Monday, June 20, 2005


Tiberius (Lake of Galilee) - Nazareth - Acre - Tel Aviv


So, left Jerusalem after parting company with Richard, who went back into Jordan to meet a friend. It feels weird travelling alone again...

Headed for Tiberius, which is a town on the Sea of Galilee, which is where Jesus did most of his preaching and miracles such as walk on water, and multiply the fish and bread etc...

For some reason I thought it would be a wonderful idea to cycle around the Sea (57km), and visit the sites along the lakeside. Should have done my research. First of all, it's extremely hot and humid at the lake. Secondly, there is no lakeside path, you ride on the main road, which involves lots of traffic and uphill riding. So I only made it 20km to the main holy sights to the north of the lake, which of course were all marked with a church being built on top of it. I was only able to wade in the water at one point near a church marking Jesus handing his ministry to Peter, where small fish swim all around you, and very happy Christians sing and clap out of tune along the waters edge.

Ate a fish from the Sea of Galilee for dinner. Because It's what you do.

Nazareth is a large predominantly Arab town with many hills and panoramic views. But the real attraction is the basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary accepted to receive Jesus, in her house (which is a grotto actually). Also on the location is Josephs carpentry shop (another grotto), and the Synagogue where Jesus went as a youngster (still a Synagogue). The basilica is impressive, it's exterior bland but the interior decorated with colourful sculptures and artwork from all over the world, and constructed to look like the inside of a barn, even with horizontal beams holding the roof up, except concrete is used to imitate wood...

Stayed the night at a convent across the road, which unfortunately locks you in a 9:30pm so I couldn't really explore the town at night. Not that you need to, as the city shuts down after 7pm!

Went to the historic Crusader town of Acre. 5000 years of history, conquest, and reconquest have left this town with an ancient souk, solid fort walls with moat, an underground Crusader city and water tunnels (lots of fun exploring), all picturesquely set on the sea peninsula. Amazing stuff!

I went to Tel Aviv for two reasons: Beaches, and Nightlife. And I'm happy to say I got both in abundance, which is why I am writing this with only 4 hours of sleep and a lighter wallet. The nightlife doesn't compare to Beirut (nor do the girls - though, and many travellers agree on this, the Israeli women soldiers in their fitted uniforms are hot! Though being armed with huge heavy machine guns, one does not feel compelled to approach, lest they say the wrong thing or offend. Speaking of which, it takes a while to get used to the high number of young soldiers on national service on public transport, their machine guns hanging casually on their backs or on their laps pointed disconcertingly right at you.

Kept meeting people from Australia who are in Israel on some free Jewish programs, some involving a free 10 day tour of Israel! In fact, being a Jew in Israel, one gets many free things, such as free accommodation, food and drink in certain places. Was wondering if I could fake being a Jew for the freebies...hmm somehow I don't think I could pull it off..

Now I’m about to head for the Israel/Jordan border, to get into Jordan, so I can fly to Turkey at 4:30am tomorrow morning... looks like I won't be getting any sleep tonight either!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories

Jerusalem - Masada - Dead Sea - Qumran - Jericho - Bethlehem - Hebron


Having reluctantly left Mar Musa monastery with Richard, we left Syria and headed into Amman in Jordan for the night, before leaving for Israel the next morning. Destination: Jerusalem, the third holiest city for muslims (after Mecca and Medina), and the holiest city for Christians and Jews...

We got to the border as early as possible because we knew that having entered Syria twice and Lebanon, we would have trouble getting into Israel. We were expecting interrogation in a bunker while they search our luggage sort of thing.

In actuality it wasn't as bad as we expected. After getting to the border, we had to catch a special bus across the bridge into Israel, stopping every 5 seconds for security checks. Then we arrived at a huge complex, where we had
baggage and ourselves scanned, then directed to the passport check area.

It is usually an unwritten law not to chat up border officials, and me and Richard struggled to resist the urge to do so, when we were interrogated at the passport check counter by two very pretty girls in the following manner. Read the following interrogation and see how easily you could take it out of context:

Girl: So James, what is your work?
Me: Computers
Girl: Are you married?
Me: No (so what about you?)
Girl: Can you write your phone number on this (unofficial looking)
scrap of paper please?
Me: OK (but can you write yours down as well?)

