Thursday, September 30, 2010

Day 15: The Chouf and Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve

We went with Souad to Joumana's family's home in the Mountains of the Chouf. The view from Joumana's home is breath taking. Mountains and valleys. From there we drove to the Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve and with a guide, toured the part of the reserve that is accessible to tourists. I found the Cedars here to be somewhat different from the Cedars in Bcharre. The guide told me it was impossible because all Lebanese Cedars are the same. This might be an official line, but I know enough about gardening to know that while the Cedars from both locations are very similar, they have a distinct feel to them and difference.

The oldest Cedars here, can be also up to 3500 or even 4000 years old. Rumour has it that the roots of some of the biggest Cedars go from the mountains and reach the sea. It's probably what keeps Lebanon from falling into the sea.

The nice thing about the Cedars of the Al-Shouf reserve is you can see they are taking good care of them. The forest is not just Cedar but also contains old Oaks and other conifers and feels really vibrant. I didn't get the feel of trees screaming here, but of trees in peace.

After our visit in the forest we had a meal at a typical mountain restaurant I'm told. I believe we stopped at the Barouk Palace Hotel, and ate at their River Restaurant. The food was very good, and I loved the fact it was along side the Barouk river and just so neat.

We dropped Joumana back home, stopped in to say goodbye to her family, and meet one of her friends. Then drove back to Beirut, it was dark and with picked up Eliane and Alain. We spent evening at Sonia's sharing stories and laughing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Day 14: Wadi Kadisha & Cedars of Bcharre

We set off for the mountains with Eliane, Alain, Tony & Nicole. We went with 2 cars. We went to the around the Kadisha valley, Historians believe that the Kadisha Valley has had monastic communities continuously since the earliest years of Christianity. First we drove   up a steep mountain gorge.  My original google search concluded it was  the Melchite Catholic the Monastery of St. John of Chouweir or Deir et-Tabcheh... But I was mistaken. It is instead the Monastery Saint Anthony of Qozhaya that we visited.  The Monastery has a museum which displays the first Arabic printing press, along with other interesting artifactsIt also shows caves where early Christians used to pray.

We had lunch in Edhen. This restaurant had poutine on the menu. Samer tried it out and the thing looked disgusting and nothing like a Quebecois poutine. The server was such a space cadet and they didn't have half of the items on their menu.

Finally around 2pm we were in Bcharre, and we went to one of Lebanon's two Cedar reserves, the Arz el Rab reserve. Some of the Cedars in this reservation are 3500 years old. It blows the mind. The sad part is that some of those trees have half been cut down recently for firewood, because people were so cold. In the reserve there is a small Maronite chapel who's name I cannot find, but it is quite pretty.

After exiting the Cedar reserve, we walked along the road where there are plenty of souvenir merchants. One of the souvenir shops, the guy talked to us, asking where we were from. Samer said he was Lebanese, and I said I was a Canadian. He thought it was cute and took a keychain made from cedar and burned our names into it with 2010 and Bcharre as a souvenir of our trip. We ended buying a wooden Cedar box for me from him as well.

We got back to Beirut it was dark.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day 13: Visiting friends in Beirut

Early in the day we went to Eliane's place near the bank of Byblos. We spent a few hours grilling Alain since it was the first time we meet Eliane's husband :) Of course while we were visiting their place was grand central station, one person would leave, another would arrive :P

In the afternoon we wandered over to LAU to see Leila after doing some shopping. Samer went to help Leila backing up her computer onto a USB drive.

Later that evening we took a cab to Susu's place. I was very lucky I got a private exhibition of Susu's paintings. Unfortunately shortly after arriving there, my stomach got all bent out of shape and we went back to Sonia's.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 12: Baalbek

We spent the day going to Baalbeck with Susu to visit the archeological site. The temple of Bacchus here is impressive. I felt compelled to walk it's perimeter while touching the walls. The entire site is impressive. What I found funny was that there was graffiti etched in the stone of the walls of the temple of bacchus from the 1850s. And we think modern man has invented everything!

