Taking a lunchbreak from today's work (coding research data for the project on cross-cultural academic literacy), munching on leftover kibbe el raheb--vegetarian kibbe or "kibbe of the monks"--I realize that I said very little yesterday about the joys of the Lebanese buses.
As I mentioned, Nicole and I took the bus down to Saida yesterday, usually known in English as "Sidon," a seaside city in the south dating back (at least) to Phoenician times. Most of south Lebanon is primarily Shia and, due to proximity to the border and the presence of Hezbolah there, has been the site of fighting with Israel in recent, well, decades. But the south boasts beautiful views of the Mediterranean; delicious fresh fish, falafel, sweets, and ice cream; and biblical, Roman, Crusader, and Islamic history and architecture. The south is Nicole's favorite part of Lebanon.
My friend Jeff commented that this blog often focuses on "getting there." True. How else could it be when you are encountering the unknown? Let me say that we walked to the Cola "station" in Beirut yesterday, which took like ninety minutes, mainly because we didn't know what we were doing. Though Beirut taxi drivers love to stalk pedestrians, honking their horns to offer/"push" their services, I love walking in the city, and Nicole was a good sport about the long march to Cola. Cola's not really a station, more like a long underpass where buses headed to the south park.
Dodgy cardboard signs (in Arabic only) on the windshields tell you where buses are headed, the first but not the last similarity between the "scene" at Cola and the early scene in "Romancing the Stone" where Joan Wilder, who just arrived in Columbia, tries to find the bus to Cartagena. Nicole, currently taking Arabic, was able to read the signs. Kudos. But even if you don't read Arabic, the drivers send minions around Cola yelling the name of the destination of their buses and pointing. "SOUR! SOUR! SOUR!" OR, "SAIDA! SAIDA!"
We were the first to board yesterday and I thought maybe we'd have the bus to ourselves. But drivers try to fill the bus. I can't blame them. How profitable can the operation be when fare is one dollar? The buses don't seem terribly popular with tourists, as they are smokey and crowded. We started making our way down the coast, with the door of the bus hanging open. When somebody wants off, they just yell for the driver to stop or at least come to an almost-stop, and hand the drive 1500 Lebanese Lira as they jump out. Likewise, one can stand along the road to the south--basically a little two-lane highway along the sea (think the PCH in California)--and bus drivers will stop and pick you up. Only the start and end points of routes are official. To call the bus a sardine can is an insult to sardines. Extra seats fold out into the aisle. No passenger is turned away and many of them smoke.
But on the other hand, you get gorgeous views of the sea. And people-watching, too, as Lebanese love to strike up what seem like heated conversations with strangers, reminding me of what one of my AUB students said on the first day of the term: "Is it true that Americans try not to discuss religion and politics? Because that's all that we talk about."