Cherishing My Visit to Lebanon

By Becky Bray Wood

During the summer of 1998 I had the rare opportunity to visit the country of Lebanon. I say 'rare' because I am 28 years old and grew up with the unrest in the Middle East and embassy bombings dominating the evening news and the newspapers. I remember these events and the feelings they inspired quite vividly. Never did I think I would ever visit this part of the world, much less be able to say that here are some of the most incredible places I have ever seen.

My interest in this area peaked three years earlier in 1995 after I had met Father Charles Miller from Saint Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. I had always thought of myself as an adventurer; however, upon hearing about his expeditions, I knew that true adventures were possible on his study tours. In 1995, when I first ventured to this part of the world, I fell in love with it. During the 1995 trip, we heard wonderful stories about Lebanon. However, I remember standing at the Lebanese/Israeli border looking north and thinking that Lebanon was one country I would never visit because of the American Governmentís ban on travel to Lebanon.  In the summer of 1998 my dream came true. Father Miller had arranged a study trip for a group of true adventurers. My mother and I quickly signed up. Our friends asked if we were scared, why were we going, and, occasionally, "Are you crazy"? We werenít frightened. 

We departed by plane for Lebanon on the morning of June 22, 1998 and finally arrived in Beirut at 7:30 p.m. on the night of the 23rd. The sun was just beginning to set as new sights and sounds greeted us. The city was coming to life beautifully at sunset. Our ride to the hotel was brightly lit by neon signs, and people dressed for the evening were coming out of their homes. 

En route to our hotel in Jounieh, we traveled along the "Green line" through much of Beirut. We looked out one side of the bus windows to see beautiful buildings and parks, but on the other side there were bombed out buildings that had not been rebuilt. I was speechless at the enormity of the war damage and destruction still existing on one side of the "Green line". People were living amidst the destruction in the habitable portions of ruined buildings. Towels and sheets hung from the bare frames where windows used to be. Though the sight was disheartening, even staggering, I realized that Beirut and the country no longer symbolized terror nor inspired dread. At the same time, I realized that there now existed incredible life and beauty.

We continued our journey up the coast and left behind the reminders of the war. As we approached Jounieh, we encountered an incredible sight. The city was alive and bustling with life. The sky was lit by neon, and the Lebanese vendors were busy selling fruit and other products. I was very surprised to see that the country was so "westernized". Women and men wearing shorts were out late at night, eating in fast food chain restaurants and enjoying themselves in ways that were unimaginable for the Middle East. The stereotype desert, camels and Bedouin tents were nowhere to be seen. The country --its mountains and beaches -- is simply beautiful. Our journey continued and everything I saw and everywhere I looked was another amazing sight.

We 13 tired and hungry American tourists finally arrived at our hotel. I am sure we were a sight to behold. Even though it was about 11:00 p.m., all of the excited hotel staff came to greet us, and made us feel most welcome, and reopened the restaurant. With half-closed eyes, we ate and then hurried off to our much-needed rest.

June 24, 1998

Our day began as the sun was rising. We had no chance to recover from jet lag or get over the excitement of being in a foreign, somewhat exotic country. Our first adventure was a trip south along the coast to Tyre. We were met at the hotel by our tour guide, Eli, and two of Father Miller's friends, Pierre Helou and Haytham.

As we drove through Beirut with the sun up, the destruction was more evident. Almost every building was riddled with bullet holes, others were completely destroyed. Despite this destruction, a great deal of rebuilding was progressing in Beirut. New buildings, hotels and roads were being constructed. There was a definite life to this city. The people, moving at the speed of light and getting things completed, are not waiting for others to come in and rebuild for them. They are doing it themselves. 

