The star of my 3 week Middle Eastern Holiday in 2004 was definitely Syria, but the most exciting adventure happened in Beirut, the capital of neighboring Lebanon and the road connecting both countries. I didn’t travel alone, with me there was a Hungarian girl I met in Norway a year before, and as it later turned out, it wasn’t such a good idea to travel with her. But let’s start from the beginning.
Getting to Beirut from Damascus is an adventure in itself. In 2004 there wasn’t much information online and travel blogs were almost inexistent, so we figured out the tourist information office was the best place to ask. And that was quite a place: completely dressed up ladies polishing their nails and looking at us like they didn’t understand why we were there. After informing us that Damascus has several bus stations, they told us that these move from time to time, so basically they couldn’t tell us where buses to Beirut departed. We were determined to get to Lebanon so after over an hour of asking around, we were finally on the bus, full of emotions, we made it!
At that time all tourists visiting Lebanon needed a visa, and reportedly it was possible to get a 48 hour one at the border. Actually we planned that from the beginning, thus asked for a double entry Syrian visa before our trip. So after crossing the Syrian border post and getting our exit stamp on our passports, we thought we were almost there. But as soon as we entered the Lebanese side of the border we were told she couldn’t go in, Lebanon didn’t allow young Eastern European women to travel alone (friends aren’t company!). No further explanation was provided. The border police had not time for us so they stopped a small van pushed us in and asked the driver to take us back to Damascus. I forgot to mention a minute detail: moments before getting to the border my friend panicked and started scratching my face in front of many Arab men staring at us in awe, a woman hitting a man!
The reception-rejection she received at the border broke my friend, she began to sob and cry. We arrived soon back to the Syrian side, and were greeted with another surprise: I couldn’t go in! I had a Lebanese entry stamp but not an exit one. More relaxed now that we were back in Syria (albeit the border) my friend convinced me to go back not only to the Lebanese border, but all the way to Beirut. She promised to take care of herself, we would meet back in Damascus in 2 days. The second part of the adventure starts.
You have to understand my situation at the time. It was almost the end of our holiday and I had a few dollars in my pocket. My friend owed me money, since she had issues getting cash out of local ATM’s. Additionally I had to deal with the border environment. The two posts are 5km away in the middle of a dessert. Luckily it was almost winter so it wasn’t too hot. So there I was in the middle of nowhere with a bit over 10 dollars and no bus ticket to Lebanon. Hitchhiking was the first thing that came to my mind, why the hell not!?
Funny thing, the bus ticket from Damascus to Beirut was around 3 dollars, so I was sure somebody would stop and give a lift. Several cars did, but asked for 50 dollars! Finally a man stops and shouts to go in. I knew he would ask for money, but got in anyway. As soon as we reached the Lebanese border I jumped out, showing my passport as I ran through the post. The police control didn’t even look at me, being too busy chasing smugglers.
Less than a kilometer away I found my second hitchhiking base. And again a driver just told me to go in, saying he wasn’t a taxi. In the middle of the road he began shouting, trying to convince me to give him some money. I realized I should run away as soon as I could, so just as we arrived at the first larger town I told him I had no money. He insisted but soon realized he didn’t have a chance. Luckily several minivans heading to Beirut were parked there. Though 3 dollars seemed too much considering what was left of the journey, I had no option.
I was thrilled I had made it, ready to enjoy my triumphant entry into Beirut when suddenly we smashed into the car in front of us causing a huge accident. Luckily nobody was injured, but all passengers started shouting to each other as the van continued to our destination like nothing happened.
Finally, there I was in Beirut, completely exhausted after an 8 hour journey (instead of 3), with a couple of dollars left and no place to stay. My friend had a Lonely Planet guide and I remember reading that somewhere in the center there was tall building packed with hostels. It wasn’t difficult to find but being too tired to share a room, I had to negotiate a private one and dinner for 5 dollars.
Suddenly everything was different, I could finally see the Beautiful Pearl of the Mediterranean. There it was, richly reconstructed historical heritage and ultramodern high rise offices blended with luxuriously equipped public spaces. Hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues of different denominations next to each other, a testament of Beirut’s rich multicultural past. I entered all of them: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Different Protestant Churches; Sunni and Shia mosques, talking to priests, Iman’s and clergy men. I enjoyed so much listening to different interpretations of life. Different Gods were used to divide people instead of uniting them!
I spent a day and a half in Beirut, just wondering around the beautiful downtown, exploring its cobbled streets with stone buildings with colonnades. It was a weekend, and since there were almost no tourists, I practically had the entire city to myself. Unlike the fancy city center, the bus station, a little bit out of the center, was full of garbage and smelly. I felt like I was back in Syria already. The trip back was much more peaceful, although we stopped like ten times for people to smoke a cigarette and at the border in order to get things to smuggle. Yup, smuggling went on every single border-crossing, but that’s a topic for another text.
I was lucky to visit Syria before all this madness began, and delighted to have had the chance visit Beirut. With its rich heritage and super clean downtown it contrasted deeply with its eastern neighbor. It seemed more multicultural too. However, both countries had one thing in common: temper! I hated and loved this temperamental character at the same time, the passion they use in everyday communication. Those mixed feelings are difficult to describe, but one thing is certain, I am definitely going back to Beirut for a much deeper experience.
We recommend staying at Radisson Blu Martínez Hotel