2010
01.20

SYNOPSIS: THUMBS UP FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION!
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Here is how it goes:
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You step out of the door of your apartment building onto the street and look for a car with a red license plate (official taxi).  You tell the driver two things:  “serveece” and the name of the place where you want to go.  Since I can’t pronounce diddly here, I always write down where I need to go.   It’s then up to the taxi driver to take or to leave you.   If you want to pay a lot, you do it like everywhere else:  You just hop into an empty taxi and go.  But I don’t need to waste money on transport.  My budget is calculated along minimal lines, so I ask for “serveece” – which means that you are willing to share a taxi with anyone else who comes along.  That also means that you might be going around and about and out of your way a bit.  But with some patience you will get where you need to be:  Cost LL 2000 ($ 1.33).   If you go very long distances or if you are a foreigner, you might be asked to pay “two serveece” or LL 4000 ($.2.66) – still a far cry from what a full taxi would cost.
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This morning I went to “Cola” with my serveece taxi,  one of three bus stations in Beirut.  I imagined a bus station with some system to it.  Far from it.  Dozens of buses lined up under a highway overpass.  Some marked, some not.  Some big, some small.  Ticket office?  No such thing.  Schedule?  Where do you think you are?!  So, I was completely confused and went to the first big bus with some people in it – a nice, new overland bus – and asked if they knew where the bus to “Beiteddene” left.  Instead of an answer they said:  “You can come with us”.  What?  I am not about to board a bus with four unshaven guys who are telling me they are going where I am going!  Just to be polite, I asked them what I would need to pay:  LL 3500 ($ 2:33)  Mind you, Beiteddene is 50 km up in the mountains.  $2.33  Wow!  I made up an excuse and left them to look for the “real” bus.
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Long story short, I finally found it.  A dirty, old, loud bus with a smoking driver.  LL 2500 ($ 1.66)   The funny thing is that I overshot my town and had to circle back a couple of kilometers.  And guess who passed me on the road, but the nice, new overland bus with the four unshaven guys in it.  I was quite embarrassed.  In my typical Western fashion, I had not trusted them.  Just like they said, they would have gotten me there.  Shame on me.
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On the way back, it worked as always:  Go to the main road, wait until the bus comes, hop on and sit down.  You pay when you leave.  LL 2500 ($1.66)  I even figured out which city bus goes from Cola to my district of Beirut.  Without any official schedule or route map that is tricky.  But as of tomorrow, I will not have to take the serveece any more – but can happily board the stinky, dirty, old city bus getting me to Cola for LL 1000 ($0.66) instead and enjoy the rush hour traffic – which means lines of honking cars, congestion up into every side road and smells that bring you to the brink of …  let’s just say that I easily get car sick…
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But it isn’t about the money I am saving.  It is about part of the Lebanese life I like to experience.  I am having a really good time getting to know the way “the locals” are getting around.  I have traveled in the past with groups of teachers, or with my own private driver.  This trip is vastly different.  I like it.  It takes quite a bit more time, but it works.
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Public transport is here for everyone and everyone can afford it.  I paid LL 5500 ($3.66) for a single cup of coffee at the mall the other day.  But I paid LL 2500 ($1.66) for an hour bus ride into the mountains.  I could have lived without that coffee, but perhaps, as a local, I would depend on this bus service.  Why can’t we wake up to that?  How difficult can it be?
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It is striking that there really are no bus stops anywhere.  The bus will stop for each and everyone at the roadside and will drop you off at any corner you want.  It seems crazy.  But it works.

What about the mountains?  I went to see two beautiful places.  But more about them later.  I have to be in bed early tonight to be out and about at sunrise.  Heading South:  Tyre and Sidan.
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My internet connection exists at subservient levels.  No pictures for now.  I am not going through this agony again.   In a couple of days – when it rains again – I will plan on a few hours at a fast internet cafe and will upload.  Promise.  But the next two days will be without rain!  Yes!  Thank you St.  Christopher – well done.   I will come back with pictures when the weather turns.
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Good night.

