Tag Archives: Bus

Sing-a-longs & Traffic Reports

wikipedia-on-ipodNormally when I take the bus to and from work every day, I bring along my iPod so I can listen to music or BBC Global News podcasts, to distract myself from the 1 hour+ journey. Or, if the mood strikes, I’ll listen to the bus radio, which normally blasts Arabic music the whole way up.

Fairouz

Fairuz

I had a driver the other day who was bouncing and dancing in his chair, singing along to Fairuz, an iconic Lebanese singer who had her hey-day in the 1960s & 1970s. I love it!  And better yet, yesterday, my driver was blasting a mix of NSync and Backstreet Boys – I felt like I was on a high school field trip – brilliant.

Today, alas and alack, I forgot my beloved iPod.  Ah well, I obviously get a kick out of Fairouz and NSync sing-a-longs, so I wasn’t too disappointed. When I switched buses in Dora, I was happy to hear that the radio was switched, at least briefly, to news and traffic updates – I was running a bit late and I wanted to know how bad the traffic was going to be – not like knowing would make me arrive any faster, but still. You know how it is. And so…

Announcer: And now, Layla with the traffic.

Layla: There is too much traffic today. God help us and God bless you all.

Announcer: Thank-you Layla. And now for some Fairouz!

….

Shou??? What???

I actually started laughing out loud on the bus, which drew strange stares from my fellow passengers, who all seemed to find this report completely normal. That’s it?!? That’s the entire traffic report?? No mention of which highways have traffic or where it stops or starts, which direction the traffic is going in?? Nope.

I told a Lebanese friend about it later, expecting her to laugh at how ridiculous it was, and instead she just looked at me, completely straight faced and serious, and said, “Hiyati, it’s so true. There is too much traffic in Lebanon. God help us!”

I give in – who needs traffic reports anyway? 😉

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Mountain Villages, Castles and Booza in the Shouf

Ozge!

Ozge!

Ozge is leaving for Turkey on Tuesday! The beginning of the end. It seems that many of the people I’ve met here over the past couple of weeks are half & half’s like me, or political science students with a particular interest in the Middle East, here doing an internship – regardless, the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re all only here for the summer. Rats. It’s okay – I’ll just have to make the most out of my time with them, their last few weeks here!

So today was declared Ozge’s day and I promised to go along with whatever plans she made. Which is actually awesome for me because Ozge always seems to make amazing plans.

Last night, before I left Dany’s the two of us decided to meet up at 11:30 am on Hamra street and make another day trip to somewhere in Lebanon. Up late as usual, I rushed to get dressed and picked up two manaeesh with vegetables for us for breakfast, and hurried over to find Ozge waiting patiently for me with a cup of coffee for each of us. Mmmm boy! Great minds think alike! We were off to a good start!

Untitled We headed down to the Cola transport hub where we met up with two friends of Ozge’s, an Australian guy and an Irish guy, whose names I have embarrassingly forgotten. Ozge wanted to explore the Shouf – a mountain range southeast of Beirut that is part of the Mount Lebanon Range. So we headed off in a shared taxi for the village of Deir al-Qamar (Pronounced ‘Dare al Um-ar’ – in the Lebanese dialect of Arabic they almost always drop the ‘q’ sound, in case you were wondering – which I’m sure you weren’t, but now you know. Don’t ‘cha feel lucky?), a small village in the Shouf, which Lonely Planet describes as “one of Lebanon’s prettiest villages…and one of the best-preserved examples of 17th and 18th century provincial architecture in the country.” Good plan!

The beautiful Shouf

The beautiful Shouf

The drive up from boiling Beirut into the considerably cooler green mountains was beautiful and when we weren’t chatting or checking out the view, I read up on Deir al-Qamar. ‘Deir’ means ‘monastery’ and ‘al-Qamar’ means ‘moon’, so basically the name translates to ‘Monastery of the moon.’ I don’t know what the story behind that name is, but I like it! The taxi dropped us off along the main road in Deir al-Qamar around 1pm and we took a minute to orient ourselves and take in the sights.

