March 22, 2015

More on the South

Sour at sunset

Sour at sunrise

More south for you. For reasons that are unclear to me, when I roam around Lebanon, I usually end up either north or east, but not often south. It is not because of security reasons; the south is as safe as the rest of the country. It’s not due to traffic either, because Beirut has basically only one way going north and one going south. It’s just how it is. But last weekend I was in Tyre (Sour), and it was a reminder that I should be spending more time down there; the place is beautiful.
The old town at night

These days Tyre is a small provincial town; in its heydays it was once one of the famous Phoenician ports. It was already a town some 4,000 years ago. It had a king (Hiram) and it was doing business with the rulers of Israel and the pharaohs of Egypt, it was rich, because it produced purple dye (made from crushed Murex shells), and traded with the other Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean. Actually, the fact that Roman catholic archbishops still wear purple these days comes from there, when purple was so expensive that only royalty could afford (and wear) it. The archbishops were considered the princes of the church (source).  Even Alexander the Great hung around there in 332 BC (and obliterated the entire population, it seems).
The harbor in the evening

This current civilization is not in favor of Tyre: The town went from great wealth to poverty, and nothing is left of that former glory, other than plenty of ruins. These days they live off citrus orchards, banana plantations and fishing.  But the old town and its harbor are still beautiful. I stayed in what they call these days a boutique hotel, Dar Alma. I haven’t figured out what the ‘boutique’ part is, but it’s an old Lebanese house, on the shore, converted into a hotel.  Maybe you should visit; it’s safer than Tunis, just to give an example. Just sayin’.
More sour. I don't know if this was sun rise or sun set.
 More on the history of Tyre and even more (if you’re into this kind of stuff). 

March 19, 2015

Naqoura Race


It's the season to be running in Lebanon. Last weekend, Elite Running Club organized the third annual Naqoura Race, a 10 kilometer run, in the most southern part of Lebanon. So southern, as a matter of fact, that as a foreigner you cannot get there without permission of the army. Maybe they’re afraid you end up in Israel.
I am not a runner, but the housekeeper is (Aregu Sisay Abate), and since she had to run, I decided to drive her. I will not say “no” to a trip to the south. Some 500 runners thought the same thing.
Unifil soldiers organize the security
 I love the very southern part of Lebanon, because, due to conflict and occupation, this region is rather undeveloped compared to other regions of the country. You can actually see the sea as you drive by the coast line; the view is not blocked by high rise and heavy industries. Beach operators have not claimed the entire coastline, and you can go in bikini to the public beach.  
Aregu on her way to first place
One time, some years ago, I had a party in Naqoura, the last town before the border with Israel. And it was very stormy that night, there was no electricity, and road signs were absent. I came from Beirut, and I drove and I drove and I drove, and I had no clue where I was exactly. No towns in sight, nothing. And as I turn around this cliff, suddenly this entire town lights up right in front of me. And I remember this moment of instant confusion; “they have electricity here?” And “that’s a pretty big town.” I thought I was driving right into Israel.  Turns out it was the UNIFIL Headquarters.
Happy Aregu, happy trainer
Slowly but surely, the runners’ culture is growing in Lebanon. Although still a sport most popular by the relatively affluent in town, bit by bit it is gaining ground, to be hopefully embraced by all, because it is a sport that is healthy, does not pollute the environment (unless you have to drive to races), doesn’t cost much and could be, potentially, done anywhere.
I have said it before; the runners’ world in Lebanon is quite unusual in the sense that race, gender or religion doesn’t seem to be of any importance. And running, it seems, is quite beneficial to your social life as well!  
Aregu's club waiting for the prize ceremony
'Aside from the benefits coming from the more obvious physical aspects of running, the social elements should not be overlooked. By training for a race of some sort, or simply taking up running as a hobby, you have already joined a “community” – perhaps without knowing. (. . . ) By maintaining friendships within your own local “running community,” you’ll quickly expand your social circle in the process'. (Source)
Not one, but two cups!
In case you wonder, Aregu Sisay won, in 39 minutes and something.  All this promotion, by the way, is done by a non-runner. I do not run. I was never into running, but I see so many people run, many of them my age and much older, that it slowly starts to rub on to me. Maybe I should.
And what impressed Aregu the most on this trip? The fact that oranges grow on trees. She had never seen that before. Neither had I, until I came to Lebanon.

March 17, 2015

Happy Ending

I do love happy endings. The little dog I found by the roadside on Sunday, hiding beside his dead mom, has found a lovely owner. A post on Animals Lebanon , and a follow up,  resulted in a total of  1,636 likes, 523 shares (i.e. another 523 Facebook members shared the picture with their circle of friends) and 345 comments.
This little fella (it's a girl), in the meant time, is going to be one lucky bastard.  The message is clear: 1) there are a lot of compassionate people out there, 2) support animal protection organizations, and 3) there is goodness in this world. And that's all we need. Thank you Joy, for providing a home.

