September 19, 2017

Turtles in Action

Here is some good, but probably not very scientifically supported, news. 
We are a household with animals. Granted, a difficult task in Beirut but we try our best. Both hubbie and I come from families that always had animal(s) in the house, and so we pass this on. Dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels, hamsters, fish, birds, stick insects, you name it, we've had (or have) them.
As a comparison; this is how big they are going to get

And for a strange reason, we seem to come into a lot of land turtles (tortoises). My daughter once got one for a birthday, and when that news got around, everyone with a turtle seemed to somehow feel free to dump theirs off at our house. It was either as a gift, or they were travelling for the summer, or moving out of the country, but whatever the reason, we got more and more turtles.
So many in fact, that it was no longer feasible to keep them in Beirut. We created a type of enclosure at our mountain house, where they (by now some 9 turtles) could roam freely. This news attracted even more turtles, and somehow we ended up with 18!

It must be a Dutch thing, because a Dutch friend of mine, way down south in Nabatiyah, has some 40+ turtles in her garden. She has a large olive orchard, and every year, when they plow in between the trees, she walks in front of the tractor, and picks up all the tortoises that’s she sees, otherwise they will plow right over them, and places them in the back yard where they are safe.  One summer, she got a white permanent marker, and started numbering them. She was at 40-something, when the first rain of the fall brought an end to that project; the permanent marker turned out not to be that permanent.

These land turtles, called Mediterranean Spur Thighed Tortoise, or Greek Tortoises ( Testudo graeca)   and indigenous to the region and – according to the IUCN, the International Union for Nature and Conservation –their population borders on the vulnerable (which is one step before endangered). Not surprising, as a massive building spur the past 30 years had decimated their habitat drastically.

But my 18 turtles have been very busy this year. They have been mating like crazy. Females can lay between 3 to 5 eggs, and although I have no idea how many females there are, I have seen at least two turtles laying eggs.
And they are hatching. Last week, 7 puny little turtles suddenly were roaming around the garden, and I know of at least one stash that should be hatching this month as well. Pretty soon I will be having so many turtles that I can start repopulating the neighborhood with turtles again, and get them out of the vulnerable zone.

September 16, 2017


We start with a run through Rouche rock. The light at 5 is still stark

The heat just won’t abate. The AC’s are still running full force IN MY HOUSE, but they can barely blow a dent into the humidity, even at night. We don’t have 24/7 electricity, some 20 AFTER the civil war, I tell you, in Syria they have more electricity than we do, go figure. The government does not provide water around the clock either. I’ve got to buy extra water and electricity, so I’ve got a double amenity bill. We’ve got a one million plus Syrian refugees in the country that can barely deal with its own people, the roads are perpetually clogged, it’s always noisy and crowded and getting from one part of town to another is such a feat, most people don’t even attempt it anymore. Well, at least I don’t.

Fishing boats in the heart of town
And then there is the heat!
Did I mention the heat already?  
I secretly envy friends in Holland that report 16 degrees Celcius.

It's all high-rise along the coast until . . . 

. . .  you get to the suburbs. These once were beaches, back n the 70's. Now they house refugees from an era well before the Syrians. Kurds and Palestinians that fled from Tell el Zaatar initially settled here. Now it is a mix of all.  

These inhabitants, near Beirut Airport, tired of the same old stuff, added some color to their houses.

And then. . .
after a long day at work, I get a message if I feel like going out at sea. 
Do I feel like going on a boat, out at sea?

Are you kidding?
I already hailed a service to get me to the port.

Some jet skiers come check us out

And at sea it is quiet and empty and cool. There is a breeze, and nothing pollutes my horizon, except for small fishing boats.
And I sail along the coast, cast in a soft purple haze, drive under Rouche rock, skinny dip and watch the sun set in the sea. When I sail back into port, dusk has set in, and the lights of the boulevards and buildings make this place all romantic and glamorous again.

skinny dipping (got to hold on to the buoy so the boat does not float away without us)

Purple haze

Dusk sets in

Sun set

And then . . . .
when you see Beirut in a different light, it all changes. 
I kind of like this place again.
It's all about perspective.

