Waking early, wanting to do some last minute things on the net I'm not too impressed there's a blackout. It seems to be a bit of a regular occurrence in these parts :( Packing my gear, I grab a taxi over to Max's for breakfast so I can check out his maps...and to see if he can convince me to take a slightly longer route to Damascus :)
"See, this honey is from the Shouf mountains. Delicious isn't it. You have to go!"
"Okay, where's your map. Give me a look..."
Heading to the lounge room Max spreads the map on the floor...
"The way you have planned to go is straight over here, but this is boring and highway the whole way. Now, you have hardly seen anything of Lebanon so you have to walk around Beirut along the coast here, past Pigeon Rock, then follow the coast to here. Then head into the mountains, through the Shouf valley and over to Syria here..."
I look closely and figure he is probably right, looks like a much more enjoyable walk. Even though it will add a day or two extra I will finally get to see some cedars!
"Okay, you've convinced me" :)
Saying a big "Thank you" for breakfast and his advice, I head off to find a taxi back to the hotel.
Last time I was in Beirut I discovered THE most disgusting public toilets on the face of the planet, located in the bus station right near my hotel. Now, I have seen some shockers before and I'm sure many of you complain about the state of the public toilets in your area but this was something else!!!
Imagine a toilet where the bowl gets so full shit starts leaking over the sides. Then imagine that people start shitting on the floor till the toilet cubicle floor is completely covered. Then imagine that people keep using the public toilet, shitting on the floor until it reaches the entrance. Then imagine that someone goes and puts stepping stones all the way back to the original cubicle so another two inches of shit can be piled on top!!!
Unfortunately, last time I didn't feel the need to get it on film but I've come to the conclusion it will make a good U-Tube video. I head down to relocate this extraordinary phenomena but it's locked :( Judging by the smell emanating from within it still hasn't been cleaned, hopefully I will never find out...
The coastal walk is stunning and I'm surprised how few people are swimming considering the size of the city. Hitting pigeon rock confirms I made the right decision in coming this way. Amazing!!!
Passing a military road block the scenery suddenly changes. The beach hotels, fancy restaurants and highrise disappear, replaced with shacks, workshops and factories. Stopping for lunch I notice prices have gone back to normal as well :)
Invites for coffee suddenly start coming in abundance and even though the people to the north are welcoming, the warmth and enthusiasm displayed down here is hard to match. Passing a mechanic shop and feeling like a break Ahmed and Hanan invite me in for a drink. I try to refuse the beverage, Arabic coffee served in a cup normally used for nescafe, knowing if I finish my heart will likely stop, but refusing isn't an option ;)
A missile is positioned in the middle of the road and I'm only half sure it's for ornamentation...
"Can I take a photo of that?"
"Sure, go ahead"
After taking some pictures we sit and chat and I find out Ahmed is Syrian while Hanan is Turkish. Finishing the coffee I prepare to leave when a guy walks up to us...
"Come with me"
"Nah...I'm alright, cheers" :)
"No, come with me!"
Laughing "No, I'm fine. Thanks"
He grabs me by the arm and rather unceremoniously lifts me to my feet...
I look to my hosts to see their reaction and find them staring blankly into space, ignoring everything going on around them. The penny drops. This guy isn't inviting me for a Pepsi, I'm probably having my first run in with Hezbollah. Time to show a bit more respect :)
I give him a big smile walk with him a short distance down the road...
"I hear you have been taking pictures of this area"
Grabbing the camera I start top flick through, impressed that apart from the missile they all look harmless...
"Ok, delete them all"
"All! I'll delete the ones from this area but I'm not deleting them all"
"Delete them all or I'm taking the camera"
Our eyes lock...
"Only this area"
"Delete them or I'm taking your camera!"
"Only this area"
He can't help braking a small smile...
Giving me a dismissive wave "Just start deleting them"
Phew :) I don't mind losing this afternoon's photos but four days worth would be a bastard. After checking my passport and walkie-talkieing in the details the guy comes back smiling...
