On to Beirut
Jul 05, 2007
I arrive at the bus station in Damascus and find the bus office with buses to Beirut. The walls of the office are covered with Hezbollah poster. I don't take that as a great sign, but buy the ticket anyways. The bus turns out to be a nice comfortable minibus, and sitting in it is a very sexy girl in tight brown pants, and a tight brown top showing mid-rift. I'm not even in Beirut yet, and I'm already dealing with the incongruencies of Islamic extremism and sexy little outfits. Beirut should prove interesting.
The bus driver comes on board and asks me if I have a visa. Uh oh! Do I need to prepare myself for another Syrian situation of waiting 8-hours at the border for a visa which may or may not ever arrive? But the bus driver makes no further comment, the bus slowly fills up and we get underway towards the border.
I get through Syrian immigration, and leave Syria without incident. Then we're driving through no man's land. Shockingly, and I still find this hard to believe, in the no man's land between Syria and Lebanon there is a brand new Dunkin' Donuts. Can you believe that? It's certainly one of the stranger and more unexpected sights I've seen anywhere.
It's a long drive through no man's land to the Lebanese border. The immigration officer looks more hardcore than most with a military style haircut and a camouflage uniform. I heard there was no problem getting Lebanese visas at the border, and this proved to be correct. I had only one problem - I had to pay for the visa on Lebanese Lira and I hadn't changed money yet. But this turned out to only be a very small problem. The guy behind me in line changed $20 for me, and I was out the door with my visa and a stamped passport in less than 15 minutes.
The road climbs up to 5000 feet (1500 meters), and then we start gradually descending towards the coast. At one point there is a chunk of road missing, and a detour around it. A tank stands watch over the damaged section. Was this piece of road blown up by Israel during the recent war? A bit later, there is an even bigger detour around a bridge. The bridge has a round hole directly in the middle of it - that's clearly the result of Israeli's bombing. There are even more tanks stationed here.
When we arrive in Beirut, my bus drops us all off in the middle of nowhere somewhere out in the suburbs. A self-appointed guide from my bus helps me find my way, joining me in a shared taxi heading in the direction of his home, and then putting me on a shared minibus which would eventually drop me off at the main bus station adjacent to the hotel I was planning on staying at.
Beirut is a lot more expensive than what I've grown accustomed to in Egypt and Syria. The hotel has no single rooms available, so I check myself into a dorm room with 5 beds for $7 per night. Our dorm room looks down on the lovely building next door, which is unfortunately falling slowly to pieces and absolutely riddled with bullet holes from the 1980s civil war. Apparently where I am staying was on the border between the Christian and Muslim areas and saw much of the worst of the fighting.
The first thing that I do after checking in is head over to find Stewart at his bar, the Bulldog Pub, and have a beer. He's busy, as I would have expected. His mornings are spent zooming to the North or South of the country. The choice of direction depends on where the heavier fighting is at the moment. In the South are continuing problems between Hezbollah and Israel. To the North, a Palestinian refugee camp has been taken over by some splinter militia group and the Lebanese army is attacking it. In the evenings, Stewart heads back to Beirut to manage his bar. (http://www.thebulldogbeirut.com/)
After a few beers at his place, he takes me out to see the neighborhood. Beirut is just as I expected. There are beautiful girls in skimpy skirts. A camouflage truck full of soldiers with rifles drive by. Soldiers in full battle gear including body armor and grenades walk past the bar. There are girls showing cleavage inside. Other than the soldiers, it's all pretty fashionable - more fashionable than Barcelona even because Beirut lacks all of the tackily dressed tourists.
As we drink Stewart shares some of the local news. Palestinians who fled from the fighting at the refugee camp want to go home. That's right, this area is screwed up enough that we have refugees from the refugee camps. Today they had a protest demanding the right to return to their camp; in clashes with the police two protesters were killed. There is another protest downtown, but that has settled into a long stalemate. The opposition party walked out, totally shutting down the government. They are having a camp-in downtown. The government has surrounded the camp, and a large piece of downtown, with razor wire and tanks.
Whatever it is, Beirut isn't dull.
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