2010
01.20

SYNOPSIS:  COMFORT FOOD ON A RAINY DAY

I woke up this morning at 6:30 AM to a full-blown thunderstorm and a downpour that put the last two days to shame.    I was in no mood to even consider leaving the house until this was over.  So I got up to do some work at the computer, but  found myself without electricity!  This is the 3 hour power-outage that rotates through town and time.  Today our turn was 6-9, tomorrow it likely will be 9-12 and so forth.  But when you get to the end of the cycle you have to start counting backwards…  This is way confusing, not even Setareh is trying to predict.  I won’t try to figure it out either.   I will just have to work around it.  In short, the circumstances were no great motivators to get up at all, so I slept in.
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What to do with a day that promises to be nothing but depressing?  I had to think of something comforting.  Thanks, Joe, for scolding me about leaving out Lebanese food.  I decided, this was the day to splurge on the Lebanese Lunch Buffet, served in a trendy, newly renovated establishment right in my apartment building.  I did not even have to pack an umbrella!
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I showed up 1/2 hour early and probably drove all the people there nuts.  I had met Gary, the owner, a few days ago in the hallway.   Unsuspectingly, he let me in.  I grilled him and two of his very cute Lebanese waiters about every bit of information on each dish they were willing to divulge. Then I photographed everything.
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There were three delicious salads.  Your ordinary Tabuli, Rehab Salad, made with very slimy eggplants and a smoky-tasting pomegranate paste that looked like molasses; and Hendbe Salad, named after an herb I had never heard of.  The greens in it looked like spinach, but tasted more like bakchoi (how the heck do you spell that?).  It stuck in my teeth and was a rather annoying dish.  But the finely chopped pieces of onions that topped this salad, fried to a crisp were a true delicacy.
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For cold parts there was Mtabseh. Patties, soft, yet with texture, created by tiny shards of onions and tomatoes which were worked into a flower-based dough.  Yum.  And the plate full of Fatayer.  Delightful little dough creatures in various shapes filled with either cheese, herbs, or meat.  Not to forget the Kebbeh-bi-sylik which reminded me of what you can buy at Aladdin’s Market as Kibbies.  There they are either filled with potatoes or meat.  Here, they were filled with a most tasty mix of herbs.   Very filling.
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But one of my favorites was a pot full of lentils.  Again, Gary did not really share his secrets.  There must have been  more to it then lentils than he let on.  These were by far the best-tasting lentils I have ever had. But wait, there is more:
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The main course was a lamb roasted in vegetables and served with a slightly sour, red-wine-based sauce:  Shehbeye.  I was not too impressed.  It reminded my of the rabbit stew I like to make for Christmas.   The rabbit meat is a lot more tender than his lamb.  Perhaps, they sold him mutton?  To round out the main dish there was rice cooked with vegetables called Frikeh.  Again, this was not the rice I know.  Much softer, almost pasty and soup like.  More like couscous.  A mild dish, but not bad.
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But speaking of bad, there was the specialty of the day:  Ghameh.  Lamb stomach filled with rice and herbs.  I did not ask if the stomach was eatable.  I had to assume it was; after all they were serving it to dozens of people.!   I stuck to the filling only after one bite…  The resemblance to goose-bumpy testicles was a bit too much for me.  Not what I understand to be a culinary delight.
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But speaking of culinary delight:  The dessert!  It was delicious.  Picture a white milk-based curd, sandwiched between two layers of brown sugar-based, angel-hair, noodly strings, topped with a few shards of green nuts and a few red highlights of pomegranate.  If that is not enough, pour the honey based syrup over it and you are in heaven. That’s Ossmalieh for you.

Wash all of this down with water and… Arak – anise liqueur… and you will understand why I did not mind the $25 any more and why I no longer cared about rain or electricity.  What better way to spend a day than to sample Lebanese food for 3 hours!

How is that for a culinary report, Joe?  🙂

By the time I was finished with lunch around 2:30 PM the rain had actually stopped.   I headed out to walk around for four hours in two of the districts I had not seen yet:  Gemmayzeh and Achrafiye.  Especially Achrafiye is one of the hillier districts.  Beirut as a whole only has a limited flat, coastal area.   Much of the town hugs the hillsides.  I don’t know how many steep stairs I have been climbing today.  Punishment, well deserved after a lunch like this.

I got home just in time for another thunderstorm to roll in.  It has been raging out there since…

Oh, did I mention breakfast:  A cup of tea.  And dinner, of course:  Several spoons full of Nutella, right out of the jar.

To get this far in my blog took me five frustrating hours of trying to upload images (unsuccessfully), writing, being disconnected, losing text and editing repeatedly!  Frustrating, to say the least!  If my son gets hold of my culinary images, he may post them for you.  If not, you have to wait until I have more than the “very low” connectivity I have been battling all day long.

Good night.

UPDATE:

In Tripoli for lunch I had Khusa Bleban. It’s a stuffed vegetable.  Looks like a cucumber, but it’s probably in the zucchini family.  The stuffing consists of rice and meat.   And the whole thing is cooked in a milky sauce . Yum.