May 30, 2011

On Lebanese Men and Poisonous Berries

(By request of Helene)
Sundays are for friends and family here in Lebanon. And so a group of friends (since most Dutch in Lebanon are pretty much family-less) got together somewhere near Beirut for a Sunday lunch/picnic in the ‘wild’. The kids were running wild (as they should, when you’re in the wild) somewhere between the olive trees and the vines and who knows what else, while the adults discussed the finer aspects of ‘getting older’, and commented on a certain trend recently observed around us related to Lebanese men and their ‘restlessness’ once they get over fifty.
The mood was mellow, the weather soft, the conversation good and the wine flowing.

Until one of the children came back with a serious issue. His mouth was burning. We did not pay much heed to that. After all, what could possibly be wrong. But he kept drinking water and spitting it out, and complaining about pain in his mouth.  Well, did you drink anything? No. Did you eat anything? No, just some green berries. Green berries? What green berries? Some green berries in the field.

Dutch moms in general don’t really panic quickly. 
"Well honey," says the mom, "why don’t you go off and get some of those berries, and we’ll see what the issue is."

And sure enough, the boy back came with some green berries.
Did you swallow them, asked the mom? No, I just chewed them. You’re sure? Yes, I’m sure, replied the boy, as drool was running down his chin, and his lips were starting to swell.
I recognized those berries, because Santa gave me this book on Lebanese plants last Christmas. They were the berries of the Palestinian Arum (Arum palaestinum) And the green berries are, as most parts of the plant, poisonous when digested.
Poisonous berries, huh! But how poisonous is poisonous? (typical Dutch question, you don’t want to run to the ER and look like an idiot) And so everyone was googling Arum palaestinum on their phones.
Burning sensation’, one read out loud.
Mouth and throat irritation, resulting in swelling, and profuse saliva production,’ another one read as the poor kid was drooling copiously.
'Could cause irregular heartbeat, breathing difficulties, upset stomach and, in severe cases, death.’

Now why did you put those berries in your mouth, his mom said! He had just chewed on them, to try, he replied.
Oral fixation, a stage all men go through,” another friend helped out.
Don’t you know they could be poisonous?” mom adds.

Nonsense,” says one of the Lebanese man present. “Give me those berries, I think they’re used against snakes or something. That’s what I remember they told me.” And he chews a berry. Sure enough, pretty soon he is complaining about a ‘burning sensation in the mouth, swollen lips and a profuse saliva production’.

Did we go to the ER? The nurse amongst us suggested we check for diluted pupils, and irregular heartbeat, otherwise “don’t bother.” And so we continued our picnic with a drooling child and adult. After all, you can tell the doctor at the ER that a child – erroneously - tried the berries, he's just a child. But what shall you tell the doctor about the grown-up man?

Typical men, I thought, but when we drove back home, my daughter complained of a rash on the palm of her hands. It seems she'd been trying to pick the plant. I tell you, it's a dangerous place to live :)
And that was my Sunday in the wild.
The Arum palaestinum is, by the way, a quite common plant in Lebanon. It’s been around for some 40 million years (!?). All parts of the plant can produce allergic reactions, but unless you chop it up and put it in your salad (Hmmmm?), not likely to cause your death. (source, sorry, it’s in Dutch). Not birds or bees pollinate this flower, but little flies do.

May 27, 2011

What Are the Odds?

Sister Sledge and Earth, Wind & Fire were in town Friday night. For those not familiar with Beirut, we do not get that many good acts playing here. We’re not on the ‘circuit’. Big acts play Dubai or Tel Aviv, but not Beirut. Okay, so we had Shakira last night. But Shakira is for children. For those that know music, Earth Wind & Fire is some serious soul. And Sister Sledge, well, who does not remember ‘We Are Family’ and ‘Lost in Music’? For young readers these names may not mean much, but I am telling you, this is the good stuff! They were up there with Donna Summer, Kool & the Gang, KC & Sunshine Band and all those.
On our way to the concert

And so hubbie got me tickets. 3rd row, smack in front of the stage. I would be able to count their nose hair, so to speak. I was really excited about this. One of the very first concerts I ever went to was Earth, Wind & Fire. And Sister Sledge, well, that was the disco age, and they played them at every party I ever went to. I think I even may have bought that album. I know all their songs by heart. And so to get front seats is almost to good to be true (keep that thought in mind).

