HAPPY NEW YEAR from Beirut! I finally got here! After eighteen weeks, fourteen countries and about 5600km (not including two buses, three ferries, a few hitched lifts and a ride in a police car). Most importantly, I’ve raised over £5000 for the amazing Haringey Migrant Support Centre – I’m soooo chuffed about this, thank you so much to everyone who’s sponsored me. If you would still like to donate, please click here.
Some snap shots and musings from my first few weeks in Lebanon:
9th December 2015. Sahyoun, Beirut. It’s my first day in Beirut, and there’s only one thing on my mind. FALAFAL.
Naturally, I’ve done my research. I’ve cycled 3000 miles for this falafal, it has to be a good one. All recommendations lead me to one place: Sahyoun, one of the oldest falafal shops in Beirut.
What do they have on the menu? Falafal. That is all.
It’s crispy. It’s garnished with radishes and lettuce and tomatoes. It’s freshly fried. It comes wrapped in paper. It’s AMAZING.
I make a spectacle of myself by photographing every stage of my falafal consumption – from first bite to final crumbs. Normally I’d never photograph my food, but this is an exception – I’ve cycled a long way for these deep fried chickpea balls. And it was totally worth it.
10th December 2015. Beirut Souqs, Downtown Beirut. Over the past five months I’ve dealt with wild boars, dogs, Turkish police, pitch black tunnels, horizontal rain, sea urchin spines in my foot and various other dramas. But nothing has got me into such a state of existential crisis as my current situation. My stress levels are so high I think I’m having heart palpitations.
I’m trying to go clothes shopping. In H&M, in Downtown Beirut, at Christmas.
This was not one of my brightest ideas.
Beirut is a fashion conscious city and I’ve been getting a lot of pitying looks roaming round town in my scruffy cycling gear. So I’ve decided I should probably get one non-cycling outfit so I don’t embarrass my mum when she comes out at Christmas.
I head for an area marked ‘Beirut Souqs’ on my map. ‘Souq’ means ‘market’ in Arabic. In most Middle Eastern towns the market will have stalls selling cheap clothes as well as spices, vegetables and tacky belly dancing outfits for tourists.
I think I must be lost when I find myself in a vast glitzy shopping mall next to Prada and Cartier. But no, I’m in the right place. Turns out that in the unregulated orgy of construction following the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, a deeply controversial government-contracted ‘developer’ called Solidere ripped out the historic souq, along with much of the city’s historic Downtown, and replaced it with a glitzy high-end shopping mall. Meaning Beirut effectively has no real centre as normal people cannot afford to spend time in Downtown any more. Sad times.
Given I’m now at this mall, I decide to head to H&M in the hope that it will be a relatively cheap and straightforward consumer experience. Oh how wrong I was. I try on about twenty pairs of jeans, consider video calling my sister in the UK so she can help me choose what to buy, decide this is ridiculous and end up running away. I realise belatedly that after five months of only making consumer decisions about whether to cook pasta or rice for dinner, high street shopping in Beirut’s swankiest mall at Christmas was probably a bad idea. So cycling shorts on Christmas Day it is.
I spend the next few days exploring Beirut by bike. Despite the fact that Downtown is now a huge shopping mall, the rest of the city is a fascinating mish mash of beautiful old buildings from the French colonial period (many heavily war damaged) alongside upmarket new developments, mosques, churches of every possible denomination and apartment buildings with fancy restaurants on the ground floor and refugees squatting the abandoned floors above. The 5* fancy seafront Movenpick Hotel is just ten minutes away from the impoverished Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. As a newcomer, it’s a lot to get your head around. Happily, on my rounds I bump into a cycling Santa and stumble across some seriously impressive Christmas trees.
25th December 2o15. Beirut. IT’S CHRISTMAS!!! My mum and her partner have come out to spend a few days so we promenade by the sea in the sun, get the obligatory Christmas Day under-a-palm-tree photo, drink some carrot juice by the sea and have Lebanese Christmas dinner. And yes, there is turkey on the menu.
In the new year, I find a bike gang to tag along with who go out every Sunday. This means I can just rock up with Sparkie and get taken out on beautiful rides without really having to plan anything. Thanks Polyliban! It’s when I get out of Beirut that I really get why people fall in love with Lebanon. It’s a BEAUTIFUL country. So spend the next few Sundays getting overtaken by donkeys on dirt roads, exploring beautiful old town and brutalist concrete architecture in Tripoli, and drinking some decent IPA at Lebanon’s first microbrewery in Batroun.
Have now pretty much finished my month’s Arabic course in Beirut and have hopefully got a job teaching cycling at weekends, which feels like a fitting thing to be doing with my time. Given most Lebanese people are trilingual and highly educated, pretty much the only skill I possess which is lacking in the local labour market is cycling. So Beirut, with your six lane highways, total lack of road rules and crazy taxi drivers: be prepared for a new generation of high-vis wearing, confidently hand signalling cyclists with sensible road positioning hitting your streets soon!