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Journal - 19-Dec-2002, Thursday, Beirut, Lebanon
(Trip: Lebanon)

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Click for larger image! Lebanese fast food... - Beirut, Lebanon Keywords: Lebanon,Beirut,Beyrouth,Riviera,hotel,tourist,travel
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Click for larger image! ...shaped by spinning - Beirut, Lebanon Keywords: Lebanon,Beirut,Beyrouth,Riviera,hotel,tourist,travel
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Lebanese fast food...

Beirut, Lebanon

...shaped by spinning

Beirut, Lebanon

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Click for larger image! Stormy coastline... - Beirut, Lebanon Keywords: Lebanon,Beirut,Beyrouth,Riviera,hotel,tourist,travel
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Click for larger image! ...lit up in defiance - Beirut, Lebanon Keywords: Lebanon,Beirut,Beyrouth,Riviera,hotel,tourist,travel
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Stormy coastline...

Beirut, Lebanon

...lit up in defiance

Beirut, Lebanon

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We arrive at Beirut airport in the late afternoon after a direct but delayed flight from Paris. Last minute packing means we only got less than four hours sleep the night before. The airport seems newish but poorly designed with lots of ups and downs. We've read that you need to buy a visa stamp before passing through immigration but there's no-one at the visa desk so we join one of the queues. The queue moves incredibly slowly even though there's only a few people. When our turn finally arrives we're told we have to buy a visa stamp from the window, which, of course, now has someone behind it. All the people in front of us have fallen into the same trap.

A two week stamp costs $17. I pay in USD and receive Lebanese pounds as change. Nice looking notes. Rejoin queue. When our turn comes around the officer first enters the number of Monica's passport in the computer ("Ladies first", he smiles) and waits ages for it to respond. After finishing with the computer he checks the stamps on each page of the passport and then handwrites the passport number on a paper list! He then sticks the postage-stamp like visa in the passport, stamps it and writes some cross reference from the paper list. The painful process is repeated for my passport.

After finally getting past immigration and customs, a smart hotel taxi driver meets us with a name card and escorts us to a large american car in the multi-story car park. The car park is filled with upmarket vehicles - Mercedes, Range Rover, BMW. Driving out of the airport is a hectic squeeze, with no marked lanes on the exit road.

It is already dark by the time we leave the airport. The weather is rainy but warm. Compared to winter France it feels tropical!

The drive takes about 20 minutes of mad jostling with other cars. The hotel is on coast. There doesn't seem to be too much else around except other hotels. It's incredibly windy when we open the car doors with a light drizzle but a lovely tepid temperature.

At the hotel check-in we're asked for our passports and they say we can collect them later when they've made copies!

The hotel room smells of smoke and isn't overly large for a 4-star hotel. Looks a bit worn in fact - like it was the height of luxury in the 70s. I guess we've had the good fortune in the past to have been spoiled by staying in some great hotels and now it takes something pretty special to get excited about. Certainly I wouldn't dream of paying the standard $200 a night rate for this room (we won three free nights in a competition). Breakfast is usually $18 each but luckily is included in our prize.

The balcony looks out over the sea. The waves are fierce, breaking against the sea wall and sending up great sprays of foam. We can see an empty outdoor pool next to the sea. Monica's hopes of swimming on this trip ebb lower! Illuminated palm trees line the coast road in between us and the sea. Typical tourist fare! Cars whiz by but no people.

We're feeling hungry so after lounging for a few minutes we decide to brave the stormy weather and search for some food. It's pretty scary walking out into a brand new culture for the first time without any language or experience. It's our first time in the Middle East. There is one other girl walking, so we're not completely mad and conspicuous. It's so nice not to feel the cold we've come to expect in France every day.

The only other person on foot is a street cleaner dressed in reflective green waterproofs, picking up garbage one piece at a time with a stick. The streets are litter free, though construction debris lies all over the place.

Pass a couple of slightly run-down eateries, which is a good sign - it suggests that locals do eat in this area. A smell of baking bread attracts us to a restaurant/café. It's not really clear how the system works. There's a guy outside (under canvas), Kneading and cooking large flat breads, with a couple of tables outside and more inside. He smiles at us but doesn't offer any clues as to whether we should sit down, try to order, or what. There's no price lists or menus to be seen.

Monica bravely enters the café and asks in French. The woman responds in rusty but serviceable English and asks whether we want to eat or drink, then tells us that they have "Lebanese pizza" with cheese and 'zasta', meat, chicken... I presume that by pizza she means the flat breads that are being cooked outside, spread with goodies. We try our luck and ask to be brought something tasty with no meat. The bread is placed on a convex dome shaped hotplate and spread with cheese and 'zasta' (herbs and oil paste) for a few minutes before being folded and sliced up. We eat with our hands. It's delicious. the Woman suggests some salad to go with it and we're brought a plate with tomatoes, cucumber, mint leaves and olives. The olives are really strong with a kind of aftertaste kick. I hate olives but I eat a few out of respect. The salad is covered in salt and tastes great. We order another two of the delicious 'Lebanese pizza'.

After the meal the waiter sees Monica's camera and asks if she's been taking pictures. Monica says she'd like to take a picture of the 'kitchen'. The waiter, an ~18 year old boy, is very excited about the this and tells the bread chef to do his 'thing' of throwing the bread in the air in order to form the flat round shapes. He does this pretty impressively and repeatedly for the camera. The manager and a regular customer are now amongst the crowd and everyone is intrigued to look at the pictures on Monica's digital camera. Names are exchanged and the waiter, in just a few words of english, shows me the name Monica carved into a tree and tells me that his girlfriend left him to live in Romania three years ago. We continue chatting with the group in a mix of French and English and try to learn some Arabic words. They are amused by what are obviously quite pathetic attempts at pronunciation! The customer says he has a taxi and offers to give us a ride when we need it. Great. The people all seem genuinely friendly and curious and when the dreaded 'tourist bill' comes it seems to be something close to the local rate - $6 for everything.

Back at the hotel I fill a long awaited bath to try and put some suppleness back into my muscles after sitting in a plane for too many hours (around five). Lying in bed afterwards we try and watch some Arabic television. It's fascinating to watch the commercials when abroad and see how completely differently the marketing is in each country even for the same product. For instance a ladies hair remover shows a blonde-haired woman repeatedly shaving her arms (arm hairs seem to be very undesirable). A perfume advertisement has only white-clothed men, all in traditional arab dress. The perfume bottle seems to be presented as a formal gift from one man to another. The seated recipient sprays the perfume on his wrist before expressing his gratitude and accompanying the giver for a friendly stroll.

Looking outside I see the street cleaner again, walking towards the point where we last saw him. It looks like he (or a band of look-alikes) patrols the street constantly.

The bed is blissfully comfortable and we try to catch up on sleep, excited about the days ahead.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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