Monday, January 31, 2011

BEIRUT rises again

At a time when media dictates what to see and how to see it, I wanted to form my own opinion over a city which has been in the news as far back as I can remember. In the past, Beirut has been synonymous of wealth and riches when it was known as the "Paris of the Middle East" but more recently has had an apocalyptic image linked to both religious and political wars, terrorism and prone to harbor Hezbollah militants. As the playground capital of the Middle East, Beirut has always enjoyed being the center of attention.

Entering Beirut from Damascus

Beirut (Beyrouth) sits on a triangular coastal plain along the Mediterranean
To this day it attracts a wide variety of visitors coming to bathe their body and soul into its vibrant embrace. No city on Earth is quite like Beirut. Its people are loud, cultured and have a distinctive approach to life. After all who can predict the future in a city constantly shaken by events decided outside its borders ? Beirutis have adopted the "here and now" attitude which has shaped their destiny. They are like San Franciscans with earthquakes in that regard. They are prepared for the worst but live for the best of what the present has in store. Trapped in the middle of an international political stage where it is forced to witness its own demise, Beirut is determined to overcome all the hurdles thrown on its path by destiny.

The Raouche Corniche is a visitor's magnet where luxury hotels overlook the Mediterranean Sea

With 20 years in the making, Beirut is progressing towards a brighter future. The signs are all around the city. The old center, destroyed by years of war, has risen again and is flourishing. With ottoman inspired architecture blended with modern designs, the new downtown area is a crowd pleaser. Restaurants serve a multitude of cuisines, with of course the culinary delights of Lebanon being the prime choice, sidewalk cafes and shops catering to tourists. Souvenir shops are also available for the mug of choice or the red, white and green T shirt with a cedar tree on it. 

Place de l' Etoile or Nejmeh Square in the new downtown area
City Hall

One striking recurring feature of the Beirut skyline is the number of construction cranes present. There are in every neighborhood it seems. Construction is in high gear. No real estate crisis here ! It must be because people rely on cash more than credit cards. And there is also the added advantage of being able to use more than one currency in the country. Everywhere one can pay with Lebanese pounds or US dollars which make it very convenient. The major drawback is that when you pay in US $ and get Lebanese pounds back it is virtually impossible to know if you got short changed or not. 

Not once have I felt unsafe or on the verge of danger. Surprisingly, I actually never felt safer than in Beirut. The presence of military and Police all over the city gives the visitor a sense of security without being oppressive. 

The Raouche Pigeon Rocks

I decided to rent a bicycle for the day with Bike Beirut and peddle my way through various neighborhoods to have Beirut unveil herself to me. Armed with a map, I asked the hotel clerk to suggest places I should avoid if any. He quickly pointed at an area and made a big cross over it. "Don't go there" he exclaimed. This area is not for tourists. It is a refugee camp for Palestinians and Hezbollah supporters". I took notice and went on my way. I started my journey taking the corniche close to Ain Mreisseh Sq. I soon discovered a Starbucks and decided to have a coffee and croissant. I also found a mug for my collection. I kept going passing the Beirut lighthouse (now a military post), the extensive Saudi Arabian resort complex at Manara and arrived at the Raouche corniche facing the famous Pigeon Rocks. A tour bus just unloaded a crowd of Iranian tourists, all dressed in black. As they start descending and invading the pavement in front of me I dismount and start walking with my bike. The belvedere from which the rocks can be viewed is now crowded with people and I decided to keep going and come back later when the traffic dies down. I noticed a dirt path that leads to the bottom of the cliff to see the rocks up close. Praying God to not let me get a flat on this treacherous venture, I zoom down the hill to the bottom, right in front of the rocks. Its peaceful and empty of people. Just a few fishermen and I. I savor the moment before continuing.

