April 26, 2015

Some Days

We went biking to the Mar Mikhael Street Festival. The theme was 'Discover Armenia Street', which coincided with the 100th commemoration of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, April 24, 1915
Some days.

My car was up for its annual quality check, the infamous mecanique. In order to have your mecanique done, you will need to come to the inspection office, with your car, and present your car papers.

But I couldn’t find my car papers. I looked and looked, and looked some more, but it was not to be found. Both hubbie and son use my car now and then, and between the 3 of us, someone had lost it.
No car papers, no mecanique. No mecanique, no car insurance. I call the mecanique for advice.
Madam, you must first report it lost at the police station.”

So this Saturday morning, 8 o’clock, I am on my way. I start early, because I know how these things go.  

Although not exactly in the middle of the Armenian neighborhood, which is Bourj Hammoud, this street leads right into it.
At the local police station, a lovely young man helps me. Impeccable English, always helpful with my less than perfect Arabic.
No problem, madam, sit down, let me get the paperwork. What did you lose?
“My car papers.”
“Your car papers? Have you already been to the Adlieh?”
Adlieh is the judicial department of the police force.
Ahh, you first must go to the Adlieh.”
“But I was told that if I lose something, I report it at the police station.”
“Yes, that is correct. Except for your car papers. Then you first need a paper from the Adlieh.”

Entertainment for the kids; a soap bubble magician
And so to the Adlieh I go. It is still early, Saturday morning and all that.  At the door of the Adlieh, my handbag is thoroughly searched by a police lady. Never have I had my bag searched this thorough. They must be worried about irate customers who lose their cool.

What do you want?”
“I lost my car papers.”
“First floor, first door.”

Up n the first floor, however, there are 7 doors, all around the stair case. This building is from a time when money was plenty, and corruption low, and so a real architect with a grand vision has designed this building. Doors all around.

Mar Mikhael is an extension of Gemayzeh, and bustling with activity in the evening. Little pubs and restaurants are everywhere. It is a very laid-back kind of atmosphere, very different from the constipated Zaitouny Bay crowd.

 I try a number of doors, all wrong, until I hit the right door.

A lady asks: “What do you want?”
“I lost my car papers.”
From a thick envelop a – clearly very often – copied paper is presented. In Arabic. And the lady leaves the room.

“Uhh, what do I do with this?” I ask the remaining man in the room
“Fill it in.”

But the paper is in Arabic, and although I probably could decipher some words, I wouldn’t know what the official terminology means, and I cannot write Arabic.
“Then go to Sami, in the cafeteria, he will fill it in for you.”
“Down stairs.”

Down I go.
“Are you Sami?” I ask the gentleman you find in every government building. He sells cookies, chocolate, coffee, stamps and copies official paper work for you.
“That I am! What can I do for you?”
“Can you help me fill this in?”
“Absolutely.” He obvioulsy does this all the time. He fills in my paper, sells me the necessary stamp (7,000 pounds), and sends me back up. “Same office.”

Back on the first floor, the lady looks it over. She stamps it, and says “Okay, next door.”
“Next door?”
“Yes, next door.”
“To do what?”
“To get a signature.”

Next door I go, where a man behind a very large desk seems very busy, but not too busy to give me my signature.

Then I am sent to yet a third office, where the signature gets stamps yet again, and then I am done.
Typical pre-war Beirut architecture. Which is slowly disappearing as ugly high-rise makes its way

Back to the police station.
The nice gentleman has now been replaced by a lady, equally friendly.

“What do you want?”
“I lost my car papers and I have already been to the Adlieh,”
She takes my paper from the Adlieh, enters the information by computer into the system, and tells me she will call me in 3 days. “What for?” I ask her.
“To get proof that you have reported it.”
“So now I am done?” I ask, hopefully.
“Nooooo. Now you have to go to the Nifa. You need to get a paper from them that you have lost your car papers otherwise you cannot get your proof from us that you have reported it. And then they cannot issue a new one

Of course. How could that logic have escaped me? It is by now 9:15. Not bad for two government offices. To the third it is. The Nifa is the place where you get a driver’s license, get your car registered, or have it inspected.