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Deir al-Qamar really is a beautiful city. It’s filled with stone buildings with red-tile roofs, assembled around a large center square, called Dany Chamoun Square. Dany Chamoun was a Lebanese politician and the son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. He was born in Deir al-Qamar and was known for his opposition to the occupation of Lebanese territories by Syrian and Israeli foreign forces and for his role as a leader of the Tigers Militia in 1968, the military wing of the National Liberal Party (NLP) during the Lebanese Civil War. He and his family were assassinated in 1990, and in his honor, they named the main square of Deir al-Qamar after him.

Random fact about Dany Chamoun Square – apparently in the 16th century they held jousting and other equestrian competitions there. So cool! Now it just houses a small 19th century fountain that dispenses clean drinking water from the nearby Shalout spring. The fountain itself isn’t anything spectacular, but the ice-cold water hit the spot.

Main Square in Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun Square in Deir al-Qamar

Okay, being totally honest – aside from being a cute town with an interesting history, there’s really not much to do in Deir al-Qamar. We browsed the small souk where I bought a patch of the Lebanese flag for my backpack and took a peek in the bizarre wax museum that’s housed inside the old palace of Emir Fakhreddine II, that was built in 1620. We walked past the small Mosque of Fakhreddine that was built in the Mamluk style in the 1490s and down a hill to the Church of Saidet at-Talle that was built in the 7th century, destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century and then rebuilt under Fakhreddine in the 16th century. Whew! Actually, one thing that is cool about this city is that it has housed Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze and has the religious monuments to prove it.

L1010105L1010106So with our tour of this tiny village complete (took about 1 hour) we decided to treat ourselves to some booza (the Arabic word for ice cream – such a fun word!) from a small stall in front of the Palace of Fakhreddine. YES! And the best part was – they had banana royales. Okay for you poor, select individuals who have yet to sample the delicious amazingness that is a banana royale, I will fill you in – sliced banana, 3 scoops of the ice cream of your choice, topped with whipped cream and hot fudge. HEAVEN!! Yes, ice cream makes me that happy 😉

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

After our delicious snack, we decided to make our way to the nearby palace of Beiteddine. Okay, and here is where we encountered our first problem of the day. Transportation. There were no cabs to be found in the bite-sized village of Deir al-Qamar and Beiteddine is 6 kilometers away. Oh dear…Luckily, there is only one road connecting the village with the palace and so we set off on foot, arms outstretched, thumbs erect hoping against hope that someone would be kind enough to pick us up. Luckily after about 30 minutes of walking a lone cab passed by and drove us, 4 sweaty, pathetically unsuccessful hitchhikers, to Beiteddine for 2,000 lira each. Score!

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

The palace of Beiteddine took about 30 years to build and was completed in the early 1800s. It’s massive and gorgeous and perfectly in tact. There are large courtyards with fountains, steam baths, intricate mosaic floors – the details decorating this place are nuts. It’s pretty awesome. I actually visited the palace the first time I came to Lebanon with my Mom in 2005, but I was psyched to be going back.

As we pulled into the palace entrance, we waved goodbye to our driver and made our way over to the ticket counter….where we encountered problem #2. Because of the summer Beiteddine festival, the palace closed early – we were an hour too late. Uuuuuugh! Such a bummer. So now what….We took a quick break to rest and collect our thoughts. On the walk + drive over, we had noticed a castle that seemed a little out of place in the middle of the Shouf and we decided to head back there and check it out. 15 minutes of walking and more unsuccessful hitchhiking later, we found ourselves in another taxi and on our way to Castle Moussa.

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Okay, what to say about Castle Moussa? This place is a trip. So freaking bizarre! Basically the story begins with this guy named Moussa – Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, to be exact. He was born in 1931 and was one of those kids obsessed with the Middle Ages – you know, knights, castles, kings and queens. Pretty standard. So the little Moussa is in grade school and the teacher asks his students to write a short essay on where they want to live when they grow up. Moussa writes about his dream of living in a castle – he’s a kid, so far this all sounds pretty normal, right? The teacher thinks the idea is ridiculous and beats Moussa in front of his classmates, who all laugh and ridicule him. Okay. That admittedly sucks.

