Only in Lebanon

Somehow almost 10 months have gone by since I moved to Lebanon. In that time my driving has taken a nosedive, my taste for Arak has matured and my understanding of the Arabic language has improved an embarrassingly miniscule amount.

I have been taken aback by the amazing hospitality, the incredible mix of religions and cultures and the sometimes absolute craziness that is Lebanon to an outsider.

Below are some of the things that I have wondered at, been amazed or confused by and just generally amused with:

  1. I have never been in a country so in to its seasonal fruit. In fact the majority of my Arabic vocabulary revolves around the names of seasonal fruit and some warehousing terms!

There is a subtle change each time you go in the fruit and veg shop – something new that won’t be there in 2 week’s time so you’d better buy it now….Lebanese Bananas are replaced by strawberries then cherries, peaches, plums, watermelons, corn, cactus fruit, apples, pears and grapes. It is currently pomegranate season which is highly exciting!  I usually end up with several bags of the ‘fruit of the week’ on my desk from one of the drivers who have grown them – and whatever it happens to be is absolutely everywhere – it’s like the day of the flying ants! One day everyone is eating raw almonds with salt (not my favourite) and the next day they’ve gone, as quickly as they appeared! What I love even more is that these aren’t your supermarket perfect, no imperfections kind of stuff; just tasty, pip-filled, slightly wonky good old fashioned fruit and veg.  It’s sad to think that at home we have forgotten just how much amusement can be had from a misshapen vegetable.

20140223_131605

That being said, in the big city of Beirut they don’t care about delicious locally grown stuff it is all about the bragging rights to which supermarket has flown their vegetables the furthest!

20140215_13234020140215_132350

2. Lebanon is the world’s second biggest market for cosmetic surgery! (After Brazil apparently)

Lebanon is a very image conscious place. Even before I landed in Beirut for the first time I was being bombarded with cosmetic surgery adverts on the plane! A hospital advertising it’s best suites as a hotel would and then a lady that comes out looking like she has been shocked and stretched right back into the 80s.

A colleague told me shortly after arriving that you can tell exactly who has had a nose job as there are only 2 popular styles in Lebanon! You can usually just as easily tell who has had one because they walk around proudly with the bandages covering half their faces in the days following the operation! At home I am pretty sure people would take a week off and stay at home not wanting anyone to see. Here, they are out in public as much as possible! There are also terrifying adverts everywhere for all sorts of seemingly random and unnecessary procedures – don’t want to botox your armpits to stop sweat patches? – Don’t worry there is a new treatment for you! I didn’t even know you could or would ever want to botox your armpits!!

  1. Shisha or Arguile pipes as they are known here are absolutely EVERYWHERE!!! There is not a single social event, be it a meal at a restaurant, concert, wedding, afternoon by the pool side or picnic on a cliff top in the middle of nowhere that is complete without one (or 6). You can even get them delivered and I have almost been knocked sideways a couple of times by delivery guys riding past on mopeds swinging red hot coals by their side. This is why this sign is so shocking! And probably ignored most of the time!

20140125_145242

  1. During the World Cup, Lebanon went into overdrive. Despite the fact that the Lebanese team was not in the competition that did not stop some of the most hard core fans I have ever seen get stirred up into a World Cup frenzy. There were flags everywhere, hanging from rooftops, 5m of fabric suspended somehow from a motorbike, flag poles planted into the top of massive rock formations in the sea! Brazil, Germany and Spain had the most supporters. I thought perhaps that the Brazil fans at least were supporting them because they had family links to Brazil (apparently Brazil has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon) but no, they all just picked the team they thought was the most likely to win! Probably explained why I only saw about 2 England flags! As soon as Spain was out of the competition they were immediately removing the flags and car stickers and replacing them with German or Brazilian ones! Turns out they are all just massive glory hunters – and will freely admit it!
20140518_123758

Spot the Brazil flag!

  1. There are also times when they are very proudly Lebanese too though:

20140202_215216

  1. Living in a small rural town in the mountains you expect to come across the odd animal or two. Lebanon just seems to have the most random selection from Tortoises and Gekkos to Snakes and Wolves.

The one animal I have probably seen the most of though is the humble goat! One day I answered the front door to a Shepherd (or Goatherd I should say). He had no English and I had no Arabic and despite attempts at sign language I wasn’t really getting what he was saying until he showed me round the side of the house and I realized that he was asking if he could walk past the house with his 300 goats in tow! He was so delighted when I said yes that he tried to pay us in goat’s milk which I politely declined.

