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.




Monday, December 01, 2014

Getting medication in Lebanon vs. in the United States

I've been somewhat ill for the past several weeks. During that time I moved to a new house, ran a 10k, flew to Turkey for ten days, and had lots of smaller but still exhausting adventures. It seems it has finally caught up with me, though. After another night of not being able to sleep, blowing blood out of my nose and coughing up nasty colored phlegm, I paid a visit to my street's pharmacy to see what they could do for me. I'm feeling slightly better already, but intend to spend the next few days laying low. So, since I have some time now, I figured I might pause and reflect the experience of getting basic medication in Lebanon versus in the United States. I am not going to make any judgments on which system is better––I'm sure they both have pros and cons. I will just attempt to chronicle the steps involved as I have now experienced them in both places.

United States:


Call doctor's office and say to receptionist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Receptionist gives you appointment.

Drive to doctor's office.

Talk to receptionist. Spend five minutes updating insurance information.

Sit in waiting room for interminable period of time.

Get ushered into exam room by nurse. Tell nurse "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Nurse takes weight and height and blood-pressure measurements. Asks about current medications and allergies. Leaves.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes in, tell doctor: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Doctor takes mucous sample. Sends to lab.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes back, writes prescription for antibiotic.

Go to billing desk. Billing desk talks to insurance. Find out since this is your first visit all year, deductible has not been met.

Pay $127.00.

Ask billing desk if this includes lab work. Billing desk says no, even though lab work is done in same building, the staff are from regional hospital, so billing handled separately and you should check with insurance company to see the claim.

Drive to pharmacy.

Give prescription slip to attendant.

Wander around Walmart for interminable amount of time.

While waiting, decide to buy a decongestant. Ask pharmacist for decongestant.

Give pharmacist ID to photocopy, sign twice and fax to DEA.

Wait for interminable period of time.

Get approval to buy decongestant.

Continue wandering around Walmart.

Prescription filled. Take to check out. Spend five minutes giving insurance information. $14.00 decongestant was not prescription, so insurance will not cover it. $16.00 antibiotic was, but deductible still not met.

Pay $30.00.

Drive home.

Go online to check status of lab-work claim.

Claim is $370.00.

Call insurance company and ask for explanation of benefits.

Call hospital and ask for itemized invoice.

Spend next two months fighting with both of them.

Lebanon:


Walk up street to pharmacy.

Tell pharmacist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Pharmacist hands you antibiotic and decongestant. Explains when and how to take it.

Pay $30.

Walk home.





Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Day in Beirut

Last night on the winding eight mile drive up the mountain my taxi driver pulled over to get another 24oz beer and asked if I wanted one too, and I was pretty close to saying yes. But let's back up.

Yesterday morning I woke up and played Settlers of Catan. Only it was the most intense game of Settlers I've ever played. My housemates and I have played Settlers almost every evening for the last week and a half, so there was nothing unusual about that. Yesterday, though, we were entertaining a young couple from New Zealand we'd met in Jordan a month before, and when we learned the night before that they played Settlers, a match quickly ensued. They won, which was highly unacceptable, and meant that yesterday morning was the rematch.

The night before we'd stayed up to the wee hours of the morning arguing about theology, so the game got off to a late start, and turned into a race against the taxi that was coming to collect the Kiwis from our doorstep. Catan is not a game that is easily rushed––but if you've never tried it you should. It adds a whole new element of stress. I didn't win, but neither did the Kiwis, which was really the point.

Our guests left, and we jumped on a bus headed for the city. It was Friday, and every Friday I play soccer with Syrian refugee kids down in Borj Hammoud.

After rendezvousing with some other friends of my friends who wanted to come this week, we made it to the school where we play. I was about then starting to feel the fact that while I'd already worked out once that morning, thanks to the unexpected speed game of Catan, I'd eaten nothing all day but candy and hot chocolate. So as most of the kids hadn't arrived yet and there was more than enough help, I ducked out to find some shawarma.

As I was walking back from the cafe in my soccer shorts, I heard a little, far-away sounding voice squeak: "Androus!"––my name in Arabic. I spun around but didn't see anyone. Then a little face popped up over the wall of the flat roof of a building about four stories up. I waved and it giggled and then disappeared. It was one of the little girls who comes to play soccer every week.

It was a such little thing, but somehow it made me feel really strange. Here I am in this completely alien environment––a poor Armenian neighborhood in a city in Lebanon full of refugees––and somebody here knows my name. Actually, a whole bunch of people––albeit little people––do. How weird is that?

I thought about it as I went back to the organized chaos that is helping with two concurrent games of soccer between 70 exuberant little Syrians who all want you to play goalkeeper on their team.

The games ended around dusk so the kids could have time to get home just before it got dark, and my housemates and their new friends and I headed out to find some food. Since we were in an Armenian neighborhood, I took everyone to Mano which is a sandwich shop/deli that specializes in different kinds of Armenian sausage.

Mano is on Armenia Street, which, if you follow it across the bridge eventually splits into Pasteur Street and Gemayzeh Street and leads you through Mar Mkail––which is basically where everyone in Beirut who "goes out" on Friday night "goes out" to. The friends of my friends had to meet someone in that general direction, so, fortified with some Armenian sujuk, we headed over the bridge and started the mile-and-a-half walk.

In a little side street off of Mar Mkail is an establishment named Chaplins themed and decorated entirely around the actor Charlie Chaplin. Despite its slightly off the main drag location and general hole-in-the-wall appearance, it is quite popular. This may have something to do with Charlie Chaplin, but I tend to think it has more to do with the fact that between the hours of six and nine every night, shots cost 2,000 Lira––that is, $1.33.

