Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring Break in Lebanon

skiing in Faraya

At the beach in Tyre

I just arrived back in Amman, Jordan from what might have been the craziest week of my life.  I spent my spring break in the cities of Baalbek, Beirut, Mleeta, Sidon, Sour(Tyre), and Faraya-- cities and villages in Lebanon.  And I am gonna say, this blog will be super long because a lot happened in Lebanon so sorry for all the reading you will have to do. 
        Why did I choose Lebanon for Spring Break 2013?
Back in January when I was preparing for my study abroad in Jordan I came across some info that there was a week spring break in late March.  So I started to try and find good places to go for vacation.  My choices were limited to countries in the Middle East because of the price.  It is cheap to fly to and from countries in the Middle East compared to Europe and other places.  So, I came across Lebanon in my research and it looked like the perfect place.  There were beaches to go swimming in, ancient tourist destinations with pre-Roman ruins, snowy mountains perfect for skiing, Beirut-the city known as the Paris of the Middle East, and the mysterious danger of the strong Hezbollah presence in the area south of Beirut.  When I read a slogan for Lebanon: "The place where you can ski in the morning and swim in the beach in the afternoon". That was the final kicker for me to decide to go to Lebanon. My mom and dad were strongly against me going there at first because of the eminent danger that is associated with Lebanon by Americans.  Although after me spending a month persuading them that I am a smart traveler and well aware of my surroundings, they finally gave in and let me go.  The program I am studying with required me to get approval from both my parents and my home University in order to go to a country under a Department of State Travel Warning. 
       The second week in Jordan, all the CIEE students started getting with our friends and trying to figure out where to go for Spring Break.  I knew I was going to Beirut so I tried to get my closer friends to go with me.  They did not want to either because they did not feel safe going there or had other plans already.  So up until 3 weeks before the break, I thought I would be in Lebanon by myself until I discovered that there was another group of 4 people that wanted to go to Lebanon.  We all met up and finalized our hotel and plane tickets. It was then set, we were going to Lebanon for Spring Break 2013. 

Air Force One at the Amman airport

  Day 0 and Day 1
      We all decided to head to Lebanon on Saturday the 23.  We were dismissed from school on the Thursday so I had the friday to hang out in Amman.  It just so happened that President Obama was also in town that day.  So I headed to downtown Amman( the heart of the city) to see what the peoples reaction was to Obama being in town. I use to always think that Obama was very popular here in Jordan but he really isn't.  Now there are a large group of Jordanians that do like him but the vast majority dislikes him.  That is what I saw downtown. I went to the King Hussein Mosque, which is where a lot of political demonstrations are held.  As I was arriving in the downtown area, I started to see a huge amount of military and police men.  There were 15 vans full of Police men and 5 armored military vehicles.  I sat and watched as the police unloaded from the vans and there were about 150 police then that were monitoring the streets to make sure that violence did not break out in the downtown area. I walked over to the mosque and saw the huge crowd and then walked away and ate at  one of the famous restaurants in the downtown area.  I then met up with a couple friends that were still in Amman and we went to the US embassy.  As we were walking by the embassy my friend saw a building with something interesting on it and took a picture. The building was not part of the embassy.  We then walked around for 10 more minutes and ended up at a cafe and went in to socialize with the owners.  About 10 minutes after being in the cafe, a man dressed in all black and a walkie talkie came in and looked around.  He saw us sitting over there and asked if we took pictures of the embassy which was strongly forbidden.  At first we were shocked at how he found us in the cafe and who saw us taking a picture when we were in an area where there was no one in sight.  We then explained to him that we took the picture of something else.  It was a neat experience. 
      So my plane was scheduled to leave at 11:30AM on Saturday morning.  I got up at 7:00 and made sure I had everything packed that I needed and headed to spot with my friend to get in the taxi at 8:00.  We made it to the airport at 8:30 and got our tickets and went through security and all that. By 10:00 our group of 5 were sitting in the area of our plane waiting to start the boarding with about 70 other people.  At 11:00 the Middle Eastern Airlines representatives were not at the boarding desk and we started to wonder what was going on.  So I walked over the the flight information board and it said that the flight was delayed ( not till when but just delayed). There was not an announcement to let any of the passengers know so I tried to explain it to them with the Arabic I knew.  The flight was delayed till 1:30PM.  So my friends and I headed to a cafe and ate. Someone in the cafe told us that Air force one was in the area so I went to a couple different areas and saw the majestic plane. We finally started boarding the plane at 1:00 and headed to beirut and landed at 1:30 their time. 0 hour flight. While on the plane I read the local Lebanese newspaper.  It was talking about people being killed, riots in Tripoli, rocket propelled bombs, and other acts of unstableness which made me realize that I was in Lebanon, a country where anything could happen without a moments notice. 
    We all headed to our hotel right off the bat and checked in.  I went and stood on the balcony for a bit and relaxed looking over the lively street of Hamra. After an hour of that we wanted to explore the city of Beirut a little bit.  So we walked towards the Mediterranean Sea.  I saw that and was very excited. I walked around the coast for a while and ended up a a restaurant overlooking the famous Pigeon rock and we ate some seafood. It turned out to just be a nice relaxing night. 
The famous Pigeon Rock. (I don't know why it is so famous)

