On my last day in Lebanon, we rented a car with plans to drive out of the city to a winery. Loraine had phoned the place and made an appointment for a tour, explaining that we’d be driving in from Beirut, and would be there at one.
At the surface, it sounds like a simple and doable plan: grab the map, head for a quick breakfast at Dar, walk seven minutes from Dar to the Corniche where Sixt was located, pick up the car, and drive off into the valley for a leisurely afternoon of wine tasting.
Misfortune struck moments after departing the hotel when we realized no one had thought to pack the map. Unconcerned – we could zip back with the rental and grab it later – we headed toward Dar, which we’d been told was next door to Cle. Only it wasn’t.
By the time we actually located Dar, which involved some trekking and a phone call to Eric, we rounded the corner to find it closed. Disappointed, we trudged back toward Paul, but settled instead at a place called Let’s Eat, which surprised us all with delicious and healthy salads. My little plastic bowl was packed to the brim with quinoa, cracked wheat, feta, beets, and seeds.
Loraine had been scanning her phone at one point when she looked up, half-panicked and half-ashamed.
“What?” I asked.
“I think I’ve made a mistake. I don’t think the Sixt location is on the Corniche at all.”
“They told me on the phone that their location was the Corniche and Mazra,” I stated.
“Yes. That’s not the Corniche.”
There was a puzzled pause.
“Well that’s confusing,” said Sally.
Determined to get to the winery – it was nearly one by now – we hopped in a service car and sped off to Sixt. There, we encountered a woman who was quite possibly the most unpleasant person in Lebanon.
Laina was designated car rental correspondent, partially due to the fact that she’d be doing most of the driving and partially because Laina is a bright, delightful girl who I imagine it would be difficult to dislike. Apparently, though, even Laina’s charms could not thaw this woman’s heart.
Bitter and unhappy, the woman seemed to regard us with the animosity reserved for a neighbor whose poodle had freed itself from the yard, again, and was enjoying a long and relaxing dump in the vegetable garden while staring at her through the window. It was as if we had walked through her front door – not the door to Sixt – and demanded she answer a number of questions regarding her own car and whether or not we could take it for a drive around the neighborhood.
Everything was a battle with her:
“You have 150 kilometers per day,” she stated flatly, content with the information and certain that no questions could possibly be posed regarding this fact.
“How much is it if we go over the kilometers?” Laina asked pleasantly.
“Twenty-two cents a kilometer.” A reply, and a glare.
“Okay, well…we were hoping to drive to Byblos today as well.” This Laina phrased with the polite intonation of a person who is hoping for some more information regarding how far it might be to Byblos, a fact that more amiable car service hosts would probably divulge eagerly. (Perhaps I’m being unfair to her, as my last car rental clerk was a very upbeat, friendly Irishman in Dublin who viewed our ineptitude with more amusement than disdain.)
“So…do you have any idea how far that is?”
“OK…or maybe an idea of how much extra it might cost?”
“See, it’s twenty-two cents a kilometer. So…”
Loraine pulled out her cell phone and began calculating the distance between Beirut and Byblos. We had told her not to speak, as she had apparently ticked the woman off over the phone earlier and we didn’t want her Scottish accent recognized. Sally sat beside her, seething quietly.
After some difficulty with payment plans – $60 and a $500 security deposit to be refunded in fifteen days or $75 and a $100 security deposit – Laina explained that she would pay for the deposit by card and the car in cash. She handed the woman a one hundred dollar bill, and the woman shuffled some papers for a moment.
“Where’s the hundred? Where’s your money?” she snapped after misplacing the bill.
“I just gave it to you.”
“No. I don’t have it.”
She shuffled some more papers and recovered it without so much as an apology.
“Could we get our change in dollars?” Laina asked as the woman opened the till.
We were as happy to get rid of the woman as she was to rid herself of us, but the interaction had soured our spirits a bit. Outside, Loraine and Laina followed a much more helpful employee named Michael around the car while Sally smoked a much-needed cigarette on the sidewalk. Loraine set up an exciting playlist, we piled into the car, and headed off.
It would be acceptable, at least in my opinion, for any of us to have spent the ride to the winery brooding a bit over the negative interaction, but I will take this moment to remind the reader that I was traveling with some of the most laid back people I’ve met in my life. I mean that.
For example, as Laina pulled out of the dealership and was nearly sideswiped by a car, she swore delicately and continued on.
“If you’re calm, I’m calm,” she told us, and we all agreed we could be calm. Her road rage was a point of entertainment throughout the journey, because the aggressive words she was saying did not quite match their agreeable delivery.
“Oh look,” she’d call out, as if spotting a butterfly. “Another asshole not sure which lane to pick, so he rides in two.” She’d then happily tap on the horn, and with a smile, tell him to foxtrot off and we’d continue onward.
