it's tea time all the time
Cycling in Lebanon and Syria
20 March 2009
Total kilometers cycled: 51,314
Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.Swooping down towards the Mediterranean from the mountains one stormy evening on a winding, pot-holed highway, through suburbs plunged in darkness (and we'd thought power cuts blighted only Africa), we had our first glimpse of Beirut. Once known as the 'Paris of the Middle East', Lebanon's capital is nowadays more of a byword for urban destruction. Darkness obscured most of the war damage as we pedaled past French style patisseries, newly-built high rise apartment complexes and trendy shops. Flashy Mercedes and BMWs clogged the roads, splashing us mercilessly as they roared past . Thoroughly soaked, we showed up three hours late at the apartment of our contact from couchsurfing. Affable Ryan came down to meet us at the entrance of what, to us, seemed a very posh place to live. He immediately rang up the concierge who whisked away the bikes and then lead us up to his flat where we were greeted by his wife Jennifer and an enormous fluffy white cat named Romeo. After almost three years on the road we've become a bit scruffy, I suppose. Eric hadn't shaved for days, our shoes are holey, my tee-shirts are ripped, my socks don't match and our trousers are worn thin. So there we were in a spacious high-rise apartment with a view of the city and the sea dripping water on the expensive carpets and lugging in our muddy panniers to the guest room. Dinner was served on white china rather than the plastic we're accustomed to and we fumbled around with the utensils and tried to remember the right way to hold a wine glass. And then the pressure to make intelligent conversation rather than converse in hand signals and broken English. For some odd reason our hosts we're completely repelled by our appearance and manners and let us stay for a week. Not seeing the sights, mind you. Just hanging out in the flat, learning how to use an I-Pod, watching pirated movies (I highly recommend The Visitor) and depleting Ryan and Jen's reserves of espresso and imported cheeses.
One day we did manage to venture out from our comfortable suburban haven into the chaos of downtown Beirut. In most people's minds the city is linked with bombs and bullets, but a surprising amount of rebuilding is going on. An expensive and controversial project to restore the town center to its original grandeur has resulted in a few blocks of swanky shops like Gucci and Armani and fashionable cafes where the in-crowd goes to be seen and drink $10 coffees. Plenty of bullet-ridden buildings still lurk around the center and the scars of war have yet to healed, but Beirutis seem to be on a quest to put the past behind them. It's a sophisticated, western-looking city and you'll see more head scarves in Frankfurt than you will in downtown Beirut.
On our way out of Beirut the rains began lashing us with a fury and we sought shelter under a precarious lean-to where some men were warming themselves around a wood burning stove. There we met Ali, a Somali refuge who has been bouncing around the Middle East trying to eke out a living while waiting for the UN to grant him asylum in a Western country. He smiled as he recounted his story but his sad eyes betrayed the suffering a man endures when he's far from home with an uncertain future. From Beirut we headed north along the coast, following the old road which runs parallel to the new superhighway. The Lebanese coast certainly is spectacular with the snow-capped mountains rising up from the Mediterranean, but just as in other coastal areas around the world, the natural beauty has been marred by concrete sprawl. We passed town after town, one much the same as the other with fast food joints like Dunkin' Donuts, faceless multi-story housing blocks, European chain stores and giant supermarkets. Nothing much to hold our interest apart from the Roman ruins and Crusader Castle at Byblos and its atmospheric harbor and old town.
Nobody seemed to mind the scruffy traveler look in Tripoli, Lebanon's most northern city and an Islamic stronghold that feels much more like the Middle East than cosmopolitan Beirut. Although the rain put a bit of a damper on our wanderings, we still enjoyed strolling around the souqs and sampling a bit more of what traditional Lebanon is like. Europe is knocking at the door and we want to keep its less appealing aspects(look alike shopping malls, stressed-out shoppers and soulless suburbs) at bay as long as possible. I fear sauntering among the stalls in crowded markets, invitations to drink a cup of tea and spend a quiet moment chatting with locals will soon be a thing of the past. In this part of the world political leaders are elevated to an almost cult-like status and Lebanon's current president Saad al-Hariri (son of the assassinated Rafiq Hariri) and a host of other political personalities kept a watchful eye on us as we strolled through the streets of Tripoli.