While we were there we ran into 2 doctors from New Zealand traveling the silk road.

I can't remember what town we stopped in on the way back from Baalback but we had dinner there at this nice restaurant. We got back to Beirut after dark.

Many nights during this trip Susu and I would end up in Sonia's room talking for hours. Especially me, I got to be very verbose. It was interesting, I got to know both Sonia and Souad so much better on this trip. It was an interesting form of bonding. All 3 of us suffer from some form of ADD/ADHD and in some ways are very similar. All of us have unique challenges because of our neurological disorder and we each deal with it in a different way.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day 11: Jbeil & Byblos

While I'd been to Jbeil and Byblos in 2007 it was at night, and I thought it might be nice to see it again. Souad took us and we first visited the Crusader Castle, that I had only previously seen at a distance. We also went to the souk and to the Wax Museum. We had lunch at Pepe's. The fish was pretty good. We stopped at a Cafe where Susu and Samer had some desert and we saw cats begging. It was pretty entertaining.

We were hoping to see Eliane and Alain but family obligations kept them away.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day 10: Three countries in 12 hours

We left Wadi Rum at 8am after running into husband & wife from the Canadian Praries, who currently live in a ex-pat 'English community' in Aqaba. Of all the places to meet, in a desert camp in Wadi Rum.

We got to Amman around noon time and had lunch at a small Falafel joint where our driver often takes his family for a meal. This was some of the best falafel I've tasted and it was dirt cheap. Not more then a couple of canadian dollars and we had 20 falafels and a huge plate of hummus of course with pita and drinks. Our Syrian driver picked us up here and we drove to Syrian border, then drove straight across Syria, to the Lebanese border. This time we were at the Masnaa border and it went better! We came through the mountains and through some stiff fog around Mount Lebanon, which Samer loved.

We were in Beirut by dark. What a trip! Was the first time I'd been in 3 different countries in 12 hours! It could have been different countries if we had been able to enter Israel! Oh well!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 9: Wadi Rum

We didn't have anything planned till noon and in retrospect I should have asked to go back to Petra for the morning... but it just occurred to me, months later when transcribing the travel notes!

I spent some of the time taking pictures of the view, and of the paintings by a local artist of Petra found on the various floors of the hotel. Samer actually spent some time sun tanning and swimming in their pool. I wasn't in the mood for swimming.

We left at noon and went back for the last time to the Sandstone restaurant. We drove to Wadi Rum and took a 4x4 ride in the desert. Our truck was a toyota with 2 rows of seats and a back wagon. Samer and our driver sat in back and I sat with the Bedouin up front so I wouldn't be sick! The Bedouin asked where we were from and I said Canada. He said he liked Canadian tourists. Apparently we're nice and friendly. He dislikes the French, Germans and Italians because they are disrespectful and not appreciative.

The desert in Wadi Rum is surprisingly beautiful. It's not endless rolling sand dunes like in Dubai. This was just the beginning of the rainy season so it was the end of the dry season and there were these long white flowers in bloom and all sorts of small brush in the desert. Other then all the rock structures of sandstone, that look like they were carved from the sea. This area of Jordan was part of the Silk road and apparently the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there.

We stayed at Al Zawaideh Desert Camp. While the accommodations were not particularly traditional it was fun. We had a small tent to ourselves. The food was awesome, there was enough food I could eat as a veggie. I even got to sample the Bedouin tea without sugar and it was quite good. I have to google how to make some of it :)

It was interesting, the food [especially lamb and chicken] was cooked in pans that were buried under the sand, just by the heat of the sun. I thought it was a really neat idea.

In the Jordanian desert is where I first experienced smoking a Shisha. I have to admit it was fun. I'm not sure I'll ever do it again, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day 8: Dead Sea & Petra or Camels, Horses and Donkey's Oh My!

We left Amman for the dead sea at 8am. We got there at 9am before the first tour bus. Heck I had to ask them to open the women's bathrooms, they were still locked!!! It was awesome floating in the dead sea. We stayed close to an hour, just floating and enjoying the feeling. I couldn't bring myself to put mud all over myself though.

