what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut

We arrived in Beirut geared up for a good time, having devoted a tragic amount of online research to ferreting out the best restaurants and bars on offer in the city once known as “the Paris of the East.” Giddy with excitement, we even splurged – wait for it – on a US$40 room. But it soon became clear we were little fish in a big pond, no longer in the truly developing world where even budget travellers are situated disproportionately at the top of the capitalist food chain. As it turns out, in Beirut $40 buys you nothing more than a windowless box with a seatless toilet and such proximity to a drum ‘n’ bass club that we could feel the vibrations through our pillows until 9:30 the next morning. I now feel like I have some insight into what it would be like to be a Guantanamo Bay inmate.
There’s a lot of money being thrown around in Beirut – the Lebanese are apparently notorious for living beyond their means. Ferraris and Land Rovers squeal around corners driven by preened trophy wives with pink spangly Blackberrys glued to their ears. A Filipino nanny seems to be the latest fashion accessory – restaurants advertise half-price meals for yours if you bring her along to mind the little darlings while you lunch – and you can buy Cohibas and Bombay Sapphire at the petrol station. For the first few days, I think we were actually labouring under a certain degree of culture shock. It’s easy to reject the trappings of consumerism when a) there’s nothing on offer that you want to buy, and b) you’re really just pretending that you don’t have much money, knowing that “you could call your dad and he’d stop it all” and you can waltz into the best establishments in town with impunity, solely by virtue of being foreign. It’s not so easy when turbo capitalism is in your face 24/7 and you’re just one of the crowd. For the first time in ages, we felt poor and shabby and it dealt a bit of a blow to our morale. That, and a night glued to the seatless toilet, care of whatever I ate that didn’t agree with me.
Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find a hotel that included toilet seats in the room rate and to learn to laugh at ourselves again. Reliably informed by Taste of Beirut, we set out for the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and had our spirits immediately lifted by homemade arak enthusiasts and the wares of Georgina the Tabbouleh Queen. Actually, if ever there was a case for the benefits of comfort eating, we made it as our mood was buoyed with each bite of everything we’d been missing (roast beef and caramelised beetroot sandwiches; sushi; 70% cocoa Lindt) and everything we quickly grew to love (Armenian spicy sausage; fattouch; anything with zaatar), all washed down with many glasses of crisp, chilled rose. Actually, that might have been what buoyed our mood. It certainly wasn’t my haircut, which I had been so looking forward to and was so disappointed by. Somewhat akin to the haircut I had when I was two years old, I now bear a remarkable resemblance to Julie Bishop.
Still, the way Beirut has risen like a phoenix from the ashes is undeniably impressive. The city’s nightlife is second-to-none – reservations essential at the rooftop clubs that have revellers dancing on the tabletops ’til dawn, sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean – although we could barely afford to sip a few glasses of cheap plonk in the dive-iest of Gemmayzeh’s bars; the renovated downtown area is superbly glamorous although the ghost-like shell of the nearby Holiday Inn, its walls riddled with bullet holes, belies its recent history. Wealthy Lebanese diaspora are returning in droves and we frequently heard American and Australian accents pop up in this comfortably trilingual city.
Thankfully, after a day of dodging Aston Martins and covering up religiously while everyone else on the beach slathers coconut oil on their bronzed, buff bodies, strolling along the Corniche at sunset is free.

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4 Responses to “what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut”

  1. lisaoneill Says:

    Hey Lindsay and Catie!!
    I thought you were in Asia until I read your blog, wow you guys are doing some fantastic travelling! Haha we would be so up for a rendez-vous/ice cream eating showdown… hopefully our paths cross! We are in Barcelona today, back to southern France tomorrow where we hope to hit up Nice for a couple nights then Sean will get bike loco in the French Alps… oh, how I’d love some company if you would come see us there as I will be a carbon-fibre/speed machine widow I imagine!
    We eventually will come back through Euro after brief week in London as of 12th August… email us your itinerary (if you have one!) kempers007@hotmail.com.
    Lisa and Sean xoxo

  2. Erin Bell Says:

    Hey dudes, its nice to know you pulled through the difficult time ok, I think those moments happen every now and then, as I’m sure you’re well used to by now.
    I spoke to your Mum the other day Linds, I asked if you guys had any plans to come home soon, and she laughed and said “They’re never coming home”. Although she did say that you had to come home briefly to get your working visa for the UK. I don’t see any reason for you to come home, Perth never changes, except there seems to be babies popping up all over the shop…and of course over there you can dodge the inevitable question “So I guess it’ll be your turn next?”
    But we miss you guys lots and can’t wait to see you when you do eventually come home!

  3. Kylie Says:

    Hi there you two travelling monkeys!

    I’ve just spent undeniably far too long getting lost in the stories of your adventures whilst I’m supposed to be working!

    I love ‘catching up on the goss’ from your blogs and I look forward to seeing you again on day somewhere on your colourful path. In an attempt to reciprocate ‘catching up’ I tried to think of something fun to tell you. Alas, I really have nothing interesting to report. My last adventure – 4 months in Vancouver – seems a very long time ago now, and I seem to forget the punchline endings that make my stories interesting…I’ll work on it and if I remember a good one, I’ll send you a belated adventure story of my own 🙂

    Anyway, happy August 2010!

    Until next time,

    Kylie xx

  4. AN Says:

    I want to see a photo of the Julie Bishop hair!

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