20140222_165956

  1. It is quite normal in Lebanon for people to keep guns. Whether it is legal or not is beside the point. I have seen men carry them in their belts at restaurants, shoot them in celebration and use them for seasonal hunting. My landlord has proudly shown us a whole assortment of weapons. In this area they mainly keep them for hunting birds. Now that hunting season has begun in earnest you have to be careful even driving down the road as nowhere is out of bounds to take a pop at the odd bird or two. One of the craziest things I have seen is a young boy, no older than six, aiming a massive shot gun out the top of a sunroof whilst the the car zig-zagged at speed up a winding mountain road! Every time we went round a bend it would be pointing back in our direction!

IMG_8944

  1. The age at which you are allowed to drive legally in Lebanon is probably the same as in the UK but they age at which people actually start driving seems to be much much younger! I have seen kids as young as 2 sitting on Grandparent’s knees steering vehicles and boys probably not much older than 8 driving massive tractors and pick-up trucks! Still shocks me every time!

Even as I start to get used to these things there is still something new most weeks that pops up that fascinates or terrifies me. When I quiz my colleagues about it I usually always just get the same knowing reply “Welcome to Lebanon”!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Overdue update from Akkar

It has been a very long time since I wrote a post here so figured it was time for an update.

Where I am living the security situation has calmed down a lot compared to a few months ago; the Syrian Army has taken control of the border just to the North of us so the amount of cross border shelling has reduced dramatically and so has the number of Syrian refugees able to cross into this corner of Lebanon.

The high numbers that are already here are facing a new kind of hardship brought on by up to 3 years of living as a refugee with limited access to livelihood opportunities and ever depleting funds. This means that they are facing tough decisions on how to spend the little money they have left. Having to make the choice between paying rent and providing shelter for your family vs. having enough to eat properly or continuing your child’s education or even having the money to pay for expensive yet vital healthcare is a heartbreaking reality for many families. It is now also thought that some of the refugees fleeing Syria are not only running from violence but also severe economic hardship within the country as a result of the prolonged conflict.

The strain on the local Lebanese economy is starting to show and tensions are rising between the local host community and the refugees who are blamed for, among other things, creating waste disposal problems and taking low paid jobs, pricing the locals out of the job market for casual labour. The issue in Akkar where I am is that this was never a particularly affluent place to start with; it is an agricultural area without many job opportunities. Before the NGOs arrived most people in their 20s and 30s were living in Beirut in order to find employment. Now they are back at home with their mums and dads working for International Aid Agencies but that only goes a tiny way to bridge the un-employment gap and the agencies will only be around for as long as the funding lasts – and it is dwindling fast.

The fact that the strain is showing is hardly surprising seeing that conservative estimates put the number or Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 1.2 registered and many more still waiting to be registered with the UN in a county with a population of only 4 million to start with!! It is roughly the equivalent of 19.2 million French refugees fleeing to the UK – I think that tiny Lebanon has done remarkably well considering the size of the influx and mirrored political tensions. I just hope that the welcome they have extended to the refugees so far does not run out of steam.

Sad to learn also that according to the UN the world currently has the highest number of displaced people since WW2:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/un-50-million-people-are-displaced-worldwide-20146206555195323.html

Actually this isn’t at all what I had planned to write in this post but it just sort of came out. The next one will be much more light-hearted I promise!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Qobayat in the Cold

Not once since leaving Japan have I longed for a heated toilet seat, until I arrived here that is! It seems that I arrived in Qobayat at just the wrong time – at the beginning of December, as a bitter snow storm hit the North of Lebanon. It is no exaggeration to say that all my clothes, (including coat, hat, scarf, gloves) and 3 layers of blankets were not enough. The problem here is that there is no such thing as insulation in buildings and certainly no central heating. It is just as cold inside as it is outside which makes it worse somehow. The only kind of heating available are gas and electric heaters as the local generator can’t supply enough energy to power the air-conditioning/heating units in the office and guesthouse.

IMG_7307 IMG_7306 IMG_7305 IMG_7296 20131222_120658

But I should not complain. At least I have a building in which to stay and clothes and blankets in which to wrap myself up. Many of the Syrian refugees here have very little in comparison. The Organisation I am with here in the Akkar region is working to provide Syrian Refugees with some of the basics to survive the winter. With the funding of our donors we provide families with blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, food kits and heating stoves as well as ATM cards to access cash for other essentials. We have a dedicated shelter team who in the past has built shelter boxes to house refugee families and take the strain off already over-crowded Lebanese relatives and host families.  Now they are working to convert disused buildings into suitable collective shelters to house up to 100 families per site.

We also work with a mixture of Syrian and local Lebanese through Community Centres and Community Support Projects; teaching vocational skills such as sewing, beauty & hairdressing,cooking, English, French and IT.

