Saturday, February 28, 2015

Like a Paul Bowles novel

I've been on the road for three weeks now. Heading west across North Africa. 

During two weeks in Cairo, I barely left one neighborhood. And it was still like a kaleidoscope. Then we came to Morocco, and it started to turn. 

A blur of cheap hotels, crowded trains and foaming oceans. Falling asleep under elaborate mosaics at dusk to be shaken awake by the thundering call to prayer at 4am every morning. Falling back asleep and getting up with the African sun streaming in at nine to get breakfast at a cafe where everybody's already on their second joint. Surfing in the Atlantic. Staring at a wall for four hours. 

Like a Paul Bowles novel, but with no sex. 

Different characters. Heated arguments on rooftops. Not making eye contact on long train rides facing across from each other. Getting completely sick of them. Mutual resignation to the fact that you're with them. Forgetting why that is. Complete comfort with each other that could be a sign of deep intimacy, or deep contempt. 

Like some kind of marriage. Or a Paul Bowles novel, but with no sex. 

Rabat, Fez, Casablanca. Somewhere else. Somewhere new. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cairo: The Dust of Nations

Three days ago I arrived in Egypt. It's a place I grew up always hearing about, and I was eager to experience it for myself and see if it bore any resemblance to the place movies, Bible stories, comics and history classes painted it to be.

My first evening I dined out with a medical doctor from a well-to-do family––currently working as a middle school teacher in Cairo. Over creamy shrimp alfredo and shisha, he painted a rather bleak picture of the situation in the nation since the revolution: Excited idealism turned to disappointment, turned to terror, turned to pleading for a return of the order that had been revolted against.

I learned a lot from the doctor, and from others we met, but after a day and a half of sitting in posh caf├ęs and wandering around titanic shopping malls on the suburban outskirts of the city, I was eager this morning to get in a dirty taxi bound for what I'd heard was the throbbing heart of the nation: Inner-city Cairo and Tahrir Square.

Our official destination was the National Museum, and after an interminable amount of time stuck in a traffic jam in a poorly ventilated tunnel, we emerged, blinking, in front of the imposing neo-classical structure. Scuttling past rows of black masked special ops troops below burned out high rises with a heavy wind gusting dust into our teeth and eyes; the whole city had an eerie, almost apocalyptic feeling.

The museum, once we got inside, was spectacular. Ancient Egypt must've been everything the movies and comic books made it out to be. I was slightly disappointed to learn (from Google) after an hour long search on foot that the one Egyptian artifact I could have identified as a child and which even emblazoned the tickets we'd purchased to get in: King Tut's funeral mask, had, apparently, after millennia of careful preservation, been irreparably lost to history in a still somewhat unclear incident involving a clumsy curator and some misapplied epoxy shortly before my arrival. In the end, though, I think I found one I like better:

Even in the midst of the remains of the grandeur of ancient Egypt, though, it was hard for me to shake the feeling of present apocalypse. Priceless artifacts ornately decorated with delicate hieroglyphics were piled haphazardly in cases with descriptions that looked like they were printed in the 1950s. Crates were piled all over the floor and in some places it felt more like a massive antique warehouse than a museum. As we emerged from the mummy chamber––the only decently maintained corridor of the cavernous building––a stray cat ran across the floor and I could feel the sand driven into the building through the massive double doors of the entrance on a wind that had only strengthened since we entered a few hours before.

We emerged into a gale of grit that made it hard to breath and a crowed of men desperately hawking postcards and tours to us. It turns out, the city was that afternoon, being descended upon by a sandstorm the likes of which are only seen a few times a year.

Determined to see Tahrir square, the place I'd heard so much about on the news since my first time in the region almost four years ago, we pressed forward on foot past the gauntlet of special forces and into the choking, blinding grit. Wen we finally made it we spent an extremely uncomfortable minute gazing around. We then asked a passerby to take our photo––and immediately felt terrible about it––having someone take our smiling picture at the sight of their as yet unresolved national tragedy.