So Moussa is so traumatized by this whole thing that he makes it his life goal to prove his teacher wrong and build himself a castle. And this is where the story begins to get a little bizarre. This guy devotes his whole life to learning about the restoration of old palaces and castles in Lebanon (he actually worked on the restoration of Beiteddine), and once he has saved up enough money, he buys a plot of land in the Shouf and begins, literally, to build his dream castle. He built the ENTIRE thing by hand, an impressive feat that took him 60 years to complete. This place has a moat, a drawbridge, medieval style ramparts – oh, he went all out.

Oh and it gets better. Inside his fabulous castle Moussa decided to recreate scenes of daily life in Lebanon with wax figures. All of which he also made himself. And you can tell. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s impressive that he did all that he did, but the quality of the wax figures – some of which move! – is bordering on 8th grade history project. But this dude definitely would have been given an A for effort!

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

Seriously, walking through this place was like walking through the surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy. It started out pretty standard for a historical wax museum – figures making bread, dancing the dabke (traditional Lebanese dance), welding, etc. But as you walk from room to room the displays just get progressively weirder. First of all, evidence of how traumatized this guy was – there is an entire life-sized recreation of his teacher beating him in a classroom full of his mocking classmates. What the what?? I mean, I guess that was where the inspiration for the castle began…And I thought I had problems letting go…

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

Another room housed a miniature representation of Noah’s Ark, complete with small plastic animals (lions, tigers…a dragon…and a dangling Santa Clause. No joke.) on a rotating conveyor belt, continuously filtering into the ark. And then things just got more random. Moussa must have been a collector of old irons, because in many of the rooms, there were multiple irons, arbitrarily placed on the floor. There were also large wax hands and large wax feet that kept popping up in display cases and on the floors of exhibits. What the what?!?

The room pictured below featured wall mosaics with a waterfall running over their surface, a stuffed peacock, irons on the floor, guns on the wall, an old woman carrying rope…etc. Ummmm….Why??? I don’t get it.

L1010132

I don't get it...

Oh and it’s not over yet…then the gun collection began! I told you, surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy – castle, awesome wax people, and guns! Well surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy manifested in the reality of a 70-year-old man….At least 15 rooms packed with guns followed. Random wax hands and feet were still thrown into some of the exhibits for good measure, alongside the occasional large display case of daggers, swords and Bedouin jewelry. I felt like I should have been high or tripping on acid to really appreciate this place.

Bellies aching from laughing and mouths sore from gaping at the bizarre wonder that is Castle Moussa, we all packed ourselves into a shared taxi and headed back to Beirut. But the day wasn’t over yet!  A shower and a quick nap later, I headed over to Ferdinand, a small bar on Rue Mahatma Gandhi for Ozge’s farewell party.

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Ozge’s co-workers and friends – many of whom are my flat mates (small world!) – filtered in over the course of the night and we all sipped wine and beer, talked and laughed until finally fatigue pulled us all home to our beds. What a day!

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Mezze and Wine in the Bekaa Valley

Lebanese Mini-Bus

Lebanese Mini-Bus

This morning, my Turkish friend Ozge (she’s in my Arabic class at ALPS) and I decided to meet up for a quick coffee before hopping on a mini-bus to the town of Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley. Mini-buses aren’t actually buses, but rather, large, white mini-vans.  If you get on the bus at a transport hub, like we did, the driver will wait until the van is full before leaving – otherwise, you’ll make random stops along the way to pick up additional passengers. Once the bus is filled, there’s not really a set route per-say. Instead, there is generally defined final destination and as long as you want to go somewhere that’s more or less on the way to that final destination, the driver will drop you there. 

The drive up to Zahlé cost us 4000 Lira (about $2.50) each and took about an hour and a half. Driving rules and regulations don’t really seem to apply and the bus can get pretty cramped and sweaty, but luckily I got a seat near the window – yesss! Fresh air! Aside from the frequent swerves and break-slamming (I tried to take comfort in the fact that none of the other passengers seemed nervous), the ride up was really pleasant. The driver blasted Arabic music which set a fun mood as we drove up through the mountains and villages east of Beirut and into the Bekaa Valley.