The drive down the coast was breathtaking. We passed through many military checkpoints but never witnessed anything threatening or dangerous. When we arrived at Tyre, we visited the sites in the "City of the Dead" and the "City of the Living". Its history and the locale -- with its ruins, the beach, the Mediterranean Sea, and the profusion of wild flowers -- were most impressive. We ate lunch at a friendly little pub-type place in town. The people of Tyre were genuinely happy to see us visitors. After lunch, we drove north to visit the Sea Castles and the port in Sidon.

That evening, we were invited to a dinner party hosted by Father Sami Btaiche at the College des Apotres. Before dinner, we toured the school complex and its lovely grounds. We could almost imagine children playing basketball on the court or studying in the classrooms. My mom and I had a wonderful time and enjoyed seeing an aspect of Lebanese life that tourists usually miss. 

Father Sami was warm and kind to us. We enjoyed visiting and chatting with the other dinner guests. Naturally, a meal like this multi-course dinner -- beginning with appetizers, followed by the veal entree, and ending with fruits, ice cream cake and hot, strong, invigorating "Osmanli" coffee -- was an often repeated surprise for us Americans during our stay in Lebanon. All I wanted after this was a cozy place to snuggle up and fall asleep. After dinner, Guita Hourani and Pierre Helou joined us. It was most enjoyable to talk with them and others who have spent most if not all their lives in Lebanon. This interchange gives insight into the culture and its people. 

June 24, 1998

Yes, we did all that in one day. Today started the same --early! We drove north to the town of Amchit. We had originally planned a quick visit but stayed much longer because of a chance meeting. We met a professor of urban planning and architecture from the Lebanese American University who offered to give us a tour of the town. He told us all about peaceful Amchit whose houses with window boxes full of flowers reminded us of a calm, tranquil town in Europe nestled in the hills, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The professor also showed us his charming home. 

We resumed our tour and drove to Byblos. We were impressed with the Crusader Castle and the many civilizations that sprang up here. The evidence of this is the existence of Egyptian-like statues and Crusader structures found at this site. While we were touring, a very large group of school children on a field trip arrived. One of the things I love to see and pay attention to when I travel is the children of the area. I love to watch their faces and listen to their laughter --and it was wonderful for me. At the waterfront area, we climbed the guard tower for an amazing view of the castle. From there, we could see the outline of the city that the castle is built upon. 

We boarded our bus for lunch in the mountains en route to Annaya and our tour of the Monastery of Saint Charbel. The area was peaceful and quiet. We visited the museum and read about Saint Charbel.

That evening, we climbed the stairs leading to the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon at Harissa. Though it was hazy, the view was breathtaking and Jounieh appeared large and quite beautiful. While there, we noticed a wedding party of cars decorated with flowers and bows. When the wedding in the chapel ended, we entered to pray and had a glimpse of the bride and groom while their pictures were being taken. 

After our visit to Harissa, we headed to Our Lady of Victory Monastery for a short lecture about the Christians of the Middle East and Lebanon delivered by Doctor Farid el Khazen and organized by the Maronite Research Institute. 

Doctor el Khazen gave an overview of the situation of the Christians in the Middle East and spoke about the impact upon them and their political and civil status by the current peace process and the rise of fundamentalism. The attendees were a varied group --students, scholars, clergy, and other tourists like us. There was a lively discussion about the future of Lebanon and what we as Americans can do to help the Lebanese people. We enjoyed hearing the different viewpoints. I was especially intrigued with the students, some in their early twenties, and their interesting ideas. Many of the students were women who planned on having careers upon graduating and were genuinely excited about the prospect of working. Afterwards we socialized over drinks and dessert and had conversations. 

June 25, 1998

Today as we were leaving Beirut, we were all extremely sad. This city and the people had welcomed us and we wanted to stay for a few more days, weeks and even months more. We left early, 6:00 a.m., for other parts of Lebanon.

Our first stop of the day was at the Ksara vineyard and winery at 10:00 a.m. We had a wonderful tour and viewed an interesting video on the history of the vineyard. Most interesting to me was our visit in the caves, dug into the hillside, where the wine is stored. The climate is controlled by mother nature and not man. The hills keep the climate at a relatively constant level -- quite cold -- year round though I think the temperature may fluctuate a few degrees. After our spelunking, we watched a video about the area and had a wine-tasting session. The wine was good and we were given bottles of wine to take back home.

