Favorite thing: The official currency of Lebanon is the lira. However, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, so there is no need to exchange and change your money. What you will find is that when you pay in dollars, you will get your change back in lira. The exchange rate is pegged at LL1,500 per dollar and this never changes.
Flying to Beirut
Favorite thing: Many flights arrive in the middle of the night. Make the best out of this fact and make sure to get a window seat on the left side of the airplane. This will give you a manificent view of "Beirut by night" when you get there!
Beirut before and after
Favorite thing: Currently, there are plenty of buildings in Beirut that will give you a good idea of just what the city must have looked like ten years ago, before the reconstruction project got underway. A few of the shell-scarred structures are still standing downtown, awaiting decisions on restoration or demolition. Others are partially rebuilt, like the apartment block pictured here which has had its eastern half renovated, but not the western half. And still others, like the Magen Abraham synagogue left stranded downtown among massive construction sites, may never be restored if the original owners cannot find funds to rebuild their architectural monuments.
The contrast between these buildings and the sparkling new structures downtown is pretty stark. In five or ten years, the older ones are likely to be just a memory.
Favorite thing: This isn't really travel related, but might explain some of the current environment in Beirut that spills over into the city's street life. In February 2005, respected former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb that destroyed most of a downtown city block. This killing was widely assumed to be the work of the Syrian government, which had controlled affairs in Lebanon for many years, and which appeared anxious to stamp out a rising Lebanese movement for greater independence. However, the assassination backfired tremendously, sparking a huge uprising against the Syrians and provoking nearly a quarter of Lebanon's population to spill out into the streets in protest. A few months later, to everyone's shock, the Syrian military left Lebanon entirely and the political life of the country was thrown into turmoil. Now, after a year of confusion in Lebanese politics and economics, the country seems to be pulling together to attempt to create an independent and cohesive nation. This is showing up on the streets in a proliferation of Lebanese flags and, especially, portraits of the late Rafiq Hariri (often shown with his son, a rising political star). The disturbing remnants of the Hariri assassination are still very present on the block where it occurred, and the remnants of the long civil war in Lebanon are also visible in the bullet-scarred buildings all over town, but the current feeling is highly optimistic.
Finding your way around Beirut--not easy!
Favorite thing: Almost everything you want to find in Beirut is listed in the phone book and in guide books only by the street name and neighborhood, NOT house numbers. In addition, infuriatingly, most streets in Beirut are identified by signs that do not actually mention their names, but instead, list a NUMBER for the street as well as the district it's in. The newer street signs do actually spell out the street names, but these are in the minority in most of the city.
This can be a bit of a nightmare if you are trying to find something on foot, or God forbid, trying to explain to a taxi driver where you want to go. Taxi transport was especially tricky, since a very low percentage of drivers actually knew the streets and landmarks I was asking for, and none of them could read a map. I was communicating in both English and French, but neither language seemed to work very well.
I am indebted to VT member MalenaN for her suggestion to buy the GEO Projects map of Beirut, which I picked up at the Virgin Megastore in the ABC Achrafieh shopping center. It marks the locations of many important buildings in Beirut and has a vastly better street listing than the pathetic tourist map I got from my hotel. This map cost USD 8 or LBP 12,000.
Favorite thing: Beirut has been occupied for a long, long time. There are still Roman ruins scattered around the city, and the clearance of downtown that accompanied the Solidere reconstruction project unearthed quite a bit of history. Just east of the Place l'Etoile and west of the Maronite cathedral is one set of Roman columns and foundations (pictured here), which no one seems to know what to do with yet. Just west of the plaza, sandwiched between gleaming new office buildings and the Grand Serail, are the remains of a large Roman baths complex--these are nicely excavated and dressed up with attractive stone surrounding walls and balcomies. Things like this can be in some unlikely places in Beirut--I spotted one lonely Corinthian column, all by itself, right in the middle of Hamra's bustling shopping district. I spied a lot of other ruins crumbling under demolished buildings around town, but it's hard to tell if they date from 200 or 2000 years ago.
Favorite thing: Around the Place l'Etoile (fittingly, a star-shaped plaza where a number of streets converge) is Beirut's downtown. Everything in this area (except for the religious buildings, which have been restored) is brand-new, part of the Solidere project mentioned on my first Beirut page. The buildings in this area are generally very attractive, and most are built in a style that fits their Middle Eastern locale, but I found this section of the city to be depressingly sterile. I think I like the grime of the old Beirut better, although of course, the current look of downtown is certainly a vast improvement over the no-man's-land that it was a decade ago.
There are lots of restaurants and sidewalk cafes around the Place l'Etoile, and just north of this plaza is the highest-end retail district in the city, sporting the very fabulous Aishti department store as well as such global names as Gucci, Furla, Armani, etc. This is not the place to come if you want items that will remind you of Lebanon itself, but it is a good place for people-watching if you want to see the elite of today's Middle East.