View on the drive to the Bekaa Valley

View on the drive to the Bekaa Valley

valleymap The Bekaa Valley isn’t actually a valley, which is kind of weird. It’s actually a plateau between two mountain ranges in Lebanon. The plateau is this huge agricultural region here in Lebanon – it used to be one the ‘bread baskets’ of Rome.  Today it’s still one of Lebanon’s most important farming regions, and is famous for the delicious, locally produced wine.

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There’s actually also a long history of cannabis production in Bekaa, and the sale of ‘Red Leb’ (nickname for the high quality pot produced there), has long provided a major source of income for producers living in the valley. The production is nowhere near as prolific as it once was, but nevertheless, the region has maintained its notorious reputation. Woot.

The bus dropped Ozge and I in the center of Zahlé around 1pm. Okay, not going to lie, it wasn’t exactly what we had expected. Lonely Planet writes:

“Known locally as Arousat al-Beqa’a (Bride of the Bekaa), [Zahlé] is set along the steep banks of the Birdawni River (locally known as ‘Bardouni’), which tumbles through a gorge, cutting a burbling channel through the centre of town.”

The Birdawni "river" of Zahlé

The Birdawni "river" of Zahlé

So, we get off the bus expecting to see this beautiful village with a huge river running through it’s center.  What we saw initially was more of a dusty intersection with no river in sight. Whatever, we’re up for anything, so we started  wandering down the main city road and off to our left we noticed this little babbling stream, about an inch, maybe an inch and half deep…the roaring Birdawni. Nice.

But, I have to say, Zahlé itself turned out to be a charming city after all, sprinkled with Ottoman era houses (that somehow survived the civil war – which destroyed most of the city), mixed in with more modern Lebanese architecture. It’s definitely not a must see on a tourist agenda, but apparently it acts more as a stop over town for visitors traveling through the Bekaa Valley or as a base for those who wish to spend a few days in the region, hopping back and forth from Zahlé, to nearby cities.

It’s a primarily Christian city, so most stuff was closed, given that it’s Sunday. But still, we had a really nice walk down the main street, Rue Brazil – named for the huge number of the town’s population that migrated to Brazil around the time of the 1860 massacre (communal fighting between Druze and Christians). The Zahlé Lebanese living in Brazil sent back money to their families still living in Lebanon and apparently that money really helped the town get back on its feet after the massacre – and so they named the main street after Brazil.

Random fact: Today, the greatest population of Lebanese outside of Lebanon is in Brazil. Who knew??? I want to go to Brazil!    

Downtown Zahlé

Downtown Zahlé

Hungry, we decided to break for lunch. Lonely Planet told us that the Zahlé is actually famous for its riverside, open-air cafés. Fantastic! Once our bellies started rumbling,  we stopped at the first place we saw, the Grand Hotel Kadri, where we enjoyed a delicious mezze, washed down with ice-cold Almazas. The hotel is beautiful, and actually served as an Ottoman hospital during World War I and was later home to the chief of the French Army during the French Mandate of Lebanon.

Ozge! Eating our mezze at the Grand Hotel Kadri

Ozge! Eating our mezze at the Grand Hotel Kadri

Lebanese Flag under the French Mandate

Lebanese Flag under the French Mandate

Quick history behind the French Mandate in Lebanon ;): So after World War I, in 1920, the Ottoman Empire is divvied up between the French and the British in the Treaty of Sèvres. The British get Palestine and Iraq (both of which they proceeded to seriously fuck over), and the French get Greater Syria which = modern day Syria + Lebanon. So that’s the beginning of the French Mandate. The French then separate Syria and Lebanon and Lebanon gets this funky new flag that’s a combo of the French and Lebanese flags. Anyway, I won’t go through the whole history of the French presence in Lebanon, but the country gets its independence in 1943 and the French finally leave in 1945. Oh yeah, you know you were dying to know all that info. 

