Thursday, September 2, 2010

24 hours in Lebanon

Lebanon is so not the country one would only pop into for 24 hours, but if you only had a day, you'd get quite a good idea of the country if you followed our itinerary on Greek sista's first day of visiting me.

After a whirlwind two months of quitting her job back home in Cape Town, doing a Greek language course in Greece, touring parts of Italy, Albania, Egypt and Cyprus, she took a 25-minute flight from Cyprus (barely having time to buckle up) and landed in Lebanon before 7am on Wednesday morning, shouting the only Lebanese word she knows: yalla, yalla, let's see Lebanon! 'You didn't tell me that even the guys who work at the airport are hot!' I think my hands are going to be full for the next week (wink wink)!

8am: Grab three mne'eesh at a corner saj. Greek sista decided the zaatar (thyme, sumac and sesame seed mixture) 'sandwich' is the best.

9am: Jump on a bus to Hamra and grab an ahwe at Laziz, which is an eatery that brands itself as 100% Lebanese. While sitting there we have an old lady trying to sell us Chicklets (chewing gum), a boy begging us for money and a 50-something man randomly welcoming us to Lebanon as he walks by.

10:30am: Wander through the nearly cobbled streets of Hamra, once the most popular hangout area in Beirut before the war, and now a bustling cosmopolitan hotspot filled with Christians, Muslims, tourists and beggars. Here, we buy pomegranate juice from a man squeezing them fresh on the street, we check out men having their shoes polished while standing on the sidewalk, Greek sista stares admirably at the fashionable headscarves covering Muslim ladies' heads and we pop into H&M for a clothing wander.

11:30am: Enter the gates of AUB (American University of Beirut) and gawk at the sea view from the sports field. We have a picture taken with the army official at the gate (very rarely allowed in Lebanon) and visit the university's museum, filled with fascinating pottery made by ancient civilizations we didn't have the lus to read about. We did, however, have all the time in the world to gawk at the excavated jewellery. Girls will be girls!

12:30pm: Back on the bus to Sassine Square near home. This is where Greek sista, who's been awake since 2am in Cyprus (she had to catch a bus to Larnaca from Limassol), falls asleep, but is suddenly awake, shouting yalla yalla when she hears the bus music mentioning the word. She causes a stir in the bus and goes back to sleep. We head for Malak al Taouk, the popular chicken takeaway, and dig into a taouk made up of thin Lebanese bread spread with garlic dip, french fries, cabbage, tomato and chicken pieces. Yum. Perfect to fill us up for an afternoon siesta.

3:30pm Jump into a taxi that takes us onto the autostrade and into the green mountains of Jeita to see the Jeita Grottos (or Jedi, as Greek sista called them). These stalactite and stalagmite caves are on the voting list for the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition, and contain the most incredible natural history, including the world's longest stalagtite (seven metres). We are allowed access to about 700m and there are apparently another 1 700m inaccessible to the public! No photos are allowed, and there are young guys stationed everywhere who make sure this policy is adhered to. These guys get so bored that they start seeing things in the stalagmite formations. We saw Father Christmas, Bob Marley ('Or it could be Jesus,' one said), two babies, jelly fish, two old men and Nemo. After the top caves, we took a little ferry ride through the magical lower caves, and even filled up a bottle with the cave's refreshingly clear drinking water. (PS. Table Mountain is also one of the New 7 Wonders competition finalists, so get voting for both!)

6:30pm Ask the taxi to drop us in Dora and catch the number 15 'create your own party' bus to the Corniche. Greek sista and I loved the music being played in the bus, and the driver loved that we were loving it. So, because we were the only two passengers, he cranked up the volume big time and we drove through the city with the madman driver nearly throwing us out the door with his sudden stops and starts, clicking fingers and attempting to sing along (or just shouting yalla yalla, in Greek sista's case). There was another excited man who jumped on, and we think that the pic he took with Greek sista is probably up as his profile pic on Facebook right now. We liked his enthusiasm on our party bus... until he threw his Pepsi can out the window.

7pm: Walk along the Corniche. We smiled at men just chilling against the railing (or shimming el hawa - Greek sista quickly added more words to her Lebanese vocab*), the ahwe seller with an American Lebanese accent who showed us the Twin Towers burining on a $20 note, two random men asking to have their photos taken with us, jolly sunset joggers, the traditionally clad villager selling figs out of his boot, the unfriendly mielie seller, guys smoking arguile under the palm trees, ladies sitting on the mosaic benches watching their kids cycle, runners competing in a race, and tourists checking out the biggest Lebanese melting pot of people of every race, belief and political affiliation.

7:30pm: Wave down a service (not that difficult when they're hooting for you to jump in from 200m away!) and catch a 2 000LL lift to Raouche (Pigeon Rock), which we witnessed in the dusky shades of the day, as airplanes flew overhead to the nearby airport and men dined on the pavement.

8pm: Back home for a shower and change before heading out to dinner at Falamanki at around 9:30pm. We sat there till midnight, smoking a cherry-tobacco arguile, drinking local Ksara wine, eating tabbouleh, hummus, labneh, babaghanouj and halloumi with preserved figs, laughing about the day and impressed with everything we managed to pack into less that 24 hours.

I went to bed with my ears ringing to the sound of Greek sista's yalla yalla!

* Shim al hawa literally means 'smell the wind' and is used in a chill-out, enjoying yourself context. Like in 'we're going to chill out at the beach' - we're going to the beach to shim el hawa.