Indian Chai in Lebanon

The last day in Lebanon has begun. Our Peshmerga friend (just joking) Ismael leaves early in the morning. Its very windy outside and we have electricity most of the day which is very unusual.

In the afternoon we visit Abu Saleem who shows me the water collecting system which I have already admired at my first visit – but higher up in the mountains. Down here it is a concrete tunnel with more than 2.5 square meter cross section holding for sure more than 5 cubic meters of water per second at the moment. It’s the drink water for most of Baalbek and about 15 villages around as well as the irrigation for the fields. Reminds me a lot of the “Hochquellwasserleitung” in Austria which transports the drink water for Vienna more than 200km from springs that are also around 2000m above sea level. Here the way is much shorter…

In the evening I use the last dried sindshabil (ginger) and hel (cardamom) to make indian chai for the two of us. Ali loves it like everybody who has tasted it – maybe I started a new trend and there will be chai wallahs at every corner when I come back – what a nice idea!

I want to leave at ten but don’t make it before 10:30pm. My plane starts at 4 in the morning in Beirut and in Beirut you should be at the airport three hours before start as there are more security checks than on a usual airport. Taking the road via Tarfaya which I like much more than the direct big road with its many army check points I drive comfortably and including two coffee breaks arrive at the airport two and a half hours before take off. I get a window seat to finally sleep a little and manage to do all the checks just in time for the boarding. In the plane a five year old child sits on my seat with his mother next to him. I can’t sleep while people are falling over my feet so I insist on my seat. At the end the little fucker keeps kicking me with his feet for three hours while his stupid mother tries to calm him down by repeating his name permanently…. At the security check in Belgrade I am asked to take all cameras and computer out of the bag – I do so and put all on a tray to get the rest of the camera bag emptied bottom over top out on the other side – of course I am pissed more and ask for the names of the guys which they refuse to give me….

Next day morning I arrive at 8:30 at Vienna.
I hope you enjoyed this winter’s stories and to see you again in autumn.

Paragliding Lebanon NOT

Next morning the sky is blue and hardly any wind, I look up to the cedar take off which is a 1.5 hours drive away but visible from the rooftop. I can’t wait, take my stuff and leave direction Bcharre at around 7.30. Alan is flying at Miziara which is a little further than Bcharre so I call him to get me a clearance for cedars to make one flight there on the way to Miziara where I want to meet him. The view to Bekan Valley is beautiful and I enjoy being alone for the first time for a week a lot. At 1850m above sea level patches of snow appear next to the road. At 1990m the road is blocked by snow! Fuck! It’s April 14., and I’m in Lebanon!

I turn around and go to the next mountain pass further south – Tarfaya. Alan suggests Beirut which one more further south. I am horrified by the traffic of Beirut and think when Tarfaya is blocked too I will not fly today. Fortunately Tarafaya is open. It’s like starting in Pakistan (people spak arab and are armed – honor counts more than law), passing Austria (the skiing regions up in the mountains) end ending up at the French Riviera (French is spoken and the landscape looks a lot like Cote d Azur, Ferraris are a little less than in France but visible on the streets – churches instead of mosques).

Jounieh take of is empty when I arrive. It is incredibly amazing and I can’t wait to fly down to the Mediterranean Sea. There is a gentle lift close by the mountain and the flying conditions are perfect for a nice flight enjoying the fantastic view. Alan had suggested to come here as Miziara is at least another hour driving and its past 1pm already. I have to be back for dinner at Alis place at 7pm – we are invited. I am in contact with Farah because of my Army clearance for the flight – Alan is flying and Farah asks me to wait a little as there are problems with my clearance. He promises to keep calling them while I wait. Suddenly a few cars arrive. The first guy jumps out of the car towards me and asks me what I do here. I’d like to fly I answer. He asks me whom I asked for it, if I have a cellphone and If I am in contact with somebody… “Secret army”? I think when he recognizes my face and starts laughing. He shakes my hand, kisses me and introduces himself – “Omar, acro pilot”. I give him my phone and tell him about the situation: no clearance yet. I watch them take of twice and at 4pm I give up.

I write a message to Alan and leave. Alan texts me back and invites me for coffee to his place which is not far away – of course I go. Alan is a very nice guy and tells me about the current situation. The army is very strict about flying at the moment as there has been intelligence reports about terrorists who want to attack using paragliders! I wonder what the Austrian air force should do in Lebanon and how they should get there – but maybe there are other groups using paragliders who have more than rocks to throw. Alan is very sorry that I can’t fly today and invites me for dinner. I would love to stay but have an appointment at “home”.

The situation about flying will probably change again very quickly and I consider what happened incredible bad luck. Lebanon is just amazing to fly and at the moment all military restrictions find an end it will be possible to travel the whole country by paraglider. Where else can you do something like this?