Still looking good. Mind you, these ladies were in their 20's in 1971

And off we went. T’was a beautiful night in Beirut, a light breeze. We took the bike, and slowly made our way, alongside the Corniche, to downtown Beirut, where the stage was built, right on the waterfront. The traffic was light, no hassle getting there. It was quite a sight, as some 80 other Harley riders also showed up. Nobody sat in our seat. We didn’t have a 7 foot tall guy sitting in front of us nor a woman with a really tall hair-do. Everything went so smooth. I feel you suspect there’s a snag to this story. (keep that thought in mind)
And see the rain coming down, and the ladies running of stage?

We took our seats, and soon enough, Sister Sledge came on stage. It took me as while to recognize them. I remember them in these tight one-piece disco suits. Well, they’re respectable ladies in black now. But the voices were still there. And so I was up already at the second song! This was promising to be good. And Earth, Wind & Fire would be even better! (keep that thought in mind)
Here we're still not quite convinced that it is really not going to stop raining

And then. . . . it rained. What are the odds? It is May in Beirut. I can give you statistics on the possibility of rain in Beirut in May, okay! And yes, while I go – for once - to this one open-air concert a year, it rains. It rained!!!!   Sister Sledge left the stage after the second song, and that was it. We never even got to see Earth, Wind & Fire.
And everyone went home, end of concert

And so we went home again. And instead of watching Eath Wind & Fire, I'm sitting here and blog.

Back home, this time in the rain

May 26, 2011

On Mosquitoes, Days Off, Kids and Water, Code Switching . . . etc

Ibrahim River Vally (driving to the West)

I’ve lived here for so long now, and I STILL  don’t know the place. I had the day off and a friend of a friend took us to his village for a picnic on the Ibrahim River. Yet another day off, you say? Don’t you know? We are more days off than that we work.  But honestly, I need it, if I am to explore this entire country before I die.
We drove to Yahchouch, which is really close to Beirut (some 45 kilometers). That close to Beirut, yet I had never been there. I had been in the neighborhood, but not ‘there’.
Under the waterfall in Yahchouh

Every time I discover a new place in Lebanon, I have to adjust my retirement plans. “No, HERE is where I want to build my house,” I think as I discover yet another new village, or a lovely little mountain road next to a ravine with a river.  And so my retirement home  shifts location on a weekly basis.

Yahchouh means "wounded god" in Aramaic. Legend has it that the Surian god Tammuz (also called Adonis) died in that river named (Ibrahim River), hence the name. (Source). A boar killed the guy, or so they say.
Lounging under the canopy

The Ibrahim River starts in Afqa, and is quite a big river at its source, so somehow I don’t think we were actually picnicking on the Ibrahim River itself, but rather a tributary. It doesn’t matter, because when you organize a picnic with kids, one of the prerequisites is water. This place, in a forest, had a waterfall, and that’s even better than a river, as far as kids are concerned.
Code switching under the waterfall

It is funny to see how these children flip between languages. They all speak a different language at home. Some speak only French or English; a few speak Dutch and others Arabic. At school they add another language, or two, to their repertoire, and when you put them all together, they figure out really quick what to use with whom.  Some need a translator, and often Arabic is the only one that will do the job. So between a French speaking child and an English speaking one, they get the message across through Arabic. Sometimes another child that speaks both will translate. It goes so smoothly. This code switching is quite a phenomenon.
Kids are like lizzards; they play in the water until their lips are purple, and then they crawl on a hot stone to warm up again.

And while the adults were lounging under a canopy of leaves, the kids were in the river, under the waterfall, or building dams. They also had mosquitoes. Big suckers! I’d say about 3 times the size of your average mosquito, and the bite marks they left were as large as a 500 Lira coin, and 3 times as thick. It seems we have some 12 different types of mosquitoes in Lebanon, the culex pipiens  being the most common.  Ah, the science of mosquitoes.

More lounging

Global warming causes certain mosquitoes species to migrate northwards, I read somewhere, taking malaria and dengue fever with them. But then again, malaria and dengue were endemic to Lebanon until the 1950’s when the government launched an eradication program. But there have been cases of malaria in the Metn in 1997, 1999 and 2000, according to this ‘Two Year Survey on Mosquitoes of Lebanon’. And you thought you had to watch out for bombs.  Uhuh, it's the small stuff that will do you in.
Natural shower

In Yahchouh, they found species of the Culex mimeticus and the Culex (maillotia) hortensis. I don’t believe these two are involved in the spread of malaria, although I do have a sore throat right now. Malaria is spread by the female of the anopheles, but we’ve got very few of those (for the moment). What an uplifting post, no?

May 24, 2011

The Beirut City Squirrel

You’re familiar with the term ‘sewer alligator’ ; the cute little pet alligator that just grew too large for its owner and ended up flushed down the toilet. Every city has a few animals on the loose – whether on purpose or by accident - that may not necessarily be indigenous to that urban environment.