"Don't worry. This is just normal, you have nothing to be afraid of"
"No problems" I do actually understand :)
"Okay, stand here. We have to search your bag"
I sit down and my heart starts to race, now I'm really wishing I didn't finish that coffee. I'm not worried for my own safety but rather for all my equipment and the last few weeks video. I really doubt they will be interested in having a video night with five hours worth of my holiday just to see if I have anything suspicious. Much more likely they will just destroy them :( And also, with two video cameras, a still camera, a laptop, fifteen video cassettes and a bag full of wires I probably don't look like a normal backpacker. I'm sure they will not hesitate to confiscate anything they feel is unusual...
I have money stashed in three different locations throughout my bag and they find them all. Looking closely to see if any gets taxed any I'm pleased with their professionalism, they guy doesn't even look twice at the big wad. After thoroughly searching all the smaller pockets he opens the main section and my heart feels like it's about to explode. The first thing he spots is my computer...
"This is a laptop?"
"Okay, wait here. Someone is coming to talk with you"
I breath another sigh of relief. After discovering my laptop the rest of my bag gets left unsearched. A big four wheel drive pulls up and the driver speaks perfect English. We go through all the formalities, he has a quick look through my computer then he tells me to hop in the car.
"How do you like Lebanon?"
"It's a beautiful country! And the people couldn't be more friendly, it's great"
"Yes, welcome to Hezbollah Lebanon"
I can't help but laugh. And I have to admit I'm also slightly relieved. Before this I was just assuming they were Hezbollah, but really they could have been anyone...
"You are not scared?"
"I know I'm not doing anything wrong so I've got no reason to be scared"
Which is true. If I really believed that Hezbollah were a bunch of blood thirsty madmen hell bent on beheading as many foreigners as humanly possible I wouldn't be walking around the south of Lebanon :)
"So where will you finish your walk?"
He leans over and turns the radio on. Obviously as much as he wants to discuss about that :)
"I'm going to be walking through the Shouf mountains towards Syria. Does Hezbollah mind me walking around?"
"No, not at all. You are welcome. I will take ten minutes of your time then you are free to walk wherever you want"
Driving for about ten minutes we pull into a carpark, the guy turns to me...
"Do you know where you are?"
"I'm pretty sure this is the same road you picked me up on, just farther south"
Shrugging "Bring your two cameras, the laptop and your phone. Leave your bag here"
Heading into a little office another guy is smiling when I enter...
"Now, what are you doing here?"
I give him my story and he seems convinced, he takes my phone, passport and laptop into the next room. I sit and wait...
"We will take a copy of your passport to keep on file. This is normal. You don't need to be afraid"
"Now Ben, do you know where you are?"
"Aaaah, no" Mental note...When walking in a country with numerous heavily armed groups controlling various regions do some research... ;)
"You are in Ash Shiyah. You can't just walk around taking photos here. Why were you taking photos?"
Laughing "I only took photos from the highway, I'm not sneaking down side streets or anything"
Smiling back "Okay Ben, look! Here in Ash Shiyah, in Tripoli, in Beirut and in the Shouf you can't take photos whenever you want. In Lebanon always ask before you take photos"
"Okay, lesson learnt"
The driver comes over with my computer and sits next to me. we start flicking through some photos and he has his arm around my shoulders, very cosy :)
"Do you know Wasseem?"
I know about twenty Wasseems and my mind starts racing as to who he means or whether he is just fucking with me. Suddenly I remember one of my friends from Damascus rang yesterday...
"Yes, from Syria"
The guy doesn't respond and we continue to flick through the photos...
"Okay Ben, you can go now. If you have any problems come and see us, do you think you can find this place again?"
Shrugging "Probably, don't know"
"Then maybe we will see you again"
We all wish each other luck and I collect my bag from the car. Jumping in a taxi it isn't long before I'm back where I was originally nabbed. Ahmed seems pretty happy to see me but Hanan gives me a small wave and looks like she's wishing I would disappear quick smart. Don't blame her really :)
Making another five kilometers along the highway a guy about twenty-five pulls up on a scooter while I'm talking on the phone...
"Please, hang up and call back later?"
"Okay, no problem" I assume this is another Hezbollah check...
"Have you been questioned by anyone today?"
"Yes, I was just questioned by Hezbollah about an hour ago"
"Are you Tony?"
"Give me your passport"
Dropping my bag I hand him the document. He quickly flicks through then points into the bag...