Then, feeling emotionally and respiratorilly exhausted, we piled in another cab. Naturally, we got stuck in traffic again, and the driver––an unemployed electrical engineer and member of the country's increasingly marginalized Christian minority––spent the 50 minute ride telling us his perspective on everything that was wrong with the country.

We arrived at dark and during a power cut. To cheer up we, we went out for pizza a few blocks from our flat and then started to walk back to watch The Mummy on a laptop. The dust storm had got worse still, to the point that trees, cars and sidewalks were all coated in the stuff and the night air illumnated by street lamps had a strange, hazy glow, almost like walking down an empty street back in Corning or Wellsboro on a night with gently falling snow. It would actually have been quite peaceful if it were snow, and not the tiny bits of a country disintegrating.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

How to get the internet

In Beirut, there are really only two ways to get decent internet. One, is to pay for it in the form of cellular data at the rate of about $16 per gigabyte. The other is to sit in extremely posh cafe’s who’s owners likely have some sort of relationship with the right people and order expensive espresso drinks all day while you use their wifi. In the end it probably works out to about the same price, but with one option you get complimentary espresso drinks. 

Today, as I write this, I have chosen the second option.

That is all.

Except that I also would like to apologize for not writing in a long, long time. A two week stint in Germany, the incomparable adventure of moving into an unfurnished apartment in Beirut and countless anecdotes along the way have all passed unwritten about. I’ve been busy––and tired––to be sure, but I’ve also been unmotivated and lazy as well. 

Over the next month and a half, I will––God willing––be going some of the most spectacular places I’ve been yet. It’s going to be crazy, and it’s going to be exhausting. But it’s also, sometimes, going to be interesting, and even beautiful. And I promise to try to be more disciplined in trying to share some little parts of that on here. 

Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Caught in a Lebanese cat fight

Since I came to Lebanon, one bright spot in my life has been that Misha––one of my many little sisters––started emailing me regularly. Most our correspondence is mundane, consisting of short anecdotes about the weather, school, and daily activities. The other day, however, she surprised me with a one sentence email simply asking if I had "seen any cats at [my] door." I was surprised, because, I in fact, had.

For the past three days, there has been incessant meowing echoing through the stairwell of my building. Very loud, unpleasant meowing. My building is about five stories tall with each floor taken up by a large family flat. Mine is roughly in the middle, and while there are some neighbors downstairs, the two levels above are currently vacant. It was up the large, stone stairwell connecting my floor to those unoccupied levels that the phantom meowing––sometimes verging on human screaming in the wee hours of the morning––came from.

Wondering if some unfortunate animal was trapped up there, last night I left a bowl of milk out on the landing between my floor and the one above. When I returned from a run this afternoon, though, it was untouched. The meowing continued.

About two hours ago, as I was in my room packing for an upcoming trip, a knock came on the door. I came out to find my housemate, Jacob, talking––or attempting to talk––with an older Lebanese woman. After some Arabic, French, and finally, frantic gesticulation, we surmised that she also was concerned about the cat, and wanted us to come upstairs with her. In over two months of living here, I'd never once ventured up those large, echoing stone steps.

The madame led us to the very top floor, where there was a locked door to an unoccupied apartment on one side, and an open window on the other. Outside the window, just out of comfortable reach, was a balcony, and on it sat a cat, meowing away. Apparently the thing had snuck in through the parking garage level door when it was open, moved up the staircase to the window, and never come down. When Jacob started attempting to climb out onto the balcony, the woman––perhaps rightfully––was terrified and pulled him back. She then produced a bowl of water and some small slices of Picon cheese and communicated to us that she wanted us to check the food every day and replenish it if it was eaten.

After going back down the stairs, bidding madame and kind adieu and waiting a few minutes, my three housemates charged back up the stairs to take care of business in their own way. We were met with two surprises.