For those who have ever been to the Hamra Festival, or the street festivals in Bliss or Makhoul, the crowd in Mar Mikhael is totally different. Although Hamra is already a lot more cosmopolitan than the rest of town, here it is much younger, and very down to earth. No veil to be seen either, I though that was interesting.

But traffic is now in full force, and getting there takes a little longer. It doesn’t help much that I now need to go to the bathroom, and I inadvertently end up in a line of cars that are going for inspection. At the Nifa.

When finally making it to the Nifa, I am again directed to the first floor, and to “ask anybody.” There are, however, three buildings, with three first floors. When I finally make it, there’s like a thousand men, moving around like ants in an anthill, and an equal amount of windows with little holes in it, through which you can tell an attendant ton the other side of the window, what it is you want. And in front of each little window is sort of bunch. You sort of get into the bunch and wiggle your way to the front.

 I make it to the first window.
“I lost my car papers.”
“What’s the plate number?”
As I say the 7, first number in my plate, he replies, without looking up, ”Window 0.”
“Excuse me”?
“Window 0. Your plate starts with a 7. That’s window 0, here’s window 5.”

The Armenian flag in the background as pub owners get ready for more crowd
And so the entire process repeats itself. In front of window 0 this time. Around 11 o’clock I finally get my turn, and explain my problem.

And as he is typing my information into the computer, I see car registration papers churning out of his printer. Just like that. A simple stupid color printer prints car registration papers! Why did I not think of this before? I have a digital copy of mine, just in case I would lose it, like now. Why did I not think of that? I just print it out myself, the right size, laminate it, and no one would notice. This system breeds corruption like no other.

 When I finally get my proof that I have lost my car papers, I mention the man it would have been a whole lot faster if I had just printed mine out, like he does.

“Yes, it certainly would have. But now you cannot do that anymore,” he replied dryly.
“Why not?”
“Because yours has just been entered into the system as void.”

Some days.


April 20, 2015

Hiking with the Dutch

On the top of Jabal Moussa
Went hiking last Sunday in Jabal Moussa. Somehow I always thought Jabel Moussa was somewhere in the south, but it is right close to Beirut, in the mountains above Jounieh. It’s the mountain between Yachouch, Chouen, Mchato and Nahr edDahab.
Jabal Moussa is a relative new nature reserve (2009) of some  6,500 ha,  and quite different from our last hike in Moukhtara Valley.
Moukhtara is vast, rough and untamed. Jabal Moussa seems small, it’s got these tiny pockets of different types of landscapes all stuck together, more diverse and much softer. Although lots of rocks and trees, there were quite a few meadows with spring flowers, and you could just imagine Julie Andrews frolic around.
Alpine-like meadows with daisies
We hired a guide to walk us through the reserve.
But there is something about Dutch and organized tours; it brings out the worst in us. Although in general not a barbarian nation, when we are in groups, we’re not really interested in endemic orchids, three different type of acorns, the age of a certain tree or why Kesrouani peonies grow in this specific place only.
Just get us going already.
We don’t want to stop at every bend in the path to group together and listen to the guide explain about the origins of the river’s name or talk about the age of a tree. We’re there to hike and get tired.
Staring into the valley below

Our guide had something else in mind. She had been trained well, and was dead-set on instructing us on the complete fauna and flora of the place. She expected us to behave as a group of meek school children who would nicely gather around her in a semi-circle every 250 meters and listen respectfully to the teacher. Lo and behold, but not on a Sunday.
This is how teenagers hike
It didn’t help much that we were accompanied by a number of teenagers. And teenagers - if you already manage to convince them to join the family on boring family outings such as hiking (which they will only accept if they have absolutely nothing else to do, or if you lure them with the presence of another teenager) - are not interested in staring at panoramic vistas, beautiful nature, or natural water wells. They are there to network.
That social interaction takes place through loud giggles, exaggerated intonation, shrieks, pushing, shoving and otherwise annoying behavior. Parents of teenagers know that it’s best to ignore this, as any type of correction will result in eye-rolling, huffing, puffing, further resentment and arguments, after which previous behavior will continue as before. You can lecture them later, in privacy, separated from other teenagers.
The guide, however, insisted that the teenagers learn about the flowers too. Well, good luck.