And what am I actually doing I hear you ask!? A good question, which I shall try to answer as briefly as possible J. I am in charge of the logistics for our field base. This means that I look after the Warehouses with the Warehouse team to make sure we have enough stock for all the distributions of NFIs (Non-food Items) – blankets, mattresses etc. It is my responsibility to make sure our fleet of cars is working properly to get all of our programme staff to where they need to be on time. I head up the team that buys everything that is needed to run the projects and it’s also my job to look after the office including keeping track of all the equipment we use, which is easier said than done!

When I am not in the office I find myself very lucky to be in such a beautiful area of Lebanon. Qobayat is surrounded by hills and I have a friend here who knows many trails where you can go hiking with the goats up in the mountains. There is a tradition after a Sunday hike to go to a place called Haikal’s up on the hill. Haikal is quite a character with a booming laugh and never ending supply of home-made cider, sherry and whiskey!  The waitress doesn’t speak a word of English or French but we bonded over some post-sherry traditional dancing. As those of you who read my Congo dance escapades will know – I love a bit of emotive dance!

IMG_7418 IMG_741420140119_131205

IMG_7310

The view from the office…

Qobayat itself is quite small. It’s a town mostly surrounded by Shia and Sunni villages but the town itself is Christian and the hillside opposite my house boasts a massive fluorescent cross to prove it! Depending who you speak to it is either the biggest in the North of Lebanon, Lebanon, or the entire Middle East! (Which can’t be that hard if you think about it but it is very impressive all the same). They are also very big on Christmas. The main street was decorated with lights and the roundabout got a Christmas make-over. They also had a life size nativity scene which was as surreal as it was fabulous and they couldn’t bring themselves to take it down until the very end of January.

20140111_135329

Whilst it is a quiet and peaceful place I am not far from the Syrian border. On a very clear day from the top of the mountain you can even see Homs and Homs lake.  There is regular shelling that can be heard from the border areas and the Syrian side which serves as a sobering reminder that the Syrian war is very real and sadly continues apace.

IMG_7314

Homs Lake with the city in the background

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Middle East!

 

20131224_164449

I have been met at the airport 3 times since arriving in the Middle East and it is always an adventure!  My first port of call was Jordan for a few days of training. I was greeted by a slightly odd character at the brand new shiny marble airport. He looked like a cartoon burglar complete with black beanie hat and half cut-off gloves. After he eventually found his car we set off weaving through the traffic. There doesn’t seem much desire here amongst drivers to stick to one lane or the other; instead the preference is to constantly straddle all lanes at once with your hazard lights on.  As we make our way into Amman the drive comes complete with a hardcore techno sound track and running commentary about how much he loves psychological thriller films and his obsession with me being related to Jason Statham. Quite a character…originally from Palestine, raised in Saudi Arabia and living in Jordan he refers to himself simply as the ‘Middle Eastern Man’.

The second time I arrive in Beirut in a storm, my plane having just been hit by lightening! I need all my wits about me to get through passport control though as I have unknowingly picked the queue with the same guy that tried to chat me up the time before. Unrelenting , he tries to catch me out by asking for my watsapp when I have declined to give him my number…top marks for perseverance but need to choose my queue more carefully next time!  I finally make it outside the airport in the pouring rain to find no-one waiting for me. The phone conversations that ensue with the taxi company reconfirm my desire to learn Arabic fast! I approach 3 strangers who I embarrassingly assume must be answering my phone call before finally managing to speak to the driver –  “Madame arabicsomethingsomethingsomething 3!!, madamearabicsomethingsomethingsomething 3!” eventually I just give up wait at exit 3 and hope for the best which works out ok in the end!

20131224_160532

Beirut itself is something else. I’m staying just off one of the main streets where Christmas has definitely arrived in the form of a multitude of decorations. It is what I imagine a mix of Cairo and Paris to be. Exciting, noisy and impossible to cross the road without a thousand taxis beeping to get your custom or trying to run you over. It’s amazingly cosmopolitan, complete with H&M and Costa Coffee, if you can call Costa cosmopolitan! This place seems to have everything you could need but I am quite looking forward to the relative quiet of Qobayat – next stop Northern Lebanon.

20131224_165109

20131225_051940

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Creative Bed-making in Congo

If you ever get bored of making your bed, look no further for inspiration than my amazing house keeper in Goma, Deborah,  who wowed me every day with her ability to come up with another alternative for creative bed-making!