After we drove till about 1pm and made it to Petra. On the way we stopped so we could buy some local apples and sample them. They were great. It seemed like a mix between a granny smith and a red delicious. I didnt find much difference in taste between their green and red apples. However much like any fresh fruit recently picked off a tree, as opposed to a fruit that is picked before it is ripe for travel, it was sweet and delicious tasting.

We had lunch at the Sandstone restaurant in Petra which caters to vegetarians - like myself and our driver as it turns out. Around 3pm we got to Petra, and then rushed to get to the top - the monastery. We didn't get there till around 5:30 pm. It's impressive. Once up there I sat on a bench while Samer went up some more to a look out from where you can see the valley and Petra and the whole site. I figured my knee needed resting. While I was there I heard a cat's meow, so I responded. This yellow tabby male came out of nowhere, and jumped on my lap. I petted him and talked to him some, and he promptly fell asleep on my lap. I had to pry him off when Samer came back and we decided to go back down and try to see as much as possible before the sun sets.

The road leading to the Monastery from the entrance is about 4-5 km and there is 800 steps to get to the top. We didn't stop to take too many photo's walking up, and walking down towards the end it was too dark. Spending 5 hours at Petra was not nearly enough. I want to go back. We just barely covered the beginning. I want to see it all.
I didn't get to see enough of the Treasury. All of this of course many people have seen in the Indiana Jones movie.

We had dinner around 8pm at the Sandstone restaurant. Not a bad idea. Although the Panorama hotel in Petra had a spectacular view of the town in the valley and felt much more like a hotel in Jordan, I didn't want to risk that it didn't have the right type of food.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 7: Amman, Jebel Nebo & Madaba

We left Damascus around 8:30 AM and we were at the border of Jordan roughly around noon. I was so frazzled by the border crossing and changing cabs that somehow I left my passport in the Syrian cab. When we got to the travel agent's office with our Jordanian driver, I get asked if I left my passport on the bus. I think he is joking until I cannot find my passport. The Syrian driver, an honest man, called to tell our Jordanian driver that he found my passport and arranged to meet up with us on his way out of Amman to return my passport.

After which we drove to Mount Nebo. It was probably later then expected because we lost 2 hours dealing with my damn passport. Mount Nebo is about 50km away from the border of Israel. The view is stunning. Sadly we arrived at the beginning of the rainy season and it happened to be windy and stormy that day, so the visibility was poor. We could see from the top of Mount Nebo the Dead sea - to which I exclaimed "That's it? That's a SEA? It's the size of a small lake!!!". That Canadian bias after seeing some of the great lakes!

We saw some amazing Mosaics at Mt Nebo and then some more at St George's Greek Orthodox church in Madaba. We got back to Amman it was dark and stayed at the Ramada Inn. If you want to sample life in the place you are staying, don't stay at the Ramada Inn. Apples from the US, when Jordan produces amazing local apples. Just as an example. There is nothing typically Jordanian on their restaurant menu other then hummus.. which isn't a meal. I had a meltdown in Amman. Especially after seeing the menu.

Samer took a cab around Amman and brought back some Falafel, hummus, and other local food which helped a great deal.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 6: Old Damascus

We had breakfast in Abu Kamal restaurant looking over a roundabout bustling with activity. We walked towards the souk and shopped a bit in the Damascus souk. We found some interesting souvenirs in one store, but none of our cards would work. The shop keeper walked us to a local bank machine where after trying all cards, I managed to get a cash advance on my Mastercard. At one end of the souk is the entrance to the Umayed Mosque. We had to get an entrance ticket for me and rent a brown hooded abaya before we could enter.

Shafi took us around the Mosque and toured us around. What to say about this Mosque other then impressive and beautiful and awesome. I could have spent more time absorbing it all but when you travel with others you have to be mindful of others :) We did get to see Saladin's burial place.

