KADISHA VALLEY, LEBANON — First, we wait for the wind. We sat down on the edge of a mountaintop. The air was still. We were harnessed in to a large parasail wing, spread out on the rock behind us. It would be first time running off the side of a mountain in the belief that a sail would carry me. I expected to be afraid and I sat there looking out over the valley waiting for the fear to come in.
Instead, I saw below me the olive trees and apple orchards. I saw large patches of purple wildflowers spilling down the valley. And I saw the Cedars of God — the oldest cedars in the world, some of them thousands of years distant and mentioned in the Bible.
Without warning, the wind came. It grabbed the sail and everyone around me started yelling, “Run! Run!” Something about the yelling, the whoosh of the sail, the disorientation of being 6,000 of miles from home, there was no time to think or feel. I ran. One, two, three steps and suddenly there was no ground below me for a fourth footfall.
There was a moment of shock and then a deep exhale into the quiet of flying. The weight of Lebanon fell away — all the suffering we had witnessed, all the heaviness of history in this place that has always been inhabited, all of it let go of me for a moment as I looked down at the cedars.
Over the years, I’ve been to so many places that are the object of famous photographs. And as you stand there, looking up at the famous trees of Madagascar or the bears catching salmon over the waterfall in Alaska, you notice the angle of the photos. And you see the things that everyone crops out. The railings and signage and T-shirt stands are cropped out. The other tourists don’t make the photo.
Next to the house that Grant Wood painted into the background of American Gothic, there are trailers. But I’ve never seen them in any photograph and I didn’t include them in mine either.
So I was surprised when I looked down at the famous Cedars of God to see that there weren’t many left. There was a small patch in the lap of the valley, preserved inside a fence to be admired from a series of walking trails full of other people.
No photo I had seen showed what centuries of shipping cedar to the rest of the world has done. The surrounding hills are brown and bare, which makes the survival of one 3,000-year-old tree in the mist all the more magical.
There’s effort underway to reforest the cedars. You can see the lines of them taking root, visible from the air.
The wind started to let go of us and we turned toward an open field to land.
As quickly as it started, the flight was over. One foot landed and then the other. I ran a few steps and then stopped. Gravity pulled at the harness on my shoulders and I unclipped it. It fell to the ground. The earth held onto me. I felt the clumsiness of my own body again, resenting each plodding footfall because now I knew what it felt like to fly.
When I planned this summer trip, jumping off a mountain and flying over the Cedars of God was going to be a big adventure of our two weeks there. Every adventure needs an arc and I placed it in the middle, thinking it would be the crux of our story — the thing we would anticipate until it happened and then the thing we would celebrate in the days after.
But no life and no trip can be so easily constructed.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen and what you’ll remember when you visit a place like Lebanon. This is the land of Canaan, after all. This is the place I grew up reading about in the margins of the Bible. They say Jonah is buried here. They say Paul slept here on his way to Rome. They say Jesus performed a miracle on that hillside.
Why go to Lebanon?
Lebanon sounds like generators, as people have long stopped relying on the official electrical grid. It sounds like the insect buzz of heat as the sun beats down on the rocks and sand next to the turquoise sea. It sounds like men yelling the names and prices of vegetables in the market.
It tastes like the pool of local olive oil poured over hummus made fresh that morning. And like coffee strong enough that it leaves grounds in the bottom of your cup, just enough for the woman who poured it for you to look down and tell your future.
I came to Lebanon in search of a life lesson. The Lebanese people are famous for their resiliency. They are known for their hunger for living. Despite the fact that the word Beirut has become shorthand for a place that is battered, the reputation is that Lebanese people gather despite it all for long tables of the best food you will have anywhere in the world. They party late into the warm Mediterranean night.
After shaking off the scales of the pandemic, emerging from a couple stressful years, I was hoping to understand how they could do it — enjoy life even as the walls crumble.
But how much can a people take? How much forgiveness and resilient joy can we demand of the Lebanese people — a port explosion, a global pandemic and a brutal economic crisis? Hyperinflation has robbed the currency of 90 percent of its value and regulations designed to right-size the banks have put a cap on monthly withdrawals, no matter how much money you have.
There have been stories in the past few weeks about desperate people robbing banks for their own money and becoming folk heroes.
As I read the stories from here, I felt so much compassion for the Lebanese people. It’s something I might not have been able to feel if I hadn’t been there. And it’s what makes traveling to complicated places worth doing. (In order to travel safely, I worked with James Wilcox at Untamed Borders to find a guide and driver.)
A place is so much more than the headlines about it. Even during a war, people buy bread.