March 15, 2015

Death by the Road Side

Was in the south this weekend. And while driving down from Tyre to Naqoura in the early morning, I noticed a black dog by the side of the road, with a little puppy next to it. I though it odd that a dog would sleep so close by the side of the road, especially with puppies.  I drove on, but it lingered on my mind. What dog would really sleep by the side of the road? What if it were dead?
When driving back to Tyre, some 5 hours later, we looked out for the ‘sleeping dog’. And it was still there. With the puppy, hiding between its paws. The sleeping dog was indeed a dead dog, apparently hit by a car and left to die.
It's the last thing I need, yet another dog. I already have three. And the old aunt in the house will file for divorce if she could, at the sight of another dog. But how can you leave a puppy behind, with a 12 year old in the car, and so we came back home with yet another dog.
This one is up for adoption though. Anyone interested in a little dark brown puppy, with Labrador features, some 6 weeks old, please inbox me. This one needs a little child to love!

March 12, 2015


Talking about slowing life down and enjoying little things, and small initiatives, and moving from an economy dictated by multi-nationals to an economy run by locals with as little waste as possible -however idealistic and unfeasible this may sound to some – a friend of mine brought us together in this little place in Mar Mikhael; Motto, where the drinks are reasonably priced, and you pay what you think the food is worth, with different cooks all the time.
This city is fluid like mercury. The Lebanese are a crowd that needs constant changes, and new incentives. Things that were popular yesterday, are so passé today.  I have seen several neighborhoods prosper and become hipper than hip, and then before you know it, they’re all closed up again. There was (at one point in time, and very long ago) Kaslik, and then there was Monot, and Gemayzeh, and Hamra. These days it’s Mar Mikhael, although if I end up in a hip neighborhood, that means it’s ‘unhipping’ rapidly and there’s probably already a new neighborhood on the rise.
The place is very small, and it’s probably a good idea if you book in advance with a large group of friends. We had a pretty good time, and our cook was Sossi, who, with an Armenian background and an American husband, served us Thai food.

March 09, 2015

Spring is in the Air (literally)

I tried my last hand on skiing this season; it was an exercise in rubber cement navigation. This is the kind of slush that makes you ‘catch an edge’ (when one ski gets stuck in the snow while the other continues), and break a bone (or two).
Finally smiling; happy that the season is over (she hates everything winter, cold and skiing)
Just as we decided to call it a day, thousands and thousands and thousands of storks glided overhead. Now if that's not an indication that spring is in the air, I do not know what is. They have started their spring migration. They use the uplift of air to glide over the land, while they’re migrating from Africa to Europe. Storks spend the winters in Africa, and are now on their way back to spend spring and summer in Europe.


White storks rely on the uplift of air thermals to soar and glide the long distances of their annual migrations between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. For many, the shortest route would take them over the Mediterranean Sea; however, since air thermals do not form over water, they generally detour over land to avoid the trans-Mediterranean flights that would require prolonged energetic wing flapping. It has been estimated that flapping flight metabolizes 23 times more body fat than soaring flight per distance travelled.. Thus, flocks spiral upwards on rising warm air until they emerge at the top, up to 1,200–1,500 m . (Source)

I am doing this with a little pocket camera, okay, so the quality is mediocre

I assume that’s a sure sign of spring. In Holland, when a stork nests in town, it makes it into the newspaper’ storks are pretty unusual where I’m from. It’s pretty impressive to see hundreds of thousands of these majestic birds fly overhead. Unfortunately, each year many hundreds die while flying over Lebanon, because they’re being shot by total morons, for no apparent reason, as this is not even an edible bird. You can sign a petition here. Not sure what good it will do, but hope it will raise awareness.