Because this stop was unscheduled, it was especially nice. Even though this was typical tourist fare, it was great fun and a welcome "extra" for us. Then we boarded our bus to rush off to an amazing city.

The modern city of Baalbeck is literally intertwined within and among most of the ruins. Almost everywhere you look, there was an ancient column or some other treasure protruding from the ground or right next to a modern structure. It is such a beautiful city. 

The temple consists of three distinct areas and all are well preserved. I could have wandered around here for days. There is still evidence that three religions have used the temple in some way. This area is more awe-inspiring and overpowering than the Acropolis in Greece. I stood next to one of the fallen columns and it must have been 2 to 2.5 meters (6 to 8 feet) in diameter. One wonders how long it took to complete this hand-constructed temple and what it looked like intact. The intricate carvings and the delicate mosaics are esthetically thrilling for the fact of their survival today. All was beautiful.

After a couple of hours, we picked up our journey to the Cedars. Nobody napped because as we drove through the Bekaa Valley, the scenery was again spectacular. Here, the fertile soil produces a large portion of the fruits and vegetables. Up ahead of us, we caught sight of the mountains of Lebanon.

Most noticeably as we started climbing into the mountains, the temperature dropped. As we approached the top, we saw snow. Of course, being the Texans that most of us were, we had to get out and have a snowball fight. Almost everyone in the group got involved in the action and we had a wonderful time. We threw snow at each other for what seemed like a couple of hours but in reality was only a short time. We continued our "fight" as we hiked to the top of the mountain where we had a breathtaking view of the entire area. On one side we could see the Bekaa Valley. On the other side were the more mountainous areas covered in fog. 

We boarded the bus to go to the Cedars, passing a number of ski resorts and lodges. I thought of one of my professors from Lebanon who had said that he could go skiing in the morning and then in the afternoon be at the beach. We arrived at the Cedars just in time to be allowed in before they closed the entry for the day. Since we had no guide for this part of the trip, my mom and I walked leisurely through the grove of cedar trees. It was so quiet and peaceful there that I would have liked to just sit for hours and listen to the sound of the birds and wind. We walked slowly up to artist Roudy Rahmehís creation. He had carved the images of Jesus and various animals into the dead cedar trees rather than seeing the trees cut down or burned. His work covered nearly every nook and cranny of the spared cedars. It was fun to study the different carvings which almost came to life. At the gift shops near the entrance to the grove, we purchased items made of cedar. 

Our last drive for the day was to our hotel in the Holy Valley. Along with its hospitable personnel, it resembled a welcoming Swiss chalet and felt like a cozy ski lodge. We would all have loved to stay here for days, looking down from its hillside into the deep, sacred valley. We watched a most glorious sunset -- at such a high altitude, the sky burst into a spectacle of many colors. 

There was time before dinner, so my mom and I decided to put on our swimsuits and go swimming. However, when I put my foot in the water, I thought I would need to be revived. The water was so cold. My mom just jumped right in as if it were no big deal but it really was COLD! I chose not to swim and instead I enjoyed the view. 

Our entire group ate dinner at the hotel and the owner cooked just about anything we wanted. I believe my mom taught him how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

June 26, 1998

My mom and I were so excited about our pilgrimage to the Qadisha that we awoke at 5:00 a.m., two hours earlier than our scheduled 7:00 a.m. wake-up call. We took a walk as the village was awaking, and it felt as if we were in a small town in the Swiss Alps.

We started our walk through the Qadisha Valley in the town of Hawqa. We thought it would be a leisurely walk of a few hours, but we soon learned that it would be an all-day affair! As we began our descent into the valley, we must have looked like a little herd of goats following one behind another. But we were really having a wonderful time.