After years of war and crisis, Lebanese people still gather in the evening by the sea in Beirut — swimming and fishing, sharing food and smoking. But I also caught a glimpse of a man sitting on the steps of a gutted building one afternoon, and the look on his face was so empty, a boredom that passed through sadness and anger years ago.
In search of dinner
After we left Beirut, our first stop was Baalbek.
The Palmyra Hotel in the center of that town is the glamour of black-and-white movies. It feels like Casablanca — a place tucked in a corner of the world where adventurers and artists and those running from something find themselves.
It was an easy place to let my imagination wander because my friend Suzanne Pollak and I were the only guests. Perhaps because it’s not too far from the Syrian border. Perhaps because it’s the kind of place where yellow Hezbollah T-shirts and flags hang for sale on roadside stands. Or perhaps because the economic crisis and years of war and bad press have simply made this part of the world uninviting to tourists looking for a first big trip abroad after years of being locked away by the global pandemic.
Whatever the reason, we found ourselves as the lone tourists at the Palmyra.
We were greeted by an older man who had the carriage of a man who cared about every aspect of hospitality. He held a silver tray with glasses of freshly made cherry juice to welcome us.
And once I was in my room, he came to the door with a bowl of almonds — still in the green fuzzy shell, just picked from a tree. He pushed open the French doors onto the balcony and showed me my view. Across the street, as empty as the hotel, were the Roman ruins of the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Bacchus, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On the wall of my room was a framed letter from Jean Cocteau, who had stayed there. And his signature was painted on the wall. It deepened that feeling that this was a place to settle in, one of those international hotels where novels are written.
As evening fell, Suzanne and I ventured out to find some dinner. We were surprised to see the streets of downtown were empty. Metal doors were pulled down and locked over businesses.
The only place that was open was an outdoor garden full of men smoking water pipes.
The place grew silent as we walked in.
The garden was lit by fluorescent bulbs, the kind of white light that is flattering to no one. The ceiling was a trellis of grape vines that formed a covering from the heat of the day and from the dark of the night. A white cat paced the floor in hopes something would fall or a hand would reach down for a head rub. The men occupied a corner, smoking and waiting for the other men to show up after dinner for a night of cards and backgammon and relief from the pressures of the day found in the silence of each other’s company.
It was the ultimate clean, well-lighted place, and the least likely place for two American women to show up asking for something to eat.
The lights buzzed and gave the place a strange atmosphere that was both brightly lit and private.
We sat down at a table in the opposite corner from the men and waited.
I’ve been taking Arabic lessons since the beginning of the year, but my vocabulary and grammar made me sound like a demanding toddler with little understanding of concepts beyond food and water.
The waiter was a teenage boy who was embarrassed when I approached him. I asked if they had food. He said no. I asked if they had water. He said yes. I asked if they had backgammon. They did.
And so Suzanne and I accepted that we would sit in the corner of a man’s cafe, drinking water and playing backgammon.
The only sound in the cafe came from our dice and the clapping of stone pieces moving across the wooden backgammon board. We did not belong in this place. We were interrupting the hours that men spend together away from home. And so, when a man approached our table, I assumed he was asking us to leave.
Instead, in Arabic, he asked if we were hungry. He asked what we wanted to eat. And I threw out some words describing food and he said something about “10 minutes.” He disappeared into the street.
We continued to play backgammon and the men around us started to relax and the hum of conversation returned to the garden.
We sipped our water. The cat curled up at our feet.
The man returned with two Pepsis in glass bottles and one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Roasted chicken and the rice soaked with drippings. Hummus and eggplant. Yogurt and olive oil. Tomatoes and feta. Warm pita. And a pile of French fries.
The men seemed happy that we were eating and the cat waited for some chicken to drop.
The sun went down and the bright white lights overhead cast everything in sharp, shadowless detail. The air was humid and warm.
The tender chicken fell off the bones. We laughed with relief as we savored the dish.
An ancient game
Backgammon is a 5,000-year-old game. For all those years, it has done for others what it did for me that night.
After we had eaten all our chicken and fed the cat a little pile of scraps, the man who delivered our meal came back. Without a word, he started setting up the backgammon board across the table from me and handed me one dice to roll to see who would go first.
He had the highest roll, so he started the game.
The wooden board had high sides and at each turn he turned his wrist to the side and threw the dice fast across the board. The sound and the speed added an urgency to the game. And with each move, he slammed the pieces down.
It was obvious he played every day, many times a day. And just like everything in Lebanon, that game felt like it held a thread of all the games that had been played in that country for thousands of years in this very place.