There are stories of exotic snakes that escape their owners and slither around the city street, cheetahs that prowl the street  and wallabies that thump around town.

Even Beirut has a fair amount of exotic animals on the loose. I frequently have exotic parrots on my balcony that would do well in the jungles of South America. And a couple of years ago a Komodo dragon was spotted roaming the gardens of Rabieh residents while devouring their pets.

And I’m afraid I’ve added another animal to that; the urban squirrel.

I’ve had this squirrel for some  12 years now. He was an impromptu gift from an Iranian neighbor who said he had to go for business back to Iran, and could I just look after them for ten days, and then he never ever showed up again. I got quite used to him. Squirrels in captivity can live some 14 to 20 years. But last month he decided he had had enough. He left his cage and has been roaming our building. He runs straight up and down the wall of the building; twelve floors up and twelve floors down. I didn’t even know squirrels could do that, but this is one heck of an urban squirrel. He nibbles at the curtains of the 9th floor, and eats the flowers of the 6th floor. He chews on the potatoes that the 1st floor has stored on the balcony, and on the wooden balcony chairs of the 8th floor. And every now and then, he comes back up to the roof, where I still fill his food tray and water.

And so I present to you the Beirut city squirrel. I hope he finds a mate soon.

May 21, 2011

Colors of Beirut

Every city has its color. Architecture, cloud covers, vegetation, local minerals and latitude probably all have to do with that.
Dutch painters in the 1600’s (and later) travelled all the way from Holland to the south of France because the colors and the light was so much better there. Or more inspiring. Or both.
As I picked up my daughter from a birthday party yesterday afternoon, the city went through all its color changes in a matter of three quarters of an hour. That’s how long it took me to cross 7 kilometers of Beirut.
Beirut’s color is slightly pinkish. A little rose-yellowish with an orange hue. These colors are at its best at sunset and the city is streaked with sun rays casting their beams over the Mediterranean.
The windows in the mountains reflect the sun, and little orange diamonds flicker all over the mountain side as the sun sets. It’s my favorite time of the day. I find the light and color of Beirut inspiring. 

May 19, 2011

How To Get a Lebanese Teenager . . . .

. . . .really upset?

Well, first have the school send this message in the afternoon, so he doesn't have to do any homework, or prepare whatsoever, and have him hang on the phone to organize beach plans for the next day  . . . 
and then just as he is about the settle down for a late night movie,  send this one. That should do the trick.
I wouldn't want to be this guy's teacher today, 'cause his brains are at the beach.

May 16, 2011


Sunset in my street
I got a message from work. It seems May 25 is going to be a public holiday after all. That is Liberation of the South Day.  And as far as May 19 is concerned, ‘plan accordingly.’ That’s a euphemism for ‘if you can make it to work.’ A general strike has been announced over – among others – the ever increasing gasoline prices. This often results in burning tires on major roads in and out of the city. On Wednesday the teachers are on strike. Why? It seems they haven’t gotten their salaries yet from last year. Last year! What do they live on? How do they pay their grocery bills?  
Sunset from Sporting Club
The sunsets in this place are good though. This one's from Sporting, one of the older and more normal city beaches

May 11, 2011

The Standard Sunday Picnic

In the field

I’m running behind. We’ve got several family members from different countries over, so I’ve got a full house. As a result, I’m kind of busy. The coming month, several other people are flying in, so it’s going to stay that way for a while. And maybe the cousin  that was planning on 2 weeks Lebanon and 5 months Australia is going to change that plan as well and get more months out of Lebanon instead of Australia. We’ll see. Last Sunday we went on our usual picnic. 
Can you spot us in the olive grove?
We used to be really sophisticated in our picnics; we’d have salmon with capers, egg salads and tuna fish salads, dry sausages and different kinds of cheeses, chips and all kinds of drinks, little yoghurts in different taste, chocolate cupcakes, crab sticks, different kind of juices, sodas and spirits, and and brown bread and white bread and rice crackers and what not.
These days we drive past Paul (sandwich store in town) and ask the kids, “What sandwich do you want?” It saves you a lot of hassle and they are outdoors so they do not eat anyway; there’s no time for that. 
Family in the olive grove
We drove to Kaftoun, a place up north where I’ve had several picnics. It is a secluded valley alongside a river (Nahr el Jaouz, or Walnut River), and it is filled with wild oak bushes and olive groves.

