. So bitterly sour that they can no longer live with her. And the filth? Yes, it seems that's a constant. If it weren't for French boy, none of the dishes would be washed.
Still thinking that I could handle this and get things looking good after the maid came today, I paid my $300 deposit and the $145 for the remainder of the month. While deciding on the amount for the 13 days of my stay, skew-eyed girl even spun me some big story about how money isn't a problem for her - I must pay her whatever I want to pay her... Now I see how it was her way of manipulating me into paying her there and then to show my 'loyalty'. Okay, it's not quite that deep, but I've realised now that she's a little bit psycho.
I went to bed with one eye open - hence I never got much sleep! Her and her boyfriend were talking really loudly until 1am. This morning, afraid to see her, I left before she woke up. I felt so anxious in that house that I just knew something wasn't right. Then the landlord called me. He wanted to meet with me and warn me about a few things.
I found my way back to the flat and got an SMS from him to meet him in the flat below mine. There I went and met with him and one of the neighbours who had the sound of skew-eyed girl's bed crashing above her one night. Apparently skew-eyed girl and her boyfriend kept the neighbour very much awake, very often, with the things that led to the bed crashing. The neighbour also recounts stories of skew-eyed girl's friends writing obscene things in the building's lift, and her loud comings-and-goings at crazy hours of the morning. The landlord had even more to add. He'd wanted to warn the tall uncle and yoga aunt yesterday but couldn't do so in front of skew-eyed girl (as he's in the process of finding a way to kick her out). She's destroyed the furniture he'd put in the flat - it's all oozing cushion foam. She's caused four other tenants to leave - one only lasted a week. She's overcharged tenants for services not rendered (maid, her Internet downloads etc) without showing them any receipts. She's threatened some of them with stories of her boyfriend's dad who's in the army. More warning than that, I didn't need. I'm now at the safe house (tall uncle and yoga aunt's house). Later tonight I'll go with tall uncle to get my things and my money and that will be the end of skew-eyed girl.
Thanks goodness because I much prefer seeing things eye to eye!

The entrance hall - the random sock and a pillow that suddenly appeared this morning.

The washing room/ toilet - wet clothes piled up since midday yesterday until today!
They might have been there longer.

The kitchen rubbish bursting at the seams!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Between the mountains of Mtein

Asked whether I'd like to accompany the tall uncle and yoga aunt to the mountain village of Mtein for a conference welcoming the walkers participating in the month-long Lebanon Mountain Trail (, I obliged, thinking it a cool outing to find out about something that could make for a great travel story.
To me, the word conference means sitting in a hall, listening to some people giving boring talks and maybe having the option of drinking tea afterwards. I even asked the tall uncle whether I should dress up for said conference. Thank goodness he left me to travel the 45 minutes in my jeans. This was a conference of villagers, set outdoors in the village square. Instead of the conference name badges and 'party packs' I'm used to, we were handed peak caps upon arrival in Mtein, where it seemed the entire village had come to welcome the trail walkers.
While I was still coming to grips with this concept of 'conference' and the plastic chairs set around tables in the outdoor square, the sound of Arabic music came rushing at me from the square entrance. There may not have been conference ushers, but there sure was entertainment! Dressed in traditional clothes of old, dancing ladies and music-playing gents made their way into the square, welcoming the Minister of Tourism, the yoga aunt's cousin (the founder of the Lebanon Mountain Trail - hence our invitation) and the hikers. Never before had I seen an unstaged traditional performance, and it felt as if we'd been transported back in time to the days when royalty used to be welcomed into towns amid loud cries and jubilation.
Once seated around our table, we were able to help ourselves to food and drink on offer all around the square - for free! The village people must have been working all week to prepare eats for the 1 500 people who were at the festivities today. There was everything from shawarmas and Lebanese flat bread with labneh (thick yoghurt) to hriese (my favourite Leb soup) and makroons (similar concept to koeksisters, also drenched in syrup) and sfaydaat (not really sure what they are as it was the first time I tasted them, but they're also syrupy and have nuts inside). There were also mini flat breads filled with a mixture of mashed stewed figs and sesame seeds - a very yummy sweet and healthy snack for future consideration!
I didn't really understand the speeches. Maybe it was spoken in an Arabic that's as ancient as the village of Mtein; maybe I was just too interested in the village-square happenings to care. Anyway, I'm sure the hikers were just as impressed as what I was with this friendly welcome, and will be sure to include Mtein in stories that they tell when they return home at the end of the month.
As for me, I hope I never have to attend a real conference ever again!