First, the cat had, of its own volition, moved off the balcony and onto the windowsill in front of us. This was good. Second, there was not just one cat, but two. This, was bad. After a brief scramble, we cornered both of the screeching felines off of the windowsill and onto the landing. There was a short pause in the battle, and for a moment we met eyes with our hissing, clawing opponents, and realized this was going to be more difficult than we'd assumed. And right then:

The lights went out. 

If you've never been trapped in a pitch-black stairwell with two angry cats, then you can only imagine it as something between the mafia nightclub fight scene from The Dark Night, and the part in The Exorcism of Emily Rose right before Satan reveals himself.

Mercifully, the blackout was only caused by the self-timer on the stairwell lamp, and after about 20 seconds of terror, the lights came back. I found myself huddled in a corner with my hood over my eyes, and looked up to see my housemate Justin wedged rather impressively three feet off the ground between the railing and the wall.

More mercifully still, the cats had retreated down the stairwell (not back out the window). There were two more floors before the parking garage and victory, though, and each of them had a landing with a window that the cats tried to dive out of. Armed with nothing but our feet and Justin's sweater, which had come off at some point, we rallied and drove the lightning darting, throat-high lunging little beasts down four flights of stairs, slamming shut windows as we went. At some point the terror-cats got ahead of us and we reached the ground level parking garage just in time to see the last cat dart out the door into the night.

Our home was saved.

For the moment.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

New Year's Resolution

On New Year's Eve the other night I went downtown and stood in a crowd to watch the big Rolex clock tower in front of the Lebanese parliament strike midnight.

The clock is at the center of a round-about and the whole circle was thronging with excited people. The air was full of anticipation as they blew horns and cheered. Some started setting off firecrackers as the moment ticked closer. At the ten minute mark the crowed swelled in unison, clambering as close as the ring of M-16 toting ISF troops around the clock would let them. When it got down to a couple minutes I expected a count-down to start.

But there wasn't one. The clock had no second hand and made no noise. The minute hand is big enough it's hard to tell the exact moment a number is reached, and no one in any of the buildings was showing any kind of display with the numbers. So the nervous excitement just escalated and escalated until I finally looked down at my phone to find out when I could expect the climax and realized it was 12:02, 2015. The crowed seemed to have missed it.

After five or ten minutes it started to disperse in an agitated whirlpool motion heading back off the round-about, past the army checkpoints and out toward the nightclubs and bars in Gemayzeh and Mar Mkhail. Still I felt like there hadn't been any resolution. I guess maybe resolution is what they were all looking for.

I just gave up trying to find it and went home early.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Magic Carpet of Death

Long before I read books like Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist or Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, I dreamed of traveling through the desert. This fantasy inevitably took the form of riding a magic carpet through the blue sky above infinite dunes of sand heaped to the horizon in all directions. When I later learned about caravans and camels and such more historically accurate modes of desert transportation, I was fascinated with them as well. Last week I went to the Arabian desert, and, early one morning, got a chance to travel across those endless dunes for real. The desert was just as I imagined it. The preferred method of transport, however, has changed a bit. Outlined below is that method, as I experienced it under the instruction of a local desert dweller, along with the steps necessary to successfully and efficiently utilize it:

1. Locate endless stretch of ecologically pristine, Arabian desert:

2. Commandeer powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle from unsuspecting royalty:

3. Use ratchet-straps to attach doormat to back of powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle; then climb on:

4. Hang on for dear-life:

5. Try to avoid canyons, at least until you've made it across the border with a neighboring princedom, making it easier to avoid capture and retribution:

In the end then, the experience was enjoyable, but didn't bear much in common with my dreams of camels and caravansaries.

The magic carpet fantasy, though, may have actually not been that far off.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

There and back again in Lebanon

This evening I had a small adventure getting to a neighborhood that is quite a long way from mine. It involved a school bus, a fruit-truck and a McDonalds delivery moped.