Verdun neighbourhood  

The path leads me to a long stretch of beach where more Iranian tourists are admiring the view. All the women are in black, wearing the traditional shador, a long robe covering their entire body including their hair, while the men are in western clothes. No one is paying attention to me. They are all busy chatting with each other and seem to be in their own time capsule. Nobody cracks a smile. At that moment I feel invisible. I think to myself "Will they actually take a swim in that outfit ?". I bike on to the neighbourhood of Verdun, named after the famous French battlefield. As I turn the corner of a street, I am face to face with the canon of an artillery tank pointing right at me. I am instantly taken back wondering why is a tank at the corner of a street with a young soldier ready for action. The young man on top of the tank wears a big reassuring smile on his face signaling there is nothing I should be worried about. The area around the tank is similar to some districts of my hometown of Marseille, at least the building style from 1950's France and the way the streets are arranged. At that moment, I felt a sense of deja-vu, imagining I am visiting my grandmother on a sunday afternoon, ringing the bell at her door, right in front of me, number 83. 

Ras Beirut

So familiar it all seems. I feel at home in a city I have never visited before. This is Ras Beirut or West Beirut, the Muslim area of Beirut which has witnessed wide destruction and fierce infighting during the early part of the Lebanese civil war in the mid 1970's. I look for minarets but can't seem to find any. I scan the air for the call of the muesin reciting the takbir but the atmosphere is only filled with traffic sounds. It's now passed my lunch time and I decide to find a nicely shaded place to eat a quick sandwich made by the hands of some street vendor. In the middle of my search, I stumble upon a mouth watering display, all sweets ready to be devoured. Needless to say I left with a few extra inches on my waist but not to worry, I will burn it off in the next hour riding. 


I pass by AUB, the American University of Beirut and decide to pay a visit to the campus. A beautifully manicured and inviting campus welcomes me. A distinct laid back atmosphere with a hint of seriousness takes me back to a famous California college called Berkeley. Indeed this is a serious school with a serious program. Founded in 1866, this university attracts local as well as international students, counting a respectable size of American students. The big draw to this school, besides being in Beirut where the climate is mild year round, is the rock bottom tuition fees. Undergrad students expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 per year. The Graduate programs do not exceed $17,000 per annum making it a definite choice for anyone counting pennies these days. All this for a US recognized diploma. Not bad if you ask me. Beats going to the University in Cairo right about now. What is going on in Egypt is dramatic but needs to happen if things are going to change. France, the UK and the US all had revolutions which led to greater freedoms. 

Al Amin Mosque and St George Maronite Church side by side

I finally reach Martyr's Square. In front of it stands an impressive newly completed mosque (2007) dedicated to Mohammed Al Amin, an Islamic scholar, teacher, religious and political leader. It was built by former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005. Hariri is also widely credited for reconstructing Beirut after the end of the civil war in 1990. I found my way back to the bike rental shop by circling around the downtown area and ended up stopping in front of the Grand Serail, the seat of power of Lebanon. I drew out my camera from my pocket and I immediately had an encounter with a young man, gun in hand. "I am sorry sir but pictures are not allowed here" he said in a soothing yet commanding voice. "And why is that may I ask ?" I replied politely. He continued by explaining to me that Lebanon didn't need or want another martyr prime minister. He proceeded by smiling and asking me where I was from. "I am from France but I live in America" I replied. "Super" he said and quickly asked me how I liked Beirut. "I love it and will be back".

The Corniche in Beirut

Sunday, January 30, 2011

KENYA Part 4: Land crabs of the Indian Ocean

After our amazing safari we decided to visit Malindi/Watamu on the coast of Kenya. I feel a sense of closeness to India because Kenya's coastline is bathed by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. I just imagine getting on one of these ocean vessels making the same crossing Vasco De Gama did back in 1498. I would obviously have a more comfortable ride especially if I let the summer monsoon winds inflate my sails, pushing me East towards the Malabar Coast on India's Southwestern tip. What a glorious voyage that would be ! I could touch land at Cochin and walk down the spice market with its strong scent of pepper and ginger, both originating in South India. 