And the music played. The guy on the far left, wearing the sunglasses,
is the Minister of Tourism.

The town square where we all congregated.

The entire village - young and old - joined in the festivities.

The Lebanon Mountain Trail hikers are congratulated by the yoga aunt's cousin.

Some of the food on offer: Lebanese flat bread...

...hriese soup...

...shawarmas (no, I didn't eat ALL of these!).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Corn on the Corniche and other stories

It started with a taxi ride that took me for a ride and caused the exhaustion of the latter part of my day. Listen carefully to my tale of domin0-effect deception.
When we arrived at my destination in Beirut, the taxi driver called his company to ask how much he should charge me for the trip from Zouk Mosbeh to Raouche. 'Oh,' I thought, 'so we're close to Raouche, cool!' Raouche is an area of Beirut where the beautiful Pigeon Rock is found in the sea and I was very keen to walk to it after my appointment. Now I was happy that it was nearby. Anyway, the trip cost me 22 000LL (4 000LL more than Tuesday's trip to Centre Ville, which I thought was just around the corner from Beirut Tower where I was now dropped off - I happened to be right, but the taxi driver obviously took advantage of my foreignness and charged me for a further trip!)
My appointment was on the ground floor of Beirut Tower, at the Ayyam and Qcontemporary Galleries.

I arrived 25 minutes early, so I pulled out my camera and got ready to pass the time with some shots of the cool sky and brand-new skyscrapers. All I managed were three clicks before a security guard (they're everywhere where there isn't an army presence!) came to wave his finger at me. I wasn't allowed to take photos of the building to the right 'because very rich and important people live there', and, to top it off, I wasn't allowed to sit on the little concrete wall on which I was sitting. So into the gallery I went, where I met the manageress who made me a cup of ahwe (can I please stop drinking the stuff!).

At 11am my interviewee arrived: Amaar Al Beik, a Syrian photographer/ artist and film maker. My first Arabic interview turned out not to be as fear-invoking as expected and we ended it off with Amaar copying his films onto DVD for me, signing his book of prints and asking to keep my pen as a reminder of the interview. Artists!

At 1pm, after asking the gallery manageress how long it would take me to walk to Raouche, and her replying with a casual, 'just five minutes', I took to the streets, expecting to find the imposing rock around the next bend... and then around the next bend... and then around the next bend... and then I ran out of bends! Turns out Raouche was five kilometres away, and yes, I walked them all! In the heat of the day, I might add; in black trousers and closed shoes, sweat soaking them both as the kilometres progressed!
Back to the picture story: the walk along the Corniche (as the coastal strip I walked down is known) took me past the spot where Rafic Hariri was assassinated five years ago. Hariri was a former Prime Minister and business hotshot, credited with having reconstructed Lebanon's Centre Ville after the civil war (1975-1990) - but also for his role in certain corruption ordeals and the increase in Lebanon's public debt. Note that I have not suddenly become a historian or political boffin (you can appear to be one too if you just use Google!).
If you look closely at the above pic, you'll see the statue of him that's been erected. I remember driving past here in September that year, seven months after the assassination, and it was still barricaded, with a large army presence surrounding the scene. Political things here always involve a long process!

The St George Hotel is actually the spot next to which Hariri's car exploded. It was one of Beirut's most prestigious hotels after being built in 1932 but it was completely destroyed during the civil war and remained in ruins for 30 years before restoration plans began. It was a work in progress when the assassination took place, causing it once again to 'crash'. It doesn't seem like much is being done about it presently.

But the Yacht Club affiliated to the St George Hotel is thriving! The swimming pool is open to the public - those willing to pay, that is. It costs 20 000LL for use of the pool and sundeck. That's a R100 tan you can expect to catch!

Around the Corniche's first corner, I found a few groups of men playing shesh-besh (backgammon) on plastic tables and chairs, some sitting there in the baking sun in their suits.

As I walked past the mosque, the prayers had just ended and all the men were leaving in hordes, many of them crossing the road to take a walk along the Corniche.

Some people were exercising...

...others were swimming...

...others were kissing...

...while some were sunbathing (oooh, check out the typical Lebanese gorilla look!).

When I admitted to myself that Raouche was not around the next bend, I stopped for the famous Corniche mielie. I didn't want to sit down anywhere for lunch, thinking I'd be home soon, and was wanting to save tummy space for the delicious shish barrak my yoga aunt cooked last night. Little did I know that lunch time was still hours away!

Finally I saw the sign I was looking for: a little ray of light at the end of the Corniche's tunnel!

And there she was - a gorgeous work of God's art: Raouche, or Pigeon Rock.