After our visit of the Mosque, we found Sonia at a cafe in a small street of old Damascus. I had a cold beverage and did a bit more shopping. It was interesting walking through the narrow roads and we went to this restaurant housed in a beautiful old home. I originally wrote it was Beit Jabri but I was wrong. According to a photo I have it is the Al Shami House Restaurant. The food was good but the place was just incredible. After we continued walking around the old Damascus, stopping in a couple of hotels that Sonia wanted to scout for future trips.

By the time we took a cab back to the hotel it was dark. Sonia and Shafi left for Beirut, while we took a long walk around the area around our hotel. We ended up on a street filled with shops so we did some window shopping until Samer couldn't deal with all the people anymore, then went to get fries again at the falafel and fry shop.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Day 5: Damascus

We got to Damascus it was dark. We didn't have too much of a hard time finding our Hotel, but we were not housed in the main part of the hotel but in an adjacent building a few buildings down. This seemed more like long term apartment then short term hotel room. The first room we were shown apparently stank and looked disgusting.

They were deciding how they felt about the second room and really I found nothing wrong. It wasn't any worse then any cheap motel I've been at. The rooms were clean and bug free. There was bathroom with functional shower and functional AC. We weren't planning on doing much but sleep in the rooms, so why stress it? Originally the idea was that the two men would share a room and the two women would share a room, so it was a suite with 2 bedrooms with each a single bed.

However apparently things have relaxed in Syria and no one asked us if we were married when we were alone in the suite the 2nd night. It didn't matter. My paranoia meant that we had a Lebanese paper that shows family status and is an acceptable proof for such cases. However Samer realized later that in his passport, our marital status is shown but in in English. Either way we were covered and we were never asked.

We went for a walk and found a place that made great french fries with amazing seasoning a couple of streets over. It was right next to a men's coffee house. As best as I can call it. Large room which much have room to seat up to about 2000 people. Men play cards, play chess, or checkers, eat, drink non alcoholic drinks, smoke shisha, watch sports and socialize. This coffee house appeared to be near capacity.

Day 5: Homs

This morning we left really early by cab from Beirut with Sonia and Shafi and drove north towards Tripoli, and to the border of Syria. via the Arida crossing. What chaos! In the end Samer had to pay Syrian official [Or lebanese official?] $10 because he had a Canadian wife! Past the crossing the drive to Homs was uneventful.

I guess the thing that struck me once we got into Syria is that it's poorer then the poorest parts of Lebanon that I've seen. Either that or the Syrians aren't as industrious ? Not sure. When I was told my mom in law was from Homs and the jokes that abounded around it I had visualized a small village. But apparently the city of Homs is now a large urban center and is home to over 1 million people. It's the third most important city in Syria , and mostly inhabited by Sunni Muslims.

Along with Sonia's good friend Nabila, we visited Homs' traditional Souk, as well as the "The Church of the Lady of the Girdle" where Sonia's mom used to worship. The story goes that this church has a girdle worn by the Virgin Mary. Currently this church, built over two older churches, is an active Syrian Orthodox worship center.

Nabila, a childhood friend of Sonia's treated us to Syrian hospitality. We were served a large meal. When Nabila found out I was vegetarian, she had made a bean dish especially for me. Although the smell of the bean dish was foul, the dish itself was quite delicious. After the meal, her husband drove us to the bus station and insisted on getting us tickets for the luxury coach to Damascus and wouldn't hear about us paying anything.

Oh and before we went to the bus station, he took us to the childhood home where Sonia had lived as a child. I took several photo's of Sonia and Samer in front of the building which still stands and looks very much as Sonia remembered it.

One thing that struck me about Nabila is she reminded me of my friend Diane, not because they looked that much alike but because her skin, both on her hands and face and her facial features appear like those of someone with Scleroderma.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 4: Saida and Sour

Today we went into the South of Lebanon, first we drove out of Beirut in the direction of Saida [Sidon]. The town is along the Mediterranean and has an interesting crusader Castle which we stopped to visit. We also visited the souk which had no sellers because it was Saturday but had a stamp exposition in collaboration with the Turkish government that was open and free to visit.