Day 2 in Baalbek

Alright, so the members of our group were Dillion, Reilly, Matt, and Chris.  Chris knew a girl from Beirut that studied abroad in America. Her name is Yara.  First night we were in Beirut we met up with her for a little bit and told her our plans for Reilly, Matt and me to to got Baalbek on Sunday.  She advised us not to because Baalbek is a village in a very rural area of Lebanon and people have been kidnapped there before. With that being said we still decided to go because it has ruins that are pre-Roman. One thing that made the site so intriguing were the stones that were as large as the stones used in the Egyptian Pyramids.  Anyway, we decided Saturday night that we were going to meet in the lobby at 9:00AM to leave to Baalbek by the bus system at Cola intersection.  We got in a taxi for a 5 minute ride to the bus station and got pulled in the bus by some lebanese men who said it went to Baalbek.  The ride was interesting because we were going up a big hill (Lebanon is made of mountains) and the bus transmission gave out for a bit and we began to rolled back down the hill for a second.  It was bumper to bumper traffic.  They fixed it though and we were on the road again.  The road we were on was great because we were on a tall mountain looking down towards Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. It was beautiful. and on the other side were snow topped mountains. It was phenomenal.  After a 2 hour ride we made it to the Pre-Roman ruins site.  We were all starving though so we went to a little shack restaurant with only Arabic menus.  We then realized we were in authentic Lebanon land, not tourist land.  side note- in Jordan we can all talk to the people in Arabic with their local dialect.  In Beirut there is French in their dialect and a weird accent but they also speak English in Beirut.  In Baalbek it is still different from Jordan but the French is not there so we could talk to them in a successful manner.  Also they did not speak English so we had to speak in Arabic which was awesome being able to practice our speaking without someone trying to only speak in English with us.  
So we went in this authentic Lebanese restaurant and ordered. I heard lebanese hummus was better than Jordanian so I ordered a hummus plate.  It was delicious-the best hummus I've ate thus far. After eating we finally made it to the tourist site.  We were reminded of Petra when we arrived. There were locals there trying to sell us "stuff".  Something I forgot to mention was that when we arrived in Baalbek the red cedar tree flags of Lebanon disappeared and were replaced with yellow Hezbollah flags and pictures and posters of their leader everywhere.  It reminded me of the King Abdullah pictures in Jordan.  It was Surreal being in that surrounding.  So at the entrance of the ruins site, the vendors were selling Hezbollah t-shirts and flags.  I talked to them(in Arabic) and asked if this area had Hezbollah.  He had an astonished look on his face and said "Akiid"(of course).  He started pointed to places and telling me where they lived and said he was Hezbollah and pointed to his friend in a blue jacket and said he was Hezbollah police.  We finally got away from them and made it into the site.  It was beautiful.  The stones were huge which made me ponder how they got them in place back in the BC era.  The columns were huge and the temple of Jupiter was huge and majestic.  It was also like a castle up on a hill.  While we were looking at the ancient architecture a Lebanese man came up to us and started singing to Reilly and telling her that she was beautiful, he only spoke in Arabic. We could not get away from him.  A funny part was that he kept talking about the temple of Jupiter and saying something about the moon and Jupiter every 54 days.  He was saying the number 54 in Arabic (Arbaa wa khamsiin) and he would try to translate it in english as 45.  He kept on repeating the number 45,45, 45. It made us laugh for a while. We found a path going down to the temple and walked fast and found a little cave thing and us three hid in there as the man passed by. He was really annoying so we had to get away.  We stayed in the ruins site for about 3 hours in amazement at the gigantic structures made by Pre-Roman men.  After that we found a man who had a bus who said he was going to Beirut and we got in.  He told the truth.  It was also a beautiful ride back because the sun was setting over the snow tipped mountains. The ride was also interesting and scary because the driver was drinking Vodka and driving fast down the swerving mountain road.  But we made it back to our hotel safely.  It was a great way to start off the vacation.  It wasn't on the beach but it was nice. 
The huge column structure

