Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beiruting Again

03 August 2010 - Beirut, Lebanon

I walked along the Corniche at sunrise this morning and was groggily contemplating the color of the sky when [bxA] I was reminded of the zillion cats in pursuit of scraps all over this city.

I made my way down past the St. Georges Yacht Club…

…and discovered a massive ad campaign on a long wall of billboards erected to conceal construction of a new marina. Giant photos of the sophisticated “Paris of the Middle East” version of Beirut back in the day are splattered between huge slogans like “Beirut is back on the map” and “revival of a landmark.”

Back on the Corniche I stopped to gaze up at the skyscrapers, many still under construction. An older man saw my wonderment and said something to me in French. I told him I speak English and he said, “Oh oh, English. Are you American?”

His name was Samer. He had trouble hearing so he did most of the talking. In the building before us, he said, each story was a sole unit of nearly 1,000 meters. They sold for $3 million dollars seven or eight years ago but now gold is up and bank notes have lost value so they are selling for $7 or $8 million. I marveled. He said he doesn’t need anything that big, just enough space to live.

Down the Corniche a bit, Samer bought two bags of fruit from three men who’d set up crates on a stone bench. He held one of the bags open toward me. “Do you have these in America?”

“I’m not sure,” I took one of the little brownish balls that reminded me of a nameless fruit I’d eaten for the first time in Phuket a few days ago.

“They’re figs.” He divided one open and showed it to me.

“Oh, figs,” I wondered why I don’t know what a fig looks like. I bit into one. “They’re delicious.”

“They’re very good for you,” he tore into another one.

I grabbed another from the bag and started to open it, but he gave me a puzzled look.

“I opened this one for you,” he explained.

“Oh,” I put mine back and accepted his.

“Yes, you see this one has softer skin. It will be sweeter.”

We walked and talked and ate figs together. He told me his daughter teaches in the literature department at AUB (American University of Beirut) and his son works in Abu Dhabi. When I wondered which street would get me back to Hamra, he offered, “My car is just around the corner. If you like I can take you there.” I said I preferred to walk. We hoped to see each other again then went our separate ways.

This is how it goes in Beirut. The sky is blue, the fruit is sweet, the people are warm and generous. They offer food, rides, conversation – anything to ensure you enjoy their country. And then they are off. Even if you exchange phone numbers and make tentative plans, there is a good chance you’ll never see them again.

I love it here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Beiruting Photos

Here's a slideshow of the photos I took of the photos (you can click into Picasa to see full size images)...

Pictures courtesy of Dar Assayad Editions: “Les Libanais et la vie au Liban de l’independence a la guerre” – By Asma Freiha and Viviane Ghanem

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Avatar in Ashrafieh

Aug'10 - Ashrafieh, view from the terrace of my friend's flat.

2 August 2010 - Beirut, Lebanon.

I landed in Beirut like an avatar in a video game – a crisp animation of myself wandering into the unimaginable next corridor. All I can do is go through the motions until the camel arrives with my karma.[bxA]

Derek picked me up from Rafic Hariri International Airport on a sunshiny Monday morning. He teased me by leaving a red handkerchief from our Sri Lanka trip on the passenger seat of his car to remind me of an inside joke. It appeared in a different dimension of color, a token from another exotic corridor of the video game my life had suddenly become.

Bleary-eyed from the all night flight I wondered about the slew of billboards at the airport featuring a new Arab leader I didn’t recognize. Who’s that? I don’t remember the answer. My memory streamed with never ending images of the much loved King of Thailand.

Dec'09 - Bangkok, Thailand. Streetside shrine to the King.

A giant bucket of KFC hovered above the exit booths. We asked a soldier standing nearby for permission to take a photo. During my lazy days in Siem Reap, Cambodia I read Colonel Sanders’ biography on Wikipedia because KFC has been more ubiquitous than McDonald’s in my travels.

Aug'10 - Beirut, Lebanon. Rafic Hariri International Airport parking lot.

Also, I have that thing about the chickens.

On our way to Hamra we drove through a forest of concrete buildings and the neighborhood farangs often refer to as “Hezbollah Land.” I marveled at all the cars, so few motorbikes. A completely different world.

Aug'09 - Beirut.

Derek and I agreed to only a quick coffee since he needed to work and I needed sleep. We had a decadent breakfast in a cozy upstairs outdoor café just two blocks from the flat where Alyssa and I spent last summer.

Aug'10 - Hamra, upstairs at Cello.