Somewhere north of Tripoli on the old coastal road we rolled up to a military checkpoint manned by what looked to be a small battalion of soldiers. Trucks and taxis were backed up and when we made our way to the front of the line and spotted a young man in khaki armed with what must have been a bomb-detecting device carefully scanning a vehicle.
"Papers, Papers," came the request. But when we produced our passports they were merely given a cursory glance and then returned.
"Papers, Papers," came the order again and our path was blocked.
We eventually gave up and a taxi driver led us back to the main highway. When we asked him about the road block he just went "boom, boom" and mimed a bomb explosion. I guess peace in Lebanon is tenuous at best.
Although Lebanon is a fascinating country and the people are friendly and hospitable, it was with a sense of relief that we crossed the border back into Syria. No more reminders of war and destruction, no more kamikaze drivers and no more overpriced supermarkets. We were still dogged by the unrelenting rain, but Syrian hospitality being what it is, we never worried about finding a warm spot to spend the night. In Syria it suffices to turn off the main road around sundown and wander around any settlement and before long someone will appear, make a sleeping gesture and lead you to his home. Only once did we have to actually askfor accommodation and this was in an area populated by Orthodox Christians. We turned up at a small village church just as evening mass was being said and as soon as the priest spotted us after the service he immediately took us under his wing and guided us to his home. Coming from Africa, life in Syria appears quite comfortable. Even in villages there's running water and electricity, everybody's got satellite TV, most families can afford to have a fridge and a washing machine, indoor plumbing is the norm and many people have computers and internet access. Father Elias had studied theology in Athens and spoke excellent English which was a change from our usual village contacts. Since we don't speak Arabic, and not a lot of villagers speak English or French, we usually can't get much beyond basic politics (thumbs down for Bush, a so-so gesture for Obama and thumbs up for Sarkozy) and a lot of smiling. It was nice to have an actual conversation for a change. While we never encountered military checkpoints in Syria, the authorities do keep a watchful eye on the country and Father Elias 'did the right thing' and informed the police of our presence in the village. Soon after, a couple of officers turned up on his doorstep and we were obliged to show them our passports and national identity cards. In the morning after a breakfast of tea and sweets Father Elias presented us with a miniature nativity scene as a souvenir of our stay in his village. It was a thoughtful gesture.
Once you get off the main highways, Syria offers some spectacular rural scenery with tiny villages dotting the countryside, friendly herd boys calling out greetings and locals inviting you to drink tea all day long. Many won't accept your polite refusal and once when we stopped for directions, two chairs, a table and the tea-pot where we whipped out with such miraculous speed that we simply had no choice but to drink yet another cup of tea. Stopping in at bakeries and sweet shops for a slice of cake our some calorie-rich baklava almost always ends up with the proprietor refusing payment. Once a woman saw me eying some sweets at a market and then came running after us, calling out to Eric "Sir, sir here are some sweets for your sister." The kindness is genuine and the hospitality we have encountered in the Middle East is without comparison in the rest of the world.
Syria is full of sights to visit and we had a tough climb in a driving rain up to the fairy tale castle of Crac des Chevaliers. The Roman Ruins at Apamea were another highlight as was wandering around the wind-swept Dead Cities on the way to Turkey. I think we've visited more 'tourist attractions' just in Syria than we have in all of Africa. But one of my favorite ways to spend a day is just to meander around the local markets and the one at Aleppo is a maze of alleyways where you can lose yourself in the sights and sounds of the Middle East. Here the past meets the present and people watching is at its best.
Not surprisingly, it has been the people we've met who have made the past month so memorable. Real adventure is a thing of the past and the ease of cycling in this part of the world is making progress painfully slow, if that makes any sense. We find ourselves wanting to stop at every supermarket just to check out the amazing selection of available products. If we're cold or wet there's always someone to welcome us into their home. The interesting sights make us want to linger rather than push on ahead. Our biggest struggle has been against the elements and we're anxiously awaiting warmer spring weather. Time is running out and if we hope to reach France by mid-May as planned, and we've really got to get a move on. But I've been saying that for a couple of months now, yet again I find myself extending my stay 'just one more day' at the home of some friendly couchsurfers. Enjoy the moment as they say.
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