I will not tell you exactly how to get there, as I like it to stay as empty and specifically clean as it is now, but I can tell you that in order to get there, you’ll end up with a severely scratched car and a long discussion with your husband over why the car is always scratched. I think I mentioned that before. No matter that it is my car. Somehow Lebanese men have an issue with scratches on a car. My requirements for a car are that it needs to be able to drive me from point A to point B, with AC. That’s all. Hubbie wants it to be shiny and clean, both inside and out and no spots on the upholstery. Now that – I assure you – is impossible with kids. And dogs.
We leave our picnic places in general cleaner than we found them. During a beach picnic some weeks ago, we witnessed how 3 groups of people around us just got up and left absolutely ALL THEIR TRASH right there. 
More lounging

 I have never seen the river with running water, although the riverbed, and all kinds of things that hang in branches above the river, indicate that the water can obviously get quite high. The average annual flow rate is about 75.67 (million m3), which is not that bad. The Litani River does about 129.83 (million m3) (source).  Somehow I come here when the source has all dried up. 

More lounging
 The place is obviously beautiful. So beautiful that there are plans of turning it into a national park.  I salute those efforts wholeheartedly. I doubt if these plans are with the government, however. One of the objectives of the project is ‘Creation of job opportunities to minimize the emigration of locals.’ This way you keep the region alive, and populated with people that care for the land. Officially it seems to be a ‘Natural Sites protected by Decision of the Minister of Environment’ (Al Jawz River till outlet Decision no. 22/1998) (Source) , but I am not sure what that entails. It seems paleolithic people were already hanging out in this valley (Source). I don’t blame them.
In the canyon

One guy obviously enjoys the valley so much, he planted a chair in an olive tree. The thing was quite strategically placed. A tree house is a dream for all kids, but a tree chair did the job for ours. I think, however, the reason for putting it there was less romantic. It’s probably an incredibly lazy bird hunter. So much for your protected area, no? I hope he falls out of his chair and breaks his neck.
Kids in the tree chair

And so we whiled away our Sunday in peace. Maybe not peace exactly. One of the family members ended up with a gigantic gash in her head and bled profusely, (all over our picnic blankets) the result of a thrown stone. But that’s the risk of picnicing with our (SIL and I) kids. It helps create memories, events like this, I am thinking. This is one picnic she’ll never forget. :)

May 09, 2011

Another Road Trip

While driving up to the Cedars on Saturday, we got side tracked by all kinds of interesting places. It started with a massive waterfall that we saw somewhere in a valley. But how to get there? My brother keeps telling me I should get an android telephone onto which he can download satellite maps, and then I can access Google Earth without needing the internet. The phone would subsequently function as a GPS. Well, he lost me at the word ‘android.’ 

The Valley seen from the top

But maybe it is not a bad idea, because this Lebanese GPS, and I’ve said it time and time again, is just not really up to date. Roads that clearly exist, with tarmac and all, show up as green, i.e. they’re not there, whereas roads that show up nice and white on my GPS screen, are actually donkey paths. I’ve just been through (yet another) lengthly discussion with hubbie as to why my car is – again - streaked with an incredible amount of scratches on both sides. Well, I can’t help it. These roads are just so darn narrow!  
GPS is lost (yet again), although there very clearly IS A ROAD!!!!!!

And so, while on the search for this waterfall, which we couldn’t find, we found the entrance the Qaddisha Valley.  Kadisha means "Holy" in Aramaic, and the Holy has sheltered a large number of christian monasteries for many centuries. There’s all kinds of different orders. I’m not a great expert at this, so I cannot really tell you the difference between one or the other. But there is Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Melchites (Greek Orthodox), Nestorians, Armenians, Maronites and Ethiopians. (this bit of info is stolen from Wikipedia) 
Qaddisha River nearm Mazraat an Nahr

It begins at the cedars forest in the Cedars, (or actually, that’s where the drop off of the valley starts, and it runs some 20 kilometers as a narrow valley with pretty steep cliff walls, until it gets to Tourza, some 20 kilometers later, where it widens. So we drove in from Tourza, or Mazret al Nahr to be more exactly, which is at the bottom of the valley where the Nahr Qadisha flows (map here).
A  cow in the Holy Valley (Holy cow!)

And some goats (deep down inside I'm a farm girl!)