The sign on the table told me Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink was a Mojito at a bar in Cuba called Bodeguita, but he probably would have loved them here in Beirut. I imagined the Phuket bars with 50 baht beers and the kind pretty faces of young Thai bar girls. I’m not in that corridor anymore, but since I’m an avatar I can always go back.

A little girl’s hair bow was nestled in the tree by our table and Derek told me a wonderfully imaginative story about how it may have gotten there. I don’t remember what he said but for a few moments it lifted me out of the video game and nestled me in a cozy children's storybook.

After a few hours of non-stop talk, we abandoned our plans for sleep and work. Derek asked me if I wanted brains for lunch...

...but instead we opted for one of my favorite London eateries - Nando’s in Hamra. An adorable young waiter named Mohammed was exceptionally sweet about making sure there was no mayonnaise on my sandwich. This was never an easy negotiation in Thailand.

After many hours of comfort with a friend, it was time to settle into my next phase in a new place. An American friend had generously offered me her flat while she goes trekking in the Himalayas. She lives in Ashrafieh, a Christian neighborhood in East Beirut that is pretty foreign to me.

I was glad to spend my first hours in Hamra because the familiarity made my day seem almost real.

Beirut / Phuket

Everything is only almost real when you’re an avatar.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Space Between

2 August 2010 - In Flight.

I’ve done it enough by now: squirmed in the seat of an airplane for hours on end en route from one distinct culture to another. [bxA] The integration and assimilation begins with the airline, this time Royal Jordanian delivering me from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. The nationalities of the staff, the language translations of the announcements, the food options, entertainment selection – all these details knead my senses gently back and forth between the place I’m going and the place I’ve left.

I tried to be still in my seat, resigned to my aircraft insomnia, accepting refreshments from a pretty Thai flight attendant in a Royal Jordanian uniform and scrolling through the multi-cultural programs on offer from the television affixed to my chair. I watched a recent American comedy film called ‘Blind Date’ and an episode of Friends that made me feel more like an alien than I already did flying through the night skies from Phuket to Beirut.

Phoebe’s surrogate triplets were old enough to walk and talk. Rachel and Joey were dating. Huh? When did all of this happen? Where was I? Where am I now? What else have I missed?

Aug'09 - Palmyra, Syria.

Meanwhile, the camel with my karma trotted slowly across the globe. I always arrive days before him and the satchels he lugs on his back which contain all the things I need to feel gravity pull me into the place where I land.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the Plane

2 August 2010 – Royal Jordanian flight: Bangkok, Thailand to Amman, Jordan.

I got on the plane and was settling into seat 25C for the low low price of six hundred dollars less than business class when a flight steward asked a woman in the middle row to my right to accompany him to the front of the plane. She was a large woman with long black hair and a long black coat too heavy for Thailand. [bxA]

“Why?” She was already hostile.

“Madam, come to the front of the plane with me, please. We’ll discuss it there.”

“I’m not going with you. I want to see the stewardess who said it to me! Tell her to come here!”

The steward threatened to call the manager. The manager appeared in a grey suit with an Air Jordanian nametag. He threatened to remove her luggage and have her taken from the plane. The woman continued to demand that the stewardess who “started it” be called to the scene. The manager threatened to call the police. She laughed dismissively, “I have done nothing. What will you tell the police? They will laugh at you.”

Just as the manager radioed for someone to get the police, the captain arrived, tall and official in his captain’s uniform. The captain assured her they could remove her from the plane for being disruptive, but the woman wouldn’t budge. Eventually the steward, the manager and the captain marched hastily to the front of the plane. Everyone in the surrounding rows was glued to the scene. The woman shook her head.

A nice looking Jordanian man sitting two seats to her right calmly leaned over and suggested she let him escort her to the front of the plane before things escalated further. The woman went on a tirade again about the stewardess who started it and should be held accountable.

The peacemaker gently said to her, “Let’s go forward. That’s going backward. Let’s move forward.”

After a little more respectful persuasion, she followed the nice man to the front of the plane. Many minutes later they returned, dispute resolved. Ready for the midnight flight to Jordan.

Within an hour nearly everyone was sound asleep and we all moved forward…together.

Monday, August 16, 2010

At the Airport

Aug’10 – Bangkok, Thailand. Suvarnabhumi Airport.