The wonderful thing about any game — a card game, a board game, two people across the tennis court from each other — language doesn’t matter as much. You don’t have to talk, because competition has its own vocabulary.
We laughed and stretched the boundaries of the Arabic I knew to communicate a few things, but mostly we played.
He showed me to hold some pieces back instead of rushing to get them all home. He showed what to keep covered and when to take a risk and he told me how to stack my pieces up to create the biggest challenge for an opponent. He did all of that without speaking.
Years ago, I read a great book about the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. It is learned silently by repeating the motions of the master, over and over. Ever since then, I’ve thought about knowledge that is passed wordlessly — one generation to the next, one culture to the next.
We were having such a good time that we set up the board for a second game and then a third.
At the end of the night, he didn’t offer to walk us home and no one said goodbye as we walked out of the tea garden. We had been welcomed there and were not welcome.
We walked home down the dark, empty streets back to the Palmyra, pleased with ourselves for having achieved something so simple as finding food.
And as we looked back on our trip, we rarely talked about how it felt to jump off the mountain, but we always talked about that night and that meal.
I think about how a travel is what happens when you are on the road, but it is just as much what happens before and after. It’s the months of language lessons and planning. And it’s the echo that follows you after. Like the backgammon games we continue to play on the board I bought in Baalbek.
I now throw my dice with my wrist turned sideways, tossing them fast against the side of the board. I bought a set of stone game pieces in a souk stall in Tripoli to go with my board. They are in a blue velvet box with a tag that says “Made in Syria.” They make a great sound when I slam them down with each move.
The holy valley
Our next step was the Kadisha Valley.
Kadisha means holy in Aramaic. The holy valley. It smells like olive trees growing out of dry, rocky ground. It’s a world of caves and other hidden places where people have been coming for thousands of years to be alone and pray. To enter, you walk down steps that switch back and forth, opening the canyon for a moment so you can see the beautiful world you are entering and then pressing you tight against the wall. The steps are stones placed by hand over the years by and for pilgrims coming to see this holy place.
As you descend, you see a cave high in a cliff and you remember that early Christians came here and lived in the walls of this place — for safety and for spiritual solitude.
Deep in the canyon, the steps disappear and turn into a clear path. The first stop is the home of a hermit, living alone in this valley in the Maronite tradition.
The hermit who lives there now is a retired theology professor from Colombia, who decided he wanted to live the last years of his life as a hermit in Lebanon. Father Dario Escobar, now in his late-80s, has been a hermit in the Maronite tradition in this valley for more than 20 years.
According to a National Geographic interview with Escobar, he had to wait 10 years in Lebanon after presenting himself with the desire to be a hermit there. In those years, he proved his commitment and received the blessing of the church to live a hermit’s life at Our Lady of Hawqa Monastery.
According to the hermetic tradition, he spends 14 hours in prayer. He eats what he grows, what he finds or what he is given. People bring him food some days. He gives them a blessing and asks the football scores.
When we arrived at his home, marked by a wooden door in the side of the mountain, he was not home.
Instead of hiking on, we sat for a moment in the shade of a tree nearby. There was a stone statue of Mary tucked inside a small alcove in the rock.
The woman who was our guide into the valley told us of a day she talked to him. She spoke of the pain in her life and asked for his blessing. He told her to pray for the burden to be lifted, and if it was not, she must accept and embrace the suffering.
Suzanne and I looked at each other. That morning, we sat on the deck of our hotel, looking out over the mountains. I had with me a copy of Khalil Gibran’s book of poems. He grew up in this area and I bought the book so we could read his descriptions of his home as we walked to add a layer to our experience of it.
As we drank our tea, I read aloud the poem called “On Pain.”
“Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.”
It was the theme of the day, first the poem and now the memories of our guide.
We hiked on, deeper into the canyon.
The trail is on a continuum of time and tradition.
It’s also part of a trail, built not so long ago, that runs from the north to the south of the entire country.
The Lebanon Mountain Trail is 290 miles and twice a year the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association organizes through-hikes of the entire thing — for your bucket list.
And if you have a bucket list of amazing places, if you enjoy the awe that comes from visiting jewel box cities like Dubrovnik and Venice but don’t enjoy the crowds, let me introduce you to Sidon. This city is everything I imagined travel would be when I first ventured out into the world.
Imagine wandering down the narrow streets of this walled city. Men are shouting the prices of meat, butchered this morning. Fresh caught fish from the sea are laid out on tables. The walls on both sides of the street rise up, so there’s only a little sunlight that pours down in a stream, shining a spotlight on the men pushing toward the doorway of a baker who has a fresh batch of bread.
