August 2019 and I traveled towards the west of India for the first time, honestly which I never imagined in my life a few years ago and that too Lebanon, again which I was not even aware of till the Syria war started a few years ago. I was there to attend my dear friend’s wedding, “A Lebanese Affair” which deserve another blog for sure to describe how we danced, enjoyed, the most magical sunset at the wedding church, and how drunk I was at the reception that I started speaking Punjabi from my childhood memories to the Punjabis working in the hotel Adventure of JC and Ammu’s Wedding, another blog for sure.
I did my little research about Beirut as I always love to explore cities more, understand there hidden nature, and get lost in the unknown lanes. This is what I always did whenever I explored a new city in India. So, I planned the same for Beirut, a 3 days exploration on my own after the wedding. And all that ended up giving me a lot of new experiences of life. Beirut, a city far from New Delhi but in a lot of ways I felt like home.
Rob dropped me on his way to the airport, he was leaving for New Delhi and suddenly I found myself alone on a highway in a city I don’t know anything about and a bit hungry as well. This was the first time in Lebanon that I was without the people I know, I was out of my comfort zone, without any plans and honestly, it was scary! I checked the location for my hostel, it was at a walking distance from the highway. So, I started walking and exploring the inner lanes. It was somewhere near a big port as I was able to see the massive cranes near the sea but still unapproachable. I saw a grocery daily need shop and hungry Himanshu went inside to buy some food, which I ultimately found puffed ride salted waffles and water, anyways something was better than nothing. Car mechanic shop right next to it and lonely lanes with homes, some of them destroyed in the war! Honestly walking felt a bit spooky there. Reaching a sleepy hostel was a bit of relief, that I have a place and few people at my urgent need if any.
Because of my looks, I realized a lot of people thought that I am local until I opened my mouth to talk. And the moment I use to say India, I can see the spark and smile for sure. Anyways, it was my first day and I decided to walk out and explore nearby areas by evening. Coincidently, my hostel The Colony was right on the other side of the Armenian Quarters, a famous neighborhood famous for being alive, good food, cafes, and bars. I did my best to walk, explore, and eat but I was too tired and hungover because of the last night’s wedding reception. So I ended up being back in the hostel and chatting up with fellow travelers and some of them met an Indian backpacker for the first time. Anyways good for them, the hostel manager Mimi, became a good friend and I found her story really interesting that how she managed to escape from Armenia via Seriya to Lebanon because of war. I must say that life is not that easy in that part of the world.
I must admit that with what I felt out of my short experience there, Beirut is a cool city, cooler than Delhi for sure. Maybe being close to the west is the reason but tradition and family values are quite similar to the east and in a lot of ways to India. That is why I felt like being at home, yet in the west. The streets were designed in a perfect way, high rise apartments, nice places to eat and drink, perfect spots to take pictures, and staircases. It is said that Beirut is one of the most religiously diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the middle east and the nightlife of the city added more to me for this argument. The city center or downtown is designed as one of the most beautiful downtowns in the world but still more like a ghost town as a lot of it is empty and a lot of highrises are not being honest with the traditional architecture of the land. Feels like the government invested a lot of money but the return is yet to come. At every corner, you can find ancient roman remainings, pillars, roman baths, pipelines, and at some stretches even their roads. Haven’t been to Rome yet, but felt how magnificent the empire was.
I walked along the streets with friends I made in the hostel in search of breakfast. After that, I started exploring alone the nooks and corners of the city, the perfect staircases were one of my favorites, and I use to sip coffee on one of those satire cafes when I use to feel tired. Although I started my day with a beer! Sun was coming up and I started walking towards the big mosque, Mohammad al-Amin. The architect is inspired by Haga Sophia in Turkey. I felt peace the moment I went inside, I was tired so found a peaceful corner to sit and just meditate and also enjoy the beautiful colors and design over the roof and how can someone miss those massive chandeliers. I saw some people sleeping in corners, and I thought that maybe it is allowed to do this, and anyway it was too hot outside, my corner was perfect and I had a beautiful nap of 40 minutes. That was a divine sleep for sure, maybe I even saw God in my dreams! I wrote a few lines in Hindi/Urdu and left the place to see another beautiful cathedral and romal pillar right next to the mosque. While walking back, with my earplugs in my ear, and shades in my eyes, I saw a group of young girls smiling and talking, that oh looks like he is from India, they thought my music was on!
I started walking towards St. Nicolas Stairs, as I was about to meet someone from Alternative Tour Beirut, and do a walking tour as well with them. I must say that there is always a benefit to exploring the place with locals and city lovers and team ATB is one of them. The access inside one of the oldest family homes in the city, to exploring, roam baths now hidden right under multi rise apartment, stories of war, politics, religion, culture, graffiti, and what youth is facing now, and discussion-based tour narrative, everything felt like one of the best experience of the city. We ended the tour in another district of the city where the impact of the war was more visible but as I also do in my tours, showing the complete picture, something similar was the tour over there. The shawarma shop at the end was a delight for sure!
It was not possible to leave the city without experiencing the nightlife, so I left for one of the bars and I was about to meet some friends as well. Anyways, even the smallest place in the city has so much to offer that we cannot imagine something like this in a lot of places around the world. I found Beirut a place of potential, power, and fun. If we take religious politics, and wars out of the place, it can be the perfect balance of western freedom and eastern traditions. But at the same point of time, it is at so center of all the events happening around it that to find that balance needs a mass awakening of people but I saw that potential in the youth there. My plan is to go there again, stay for at least a month, work from my laptop, enjoy the beautiful beaches, explore more of places and know more of history, make some more friends, and speak some more Punjabi maybe 😉
“Oh India, what a great country, you are a great country, you have democracy, please take care of democracy”, my Uber taxi driver said this to me in our long conversation in his broken English but from out of his heart with joy in his voice. Clearly he knows what he is missing!