Kenya's highlands
Our journey from Nairobi to Malindi airstrip was accomplished by a short 55mn ride inside a small Dash aircraft. The view from the air is varied and devoid of major roadways. Bright hues of green and beige create a tapestry of sort only disturbed by the occasion settlement and unpaved road. We see Kilimanjaro in the distance which seems to hide in the haze of the morning. Landing at Malindi, we disembark by walking down on the tarmac to the "toy terminal" building virtually free of any security apparatus since the scanners are clearly unplugged. I read a sign inside that states (and I am paraphrasing) "Drugs are not welcome. Do not purchase drugs on the beach from anyone or you will meet our law enforcement team who will be sure to make your trip a memorable one". Interesting first impression. Did we end up in Goa ? 

Air 540 at Malindi
The taxi minivan from the hotel awaits outside and we are quickly on our way. We are now in an Equatorial weather environment in sharp contract with the highland cool climate of Nairobi. It is 11am and the temperature reaches a balmy 89F. The road to the hotel passes by villages, market places, restaurants, coconut groves, cows and hotels. Large tropical trees and vegetation are everywhere and shades the road from the intense sun. Auto rickshaws are the local favorite as a transportation mode. They are all Bajaj, the leading brand of scooters of India all inspired and modeled after the Italian vespas.

Beach side restaurant at Turtle Bay Resort, Watamu
The hotel is finally here and we get settled in before jumping into our bathing suits and heading for the white sandy beach. The hotel grounds are beautifully planted with tropical flowering trees and shrubs providing much needed shade and having the added plus of producing a sweet smell which gives a distinctive fragrance to the atmosphere. A small footpath leads to the pool area followed by a view of the beach and ocean through the coconut trees. Some lounge chairs are all setup for whoever might fancy a lazy nap under the palms or maybe read a story about Africa. Expecting my exploration instincts to kick in anytime now, I proceed to the white sand beach and reach the wet sand, gently kissed by the ocean a few moments before.

Low tide at Watamu
Touching the Indian Ocean for the second time ! Once across the sea in Kerala (India) and this time on the African Continent. What an awesome feeling, breathing in the moment and feeling like a milestone has been reached.

Looking for crabs at Watamu

As far as the eye can see, the beach stretches in the distance lined with coconut trees, its protective sand hosting a number of critters running around. The sand is not hot to walk on thank god but the sun is signaling to make sure to cover my shoulders and face at the risk of regretting it the following few days. Of course I ignore mister sun since I love to be warm. I m already wearing the whole protective baseball cap, sunglasses ,a T shirt saying "Brasil" and I live in Sunny Florida so how can I possibly get sun burnt ? what can I do when my neck wanted to get that zebra marking for good measure. OK so I am roaming the beach under 94F weather, the Equatorial laughing at me for being so white.

He was looking back at me kid

Noticing that the further I move away from the hotel the more critters seem to appear, I realize I am surrounded by crabs running around to their hiding holes in the sand as soon as I approach too close. I observe a young British girl having a whole collection of them and proceed to see how she catches them. How difficult can it be ? I just need to get around the claws and I ll be fine. Of course those little beasts run very fast, sideways and have eyes that pop up above their bodies to see what's coming. I observe the dance each of them does to avoid me. I soon figure out once submerged in a wave, their eyes retract into their sockets and stop looking temporarily until the water subsides. I feel I found the Achilles tendon. After a few tries I decide to enlist the help of a bamboo stick to help me reach their body, at a safe distance of the claws. It works ! I am officially a crab hunter in Kenya. I should have rounded a few dozens and made some crab soup but I decided to catch and release instead. What great fun it was. I got to explore the sights and have close encounters with locals.

A Moray Eel in a tidepool

Just a 100 feet from shore lays a coral reef with tropical sea creatures. Fearless, I put my mask on (without the tube I hate those) and start swimming towards the reef. Once above it, as I look down, I see a large grouper gazing inquisitively at my silhouette. A coral reef houses a large variety of fishes, mollusks, live coral, sea turtles, sharks, Moray eels and octopus. I saw many fishes, some unknown to me. The ones I readily recognized were Angelfish, Clownfish, Anthias, Blue dot bass, batfish, pufferfish, butterflyfish, dragonets, jawfish, lionfish and parrotfish. I also saw 2 octopuses running from view and burrowing themselves inside a rocky cave. This underwater safari adventure was worth the redneck burn I got from it.

