Lebanon: Full of Surprises and Awesomeness

For many Americans that were politically conscious in the early 1980s, “Beirut” is synonymous with the suicide bombing that killed 300 servicemen. For the French, Liban represents a decline of global influence after WWII. For Australians, Brazilians, and many other countries that received torrents of refugees during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war, the country is the source of large social groups that had never existed before. For other Arabs, the Lebanese society is often a symbol of westernization and departure from traditional Muslim values. But whatever your background, you will find that Lebanon is full of surprises if you’re lucky enough to visit it.

Lebanon 1Beirut has reemerged once again as a chic and cosmopolitan capital city, reclaiming a title that it once held—the Paris of the Middle East. Its downtown has been rebuilt in the wake of the war into a modern, clean, and highly organized center. Nearby neighborhoods like Achrafiyeh and Gemmayzeh are known for their extensive nightlife options, ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars to massive nightclubs with internationally-renowned DJs. Hamra Street connects these East Beirut landmarks with Ras Beirut, on the west side of the city, known for its cultural melting pot and student culture. I studied at the American University of Beirut for a semester and enjoyed the liveliness and friendliness of the Hamra neighborhood. Beirut borders the ocean on both the west and north sides, and the lovely Corniche road follows this coastline. This seaside promenade is perfect for morning jogs and evening strolls, and it is a popular local pastime to bring chairs to hang out by the sea and smoke nargilehs with friends and family. Throughout the rest of Beirut are interesting historical neighborhoods with drastically different political and religious leanings, divisions that can at times lead to violence but recently have seen cooperation and coexistence for the most part.

Lebanon 2Outside of Beirut, there are many places worth visiting. In winter, one can ski without the crowds at Faraya or The Cedars and swim in the Mediterranean in the same day, a famously clichéd statement about Lebanon that is entirely true and totally delightful. Jbeil, also known as Byblos, is a short drive north of Beirut along the coast and is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has fascinating ruins of crusader castles and much, much older settlements that will interest archeology and history buffs. In the south, towns like Nabatieh have conservative charm, offering a much more traditional cultural picture of the country than the modern, European cities. Driving through the hills and vineyards is enchanting—the terrain is beautiful, and the rural villages and farms are all welcoming of polite foreigners. Lebanon 3Tripoli, in the north, is the country’s second largest city and boasts more coastal atmosphere. It even has islands famous for palm trees and green turtles. Further to the east, the ancient ruins of Baalbek are larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Greece, albeit much less famous. This ancient Roman city has layers of intricate stonework built on top of it from Arab and Ottoman periods, and is exquisite in its detail, scope, and preservation. A visit here is a must.

Lebanon is so small that visiting the entire country is not difficult at all. One should always do some research on political conditions, but in general it is a safe place for westerners. People are nice, well-educated, and guaranteed to be curious about you. If nothing else, the sheer variety of the country is reason enough to visit.

 

Desert Dreams Part 1: Eastern Rajasthan

East Rajasthan 1

Trips to India can vary widely depending on how much time you have available and how much off the beaten path you want to go. Most short visits include Delhi (the megacity capital, where most flights arrive, and a textbook example of the poverty and wealth that exist side by side across the country) and Agra (home to the Taj Mahal and a few other, less famous monuments). The third corner of the classic India-in-one-week triangle is the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, known for its camels, handicrafts, and colorful festivals. Finding your way in this expansive state can be difficult, be here are some pointers on what to see and what to pass on.

Jaipur is the easiest accessed of the Rajasthani cities via the traditional route. Known as the Pink City, it has a historic old city that is required by local law to be painted an odd shade of coral that dates back to the king’s decision to paint it that color in the 1800s. Jaipur has plentiful markets and some interesting architectural sites like the honeycombed Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the Jantar Mantar, an impressively accurate set of car and building-sized astronomy instruments. Nearby is the Amber Fort, a sprawlingly huge castle. While there is plenty of the local charm and color, you may find Jaipur overrun with tourists and those who make a living by taking advantage of them.

East Rajasthan 2For a much more laidback experience, hit up Pushkar. This much smaller town surrounds a small lake and is painted entirely in a pleasing pastel blue shade. Pushkar is a holy site and the destination for many religious pilgrimages, but also an important stop on the so-called Banana Pancake trail. Hippies are pilgrims too, in their own way. This ultra-chilled out place is a great spot to meet other travelers, eat Israeli food, drink bhang lassis (a canniboid extract legal in Rajasthan, surprisingly strong—be careful). A word of warning: don’t accept “free” flowers or assistance from anyone offering to help you do a puja (prayer) at the lakeside. You’re getting conned, and a large amount of money is going to be demanded.

East Rajasthan 3

Not far away is the town of Ajmer. Ajmer doesn’t have much going for it besides a massive Jain temple that is worth a stop as you transit to or from Pushkar. The Jain religion is similar to Buddhism in many ways, but predates it and generally has stricter rules relating to asceticism and purity. Their temples, however, are some of the most interesting in India. Ajmer’s is three stories tall, with a central hall that is filled floor to ceiling with a wood and gold models of religious figures and a fantasy city or heaven. There are elephants and angels and kings and mythological creatures and a whole paradise in miniature. The whole display is astoundingly large and intricate, and visitors can circle it on all three levels on walkways around the perimeter. There are even models hanging from the ceiling, of swans and flying boats. Jain’s definitely know how to build a temple.

This is only a few of the excellent places to visit around this colorful state. Rajasthan has a lot to offer—stay tuned for the second post in this series with more expert tips!