The reason why all these christian monastic orders hauled up right here in this valley is because – they say – the place was rather isolated,  and this is where they hid from persecution during Roman times and later. Another reason is because this place is difficult to access, and monks could be alone and meditate in solitude. That was – of course – before they got me a pick-up truck. We drove up all the way from Mazret an Nahr to Fradis. But in Fradis, the road ends in a jumble of shacks filled with chickens and goats. End of the road. My GPS was of a different opinion however. Maybe there once was a road? In 1932, when they made these maps?  
Monastries in the Qaddisha Valley
So back to the mountain top it was. Then we find another road inwards that got us to a number of monasteries, among which St Anthony of Qozhaya, and Qannubin. I forgot the other ones. We ended up in the Cedars, where we got caught in a thick mist. 
Cedar forest in the Cedars (in the mist)

The idea was to continue to the Beqaa Valley, because a guide book had said something about a temple on the shores of a lake. We didn’t get very far though. Halfway up the mountain, the road was not only blocked by snow, but also by a little car with two lovely young people. They – unaware of the fact that even though it might be warm in Beirut, snow will cover the mountains in some places well into May - had tried to get across the pass as well, in a little car and wearing flip flops. It was quite a sight, seeing these ‘summery’ people trying to get their car unstuck. It didn’t work though. I could have pulled them out if I had a chain. They didn’t have one either. And so I had to return to Beirut. “Tell the army please, will you,” they asked as I turned around. The soldier at the first check-point said: “We will look into it. Later. Bye.”

Lovely. Did anyone read about them in the press? It's a wild place. It seems they just found a woman in the States after 49 days in the wilderness. When does this mountain pass open again? Be on the look-out for a little silver car.

May 05, 2011

Most Dangerous Place in Town

It seems some people think that Lebanon is a dangerous place to venture. I could of course tell you all kinds of stories of how this is not accurate. Jad Aoun is doing a pretty good job trying to set the record on Beirut straight. But I kind of like this bad reputation, and so today a post on probably the most dangerous place of entire Beirut! Absolutely lethal. Well, it could be. In theory. It happens to be a place at the bottom of my street. Curious?
It’s the Ferris Wheel at Rauche! The thing is positively ancient. Very much rusted. It’s operated by someone whose quality standards are probably quite different from mine. I doubt there’s any quality control whatsoever in this place. It’s been there forever, stood through a civil war (1975-91), got blown over in a storm (March 1998), survived a particularly strong bomb blast (June 13, 2007) , and seems to be running on empty for as long as I’ve lived here. There’s more rust than paint, the cable that turns the wheel around is seriously frayed and the little doors that close the carriages are not really closing very well. I tell you, it probably was already dilapidated when JC came on the scene.
It is part of the Madinat al-Malahi, Beirut’s Luna Park. And it’s been there since the sixties. I never wrote a story on it for my news paper, and as a result, do not have any first hand info. I do know that it belongs to the Rifai family, and old Beiruti family, who – through inheritance – share the property among a number of family members. The problem with that is that you’d need consent from all members involved when running the business, and it seems that certain family members see no value in investing in order to maintain or upgrade the property. As a result, the park, as well as the beach behind it, have become Beirut’s most run-down beach-front property.

They have been trying to sell (or sell the lease, as I believe it is government property that was leased for a 100 years, but don’t quote me on that), but again, there’s always this one family member who does not think the price is high enough, and refuses to put his signature. And so there they sit, with a property that could make them very rich, but greed prevents them from enjoying it.
But back to the Ferris Wheel. I have a daughter who’s got a fascination for the thing; rust and all. And now that her grandparents are in town, it’s a landmark we’ve got to ‘do’. It’s 2,000 LBP a ride, and this ride could last 3 rounds or 9 rounds, depending who’s behind the panel. This could be a gentleman of 40, but also a boy of 12.
As old as the Ferris Wheel
On every web site you read, it says this is a landmark you HAVE to visit while in Beirut. I seriously don’t know about that. You might get the wrong impression about Beirut. But hey, if you’re in the mood for some adventure, and you want to see how ‘dangerous’ Beirut is; try the Rauche Ferris Wheel.

May 02, 2011

Queen's Day in Lebanon

While the Americans were hunting down Osama, and the Lebanese were enjoying their Labor Day Sunday, the Dutch were celebrating Queen’s Day. It’s a pretty big thing in Holland, the biggest and most popular national holiday. What do we do during Queen’s Day? We all wear something orange, go out on the streets and party, sell all our old junk , and buy other people’s old junk. That’s what it all boils is down to.
Queen's Day Celebration 2011 in Beirut

In my hometown, which is the fourth largest city of the Netherlands, with a population of 307,081, some 300,000 people came out and partied. That would be pretty much the entire population, I’d say.

And so the Dutch in Lebanon missed a good party ? Are you kidding? We never miss a good party. The Dutchies in Lebanon, and the Lebanese Dutchies, got together and rigged a pretty good Queen’s Day party of their own in the mountains above Beirut. Complete with a Freemarket and poffertjes  (yours truly!).
Baking poffertjes, Gieneke is assisting
Thank you Joke and Tineke and anyone else who helped organizing it for a wonderful Queen’s Day. And most pictures aren’t mine; I was busy baking.