It was two days before the New Year’s Day of 2009 that Voukefalas and I crossed the border to Lebanon. What I knew till then was just that it was a war zone. I overcame my fears when the smiling customs officer told me “Lucky you. You are going to have a great time.”
My first stop in this pocket size country was of course Beirut. As I was getting closer to the centre I realized that this was not a typical Muslim country. Big lights, fancy shops, nice cars and self-confident women living a life that was no different than ours in the West or the exact opposite of the nearby Syria that I had just left behind me. I found a room in one of the centre hostels and got out to start my exploration. Here I have to mention that after a couple of days Israel started bombing Gaza so I was sure that some kind of tension would be in the air. You might know that 3/4 of the Lebanese live abroad although they still keep close contact with the motherland. Well they had all come back when I was there so the cosmopolitan air was very obvious. As well as many travellers from all over the world who had realized that what their embassy tells them is not always the truth.
I spent a great New Year’s Day and I even participated in an anti-Israel demonstration there without any of the so called fanatics questioning my presence. Quite the opposite, I was the centre of attention. I spent seven days in Beirut. I even worked at a bar for two days, owned by a military officer, in exchange for a permit to the south in Saida, temporarily forbidden to tourists. I found an old guy that spoke even Greek to get me into how things exactly work in Lebanon because I must admit I was confused. Hamas rules Lebanon and it’s very powerful in getting all sorts of help from outside Lebanon. Its members are simple, everyday people that live their everyday life but on the side they obey whatever command Hamas gives them since it supports financially almost every poor person at the border of Lebanon. Anyway my purpose is not to solve political problems. So as a conclusion, the name “Paris of the East” is definitely true although I have never been to Paris.
My next stop was the seaside village of Byblos with its picturesque little port and the traditional little taverns overlooking the Mediterranean. Great place to relax before heading to the more Muslim north of the country and Trablus with the uncountable soap factories. Here in the north the wounds of the war are more in your face and people seem much more scared. I headed to Balbeck and with a Swiss friend I had met in Trablus we went to the ski resorts and to the Gibran museum (a local philosopher). By the way the size of Lebanon is so small that you can go snow skiing and after a couple of hours you can swim in the sea. We crossed one of the last cedar forests still in Lebanon before we went to Balbek, an ancient Phoenician city. The ruins left me astonished because of the size of their temples and although Romans and Byzantines made big efforts to erase Bal (Phoenician god) at the end they all failed.
I stayed 14 days in Lebanon but they felt definitely much, much longer. As for my fears, when my own embassy told me to go back home, I said “Forget it, this sure feels safer than home” (we had riots in Greece at the time).
Moments to remember: the 3-star officer and bar owner at the same time, the religious talk we had in one of the mosques in Trablus, the sunsets in the Mediterranean from my tent in Byblos and the free tank of gas I got at the gas station just because I was from Greece.