It wasn’t until the plane banked and the lights of Beirut filled the small window that the whole thing became real. Below me was a city I knew nothing about and my return flight was more than 5 months away, but the 20 or so minutes coming into land was the only time I thought I had probably made a terrible mistake – as soon as I stepped off the plane everything move too quickly to think about it anymore (and besides it was far too late to do anything about it).
After landing with all the usual bedlam of passport security and baggage reclaim (and fighting off all the passengers who demonstrate no knowledge of queuing) I unceremoniously tumbled into the arrivals hall and was faced with about 500 craning necks trying to get a good look at me. Sadly it wasn’t my greeting party but friends and family of my fellow passengers eagerly awaiting their arrival. Probably looking a little bemused, I sloped off to find the taxi rank and was instantly seized upon by a number
of taxi agents and the haggling for my onward journey began. This is stressful enough at the best of times but I was weighed down by the accumulated weight of what seemed at this point everything I’d ever owned.
With fee negotiated and driver found the journey from the airport in the dark didn’t show me much of Beirut and co
uld have been the ring-road of more or less any major city, the only thing that I learned of my new home was the heat to expect. With the windows wound down the air rushing in felt something like a hairdryer in temperature, but unlike a hairdryer it was heavy and damp with humidity. I quickly exhausted all the Arabic my tired mind could remember – after making a guess that th
e driver was Muslim I wished him a ‘Happy Ramadan’ and told him my name, he responded with his and asked if I spoke Frenc
By the time I had dragged my bags the 20 meters from the cab to the hotel and up the flight of stairs I was drenched right through with sweat and had only managed to throw my clothes off, and dig out my sponge bag before the door to my room flew open and my friend from university, Joe, stood smiling at me (having managed to grab a hand towel to cover at least some of my body) he came in and sat on the bed and he told me about his travels while I showered (Joe and his girlfriend Carmen had been travelling around Turkey and Northern Iraqi-Kurdistan for about 2 months). Having thrown on cloths we headed up to the roof terrace of the hostel to meet the Carmen and some people they’d met. The bar on the roof reminded me a lot of the ‘Queen of Hockston’ rooftop bar in London with tables full of travellers in their 20’s (I’ve since found that a quick poll of the bar would have thrown up more or less 3 professions – journalist, NGO worker and artist) . Although Joe and Carmen had known that I was staying in the Saifi Village my poor instructions hadn’t made it clear when I was arriving and they had been checking with the front desk regularly for the past 2 hours.h or English, after my answer he admitted he didn’t speak either and we lapsed into silence for the rest of the journey.
Sitting in the heat on the terrace enjoying a beer we caught up on news of home and of more of Joe and Carmen’s travels before heading out to a bar around the corner. This was the first time I got to see the area in which we were staying in – Gemezie area near downtown – and it looked promising. Old French colonial style buildings mixed in with new apartment blocks, tree lined streets (with cars parked haphazardly everywhere) and bars in every second building. The bar we went to opened directly into the street and wouldn’t have looked out of place in London or Paris, playing a mix of English music (including Bombay Bicycle Club and oddly enough Beirut) and European music, we drank cold Heineken on draft and met other travellers from the hostel – not at all how I imagined the middle east!