"Give me a look"
I hand him my wallet and he does a quick search. Suddenly he scoops the money out and I snatch the wallet back, then make a grab for the money only to end up with a few receipts. This guy is obviously not Hezbollah. I take another swipe at my money...
Our eyes meet and he takes a step back, lifting his shirt to display a big knife...
"Do you want me to kill you?"
He hops on his bike and rides off...
"See you tomorrow"
"Yeah mate, see you tomorrow" Wanker...
So there it is. After more than 6000kms I've finally been robbed :) Bit of a bastard but one of those things that I'd resigned myself to happening. Just like in Turkey I'd resigned myself to the fact I would probably get bitten by a dog and I think it is just pure luck that I didn't.
And I have to say I'm very lucky this guy only got $20. The whole journey I've probably walked less than 100kms without my cameras in hand but after my run in with Hezbollah earlier my cameras are safely packed away :) Saying that though, if this guy had turned up asking silly questions at any other time I wouldn't have even paused long enough to give him a response. Instead I ended up giving him my wallet :)
So with my nerves really on edge I continue on. Two kilometers later a police car pulls up...
"What are you doing?"
Sighing "Walking to Damascus"
"What!?! No, what are you doing?"
"Walking to Damascus"
"Where is your passport?"
I hand it to him and he talks to his mate...
Giving me a hard stare "Benjamin, what are you doing here?"
"Do you have something illegal in your bag?"
"Do you have a camera?"
"Give me a look"
I hand him the camera and I think the fact it's point and shoot makes him lose interest. I obviously don't look like a journalist with that...
"Okay Ben, you really can't walk here, this place is very dangerous! Take a taxi back to Beirut and if you want to walk to Damascus walk the highway"
"I'm going to go see the Cedars in the Shouf mountains"
"There are guys out here who will kill you over ten dollars. You can't walk around here!"
I don't want to tell him I just met one, I figure that will just reinforce the idea that I'm going to get killed and they will probably physically put me in a taxi themselves. Can't blame them really, if I'm found on the side of the road bleeding to death I'm sure these two will be the ones cleaning up the mess :)
I decide to see how dangerous they really think it is out here, regardless of the fact I just got robbed in broad daylight that might have just been an anomaly...
"Am I safe to walk around here in the day time?"
"In the day time you are fine. A night...wow!!! Don't do it!"
I think I'll take that advice... :)
"Okay Ben, do you want me to stop a taxi for you?"
"No, thanks. I can get one"
"Go back to Beirut, walk the highway! My grandmother is from Jerusalem. Good luck and God bless"
I have to admit, the thought of going back to Beirut is extremely tempting...
Do I feel safe out here?
Absolutely not :)
But this is one of the funny things with fear. I know the planet is exactly the same as it was five hours ago when I didn't have a care in the world, I've just had a bad evening. Rather than run away I'll find somewhere safe to sleep before it gets dark and see how I feel tomorrow.
Continuing on I don't make it far before a resort appears before me. What luck :) Perfect for some peace of mind. I don't really care what the price is as tonight I need it! But I'm pleased when the sign above reception indicates a single is $50...
"Do you have a room available for tonight, one person?"
The receptionist turns to the guy behind the desk who in turn looks to another guy sitting in the corner...
"How much should we charge him?"
"No, we can get more..."
They obviously assume I can't speak any Arabic and can't read their sign. The guy behind the desk turns to me with a big smile...
"For you $75"
"I'll give you $30"
He doesn't look impressed and I probably don't either...
"If you want the room you can have it for $60, that is it. If you don't want to pay $60 then you can go"
Probably not the best day to walk out on principal but fuck him! Don't like the guy anyway so I turn and leave. If there's one resort along the beach here there must be more...
But twenty minutes later it's starting to get dark and I still haven't had any luck. Spotting an apartment building under construction I run over for a look. Finding a great room on the fourth floor I set myself up, ensuring that I can't be seen from any of the windows.
Laying there, trying to get to sleep I realize I'm terrified. For the first time on the entire journey I'm pleased to say I'm overrun with complete, jumping at shadows, irrational fear...
Do I wish I had taken the hotel or gone back to Beirut?
But the decision has been made. Now it's dark I'm not going anywhere till morning, curling up I attempt to sleep...
One thought keeps running through my head...
"Yep Max, "Go South". Great choice mate!" ;)