Solo Travel in Middle East 2019
It was probably the perfect time to go though; before I could comprehend what had happened.
I honestly don’t remember leaving my house, the plane being deiced, or the flights.
I remember listening to a lot of Low and Red House Painters, because it was the only music that sounded good.
I also remember being sure I wouldn’t be able to complete my planned itinerary.
I was sure I would be coming home early.
It was raining when I arrived in Beirut.
It had been 28 hours since I left home.
One of the things my dad always found amazing was how nice places were hidden behind shitty façades in some foreign countries.
He wouldn’t have wanted to get out of the cab at my Airbnb in Beirut, but he would have been shaking his head in amazement once we got inside.
I met the owner, cracked a beer, and watched the rain from the balcony before crashing on the couch.
I couldn’t be bothered with getting myself to the bedroom.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, my brother lives in Vermont! Lots of snow. Would you like to buy a Hezbollah shirt? It’s only 5,000 LBP”
It was still storming in Beirut, so I decided to call my driver and head to Baʿalbek .
We drove over snow-capped mountains (sea level to 4,000 ft. in a half hour) and into the Beqaa Valley (aka ‘Hezbollah heartland’).
The ruins are in the middle of the town of the same name, in a place that has been inhabited for 9,000 years.
I had the entire site to myself. I’m not sure if that’s because I was early, or because of the travel advisories (which everyone assured me were unnecessary), but it was amazing to just wander around in silence.
The only issue with being the only tourist is the street vendors and shop owners were a little desperate…hence trying to sell an American a $3.00 Hezbollah t-shirt.
I did a tour and tasting at Chateau Ksara on the way back to Beirut and, amazingly enough, I found myself alone there too. It was a cool spot, with a wine cellar dating back to Roman times. The cellar was discovered when Jesuit monks chased a fox down into it. They widened the space during WWI, when families took refuge from the Ottomans. Now it holds over a million bottles of wine.
“Beirut has a lot of churches and mosques. People like to pray a lot before they go out and steal.”
“You my first customer from the U.S. You are like a man from a movie…the bad guy”
(laughs hysterically, sees I’m a little uncomfortable, apologizes until I’m laughing with him.)
“Are you Muslim?”
“Why you go to see mosque?”
“Architecture, culture, history”
“Oh. I don’t like. I don’t like old stuff. I like the new things.”
War-torn, hollowed-out, wood and steel carcasses stand in the shadows of modern skyscrapers.
Cranes dominate the skyline, as optimistic investors keep building.
UN helicopters fly overhead in service of millions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees residing in cities within the city.
Hezbollah recruits the disenfranchised to fight Iran’s proxy war in Syria,
while Uber drivers and restauranteurs try to forget ‘the old’ in favor of ’the new’.
It was weird being an American in a country where a good portion of the population sees the U.S. as the enemy,
but everyone I met was friendly and welcoming (if not a little surprised).
I feel like I did quite a bit with my short time there.
I also feel like I slept a lot, for the first time in over a month.
Staying busy and sleeping were both good for me.
Overall, it was a good first stop on my first visit to the Middle East.
Nothing was as I expected it to be, which is exactly what I expected.
But I couldn’t fly directly to Israel from Lebanon (they are not friends) and I figured I’d take advantage of having to go through Turkey.
It took 2 hours to get to the “old Europe” area from the airport on the Asian side. The Blue Mosque was open, but they were renovating, so it almost wasn’t worth seeing. The Grand Bazaar was interesting for the first thousand or so jewelry shops, but then it got claustrophobic. The spice market was colorful, but a bit much to handle after a while.
Hagia Sophia was amazing though. Once a Greek Orthodox cathedral, then an Ottoman imperial mosque, it is now a museum and probably the only place Mary, Jesus, Mohammad, and Allah live side-by-side in harmony. Extremely cool place, but I was done with tourist stuff pretty quickly, so I asked my day-tour guide if we could cut the itinerary short and just grab some food, walk some local neighborhoods, and talk about real shit.