The singing man

Beautiful Mosque in Baalbek

View from Baalbek Temple, the Beqaa valley and snow tipped mountains

The Jupiter Temple, or Bacchus Temple

holding the huge fallen column

Day 3: Southern Lebanon

    Before I write this I just want everyone to know that I am not a supporter of Hezbollah.  I agree with the American Government stance towards Hezbollah.  When I talk in a positive way about them it is not my views it is the view of the Lebanese people that I am just putting out there.  On the third day(Monday) in Lebanon we went to the land of the South (not my south).  The Southern parts of Lebanon are the areas that are controlled by Hezbollah.  Once we got south of the Litani River the flags were changed to Hezbollah flags. 
    For this trip, our whole group went plus Yara.  We arranged a taxi the the night before to pick us up at 8:00AM on Monday Morning.  It was a normal sized car and there were six of us in it for the 2 hour ride. It was very crowded and uncomfortable but it was fine.  We all wanted to ride together.  Yara was from Tyre so she was very good to have with us and keep us out of to much trouble.  
     The plan for the day was to go to Mleeta first and then down to Tyre to see the beach and the famous souk(market) in Tyre. We were hungry for breakfast so we stopped at Sidon on the way to Mleeta to eat a bread and cheese food called kaka(I don't know how to spell it in English).  It was actually very tasty and big so we were all full.  Also, we ate right beside the beach so it was nice.  We then got back in the car and went to Mleeta.  For yall that don't know what Mleeta is I will explain it. 
Back in 1983, Israel went up into lebanon and in the later years invaded most of Lebanon south of Beirut.  In 2000 Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Israel withdrew because Hezbollah was destroying many Israeli outposts and winning most of the battles. Mleeta is one of the spots of a strong Hezbollah base, the major resistance spot for the Lebanese people.  Now Mleeta is the name of the war museum of the Lebanon/Israeli conflict. The museum is very pro Hezbollah and operated by Hezbollah so the history that they gave us was very one sided. 
     So we arrived at the Museum at about 10:30AM.  We all had to pay 2000 Lira to get in which as a little more than $1.  We walked in and were amazed.  It was so nice and new.  It was ran very professionally.  It was nicer than any museum I have been to previously. Also something different about the museum is that 90% percent of it is outside.  We walked in and were met by a tour guide.  He first led us to the multipurpose room to watch a 15 minute film about the history of the war and what the museum is about.  After that he led us around the whole museum for 2 hours explaining everything. Not to our surprise, we were the only Americans there. But everyone there was very friendly to us.  The only time they got upset is when Dillion said that he was from Jordan.  Apparently they do not like Jordan at all because they are friends with Israel.  But they don't have a problem with American citizens, they just hate President Obama. It was  an interesting time at the museum, definitely something that very few Americans have ever done. 
    After that we headed further south to Tyre(Sour). It is a beautiful and historic city on the Mediterranean Sea. The Hezbollah presence is even stronger down there but no one knows who is Hezbollah or not.  Now it is a secret organization with only 1000 members but if a war starts then all the young men around will supposedly join like they did in the 90's. When we first got to Tyre we went to a restaurant on the beach.  We ate a huge plate of some little fish that were caught earlier in the morning.  It was good fish but they were really small. It was nice eating looking out to the water. After eating we went to the famous Souk in Tyre.  It was a lot different than the souk in Amman.  It was about 1/4 the size and it was in between buildings in an alley way.  I didn't like being there. It was the only time I really did not feel safe.  After about 30 minutes there we finally went to the beach and hung out there till sunset.  It was a nice sandy beach. Then we all piled back in the small car and headed back up to Beirut. On the way we stopped at a bakery and got some dessert.  I ate some Lebanese pastry that was excellent.  At about 7:00 we arrived back in Beirut.
Sidon castle in the Sea

Mountains going to Mleeta

Mleeta Museum, the Abyss  
Israeli base on the mountain

Hezbollah tunnel

The museum part about the Israel Army

Me at the Museum

Hezbollah and Lebanon flags together

The beach of Tyre(Sour)

