Spring Break Part 2: Lebanon Mountain Trail

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After an exhilarating four days in Beirut Matt, Lesli and I packed up all our things and headed north. We had everything we needed for hiking and camping along the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), including the maps, contact information and advice from everyone at the LMT office near Beirut. The maps and trail descriptions were essential as most of the trail had not yet been blazed or clearly marked. In certain areas, they highly recommend a guide. But at around $50 a day, these students decided to skip that particularly luxury, relying on our navigation skills and the advice of contacts in each town. The path doesn’t stray far from the main road, and no point along the trail is more than a few kilometers from the nearest village. Parts of the trail are at a pretty high elevation, but the LMT office assured us that there would be no snow in the portion we were planning on hiking. Their mistake.

From Beirut, we hopped on a bus north to Byblos. We were told that it wouldn’t be hard to find a bus from there to Afqa, our starting point. However, when we were met with polite chuckles upon asking where to catch the bus to Afqa, we realized we would have to arrange our own transport. We did our best to bargain with a cab driver to take us there for less that $50, but he wasn’t having it. At one point I thought I got him down to $35 because he said, “Ok come here,” and started walking towards his car. Turns out he was just walking me over to a point where I could clearly see the price of gas. “How am I supposed to make a living with prices like these??” Fair enough. Cab drivers make little enough as it is. I’ve gotten good at avoiding getting ripped off, but sometimes paying a little more than you hoped is better than stripping someone of their dignity. We hopped in his car and headed for Afqa.

Yusef, as we soon learned his name was, had no idea why we wanted to head for the mountains without a bed to stay in. He kept telling us that he didn’t think we would find a place to sleep in Afqa. No matter how many times we told him that we had everything we needed and we planned on sleeping in a tent in the next town, he just thought we were crazy. This was the first of many similar interactions with townspeople along our trip. The LMT is only a few years old and is usually hiked in large groups of ten or more. Our random excursion looked a little out of place to most.

Matt and I pose with our trusty taxi driver, Yusef

Once in Afqa, we made our way to the grocery store to buy bread, hommous and chocolate for the trip. We were glad to find the store open for business because the whole village seemed strangely devoid of people. Homes lined the main road, but even in the middle of the day, we saw only a couple of people walking about. Either much of the town was actually gone, or everyone was sitting quietly in their house in the middle of the weekday. We passed a few towns just like this during the trip. Some of the larger cities are busier during the winter when people come to enjoy the ski slopes, but Afqa wasn’t a ski destination. We couldn’t figure out why there were so many empty streets and buildings. It made our brief stay there slightly eerie.

A view of the valley beyond Afqa

Before we headed out, we called the local guide to get a detailed description of the trail we were about to take. His explanation was straightforward and seemed helpful, but the higher we climbed, the more snow we encountered. When we completely lost the dirt road we were traveling under an expansive snow bank, we were forced to change course and descend into a tiny rural settlement instead of walking along the ridge that overlooked it. This added time and energy into a day that had already started much later than we had planned. Around 5pm, when we were heaving our bags back up the steep slope, a car drove by and offered us a ride. They said it was about 3 km to Hrajel where we planned to stay. Since we were walking along a boring paved road anyway, we took them up on the offer. And good thing we did because Hrajel was definitely farther then 3 km away!

After a long day, we were pretty happy to accept a ride

"You are now entering Christian territory."

Once in Hrajel, we enjoyed a warm dinner of fuul, hommous, baked potatoes and Lebanese sausage before seeking out the local hotel, Mount Smash, to ask if they knew of anywhere to camp. Hrajel is a safe town to sleep in, but we didn’t want to pitch our tent just anywhere. We ended up sleeping in their concrete rooftop parking lot because the earth was wet due to melting snow. After a long day of carrying our packs, the concrete ground was a bit less welcoming bed than we had hoped for. We set out the next day feeling considerably sore, but excited for another beautiful day in the mountains. Thank goodness for Matt and Lesli’s cheery company. It wasn’t hard at all for our group to stay optimistic.