The beach at Watamu

Saturday, January 29, 2011

KENYA Part 3: Simba is swahili for Lion

An antelope named Barati roams freely in our camp at Mara Siria

After 47 years I finally made it to the Maasai Mara Reserve, King of the Safari experience in East Africa, the Crowned jewel being across the border in Tanzania known as the Serengeti. Actually the Maasai Mara is the northern extension of the Serengeti Plains into Kenyan territory.

The African savanna is just how I pictured it would be and more. This area seriously delivers what it promises the visitor. Awe inspiring scenery right out of a Hollywood Academy Award Winner like "Out Of Africa" (some of the movie scenes were actually filmed at Maasai Mara), tireless hours of game viewing through the open top roof of our jeep, a well informed guide capable of explaining animal behavior, approaching them respectfully and getting daringly close to them.

After a total of 5 safaris in a 3 day period we were lucky to see a huge variety of gazelles, lions, hyenas, cheetahs, giraffes, buffalos, crocodiles, wilderbeest, cranes, elephants, impalas and more.

A pride of lions is resting under an umbrella acacia. The only male is sleeping while the two lionesses are keeping watch. There are 4 cubs in the middle

A lioness is tearing the warthog pray she just killed. Her lioness partner is keeping watch a few feet away (out of the frame). Lionesses always hunt in pair or in group of more than two individuals. She started tearing up the softest part of the warthog (the rear) and worked her way inside.

Viewing cheetahs in the wild is quite rare since they are an endangered specie with fewer than 15,000 Worldwide. We were very fortunate to have 3 sightings during our visit to the Mara.

Plains Zebras are the most common specie of Zebras. They are found throughout tropical Africa. Here at the border of Tanzania, they graze the fresh open grassland of the Serengeti Plains. Skittish, they swiftly gallop away when pproached.

A solitary animal, the cheetah gazes at the horizon for potential pray. This is the World's fastest land runner. Cheetahs can speed up from 0 to 64mph in 3 seconds and reach a record 75mph in short bursts. They lack the strong climbing ability of other big cats, are able to purr while inhaling but cannot roar.

This is the warthog, Africa's only wild pig specie adapted to grazing and to savanna conditions. They live in groups called sounders. They do have a home range which they freely roam in search of food.

An Agama lezard in Maasai Mara.

The Savanna of Maasai Mara is sparsely planted with umbrella acacias.

Water Buffaloes are fierce and dangerous to humans. In Africa, they kill 200 people a year and are nicknamed "widow makers".

The Mara river is witness to the annual Wilderbeest Migration from Maasai Mara to the Serengeti National Park accross the river in Tanzania.

KENYA Part 2: 2 teenagers, supplies for 3 days and Pepe Kalle

We leave Nairobi, Kenya's bustling capital city located at 1850m, to drive the beautifully maintained road leading to the Great Rift Valley. It's 630am and at this time of the day, the fog draws gentle misty figures over the tea plantations of the highlands. The roadway is lined with shacks and makeshift stores which sells a variety of products, most of them made in a land far far away we know as China. The road gradually climbs the gentle slope amongst eucalyptus trees to a view point at some 2190m high. The view is breathtaking.

The Great Rift Valley

I am engulfed with a feeling of freedom and space. Like some invisible chains have been lifted and I feel a sense of timelessness. I am on top of a ridge where, as far as the eye can see, spread the homeland of the Australophitecus afarensis who once thrived and evolved here. The land is open and wide, planted with volcanic cones and seeded with umbrella acacias. Not a thick forest, just here and there to make sure living beings are able to shade themselves from the intense heat of the day.


Crossing the valley surrounded by ancient extinct volcanoes bathed in hues of pastel greens and yellow, I can see clearly why humans thrived here. The land is rich, sheltering and generous. We all know that volcanic ground is very fertile and yield amazingly abundant foods. Villages and small towns are strung along this lifeline highway leading to Narok, a ethnically Maasai city. The Maasai are the most recognizable ethnic group in Kenya. They seem to pop up on every tourist poster at airports or along the highway. They are tall, wear bright red colors and are adorned with multicolored beaded giant necklaces. They are a pastoral society which tends to cows and goats. Their diet is limited to animal blood mixed with milk which is fermented over a few days and drunk as a meal. No I didn't try. I wouldn't dare drink milk laced blood in the heart of Africa.

