Traveling in the Middle East - the BEST Coffee Shops!


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Jul 1, 2006
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This is about traveling in Lebanon. But I gotta tell you the Middle East has GREAT coffee shops! In Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon you can LIVE in the coffee shops! People are VERY friendly. Oh - the coffee is great too!

Wolf Larsen

I was traveling in Syria when I decided to go to Lebanon. Yippeee! Lebanon! I took a bus to a city near the Lebanese border.

At the bus terminal I ate and asked how to get to Lebanon. I was directed to a group of broken down looking Mercedes Benzes. Each one looked about 40 years old.

When the car filled up with people off we went.
Lebanon was beautiful! The car drove down the Northern coast of Lebanon. There were rolling waves to my right and mountains to my left.

Lebanon felt so free and decadent and gorgeous from the moment I laid eyes upon the country. I could immediately see why so many people in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria told me how much they loved Lebanon.

When the “taxi” arrived in the city of Tripoli I was almost sad the ride ended. So much mountain and sea and sun and blue sky and waves. So much happiness.
The hotel was this guy’s house. Outside my door was the living room. I could sit around with the guy’s family and talk with them. The proprietor was a skinny twerp. His wife was very attractive. So was his teenage daughter. They were all very nice.
(I didn’t hang around their living room much. I didn’t want to intrude. Besides, there was simply too much temptation there.)

I jumped out into Tripoli and started exploring. Tripoli, like much of the Middle East, has really lively coffee/teasops and they’re everywhere. It seems like a good portion of the male population lives in these places. They talk, argue, play chess and checkers, and watch the passerby.

And some of these coffee/teashops are huge!
In one coffee/teashop I did see the Hezbollah “propaganda channel”. The “propaganda” was newsreel footage of children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, and Palestinian militants posing with guns that looked like slingshots compared to the Israeli war machine. There was also plenty of footage of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children, destroying Palestinian homes, and Israeli tanks rolling through Palestinian cities – all the “propaganda” that the responsible American news media censors.

Wandering around Tripoli was great! Many of the streets were crowded alleyways running through the city center. It all felt so old and modern thrown together. The streets were crowded and alive! This is what cities should be: living-breathing-organisms that take on a life of their own. The lively and intriguing streets of the old town are from the middle ages. Every turn of the corner was a new adventure for the eyes in this part of town.

Tripoli has a second downtown on the waterfront. I took a taxi there.
When the taxi driver found out that I was an American he said, “You Americans are always dropping bombs on cities – always invading countries! You Americans are giving Israel the armaments to kill Palestinians! You Americans –”

“Do I look like George Bush to you?” I asked. “Because if I do you need glasses!”
He shut up and stayed shut up. It turned into a VERY QUIET cab ride.
It was the first and only time I encountered anti-American feeling from an Arab in the four Middle Eastern countries that I visited.

I started walking down the promenade – and it was upbeat and happy with families and attractive men and women and couples.
Couples were holding hands and openly displaying affection and intimacy in all kinds of ways. I could see why the other Middle Easterners thought Lebanon was so wonderful.

At night I walked down the main thoroughfare between the old city and the new downtown. A big bright fever of nightlife runs down that street.
The next day I walked up the city – Tripoli is built from the seashore up into the surrounding mountains. I ate in a restaurant with a view of the city and the Mediterranean Sea dazzling and shinning below.
The owner, who had lived in the U.S. and Latin America, came and talked to me.

He showed me the different levels of his restaurant – it was all very chic and contemporary and elegant. Then he took me upstairs where he was building up a hotel. Like half the buildings of the city, the restaurant and hotel were being built into the steep slope of the mountain that ran up out of the sea.

We were talking on the roof of his building overlooking the stunning view of city and mountains and Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea shined below us and the mountains rose over us and the city swarmed around us.

“Here, there’s so much opportunity,” he said. His voice was endless enthusiasm. “The whole country is being rebuilt,” he continued.
He talked of his exile from Lebanon during the Civil War. “Hundreds of thousands of my countrymen fled during the Civil War. Now, they’re coming back.

“When I was in exile I mostly made money trading goods between Latin America and the United States. I saved my money. Now I’m investing it in my own country – my own future.
“Lebanon is a great country,” he added. “You can go swimming at the beach in the Mediterranean Sea in the morning, and go skiing in the mountains in the afternoon – or vice-versa.”

The next morning I decided to go to the Roman ruins of Baalbeck. First I would have to go to Beirut, and connect there for another bus to Baalbeck.
The highway to Beirut was a big long streak of asphalt between the big mountains and the big sensual blue of the Mediterranean Sea. There were dramatic cliffs and thrilling views. Parts of the highway were blasted through the cliffs that fell into the Mediterranean Sea. The bus was hanging over an endless blue.

I stopped off in Beirut and changed buses.
The bus to Baalbeck out of Beirut ran over the mountains. On the way there were lots of shot-up buildings. There was everything from smaller bullet holes in the walls, to big giant holes that looked like they came from a bazooka or something. It all made passing through the delightful scenery even more exciting.

