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Sunday, February 6, 2011


The past two weeks I have been on semester break from the University, showing my parents and my sister Anna around. Nicole and I have loved having the chance to see some family and this has been a great excuse to break with our normal routines. Take today for example.

The day began with yet another demonstration of what great walkers my parents can be. Our Lebanese friend Karine came over first thing in the morning to join the five of us on a trek down to Tyre, in the south of Lebanon. We walked to the other side of Hamra to catch a city bus down to the Cola bus terminal, a roundabout where city-to-city buses heading south congregate. At Cola, you find a bus going to your desired city and hop on. When the bus is more or less full, the driver takes off. Sounds like a bit of a hassle, but it's a super cheap way to get around. The equivalent of a couple U.S. dollars took us all to the other side of the country. But hats off to my folks for their willingness to walk to the city bus route.

We made a quick stop in Saida to change buses and get some kak (crusty Arabic bread) and chay (tea) and then we were really in the south. That phrase, "the south," can be kind of loaded for westerners living in Lebanon. Southern Lebanon borders Israel, of course, and the area is heavily patrolled by U.N. troops who attempt to maintain the fragile, frequently broken, peace between the two nations. Southern sites like Tyre and Qana have been damaged by the fighting and parts of the border are disputed. The south is Hezbollah's power base, too, and pictures of its leaders hang alongside the road along with pictures of Lebanese killed during Israeli incursions.

The fact that tension and violence have been a part of life here makes me very sad because the south is also beautiful, hospitable, and probably my favorite part of the country. As you ride from Saida to Tyre, you are passing through areas referenced in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran; land controlled not only by Roman and Greek empires but also Egyptian, Babylonian, and Phoenician rule; and some of the most beautiful banana and orange trees and beaches you'll find.

So Nicole, Karine, Anna, my parents, and I arrived in the city and walked the souks. Which is pretty much what you do everywhere in Lebanon. Fish mongers, butchers, and shopkeepers sell their wares in the souks. Once again, my parents walked their butts off, and Karine helped my mom locate a bunch of goodies: a skirt, a samovar style tea kettle, and a sack of huge cinnamon sticks like the ones that some cafes here serve as coffee stirrers. We also walked through the archaeological ruins of the city, which, as I've noted before on this blog, essentially sit in the middle of town, mostly unremarked upon. We took loads of pictures of the Roman ruins in particular and the photo album is here. You can climb around an old stone arena that probably housed gladiator-style competitions, gaze at the ancient columns, and check out what once was a bathhouse and complex system of cisterns.

We spent much of the afternoon here and eventually ended up on the seaside, where we met an old man with treasures from the water. He was making a half-hearted attempt to sell these treasures but mostly he just wanted to show them off. Shells, old coins, rings, that type of thing. Nice guy. We dipped our feet in the Mediterranean. Teens were on the beach playing a tennis-type game with hard paddles that really make the tennis balls zing. Wouldn't you know, my mom got pegged in the eye with one. The guys who were playing were completely mortified and apologetic and, luckily, my mom was fine. By the end of the day, as we all got punch-drunk from the sun and the walking, we ended up cracking up about the whole thing. But meeting "the old man and the sea" (as Anna called him) and the apologetic kids just underscore how the south can be hospitable, interesting, eccentric, and warm.

We ate an early dinner at a place along the sea called Tyros, where a bunch of rowdy Russians were smoking the nargileh. We got a mixed grill to share but mostly ordered a bunch of mezze, including my personal favorites hindbeh (greens fried with olive oil and carmelized onions) and mutabal bettenjehn (an eggplant dish). Karine ordered a few mezze we otherwise wouldn't have tried: liver sauteed in pomegranate syrup, which I did not try, and raw kibbe, which I *did* try. I never ate raw kibbe (raw lamb mixed with wheat, onions, and spices) before, although I am crazy for the COOKED kibbeh. The raw stuff was pretty good and I'm glad I tried it, at least this one time.

The first leg of the ride home (Tyre to Saida), the bus was very crowded. Even the little fold-out seats in the aisle of the bus were full. This means that when somebody in the back of the bus wants off, all the aisle sitters have to file out to make room and then file back on. I had most of my parents' purchases on my lap, too, so I was happy to get to Saida and spring for the extra thousand lira (about 60 cents) for the nicer bus--bucket, motorcoach-style seats--on the Saida-to-Beirut leg.

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