After which we drove to Sour, to a nice villa owned by Souad's uncle where we spent the day's hottest hours. The house has a large outdoor living area near a pool on beautifully kept grounds. Other then a jack hammer who serenaded us for the first hour, there is such peace in the gardens, that you forget you're just 2 hours away [when there is traffic] from the chaos of Beirut.

This was my first experience main with Lebanese hospitality. [That is outside of Samer's family] We were treated to a feast, of which 6 of the 8 dishes I could actually eat. Several were fish dishes and I was made aware that the fish had been bought early the same morning from the fisherman, before it made it to the market. The food was just awesome.

We then went to visit the Al-bass archeological site in Sour [Tyr]. The site is impressive. I also saw probably the biggest aloe vera plant. Compared to my small plants at home!

We got back to Beirut it was dark.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Day 3: Beirut - Visiting Samer's Amto

Today, Saturday along with Sonia, Souad and Samer, we went to visit Samer's Amto. In arabic it means a paternal aunt. This is his dad's youngest sister, and also Samer's favorite aunt. I liked her because she is blunt and direct. I always like that in people. She has two teen age daughters, both pretty spunky.

The conversation took an interesting twist and we ended up discussing open relationships and the fact that 1 person can rarely be someone else everything. Not the conversation I would have expected but I can see his aunt and I see eye to eye :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Day 2: Visit downtown Beirut

We took a walk from my mom in law's house in West Beirut to Martyrs Square and the big blue Mosque that is also the resting place of Hariri. The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, is modern, finished in 2007 and also the first Mosque I had the pleasure to visit.

We met Samer's friend Joumana in front of the Mosque, and continued visiting walking past the Roman ruins and going to Place de L'Etoile. After which we went back to West Beirut since Samer wanted to say Hi to Brenda, the Missionary from his childhood, who just happened to be in Beirut at the same time as us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day 1 : Arrival in Beirut

We landed in Beirut around 2pm local time and it was a change from both Montreal and Paris with 12C or less, whereas it was 32C in Beirut. Of course it goes without say that it was with 80% humidity. Sonia picked us up at the airport with Karim.

I was pretty jet lagged so my recollection of the day is fuzzy at best. I know we saw Samer's friend/teacher/ex-boss Leila. His uncle Gerard and wife Nouna also stopped by for a visit and I'm sure Souad came over to hang out as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day 0 : We leave for Beirut, Lebanon

We left for the airport at 2pm. After waiting 30 minutes to be processed at the check out counter we found out 2 of our bags were too heavy for the current international standards for Air France. So we had to buy an extra carry-on and put all the heavier stuff in it. Despite this we were still too heavy but the 2nd person we got at the checkout counter was much nicer and she avoided us the surcharge for an extra heavier bag.

It was a big Boeing 777 from Air France reasonably new, so it had personal entertainment at each station. I ended up watching Sex & the City 2 and some new doors documentary [not as good as the movie based on book "No one gets out of here Alive" in my opinion]. Also got to watch an episode of NCIS and an episode of CSI. THat kept me from stressing too much over the turbulance. THe food was nothing special and their sauce was sugared. YUCK. Thankfully their fruit was fresh.

I hate Charles de Gaules airport. We arrive in this massive plane and had to walk down the stairs ourselves onto the tarmac and then onto a bus with our carry-on. Then we got to the terminal where the first thing that happens is a security check. Because in that space between being scanned in Canada and boarding the place SO MUCH CAN HAPPEN!!!

They were so disorganized. THe thing beeped for absolutely no reason. I mean I Had gone through the first time without it beeping but they forced me to go back to take my camera out. Because somehow being asked if I had a laptop should have made me realize that if I had a camera and anything else electronic I was supposed to take it out of my carry-on. Then I walked through again and this time it beeped and I was patted down. After all that once they asked for my boarding pass, they re-scanned my purse. The irony of it all is after all those security checks I had both a lighter and matches in my purse... which both made it back to Montreal on the way back too.

And with all the stresses I didn't manage to sleep a wink the whole way to Beirut from Montreal.