The interrogation was not bad. I've heard other travellers being asked questions like "So why you visit Syria, do you like Arabs?" and other dumb things like that.

Then they take your passport away somewhere and ask you to sit and wait till they call you. So you sit and wait. And wait. And wait. And 4 hours later, just when you're slowly fuming with impatience and concerned with
worry that something has gone wrong, they come up and hand you your passport, with the Israeli stamp on a piece of paper (which was considerate of them since they know that any evidence of visiting Israel on your passport means you can't visit many other countries, like Syria and Jordan - hence why I visited those countries first).

After that, more security checks, baggage checks, and then you find yourself in Israel trying to find a minibus to Jerusalem that won't rip you off.

Jerusalem, when you disregard the crazy people (i.e the majority), is a very nice city. Remarkably clean in the old town, the streets are all paved in yellow sandstone, the souks and shops all orderly and neat, many areas looking rebuilt in more yellow sandstone into churches, buildings etc... all surrounded by a huge wonderfully preserved defensive wall with several gates. Jerusalem is split up in four quarters: Armenian, Moslem, Jewish and Christian.

Went to see the 12 stations of the cross, the room where Jesus had the last supper, Gethsemane garden where he prayed before the arrest, the tomb of the Virgin Mary (in a cool grotto), the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb (in the Holy Sepulchre, remarkable frescos and stuff), the place of his ascension... All these places of course having a chapel or church built on or near it's location... The view from the Mount of Olives of Jerusalem is magnificent,
with Jewish tombs coming down the hill to the walls of Jerusalem, where church spires abound, though the thing that catches your eyes the most is the gold domed stunningly decorated Islamic dome of the rock (which only women Moslems can enter unfortunately - the men worship at a less grand but larger mosque within the temple walls. Oh of course, there is the western (Wailing) wall, which is the only remaining wall of the Temple of Solomon, that the Jews worship at.

I don't know what it is, but it seems like everyone we meet starts off seemingly normal, but end up being really weird. For example, we met this American girl in the street, who turned out to be a Jewish Zionist and insisted that we not stay where we were (near the Moslem quarter outside the walls) because suicide terrorists live there, and
there was a bomb that went off there a few days ago. Research proved however that this was not the case. There is a nice old man at the hostel who turned out to be a Christian trying to buy land at the Mount of Olives so he could live close by when Jesus rockets back in his return, the proximity covering him with saturated holy spirit. Uh huh.

So far, the only normal people seem to be the Arabs, and in fact they recognise the difference between American tourists and government, happy to welcome Richard and ask questions about it, just like most places in the middle east.

At the wailing wall, we decided to ask a Rabbi some questions regarding the Jewish faith. Particularly, why they wear strings from their belts (because one of the 613 laws of God is to wear fringes on their clothes), why the hat and coats (because they want to be dressed when the Messiah comes), and why the long sideburns but the rest of
the head being shaved (because of another law in the 613). He then started to exchange questions on theology and philosophy with us, but we were no match for him. His answers always made us feel stupid, his questions had us always stumped. Then again, he's had years of practice, and we suffered the "nuts I wish I thought of that comeback when I was there" hours after we left him.

His theory on why the Holocaust happened? "Because the European Jews did not come to the Holy Land (Israel) after the Beaufort Agreement in WWI allowed them to, as well as not following the Jewish laws properly, so God punished them." Interesting take.

Read some of the Jewish code of Laws, fascinating reading, but sounds like an obsessive compulsive's book of etiquette! 613 laws telling you things from how to rise up in the morning, to how to wash your hands, to what to wear and say and do etc. Some examples: you must wear 8 strings on your belt, with 5 knots, to remind you of God. If a
garment catches on fire, you are not allowed to put it out. Instead, you can pour water around the garment so nothing else gets burnt! On Sabbath you are not allowed to sing, hum, clap or hit anything that can be construed as music. If your wife is having her period, you are not allowed to touch, share a table or bed, you can't pass things to
one another, or sleep facing each other... ... the laws are endless!

Signed up for a day tour which involved sunrise in Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, then visiting Qumran and Jericho.

Because the tour driver was late in picking us up, we were late in arriving at Masada, as a result catching the sunrise two-thirds the way up the 350m high fortress on a outcrop of rock surrounded by salt plains in the Jordan valley. Still, the views from the top were extraordinary, some Americans claimed the views are better than from
the Grand Canyon.

