Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fall into Winter

Ironing Sheets?  Ironing Pajamas? It Must Be Winter
Winter is indeed here.  The mountain has been rainy, cloudy, chilly, thunderous, dark, ominous, windy and almost all of these at the same time.  You may remember that, since coming overseas, I haven't used a clothes dryer.  So, despite racing to pull the sheets off the bed and, with the pajamas, throw them in the washing machine, hang them up, and hope, they are still quite damp at the end of the day.  So, yes.  I've been ironing them all to get them dry.  I can resign myself to months of laundry that take 2 days or more, for each load.  Besides, it's chilly and never seems to be warm as I try to do my part not to raise the fuel bill for my block. No, we do not have individual meters.  All 3 apartments, no matter how many occupants, split the heating bill 3 ways.  And no, they cannot change it.

Down to the Southern Border: I can see Israel from here. 
Two weekends ago I was invited by a colleague to travel with him and another couple to the south.  We needed special permissions to pass a military checkpoint so we could get into a protected area that is just a few miles from the border with Israel/Palestine.  His parents have several olive groves down there and were our hosts for the almost two days we were there.  Lebanon itself, is not very big and this area is quite small but  it's amazing how many thousands of UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) troops can be stationed there from all over the world.  Of course they were very visible, which, in a way, appears to lend an air of safety to the region.  But my colleague would say, "Oops, UN, need to avoid them.  They're targets."  There really was no way to avoid them AND he was joking.

But I found driving around the area was not a joke, nor was it even a place for taking pictures.  There are only 3 below.  I will do my best to describe what I saw.  First, our colleague's father was our "driver" in his very old (the oldest I've ever seen) Mercedes.  We drove around, through his olive groves, and on the way to and from the border areas.  He treats his old car as if it's an off-road jeep with the result that, in the rain, we got stuck as he attempted to turn around in the middle of an olive grove.  We all got out an pushed the car forward, successfully if you don't count the mud baths we all took.  We're too far north of the Dead Sea for it to have had any health value.  We hurried back to our hosts house to get cleaned up, fresh, dry socks.  The little wet wipes I always carry were completely inadequate for this mess.

Each time we got in the car, our host would yell, "To Yisrael!" and drive like a madman for the border. His son, I noticed, became very quiet in the back seat and was much more nervous and frightened than any of the rest of us, including his father but the truth is, as a boy, he and his father, watched the bombs drop around them from the roof of their house.  I am sure he's never felt comfortable there since that time.  It was, "No, no, we can't stop for pictures." "No, don't raise your camera."  "Father, drive out of here now!"  At one point, Sammy, our host, kept driving until a soldier, Lebanese, ran up to the car.  Sammy told  him he thought this was where his nephew, a soldier, was stationed, but I know, he thought nothing of the kind.  In any case, the soldier laughed at him as we turned around, away from the high, coiled, concertina-wired fences.

Passing this or that field, our colleague would say, "Oh, you can't hike there.  That field is still mined" or "that's not safe, to a certain extent."  He seems to add this phrase frequently but in this situation, it seemed particularly out of place.  "Unsafe, to a certain extent?"  What on earth and to which extent is it safe?  After awhile, the minute he'd start with the "to a certain extent" phrase, we would all, including him, laugh.  He started to see how nutty the whole thing was.

And the difference between the highly manicured, irrigated fields of the settlers over the border and the erratic rows of the groves and fields on the Lebanese side was obvious and remarked on by our host.  At one point, close to a village, Sammy looked over the fence and said, "Over there, they have electricity all the time, high-speed internet, whatever they want, and over here, no services."  An advantage of staying in the hotel was the non-stop generators through the night.  It seems to me that the area has been under a kind of siege between wars and battles throughout most of the 20th century.  I hope the 21st can be quieter for everyone on both sides.

For the first time, I experienced extended, unremitting, "aggressive hospitality" as my friends here call it. Fortunately for me, I was staying in a hotel down the road so the last morning, I had breakfast there rather than spend one more meal with Sammy on my left, adding food I didn't want to my plate, every time I wasn't looking.  The constant "no, thank you" in a sweetly, polite voice was exhausting.  "Aggressive" indeed!  I have discovered that when you take what you think you want and can manage and eat it all, that is a deadly mistake.  An empty plate is an invitation for your hosts to make sure you've tried every last dish.  "No" does not mean no.  The kitchen has a central coal heater and the rest of the house was chilly so we all sat in the kitchen/sitting area, leaving a beautiful house untouched, hours on end, while various guests came and went.  By the end of the day, I was tired--not from hiking but from sitting for several hours trying to figure out how to stay mentally alert with Arabic swirling around and nothing else to do, never mind being told all the time not to help.

We 3 guests, rode back to Balamand on the wildest bus ride--probably wilder because we were in the back, but I was really grateful to be unable to see what was going on around us.  It was a military bus and the 3-hour ride cost $3.50.  The men were very respectful, moving to the front of the bus to smoke, opening the windows when they did.  The driver did get yelled at by the guard at one of the many military checkpoints around here.  Who knows what was going on?  I know he didn't see us but whatever it was made the guard really angry.  Nevertheless, we were happy with the speed at which we got through Beirut traffic and back home.  Very slick, I say, even though the bus didn't look too reliable when we got on.  Once settled, it was easy to forget about it.

This week, I was reminded, is Thanksgiving and I'm thankful for all of you.  I enjoy hearing from you and knowing just that you're "there" somewhere.  I will travel to Jordan on Friday-Sunday to see some friends and former students, also friends.

Over Christmas, I will travel to Istanbul for a few days since I cannot get home and back in the time we have and justify the expense.  In looking over the guidebook, I am really pleased, anticipating what I'll be able to see at last.

Love and Hugs to you all,


S. Lebanon, Israeli Border