Back into the port

and home we go. 

An interesting read on Lebanon and perspective can be found here. The author is half Dutch, quite proud of that (and half Lebanese too) 

September 13, 2017

Ministry of Tourism & Tickets

My son was in town with his girlfriend this summer, and as she is a ‘newby’ to Lebanon, we had to do the touristic circuit. It doesn’t bother me, I love getting on the road, and Baalbeck never fails to impress me. I did notice something funny though.

Our first stop was at the temple of Niha. Niha is probably my favorite, because every time I get there, I am the only one. It’s like you have a private temple, all to yourself. And there are another two in that neighborhood, further into the mountains, in rather poor state, that are not even guarded.
 The man at the entrance let us in.
“It’s for free,” he said.
What? Is it a free day today? I asked.
“No, we do not have tickets anymore.
He had run out of tickets. I kid you not.
And although I admire his honesty, how hard is it for a Ministry of Tourism to get the guy some ticket booklets?

Very hard, it seems.

Because the next stop was Baalbeck. This temple, which would attract thousands and thousands of visitors a day if it were in a more popular setting, such as Europe, asks and entrance fee of only 10,000 LBP (5,50 euros) for a Lebanese and 15,000 LBP (about 8 euros) for foreigners.
But instead of 3, we got 7 tickets. 
The confusion was cleared up when the man explained, 
“15,000 is 3 x 5,000, and 10,000 is 2 x 5,000. You see, the tickets of 10,000 and 15,000 are finished. I only have the 5,000 left.
Why you would have booklets of 5000 when the going rate is 10,000 and 15,000 is another story. Besides, can’t they get a simple machine that prints them on the spot? Is there are a reason why the admission process needs to be as archaic as the temple itself?

And when we got to Anjar, world’s first shopping mall.  There they had run out of tickets of 6,000 LBP, and so we got 2 of 3,000 LBP. Seriously now. 

It seems that while the world is going forward, we’re not even standing still. We’re moving backwards rapidly.
There was a time when I had high hopes for this country.

September 10, 2017

First Days of September

A little dramatic editing, but so is the mood

September. A magical month. The closure of the summer, yet another summer (when you are my age, you start deploring the passing of time), the first hints of fall.
For those not familiar with Lebanon, you should visit this place in fall. Preferably late fall. Best time of the year. The light, the temperature, it’s all good.
Although the temperature is still not very cooperative at the moment. It’s still awfully hot, and this week promises to be even hotter. But hey, rather hot than in a hurricane.

The end of summer heralds departure.

My son and his girlfriend left at the end of August, back to their universities abroad. They were not the only ones leaving. You may have read people needed some four hours at Beirut Airport to get to their gates; the lines were massive (and chaotic, as usual). I have decided that from now on I will travel by train or by boat. Being in Lebanon, I guess I am not going anywhere.

I am now at the point where my parents once were; saying bye to their kids at airport parking lots. 

The last teenager in my house started high school this week. High school already? I remember I was taking the ‘first day of school’ picture when she was 3! Still remember what she wore. Odd that I can remember that so vividly, yet am clueless as to where I put my phone, my glasses and my car keys.
Another 4 years and she will leave Lebanon for college. Then I will have joined the legion of ‘childless’ parents who have to travel abroad to visit their children. 
Her school week was cut short due to an unscheduled day of mourning after the remains of 9 soldiers, executed by Daesh (ISIS) back in 2014, were identified last week. A reminder that things are from from normal in this place, and probably never will be.
The nine were executed after just about everyone involved in their release made one mistake after the other, and the whole thing was basically bungled. So while on the one hand school children had a field day, nine mothers had the worst day of their lives. Or probably just another very bad day, among many others.