Along the walk, we saw many ruins and hermitsí caves. These were interesting. Many of the monasteries are still in use today. Some ruins are used by the shepherds of the area.

The walk took us down into the depths of the valley and we walked along the valley floor. The pilgrimage was splendid. From every location and every view, there were successively beautiful scenes worth photographing. Every shade of green was represented in the landscape beginning high up in the trees down to their reflection in the Qadisha River that ran beside our path. For a while, our entire group stayed together but then we broke up and went our separate ways, hiking at our own particular speed. It was too enjoyable and pretty to stop for long breaks. We wanted to keep walking in the Lebanese countryside because of an invigorating feeling of freedom not always present when traveling abroad. 

Hungry and thirsty, we finally had a quick "watering" stop after six hours.  We were the only tourists among the local customers at the outdoor restaurant where we had a late lunch.  The waiters and the staff were as nice as ever they are.  My mother and I bought only two liters of olive oil because we did not want to take the restaurantís complete olive oil supply. Back in Texas, you cannot easily find good olive oil, so we carried off as much as we could. After lunch, one group went back to the hotel and the other toured the Kahlil Gibran Museum in the village of Bsharri. The museum housed some beautiful Gibran artwork. 

This was our last full day in Lebanon, so we had to say our good-byes to Eli, Pierre, Haytham and the bus driver. We were all sad that this part of the trip was over. Dinner that night was quiet. We were exhausted from the day's adventures, but sad to be leaving.

June 27, 1998

This was our final day in Lebanon, and no sightseeing was planned. However, on our way out of the country, we drove to Tripoli so we could see the Citadel. We drove down the beautiful mountains and countryside that were so lush and green. All the villages we passed through were picturesque and each had a distinct charm. In Tripoli, the bus driver drove along the walls of the Citadel. Along one side were homes, and along the other was the most incredible farmersí market. We would all have loved to stop and shop there. 

We stopped to take pictures. We noticed that flags from nearly every country were flying because it was the time of the competition for the world soccer cup. The Germans, the Brazilians, and the French seemed to have the most support in this area since their flags were waving from most rooftops and balconies. We all broke into smiles when a group of about 20 school children under ten years old came running down toward us, stood on a ledge, and called out and waved to us. They were darling! 

I loved my visit to Lebanon and I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can return. My overall impression is that Lebanon is a country of incredible beauty and wealth, much of which is only now being discovered by the outside world. This wealth and beauty exist not only in its ruins and historical sites but also in its people and cultures. The people are not as we Americans have come to expect. They are very warm, gentle and giving. They will do all they can to make everything perfect for you. If they cannot, they will find the person who can! 

When I look back on my visit to Lebanon, I cannot help but remember the story of the mythical phoenix which after being consumed by fire, rises reborn from the ashes! Lebanon is currently undergoing a rebirth. It was once a magical country where people from all over the world came on vacation. During the last part of this century, war broke out and the country was slowly consumed by "fire". Finally within the last few years, Lebanon has begun huge reconstruction projects. Because of them, people --and hope-- are returning. There is new hope that Lebanon will reach the mythical, magical status for which it was once known. 

Before visiting Lebanon, I thought it would resemble its neighbors. However, it turned out to be quite different. My impressions of Lebanon after this personal experience differ from those made on me at home by the evening television news and the press. Before coming here, many friends asked if I was worried. I was not anxious about my safety but I wondered if I would feel welcome. I did not feel uneasy or nervous in any way. Surprisingly, I felt very welcome in Lebanon --like visiting an old school friend or a long lost relative! 

This trip will always be one of the best I have ever taken. I will never forget the people I have met, especially, Guita Hourani, the Chairperson of MARI, Pierre Helou, Father Sami Btaiche and Haytham of the College des Apotres. Their warmth and hospitality made a world of difference in our experiences here. We saw a view of Lebanon, completely different from the view I grew up with. I will truly 

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