Actually it's not that far, it's just there's this massive canyon in between it and my neighborhood, so what is only a couple miles as the crow flies turns into a longer and much more maddening journey. None of my friends had ever gone their by any means but a taxi. Hating taxi's, I decided to try to get there by any means other than a taxi. It ended up being every means other than a taxi.

I started at the bus stop right up the road from my apartment, across from the vegetable store where I've tried to make friends with a bunch of very gregarious Syrians. There are these old brightly colored school-buses that have been re-tasked as public transport vehicles that go up and down the mountain all day and will take you all the way from Broumanna on top of the mountain to Borj Hammoud nearly by the sea. To get around the obnoxious canyon, I had to get to the bottom of the mountain, so I jumped on the first school bus I saw parked at the bus stop. Unfortunately, this one turned out to actually be a school bus.

They were not impressed.

Less than three minutes later, an identical bus––but this time the public transport one––passed by and I jumped on. As per usual, it was standing room only, but that didn't matter too much as I intended to jump off as soon as it got to Mkallus at the bottom of the hill. There's a bridge there that I knew went across the sickening, disgusting canyon, and, after one wrong turn on foot that landed me in the middle of a conglomerate of dining-room chair workshops, I arrived.

Next I had to get to the Damascus highway. Looking at Google Maps, however, I misjudged the distance from said bridge to the Damascus highway. Nevertheless, after half an hour of brisk walking and a couple more wrong turns, I made it. I was about to concede defeat and hail a taxi when, up the highway, I saw the glowing arches of McDonalds, which happened to be the primary landmark for getting to where I was supposed to be. Somehow in my wandering, I had ended up closer to my destination than I intended––which is always nice.

After crossing six lanes of traffic on a footbridge, the far side of which I discovered had been turned into a machine-gun nest––not unusual, but there's something uniquely unnerving about descending a spiral staircase into a machine-gun nest––I walked up the side of the highway right to McDonalds, where I ordered a double-cheese burger.

The dilemma now was, while I'd known where this McDonalds was, and I knew the building I was supposed to meet my friends at was near this McDonalds, I had no idea exactly where. Stepping outside, I showed one employee who seemed to be on break a crude map I had on my phone. He couldn't figure it out, and showed it to another employee, who showed it to another one, until there was a whole crowed of McDonalds employees (Lebanese businesses always have a huge number of employees by American standards) looking at my phone, and none of them knew where the building was.

Then the moped delivery guy came over. He didn't speak any English, but he sure as hell knew where the building was. He gestured for me to follow him, and I thought he was going to point me in the right direction. Then he said something like syyarra oo mashee? Which means something like 'did I drive or walk', and when I replied mashee, he led me into an alleyway, gestured for me to jump on the back of the official McDonalds delivery moped, and two minutes later, delivered me right to the door of my destination.

How cool is that?

On the way back I was able to get a ride with a friend around the awful, damnable canyon and back up the mountain. I hadn't gone grocery shopping all week, though, so I had them drop me at the supermarket about a half mile downhill from my apartment. Usually it takes only a few minutes standing outside to catch a bus or service the rest of the way up to where I live, so after buying what I needed, I went and stood out by the road.

Licensed transport vehicles here have red license plates, and I've never seen anyone have luck hitchhiking, so I was surprised when, after a few minutes of standing, a beat up panel van with a civilian license plate pulled over next to me and the guy in the passenger seat opened his door and squeezed against the driver to make room for me.

I was slightly bemused, but got in anyway and we lurched up the steep hill. It wasn't until after a couple minutes of trying to talk to them in Arabic that I realized who they were: two of the Syrian guys from the fruit stand right next to my home bus stop on their way back with fresh produce. They'd seen me standing by the road, recognized me as the guy who comes in every other day to buy clementines and try to speak broken Arabic with them, and now they were taking me back to my bus stop.

So that, is how I got there and back again.