There were more teenagers, but it is hard to have them cooperate and be in a picture

The pre-teen boys in the group had – by that time – already disappeared from view, armed with sharp pointed sticks with which they will inevitably hurt each other (“you are going to poke someone’s eye out!”) or themselves. They were well ahead, climbing the highest point of the mountain, ready to discover dead bodies, get devoured by wolves, fall into deep pits and throw rocks at each other, much to the alarm of the guide, who – with the instinct of a border collie – was planning on keeping everyone together.
They will get lost,” argued the guide (“Don’t worry, they will find their way faster than we do,” replied the moms) and “They might fall and hurt themselves,” (“Worry about us breaking a hip on this uneven terrain instead.”)  
Our child-rearing philosophy was clearly not shared by the guide.

Her insistence to wait for the stragglers, and pause at every kilometer, made us think we were hiking a little too slow for her, so we picked up the pace. We misunderstood; the poor guide, who had already done a hike of some 10K+ the previous day, developed a serious cramp.
But when we were ready to sit down, finally, in a beautiful meadow in the middle of the forest on the absolute mountain top, and take a serious break of an hour or two, we were quickly herded back onto the trail. This was not to be a hike of leisure.
Clearing in the forrest

I hope she is not reading this, because she was, by all accounts, an exceptionally friendly, forthcoming and knowledgeable lady, who did her job outstandingly. It was clear she absolutely loved her work and this reserve, and these are the people we need in this country. She just happened to stumble upon a group of anarchistic Dutch, with morose teenagers and energetic little boys.
 At the end of the hike we opted for a local lunch in a guest house in the village of Mchaati (I can definitely recommend that, good experience), where we all compared our step, distance and elevation apps. The distance ranged (depending on the app we consulted) from 5.7 to 8.8 kilometers (I turned mine on a little late), the steps varied between 8,000 and 18,000, and the difference in elevation went from ‘99 flights of stairs’ to a 457m ascend and descend. That just shows you how absolutely worthless the GPS in your phone is. 

The reserve is absolutely worth visiting; the sceneries are stunning and vary greatly. Actually, what’s probably most appealing about this place is its variety; every corner you turn, you find yourself in a totally different place; alpine meadows with wild flowers, oak forests, elflike clearing in between the trees, wild rock formations, fields with just orchids (I think. By that time she had given up on us), little mountain paths, an old roman foot path dating from somewhere around 100 AD, a shepherd passing by with a troop of goats, an old water well; it all has a very miniature-like and sweet quality to it. We greatly enjoyed our hike.
Teenagers engaged
Not so the guide. I am afraid we left a rather dismayed lady with an even more dismayed impression of Dutch. I wonder what she told her parents. 'These are the most horrible clients I have ever had. What an awful people! They did not listen at all. They were rowdy and chaotic. You can see where their kids picked up those habits. When I have children of my own, I will not raise them like this.'
Sorry dear. Do not take it personal. It’s not you. It’s us.

April 13, 2015

Like Nothing Ever Happened

Ramlet el Baida, Beirut

Today marks the day that the Lebanese civil war - 40 years ago - officially started. It had been in the making well before that day, but April 13, 1975 is when it all went horribly wrong, with a bus in Ain el Remmeneh. The rest is history.
150,000 dead and some 17,000 ‘disappeared’. A city in shambles, a country in a mess. Sect that do not communicate with one another. Nothing much has changed since then, except for the fact that we’re not shooting one another.

How did we commemorate it? Not.

Pretty much how we deal with all problems in this society. Not.

I went walking the dogs on the beach with my daughter. She does not know that today is that day. She does not even learn about the civil war at school. It’s not in the program, since the forces that may be haven’t figured out yet how to explain what happened without starting a new war. And so 40 years later we walk on the beach as if nothing happened.  An era like that just disappears and is forgotten if the young do not hear or read about it. Maybe it is better that way, you don't learn from history anyway, it repeats itself anyway.

The beach was full of Syrian refugees, who are escaping the density of the Palestinian camps, where many have now found shelter, to enjoy a breather on the beach, and who probably have no idea how much longer their civil war is going to last (and whether it really is civil). They have already lost more people in 3 years than we did in 15 years of conflict. For those living in the west, you have no understanding of what misery really is. Neither do I really. I was from after the war and so is my daughter's generation.
It is sad that such an important day just passes by like that. Like nothing ever happened.