Mission accomplished, it was time to head home. By wheels this time! Legs starting to ache, I sat and waited for the number 15 autobus that goes to Dora (just after Centre Ville). There she goes! I must have been wiping the sweat dripping off my face when it passed me. Up I get and away I run... run... run... like a mad woman (people don't run in Lebanon!), shouting for someone to call the driver to stop. No one understood my panting calls and away went the bus! Instead of waiting for the next one to come along, I decided to take a service (the shared taxi, remember?). I was told it would be better to cross the road and take one in the opposite direction, so off I went.
A service ride is a standard 2 000LL, no matter how long or short your ride is, but you must be willing to share the ride with whoever calls the service driver down on the side of the road. These are the drivers (okay, some of the drivers) who are constantly hooting at pedestrians, hoping they'll want to hop in and join the service party. Now the thing to remember when you're the first one in the service is to mention that you want his service services, else he'll just take you to your destination without stopping for anyone else and charge you high taxi rates.
Back to my adventure in the opposite direction. I got into a service, told him about my final destination, and he said he'd take me to the bus meeting point. I got out, expecting the bus stop to be on the same side of the road, only to be told that I had to cross the street yet again and catch the number 15 autobus to Dora. Like I hadn't heard that one before. At a loss for other options, I resorted to sitting on the pavement and waiting. Eventually I hopped on and proceeded to be taken on an hour-long ride through the other side of Beirut before hitting Dora. Here, I had to change onto another bus. When I told the driver to tell me when we got to the bottom of Zouk Mosbeh on the highway, he invited me to sit in front with him. As more and more passengers boarded with shopping bags, I became the guardian of their goods, leaving hardly any space for my feet while the shoppers sat comfortably in the back.
My driver was a devout Christian, as can be seen by the Rosary sticker on his windscreen. He blessed everyone who left the bus, and kept on making the sign of the Cross. He was also a simple man. When he asked me where I am from, and I said 'South Africa', he asked me again, not having heard of this country before. I replied, 'Jnoub Afriya' (the Lebanese version that translates to 'the South of Africa'). 'Ah, he said. So you're from France then?'

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Painting the town Hamra

Today, I saw red. Not in the angry, I-want-to-hoot-at-someone way, but rather in the street-walking way. What I mean to say is that I took a stroll down Hamra's main street. Hamra means 'red' in Arabic. Make sense now?
When the older generation tell me stories about Hamra in the days before the civil war, they're tales filled with partying, bustling streets, noisy coffee shops, fun stores and the best all-night eating spots. The war took its toll on this part of Beirut, and whenever we used to visit Lebanon as children, teenagers and adults, we never frequented this side of town.
Today is a completely different story. The main street is humming loudly again with a vibey vibe, with jewellery stores, trendy clothing shops such as H&M and my favourite Vero Moda, and a constant flow of hooting taxis and curious tourists (easily discernible among the dark-haired nation!) - not to mention the cool eateries. I snapped a few to show you that Lebanon isn't only made up of streetside shawarma shacks! Look, even Nandos has made its way all the way up to the Middle East!

At this last stop, Laziz (100% Lebanese is the slogan), I had a 100% Lebanese drink: ahwe. Although it came in such a cute little one-cup rakwe (check out a previous post for explanations) it definitely kept me awake - right up to now, and it's nearly midnight!

Some of you may be wondering how I'm getting around without a car. Funny you should ask. So far, when family hasn't been driving me around, I've taken taxis and a service (a shared taxi). Today, to Hamra, I took my first autobus. While waiting on the side of the road for a service to pass, I saw bus number 2 arrive. I waved the driver down and asked if he was going that way, and lo and behold, he was going to be driving straight onto Hamra's main road! The ride took double the time it would have by car, but boy was it also double the amount of fun! The lady next to me told me a whole story about why she gives the little beggar boys (she seems to call them all Mohammed) food rather than money, while tearing pieces of bread and basically throwing them out of the window for the little ones to grab. Then there was the guy who jumped on and realised the bus wasn't going to exactly where he wanted to go so asked the driver to stop for him to jump off again - but nearly everyone on the bus started shouting after him, telling him various ways he could get to his destination from the bus' final stop. The characters were nothing compared to the state of the bus iteself: torn seats, hanging fluffy toys and of course the obligatory Lebanese flag. It's no wonder the ride only costs 1 000LL no matter how far you journey (that's the equivalent of R5!).

My autobus (note the torn seat, fluffy heart and Lebanese flag).

There you have it: I've been painted red and am no longer green.