So that’s what we did.
We talked about his car accident last year and we talked about my dad and my family back home.
We ate chicken skewers in a bubbling tomato sauce paired with some sort of yogurt drink. We drank potent Turkish coffee followed by Turkish tea.
Then we took a 15-minute ferry ride from Europe to Asia, before he headed home, and I got in the van back to the airport.
It was stupid to think I could really experience Istanbul in a single day…but hell, I’ve had worse Wednesdays.
Woke up missing Dad in Jerusalem. Had a small breakdown and then went out to explore one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been in.
I’m not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, but there’s no denying the power (and tension) in a place like Jerusalem…even if that power (and tension) only comes from what people believe about the place.
The extreme importance of the city to the three major monotheistic religions makes it one of the most unique areas I’ve ever found myself. I felt safe the entire time, but it was obvious things could pop off at any time.
I walked in the footsteps of Jesus (Via Dolorosa) and watched people kiss the stone his body is believed to have been washed on.
I watched people stand in line for hours to spend a few seconds in what is believed to have been his tomb.
I joined Jews in placing a note in the Western (Wailing) Wall.
I spent an hour at Temple Mount, where I saw a Muslim man go crazy because two tourists kissed each other…and where I saw Hasidic Jews be forcefully pushed back from the stairs by heavily armed men.
Then I ate some good hummus, bought my daughter a toy camel, and cabbed a few miles to a giant concrete wall.
I crossed that wall into Bethlehem (and into Palestinian territory) before the sun went down.
The wall in the West Bank is one of his major canvases; the elimination of the wall is one of his major causes.
Built in secret as an art installation, The Walled Off Hotel boasts “the Worst View in the World”, with each room looking out on the wall. It has since been handed over to a handful of Palestinian families to run. It includes a hotel, dorm-type hostel, bar, small restaurant, art gallery, museum, and a sister store called Wall Mart that sells spray paint, stencils, and rents ladders for use in tagging the wall.
I booked Banksy’s suite for the night. It was hand-decorated by the man himself.
Walking into West Bank is like entering a prison. Lots of concrete and wire. Once in, it’s your average, chaotic border town. Bethlehem isn’t exactly how the Bible explains it anymore.
The hotel is literally right across from a heavily graffitied part of the wall that dominates the town in the area.
I entered the lobby. An old-fashioned bar, Banksy original art, and a self-playing piano (playing original compositions from Trent Reznor, Brian Eno, Jehnny Beth, etc.) greeted me. After a complimentary drink and more logistics than the average hotel, I was shown to my room; though a secret door behind a bookcase that opened when I waived my key across a statue’s chest.
The room was beautiful. The view was ugly, but amazing just the same.
This wall is not along any Green Line. It surrounds Rachel’s Tomb and resides on Palestinian land. Hearing it from their side, the concrete structure is there to make the locals feel like they live in a prison. It is purely symbolic. 5,000-6,000 Palestinians illegally cross the actual Green Line to work every day. The wall isn’t about security; it is about something else entirely.
I booked a day tour of Bethlehem and the Aida Refugee Camp. Yamen was an amazing guide and wasn’t afraid to be brutally honest about the Palestinian situation, even regarding how none of it would be possible without the support of the United States.
I’m not exaggerating when I say my short time in Palestine (a country that doesn’t really exist) is something I will never forget a single minute of. I won’t get on a political soapbox (even though it sickens me when I realize my tax dollars are supporting some of the things I saw), but you’d have to be a special kind of human being not to feel for what has happened to the Palestinians.
There are 6,000 people living in the camp that was built for hundreds, not thousands.
They say the U.N. stands for United Nothing.
The land the camp resides on is leased for 99 years. In 30 years, they could be displaced and in tents again.
I’ve read so much about the Middle East over the years, and I know both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have committed atrocities against each other, but I don’t know if I’d ever met a Palestinian before. I’ve met many now.