Later that day, I found a cheap hotel room, and I walked around the Roman city of Baalbeck.
There were some bullet holes in the walls of the ancient Roman city. But still, I think that the different sides in the Civil War were pretty considerate, because I didn’t see any huge holes caused by bazookas. And the ancient Roman buildings had far fewer bullet holes than a lot of other buildings in Lebanon. It’s nice of people killing each other to respect the remains of ancient cities like this one.

The next day I went to Beirut. It seemed like every passing noisy old VW van was a self-proclaimed “bus” going somewhere. It all looked like an informal operation of people packed like sardines into a can that’s a bus because we have a VW van and we’re unemployed kind of transportation.

“Beirut?” I asked one van after another. They all shook their heads no.
When the driver of one of these “buses” shook his head yes I got in.
About twenty minutes later, the driver and hawker/money collector changed their minds, and decided not to go to Beirut. Maybe they wanted to get a cold beer instead, I don’t know.
“No Beirut, no fulus,” I said. (No Beirut, no money.)
They laughed as they nodded their heads fine. I got out of the van and they sped off.

“Where the hell am I?” I said out loud to all this middle-of-nowhereness stuff around me. (Pay attention Mr. Webster – I just gave birth to a new word!)
Anyway, I got to Beirut one way or another. I don’t remember how I got to Beirut – maybe I rode on the back of some kid’s tricycle or a flying saucer dropped me off – oh now I remember! – I managed to find a bus – a real one! – and I reached my hotel in Beirut later that afternoon. (That’s a fun whoooppeeeee kind of sentence.)

At the hotel the guy behind the desk said, “The penthouse is available.”
“Yeah? So?” I said in-a-what-does-that-have-to-do-with-me tone.
“Normally we charge $125 dollars a night for the penthouse,” he said.
“Well, one of the simple rooms for twenty dollars is fine with me,” I said.

“Here’s the key to the penthouse,” the guy said. “We’ll give it to you for fifty dollars a night. Just have a look and decide.”
On the elevator I thought, “This is a goddamn waste of time. “Penthouse suite, whatever. The last time I spent fifty dollars a night was back in Japan.”

Then the elevator reached the penthouse. The first thing I noticed was that I had the whole top floor to myself. The second thing I noticed was that (for me) it was huge! The next thing I noticed was the viiiiieeeeeew.

I went back down below, and smiled at the guy behind the desk. We had ourselves a deal!
Boy did I live it up! That night the view was fabulous! Lights spreeeaaad out below in both directions along the coastliiiiine. I felt like a millionaire with a happy life!

“This is the life I deserve,” I thought. “I’d like to walk into a penthouse like this one and throw a millionaire out the window and live happily ever after!”

Beirut is a sensuous decadent place. The young women dress sexy. It’s very cosmopolitan. There’s swank eating and drinking establishments everywhere. There’s lots of bullet holes in the walls. It’s an entertaining place.

The ocean promenade is fantastic. So many attractive people not burdened by much clothing. Sex is in the air. The sun is smiling in the sky. The Mediterranean Sea is a big naked blue lying before you.

And then there’s downtown. In 2002 downtown Beirut had an… uh… unusual feeling to it.
It might be “normal” by now.
There I was – eating sophisticated haute cuisine, or whatever the hell you call it, at some outdoor café.

There were plenty of police with Uzi machine guns standing around. There were smartly dressed waiters. There was the elegantly restored architecture. There were old shells of bullet hole buildings. There were large empty newly restored buildings.

Much of the worst of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) occurred right here in downtown Beirut. Here I was eating haute cuisine on a sidewalk that they had just washed the bloodstains off of recently.

Mozart played as I ate. So did the boom-boom bang-bang of an orgy of construction sites everywhere. The charming bullet-hole-Swiss-cheese-looking shells of the buildings were being restored, but the inside of the buildings were being smashed down and completely rebuilt from scratch.

Beirut wanted to be the “little Paris on the Mediterranean” once again.
Back at the hotel I talked with the guy behind the desk. He was a great guy as far as I was concerned. Thanks to him – I was living in a penthouse!

“How do you like it up there?” he asked.
“It’s great!” I said. “I’ve never stayed in a penthouse before.”
“You can stay in the penthouse until the weekend if you like,” he said smiling.
We got to talking about downtown and the restoration, which brought up the Civil War, which he had lived through.

“Depending upon where you lived in the city – the Civil War either felt horrible – or you hardly noticed it at all,” he said.
“It’s possible to hardly notice a civil war in your own city – really?” I asked.

“Downtown was the front line. The fighting was horrible there,” he said.
“But in other parts of the city it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “There were two different economies.”
“One economy for the Christians, and a different economy for the Moslems?” I asked, thinking boy was that a stupid question.

“Well, some Christian factions united with the Moslems for a while, and fought alongside the Moslems against the other Christians. But then they’d go back to fighting the Moslems for a while, only to unite with them once again. Often there were more than two sides fighting each other.”

A few days later I jumped on a plane to Amsterdam, Holland.
Copyright 2005 by Wolf Larsen
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