Tent, sweet tent

The next day’s hike was similar to the first, but with a lot less snow. After a few hours of hiking, we had lunch in a ruined Roman temple in Faqra. As we were leaving, an attendant asked us if we had paid entrance. We had hiked up the back way and weren’t aware that there was a $2 entrance fee to see the ruins. We were ready to pay, but once he learned that we were backpacking through the mountains and just happened upon the ruins during our trek, he waved us on and wished us luck, doing his best to point us in the right direction.

A view of Hrajel after a bit of climbing

It took a little X-TREME climbing over some fallen barbed wire to get to the ruins

The next portion of the trail took us along an “agricultural road” that connected to a main road for a few km before descending into the river valley and farmland that would eventually lead us to Kfar Aaqab. But after an hour and a half on the same road, we decided to stop and ask for directions in the town we were passing through. We called one of the LMT contact, Josephine, a kind lady with a short silver hair who helped us get back on track. She suggested a different route for us that would take us past Kfar Aaqab and straight to our next day’s destination of Baskinta. Following her advice, we called a convent in Baskinta to make sure they had room for use to lodge there (beds were absolutely necessary after our achy night in Hrajel), and walked the surprisingly short distance to the quiet Christian town of Baskinta.

I was so relieved to walk into town knowing that I was so close to discarding my backpack and finding warm food. However, our final challenge was to hike through the narrow streets of the town and up the tallest hill towards the large cross that marked the chapel and home of the sisters of Mar Sassine, a Maronite Christian convent that would be our home for the night. Thanks to the help of our fourteen-year-old new friend, Anthony, we didn’t have to wander around the town asking where the Mar Sassine was.

Our first hazy view of Mar Sassine Convent. The fog creeped in just as night started to fall.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Baskinta was to be our home for the next three days. At first we decided to stay an extra day to rest before heading for our final destination, Mtain. But we instantly fell in love with Baskinta and kept coming up with excuses to stay. First, we decided to rest for an extra day and check in with our families at their small internet café. That day we made many curious friends who invited us to tea, told us how welcome we were in their town, and pointed down the road to their house, making sure that if we needed anything at all, we wouldn’t hesitate to knock and ask.

Baskinta wasn’t quite as small as it felt—the year-round population is about 22,000. But many of them must live far from the center of town because the city center can be completely covered on foot in about half an hour. There were about 6 or 7 beautiful churches that towered over the city, and several smaller churches that weren’t quite as extravagant. The whole town was Christian, split evenly between Maronite, Catholic and Greek Orthodox. Easter was in the air and everyone in town was getting ready for the holiday by baking special sugar cookies and pistachio pastries. I’m sure they were doing other things too, but the baked goods stand out in my memory the most. Sister Rafqa, the motherly nun who took care of us while we stayed in the convent, kept bringing us more and more plates of delicious nun-baked goodies. Can you blame us for staying a couple of days?

On Wednesday, our second day there, Rafqa told us that it was a Maronite tradition to visit seven Christian churches on the Thursday before Easter. That was our excuse for staying Thursday. We got up early and started making the rounds, visiting the main churches around town. Unfortunately, there were two funerals that day at different churches and, as luck would have it, we walked up just as the mourners were arriving to pay their respects. When we asked a man in the parking lot of the first church what was going on, he responded with the memorable line “fii dead,” meaning “there is dead.” We got the picture (figuratively) and visited the church later, after the “dead” was over.

We found this little door in a shed next to a tiny chapel

One of the most memorable parts of our time with the sisters of Mar Sassine was our participation in the daily prayers. The sisters got together and sang hymns and read scripture for about an hour once each day. The priest would usually read a bit from the bible as well before spreading insence and holding up the cross for all the nuns to kneel and pray. The whole thing was in Arabic, which was a little intimidating at first. But sister Rafqa always had her eye on us and helped us to know when to stand, when to kneel, and when to do nothing but just sit there and look respectful. Every word of the service was printed on a bulletin. Following along in Arabic was good for my reading, even if I didn’t comprehend any of the vocabulary.

