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.
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?'