Friday, September 14, 2012

Papal Visit to Lebanon

Lebanon has been abuzz for weeks now in anticipation of the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. The highways have been decorated with billboards and banners in the Maronite areas, which are in Northern and Eastern Beirut. Maronites are in full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and are about 30% of the population of Lebanon.

Beirut is a heavily segregated city, and the Maronites and Muslims live apart from one another, avoiding daily contact for the most part. The neighborhoods in our area, Msaytbeh and Burj Abu Haidar are Muslim, so there's been no activity or preparation for his visit here. “You can tell when you're leaving a Maronite area,” I told a group of visitors this week, “because you'll cross a street and the Papal banners will disappear.”

Since we live only a few blocks from the path of the motorcade, we thought it would be fun to stroll over and catch a glimpse of the Pope's car as he came through. All the major highways were closed for the whole afternoon, and side roads were blocked, so most people in Beirut stayed home or left work early.

There were no crowds along the highway, even though it is a heavily populated area. There were no banners or streamers, nor cheering throngs. A few groups of curious onlookers were kept back from the highway by armed soldiers stationed all along the route.

Salim Salaam Avenue is usually packed with traffic
Cars normally park on the sidewalks.

“Seeing the roads so empty was more unusual than seeing so many guards,” Kim commented. “That doesn't surprise me any more because we see tanks and guards all the time.” The highway is normally crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and people even park on the sidewalks because it is so crowded. “I was also curious to see how the Muslims would react to the Pope,” she said. “They were really just curious like me. They were more interested in the helicopters, guns, and soldiers closing the roads.” Even the parked cars were all removed, because any one of them could be a danger.

Security was very heavy for the motorcade, as might be expected. As helicopter gunships circled overhead, his armored Limo was escorted by dozens of police vehicles, including about six jeeps that had heavy machine guns mounted on the roof. A lead car came ahead of the whole motorcade by about two kilometers, and Kim and I joked about how the Pope should really be in that car, with a double in the official car bearing his flag.

The Pope is the guy in the back, we think!

Olivia was excited by the whole event. “There were a lot of cars, and I got to see the Pope's head!” she exclaimed afterward. John had been hoping to see more than a Limo and a glimpse of the Pope, but was interested in all of the armed vehicles in the motorcade. He's more excited about giving a shout out to all his friends in Guntersville. After the motorcade passed, most of the onlookers remained, watching the highway to see when the Army would pull out.

The airport is in the southern part of the city, and the Papal motorcade traveled through many Muslim neighborhoods like ours before reaching the Christian areas to the north, where his real welcome will begin. He'll be received at the Vatican Embassy in Harissa. We visited that area just the other day and saw the “Lady of Lebanon” shrine which he will visit. His theme for the visit is “I give you my peace” and hopefully his visit will encourage people in Lebanon toward peace.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Other Side of Nowhere

We took our second overnight camping trip to the mountains east of Faqra.  Only the high peaks (9,000-10,000 feet) have names, but the locals call the area the Sinein mountains (two teeth).  The area where we camped was very isolated, and about 7,000 feet.

Nowhere is just slightly to the left.

After we passed the last ski resort on the main highway, we drove about 15 more minutes along the highway.  When I say remote -there is nothing.  Not a single building or sign of civilization other than the highway on which you are driving.  There are only rolling mountaintops and valleys, and the landscape is both stark and beautiful.  It is all rocky, both large formations of rocks protruding from the soil, and a layer of broken rock that covers every slope.  There are no trees, only several variaties of very thorny bushes, mostly in the low areas.

I didn't have to bribe them either!

The ecology is based on the snow melts.  Starting in late fall, the whole area is covered in a snow cap that persists all winter without melting.  Even into the summer, snow remains in crevices on the slopes (I saw some in late July on a trip through the area further to the south).  The moisture allows the otherwise desert area to support enough grazing to be worthwhile to  Bedouin shepherds as well as water holes that still have water in September.  However, it has very much a desert feel because there is no rain during the dry season after the snow melts.

There's very little wild animal life to be seen.  On our first trip we saw a single beetle.  This time the children discovered a lizard under a rock, and some frogs in the bottom of a watering hole that was empty but still had moist soil in the bottom.  We also spotted some bats flying at dusk.  Perhaps this is a result of the harsh extremes -snow covering the ground perhaps 8-9 months of the year, and then a dry desert once it melts.

There are Bedouin tribes that move about the mountaintops.  There was a large camp on the highway (5-6 tents) that was not there a few weeks ago.  They keep honey bees near the watering holes, with sometimes 40-50 stands in a spot.  They also have herds of sheep that roam around the mountainsides, and each shepherd has a donkey and at least one herding dog.

"Can we have sheep Dad?"

We turned off the highway onto a rough dirt road and drove perhaps ten minutes through several unoccupied Bedouin camp areas.  We found one on our first trip that looked promising and it turned out to be an excellent campsite.  It sat in a flat area near an empty watering hole and had a great view of the surrounding valley.  There were a couple of rock formations we could climb, and a small trail that went further up into the mountains.  We followed the trail up to where a concrete bunker had been built on the top, with a flag marking the peak.  I always stay far away from abandoned buildings because during the wars there was a lot of mining, and there could be abandoned munitions.  We stay in areas that the goat herds and four-wheelers have already covered.

Being away from everything is my favorite part, climbing the hills and seeing more and more nothing.  It may not sound that exciting, but for a country boy living in urban sprawl, it was so relaxing.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Thank You, American Workers

Labor Day is a day when we typically just think about a good barbecue.  

This really does merit a holiday.
Trust me, I haven't had them lately.

If we're going to find meaning in the day beyond a rack of ribs, however, then it might be this:  

We live in a society that was built with many hands -some of them sewed socks, some welded bridges, while some others changed diapers.  Some of them taught me to read, while others forced me to learn mathematics against my will -but to my great benefit.  Somewhere along the line, some of them taught me to love writing, and to love sharing the Gospel of Jesus.

I have driven on roads built by the hard labor of workers both native and immigrant.  I have done some great fishing, swimming, and canoeing in a lake built by the sweat of our grandfathers.  Many people have invested in my life.

This canoeing fun would not be possible if not for:

This incredible investment of labor.

To all of you who have lent a hand in the building of a nation that we all enjoy, and that I treasure:  

Thank you!