Here is a day-by-day event web site, and this one explains through wiki leak cables how it was perceived by outsiders. 

April 10, 2015

Something New Every Day


You learn something every day.
I was out scouting possible picnic places for a birthday party of a nephew, when we ran into a herd of sheep somewhere in the mountains above Beirut. The winter is over, and shepherds have been moving their troops back to the summer pastures up in the mountains. I regularly run into shepherds and their troops while hiking up in the mountains, and so you assume I’d know a bit about sheep, but I had no clue what they were doing as a number of women were trying to tie the sheep into some kind of line system. A double rope was tied to one sheep’s neck, held by someone, and the rest was somehow intertwined, one facing the other, neck to neck, into that rope.


I know that they do not really use the sheep for wool here (as far as I know), so no sheering. Were they trying to line up the troops for the abattoir? Feeding time? You hardly need to tie them up for that, besides, the fields right now are green and luscious, not likely they need to be fed at this time of the year.

When I got closer, I noticed ladies working with pots of white milk. They were milking the sheep. This was one of those ‘duh’ moments for me. I know you can milk ewes because you have sheep cheese and yoghurt, but since I had never seen it, it never occurred to me they would milk sheep here in Lebanon. I thought they were only kept for selling them for the meat.


The lady overseeing the herd, some 150 sheep, explained her sheep get milked twice a day. She couldn’t tell me how much milk they produced, but she pointed at a two 50L milk containers, that get filled and picked up twice daily. I seriously doubted a sheep can produce 1 liter per day, but I surfed the web a bit, and it seems that the sheep of this region, awassi sheep, a local breed well adapted to dry conditions, are actually the second highest milk producers of all sheep breeds.

 The Awassi evolved over centuries for hardiness, disease resistance and ability to survive in hot and dry environments typical of much of the Middle East. Recently, they have been selected for milk production. The fleece usually is used for carpet. (Source)



And it seems that a lactating Awassi can indeed produce up to a liter a day, according to  this source, although not 365 days a year. And so the sheep I see up in the mountains on my walks are not actually kept for the meat, but for their milk.  

It is definitely THE perfect place to organize a birthday party for some Beirut city kids of a posh private school.  We’ll have them chase some sheep, roll around in sheep dung, and in the end they can drink the unpasteurized milk they will have milked themselves. I can just see those moms freak out; ‘ya mama,  wash your hands, don’t touch that, don’t drink that, don’t put your hand in your mouth, you’ll get sick, that’s dirty!’

And so you learn something every day.

April 06, 2015

Is it Real or is it Fake?

Google got these as backgrounds. So how can it be ugly?

There’s been a bit of a discussion between some blog readers whether Lebanon is actually beautiful, or that I am promoting a fake image of Lebanon, since the country is not beautiful at all, or at least, it’s not more beautiful than other countries.
Well, there’s some truth to that. To all of the above. Yes, the country is beautiful, and yes, it’s pretty ugly too, but I am quite good at cropping my photos in such a way that you don’t really get to see it, and it’s definitely not more beautiful than other countries, but then again, sometimes it is.

It’s a bit like Facebook and Instagram, I guess, you only post those pictures that make it appear as if you lead a glamorous and exciting life, surrounded by beautiful people, and that you are living a moveable feast, which we all know is fake, but it still gives us Facebook Depressions.
But sometimes it IS beautiful here; you just have to focus on small things, and look for small moments. Even when you compare it to other countries. This morning I went walking my dogs, and because it is a day off, there are too many people up and about in Beirut, so you have to go further out. I ended up in Saadiyat, for no specific reason. You get in the car and drive until you see a place that looks like it's accessible on foot.

Old sea road in Saadiyat
And the old sea road in Saadiyat, at 8:00 AM, IS beautiful. There is little traffic, the butterfly marguerite daisies grow really high, so all roadside garbage is conveniently hidden, the shoulders are a bright green and yellow, the Mediterranean sea is blue, the sun is shining and even the barbed wire has a ‘rustic’ quality to it.
To see scenery like this in France, you’ll have to share it with another 100,000 tourists. The Cote d’Azur is always packed, no parking to be found in miles. You could see it in Holland, probably, if the weather allows it (overcast sky and 8 degrees Celcius in Holland on the coast today). And so the claim this country is ugly as far as scenery goes, I don’t think you are looking careful enough. 