Inside the chapel at Mar Sassine

On Thursday and Good Friday, many people congregated with the nuns for a community-wide service. These were slightly less pressure because we weren’t the only ones worshipping with the nuns. I’m not sure if I was supposed to or not, but at one point I went up with the rest of the church to receive an anointment from the priest. Another time, the nuns were preparing and distributing little bits of bread dough in small film canisters. I received one of those as well. Matt, Lesli and I pretty much copied what everyone else was doing. Matt took communion. (Gosh, it sounds like I’m trying to get him in trouble! As a Catholic, I think it was ok for him to round up to Maronite.) But that time, Lesli and I held back. In my church back home, all guests are welcome to take communion, but I wasn’t confident that was the case with the Maronites.

On Good Friday, the place was packed. We arrived a couple minutes late and had to sit in the side chapel, sort of an overflow space for all the children and latecomers. It didn’t matter much to us since we didn’t understand much of what was going on anyway. At one point, everyone went and kissed the cross that the priest was holding, grabbed a candle, and marched outside and circled the parking lot many times singing and chanting together. In the end, we all entered the chapel for a final prayer before everyone exited the chapel and dispersed.

As this was our last day with the sisters, they took special care to make sure we understood at least a little about the Maronite faith. They showed us the three saints: Maroun, Charbel, and Rafqa. Apparently a fourth, Hardini, is on his way to becoming a saint, too. I was surprised that the Maronites are part of the Catholic Church and are loyal to the Pope. Syriac is the ancient liturgical language, which explains the strange script and language I didn’t recognize at one point during the service on Thursday. I still don’t know a ton about the Maronite faith, but the beautiful chapel and the kindness of the nuns left a strong impression on me. Oh! And their music. They all sang a cappella and it was pretty much bible verses to the same 16 measures or so of the same slightly haunting melody. One nun in particular led the group with her strong voice. They use a different scale than most hymns I’m familiar with. I bought a cassette recording from Rafqa of the sisters singing so that I could remember their voices in the future. Now all I need to do is track down a tape recorder.

We miss you, Sister Rafqa!

It was sad saying goodbye to Rafqa and the rest of Baskinta on Friday afternoon, but we wanted to get to Beirut with plenty of time before our flight out on Saturday. It was a very windy and bumpy ride through the mountains to get back to Beirut, but after an hour and a half, we were back in the city. We had arranged to stay with Ali, an acquaintance we had made through Couch Surfing, a social network that links travelers with individuals in cities who are willing to host. Ali is a Fulbright Scholar who got his master’s degree in computer science just a few years ago. He seemed interesting, so we’re glad he agreed to host us!

Before you get too sketched out, there is a service that allows courchsurfer hosts to get certified so that you know they are who they say they are. We also looked and many positive reviews from others who stayed with Ali in the past. Plus staying with a new friend would be far more interesting and less expensive than finding a hotel or hostel for the night. You can also use Couch Surfing just to meet people for coffee and make friends in a new place. I recommend it next time you’re traveling!

We met Ali at his office and learned about his start-up website, The Dream Matcher, which will be in full swing in just a couple of weeks. The social network links people with specific hopes and aspirations with others who can make their dreams possible. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it sounds like a great idea.

Ali shares an office with Nader, a young and extremely driven entrepreneur who is a year younger than I am and already the CEO of his own successful start-up company. It’s called ThinkUP  (like their Fbook page here!). It’s a company whose goal it is to empower people, particularly youth, to formulate their goals and develop strategies and skills to meet them. Nader got the idea by talking to young people around the world about what they wanted to do when they grew up. In the US, Taiwan and throughout Europe, he found that youth had specific dreams and goals. He didn’t find that this was the case in Lebanon. He originally worked specifically with young people to help guide them and provide the necessary resources for realizing their goals, but when he officially founded ThinkUP, he expanded to include adult clients as well.