The fortress on top was the fortress of some Jewish rebels who were fighting against the Romans. The only way the Romans were able to conquer them was to build a huge ramp up to the fortress, which took about 2 years! By the time the Romans reached the top however, they discovered that the 200+ Jews, rather than surrender, had all
committed suicide!

Next was the Dead Sea. A huge salt lake of turquoise blue like the Mediterranean. 400m below sea level in the Jordan valley, it is so briny and saturated with salt that nothing lives in it, salt crystals form at the bottom and you can't drown or sink in it, only float.

Swimming in it was like swimming in warm olive oil. Not very pleasant, and the salt burns you in cuts you never knew existed on your body!

Next was Qumran, the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. However, due to the cost of entrance and the fact you couldn't even go in just look at it from a distance from above, meant that we didn't bother going in.

Finally, we went to Jericho and the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Unfortunately, Jericho, even though it is mentioned many times in the Bible and history, is a disappointingly uninteresting dull place.

Went to Bethlehem to see the manger where Jesus was born. The problem with travelling in the West bank is that transport consists of catching an Israeli bus to the checkpoint, crossing by foot, then catching a Palestinian bus the rest of the way. No direct public transport.

Bethlehem was also not very exciting and overly touristed. The manger is actually in a grotto under a church, where a marble floor with a silver star of David marks the spot where it was located.

We continued to Hebron through it's wonderful souks and friendly people to find Abraham’s tomb (which was also ordinary, holy places are not very exciting really, but you go there just to see it anyway). On route however, we saw some Jewish settlers from their apartments above throwing sandbags, garbage and toilet water onto the Palestinian souks below - luckily it's covered with a strong metal mesh for that purpose, but the Arabs shake their heads sadly and say it's a common occurrence, and they tell the police/army, but they never do anything about it...


A Russian, American, and Israeli were in a supermarket, where they saw a sign saying "Sorry, We Have No Meat!"
The Russian goes "No Meat? What is that? I do not understand what that means" (Because Russians always have meat)
The American goes "We Have No? What is that? I do not understand what that means" (Because Americans have everything)
The Israeli goes "Sorry? What is that? I do not understand..."

Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat find a Genie, who gives them a wish each.
Ariel Sharon goes "I want a big strong wall around my country to protect us from our enemies!" The Genie grants the wish.
Yasser Arafat asks the Genie "So, tell me about this wall"
The Genie goes "It's several metres tall, several metres thick, barbed wire on top, very strong indeed"
Yasser Arafat goes "Great, fill it all up with water!"


Before I entered the Middle East, I admit I was not familiar with what the situation was with Israel. Having now seen it for myself, I have never felt so angry, and so much contempt for what the Israelis are doing here and have done...

Basically, Israel was the creation and problem of the Brits, Soviets, UN, and America with their own agendas.

First it was the Arabs being lied to after WWI, when Laurence of Arabia lead the Arabs to drive out the Ottoman Turks from the Middle East for the British in French in return for being a recognised unified Arab nation.

Instead, the British and French carved up the Middle East between themselves. There was also an agreement I think called the Belfort agreement that Britain signed with Zionists saying it would look favourably in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

After WWII, with the memory of the Holocaust still in peoples minds, the UN voted in favor of creating the Jewish state, (supported strongly by the Soviet Union, who at the time thought it would be a great location for fighting against the British, who they wrongly assumed was a great superpower at the time. Interestingly, America was
apprehensive, and even initially had embargos on the new State of Israel. In fact, it's interesting how the Soviets have done more bloodshed, government manipulation and control over the Arab world than America, yet America is seen in radical fundamentalist eyes as "The Great Satan". But I digress).

The Arabs were not impressed by this decision, and as soon as Israel was declared a country, war broke out between Israel (supplied with Soviet and French weapons), and the Arab world.

Israel won, and after several wars, ended up also taking the Sinai peninsula (which it has given back to Egypt sorta), and the Golan Heights from Syria (which Syria still want back).

I cannot comprehend how anyone has the right to take land from someone else, on the basis of their religion and origin of their ancestors, and decided by other nations without their consent! It's like me going into your home and telling you to get out because my God tells me this was my land, and because my ancestors were born there so we were there first!