I met kids who were learning ‘beautiful resistance’ via theatre, dance, cooking, and music.
And I saw the tear gas canisters on the roof of their school.
I met people who risked everything to speak out against their “occupiers”.
Children would run up just to say hi and giggle, without asking for a thing. Old men would come up and shake my hand for no reason other than be friendly.
These people are not terrorists.
These are people without citizenship or passports. They will never take their families to the beach, even though the sea is less than an hour away, because it is on the other side of a wall.
A lot people don’t want to learn about the walls and the occupation. They don’t want to visit refugee camps.
They just want to see where He was born. They want to crawl down into that hole and touch the star marking the spot of birth…and maybe take a photo of the manger.
I’m glad I did more than that.
I’m glad Yamen shared the story of his people, took me to an original Banksy stenciled on the side of a gas station car wash, and blasted Drake and that ‘yalla yalla’ song while speeding down the backroads to the Saba Monastery.
Lots of cafes with outdoor seating. Fashionable young people strolling, biking, and scootering (is that a word?) along the shoreline. Families having picnics while the sun sets over the sea.
Most Palestinians will never see this place.
My driver up to Tel Aviv was in his mid-20s. His family is from Jerusalem, so he can cross the security barriers, but he is not a citizen. We were driving down an Israeli-only highway running through the West Bank, with fences and barbed-wire surrounding us on both sides, when I asked him what he thought the future held for his people. He said the Arab world is more interested in relationships with Israel now and that the settlements would continue until there was no more room for the Palestinians. He thinks the Palestinian cause is lost and the future will see his people erased from the world.
To hear that from someone I could see myself having a beer with was beyond words.
It is weird to say Palestine was a highlight of my trip, but it was. The reason I travel is to see places and interact with people I would have never understood otherwise. I can’t claim to be an expert because I read some books and spent a couple days somewhere, but I feel like there would be a lot less conflict if more people did the same.
Tel Aviv was hard to enjoy after Bethlehem and Aida Camp, which is probably why they won’t let most Israelis visit the West Bank.
If I’m ever here again, I will pick a different hotel; specifically a hotel that doesn’t have critters crawling around and a room that isn’t next to a minaret where the call to prayer blasts me out of bed at 4:30am.
I had literally just put on my headphones when my driver informed me we should stop to see an old church with cool mosaics. I was a little annoyed because I’d seen enough old churches, but I went along.
We were stopped by a shop-owner in the town of Madaba while walking up to the church. He was handing out baklava samples and I decided to go in to buy some cashews and almonds.
Mosaics of Leonard and Dylan met me in the shop. Those were the only two items on the walls of the entire place.
I know it was just a coincidence, but it shook me a bit. Seriously, what are the chances?
After Madaba, I hit Mt Nebo (where Moses gazed out on the Promised Land and may be buried), went down to the lowest land on Earth and floated in the salty Dead Sea (which is 34% salt and isn’t really a sea at all), and visited Karak Castle.
After walking 30,424 steps, 12 1/2 miles, and climbing 153 flights of stairs in a single day, I will say Petra was painful.
I will also say it exceeded expectations.
The history of the place is up for debate, but it’s old. Real old. The sheer magnitude of the place almost hurt my brain. From the second you exit the Siq and see The Treasury, until you walk out of the complex on shaky legs and aching feet, your mind is blown.
I joined a tour group so I would have people to camp with at Wadi Rum later. I became friends with the guide, Hasem, and one of the Canadians in the group. We were the only ones who went to drink at Cave Bar each night. The local guides love Cave Bar. It’s expensive, even by U.S. standards, and the drinks aren’t great. They love it though…because of the Argentinean singer. They were all in love with her. For good reason.
