Tuesday, April 28, 2009

postcard from lebanon

After being spoiled by the welcome in Syria, Lebanon is (perhaps inevitably) not so embracing.

Beirut in particular won't ever be named as one of my favourite cities. It has a very materialistic culture, and appears divided quite prominently between those that have, and those that have not. If you don't appear as though you fit into the former category, nobody takes a second glance at you.

This is most evident in the rapidly evolving central-Beirut area, where each interesting, war-ravaged building is being torn down to make way for an ever expanding, glitzy, fastidiously clean, Disney-like town center. It looks pretty and probably appeals to couples on a weekend break or something, but we feel out of place and somewhat looked down-upon as we venture through it.

As an aside, Beirut is the first time in four weeks of traveling that I spot a Starbucks outlet. It had been nice walking through cities that don't have American chain stores on every corner.

People pay expectantly scant regard when we attempt a night out in the city. I've got my heart set on sampling Beirut's most famous club: B 018. But it will - of course - be expensive, and we are determined to experience it on as tight a budget as possible. To that end we buy beer cans from a local store (extra strength 9% stuff, we soon notice) and dress to impress.

As backpackers with a minimal wardrobe, that is not easy. Lebanon's aforementioned culture means clubs have a strict dress code, and I have come traveling with no suitable footwear. I do however, remember hearing about a trick whilst backpacking around Australia in 2003, that stretching a pair of black socks on over shoes makes them resemble plush footwear, or at least to the cursory glance of the nightclub doorman.

It works a treat, but I shouldn't have gone to the trouble. After four weeks of sobriety, my hard-won alcohol tolerance has declined steeply. Despite drinking nothing extra once we left our hostel room, 20 minutes after entering B 018 I am vomiting in the toilets. We are invited to leave the club some time later, and the vomiting continues outside the club. And then back at the hostel. For two more hours. The next morning I resign myself to having visited Lebanon's most famous club - and not being able to remember a single thing about it. Apparently the moment when the roof opens is spectacular.

The driving in Lebanon deserves special mention. Across the Middle East it is already appalling, here it is a completely lawless. Traffic lights are - at best - give way signs, and don't ever expect that the car at the junction ahead won't pull out right in front of you. Lanes are ignored, and it is every man or woman for themselves. Despite this, I am four weeks into traveling, but have yet to sit in a seat - in car, coach or minibus - that has a seatbelt fitted.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, we visit the northern city of Tripoli. The atmosphere is edgier. We spend half an hour strolling to the center of a street market before we spot unwelcoming, anarchist black flags flying from the lampposts. On a (hastier) walk back, we spot two propaganda posters in support of Saddam Hussein, amidst the countless others that adorn the streets.

The next day revolves around wonderful hiking near the mountain village of Bcharre. It's the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable Lebanon trip - even the spectacular Roman ruins at Baalbeck (think Athens's Acropolis but far bigger and far better preserved) is dampened by torrential rainfall.

No matter, a day's coach hopping later and we are at a border entrance to Israel, trying to enter despite our passports bearing stamps from their Syrian arch rivals. Convincing them to allow us in will be time consuming...

Wish you were here,

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=67480&id=282401058&l=91c80395d3 (no login required)
Lebanon rating
: 3.2/10
Friendliest person met: The most anxious hotel manager in the world, in Beirut
Scariest moment: Walking around Tripoli.
Most beautiful sight: Baalbeck, despite the rain
The Soundtrack: Assorted works by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr.
Still to come: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

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