Downtown is also now an amazing conglomeration of construction sites--at this point, only about a quarter of the territory is developed, with about half of it still under various stages of construction and another quarter still to be spoken for. Walking around can be something of a hazardous exercise if you find yourself on a street that is lined with cement mixers and bulldozers.
Favorite thing: Hamra is the main commercial district of Beirut, with rue Hamra the city's answer to London's Oxford Street. Rue Hamra and the streets immediately parallel and perpendicular to it are the center of all things retail in this city, with everything from hole-in-the-wall shops selling lottery tickets to Starbucks (who would have thought there would be a Starbucks in Beirut! There are several!) It's extremely bustling, and the place to buy absolutely anything. The pricey boutiques are all moving to the spiffy new downtown, but there doesn't seem to be much chance of rue Hamra losing its status as the place for all Lebanese people to shop.
Favorite thing: My favorite neighborhood in Beirut is Gemayze, one of the more atmospheric areas that has not been developed within an inch of its life (like downtown) or smothered by modern commercialism (like Hamra). Walk east along the rue Gouraud from the Ave. Georges Haddad, going past interesting little shops and restaurants, and poke around the side streets to find all sorts of hidden architectural treasure. Gemayze was known in earlier times as a more Christian neighborhood of Beirut, although today the population is more mixed. These days, it's an up-and-coming trendy area with lots of cool nightspots--though in the daytime, you'd never know it.
Favorite thing: He is rarity in the world of music: a composer who refuses to bendto the whim of popular music dominated by sappy love songs and instead chooses to compose and sing songs of conscience and to expand the boundaries of music itself.In his commitment to social justice,he shares a place in the pantheon of world composers, including Chile's Victor Jara, whose hands were broken before he was killed by right-wing soldiers during the country's 1974 coup,and Cuba's Silvio Rodriquez. Like these two,Khalife prefers to compose and sing songs of the lives of ordinary and often disavantaged people caught in extraordinary circumstances:of mothers whose sons were killed in the Israeli-occupied Zone, of Palestinians lost without a passport and stranded in Cyprus, of lives destroyed by the civil war.
Zaven & Zahi
Favorite thing: Two of the very influential personalities of journalism and media these days are two Lebanese faces, Zaven Kouyoumjian & Zahi Wehbi.
In the past, talk-show hosts were more of the fatherly image and of elderly stature, and their shows were merely about political issues and usual matters, they also talked more than listened! Then came Zaven!
During his 13 years in the TV business, he has become a tool of revolution; by inviting real people to his talk-show on Future TV, with real problems and first hand experiences, starting from serious matters like globalization, and reaching simple topics like how to cook chicken. He has also shocked viewers around the Arab world with daring topics that were till recently Taboo; sex, adultery, addiction? etc.
Zaven is the son of an Armenian father and an Arab mother, he found that he has a certain style when it comes to interviewing people 10 years ago while working for Reuters in London and New York.
Zahi Wehbi has his own long story that led to him being the man he is today, between a cruel childhood and puberty among echoes of death and destruction during the civil war in Lebanon, Wehbi shaped his rich personality that lead to his stardom.
The love of his country, led him to the Israeli jails while being only 17 years of age, and in those jails the teenager became a mature man, having a clear and strong sense of what freedom really is.
He became a politician, a poet and a TV show host, yet he was and still is simple and strait forward. He respects his guests and his viewers alike and with limited resources he made a simple TV program into an awaited weekly show that is waited for by viewers from around the world.
But what makes Zahi Wehbi a unique man is his following of his dreams, poetry and life.
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On The Bus...
Fondest memory: When I took this photo, I felt like going down the bus because I love KFC !
I like chicken meat !
Somehow it reminds me of KL, maybe Lebanese KFC was better ?
Huh ! That guy SMS-sing infront of KFC...Just like everybody here as well !
Me, I don't even have a mobile !
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Hard Rock Cafe...
Fondest memory: Unlike a few people from Malaysia who love travelling, their friends & family always ask them to buy that Hard Rock Cafe T-bloody Shirt !
Well, not me.
In fact, it makes me laugh just to see people wearing that stupid T-shirt anyway.
At least I have this photo telling people back home that I was there !
I was there but too bad that they were running out of T-shirts when I was there.
That's what I normally tell my friends & family...
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Traffic Jam !
Fondest memory: This was my last photo taken in Beirut.
Enough of me seeing the bad traffics around Beirut !
I dunno, this last photo sort of sums up Beirut, maybe.
After that, I walked back to the hotel & collected my luggage. Waited for my Lebanese friend called Riyad to come & picked me up because we were having this plan to drive through to the North of Lebanon ! Amazing !
We planned to drive to Byblos but a de-tour happened hence we stopped by HERE.
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A Lone Boat...
Fondest memory: Looking over to The Mediterranean Sea along The Corniche.
Seeing this lone boat ricking in the sea...with nobody in it !
Wondered where the owner had been gone to ?
Well in a way I felt like the boat, feeling alone in The Middle East (although I knew a few people) with a small budget, my itineraries to get me going.
How long did my money lasted for this trip ?
The answer is you just have to trace my itineraries from Beirut to Cairo !
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