One of the friends of my friends who I was meeting for the first time was Palestinian, but grew up between Lebanon, Jordan and the States, so it was interesting talking to him about his life experience split between those three places. He remembered Mano from his parents taking him there as a child and was surprised I'd known where it was. When I mentioned Chaplins existence to him off the cuff, he insisted we go there as well––although I'm less sure it was because he remembered it from his childhood.

One of the coolest things about living in such a transient city is how many people you meet. One of the strangest things about it is that you often quickly and casually say goodbye to those people forever. Whether it was the Kiwis who spent the night with us, my friend's friends, the kids we played soccer with, or really anyone for that matter.

Then came the usual struggle of getting back up the mountain. While it was still only 7:30pm or so (basically mid-morning by Beiruti standards) Taxi prices had already gone up and there is no bus that goes directly from Gemayzeh to where I live. In the end we took a service from there to the Doura round-about, where we found a group of taxi drivers standing by a convenience store drinking. One was willing to take us up the mountain for a very reasonable price, and Almaza in hand, got behind the wheel and plunged us into the wild Beirut traffic.

We made it about two blocks when one of my housemates realized he'd forgot his backpack somewhere in the city and jumped out of the car. While my other housemate and I were concerned, there wasn't really much we could do, and so continued on with our driver.

It was now just me in the back and my housemate sitting in the front passenger seat when the driver pulled out his smartphone and handed it to him. Texting and driving is dangerous, especially when you have a bottle of beer in one hand, so the gentleman had fortuitously handed the phone to my housemate with an open text conversation and began dictating to him in broken english. This got  rather awkward when it became apparent that the person on the other end of the conversation was a woman the driver was involved in a rather steamy affair with. The exchange was cut mercifully short only when we pulled in at a convenience store to buy some more beer.

Refueled for another couple miles, we continued on up the mountain and arrived safe and sound at our front gate. About 45 minutes later, my other housemate made it back, backpack in hand, and we put a rather mundane capstone on the day by cooking a light supper and watching TV.

It was another day in Beirut.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Running in Beirut

Running in Lebanon is rather dangerous. Even registering for a race can be somewhat hazardous.

Today I went downtown to pick up my number for the Beirut Marathon 10k event this Sunday and found the entire district was blockaded in what looked like preparation for the D-Day invasion. As it turns out, the invaders were about three dozen posh looking Lebanese, protesting that the national parliament a few blocks away had just voted to reelect itself for two more years. The most dangerous person there was probably the girl with the clipboard [right foreground], yet I still had to run the gauntlet of the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Force, six US Humvees, UN Peacekeepers, and about 200 men with M-16s [not pictured, because they don't like it] to get to the ritzy Beirut Souks shopping plaza where they were doing pre-registration.


It honestly wasn't bad when I lived down in Gemayzeh in a hostel. Then there were actually sidewalks. That is, when they don't completely block the sidewalk to put up a billboard advertising the race you are training for, forcing you for one horrifying second to hurl yourself into the right-most lane of a four-lane highway. But since I moved up the mountain things have got exponentially worse.

There is now nothing but miles of extremely steep, twisting road with barely enough room for two small cars to pass each other and no berm at all, but on which cement trucks and transport buses make up most of the traffic. There are some parts where, when walking, you basically have to just press yourself against the cliff-face, close your eyes and pretend you're somewhere else as a diesel semi-trailor grinds past you nine inches away.

There are still places you at least can run, though. The secret is to find side roads with large military checkpoints. Side road means less trucks, and large military checkpoint means slower trucks. As an added bonus, the view is often quite breathtaking.


Unfortunately, if there is one thing I hate in this world, it is wild dog-like creatures. And out here, in the howling darkness that is everything east of the last Lebanese Army checkpoint on the Beirut city limits, there are wild dog-like creatures.


But every silver lining has its cloud.

Today I helped tutor some Syrian and Iraqi refugee students at an after-school program run by a friend I met at Arabic school last month. The main reason I came was actually to help him and some other friends get back to my apartment on the mountain for a long-promissed dinner that evening, but I was assured I'd be helping the students with only English grammar and the Arabic alphabet. An hour of algebra homework later, and we were piling into my friend's Peugeot hatchback.

I don't have a car, so I'd only ever taken the bus on the 30 minute (without traffic) drive from Beirut up to my place, so just getting to the base of the mountain was somewhat stressful, and could really be a post unto itself. We made it, though, and after getting on the right road at the roundabout at Mkallas, we headed up the mountain and all breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then the car broke.


After watching a YouTube video on how to pop the hood of a Peugeot, pouring several liters of water into the radiator reservoir, and watching them trickle down the highway back toward Beirut, we discovered that the hose connecting the radiator reservoir to the radiator was ruptured. I'd always rather wondered what it would be like to get stranded on the side of the road in Lebanon. So it's almost a relief to have finally experienced it now. It was also good that it was within a few––albeit extremely steep––miles of my apartment. So after convincing everyone that pouring water all over the red-hot engine block was not a suitable substitute for a functioning radiator, we pushed the car about 40 ft. uphill, abandoned it, and jumped on a passing bus.

I felt quite bad about my friend's car. But dinner was delicious.

And after a succession of Almazas, sitting on our balcony playing guitar and chatting as we looked out over the sparkling on-off lights of Beirut and its suburbs 1,600 ft. below, I felt quite alright about the whole thing. Even the algebra.

As it turns out, though, driving here is still worse than running. And that's really something to feel thankful for.