March 08, 2015

Into the Country

Still ski-able, but spring has started
I guess I can pack up my skies again; the season was sweet but short. How these ski-operators survive on a business that basically only runs about 8 weekends a year is beyond me. But spring has definitely set in. I am sitting on my balcony now in a T-shirt. Yesterday I went into the country with some friends who have a similar project as I do. Actually, we do not have a similar project, but we both have a project set out for our future (I think we’re both thinking 10 years from now) that involves donkeys.
The donkey, called 'stubborn' (although they're not stubborn at all)
My plan involves the purchase of a donkey that I will then hike with; they plan to start up a project that will involve reviving the abandoned country side in Portugal, while at the same time creating a local economy, and allowing people to share ideas on how to live a more ecological friendly way of life. Basically making ecological living a sound alternative to our current consumer oriented economy. Anyway, word was that there was someone who had a donkey sanctuary somewhere in the hills above Aamchiit.
Near Jrabta
I thought I had seen pretty much all of this country, but I must have missed this part, which is crazy, because it is so close to Beirut really and absolutely beautiful. And it is perfect donkey hiking country. You see, every year in France, I rent a donkey, and hike through an area for a couple of days. I usually go with some other friends, and these holidays are memorable experiences. I don’t like carrying backpacks, so the donkey takes care of that. But having hiked now for a number of years with donkeys, I have grown immensely fond of these animals.
My daughter with her first donkey. She was 7 then.
My first time was in 2009.  It’s a big thing these days in Europe, hiking with a donkey. And I know that hiking in Lebanon has only just started taking off (the Mount Lebanon Trail is a good example for that), so taking it to the next step - hiking with the family ánd a donkey - is maybe taking it a bit too far, because we like our comfort and I do not see the Lebanese bunking in hostels and sharing bathrooms, but it would be so perfect to be organizing this type of tourism here.
The church at Smar Jbeil (we just drove through. Now that I look up what's in Smar Jbeil on the Internet, maybe I should have stayed a bit longer :)
Anyway, it turns out it was not a donkey sanctuary, but a bio farm with a donkey. This concept is also on the rise in Lebanon. It started with Souq el Tayeb, an original farmers market, and now it’s slowly flooding into the community; People who have a piece of land, and who like to go for a more environment -friendly way of producing and consuming, are starting up small businesses. We were given a tour by the lovely Rosie, who owns the farm, (From farm to Fork) and who run a restaurant in summer where they serve only their home-grown products. We spoke about the dilemmas of being environmental and viable at the same time, so do you say yes or no to aregilehs? The answer is yes, which is why I doubt that Lebanese will go for hiking with a donkey at this point in time, as you’ll need to do your business behind a bush while on the trail and this may be a dilemma for quite a number of people.
Another church, one village down the road from Smar Jbeil, Mrah Chdid (I think)
But it is a start, and it is good to see more and more people thinking of ways to slow down our way of life. I guess this last bit has to do with age, though. When you’re young, you’ve got this whole life in front of you, and things cannot go fast enough.  And then when you’re halfway, you suddenly realize, “holy shit, I’ve used up half already, better slow down.” Which is the point at which I am currently. I’ve got to slow down!
View from St. Rafka's tomb (had never even heard of this one). Interesting.
  On our way back, we kept running into these wonderful little authentic churches, and tombs of saints with supposedly miraculously healing powers, so we visited them all. So that was my Saturday.

March 03, 2015

False Light on Bliss Street

As I walked home from work yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly caught in a flash of ‘vals light’, or ‘strijklicht’, as the official term is in Dutch. I cannot find an adequate English translation for it. It’s translated as ‘flood light’, but that doesn’t even come close to it. It’s the sun light that – at sun set – floods under the cloud covers, and draws really long shadows. The rays are practically parallel to Earth’s surface. It’s often very warm in color, but has an almost fake quality, hence the Dutch word for it; ‘false light’.  It’s related to the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and the angle at which sun rays travel through this. (if you’re interested, and read Dutch, this guy wrote books about it)

The sun sets on Bliss
You don’t often experience this. Either the sun is not at the right angle, the cloud cover not there, or some other reason, but yesterday, it was exactly right. And just as I crossed Bliss Street, the sun set, at the very end of to the street, and for a short time, you could see it, from the beginning to the end of Bliss. Sounds like book title; False Light on Bliss Street’. Bit of an oxymoron too. But it was pretty magical to see the sunset in the middle of an urban setting.
A false light
Magical. I  took some pictures. A police woman stopped next to me and made a picture of it as well. And as I continued my walk, it started raining softly. I like small moments like this. Moments when you realize that beauty is in small things, and happiness doesn’t have to cost a thing.  Well, that’s my two cents of it anyway. Thought I’d share that with you.
And then it rained (on Hamra Street)

March 01, 2015

On Chaos and Order

We’re standing at the entrance to the Lebanese Navy Seal Head Quarters in Amchiit, Aregu’s trainer and I. We’re waiting for Aregu, and her fellow team mates, to begin the race.
Entrance to the Navy Seal Barracks in Amchiit