So anyway, after lunch, we caught a ‘service’ (fixed price taxi) to the Château Ksara, the oldest winery in Lebanon. ‘Ksar’ means fortress in Arabic, and the current winery stands over the site of a medieval Roman fortress, and the caves where the wine is now made were once the cellars of that original Roman fortress.  So now, flash forward to the mid-1800s – the Roman fortress is long gone, but the caves are still there, unbeknownst to the locals living in the village. Jesuit priests build a monastery over the caves and one day, a priest, chasing a fox that was threatening his chickens, discovers the caves beneath the monastery. He tells his fellow Jesuit priest buddies and they think ‘Score! Perfect place to store some alcohol!’ And so the winery is born in 1857 CE. The soil and weather in Ksara was perfect for growing grapes – vines were grown along with aniseed (a flowering plant that tastes like black licorice), to make Arak, and business started to boom for the Jesuit priests of Ksara. In 1972, the priests sold the land to several Lebanese families who further expanded the business…and that catches us up to today!

Château Ksara

Château Ksara

One thing about the Château Ksara that’s particularly fantastic is that you can take tours of the winery for FREE, complete with a complimentary wine tasting at the tour’s finish. YUM. Our guide took us through the chilly 2km of caves beneath the winery where the wine is stored in oak barrels and bottled wines are held until they’re ready to sell. The Arak is actually produced in a separate facility, above the caves, but the smell of the aniseed seeps down into the caves, mixing with the smell of oak and wine. Mmmm boy!

Inside the caves of Château Ksara

Inside the caves of Château Ksara

Arak produced in Château Ksara, called Ksarak

Arak produced in Château Ksara, called Ksarak

Okay, so in case you don’t know, Arak is clear, aniseed-flavored alcoholic drink that’s very popular here in Lebanon. It’s actually a brandy, made from grape leaves, the skins and seeds of red grapes, and aniseed for flavor. It’s exactly the same as Greek ouzo, Turkish raki and Italian sambuca – everyone claims it as their own. The Lebanese side of my family drinks Arak regularly and as a child I actually thought that all alcohol smelled like black licorice. Oh yeah. I was a bright kid.

According to Lonely Planet, “Experts say the best way to tell the difference [between good and bad arak], is by how you feel when you wake up the next morning: the better you feel, the better the arak the night before.” I love it! To drink it you usually add water or ice, which turns the drink to a milky white color. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the taste, but it’s served so often, I’ve learned to stomach it.

After our free tour, Ozge and I decided it was time to head back to Beirut and headed out to the main road in Ksara to hail a minibus. There are no bus stops. You just stand on the side of the road and passing taxis and minibuses honk as they approach you. If you proceed to wave at them, they’ll slow down. You tell them your final destination and if they happen to be headed there or at the very least in that general direction, they’ll barter a price with you and you hop in, sliding the door shut as the minibus speeds off.

Inside the mini-bus on the drive back to Beirut

Inside the mini-bus on the drive back to Beirut

Our drive back to Beirut was an adventure. Crammed in the back between your fellow sweaty passengers, you all share communal water bottles provided by the driver, which you drink the ‘Arab way’. Drinking the ‘Arab way’ means that you don’t let the bottle touch your mouth – you tilt your head back and pour water into your mouth. They’re all pro at this, so no one seems to miss or splash whereas I, the foreign idiot, usually end up splashing water all over my face and clothes, especially on a bumpy bus. Damn. Ah well.

Stops were made at wells to refill the water bottles, at one point the driver made an ice-cream stop, passengers share cigarettes and snacks – it’s a really welcoming atmosphere but totally confusing and hilarious for a first-timer like me. Our driver was especially reckless and more than once I found myself with my eyes squeezed shut and my hands tightly gripping the seat. He nearly hit every single person we stopped to pick up, and one man almost fell over as he jumped to avoid being pummeled by the oncoming van. And the driver would just laugh this maniacal laugh. He was insane. No really, I think he was.

Somehow, we made it back to Beirut alive around 6:30pm. We parted ways and I headed home for a home cooked dinner with Stephen and Shadee, before heading back out to meet Ozge at Café Younes, where we studied Arabic until 11pm. A full Lebanese day. Not bad, huh?