Sunday, 8 June 2008

Lebanon - a big surprise!

Hi from Clare, 04/06/08

Photo 1 Swimming pool at Jounieh Marina Photo 2 Reconstruction in Beirut. Photo 3 Beirut, five lanes of traffic! Photo 4 A 2000 tonne stone. Photo 5 UN warship in Lebanese waters

We had a good overnight trip to Lebanon arriving around lunchtime Saturday 31st May. The weather is hot and when sailing from one marina to another, we never miss an opportunity to stop the boat in clean sparkling blue water and have a swim.

Lebanon is a complete surprise. To start with the marina at Jounieh (although small)is first class. The excellent amenities include swimming pools, tennis courts and restaurants. Not all of the 80 EMYR yachts could be accommodated here and so about 30 of the bigger yachts are in the Beirut marina. This marina, in the heart of Beirut, is about the same size and equally well equipped.

The city of Beirut is a complete mixture of destruction and reconstruction. It has many bombed sites and many more fashionable new areas (even Mc Donald's has arrived). Most of the high rise accommodation was constructed around 1995 after years of civil war between the Lebanese Christians and Moslems. Initially these reasonably new buildings gives an appearance of opulence, but on closer observation there are many single story (pre 1995) run down places. A statistic that I found interesting is that there are 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and 13 million living elsewhere after fleeing the country. Our tour guide embraced them all as fellow countrymen (not ex patriots). Beirut struck me as a good example of how the human spirit will not be broken. Amongst all the religious friction so deeply routed in the past, there is a tremendous effort being made to forge a better future. The enormity of the task and the passion required to achieve it is so present, we could almost taste it.

On a lighter note, the traffic is horrendous and there doesn't seem to be any organization. Very few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings and most roads don't have marked lanes; if that makes any difference. Sitting in the front seat of the bus is quite nerve wracking watching five lanes of traffic jostle for position on one (of the few) clearly marked four lane highways. The guide on our bus said that every day she can see an accident "that is just Lebanon" We could all appreciate the accuracy of this statement when our bus drove in the wrong direction down a two way highway. After about a kilometer we came to a roundabout and miraculously ended up on the correct side of the road. Hopefully we have been granted a miracle or two so close to The Holy Land!

The people are friendly particularly the school children. Most kids at school learn Arabic, English and either French/German. Our guide stressed that Lebanon is big on education and most families do whatever they can to achieve this for their children. When we walked around Beirut with our guide, the school kids on excursion spoke to us excitedly, waved, cheered and gave us "high fives".

We also toured many of the ancient sites, the best being the Roman temple of Baalbeck. The sheer size of the place was amazing. It is said to be the most outstanding example of Roman ruins to be found in the whole region and perhaps more impressive than Athens and Rome. The buildings were enormously tall and some pieces of stone weighed 2000 tonne; still left us to wonder how on earth they shifted them. Makes paving the backyard today look like a walk in the park!

We also visited the Jeita Grotto, I must admit I thought "big deal more stalagmites" but I had to eat my words. The caves had two levels. The upper level had huge and spectacular caverns where orchestral concerts and operas are often performed. I can just imagine how unforgettable that would be, even our voices were echoing in there. The lower cavern (decked out with dramatic lighting) has a river running through it and so we traveled by small boats for one kilometer along the cave and back; cool peaceful and pretty.

Last night we left Lebanon for Israel. There is still a lot of tension between the two countries. When trying to leave Lebanon the Customs people wouldn't stamp us out to go to Israel. We had to pick another destination, so the EMYR said we were going to Egypt; a true statement but we are going via Israel. Lebanon Customs knows exactly where we are going as the rally is in its 19th year and travels the same route. It is just a game they play but who's going to complain when during our overnight passage we encountered a UN warship and were contacted on the radio by an Israeli gun ship. As we approach the port at Haifa Israel we could hear heavy artillery gunfire in the distance. Happy Days!!

Today will be spent catching up on some sleep before a Rally Dinner tonight and then off sight seeing tomorrow. Will keep you posted.

love CANDY

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