When I asked him why the service is profit-making as opposed to non-profit, he told me that he gets that question all the time. He explained that he seriously considered making the business non-profit, but that in order to provide a worthwhile product, he had to have a reliable budget to work with and a professional team to make it happen. He has a team of psychologists, speech therapists, tutors and other consultants that he wouldn’t have access to if the business weren’t profit-making. He also stressed the psychological importance of paying for a product. As Nader puts it, when the students and adults who use ThinkUP’s services actually invest (or receive scholarships that invest) in their future, they’re more likely to hold themselves accountable and follow through with their goals.

This may seem like a random topic to be writing about. It is. It’s extremely random. My whole last day in Beirut felt that way. We chose to couch surf with Ali and ended up in his office talking with Nader about his business (and his plans to expand to Los Angeles…). Then Nader and his girlfriend, Fatima, kind of kidnapped us and took us out for sheesha and coffee while we talked about our travels, Middle Eastern politicals and—you guessed it—ThinkUP. Nader invited us to stay in his home that night where there were three beds for us. Ali, who had joined us at that point, was okay with this. We wouldn’t have minded sleeping on the floor at Ali’s place (better than a hotel parking lot in a tent!), but Nader’s home turned out to be a great experience. His mother was extremely welcoming and made sure we were all well fed. Lebanon is considered throughout the Middle East to have the best cuisine and, after enjoying a simple yet traditional dinner with Nader’s family (not to mention our entire experience in Lebanon up to that point), we were thoroughly convinced.

Nader and one of his giant spoiled cat-like creatures

The next day (I can’t believe this was yesterday—Beirut seems a world away!), Nader took us to a school in the nearby city of Saida to witness a youth event that he and the school had been preparing for a long time. The event was a sort of fair, where middle school and high school students professionally presented their solutions to pressing community and global issues. We didn’t get to stay long before we had to head to the airport, but we spoke to a few of the students before the event got started. These kids were downright impressive. Some of them had developed mobile apps while others had created a prototype for a water-reducing toilet. The one presentation we got to see was delivered in flawless English and was very professional. The school and ThinkUP really did a great job challenging and preparing these students. The students of course did an awesome job rising to the challenge. After seeing what these young students could do, I left with refreshed conviction to learn Arabic as best I can before returning to the US.

ThinkUP!

Some of my favorite student art work at the school

Nader welcomes everyone to the conference

Freeway Graffiti on the way to Saida, Lebanon

Now I’m back in Amman and am pleased that it really does feel like home. Easter isn’t until next week in Jordan, but Happy Easter to everyone reading in the United States! If you’ve made it this far in the blog entry, I congratulate you. I promise not to overload you with so much information in the future.

As always, be sure to check out my (far more regular!) blog at http://reachtheworld.org/. I write two entries per week for Ms. Collura’s second grade classroom in NYC. The students often send me specific questions about Jordan and on occasion I get to Skype with the whole classroom. They’re really a smart bunch of students! (Shout-out to Clara and Katie for keeping up with my RTW writing! It’s nice to know a few loved ones are reading it as well :) ) Educating others, especially young people, about Arab culture is one of my main objectives while I’m in Jordan. RTW is a perfect way to do that. Posting 5,000 words in one day on my own personal blog is another way to do that. But I’ll try not to make a habit of it.

Take care! Keep an eye for a catch-up post about Georg and Stephen’s visits.

6 responses to “Spring Break Part 2: Lebanon Mountain Trail”

  1. Clara says :

    I just have one question: how do i get a job with thinkUp so I can move to Beirut? I’m entirely enchanted.

    • kevbotics says :

      First: talk to me. Ima hook you up, gurrl.
      Second: grant me unlimited visiting rights.
      Thrid: Easter in Baskinta.

      • Clara says :

        ok, it’s a deal. i’m moving, and then you’ll move with me and we’ll be friends forever in the middle east

  2. Ali Chehade says :

    Awesome post guys .. im glad you enjoyed it :)

    By the way .. my degree is in Media Management, not computer science :P lol ..

  3. Erin Delo says :

    loving following you on your trips, so exciting, wish I could just get away and find an adventure :)

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