A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

From Beirut to Damascus

From family and sightseeing in Lebanon to settling down in Damascus

Cycling into Damascus after throwing my bike on top of a mini-bus for the trip from Beirut was like descending into order from chaos. It was almost shocking how put-together Damascus felt after Beirut. The police were directly traffic rather than cowering from cars running red lights. There were red lights. There were no abandoned buildings. For me it was the contrast of capitalism versus socialism. Of a dictatorship versus virtually a complete lack of government (still pending formation after summer elections).

Prior to my departure for Damascus I had just spent about 10 days with my sister, father and one aunt and uncle on my mother's side. During their visit we saw the sights I had neglected in my previous three weeks, such as the ruins in Baalbek, the cave of Jeita, and the port cities of Saida and Tyre (Sour). But our first trip out of Beirut was to visit the remnants of my grandparents family still in Lebanon. They lived in a growing, but still small town in the Beka valley, the bread and wine basket of Lebanon. While our blood-ties seemed distant at this point, they were most welcoming. They filled the living room with familiar dishes that we would pratically overdose on in the coming week.

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We kept quite busy and before I knew it my family departed, one by one. I realized I was ready for a change of scenery and headed out for Damascus. My intention in this trip was to really get to know the places I visit by 1) going places where I could communicate 2) traveling less places and staying longer in the places I do go and 3) use the bicycle to access and build connections with people. Thus in Damascus, I planned to stay at least three weeks , take Arabic lessons and get to know the city by foot and bike.

Thus far, I have been fortunate to spend only a few nights in a hostel. In Lebanon I house-sat, slept at my cousin's ancestral house and stayed with family at a rented apartment. My good fortune has continued in Damascus. I contacted a Brazilian of Lebanese origin I met in Beirut and she arranged for me to take her place in the apartment she shared and for me to meet her Arabic tutor. This type of hospitality is common here. In my first taxi ride in Damasucs the driver pulled out a cup of steaming tea while weaving between cars and encouraged me to drink. I hesitated pondering where this hot cup of tea could of come from, but accepted at the urging of my new friends.

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I've been in Damascus since the 14th of October. I've been getting to know the City slowly and deliberately, taking bicycle trips further and further from home. I've had a week's worth of Arabic lessons and I'm picking up words and starting to form sentences. My roommate is a half-Arab German who has internalized local hospitality. She puts out a fantastic spread of cheeses for breakfast and has been taking me around town. We live above the family of Abu Yossef, his wife, three daughters and one son in a lower-middle income neighborhood near the edge of the old City. I've made friends with a neighborhood food goods shop worker, who asks me to come by every day to converse. We talk slowly in Arabic and English in between transactions with customers, most of whom are less than ten years old and some of whom appear barely old enough to walk. He reads Khalil Gibron in between transactions, is unmarried and spends his time painting poetry after work.

View Video here (youtube is banned here)

While I'll stick to my first impression that Syria is certainly a more organized country than Lebanon, I'm told there is a lot more to Syria than meets the eye. Stories of the secret police, gender issues which keep women locked at home, and of course the lack of justice and democracy is an issue. In Syria, it's unlikely that I will be pulled off the street for a casting call for the part of Misseur le grande as I was in Beirut. Still I'm told the country is fast modernizing. Thousands of electric bicycles cruise silently through neighborhoods alongside modern public buses (which Lebanon lacks entirely). A new stock market has opened, private universities have recently been allowed and the country is working to support farmers while eliminating petrol subsidies. Most of my learning has come from expats and the English language magazine Syria Today which I've been feverently reading.

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I'll be in Damascus through the first week in November save a trip to Lebanon next week to participate in an organized bike tour in the mountains and the first Critical Mass Beirut. Then I head north in a 14 day trip to Aleppo in Northern Syria.

Posted by dericvito 21:55 Archived in Syria Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Lebanon

I've been in Lebanon for almost three weeks now

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It's 3:30am and my is taxi racing behind and then between vehicles, fleeing the airport as if it was once again being bombed. Smog is pouring in the the windows as we pass 24hr fruit stands and nargehle spots. Soon I am in bed on the rooftop of a hostel in Gemayzeh listening to bass thumping from the club next door as I try to get some sleep.