This one made me laugh; A piece of wood while paving the road? Just go right over it. It must have been there for quite some time.
Fits right in

It used to be that I was surrounded by kids every weekend. They were young kids, the children of friends and family, and they were young enough that they’d follow us in whatever we planned. Mountain hikes, picnics on the beach, ski weekends, bike rides along the boulevard, you name it, we came with kids in tow.  Trailing kids, so to speak. Pretty soon, I can call myself a trailing parent.
Now that they’ve gotten older, they don’t buy into my weekend plans anymore: they have more interesting things to do. To get my daughter up to the mountains for the weekend, I have to do some serious bribing and entertainment planning. Plans with friends involve fewer and fewer children. I kind have forgotten how it was before our kids, but I guess I will have to get the hang of it again. 

Wow. September gets you in a reflective mood.

By the time it gets October, I’ll be back in a more creative mood :) 

September 02, 2017

Counting Sheep

The weather shows no sign of cooling off yet. Even up in the mountains it is still dry and hot.
I’ll have to get back in blogging mode. If not, this blog will die a slow death.

It’s the Eid right now, Eid el-Adha, the biggest muslim feast in Lebanon. It’s big, because the druze community celebrate this one as well (unlike Eid el-Fitr, which takes place after the Ramadan, and which is only celebrated by the muslims.)
During this Feast of the Sacrifice, muslims celebrate the fact that Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to sacrifice his son Ismael for God. It’s a little tricky, this story, because apparently God did not think he was going to go through with it, but when Abraham actually went along with it, he thought that maybe this was taking it a bit too far, and quickly replaced the child for a goat.
What can be learned from this story is unclear to me, but the tradition is that during this feast you (if you are a muslim, that is) should slaughter a goat. Or a sheep.

And so around this time of year, you will find that sheep vendors have set up shop around town or along main highways, so you can pick up your sheep. A Dutch newspaper even had a photo story on how these animals get transported.
Not everyone does this, of course, because in the old days, when freezers and fridges did not exist, this could cause serious issues. What do you do with all that meat? A solution was found; you only get to keep a third. One third is supposed to be given to friends and family, and the last third should be given to the poor. I am not sure how rigid people adhere to these rules these days, but that’s the tradition.

One of the neighbors in the village actually bought a sheep. He must have a really big freezer, because he did not buy one, he bought three! And these sheep were tied up last Thursday, at the door of his house, awaiting their impending faith. They bleated through much of the night, but when you are in a village in the mountains, you expect to hear nature.

What can I say? They chase loose sheep.
But somehow, during the night, and not liking what was in store for them, two of them managed to escape. Sheep are not known for their great intelligence, they do not wander off, so it was not a problem. The sheep sort of ambled around, and were grazing near my house.
We were not aware of this, however, and so when hubbie let out the dogs very early that morning, it was a field day for them. Loose sheep in the paddock! They chase sheep for a living.
And off they went.

By the time we could get our dogs back in line, the two sheep were nowhere to be seen. They had scattered in two different directions; one uphill into the forest, the other one downhill into the valley. The dogs barked a little at the one still attached, but as it was not running, there was no fun in it, and they came back.

When the neighbor came out, he looked at his one remaining sheep. WTF?
Neighbors were quick to help out that our dogs had chased the other two away. “Where are my two sheep?” he phoned.
Where are your sheep? Well, one is on top of the mountain, and the other one is in the valley. I had to laugh at this. Seriously? Ever tried to catch a loose sheep?

When we got back from the dog walk, the janitor was telling with great gusto how the neighbor had been running all the over the hills and forests trying to get his sheep back. Sheep may be stupid, but they don’t like to get caught. I have never heard this janitor crack so much as a smile, and so I was much amused when he grinned “Hahahaha, he’s still running after the other one.”

Not much happening otherwise. We will descend down to Beirut next week, as schools are about to starts. Summer is over.

August 29, 2017

Back in Beirut

Back in Beirut, and back in business. And I should be writing as you are probably wondering whatever happened to me. Did she die? Did she get a divorce? Did she leave the country forever?
No, none of the above. I am still a faithful Beiruti, but somehow, the older I get, the more stuff I have to do.

Did I shoot 2 36-frame film rolls in the old days, these days I come home with some 3,000 pictures on my home, and I have to work myself though every shot. Work started earlier, my son and his girlfriend stayed over, the housekeeper left, and a million and other things need my attention, so I am afraid I am not quite ready for a post yet. 