Visiting the refugee camp

Wednesday, the weather is still not good for flying so we visit one of Alis daughters in the morning and print some of the pictures I made for him and his family. In the afternoon we visit a friend of Ali who is currently a refugee. The tents look at the inside pretty much like the houses or more like the nomadic tents I have seen before. Not uncomfortable at all but I guess Alis friend being not one of the poor refugees. And here the people do work illegally a lot. They get paid probably not as well as locals but by this many people can suddenly afford to build houses and things like this. I wonder if the non-existing “garbage problem” here is connected with the cheap workers too…

In the evening the clouds start to look better and stars are appearing from the south – I finally hope for good weather to fly tomorrow!

Rain in the desert

Ali is happy that I am back. Even though his family had an eye on me and let me in the temple for free as well as gave me the chance to take the poppy flower picture at a prohibited location he was still concerned. I still don’t know if he is just a little over protective… the only place I was a little concerned at happened to be in front of a beautiful mosque which was full of people. Hussein just quickly picked up money there. At the temple there where only Arabic tourists except of one east Asian couple… It’s a real shame there are no tourists at such an amazing place.

Surprisingly the little Arabic I learned yet comes back very quickly as soon as I always here the language around. I learn more about this culture and become more accepted within Alis friends and family. The girls whom I hardly saw last time now sit with us, are having eye contact and even smiling at each other no problem. Opening the door in a Pyjama to let us in and then cook tea for us without getting properly dressed – no problem.

Another thing that changed is the close season. This time I hear birds singing in the morning instead of gunshots. All seems to be much more peaceful now and the only gunshots I hear this time are during a celebration Friday afternoon. Making party shooting in the air – no problems. And way less people with military guns than on Vienna airport for example. Still I wear a scarf and look rather like a Taliban than like a tourist whenever we go somewhere.

Monday afternoon takes Ismael (our Peshmerga friend (just joking)) and me to a huge roman pillar which is located in the middle of a field with the crops growing directly to the rock. Its an amazing view with the snowy mountains in the back ground. Ismael is a chef and has taken over the food supply, he grills amazing sea bass we got from the sea and we enjoy food in the kitchen while the storm whistle loudly around the upper storage of the 2 storage building in the middle of the fields.

Tuesday morning black clouds pull up in the valley and while we go to the village for shopping it finally starts to rain heavily. The fields are totally dried out by now so everybody is happy. We spend the day inside with the guys playing and me writing the blog and learning Arabic while joking with each other.

Being in contact with Alan and checking the weather forecasts I hope to be able to finally fly tomorrow – I really hope so as there is not much time left now.

Between roman temples, refugee camps and Al Qaida Taliban

In the morning a bird who went inside by mistake wakes me up when landing on me. I get up quickly and let him out. Ali is sitting outside and ten minutes after I come out it starts to rain, for about 2 minutes.

After breakfast we visit his son Hussein who was supposed to pick me up from the airport today. No power at Alis house at daytime so I take the opportunity to recharge some devices. On the way to the village I recognize the change since I’ve been here for the first time. Outside the villages where no houses are blocking the view it is impossible to find a place in the valley where I can’t see refugee camps. When I ask Ali about the situation with the refugees he keeps telling me “no problem no problem” smilingly – the same feeling I get when asking other people. The language barrier doesn’t allow me to ask further but either the locals and the refugees seem to be much more relaxed than at home – even though in this area of Bekan valley there are more refugees than locals at the moment. In Austria we consider 1% of the local population to be a problem – what a crazy world. Even the garbage problem which tortures half of Lebanon due to the government problems has long been solved by the municipality over here.

Luchtime we spend at Alis house and like always I sit in front of a full plate of amazing food and never manage to empty it half. When I am full Ali nearly forces me in his very cute way to eat at least two more plates. I will be so fat when coming home….

In the afternoon we visit Ali Abu Saleem, a good friend of Ali whose family owns a valley west of Balbek. At the entry to the valley there is a checkpoint again. Three boys between maybe 13 and 14 are playing soccer on the street which makes everybody stop and say hello – a few meters further there is one more boy with a rifle. Sophisticated! Minutes later we sit between flowering and buzzing apple trees (loads of yellow/black striped insects are flying from flower to flower – I don’t think we have them in Europe), enjoying tea. Ali Abu Saleem speaks a little better English than Ali and I enjoy his crazy stories from the 70s again. He also explains me a lot of the conflicts in the area and I slowly start to understand the conflict between shia and sunna. I don’t think that anybody in Europe knows that the Hezbollah is actually Christian friendly for example. I also start to admire the understanding of family the people here have. For example I never heard anybody say “my land” its always “my families land” and the oldest of the families are always the ones who are most respected, asked for advice and responsible at the end. But its no one way street, they seem to be always laughing, nice, generous, and full of love. The children are very well educated and very disciplined while having a lot of freedom to play not with a phone but together in the dirt. However the social system here seems to be much more functional than in Europe even tough (or maybe because?) having no functional government (whereas I wouldn’t say Austria has one but that’s another story).
The next day morning we first visit Alis daughter where 5 other men in Alis age are sitting and drinking tea. We join them and a little later breakfast is served. It sounds like they are discussing important things but I don’t understand enough to get more than fantasies of what they are talking about. However they laugh a lot and if there are any issues they are talking about they solve them amazingly well. A little later an amazing breakfast is served and again I have to eat too much.