It is the annual Army Day Run (CISM), a 5K race between the coastal towns of Amchiit and Jbeil (Byblos), organized by the armed forces, and civilians can participate. The military has already taken off, and now the civilians are waiting for the field to clear, so they can take up their positions. But there are still some soldiers hanging around on the track, the road hasn’t been closed off yet and the lead car is not back yet. We’re waiting.
The military contingent taking off
The soldiers at the gate, supposedly navy seals as well, do not look like they could run the race themselves. Pot-bellied and cigarette in their hand; a far cry from the navy seals I know from the movies. The overall ‘relaxed’ atmosphere indicates the runners won’t be leaving any time soon.
What do you want, it’s the military. They can never organize anything on time,” says the trainer.
I indicate that I kind of like this chaos.
How can you like this chaos? I’d love to be able to exchange for the order and law of Holland. Give me Holland anytime, everything is so well organized there,” he replies, “Look at this ‘fauda’.”
Now it's the turn of the civilians; Aregu on her way out
Her trainer is from Lebanon, grew up in chaos and disorder, and longs for law and order. I on the other hand, grew up in law and order, and know that the predictability of life kills all creativity and sense of living; I thrive on chaos.
The lead Jeep has finally made it back into the barracks, the race is about to start, and we need to make our way to the finish line.
And she clears the finish line at 18:29 she's taking her time (although her trainer doubts the accuracy of this board)
At the finish line, I am just in time to see Aregu cross the finish line as the first woman of the civilians. She doesn’t get a medal, but rather a card with the number 1 on it, indicating she’s going to get a podium position. And podium position winners get a cup.
Bit by bit everyone comes in, and the army is organizing the prizes. All the big army generals come out and have their pictures taken with winners, in front of winners, on the podium, in front of the podium, next to the podium, and it is a regular picture-taking-fiesta.
They all want to be in the picture. None of them do any serious running anymore, is my guess.
But the cups on the prize table are rapidly disappearing, one after the other gets called to the podium, but not Aregu. When the generals all gather for their final picture, shake each other’s hand and say ‘bye  bye’ to one another, we understand that there has been some kind of mix-up; they forgot about Aregu.
And indeed, the change of her number at the start line, does not seem to have been communicated to the finish line. Nobody’s fault, just an unfortunate incident. According to their records, she never ran the race, so how can she win it.  
And there she stands, looking rather confused, with the number 1 tag around her neck, as everybody clears the area.
A lovely colonel quickly stops a soldier, strips him of his medal, and says to Aregu, “Come on, we’re going to the podium.” And while she stands, alone, on the first place, he hangs the medal around her neck.
So. Happy now? You got your chaos,” says her trainer.
Well, I did get story to write. What would I write about without chaos?

February 23, 2015

Lost in the Olive Gro(o)ve

Smoke in the olive grove
 Got lost in an olive grove this past Sunday. You see, something in the country side attracted our attention; a little white church, it looked a little like a Spanish mission. We weren’t sure how to get there, but there was this one little road that seemed to lead in its directions. Only, it didn’t. The road stopped, but there were olive trees everywhere, and so we figured that if we’d just walk through the olive grove, we’d get there.

But it has been raining a lot – as you may have noticed – and it was kind of muddy, and of course we weren’t wearing the right shoes, and while avoiding the thick clay and puddles, we sort of lost track of exactly where we were supposed to be going. And this was not just an ordinary olive grove; this one must have had thousands of trees; an olive grove of industrial size. That made sense, as the land around the church is probably owned by the church, and the church has always been a landowner of substantial proportions.
To make a long story short, we found the little white church, which was more like a chapel. (Saydet el Hraiche,  it turns out, at 34° 22' 7.36" N 35° 45' 0.02" E). But that’s not the point. The sheer size of this olive grove was just mesmerizing. Trees upon trees upon trees of olives, and not young trees either. And even though it is winter up in the mountains, and people are skiing up in the mountains, down in the olive grove, it was spring. The ground was covered in yellow flowers, homaida.
The snow capped Cedars in the background
 Workers were trimming the trees, preparing them for the new growth season (olive harvest ends in November) , burning the left-over bits of wood, while placing the larger pieces aside for firewood.

The benefits of olives are well-known. Here in Lebanon we eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we have our preferences for black or green, we wash ourselves with olive oil soap and we practically drink the olive oil ‘on the rocks’.
There are an estimated 13 million olive trees in Lebanon, covering around 57,000 hectares (or some 5.4 % of Lebanese territory), most of them which are 150 years or older (according to this document, I am not sure if this is accurate information). With some 170,000 olive farmers, you wonder what we do with all those olives? 70% of the harvest is pressed into olive oil, the rest is sold as olives. Lebanon produced some 20,000 tons of oil in 2011. Apparently we consume it all ourselves. I read somewhere that a Western agricultural expert had commented that the agricultural sector of Lebanon was ‘export averse’, i.e.  not really looking to export.

Fire (olive) wood for the stove

I used to, back in Holland, buy my olive oil in 75cl bottles, which would last me for two months. Here in Lebanon, I think we go through 60 liters a year, but it might be more. It’s like we’re drinking it. Olive oil, although high in fat (it’s called ‘oil’ for a reason), is considered healthy because it contains mainly MUFA.  (monounsaturated fatty acid.) ‘MUFAs have been found to lower your total cholesterol and help normalize blood clotting’, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Here more reasons why you should even fry in olive oil).
Homayda ground cover
And so here we were, lost in the olive grove. I could totally built my future house here. Next time I think I will be planning a picnic there. More to come on olive groves.