It was all too overwhelming for my first day. The next morning I escaped from Talal's New Hotel, a hostel where I had spent ten days during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, to the mountains to meet my cousins Dean and Louise and Louise's father Elie. They were visiting Lebanon as well and staying in the house Elie's grandfather built. It was grape season and vines covered the house and most nearby houses in this small village. I was lucky to be able to unwind with family for a couple days before returning to Beirut to try to get engaged with the City.

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I planned my trip to be able to really dig into a few places and bicycle through others. Lebanon was I place I intended to try to really understand and find a place in. Basketball, bicycles and my network of friends and family were my primary tools for this task. My friend Meena lived here in 2006 happened to have a friend, Mac, who runs a streetball organization for youth. This friend was generous to invite me over and it turned out, let me house sit for three weeks while he and his wife visited in the US. So after a few more days at Talals, where I still had familiar faces from 2006, I moved to my own apartment in the hip neighborhood of Gemayzeh.

Basketball was my initial gateway to Beirut. A friend and occasional teammate in Seattle connected me to his agent here in Lebanon. So when I arrived I gave him a call. Within a few days I was practicing with one of Lebanon's best team, Champville and coach and matching up against the pride Lebanese basketball, a guy named Fadi (see photo). He is indeed quite talented and strong and had the personality that he would equally capable of leading an army as a basketball team.

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At the same time I got to work out with guys from the streetball organization. After a brief introduction to their mentor in a smoky 1970's like coach's office, we played a few games of three on three...not bad.

While I loved playing here, practicing with Champville felt like practicing with any team, any where. So after one exhibition game playing with Champville, and simultaneously battling my first bout with travelers stomach illness, I retired from my international professional basketball career after just one game. In any case it was fun to be there and see how excited the fans were about the game and to get a couple of buckets. I do hope to keep playing pickup and last weekend I served as a photographer for a youth tournament.

My bicycle is my other entre into Lebanon. I broke out the handlebar cam only a few times before being pulled over in South Beirut by an unmarked man on a scooter who told me that this neighborhood was not to be filmed and took down all of my information. Judging by the posters on the wall, featuring the leader of a group that starts with an H and ends in the name "god", I knew what neighborhood I was in and had a feeling I was pushing my luck.

When I was here in 2006 I had set up an internship with the environment organization Greenline, which has a similar philosophy as the organization Sightline where I did some work in Seattle, but with much less capacity and much more visible challenges. I was able to finally meet the president who I had spoken with on my last visit and through a conversation I suggested that Beirut should have a Critical Mass, a monthly event to celebrate and raise awareness of cycling. Beiruti streets are harrowing, but there are cyclists who ply the streets squeezing between taxis, scooters and military checkpoints. I'm currently talking with other cyclists here about how to make that happen.

This last week I was able to get around a little bit more an meet locals with the visit of Meena. When went up to the souk in Tripoli and the harbor in Jbeil, out to a few classy bars and restaurants in Beirut, and around to local art centers and vistas, meeting up with friends along the way.

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Lebanon is seemingly a country of contradictions. There is plenty of wealth but few public facilities. However, putting the country in the proper context of war and foreign intervention it's easy to understand why rules here are rarely followed and public goodwill is sparse. Instead, kindness here is demonstrated on the individual level. Fruit vendors who refuse to charge you for a single peach, taxi drivers who honk for your safety rather than to get you out of the way (sometimes).

Wealth is mostly imported. The Lebanese economy and many jobs serve foreigners, many from the Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudia Arabia, etc.) as well as Europe and the US. Many families have son's working in Abu Dhabi or Nigeria and tourism makes up the rest of the economy, funding an impressive diversity of bars and clubs and fancy shops and restaurants. In turn, the Lebanese economy has its own dependents, thousands of Syrians, Sri Lankans, Ethiopians and Filiopians are brought over to work in hotels, construction and as household helpers.

Still many things are hard to understand. The intense development, yet abundance of half constructed buildings. The sprawl in this country is intense as ownership of 2nd homes by residents and foreigners, many of Lebanese origin, takes up every free piece land far up the coast. The apparent disregard for the environment and materialism here give the West a run for their money.

This week I look forward to the visit of my sister, father and aunt and uncle. I've been waiting to for their visit to check out some popular sites. Meanwhile I hope to keep building connections and understanding in Beirut. After than, it's on to Damascus.

More Photos: https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/DJG/countries/Lebanon/

Posted by dericvito 05:09 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

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