Chapter Five: Baalbek, Beirut

Trip Start Aug 24, 2009
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Lebanon  , Baalbek-Hermel,
Sunday, March 7, 2010

We were up and out by 11:00am. How wonderful to have consistent hot showers and a hairdryer. Sigh.

We hopped in a taxi and headed to mu-shar-afeye' to catch a bus to Baalbek. I don't actually know is musharafeye' is a station or a street or an area, but the front desk told us to say it to the cab and Rachel and I proceeded to dramatically repeat the work over and over again. Whatever it means, it is well known. The cab driver asked us where we were headed and when we told him he hollared Baalbek out the window until a van responded with a wave. We gave the driver 7,000 and hopped into the large unmakred van (church group style). [A photo of an awesome dude with an awesome who we saw from the van window accompanies this blog entry.] 

I think we were the only foreigners in the van so it is possible we got a little screwed because one van should go the whole way, but I am not sure. Basically we paid 6,000/each and then the van stopped about an hour away, in Zahle, where we switched vans and paid 4,000/each. 

[Again, $1USD is equal to 1,500 Lebanese Pounds] 

The second bus took us all the way to Baalbek but being only 70% sure of where we were I turned to the young guy next to me and said "hone ball-bek." Yea, pretty bad. I had to repeat and repeat until he said "Ohhh, Baaaaalbek. Yes." He found it quite amusing and I just laughed because of how different I was saying it. 

Baalbek seemed pretty awesome right from the start. We drove by an awesome blue tiled and painted mosque on our left and stopped just ahead of it where we had large ruins to our left and a small town with cute souks to our right. 

We were both hungry so the first thing we decided to do was search for an eatery. I decided to ask a guy at a camera shop if he knew where a particular place in the guidebook was located and he proceeded to usher us inside, make us sit down, and insisted we have tea. Eventually I was able to dissuade by saying we would stop by later and off we went. 

The camera shop guy had actually told us to skip the place we were looking for because it "is not nice" and recommended a different place. Luckily we didn't listen because we ended up at a very yummy joint. I think it was called Al-Khayam. Either way, it was a sandwich/plate place. We got a chicken shwarma sandwich to split and a plate of eggplant, cauliflower, and fries. To die for. I love the way they cook eggplant and cauliflower, both in Jordan and Lebanon. Yum. Yum. Yum. 

After ending out starvation, we went to explore the Roman ruins of Baalbek. First I had to fend off a particularly enthusiastic peddler of Hezbollah t-shirts. That seriously took a lot of effort. What do you do when someone just sets the shirt on your shoulder and won't take it back. I am pretty sure he was not trying to communicate that it was free.

Moving on, Baalbek was the "Sun City" of the ancient world and it is home to the most impressive ruins in Lebanon. Actually, it is even considered home to be the most impressive in terms of intact temples even compared to all Roman ruins. Even Rachel, who spent months touring ruins in Italy and Rome, was impressed. The ruins were massive and crazy intact. Especially the giant temple that remains almost 100% intact. 

Originally Phoenician, Baalbek became known as Heliopolis during Alexander the Great's conquests, and in 64BC Pompey made it a part of the Roman Empire. Under Ceasar, Baalbek was consider the most important city in Roman Syria. Various temples within the ruins are dedicated to Baal, Bacchus, Jupiter. 

The temple to Jupiter is thought to have taken nearly 120 years to build and many of the building blocks are some of the largest in the world, one measures in at 19.5 meters by 4.3 meters and is estimated to weigh over 1,000 tons. As well, the columns themselves are the largest in the world, at 22.9 meters tall and 2.2 meters in girth. [I added a picture of Rachel sitting next to a fallen column so you can see how big they are!] Actually, for the entire landmass of the ruins, over 100,000 slaves are thought to have worked on the project over the centuries. In the late 300s, and under a Christian emperor, the large temples was actually converted into a basilica. [Facts courtesy of Lonely Planet.]

It was awesome. We ran around photographing everything and taking pictures of us by pillars, us by rocks, us on altars, us on stairs, etc. Generally just being impressed, hugging giant building blocks, and getting ants in our pants. There were also a series of debauched self-timer photos. Let me tell is difficult to hit the button, run across a temple courtyard, and be ready on the altar with a smile in 10 seconds. Might actually be impossible. The jury is still out.

After our hearts were content with the crazy awesomest ruins we ever did see, we decided to check out the mosque we had driven by on the way into town and then of course
We couldn't enter the mosque of course, so we just sat outside and absorbed its beauty for a bit. It was all tiled and painted with a blue theme, sort of in the style of the Dome of the Rock. Very beautiful and a nice break from all the walking.
Souvenir shopping, on the other hand, was a much more vigorous activity than mosque watching, lol. I cannot fully disclose our purchases because doing so would compromise future gift-giving plans. What I can say is that Rachel and I splurged on matching backgammon sets! Yee yee! Shesh besh, straight from the Old Country! It was almost a no go...but numerous ATM visits later we were able to make it happen. [I learned that shesh besh is Turkish for "fives and sixes."]

After the shopping spree we grabbed some sandwiches to go and hopped in a bus back to Beirut for 6,000/each. We were shoved in the back two seats with our bags and backgammon sets on our laps and between out feet. It was getting dark and we were trying to juggle our stuff while filling our hungry bellies and writing down the days doings in my travel log. You would think we would be tired but mostly we had a hard time not peeing our pants from laughing to hard. 

A few gems include Rachel referring to my sandwich and declaring that I like salad, to which I responded, "Can I like salad a little quieter? The driver doesn't need to know." There was also an episode after it got too dark to see but I was continuing to write. It basically went down like this:

[I ask Rachel to hold my sandwich so I can finish writing. She does.] 
Rachel: What are you writing?
[I tell her whatever it was at the time.]
Rachel: What are you writing now?
[I update her again as to the status of my writing.]
Rachel: What about now?
[I look up and stare at her.]
Tiffany: Oh my gosh. You are so annoying.
Rachel: Well, my job is boring. 
[She looks down at the sandwich she is holding.]

Yep. That caused a lot of silent laughing and shoulder shaking. The next thing I wrote in my book after that says, "Rachel has a right butt cramp, we are holding matching tourist bags, and laughing uncontrollably while a small Lebanese girl stares at us." Ha! We were holding matching tourist bags. Our backgammon sets were in matching white bags, our other items were in smaller matching blue bags, and our sandwiches were in even smaller matching yellow bags. Classy. 

I am not sure what time we finally arrived in Beirut again but at that point we had to take a 15,000 pound cab to the hotel which was annoying and the driver was less than friendly. Then to bed where I think we tortured ourselves by watching one of the top 10 worst movies of all time, Tuck Everlasting. 

Horrible. Simply horrible. Why we continued watching it...I'll never know. It doesn't help that we are both stubborn and would hate to miss out on it if it suddenly turned awesome. But no. It was just bad and waste of our time. I can personally say I felt bad about myself for throwing that hour and a half of my life away when I could have been doing something way more exciting such as clipping my toenails, listing the pros and cons of using the color orange in hotel lobbies, or simply sleeping. 

Why do we do these things to ourselves? At least the rest of the day was awesome which kind of makes up for such a lame ending.
[Baalbek is also the administrative center of the northern Bekaa Valley, including Hezbollah. Administrative is meant in the true sense, so aside from Hezbollah's green and yellow flags lining the streets and a few vendors trying to make money seeling Hezbollah t-shirts, there isn't really evidence of their presence. No crazy military environment or whatever one from the West might expect upon hearing their name. I can't believe I didn't take a picture of their flags though. Bah.]
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