Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beirut or bust! (pt. II)

Yesterday's post was the one I wanted to write about Beirut, and all of it was true, but it wasn't the whole story. As we learned on our trip to Oxford last month, sometimes travel doesn't go as planned, and as I learned in Beirut, sometimes it just disappoints.

Day 1 was a feast for the senses. We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and immediately went walking in our neighborhood and along the Corniche. We ended up at the Manara Palace Cafe, where we spent the remainder of the evening eating hummus and kibba, drinking mint tea and smoking narghile, listening to waves pound intensely on the rocks, soaking in the cool, salty air, and watching the sunset. If this day was any indication, the trip was going swimmingly.

But Day 2, Sam's birthday, we awoke at 5 am to a loud clashing. Once I realized in my groggy haze that it was not the call to prayer, nor was it an air raid, but ordinary thunder, I quickly fell back asleep. But when we went down for breakfast later that morning, we learned that a storm system had hunkered down right above us, and that we should expect heavy rain all day long. This dampened our plans but not our spirits. We bought an umbrella and went to town, determined to see as much as possible.

Sam in front of the Martyr's Statue in downtown Beirut, captured during a brief break from the rain

It was an odd-feeling day, though, as if the city had been drained of energy. We found the streets nearly deserted, our map inadequate, and most establishments closed, and after a lot of wandering around didn't feel like we had seen much of anything. We redeemed the day somewhat with dinner at a cozy little university pub called Ferdinand, tucked away on Ghandi Street in Hamra, followed by a spontaneous stop in Gustav, a locally owned bakery. Learning it was Sam's birthday and our first time in Beirut, the owners/bakers gave us free black forest cake, complete with birthday candle for Sam (as pictured in part I).

And then there was Day 3. It started inauspiciously enough with a quick Continental breakfast at our hotel followed by a bargaining session with several taxi drivers for a ride to Byblos.

Quick aside: we discovered a whole new kind of driving experience in Beirut. As in Cairo and Kathmandu, lane divisions and traffic lights are merely suggestions, and car horns are a sort of local language; but unlike any other city we've been to yet, there are rules about cars-for-hire that are unwritten but very important:

First, if you say the word "taxi" to a driver, you imply that you want a solo ride to a destination and are willing to pay double, maybe triple, for it. If you instead use the word "service", it means the driver is free to pick up additional passengers along the way, possibly slowing you down but allowing you to pay much less. Second, you must bargain before getting in the car (there are no meters) or you may pay through the nose or die trying not to. And lastly, if you look like a tourist, you will automatically be charged way more than a local for the same ride, no matter how hard you bargain. Locals will advise you not to spend more than 7000 Lebanese Pounds for a ride across town (a bit under $5), but we found this impossible to negotiate while keeping our dignity. We were literally kicked out of one cab and jumped out of a couple others!

We finally found our driver, who turned out to be a delightful older gentleman who was completely enamored with his country and eager to show us as much as possible. He talked us into visiting Jeita on the way to Byblos, saying we had plenty of time and that it was a "very important" site for us to see (for an extra fee, of course). But we were happy for the chance to experience at least the foothills of the Lebanese mountains, and found the Grotto beautiful, although not terribly different from the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photographs so you'll have to imagine it (or go to their website).

Next, the driver dropped us off in Byblos, and we immediately went in search of lunch. My stomach was feeling a little uneasy, so I figured a good meal would get me back on track. We went to highly-recommended Locanda a la Granda, an Italian-influenced Lebanese restaurant, and ate on a lovely terrace overlooking the Crusader castle to our left and the Mediterranean to our right.

We started with sweet crab cakes and a huge salad, which was a creative variation of the traditional fattoush (bread salad), and finished with tagliatelle pasta with a roquefort, honey, and walnut sauce.

A few bites into our main course my stomach really began hurting. And despite two visits to the bathroom over the next hour the pain only intensified. I tried to ignore it, and agreed to go with Sam to explore the Crusader castle and Roman ruins, but just as we entered the outer walls a wave of nausea washed over me.

Walking up the gently-sloping path to the castle, I'm looking a bit sluggish.

Not sure what to do, as we were far from any indoor plumbing, I just sat down. Sam stood nearby, talking me through a new game plan. After a few minutes I decided to risk the journey back to the restaurant where we ate lunch so I could wait out whatever this was inside its facilities. The restroom there was private and tastefully decorated, and if you're going to be kneeling in front of a toilet, it makes it less awful if the floor is clean. [I'm sure the management would have appreciated this strategy, but I really didn't care at this point.]

Sam led me by the arm at a snail's pace back toward the entrance of the castle, but after twenty yards or so I suddenly found myself retching the entire contents of my stomach, which was mostly fattoush, into the most strategically-placed trashcan I've ever encountered. I honestly think it appeared out of thin air! Also, for whatever reason, even though it was a Saturday during tourist season, there was no one around, praise be to God.

Oh, except for Sam, my dear husband, who faithfully held my sweater with one hand and captured my shining moment with the other. Isn't he sweet?

After composing myself (which Sam also documented) and leaving the scene of the crime, I spent the next two hours sitting on a secluded rock outside, in a most picturesque setting, deciding whether there would be a repeat performance.

Finally, we determined I was far enough out of the woods to make the drive back to Beirut. No bargaining this time; we took the first offer we found. Once again, if you're looking for a silver lining, God sent us a devil of a driver, a blessing because he shaved 30 minutes off our 90-minute trip with his brazenness. He didn't say a word the whole time, and we didn't mention my ailment, but he drove as if he knew I might be sick in his car.

After a fitful night's sleep, Day 4 consisted of me holding my stomach and groaning, flipping repeatedly through 200 mostly non-English, mostly sports channels on satellite TV (though catching portions of Annie Hall, Jerry McGuire dubbed in French, and The Colbert Report), writing postcards, dozing in and out, trying to eat a cracker, and promptly throwing it up. I sent Sam out to enjoy our remaining hours (it was a gorgeous day, and his birthday trip after all), and he came back to collect me for our late afternoon flight. By takeoff I was on the mend, and slept the entire way home (another blessing, as I was not looking forward to that flight).

The only pic we got together - in the terminal waiting for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I'm still not sure what it was. Food poisoning or water parasites seem unlikely, as Sam and I had eaten all the same foods and drank only bottled water, so I guess it was a 24-hour bug. Who knows? I may even have gotten it had we stayed home in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Regardless, it was probably inevitable after a dozen trips that one of us would have a vomiting story, so I suppose I won't hold it against Beirut. I may even give it another shot some day. However, I'm not eating fattoush again anytime soon.


  1. Oh no!! It is rather remarkable that you've made it through so many trips without a stomach bug. So sorry it happened on this trip. :(

  2. So it was Beirut AND bust. Man, that stinks, but I love the providential placements. :) You are an excellent storyteller!

  3. Reminds me of my food poisoning story at a 5-star hotel in New Dehli, when I didn't leave my room for 3 days. That's about all I remember from New Dehli, so at least you have some great pics of places you actually experienced despite your misery.