The Palestinians have lived there for hundreds of years, and are now being not only forced from their homes and moved about, but also walled up. They also have identity cards which they must show whenever they want to visit another town, even Jerusalem. They are essentially not free to move around their own country! The Israeli army are
completely biased and basically the Palestinians are treated like scum. I tell you, finally being here witnessing it all instead of watching the news on TV I feel nothing but great anger and sadness. It looks like the persecuted have become the persecutors. Truly tragic indeed.

Rant over.

Anyway, next stop is partying and beaching in Tel Aviv, and holy site visiting in Nazareth, Armageddon (yes it's a place, battleground for final war between good and evil on judgement day), Lake of Galilee, then off to Turkey!

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Living in a remote Syrian Monastery

Beirut - Tripoli - Mar Musa Monastery - Amman

Salaam Aluykum habibi!

Last time I left you I was in Beirut, Lebanon with Richard, a guy from the US doing some travelling with me.

There is something about the Middle East, in that everything is so laid back, and you really get into the whole lazing around doing nothing and taking it easy. "Sha'allah, Sha'allah" (God Willing) is often a phrase heard as an answer to anything in regards to time. "When will the bus leave?" "Sha'allah." "Where is the shai (tea) we ordered?" "Sha'allah." Even I’ve started using it in response to questions, though I prefer to use the cool sounding "mish mush kila" (no worries).

BTW, you may have heard of the car bomb that killed a prominent anti-Syrian journalist recently, well I’m safe and well, it was as most car bombs, targeted, and it was several blocks away. Mish mush kila.

Anyway, we reluctantly left Beirut (especially after I met two lovely Lebanese girls - one the receptionist at the nightclub with great knowledge of middle east politics, the other a sweet girl and a wonderful dancer. The problem though is that when you try to meet girls, you have to meet their male chaperone/family/friends first. If they perceive you as not a threat then you are free to pursue the girl. Unfortunately I only just got welcomed into their group and
invited to come out with them just when I had to leave the next day. Sigh. Problem with travelling is that you can't form relationships or deep attachments with people because you have to move on. Only flings. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Right, so, we went to Tripoli the next day, and regretted it. Tripoli is pretty much a dump, the "best souk in Lebanon" was average, the castle was small and plain, and all the streets were covered with dirt, dust, and rubbish. At least the people were very nice, and the pastries were delicious (being famous for it and all).

We left Tripoli the next day, heading for the Mar Musa Monastery in central Syria. I was planning to go on my own, but Richard decided in the last minute to tag along instead of heading for the Syrian coast as he planned.

It was quite interesting to see our driver bribe the border guards with a loaf of bread, which instantly disappeared into the hands of a passing guard before we were waved through with minimal bag and passenger searches. A smooth operation indeed.


Faux Pas of the day: "Jesus Christ! We're in a monastery, we shouldn't be talking about girls!"

Often heard saying: "We are so going to hell after saying that!"

Mar Musa Monastery is situated 1300m on a mountain hidden in a valley in the desert, somewhere between Damascus and Homs. Our driver had trouble finding it, since you end up driving into the middle of nowhere, along a mountainside, until you turn a corner and lo and behold it appears magically in front of you high above.

It was built in the 6th Century by Orthodox monks, the church within bearing faded earthen paintings from 11th Century. The Monastery was then taken over by Syrian Catholic monks, the church now containing colourful 13th century paintings of Saints, Judgement day, and the Virgin Mary. Later, it was abandoned (not sure why), and was
rediscovered over 100 years ago. Now it is populated with 4 monks, a couple of day-trippers, some volunteers helping clean and cook, and a hermit who lives in a cave higher up and comes down every Sunday for supplies before disappearing for the week. There is also a mule, some dogs, a few always hungry cats, and a turtle named "turtle" that wonders around the courtyard, sometimes coming over to share meals with us where we feed it slivers of cucumber.

(Speaking of which, me and Richard did buy another turtle as a companion gift, but the turtle ran away and we can't find it. How do you lose a turtle!?!!!)

We climbed up the 1.5km of stone steps with our heavy backpacks, and then entered the monastery through a small door 1m high. We were immediately given food and water and were able to enjoy the beautiful views below.

We were welcomed to stay, receiving free meals and accommodation in return for helping clean, cook and do some work. I only intended to stay for 2 days, but have ended up staying for over 10 days!

There are usually 2 church sessions, before breakfast, and before dinner. Each session begins with 1hr meditation in the church among candlelight, then 1hr singing, playing music, reading and sermoning in Arabic and occasionally French.

The church is quite unconventional. For one thing, you sit on the floor on laid out rugs and carpets, much like an Islamic mosque. Candles are lit, instruments are played, and meditation is done, much like Hindu or Buddhist. The sermons are all Catholic, but are done in arabic. All this is related to the intercommunion aspect of the monastery (see further below).

Meals are fairly basic but delicious, often consisting of a mezze of tomato, cucumber, olive oil, spices, cream cheeses, and some pita bread. Hot sweet tea (black or herbal) is usually consumed with the meal. Lunches are more varied, with a huge pot of rice mixed with meat or vegetables covered with yogurt, or pasta served for the people in the monastery, and any day trippers who happen to be around.

The monastery is well equipped, with a fantastic library in multiple languages, telephone, even internet access, though I denied myself to use it as I wanted to shut myself from the outside world for a while. Women and men would sleep in different quarters outside of the monastery on opposite sides of the mountains.

It is alot of fun being one of the people welcoming visitors (mainly French or arabic), offering them water and finding out about them. Many afternoons are spent napping or quiet contemplation on the mountain, monastery courtyard overlooking the views, or in the church itself.


The monks focus of 3 principles:
1. Hospitality - "Hospitality is the highest virtue" This is emphasised by the way we greet people with water, tea and conversation when they arrive, and allow them to stay and share meals with us.
2. Meditation - An end to itself, important for reflection and pondering the mysteries of the world, and of your own self.
3. Intercommunion with other religions, races and creeds. By uniting people and religions by focusing on the similarities, many muslims, Hindus and Catholics come to visit and are inspired as a result. It is a overwhelming and inspirational idea, trying to bring the religions closer so that we all can share the messages within and be at peace
with one another.

One of the monks (Frederick) had recently been given permission to build a cave higher up in the mountains for him to have some more peace and quiet from the monastery which can get quite busy with visitors - in other words somewhere more remote than remote. We had volunteered ourselves to the task.

Frederick didn't want just an ordinary cave. No, he wanted a double story cave, the second floor of wood being his bed and study. On top of that he wanted a perplex see-through roof so see the stars through at night.

First we had to lug heavy wooden beams, sand, concrete and gallons of water 500m up the mountain, through rugged terrain, a couple of cliff faces and beaten gravel paths, before we found the cave, 5m up on a narrow ledge above us. I'm surprised none of us fell with our burdens! We also had to dig out and carry/roll huge stones down the steep slope near the cave entrance to the cave, which was to be used with concrete to build the entrance (the front of the cave was wide open).

Through discussions with the monks and through quite contemplation and solitude up in the mountains, I’ve learnt alot about myself and what I’m missing in my life.

My 3 motives in my life are:

1.To live life to the fullest, and to assist others to do the same. I have a burning desire to help people enrich their lives, to teach, to inspire, to assist in the fulfilment of their dreams.

2. To find a place where I could really belong in the world. I've always felt that I’ve never truly belonged anywhere. Being born in Australia with an Asian background, I’ve felt that I’ve never quite fit in with the Australian nor Asian way of life. My existence is quite a lonely one, deepened with the tragic death of my best friend last year. My need to travel is sparked by the need to find a place that I truly feel I belong in and be comfortable spending my life,
spiritually and physically.

3. To find a soul mate in the world who truly loves and understands me, and vice versa, to share my life with, so that I no longer feel alone in the world.

I am not a religious person. If there is a God, I don't believe he is the vengeful God as written in the bibles. The way I view Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, etc, is not ordained by God, but in essence people look up to them because they are in fact, heroes. They stood up for a belief of being true and good to themselves and to others, and never
faltered in the face of oppression, suffering and death.

I could very well see myself in future living my life there. I would spend years learning French and Arabic, and pouring over the many intriguing tomes in the library. I've even been offered by the monks to remain in a cave of my own! But now is not the right time for me to do so. I still have a voracious appetite for visiting and understanding
the many cultures around the world, deepening my understanding and education of the mysteries of life and myself.


