In early February, while CNN was filled with images of a Lebanese day of rage, claims that Hezbollah had overthrown the government and a fresh travel advisory from the US Department of State urging Americans not to travel to Lebanon, I was in possession of a one-way ticket to Beirut. Should I cancel the trip? Fly somewhere else? Or, suck it up and hope for the best? After a lot of deliberation, research and angry conversations with family, my buddy Devin and I decided to throw caution into the wind and jump on a plane to Beirut.
In stepping off the plane, I had no idea what to expect: would I have the time of my life or end up in a van with a hood on my head? Happily, the former occurred - we both had an amazing time and I would like to share with you some reasons why I think you should plan to visit Lebanon as well. These are some of the things I learned.
1. Beirut is a huge vacation destination in the Middle East and way more modern than I ever expected. Sure, there are buildings that look like they have been bombed recently, but there is also more Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores than you can count.
2. The Lebanese might just make the best food in the Middle East. Our breakfast everyday? A rolled up zatar with mint, cheese, turnips and spices on top for 1500 lira ($1 USD). Lunch? Delicious, homemade falafel for a mere 2000 lira (1.25ish USD) fried up by a chef that has done nothing but make them his whole life.
3. Mint makes everything taste better and should be put in anything possible.
4. Hookah can be found in two forms: 'amazing' and 'it will kill you.' Choose wisely.
5. Americans are more welcome in Lebanon than I initially thought. When we first arrived in Beirut, we tried to mask the fact that Devin is American. People would ask him where he was from, he would point at me and I would proclaim, "Canada!" To which they would say "Welcome, welcome." Later on in the week we were braver, and Devin just replied directly, "American!" - to which everyone proclaimed with more enthusiasm: "Welcome, welcome!"
6. Lebanon is home to some of the best tourist spots in the Middle East. Interested in enormous Roman ruins? They've got 'em. Want to explore a cave with huge crystalized fossils? They've got those, too. Just feel like sitting on the beach and people-watching? Come on by - you are "Welcome, welcome."
7. English is really widely spoken and much more so than French. Listening to the radio in Beirut sounds a lot like listening to it in Seattle, perhaps with less grunge.
8. The Lebanese are dedicated partiers. The night begins by meeting up for drinks at 11pm, then out dancing at 3am, followed by breakfast at 6 or 7am.
9. The Lebanese clearly aren't fans of their amazing museums. Despite their fantastic artifacts from ancient civilizations that once inhabited their country, the museums are so empty that the guard protecting it fell asleep while keeping watch (of course we just had to take pictures with him).
10. There are two types of taxis - 1) commuter taxis which cost approximately $1 USD to and from anywhere in town, and stop to pick people up along the way, and 2) dedicated taxis which cost about $10. Beware of confusing the two!
11. Similar to the statue of Christ that looks over Rio de Janeiro, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary that looks out over all of Beirut.
12. Opinions about Hezbollah seem to be much more nuanced than portrayed in Western media. Even Christians told us that the Hezbollah folk are not evil people, just people who have political issues with Israel. Our buddy Fady heard we were hesitant about Hezbollah and was so confident that they are just normal people that he drove us straight through South Beirut - the Hezbollah turf. He was right, just a normal, boring neighborhood with a couple of flags.
13. Most Lebanese have never visited a Palestinian camp and probably for good reason - they are really run down. They were clearly set up quickly and never planned to house people for very long.
14. Despite the amount of militarism seen everywhere in the Palestinian camps, Palestinians themselves are really nice people. One family invited us into their home for tea, where they had two hookah delivered (yes, hookah delivery!) for us to smoke.
15. The Lebanese women are stunning, no doubt about it. They also have a reputation to ask their suitors to defeat Bowser to stand a chance for their love.