2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage

2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage
VIVA CUENCA

VIVA CUENCA!

My mission in publishing this blog is first to provide a living history of my settlement and life in Cuenca, and to provide myself and the reader with a journal account delineating my reasons for why I have chosen to settle in Cuenca. Second, the posts are my way of staying in contact with family and friends back in the states, and to provide them with an understanding of a country and culture that most North Americans have little knowledge and awareness. Third, the blog is open to one and all who wish to compare and contrast the experiences of expat bloggers living in Cuenca, so that you can determine whether or not from your perspective Cuenca is an appropriate move for you. Fourth, my blog provides another example of how expats view and interpret life in Cuenca. Ecuadorians and Cuencanos who may read this blog are especially invited to post comments that may enhance all expats understanding and appreciation of Cuneca and its people, or to correct any misinterpretations in my assumptions and perceptions of Cuencano culture. Finally, I hope I can convey the feeling of love and appreciation that grows within me each passing day for this heavenly city nestled in the Andes and its very special people.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

BEIRUT: PART IV: DOWNTOWN AND MEDITERRANEAN BEACH RESORT

MOHAMMAD AL-MIN MOSQUE

A walk from my residency to downtown Beirut took about thirty minutes.  On the edge of approaching the downtown from my direction is the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, adorned with its blue dome and four minarets; which was built in the Ottoman Empire's grandiose style, and therefore, exhibits Turkish rather than Lebanese architectural style. The mosque was completed in 2005, and dedicated in 2008. 

The mosque was financed by Rafik al-Hariri, a billionaire and former prime minister who was assassinated ironically in the same year the mosque was completed. The Syrians were accused of the assassination, which over a four year period almost engulfed Lebanon in another civil war, this time between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The incident did lead to Syria withdrawing its troops from both Lebanon and Beirut after a thirty year occupation. However, Syria still exerts much influence through its Shia proxy Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon.  The political influence of the Christian groups in Lebanon is even less now than it was in 2005.

On this day, I had joined my son and his two friends, who were relatively new to Beirut as we began our day visiting this Sunni Mosque.




Usually in most Islamic countries, infidels are not permitted inside the mosques.  Therefore, I was surprised that we were not only allowed inside, but also very warmly welcomed.  We removed our shoes and toured about at leisure. 



The mosque was exquisitely beautiful.



In this particular mosque, the floor is covered in wall-to-wall carpeting.  Each of the dark spaces is where the believer bows prostrate to the floor in prayer.

Notice that each spot for the the supplicant is like the space in an Islamic-styled archway of pillars.
                                          


























One of the amazing things about Beirut is the fact that in the above and below photos, there is basically a shared-campus of the Mohammad Al-Min Mosque and St. George Maronite Catholic Cathedral (seen from two different sides of the building). Some see this as a metaphor for the coexistence between Muslims and Christians. 

However, critics say the building of the mosque, sends an imposing message of Islamic dominance, which dwarfs both the cathedral and everything else in the area. The Maronite Catholics are the single largest group of Christians in Lebanon.  

At the same time, in this day and age, for the moment; nothing like this level of Christian and Muslim coexistence any longer exists in any other area of the Middle East.  

                                                                                                                                                                   Attributed to Lebnen 18


The interior of the St. George Maronite Cathedral (below).



Below is the entrance to the Soulks in Downtown Beirut, which is known as the Central Business District (CBD), an area of a very spacious shopping mall of high end retail. What you see below is called Iman Ouzai Square.



 
Above is an interior shot upon entering one area of the ABC Mall, the most exclusive of a number of upscale malls in Beirut.  

Below, is the Soulk El Akel street food market with all kinds of delicacies and incredible assortment of all types of Middle Eastern foods from which to eat...


and eat we did--Marc (left) and his friends, Evan and Andy.


At one point, while the guys were doing whatever they were doing, I ducked into a entrance hallway to get out from under the hot sun. I never could tell what time the Islamic "Call to Prayer" would take place.  It seemed to happen at odd minutes like twenty-three minutes after the hour.  I no sooner entered my area of respite from the sun, as the "Call to Prayer" began to resonate.  I have no idea if it was coming from the Mohammad Al-Min Mosque nearby, or if it was blasting from loud speakers that sounded like they were on the other side of the concrete wall from where I was standing. Wherever the call was coming from, it reverberated with such a blast that I scurried out into the sun again to escape from the unrelenting ear-piercing echo. 
                                     





Above is a photo of Marc and me in what has become iconic in many major cities.  "I love Beirut!"