IMG_2074

IMG_2084

IMG_2132

IMG_2141

IMG_2101IMG_2102

IMG_2116IMG_2187

IMG_2307

IMG_2323

IMG_2326

IMG_2345

IMG_2371

IMG_2387

IMG_2393

IMG_2026

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Kitchanga

Forget coals and Newcastle, the saying should be ‘like bringing charcoal to Kitchanga’ well, charcoal or a big fat cow. Driving north from Goma to another of our field bases, those seem to be the only two real options when it comes to income! Black volcanic scrub quickly gives way to rolling green hills, imagine a mini Switzerland in DRC. It’s sad to think that those green hills were probably once covered in thick forest and there are still plenty of tree stumps to remind you of perhaps how recently this change has happened. Nevertheless it is a beautiful landscape and a stark contrast to Goma.

Kitchanga hills

charcoalIMG_2844IMG_2982

Arriving in Kitchanga I wasn’t sure what to expect. The town was almost burnt to the ground during clashes between armed groups in February. Amazingly the Merlin house and office survived, despite the warehouse being burnt down and everything inside the base disappearing to looters. The rest of the town is in varying stages of recovery. Some buildings are still very much destroyed whilst others are obviously brand new. The Merlin team now have one of their two warehouses rebuilt but progress is slow with builders being in high demand!

IMG_2659

It amazes me that the base didn’t go up in flames as it is basically a plywood tinderbox. It comes complete with friendly rats, a mini kitten and a bathroom described by Tess, the field log as a massacre in white paint, but it all adds to the charm! The team are really friendly and I have been made to feel very welcome.  They are also very resourceful …I particularly enjoyed watching the mechanic fixing brakes with a pick-axe yesterday!

IMG_2846

IMG_2674

I realise I haven’t devoted much, if any of this blog to the work that Merlin actually does and why I am out here. Today I visited a health post that we support to see first-hand the end point of all the work that goes into supporting our projects.  From London, to Goma, to the base in Kitchanga to a tiny health post in the village of Muhongozi which is currently supporting a large displaced community.

HS for blog

IMG_2983

IMG_3010

I sat with the nurse as she gave consultations to men, women and children, conducted countless malaria tests and prescribed medicines for everything from acute respiratory infections to worms and conjunctivitis. Merlin sends its nurses twice a week to support this health post and supplies it with drugs on a monthly basis, enough to cover its needs for 2 months in case of insecurity.  This is just one of many mobile clinics that Merlin run, along with supporting various other health centres, hospitals and running awareness campaigns on a variety of public health issues.

IMG_2737

It is amazing to think that some of the drugs I ordered over 6 months ago at head office in London will have ended up in a place like this, if not in this very health post. It is also frustrating to know that the majority of what I ordered went up in flames when the town came under attack. But such is the nature of this job and the context here in Eastern DRC. It is easy to become cynical and pessimistic in such circumstances but it is days like today when I am reminded why it is worth persevering.

IMG_2749

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Danse à la congolaise

So I certainly didn’t expect my next post to be about dance but then I have never in my life tried interpretive dance, and never in a million years did I expect my first experience of it to be in a small shack in Congo.

I was invited by one of my Congolese colleagues to join her one Sunday morning at her “salsa class”. I figured why not and went along to see what it was like. Turned out to be one of the most surreal experiences of my time here so far! There were 8 of us taking part in the class in a very compact community space (wooden hut) so it was already quite hot before we started with an intense physical warm-up. I didn’t realise that salsa required such physical preparation but what followed wasn’t salsa, it was some of the most emotive dance I have ever seen. Not really being a dancer I have never tried to express myself through dance! But this is what I was asked to do in front of a circle of strangers as we each watched each other ‘show on the outside, what is happening on the inside’. My turn was obviously completely cringe-worthy but some of the performances by other members of the group were exceptionally moving.

At this stage I had no idea what to expect next, perhaps some salsa? But no, Azonto! I’m not even really sure how best to describe this style of dance other than a pan-African dance craze that started in Ghana. Nearly anything goes; as long as you keep to the basic step you can pretend to do anything, from phoning a friend to doing the ironing!? Wikipededi says it best: ‘The dance involves a wildly excited or uncontrolled set of hand movements that either mimic everyday activities or are meant to signal an often amusing intention.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azonto

120901Azonto_6613218

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2012/sep/01/ghanaian-azonto-dance-video

After learning part of a routine with lots of foot shuffling, pointing and looking at ourselves in fake mirrors it was finally onto Salsa. This lasted all of 5 minutes before the end of the class. Or at least I assumed it was the end of the class. Nearly, but not quite. The final piece to this surreal dance puzzle was a group relaxation and massage session. Again, not expected but I had learnt to just go with the flow by this stage. We all lay down on the floor to close our eyes and relax to the not so soothing sounds of a local DJ laying down a new track in the tiny music studio adjoining the dance room and had our legs, arms and heads massaged! A thoroughly bizarre, but nice ending to a very eclectic dance class!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments