I've had just enough time to... take a walk down busy Beirut.
The broken down bench in Beirut where I ate my lunch.
If I were to ask you, your personal experience of the friendliest city in the world; each of you may give me a different reply. Some answers may seem obvious as top contenders. Some you may be mildly surprised at, others you may disagree as you may have a bad experience there. But would you have expected someone to say present day Beirut? Of all the cities I have visited from US to Europe to Asia, in my personal experience Beirut top the list. It is all based on a single day, alone with nothing to do; to pre-empt you from arguing against my choice. :D
The delicious Hawa chicken and pickled vegetable that was my lunch.
It was a Friday. I had a late afternoon flight and I’m not going to sit in my room reading a book or to watch TV until it is time to go. Immediately after breakfast, I put on the day’s essentials in my backpack and went for a long walk. Nowhere in particular, just to walk the street as far as I could go and back in time for my flight. Along the way, to my delight I came across a small nondescript Lebanese bakery.
I stood outside and snapped a few shots when the matronly proprietress with a smile as wide as her arms agitatedly waved me inside to do my shooting. That is in “Part 2 – The Man From Syria”. Would not blame you if you think my impression of Beirut’s hospitality is from that pleasant feeling as warm as the oven’s fire. But that was not all. After the coffee as thick and black as night, and succulent oven fresh bread with the aroma of cheese and thyme, I continued my walk as far as I could go before I think I should double back.
The warm receptions from the drivers on the road.
I bought a box of their local fast food – Hawa Fried Chicken that is served together with thick potato slices, cheese dips and pickled vegetable with sign language and walked back to the hotel on the other side of the road. I came across a broken metal bench under the shade of a giant tree and thought that would be a good place to rest my weary feet and eat my chicken. There I was, a Chinese gentleman sitting cross-legs on a broken bench without support, happily biting into the drumstick looking at the snared traffic, taking in the novelty of the situation.
They were joking with me in a language I could not understand.
But I did not expect the reactions. A car honk jolted me; the driver shouted in a strange language I could not understand. But I understood the smile and the wave and I waved back. I thought that must be an isolated incident. But then at almost regular intervals, drivers noticed me and some of them greeted me loudly with smiles or waves or thumb ups. Some took the trouble to wind down the window. A father and son in a truck offered me a lift. Some was joking with me though they know I could not understand a single word they said and played hide and seek with my camera. In nowhere in the world had I ever triggered anything as remotely close as this type of reaction. I did not do much that morning in Beirut but it was one of the most memorable days of my life.
And offered to take me along with them...
When I returned to the hotel, I looked at all those things I’ve bought or brought along with me which I did not want to bring back home. When the cleaning lady came, I gave them all to her. I hate throwing things away and was happy to have less to carry. There was a ring on the door. The cleaning lady came and gave me something of her own. I protested but she tried to tell me it is nothing and I will make her happy to accept it. And she gave me a hug. And we took a photo off the reflection from the mirror. I don’t know about your experiences, but for me, no other city even come close to Beirut as the friendliest city I ever encountered.