Day 4: The Rock Beach
On Tuesday Matt and Chris were booked to go home, well back to Amman. Matt went home but Chris changed his flight and left Wednesday afternoon instead.  On Tuesday Dillion, Reilly, Chris and I went to the beach for the day. Well that was our plan anyway.  We soon found out that the sandy beach resorts in Beirut do not open for a few weeks.  But we were able to find a place called Sporting beach club.  We all payed 15000 Lira to get in which was about $10.  We walked in and the club was a small rock peninsula sticking out in the water.  There were beach chairs to lay out on though. So we all went out on the rock and laid out for a few hours. The rock we were on was right next to Pigeon rock.  
   I made the best of it even though it wasn't really what I wanted, it was the best I could get.  I ordered a Corona, laid out on the rock in the Sea and had an afternoon of relaxation. About 2 hours into it I was getting hot so I jumped into the Mediterranean sea.  There were only 2 other people out there and one of them had a wet suit on.  When I jumped in I realized why, it was freezing.  To get in I climbed up some stairs on a ledge about 20 feet up and jumped.  I did the life guard jump though so I wouldn't go under and slapped the water with my hands because there were rocks under me.  My hands hurt for the rest of the day, lol.  The first 5 minutes in the water were miserable from the cold water but after that I think my body went numb and it felt good.  I swam out to a rock island in the sea and stood on it and then swam back to the ledge and got out.  By the time I got out they were all ready to leave so we left.  We didn't go back to the hotel though, instead we walked around for a couple hours up in Northern Beirut.  We stopped and ate some ice cream and then went back to the hotel. It ended up being a nice and relaxing day.  That night we made plans to go to the Faraya mountains to go skiing in the morning. I arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the hotel at 9:00 AM.