Reluctantly, we left Mar Musa monetary, and headed straight to Amman, Jordan. Tomorrow we will head towards West Palestine - I mean Israel, and Jerusalem.

Till next time,
Ma salaama,

Friday, June 3, 2005


Aleppo - Damascus - Beirut - Sidon - Byblos - Baalbek

Salaam Aluykum!

I tell you, I’m falling in love with the middle east. I was supposed to be in Turkey a month ago and yet I am still stuck here enjoying the sights, the hospitable friendly people, the good food (though am getting sick of schwarma and felafel so have started eating out more in style)...

So, when I last left you* I had arrived in Aleppo, Syria, with Richard, my US travelling companion I met in Jordan... Speaking of which, people in the middle east find it amusing that a Vietnamese is travelling with an American, but they do also realise that travellers/people in America do not represent their government. They all believe that we are all the same, but our governments are all pretty much screwed up.

Aleppo is Syria's second last city. Travellers tell you that Aleppo has a way of keeping you there longer than planned. And indeed they were right, for I did stay a few days longer, just chilling out, sitting in the cafes in the romantic Christian quarter with it's narrow crooked cobbled grey streets and old houses, exploring the covered stone arched souks and the ruined citadel with beautiful views over the city. Aleppo is over 5000 years old, and competes with Damascus as the oldest inhabited city in the whole world! Aleppo also has a wonderful selection of beautiful elegant restaurants in courtyard settings complete with lemon trees and fountains and waiters dressed to the nines. I had the best steak I’ve ever eaten in one of these places. I also did an impromptu palm reading session for some curious waiters, the maitre-de, and other customers the maitre-de introduced me to after he saw me doing it to some friends for amusement.

Tried a Hamman (Turkish bath) in Aleppo, in style in one of the most famous and oldest (800 years old) hammans in the world. I was a bit nervous before I started, but turned out to be one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done.

First I was given a locker to lock my valuables, then asked to strip and come out wearing only a towel into the luxuriously decorated main hall. I was then handed a bar of famed Aleppo Olive Oil soap and sponge and lead into one of the many steam room chambers. Sweated it out in the steam room where steam was forced out of an old rusty worryingly fragile looking pipe. Then I was directed to another room, where an attendant was waiting for me.
Motioning me to sit on the floor beside him next to a water fountain, he then proceeded to pour hot water all over me, then using a rough loofah, started scrubbing hard all over my body. It's amazing what stuff gets scrubbed out of you! Then, using the soap and sponge, he washed and massaged my whole body, finishing off with more hot water.
I then glided dreamily back to the steam room where I could finish washing myself, then back to the main hall where another attendant draped hot towels all around me and then served me tea as I lay on one of the many couches
relaxing, positively glowing, and feeling cleaner than I’ve ever felt in my life! It is definitely an experience everyone should try!

We decided on the spur of the moment to go to Lebanon. Not just because of the famous Beirut nightlife mind you, or the food, or beautiful girls. No, for a reason more lamer than that. It was to see Star Wars III! (Which was pretty well done I thought, though some scenes were too computerized and dialogue a bit dodgy).

When you think about it, it's quite amusing having decided to go to another country to see a movie...

Well, I suppose we were also curious to witness history in the making, as Lebanon were about to have their first election without Syrian influence...

Basically, there were some civil war and unrest, which the Syrians were called to by the UN to enter Lebanon and act as peacekeepers. After the civil war, Syria remained as a dominant influence in the political and economical spheres. Lebanon however wanted to stand on their own without Syrian influence. A leader called Harira was well loved by the people and was vying for Lebanon independence without Syria. However, a massive
car bomb killed him and devastated a huge area around it (I saw the crime scene, pretty shocking how big that bomb must have been), and it was of course blamed on the Syrians. This put the spotlight on the situation and the
UN and George Bush have pressured Syria to leave. Which they have. And now the new elections have taken place, peacefully, and with great joy but also uncertainty in the country.

The Syrian's I’ve talked to tell me that they don't know why the Lebanese were so anti-Syrian, since they helped preserve peace in the country.

The Lebanese I’ve talked to tell me that the Syrian's influenced the economical and political situation to their favor, gave Syrians jobs in Lebanon, and took advantage of many things, including a commodity Syria is
lacking - water. Of course, if only Israel would give the Syrians back their beloved Golan Heights, then all would be well, but of course that's not going to happen.

