2010
01.27

SYNOPSIS:  BAALBECK, LEBANON’S GEM.  A STORY ABOUT UNLIKELY HEROES AND COMMODITIES

Today I met a hero!  Abdul Nabi al Afi from Baalbeck.

After less than two weeks in Lebanon a few things become obvious.  You can’t escape the smoking.  I think I will have to write a whole entry just on smoking at some point.  It is exasperating.  Another thing is traffic.  If there is a real danger here, it is traffic!  I will definitely elaborate on traffic a bit more on the weekend.  And the third thing is trash.  I have not figured out if there is not enough pick up service or what it is.  But trash is everywhere even right next to the dumpsters which seem to be placed at every corner.  Anywhere you look there is filth, man-made dirt and waste particularly in a town like Beirut which still has so many ruins and abandoned buildings.  But next to the highway, under bridges, in alleys, in the streets, in yards, everywhere trash!  Why nobody seems to be bothered by this is beyond me.  But one man at least was bothered by the trash in his town at Baalbeck.

By the way, I had the most spectacular weather since my getting here.  The sun was shining down from a picture-perfect blue sky.  The sunset was spectacular and photography in the ruins was a dream.

Baalbeck, in contrast to Tyre, impresses through sheer size.  The propylaea  (entrance gate), and the temples are gigantic.  Some of the circumferences of columns are close to my height – as they are laying on the ground, you walk literally shoulder to shoulder with them –  which should make them over 5 feet wide.  They stand up to 35 meters (about 100 feet)!  This town was built to impress and to intimidate – there is no doubt about it.  You can look up more about its long and impressive history on line.

But back to the trash:

About one kilometer before the famous ruins of Baalbeck there is a ditch.  Ditches lend themselves to be perfect garbage dumps.  And so it was the city’s favorite trash deposit area.  The problem was that it also was an ancient quarry with one of the largest unfinished pillars that is known in the history of architecture:  20 meters long, 4.5 meters on each side, weighing an estimated 1000 tons!  This unique stone was covered with animal carcasses, and human waste.  Abdul lived nearby and cared about his neighborhood but even more about the stone.  He single-handedly started to clean up the city’s dump ground.  An uphill battle as it turned out.

His fellow citizens mocked instead of praised him.  As soon as he had cleaned up and turned his back on the site – after all he was working for the army and had to go on frequent deployments – the ditch filled again!   But he did not give up.  He decided to start a garbage pickup service to prevent his people from disposing of their waste uncontrollably.  For nearly 3 years he ran this service for a modest fee in order to make progress on the cleanup of the quarry.   Finally, the city started to take over garbage collection.

And he kept cleaning and planting and beautifying.  And when he retired from the army he built himself a little souvenir shop right next to the site and sometimes he even sleeps there.  He is convinced that the minute he turns his back, his very nice neighbors will start dumping again.  After all this is just an old rock…  Attitudes that are all too familiar to me when it comes to ancient sites.  In Pakistan I recall the horror seeing hundreds of young men partying on the rocks of a 1500 year old Buddhist monastery, a UNESCO world monument…  It is nice to see that at least one man cares.  Go Abdul!

Quick geography 101 of Lebanon:  In very generalized terms, Lebanon is a long narrow country about 1/10 of the size of Michigan that is divided North to South by about four regions:  The coastal strip next to the Mediterranean Sea.  A long mountain range followed by a valley.  But that valley only feels like a valley up there.  Seen from the coastal strip it really is a mountain plateau.  That plateau is flanked on the right again by a mountain range that forms the border with Syria.   Both mountains have a few passes that allow crossing over.

If you have followed this blog from the beginning, you will notice that during the first week I traveled up and down the coast:  Byblos and Tripoli are North; Saida and Tyre are South.  Beirut is conveniently located at a sort of mid-point.  That’s why it was so convenient for me to stay here for the whole time and to arrange day trips rather than to move with all my luggage from one town to the next, which a traveler with a car might prefer.

Two days ago, I ventured from the cost up into the mountains to visit Khalil Gibran’s birthplace.  I found out that a few miles can make a huge difference as far as climate and temperature are concerned.  Yesterday, I crossed over the first mountain range into the Bekaa Valley to visit Baalbeck.  Today, I crossed over the same pass to head more southerly to visit Anjar (post day 13).  And on Saturday, I will make my final crossing and continue pass the second mountain range into Syria.

There was snow in the mountains a couple of days ago, so the site of Baalbeck was framed by snow-covered mountains.  In the pictures – if you look carefully – you will see them outlined in the distance.

Another thing Baalbeck is known for is to be a stronghold of Hezbollah.  Indeed, I saw the yellow and green flags prominently displayed at the big mosque of Baalbeck and, lo and behold, I saw Hezbollah flags and T-shirts displayed everywhere for the tourists for sale!  Yes finally, the shops are catering to the tourists with more kitsch than you care for.  I was so tempted – what a teaching object that would be, a Hezbollah flag.  But I stuck to one – my principle of not buying anything on this trip since I have no carrying capacity, and two – to my common sense.  I do want to re-enter the U.S.  And a Hezbollah flag in my luggage might raise some eyebrows.

Good night.

2010
01.27

CATCHING UP!

As some of you are falling behind reading, you can imagine how I am falling behind writing…

Tonight I needed my time to backup, label, sort, and index my photos.  With about 200 photos a day you can only imagine the task at hand.  It’s daunting and I am so glad, that I took Photo 111 last fall in preparation for this trip.  With Lightroom at my disposal at least there is hope…

I went to Baalbeck today.  Lots to talk about.  But later.

Check out some new images for Day 11.

Good night.