the view from our rock, beautiful water

Lebanese beer, Almaza
swimming in the cold water

standing out on the rock

The sporting club rock resort we were at

Pigeon rock

Day 5: The snowy mountains

    At 9:00 Dillion, Reilly and I got in the taxi we arranged and he took us to one of the famous Beirut restaurants-BarBar.  It was a good and tasty breakfast.  After that we started the journey to the village of Faraya-the snowy land.  The drive there was insane.  It was one of the most beautiful rides I have ever had.  We were driving through and up huge green mountains and valleys.  The fog was coming down touching the tall mountains. It was an amazing drive there.  About 1 and a half hour ride we made it to Faraya.  There the mountains were covered in snow.  Although this was the last week to go skiing because all the snow was melting.  Only 3 hills were open at the ski resort we went to. Us three stepped out of the car and were shocked at how warm it was considering that there was snow all over and we were up in the mountains.  So we headed to the ski shop.  When I got in there I decided I wanted to snow board instead of ski because it seemed a lot cooler and more fun.  We all rented out our equipment, I had to get a pair of ski pants and gloves because I didn't know they would come in handy in the Middle East. After getting all our equipment we bought our pass and went up to the snow. 
   Let me also note that I have never snow boarded or skied before.  I did not think it would be to hard.  I was sadly mistaken.  
    So we got in the ski lift and headed up the beginner path.  Reilly and Dillion have been skiing multiple times so they were good.  I went down the beginner path falling multiple times.  Dillion and Reilly wanted to go to the harder path and asked me to go with them.  I refused and went to the beginner path again.  That time I made it down with out falling except for the end so I could stop.  It took me a while to learn to stop and turn.  My confidence was up then so I went to the other slope that was pretty steep. Once I got up there and looked down, I knew I went above my level.  I snow boarded for 30 minutes and thought I could do a slope that was for experienced skiers. Anyways, I was at the top looking down, and a moment of fear came to me. I locked in my boots to my board and headed down.  I went about 20 feet and wiped out in an awful way.  I flipped in the air and then rolled twice and try to imagine that with a huge snow board attached to my feet.  I ended up on my back dazed sliding down the slope.  I got right back up and tried again and the same thing happened the next three times down the hill.  I am about 90% percent sure I got a minor concussion that day.  It felt like the times I have had concussions previously.  After I finally got to the bottom of the hill I decided to leave Reilly and Dillion at the big slope and for me to go to the beginner slope again.  I then had it set in my mind that I was gonna learn how to snow board.  I was determined.  I spent about another hour on the beginner slope and finally learned how to turn and stop.  We had about 30 minutes left before we had to leave-- enough time for 2 runs at the big slope.  So I met up with Reilly and Dillion and took the ski lift up the big hill. We made it up there and I went for round two.  I started the beginning of the hill going side ways constantly turning so I would not build up to much speed and I kept practicing stopping on the big hill.  Then I got half way down and wanted to get some speed. I got going very fast down this hill in a straight line and thought to myself "I am not going to be able to pull off a successful stop going this fast", so I delayed stopping and picked up more speed. It felt great but the obstacle of stopping was still ahead of me.  I finally decided to give it a go or I guess a stop.  I turned the board side ways and started slowing down and was happy for a second and then I started toppling over more than ever. It was very painful and I know I got a minor concussion from that.  I was dizzy and felt terrible. I flipped and rolled and finally stopped with my eyes closed.  I was laying there on my back with my legs in an awkward position.  I opened my eyes to look at my legs.  My board head was stuck 2 feet down in the snow with my boots attached.  It took me 5 minutes to get the board out of the snow.  I still had another run to make it to the bottom of the hill.  So I got back up and went to the bottom in a very slow manner.  I got to the bottom and laid down in the snow in exhaustion.  My whole body ached. But I had time for one more slope run.  I decided to go down the big slope for my last time.  I went up and started coming down.  This time I started by just going sideways and going back and forth on the slope. I did get some speed but it was controlled this time. I reached the bottom and pulled off a successful stop.  It felt awesome, one of the best feelings of my life even though my legs were dead, my hip felt like it was popped out of place, my head was throbbing and I was soaking wet from the snow.  I had accomplished going down the hill in a successful manner.  I arrived at Faraya not knowing anything about snow boarding and left being able to go down the hill successfully. I was very proud of my self. 
     That day in the Faraya mountains was probably my favorite day in Lebanon.  It was awesome and exciting, safe and something new.  After my finally slope we headed to the shop to give back our equipment and then I limped back to the car.  I got my back pack with extra clothes and changed into the because I was wet from falling so much.  We then all got in the car and went back over to Beirut through the beautiful mountains and valleys. 
   Dillion and Reilly went to the hotel and took a nap but I went to a store and bought a huge bottle of water and gatorade.  I drank both in a matter of minutes.  My head was throbbing but after the water and Ibuprofen I felt normal again. I then walked down to the beach and relaxed for just a couple minutes.  After that I went to the Middle Eastern Airlines building and tried to get a flight for Saturday. I loved Lebanon and did not want to leave on Thursday.  Sadly all the flights for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were booked full.  So I was going to have to leave on the next day, Thursday.  After that I went to a coffee shop and drank some good Arabic coffee and relaxed and regained my energy. 
      Some other CIEE students arrived in Beirut on that Wednesday from Cyprus.  So I went over and saw what they were doing and decided to go out with them for my last night on the town.  We went to one of the famous night life streets and went inside a fancy bar. We stayed there for the night and then went back to the hotel and slept. 
   I will say again, It was an awesome day.  Snowboarding in the evening and sitting by the beach in evening watching the sun set.  Amazing.

view from the drive there

On the snow lift

snow lift

The slope that gave me so much pain

boarding on the beginner hill

Since of relief from being done snow boarding

Faraya mountain

I had to put a picture of this in here. I is the dessert I ate Wednesday night at Cafe Hamra.  Very delicious.

Day 6: last day

I got up early on Thursday to try to get me a later flight again and failed again. Then I came back to the hotel and packed everything. After that I relaxed on the balcony again. It was a sad day having to leave Beirut.  Beirut was so awesome and I did not want to leave.  Then at 10:00AM Dillion, Reilly, Yara and I met at a breakfast restaurant and ate an American breakfast.  I had eggs, hash browns, and toast with strawberry jam.  I also had a large cup of French pressed coffee.  It was a good hearty breakfast.  After eating we all walked down to the beach one last time and around Beirut.  We made it back to the hotel at 2:00PM to get our bags and head to the airport.  My flight was at 5:00PM.  We made it to the Airport and went through 3 security checkpoints and then loaded the plane.  The 3 security check points were more than normal which was weird because when we made it into Beirut, the customs was just shut down because the workers were taking a smoke break so we just walked right into Beirut. There was a time change so I arrived back in Amman at 7:00PM. I was back in the desert. 

Beirut from the sky

Beirut was awesome and I hope I get the chance to go back sometime.  My whole upper body is sore. My back hurts, my arms are to weak to do anything and are aching, and my neck is stiff and sore. Surprisingly though my legs are not sore. Hopefully next time I snow board i will not experience as much pain. 

Until next time.....
-John Michael Middleton

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