Reflections of a Co-Traveler – 35 Days across the Ocean

The trip to get from Ottawa to Beirut was not that eventful except for us almost not finding the gate for the plane to Geneva in Montreal (it was tucked away behind the Victoria’s Secret sign). I was not sure how I would handle so many flights and the long leg between Montreal and Geneva, but it wasn’t too bad – I guess expecting the worst make things smoother in the end. I was, however, quite surprised by the Geneva airport as I was expecting a larger airport with more modern functionality. When we arrived in Geneva, there was no jetway and we had to use stairs to bring us down to the tarmac to awaiting buses which drove us to our gate which we then had to climb stairs to the terminal – a painful experience for me. {On a side note, I found this as well as other areas during the trip to be quite limiting to those with mobility issues, e.g. almost no handrails on any steps in Beirut. But, more on this later.} We then had to do the same in reverse to get our plane to Beirut – it’s too bad we had to go through the terminal … the planes were parked beside each other!

When we made it to Beirut, you find a pretty modern airport. It was interesting to note that when you get to Customs that they have separate lines for Foreigners and those with Lebanese passports. Luckily, as Canadians, we did not require a Visa for entry and the process was pretty smooth. I was kind of concerned that our luggage would get lost/delayed seeing that we went from Air Canada to MEA but all 5 bags made it without issue.

Beirut was hot and humid (30⁰C) upon our arrival and stayed that way through our entire stay there. Upon leaving the doors of the airport, you can sense a difference in the air, not in the weather but that of society itself. There is a sense of pressure and urgency but at the same time, you feel an attitude of everyone trying to survive for themselves. It didn’t register with me when I first felt it but now I realize what it was.

Our 20-minute trip from the airport took 3.5 hours as the Army had a good portion of the area near the airport blocked off for a religious observance and this caused even the usual traffic backlog to be almost total gridlock. There is little to no traffic control. Traffic signs and lines on the road (where they exist) are more of a suggestion than a rule. Streets are pretty much all 2-way even though they scarcely appear wide enough for one lane. Even “do not enter” signs for what is supposed one-way streets are ignored. There is a constant barrage of horns being blown for one reason or another – sometimes as a warning and sometimes to express disgust. There does not appear to be “road-rage” in the North American sense as you have the impression there is a constant rage in the flow of traffic with cars pushing their ways through in order to jockey for position or to even make a turn. You encounter “check-points” manned by the Army as you travel through – it’s not entirely clear why they are there but that also impedes the flow of traffic in many places. You see Police vehicles and Policemen around but for the most part, they appear to be simply standing around as a presence. I pretty much felt safe travelling through but not because of their presence.

There is a huge dichotomy in Beirut in the sense that you have shiny new modern buildings next to old ones (some still bearing the markings of shrapnel). You have some modern wider roads but they are few in number. Bourj Hammoud itself and much of the surrounding area is made up of small streets overcrowded with traffic and people. There is a multi-level shopping plaza in the centre of the city that is clean and modern with a lot of upscale stores. The city is a true mix of polar opposites. A lot of it looks like it needs to be knocked down and rebuilt with a new civil plan to better accommodate the population and future growth. You also see a lot of high-end cars (mostly Mercedes and such) making their way through the traffic and they seem to be more relaxed – perhaps that is the new Beirut.

In Beirut, and Yerevan for that matter, there are many limitations for those with mobility problems. Many older buildings (like the one we stayed in) do not have elevators and the stairs do not have handrails. Sidewalks are quite high and though there are ramps in some places, they are so steep they are virtually unusable. The ramps seem to be there more for the delivery people as opposed to the public. I did not see anyone using any crutches and only saw one scooter, no wheelchairs. It makes me wonder if those who have mobility issues are confined within their own walls.

Tripoli is much the same as Beirut. Travelling up into the villages brings you cooler weather but winding roads – easy to get car sick, especially as you move up in altitude. People are generally friendly, and you get many who speak English but Arabic is the prominent language.

Yerevan is quite different than either Beirut or Tripoli. The city seems more modern although there are the older parts as well. They have a modern airport and here too people are generally friendly. Traffic and the city is more akin to that of Ottawa. The downtown area appears to always be bustling even on weekday nights – people are walking around and enjoying the summer air. Yerevan was cooler, drier, and more comfortable overall. Everywhere you look you see signs in Armenian and Russian, although most streets and place names appear in English as well. A lot of the staff at the restaurants seem to speak English.

We were fortunate to secure a driver for most of our stay who took us everywhere we wanted to go for a fixed daily rate. And, did I mention that things are quite inexpensive here? Our daily cab rate was about $30-40 USD. Food was also inexpensive.

There is a still a lot of Russia in Armenia and I am pretty sure it will take at least another generation or two to make it it’s own. But then again, since Russia is so close by, it will be hard to break the links. From what I saw, a lot of trucks on the road are Russian and probably 50 years old. It was rare to see a newer truck but for cars, it was not the same – you have a lot of newer models on the road. One thing I noted is that a lot of them are right-hand drive and the reason is that they are $1,000 U.S less to purchase.

It’s rare to see an American car on the road in either Beirut or Yerevan and the others you see (Honda, Toyota, etc.) are variations of known models plus those only sold here.

Someone asked me whether I would prefer to come back to Beirut or Yerevan. At first, I said Yerevan, but actually, I think both are viable candidates depending upon where you actually stay. Beirut/Bourj Hammoud is a “zoo” as my nephew describes it, but staying in a different area could effectively provide a different point of view as I saw areas in Yerevan which were similar in nature to Bourj Hammoud (without the traffic). Both have their distinctive characters as I think any city/country does and each have areas which you could enjoy visiting and/or living in if necessary.

Although we are not yet at the end of our trip, I think I have a relatively good feel for the areas we visited and I am happy to have taken this trip with my wife. It was difficult at times as I had to struggle walking and could not visit all the places Takouhi did but it has been fun cataloguing the over 6,000 photos and videos we have. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, my goal is to add a great majority of these photos to the website so others can virtually visit and follow in our steps.

Gary Petro, Bourj Hammoud, October 4, 2018

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