The call to prayer fills the mid-morning air and pauses the action for a moment as shop keepers pray and then in a blink everything resumes, loud and frenetic.
It’s a maze of tunnels and alleys. Down one there are shops selling gold bracelets and earrings by weight. Look long enough and you see the women are selling, not buying — a humiliation of the economic collapse.
We have commodified tribes — paying them to dance for us and make us jewelry that we buy off a blanket on the ground. We have turned half the world into trinket shops and package tours and Instagram angel wings.
Half the traveled world is just a reproduction of what once was.
And so, we you see something that is still itself, it’s hard to believe.
Sidon is still itself. We haven’t ruined it yet.
It’s the place I always imagined as a child when I pictured myself wandering the world.
It smells like sheep guts warming in the sun and fish, cigarette smoke, and brewing coffee and sweat and perfume. It feels like the stone streets, worn to a shine by foot traffic for thousands of years. It looks like graffiti written in Arabic across ancient stone walls. It sounds like a thousand voices — the vendor describing the catch of the day, the women arguing over the price of tomatoes, and men sliding their feet back into shoes after an hour of prayer at the mosque. It sounds like three boys squatting close to the ground on a side street, playing a game with two wooden balls tied together by string. It tastes like a busy cafe serving falafel and salty yogurt drink. It tastes like soft candy just made by a man stirring a vat of hot liquid sugar. And as you eat the candy, you listen to the woman who tells you that there is a shrine inside St. Nicholas Orthodox Church right behind her where Paul and Peter are said to have met. (Acts 27:3)
We wandered the alleys and side streets and cut through tunnels. I stopped in a shop full of copper trays and bowls and pitchers. Most of it was covered in dust because who has the extra money to spend these days to buy something decorative. I found a small pot in the corner, used and used for how many years in someone’s kitchen. The handle had been replaced at some point with a bent piece of metal. I bought it, and two copper finger bowls for spices, and two copper bowls meant for drinking coffee. The little pot sits on my back burner of my stove now, the crooked handle hanging over the word Miele. And I bring out the little copper cups when I serve pistachios at cocktail hour — one for the shells. Because, that is travel, too — the years spent with the things you brought back and the way you can still picture the man’s face when you decided not to barter over the $20 he asked for all of it.
The small alleys of Sidon opened up onto a square. A few young men in white T-shirts and jeans stood under a tree in one corner. We sat at a table and drank tea. The second story above the shops all around the square were the balconies of apartments and from most of them hung Palestinian flags.
I had seen shops that morning selling “I love Palestine” bracelets and seeing the flags I realized how many of the people from the day were not Lebanese, but refugees from across the nearby borders. Like the Tibetans in Nepal, they have been here long enough to have built whole new lives and to have become interwoven with the place — welcome or not.
As we walked out of the walled city, I saw a vegetable stand and the burlap cloth hanging over it as a sun shade had the faded word UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency stamped in blue.
Life is short
This year, I have learned that life is short. And when that idea started to scare me, a friend taught me that time is elastic and you can make a minute last for a very long time and by stretching out the minutes, you stretch out the days and the years. And life becomes long again.
This trip to Lebanon was the first time I traveled with someone. I had always worried that having a travel companion would take something away from the adventure. Instead, as we drove into Lebanon late at night with the windows rolled down and the warm sea air on our faces, I looked at my friend and I realized what a selfish thing it is to keep the world to yourself. And what a gift it is to share it with someone.
On one of our last days in Lebanon, we walked through the streets of Tripoli and decided to stop on the sidewalk for a cup of tea. It wasn’t the most beautiful place to stop, but we decided to take it all in as a way to stretch out the minutes.
We sat in our white plastic chairs and I asked her, “What will you always remember about this place?”
And we went about naming everything we could see and would never forget.
The man placing a sign on top of a pile of apricots he was selling.
The two soldiers standing feet away with guns hanging from their shoulders.
The top floor of a building. There was no glass in the window but a grey-and-white curtain still hung in the frame blowing out into the street and back in again.
Plastic tea cups gathered in a windblown drift against the tire of a bicycle.
A man washed his hands under a faucet next to the mosque.
The walls of every building were obscured by a cobweb of electrical wires.
Nearby, a man sat with a cigarette burning between his fingers as he flipped the pages of a book. He wore white socks and leather loafers with the heels folded his feet so he could slip them on and off. On a stool next to him were two empty coffee cups, a sign that he had been there long before we came and would be there long after we left.
A few days ago, I asked Suzanne what she remembered of that sidewalk in Tripoli. Could she conjure up every detail the way I could? Yes, she said. I remember those curtains.