Sally, who had been fuming earlier, was a picture of ease. Later that evening, I found out exactly how at ease Sally can be. We were standing at an ATM, in need of more cash to supply our cocktail consumption around the corner at Bedivere, when Sally suddenly looked at me.
“Oh,” she remarked. “My card has been retained.”
“What?” I said, panic rising. “You can’t get it back? Can you press cancel? Will it give you your cash??”
“Doesn’t look like it.” She shrugged. “Nothing I can do about it. Let’s go back to the bar.”
I literally followed her back with my jaw dragging along the road after me. I have seen people completely lose it over an ATM eating their card. There are frantic phone calls to the bank’s emergency hotline. There are usually tears. There is sometimes human-machine violence. But Sally strode off with cheerful indifference.
These were the kinds of people I was dealing with, and I wanted to prove myself to be as carefree as them, so as we headed down the highway using Loraine’s phone as a map and I felt a terrible urge to urinate, I held it in. After all, it was selfish of me; I’d challenged myself to drink three liters of water a day for four weeks, and I was doing quite well. But it would have probably been prudent of me to save the water for later, when I was not up for a thirty minute car journey.
Then I realized that it was not about to be thirty minutes at all. We’d spent the past half an hour turning off of major roads and navigating rocky, uphill mountain paths that terminated suddenly in a villa driveway in the middle of nowhere. Each time the GPS delivered us to the roadway we needed, we found it blocked off. At one point, we arrived at an army checkpoint.
“We’re going through Chtaura!” we cried out to a tower guard. He pointed south, which conflicted with the directions we had for a winery.
Another man offered to bring us there, as long as we’d give him a ride in our car.
Undaunted, we proceeded onward alone, until we reached a very small place known as Ain Dara. By this time, my bladder was bursting, and we felt hopelessly lost. Sally went off to flex her Arabic and ask for directions, while I proceeded down the single street in search of a toilet.
To call Ain Dara a town would be very generous. Instead, I’ll paint a picture: imagine a dusty street with a few shops on either side, maybe an old west saloon where gritty outlaws meet for the occasional duel. Then put the street in the middle of nowhere. That’s Ain Dara.
I had to use the toilet badly, but Ain Dara did not have toilets, so I slunk back to the car to cross my legs in the backseat just as Sally hopped in next to me.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
Unable to speak, we stared at her expectantly.
“The good news is that we can get to the winery. The bad news is that Chtaura is closed, and that’s the city we have to drive through to get there, so we’ll have to take a really long road around.”
“It’s closed? How can it be closed?”
My urge to pee vanished. The only reason the town would be closed, I thought with certainty, was Hezbollah. Militants operating near the town, whose borders we had apparently just passed. As Laina turned the car around and we left the strip of road for barren wasteland, I squirmed in the backseat.
“Do you think there are signs that say things like, ‘You’re entering Hezbollah territory?’” I asked, eyeing the empty hills around us.
While it was mildly hectic at the time, I will say that none of us felt truly threatened, and the trip was about to take an upswing. We found a toilet shortly after, and decided to scrap the winery and go to Byblos instead. When we called to cancel our tour, we passed the phone to Sally to get a clearer picture of what was going on.
“They knew Chtaura was closed. They said it’s been closed for two weeks, but they assumed we were coming with a driver who knew the roundabout route.”
This seemed like a gross assumption, but we headed on with Byblos in mind, until Loraine’s phone died. Trapped in a traffic standstill in Beirut, Sally and I hopped out of the car at a bookstore, purchased two paper maps, and we slowly trudged onward toward the coastal road. Still unsure of where we were going, we were startled when a man on a motorbike pulled alongside us and asked if he could help us get somewhere.
With all of the kindness the Sixt woman desperately lacked, he led us to the coastal road and waved goodbye. As I turned to glimpse him one last time out of the back window, I noticed his shirt had the word “Lifesaver” printed on it in yellow. I wondered if perhaps he saved stranded tourists on his days off.
And so, with very little hassle, we made it to Byblos just as the sun was sinking toward the horizon. We settled on a very tasty marine-themed restaurant called Pepe’s Fishing Club, perched on the harbor with a generous view of the Mediterranean and a swaying Lebanese flag standing proudly atop some ruins. Dinner was mezza and grilled white tuna, and we all indulged in much-needed libations.
At one point, two women in a car we had encountered on the drive to town – both of us lost trying to find Byblos, both trying to communicate this through car windows – strolled in and occupied the table behind us. Excited to see them, we got to talking and inevitably told them where we were from.
“America?” they replied, alarmed. “You’re very brave coming here!”
“We actually live in Cairo.”
“Oh,” they said, visibly relieved. “Yes, Cairo is more dangerous.”
I’m still not sure what that means, or why it is brave to visit Lebanon, but as we sped back to Hamra along the coast, bright lights pinpricking the hills around us and promising one last night of exposed legs, strong drinks, and bass-heavy beats, I was glad that we’d been brave. Very glad.