Personally, I think the Lebanese should be grateful for Syria for protecting them, but their stay had certainly been long overdue.

The elections were quite interesting to see. The days before, little rallies and protests consisting of cars with stickers, lots of booming (almost Russian/communist style) music coming out of boom boxes, people waving flags and pictures of their chosen political leader or (usually Christian) militant leader, all driving around the city, chanting,
honking horns, etc. Very peaceful too, with no altercations between opposing rallies, just respect. Many military soldiers with machine guns hanging back watching the scene unfold. And on the night of election day, a huge fireworks display in the city was put up to celebrate!

I was very touched seeing the shrine of Hariri in the main square, with posters of him graffitied over with peoples comments such as "we will never forget you" and "you are our hero" and other notes expressing great loss and respect for their much loved leader.

Paris of the Middle East? With the great food (expensive but well worth it), great arabic music, the crazy nightlife and the *gasp* unbelievably hot hot women (no exaggeration here - even the Lebanese agree), and I think it should be more called the Spain of the Middle East instead!

Quite a large city, a massively sprawled out, where new French pristine style areas of cafes, bars and restaurants mingle with decaying old buildings clearly showing signs of the last civil war with it's bullet holes, bomb blasts, missing walls and collapsed rooftops.. lots of reconstruction work, and a beautiful waterfront where people swim, fish, rollerblade, and in the late afternoon when the sun sets, people walk down it all dressed to the nines (a great
place to check out gorgeous girls - a welcome respite after traversing through countries for so long where all the women are generally covered up (ok, so I’m a typical hot blooded male, alright? )

There is limited nightlife in the middle east, and where it exists, it is usually in the Christian quarter (because Muslims don't drink or go clubbing).

I've been to the nightlife in Damascus, which was alright, but if there was a center of nightlife in the Middle East, it would be Beirut. Here, expensive cars would cruise with guys and girls in them checking the crowds at the pubs and nightclubs, girls would flaunt their bodies with high heels and the bare minimum of clothing - all of this to get people to notice them, and notice them people do. (Melbournites this may sound quite familiar with Chapel St, Lygon St etc).

It is quite hard to get into a nightclub unless you make a reservation, and are accompanied with girls. When you do go in though they are often small, hip and expensive. One must also be aware of the prostitutes (usually Russian) prowling the club. But the rich and famous come and the music, ranging usually from trance to Arabic music, is pretty good.

We were lucky to have a club open up near our hostel, as they had free entrance and free drinks for the first couple of nights. So guess where I ended up every night?

Sidon is a lovely small port town south of Beirut, with a disappointingly small sea crusader castle accessible only via a bridge, but a wonderful small yellow stoned covered souk where I bought some new clothes (Lebanon is quite a European city, and the clothes are very cool indeed - if I weren't travelling I’d buy a whole new wardrobe!)

Another beautiful sea port town, with old ruins from all periods, from the bronze age to Hellenistic, Roman, Ottoman and Malmuk ages. The most picturesque ruins I’ve ever seen, set on a peninsula, with pink blossoms and green vines and vegetation growing over the sand coloured ruins and crusader castle, the blue Mediterranean and green mountains speckled with white holiday apartments into the clouds providing a pretty backdrop to the whole scene.

It was quite a scenic drive to Baalbek, via the huge mountain ranges, their tops hidden in the clouds which we actually drove through. Every guard post and road barrier you pass is covered with the Lebanese flag of a green cedar tree on white with a red strip on top and below it. It was a little unnerving though driving through the
Hezbollah (Army of God militant group) areas with their yellow flags with some green machine gun on tree design to get to what is considered the most impressive roman ruin in the middle east. And it did not fail to disappoint. Even though it consists of a few grand temples, the state of preservation and the size of the temples leaves one at awe. You can spend hours trying to picture it in it's glory days, when the now sand coloured ruins used to be white marble facades with gold and bronze columns, colourful painted friezes, statues, people worshiping and sacrificing animals on the huge altars.

The plan is to go to Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, then I will go back into Syria to live in solitude in a remote monastery called Mar Musa for a few days. As you do. If I can find it that is...

Afterwards, I’ll head to Israel and the Palestinian territories...