Driving along the Syrian border

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LIFE, TRAVEL

I learned a lot during my ten days in Lebanon. In hardly any corner of the world it is more interesting to see how culture, politics, religion and language define a people. How a country unites as well as tears apart over these issues. The people are so proud of their heritage and background. Coming from Austria where everyone is Catholic on paper but no one is religious (I think we do it for the presents), I was surprised by how much of a big role religion plays in the Lebanese daily life. Religion and politics are inseparable. It dictates the school you go to, the party you vote for, the people you talk to, the area you live in. Or it used to – it’s incredibly interesting to see these social paradigms change in younger generations.

Whether at home with the family or during a chilled night out with friends – I loved the friendly but heated debates everyone was having. The twins’ friendship circle is mixed with Christians and Muslims alike, some of them believe more than others, some have become atheists. And everyone has their personal, strong headed opinion about the Lebanese situation or why the country has been stuck in a political limbo with no president for more than a year. In Lebanon, power is divided up between 18 religious sects.

Anyways, this post should actually tell the story of how we wanted to visit Bekaa Valley, but almost ended up in Syria. It was a crazy day for all of us. And to me, this road trip only demonstrated the important relationship between religion and social affiliation.

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After a big night out and only 4 hours of sleep, we started our road trip with beautiful mountain roads and great views North East of Beirut. The further you get away from Beirut, the more Arabic people speak and soon the French-English-Arabic mix that I love so much is totally gone. Along the way, we pulled over to ask old locals for directions since GPS, Google Maps or mobile reception are not a big thing in this area. We were a bunch of city kids living in Sydney, Montreal and London and navigating without an app in front our nose was kinda beyond our capabilities. We got lost several times. The people we met on the road replied politely, but they couldn’t hide the skeptic look on their face. Some crazy grandma shouted at us.

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We eventually made it to Taanayel Monastery and its vineyards. Cruising around on our rental bikes we explored the valley that lies between two mountain chains – Lebanon and Beirut behind the one, Syria behind the other.  The sky was hazy and the hills disappeared on the horizon but there were many villages you could make out in the distance if you looked carefully enough.

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View towards Syria

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View towards Lebanon

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From the very beginning we weren’t sure wether visiting Lake Qaraoun was such a good idea. The twins’ parents weren’t too pleased about it, but with the typical parental “well… it’s up to you” and a meaningful look the discussion was dropped. To get to the Qaraoun reservoir you drive along the Syrian borders and the area is considered unsafe. But since we were already in Bekaa valley, we thought we might as well just go enjoy the stunning landscape views over the lake nestled within the rolling mountains. The highest peaks of Bekaa valley raise up to more than 3000 metres.

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The only problem was: we didn’t know how to get there. Roughly speaking, we knew which direction it was. In reality, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We followed people’s directions whilst – hopelessly – trying to get some GPS signals with our iPhones. Until they all ran out of battery.

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We passed Christian villages, Muslim villages – always branded very clearly with a church or mosque – , many military checks as well as UN camps for Syrian refugees. Without being aware of it, we went further and further South which meant closer and closer to Syria. We even received the “Welcome to Syria” text when suddenly the phone rang and M.’s mom told us to make our way back to Beirut ASAP. But we already got this far, so we might as well just see the lake now. And – after driving down a long stretch of landmine marked  territory – we found the lake.

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The light and the colours in the wide valleys were amazing. We pulled over so I could take a photo but once I stepped out of the car a group of men appeared from an empty building. They shouted furiously and even from the 60 metres between us I could see the look on their face. I guess this was the only moment we got nervous – having gotten off the phone with M.’s parents just now telling us it was too unsafe. We hurried back into the cars and drove off. But in general, I don’t think we ever had a reason to be worried. I only felt the thrill of doing something exciting – driving around with your friends in a completely foreign place that is so different to anything you’re used to. Plus maybe a tiny bit of anxiousness at the back of your head because you know that what you’re doing right now is super fun as long as everything goes well but can quickly turn into something dangerous and stupid.

Well, that’s the excitement you feel when you leave your comfort zone.

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As the sun settled over the mountains, it was time to get back home. This time we even knew the roads to Beirut and, for once, it seemed like we knew what we were doing. But then we managed to lose one another.  If only M. hadn’t fucked up the last military check point, we would’ve seen where G.’s Jeep Wrangler went. But whilst the soldiers checked the boys’ passports, the other guys took a different route and so we separated.

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It’s fine, we thought. We know where to go, we thought. 15 mins later we asked a friendly chap if this was the way to Beirut. He smiles at us and says “No brother this road takes you to Syria”. Alrighty, nothing but a bunch of city kids with absolutely no sense of orientation…

We eventually arrived in Beirut as the hazy sunset put the sky on fire. In case you were wondering what happened to the other car: they took the longer mountain route back and with absolutely no petrol left they were lucky enough to roll downhill ’till they reached the next gas station. They arrived in Beirut 3h after us.

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What a day. We all came home tired, knowing that we’d never forget this day. We wanted to go out, but got rejected at the club and R.’s ID was confiscated. M. had a rash on his neck and he missed his phone dearly. I woke up with the worst food poisoning ever and we had to cancel our trip to Baalbeck.  What a day. I know I’ll always have the fondest memories of the many experiences I had Lebanon. I knew the twins would be the greatest hosts ever and they didn’t disappoint. Thanks for having me! Bussis

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