But to show some sign of life, here is a picture of one of the things I like the most about Beirut: it’s light.

June 19, 2017

Summer Cycles

These are not your regular yellow dandelions, they're way bigger

Summertime in Holland is pretty much like the rest of the year. Sure, school is out and people go on holidays, but after the summer, you see everyone back again, just where they left off. There isn’t much movement in the country.

Summertime in Lebanon is a different story. Summertime sets an entire migration in motion. There are the families that move to the ‘house in the mountains’, often the ancestral home, or one occupied by the grandparents. There are the students abroad, who take a break from college to spend the summer home, and then you have the Lebanese immigrants, who mass to their families in the villages all over Lebanon.

And as Lebanese are flying in, expats fly out. Summer is when most companies and NGO’s - keeping school holidays in mind - make the switch, and right now is the moment when they leave. We lose friends every summer, and although we always promise each other to keep in touch, in general that means we see each other on Facebook and Instagram.

My daughter loses friends. The Dutch community in Lebanon loses members. But that’s how it is, if you live in a country that is perpetually in motion. And so this Sunday, we said goodbye to friends with a hike and a lunch at altitude (1,600 m).

At first we tried hiking through a patch of cedar forest, but the Lebanese army had decided to set up some target practicing that morning down in the valley, and some members in the company deemed it not safe. The machine guns were fine, but once they started with mortars, they did not think the safety record of the army had been investigated sufficiently enough to take that risk, especially since we had small children and dogs with us. So we tried the other side of the mountain.

The other side is rented out each summer to shepherds from Arsal who roam the hillsides with their sheep and Shami goats in spring and summer. And these guys have nasty dogs who, although safe for humans, like to have our city dogs for lunch.  

But the highlands are beautiful, because most of it cannot reached by car and as a result are void of the usual plastic plates, beer bottles, Pepsi cans and other remains of BBQs. By September, the news batch of expats will have all settled in, the Lebanese immigrants and students will have flown back over the oceans, and the cycle begins again.

Lunch tables that do not end

June 05, 2017

Get on the Rail Road

The stretch between Sawfar and Bhamdoun (is paved). The sea looms in the distance (you are looking at clouds here)

If you’re into hiking, then you know that can be a bit of a challenge in Lebanon. There are no hiking maps (other than the LMT), and virtually no trails that are blazed. The GR system is nonexistent, and unless you know your way around , or are adventurous, you are dependent on the outdoor companies (which invariably include long breakfasts or lunches, or you are joined by people who haven’t hiked in 20 years, or who shouldn’t be hiking) or you have to hire your own guide. (The Dutch, by the way, do not like guides).

If you continue this way, you will eventually end up in the Beqaa Valley. Mind the smoke, that is where Hamana burns its garbage :(  Highway on your right, valley on your left.

But I have figured out a way around it; Follow the railroad tracks. 
It’s been a trend for quite some time now in other places, converting old railway tracks into bicycle paths. It’s happening all over in the States and Europe. In Lebanon, we’ve got over 140 kilometers (or so I have read) of abandoned tracks. So far, not one kilometer of it has been allocated for pedestrians of bicyclists, but the tracks are there.
Granted, we’re not much of a bicycling nation, but if you can get an entire town to walk a 10 K on a marathon day, I dare say you can organize a 140 K hiking path through Lebanon. It would be a fantastic trail.

It doesn't look like a rail road track, but it is.

There’s already something like similar - the LMT -  a 470 kilometer hiking trail through the mountains from north to south, with guest houses along the way. But following the railroad has a historical value, it would be a fantastic trail.  There have been talks about reviving the railroad system in Lebanon, and I am all for it, but I think converting it into a bicycle path is just as likely to happen.

Fantastic villas (some old railroad sign in front of it). This one reminds me of Villa Villekulla, the house of Pippi Longstocking.

