Outside the Sonamaria bus station in Damascus
After flying to Syria and spending some time there getting my Iranian visa, checking out different parts of Damascus and smoking lots of hookah, "My that grape is mild!" I boarded a bus to check out Beirut
. The bus I took was not your most modern and after getting shifted around in seats a bit, I finally was shifted to one with very little leg room due to my fellow passenger. "Thanks for being so considerate buddy....oh well, it isn't that long a trip." In fact it did take around 4 hours which included a lunch stop and the requisite border formalities and checking and re-checking of passports. The most surprising thing about the trip was the change in terrain and the mountains in Lebanon still were littered with patches of snow.
Lebanese mountains near the Syrian border
However, arrival into Beirut was less thrilling as it appeared to me as just another big city although as I would find out later, a very unique one. I decided to stay in a pension fairly close to the bus station as I had plannned to return to Syria the same way and with an early departure time. The nicest thing I soon discovered was that this was a lovely, relaxed and slightly trendy part of downtown Beirut which made it very appealing. Wandering around ths area, it was nice to see many old buildings and a large number which were abandoned.....as I realized later, this was an indication of the war-torn strife that has characterized the history of Beirut and Lebanon. However the landmark that was most striking to me was clearly the huge Al-Omari mosque although I was surprised to see nearby barricades, razor-wire blocking off the parking area and a tent-city across the street.
Downtown Beirut with Al Omari mosque in the background
I would later learn that this was the result of the Hezbollah occupation of the city as a protest against the government. This occupation had resulted in a closure of the downtown core so it was almost eerie to walk the streets without anyone present save for a few army patrols. What should have been hoards of folk laughing and drinking and singing in open-air restaurants was characterized instead by the still silence of vacant chairs. There were a couple shops open but I could only speculate why as there were obviously no shoppers. Then I ran into Bob sitting outside his small coffee shop. I stoppped to chat a bit with him and as he talked about the Hezbollah as being "nice, just ordinary guys" I got a bit of a sense of the rift that obviously divides the city and country.
Al Omari moques with some of the Hezbollah tents marking the "tent city' in the downtown core as a protest against the government
Bob then porceeded to tell me of his desire to see peace return to Beirut so he could make enough money to eventusally marry his girlfriend and start a family. I am sure the sentiment for peace was one that is shared by many. I then grabbed a cab and headed for the popular Hamra neighbourhood which is characterized by busy coffee shops and stores..."Feels much more like a touristy area here! "This was made obvious by the fact that I was almost immediately accosted by a young teenage girl panhandler wearing what I thought was a school uniform "What courses are they teaching you?" After wandering all over, I finally decided to enjoy a pastry and coffee and nice conversation with the donut shop owner. Next door I also watched five men enjoying a friendly game of cards.
Abandoned church in downtown Beirut
Similarily, young school children cheerfully wandered back to school after lunch, scenes which are common in many cities. However, this was Beirut so a block away, I could also see the more ominous backdrop of street barricades and an armoured vehicle with a soldier perched on top. As I left the donut place, a man on a scooter motioned me over and in a friendly fashion proceeded to tell me his was a policeman and that I should not take any photos in the area. I acknowledged that I hadn't and wouldn't (almost) and he finished with a somewhat familiar "Welcome to Lebanon." After that pleasant exchange I continued strolling the streets and only about 15 minutes later was motioned over by a soldier standing on the other side of the street in front of a barricade.
Abandoned apartment building in downtown Beirut
Expecting another friendly greeting, this rather gruff miltia, proceeded to give me the same message and then insisted to see all the pictures on my camera. So there I am with my camera still slung over my shoulder as the soldier looks at the 100 plus pictures on my memory card "Those school children are from Africa." After he was finally satisfied, I promptly put my camera in my backpack and headed back to the city centre. Enjoying a traditional Lebanese dinner, I thought about my first visit to this true city of contrasts.....a place I hope to return to!