Roadway to the Mara

We reach the turn off from the main highway towards our tented camp in the Maasai Mara triangle. The safari starts here undoubtedly. We are on an unpaved, barely marked country path which seems to resemble a river bed rather than a road. The deep crevasses, carved by rainfall from the day before, are like canyons on both sides of the road. And by road I mean to use that term very loosely. The path, occasionally shaded by umbrella acacias and giant succulent thorny cactus like trees, crosses the savanna, hillside villages, pastoral scenery which leads to a great plain called the Mara. Once we reach that area, wildlife appears as if it was placed here for our enjoyment. Suddenly appear, gazelles, zebras and wildebeests.

The Mara from Mara Siria

The road continues to the Mara river, passing traditional Masai villages leading to a hill side muddy and rocky road to our luxury tented camp, Mara Siria. We are now on top of an escarpment with a view of the Mara below. This is a glorious moment. The Mara stretches its legs across a wide, flat plain to the volcanic cones far in the distance. We can almost see game running around from our tent. After settling into our luxuriously appointed tent, I relax by listening to my Ipod fully charged with the beats of African drums and soukous beats. I loaded songs by Pepe Kalle, a Congolese soukous star from the 1980's who since died because he was obese. Yes unfortunately they have obese people in Africa too.

Mara Siria Camp. Tent number 12
It's now the end of the afternoon and the skies are painted with bright yellow colors. Tomorrow is the big day when we go inside the Reserve. I am so excited, like a 5 year old in a candy store.

Leshao is a Maasai from a nearby village.
He wears this outfit daily.
 He works at Mara Siria Camp in the Maasai Mara Triangle

Friday, January 28, 2011

KENYA Part 1: He even took the ipod on safari

Karen Blixen would have been horrified to see what sort of items would end up in my bags while I was touring Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve at the end of December 2010. I, unlike Karen who took a boat, flew to Kenya from Miami, FL. A short (well sort of) 18 hour airplane ride through London's Heathrow airport. I arrived in Nairobi to join the family for a 10 day safari/Indian Ocean beach resort extravaganza.

The living room opposite the fireplace inside Karen's house

NAIROBI, Land of the Kikuyus

Exploring Nairobi the first day, we ended up at Karen Blixen's house just outside the city close to the Ngong Hills. The colonial style house sits inside a spacious garden with a beautiful view of the hills behind. The house itself is very livable and cozy. I imagined what sort of stories she would have regaled her friends with by the fireplace, or what her thoughts might have been while gazing at the setting sun out the window of her bedroom. In her living room the table is set. Elegance and charm still bathe her brightly white bedroom, a Louis Vuitton trunk still open ready to pack some adequate wardrobe for a safari.

Karen's House outside Nairobi

Close to Karen's house is the Elephant orphanage, a David Sheldrick Wildlife Fund project, aimed at saving orphaned elephants and rhinos. These baby elephants are just precious. They come running towards bystanders who are positioned behind a rope, directly in front of where they get fed. And they run to eat like there is no tomorrow. Imagine a 1000 pound baby having a tantrum ! They then proceed to wash down the content of their bottles (they are bottle fed), drink up some water, run to the pool to get muddy and finish off by dusting themselves with the red clay on the ground. Now that's the fun part for the people in front of the rope really close to them !
Bottle feeding

The smallest baby as of Dec 2010

A short drive away is the Giraffe Center. For a small fee, one can actually see giraffes face to face. And their head is huge ! One of the attendant will give you some granules since the giraffe are on a strict diet.  You must climb onto an elevated platform to be able to see eye to eye with a giraffe considering their height is 14 feet . Their tongue is enormous and measures a whopping length of 18 inches. Their coat is soft and silky and they don't seem to be too keen on being petted. Once the food runs out so do they.

Feeding giraffes

The enormous tongue is able to reach food between large thorns of Acacias