Fantastic color scheme under the gum tree (no idea what it's called but it looks like a gum tree)
If you only see the ugly part, than your life is rather grim here, because there is plenty of ugly around.  The political system is ugly, the corruption, the incompetency of those that have and those that rule, the inequality of income, the lack of social mobility, the fact that the majority of the Lebanese are not able to visit the places that I visit due to economic or educational restraints, the brain drain and I could go on for a bit, all that is ugly. Oh, and that land along the coast costs $1,500 per square meter in that area and so I will never ever be able to afford that sea side villa. Now that’s really ugly.

Showdown; Dog meets other - not so friendly - dogs
But to say that Lebanon’s scenery overall is not beautiful, and that these images are not representative of Lebanon, that’s looking at the glass and seeing it half empty. I see it half full.


March 31, 2015

Moukhtara Valley

Moukhtara Valley, looking south

I went hiking this weekend. Spring is the high season for hiking here; both weather and nature are at their best. A Dutch friend organized a guide and a bus (otherwise you’ve got to walk a loop), and we went to explore the Barouk River Valley, which is actually called the Moukhtara Valley, although Barouk River Valley would have made more sense to me, if it weren’t for the fact that my MapMyHike app actually calls it the Awali Rivier. What’s in a name?
 The Barouk River Trail, which is at the beginning of the valley, is a relatively new trail, and runs past a few old water mills that used to grind flour and olives (for oil), and some Ottoman (Turkish) and Mamluk (Egyptian) bridges. It is actually an existing road, but with the replacement of cars for donkeys, it became obsolete, until 2011, when they fixed the old bridges and promoted it as a hiking trail. The Barouk river runs right through the Chouf Ceder Reserve, one of the largest reserves in Lebanon. There’s lots of interesting stuff to read about that region (here and here for instance)
Awali River, better known as the Barouk River
But the funnest part is when you leave that trail and join an old Roman path that runs under a cliff alongside the river. There are some remains of a Roman temple there at the end of the trail apparently. Not sure how they know its Roman, because even before there were Romans, people must have used some type of trail to move through the valley.

In Europe, there is an entire network of ancient footpaths like these. The French have maintained, marked and mapped some 180,000 kilometers of them in their country alone. They’re called Grand Routes (GR) and these are the old roads that people used when moving across country or continent. The paths are narrow and go from village to village, because in the old days you either walked, or walked with a donkey (or horse, if you had money), so no need for wide roads, and you needed villages for safety, food and shelter.
It would be great if one day all these ancient footpaths in Lebanon (and the region) would be mapped and marked. I know there is a long distance path that runs from Turkey all the way through Syria and Jordan to the Sinai desert, the Abraham Path.   The region is teeming with old trade routes and pilgrimage trails that are no longer in use.
I have noticed that lately people have started to mark trails; a good sign. The Barouk River Trail is marked by a single white band, painted upon tree trunks or rocks. The LMT (Lebanon Mountain trail) is marked with a purple and white band. They do the same in France where you can walk from north to south, simply following a path marked by red and white stripe.

 The Barouk River Trail, especially the part that runs along the cliff, is a pretty popular hike. If you’re a slow hiker, you’ll notice pretty soon you’re not the only one on the trail; some pretty larger groups tend to pass you buy, or you’re bypassing some large groups yourself. Now that isn’t much of an issue, if it weren’t for the fact that most of the trail is not really a trail but rather a rock clambering exercise. I remember doing this hike some years back, and that path almost did me in. It was a lot easier this time, but it’s hard on the knees and the ankles.
This ‘Roman’ path runs all along a steep cliff on both sides; one is a cliff wall going up, the other side is a cliff wall going down, in some parts rather gradually, in other parts rather steep. A fellow Dutchie, and avid hiker, broke her leg a couple of months ago while hiking along another trail. I am not sure how they got her off the trail, but in this particular place, the Red Cross guys are not going to be very happy with you of they need to haul you out. In some parts you have to skip a little stream, or hike under a waterfall; it’s all quite pretty.
That was part of my weekend. The next holiday is around the corner, so will do some more hiking.