Anyway, if you know the neighborhood a little, following bits of tracks makes for a fantastic and easy) hike. I walked the track from Dahr el Baidar to Bhamdoun last Sunday morning (at 7 AM no less) It is about 8 K, downhill, and although the rails are gone, and some parts are paved, it does give you some idea of what passengers in the old days must have seen as they were looking out of the windows of the passenger wagons.

Another beauty
and the glimpses of another one

This bit of railroad was the first to open in 1895, a 147 km trip from Beirut to Damascus, passing through Baabda, Araya, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sawfar, and Dahr el Baidar before it descended into the Beqaa Valley and then towards the Syrian border.(source)

The tunnel under Dahr el Baidar is still open, and you can basically walk into the Beqaa Valley, avoiding the highway alltogether. 

I started in Dahr el Baidar, and took the direction to Beirut. The rails are gone, and the army closed up the tunnel before Sawfar, not sure why, but the tracks runs parallel to the main road and follow one of the upper ridges of the Lebanon Mountains.

The Chateau Bernina Hotel has seen better days . . . 

. . .  and so has the Sawfar Train Station .

Walking that railroad gives you’ve got fantastic views across the Beirut River Valley (Lamartine Valley) to the Metn region, until it enters Sawfar. Sawfar was, a long time ago, where the upper class lounged in summer. Their  monumental villas, dating back from the 40’s and 50’s and older, many of them abandoned and in various states of disrepair, lie on both sides of the track. Their architecture remind of the villas around Lac d’Annecy and the lake of Geneva.  They are a sharp contracts with the incredibly ugly monstrosities that the Arabs have built after the civil war.

You walk past the back of houses and you encounter not-so Chien Mechants. This one was really cute

And beautiful flower gardens

There’s the back of the Hotel Bernina, another pre-war icon. The sign above the gate says it is “Under German management.” I have always wondered what that implies. I envision a Von Trapp kind of family. Someone told me that the guests are still received by someone in tuxedo, and that the atmosphere was reminiscent of Basil in Fawlty Towers.
You pass by the old station in Sawfar, past the Grand Hotel, and leave town, along the ridge, and again you have a fantastic view across the Lamartine Valley . This is a paved section, until you reach the outskirts of Bhamdoun.

Leaving Sawfar

Here you pass through the Jewish quarter, past the synagogue, until you reach the highway where Bhamdoun station used to be. You can continue from there, because the track goes all the way down to Beirut, but the hike is along a bit of highway here, and difficult to follow. I’ll try that bit later.

Cut for the train
So if you like hiking on your own, get on the railroad.

Enjoy the views

May 22, 2017

Women's Race

Ladies on the run

I cannot really pinpoint this loss of inspiration. Is it because of a change in jobs, and I feel invigorated to learn new things and try different approaches. Is it because I am more active in Instagram? Or because I am so incredibly busy with life? Is it because hubby likes me to join on his hikes and adventures? Is it because a partner in crime has moved? Is it because I no longer use a camera, just a phone? Or is it because Beirut no longer inspires? I do not know, but for some reason, there is little to write about.

last minute advice from the man who usually is her running partner

I do plenty of things, and then I write a post, and reread it, and I think “Mwwwwaaaa. . . . no.” And then I drop it. Or the post is fine but the pictures are ‘moyenne’, Like this, of course, I’ll never end up posting anything. So let’s just post something.

Team mates

Sunday was the annual 10 K Women’s Race.  I don’t run, but the lady working in our house, Aregu Sisay Abate, does.  She wins quite a few of these races in Lebanon, she’s good on the 10 and 20 K. Last month she ran with another 24,000 people the half marathon in Berlin. And out of the 24,000, she ended up being #39, and 12th in her age category. She ran the 20K in 01:24:46, which was a personal record.

But since running is picking up as a sport in Lebanon, and these events pull in more and more people, the organizers get people from outside to lead the field and bring down the time. And so Aregu is now up against professional runners. But she holds on quite well. Although last weekend she did not win, (She came in 6th, an amateur, with 5 professional runners ahead of her), she did break yet another personal record, 37:43 for 10K. Not bad at.

And what else was memorable last Sunday? The traffic. If only the roads were like this 24/7.

And that’s it for today.