In the afternoon Hussein, Alis first born son, takes me to the temple of Balbek. Last time Ali considered this to be too dangerous so I am very happy to get the chance this time – and it is an amazing site at an amazing location. Unfortunately it is too cloudy to take pictures that show the snowy mountains in the background and the green valley in between but the view is really amazing! Usually I am not a lot into temples and old buildings but this one is really an exception of the rule (like the Taj for example). Please read the history of this temple on WIKIPEDIA – its really worth it! When we come back home to Alis place his Kurdish friend who he has been waiting for has arrived. When I ask him where he is from (Iran, Syria or Turkey) he answers Kurdistan with no room for misunderstandings. I like him!

Found my smile in Lebanon

Leaving from vienna airport is a little bit scary today as all is full of heavy armed police – some of them wearing a black face mask which makes me laugh several times. On the first flight I get a seat next to the emergency exit and wise from my experience with Finnair I take food. But even though the price was nearly half compared to Finnair the catering is good and we even get sandwiches on the 60 minute flight to Belgrade. Air Serbia I love you!

After arriving in Beirut I get a sim card and a rental car and I notice the ankles of my mouth going up in an unusual way…. I was advised by the Lebanese embassy to get a permission for paragliding on arrival at the office of the ministry of tourism at the airport. When I go there I see an advertising video of Lebanon tourism showing paragliders – behind locked glass doors. When they open the very friendly lady doesn’t really know what to do and sends me to the ministry in Beirut city center. Fortunately I got in contact with a Paraglider from Lebanon after the last story and he promised to help. We agreed to eventually meet when I leave the airport so I call him now.

We already wrote about what I wrote the last time the day before – My article about being arrested when I was here the last time which seems to have made many people here angry with me. I really want to say sorry for this, I never wanted to write in any way “bad” about Lebanon. Please take my excuse for this as I didn’t even know until last Thursday somebody could understand it like this. All the face to face feedback I got at home was being surprised how beautiful it is here so I didn’t even get this idea.

In the news there are a lot of bad stories about middle east (most of which I dont agree according to mz experience) – my Intention with this blog is to honestly write the truth about countries like Jordan, Mauretania, Pakistan, Iran … (you find them all in the list to the right). Not the ultimate truth of course as its always my personal experience and adventure, but most of the times a much better, more beautiful, hospitable and safe picture than the media in Europe would suggest. To do this I have to be honest, and I believe people read the blog also because of adventures like this. The message and the aim of my blog still is to make many people visit all this countries and to stop that incredible fear that is spreading all over Europe, to make people realize that countries like Lebanon are much better than Europe in several things like many religions living next to each other for example. The headline of an article always tries to bring it to a point of course and in times like this always should have some clickbait qualities. I really hope that many people falled to the clickbait and then were surprised about the beauties in Lebanon I wrote about – and in reality this was the only feedback I got before talking to Alan.

I really did not want to insult anyone and I am really sorry. Even more as Alan assured me something like this never happened before or after. Nobody knows up to now what really happened, I never got an information why it happened in that extreme way and we have to agree that shit sometimes happens – no matter where you are. I feel really bad this happened here because as everybody who read the articles before knows I really think this is an amazingly beautiful country.

However, Paragliders who want to fly here should send a copy of their passport to Alan (Club Libanais de Vol Libre: Alan Debs 03344677) who will send them to the authorities. Then you just need to call them half an hour before take off so they inform the military – I think this is actually an amazing service because they will tell you if the weather is on the edge which for me is always hard to tell in a foreign country.

When leaving the airport in the rental car I recognize the most crazy traffic in the world again – not dangerous though because very slowly. Out of Beirut it slowly gets better and I enjoy the amazing mountain view when crossing the summits to Bekan Valley. Until my arrival in Balbek Police and military stop me 5 times. First time I am a little afraid because still being traumatized for what happened last time but in reality its just curiosity and kindness they stop me for.”where from?”, “nemsa” “Oh Achlanuasachlan (welcome in Arabic)” and a big smile. Again the edges of my mouth go up in that strange way.

I arrive at Alis place one day earlier than I had told him as I had mixed up the flying dates. I stop in front of his house and sound the horn. As soon as I see the face of the old guy who lives in the downstairs my mouth does this strange thing again but worse and at the same time a feeling I know from india, Nepal, Pakistan and many other non-European countries overwhelms all my body – pure happiness! And my mouth is smiling – without interruption!

A moment later I see Ali on the rooftop. I run up and we hug each other dancing – more happiness, I really love and missed him a lot! We celebrate our reunion and lots of friends are coming throughout the afternoon. Having slept only minute wise last night I am as tired as I am happy to see all my friends again. We spend chatting and drinking tea all afternoon and when the last one leaves around 6pm I lean back on the couch, exhale and wake up more than 12 hours later. What an amazing day!

Balbek view at Alis rooftop