1 August 2010 – Bangkok, Thailand.

I was standing at the Royal Jordanian check-in desk when a great commotion broke out at the airport entrance –high pitched squeals from dozens of females clamoring toward something, camera flashes and everyone else stopping to look. [bxA] After a short discussion in Thai with his colleagues, the guy behind the desk holding my passport informed me and the European backpackers behind me that it was a famous Korean singer.

The female squeals got louder and the tall gorgeous blond backpacker behind me said, “He must be a really good singer, no?”

“He no good,” our Thai desk clerk assured, “he jus’ handsome. Song no good. No good. He jus’ handsome.”

I flashed on all our pretty American talent belting away songs on the top of the charts. I don't even know they're names anymore, but they do seem to have really good hair.

It was closing in on midnight so I pretended like I was someone with a different set of circumstances and asked if it was too late to upgrade to business class. Suddenly a good night's sleep seemed worth a few extra bucks. No, it wasn’t too late and only $600 U.S. dollars. Doh! Only one decimal place away from business class.

Onward to the long zig zag line at Passport Control where an adorable older white man wearing a leather fedora and suspenders meant to look like measuring tape leaned over the red divider ribbon to harass the Asian man behind me.

“Pajamas! You’ve worn your pajamas to the airport.”

The Asian family stared blankly at him, heads slightly tilted in confusion.

“Pa-jaaa-maas,” the tape-measure-suspenders man tried to clarify, “you’re wearing your pajamas.”

Still nothing from the Asians.

The line moved and I was able to inconspicuously glance back to check out the dude’s sleepwear, disappointed to learn he was not wearing pajamas at all. He was comfortably dressed in white draw string pants, a yellow t-shirt …

and wrapped snuggly in a light pink bath towel.

Friday, August 6, 2010

One Night in Bangkok

Aug’10 – Bangkok, Thailand. Convenient Grand Hotel by the airport.

1 August 2010 – Bangkok, Thailand

In an effort to give the camel carrying my karma a bit of a headstart, I spent last night in Bangkok to rest all day before my midnight flight to Beirut tonight. I’m staying in a bare bones room at the Convenient Grand, a cheap hotel near the airport. It feels like a no man’s land.[bxA]

Aug’10 – Bangkok, Thailand. Soi outside the Convenient Grand Hotel.

The seven-story hotel sits down a dusty lazy soi that’s got nothing but a few little houses and scruffy dogs milling about. The backside faces a field and some industrial stuff here and there. I’m sitting in the hotel restaurant staring out the window at two spirit houses across the street. The last bowl of Tom Yum Goong I’ll eat in a while is not the best I’ve had, but I’m savoring the spicy coconut milk flavor and paying careful attention to all the twiggy things that give it flavor but I’m not supposed to eat. The Eagles’ ‘Take it Easy’ is blaring from the speaker over my head.

Aug’10 – Bangkok, Thailand. Soi outside the Convenient Grand Hotel.

A tiny Thai toddler just went running past the spirit houses clutching his plastic yellow electric guitar. His tired young mother ran out to snatch him from the street and now he’s jamming like a rockstar on his toy guitar in the family’s compound.

Aug’10 – Bangkok, Thailand. Entrance to the Convenient Grand Hotel.

I’ve scheduled one last Thai massage for 300 baht available near the hotel lobby and I’m wondering how I’ll ever survive without them. Thailand has gotten under my skin and I don’t want to leave. I imagine the camel with my karma getting up on its lanky legs in reluctant preparation for the long journey to the Middle East. I’m taking the airport shuttle to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport at 10pm. “If I could save time in a bottle” is blaring on the lousy sound system and I’m wondering if we could save time in a bottle…

Jun’10 – Phuket, Thailand. Siam Commercial Bank calendar, my kitchen.

But we can’t. And I don’t like this song.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Farewell Phuket

July 2010 - Phuket, Thailand. My neighbourhood.

31 July 2010 - Phuket, Thailand.

I posted this photo on Facebook - took it on my last walk down to the beach from my house in Fisherman Way. My status update said [bxA] something about being in transition. People have asked me what I’m transitioning to, but that’s the great unknown. And I’m happy to report it actually does feel great, the unknown.

At least most of the time.

A month or two ago I almost panicked – no home, no job, no husband, no babies, no financial certainty, no idea where I will live, what I will do. I almost started contemplating the situation. But then I went swimming or stared at the sky or walked down the beach to the pier where I first set sail on Millennium so many months ago.

2010 - Chalong Pier, Phuket, Thailand. Buddha on the hill.

Chalong Pier always reminds me how great the unknown can be,

if we let it.