One night, after a heated discussion with Hasem’s cousin about the Israeli occupation (his grandfather’s farm was taken by Russian Jews), we saw a bar fight. Two guys were carrying a drunk guy to his car. They tried to get him into the passenger seat and he started swinging. Before we knew what was happening, a bunch of guys came out swinging. Bottles smashed off the windshield of the car…one guy jumped on the roof…it was chaos. Then the cops came and the car took off. I have no clue who was driving. Hasem explained no one would be arrested. There is civil law and tribal law in Jordan…and tribal law always trumps civil law.
All my time in the Middle East, that was the only violence I saw.
Camping wasn’t really camping; it was sleeping in huts the Bedouin maintain.
I wasn’t really Lawrence of Arabia; I just wore the keffiyeh because it kept me from getting sunburned.
The sunset was real though. As was the feeling of being on Mars.
This is the place I let myself become part of the group. It was something we experienced together, and it was awesome in every way. From the ride through the desert, to the sun setting, to eating a meal cooked in the ground by our Bedouin hosts, to the early morning camel procession in the distance.
The only scary part of being out in the desert was Hasem locking himself out of his phone. There is something unnerving about formatting your guide’s phone while in the middle of nowhere.
It all worked out, but I have zero confidence he will remember his new password.
Diving is good in Aqaba but needed to be booked in advance.
Turns out, I was able to entertain myself by drinking a lot.
I sat on a patio at an “English Pub” with others who were catching the ferry; listening to a mix of country, pop, and metal, while pounding pints of Amstel in the sun like they contained the answer to life.
By the time we got to the ferry, we were feeling no pain. It didn’t even phase me when we found out it had been delayed (from 7:30pm to 10:30pm). We just picked up more alcohol from the shop and kept on drinking.
Turns out the ferry was NOT a party boat. It was filled with conservative Muslims and they were not amused with us.
I ended up having a few too many and don’t remember a lot of what was a very bad journey. We didn’t get to the beach huts until 3am.
I woke up in my hut on the Sinai Peninsula the next morning with texts suggesting I’d been to Saudi Arabia the night before.
I dove the Red Sea my first day there, ate in cheesy Aladdin-themed restaurants, watched the wild dogs pee on the creepy child mannequins, and a drank with travelers around the pool each night.
I snorkeled the Blue Hole with a group the last day. I couldn’t dive again because of a flight the next morning.
The time in Dahab was relaxing and just what I needed at that point in the trip.
I’ve been to many crowded, polluted cities, but Cairo was the first where I couldn’t breathe. The air was thick and tasted awful.
Traffic was insane, and people seemed unhappy. Unfortunately, most of them are worse off than they were before the revolution.
All of that would have been bearable if there was anything to do in the city, but there wasn’t much happening after seeing the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
There didn’t seem to be a bar scene…and the cafe culture common in other Middle Eastern countries wasn’t as welcoming.
Egypt is not a place I see myself going back to, even though there are so many things I didn’t see or experience while there.
I just didn’t get a good vibe. Not like I did in Jordan and Palestine.
I usually find crowded, messy, ‘on the brink’ countries exciting and alive, but the small part of the country I visited just seemed desperate.
Cairo feels like its choking on its own breath.
A balcony with a pyramid view, restaurants and bars with pyramid reflecting pools, sparkling clean grounds, quiet atmosphere (almost couldn’t hear the horns outside), and real Wifi were all amazing, but the one thing that really impressed me after staying in ‘basic at best’ lodging was the water pressure. The sweet, powerful water pressure!
There’s nothing better than water pressure!
I slept for a few hours the last night in Cairo, but I kept waking up from weird dreams.
I left the hotel at 1am.
I flew through Frankfurt and Munich.
I had given up on making my connection in Munich, but Lufthansa had a representative meet us at the gate, take us on a cart through the terminal, get us through expedited passport control, and onto the plane just in time.
I went to great lengths to pack carry-on only, but they made me check my bag on most flights.
My bag didn’t make that Munich connection.
It arrived a day later though.
Looking back, I am very glad I did the trip. It would have done me no good to sit at home after that everything had happened.