We walked down to the area you see below heading toward the Place (Plaza) de l'Etoile where you can see the Hamidiyi Clock Tower in the distance. This area, where East met West, was considered one of the most luxurious places in the world before the Lebanese Civil War .

It suffered much destruction during the war, and has recently been meticulously renovated to appear as it did prior to the war.


The area above where Evan is walking, is still in need of retail tenets.  The restaurants here were not really attracting many customers on the two afternoons when I visited the area, although (below) closer to the clock tower (Nejmeh Plaza), restaurants with their sidewalk cafes were serving a steady stream of customers. Having visited Paris upon leaving Beirut, this area is very reminiscent of Paris.  At the Nejmeh plaza a number of avenues converge from about five different directions.  There are some upper-end shops; but overall, the area is somewhat like a ghost town.

I understand that if you have an easy four million dollars lying around, you can purchase yourself a condo in this neighborhood.


While not the only city in the world to sport ruins right smack-dab in the heart of the city. Beirut literally has excavated ruins right smack-dab in the center of downtown, along with everything else that down town has to offer.


Yes, those Romans were truly everywhere, and here are the excavated ruins of Roman baths to prove it.  Not exactly as well intact nor as somewhat rebuilt as the Roman baths in Bath, England, which I so enjoyed last summer.  Nonetheless, it was a surprise for me to see these ruins as if they suddenly popped out of nowhere in the heart of the city's business district.




Mark and I visited Corniche district on the Mediterranean where the Pigeon Rocks are located.  This is a must.  I very much enjoyed them.  Below reminds me "of the little old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children, she didn't know what to do".

Spot the speed boat below to give yourself some idea of how big pigeon rock is. 










 Jim and Mark below



HANNA METRI ICE CREAM


Writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal proclaimed the Hanni Metri Ice Cream shop to have the best ice cream in the world.  


There definitely was a steady stream of customers in this run-down building still covered with shrapnel from the civil war, yet incredibly located in what is Beirut's most posh neighborhood. Hanni Mitri Moussa opened the store in 1949, and claims to have kept it open all through the civil war even when bombs were going off.  His car was annihilated as it sat on the street in front of the business, and all of the glass in the business's windows shattered. The family just cleaned-up the mess, and continued to make and serve ice cream.  The oven, which is used to bake pastries during the holiday seasons, still contains shrapnel. There is little room for the customers on the interior.  It is simply a carry-out business.







The ice cream is not anything like American ice cream--not as sweet or as creamy.  This Lebanese ice cream is as best as I can describe it as a cross between Italian ice, but smoother and not as grainy, but not quite exactly Italian gelato either. About a dozen different flavors are served. The owner uses a small paddle to pack the ice cream into the cup, and I had about three flavors in one cup. Definitely refreshing, but I'll leave it to you to visit Beirut to determine if you think it is the world's best ice cream.  It's hard to imagine anyone in Beirut who hasn't heard of Hanni Mitri.




Hanni Mitri Moussa died in 2012.  His son took over the business in 2011,  Above you see his son packing the ice cream in a cup.  It was afternoon, and I wondered how long he had been doing the same repetitive process that day.


Below is a photo of his father and founder in the background:






BEACH RESORTS


There are a lot of fabulous beach resorts along the Mediterranean shore line running out of Beirut. Marc took Evan and me to one of the private clubs one weekend.





I like design, so I like the way this simple ceiling was designed below, and how the ceiling reflects on the ground, with the planter in the center.  A great deal of attention was paid to the design of the resort, which offered everything from accommodations, to restaurants, to swimming pools, to first class chair mattresses for lying out on the beach, to shops, to spas, etc.








Not since 2012 while on the Ecuadorian coast have I had an opportunity to enjoy lying on a beach and enjoy the sound of the waves, and the thrill of the water.  I've always loved beaches and the water--a love I learned from my father.





Saifi Village


Mark encouraged me to seek out Saifi Village one day on one my walks while he was working.  It has been renovated, is quite attractive, and a nice tranquil place to walk around. There is still a need for many retail tenets and further expansion of the restaurant offerings, but there are a few good restaurants available.  





Below is the Catholic Armenian Church of St. Elie.





I began this post with the Mohammad Al-Min Mosque, and I end it with a church flooded in lights against the evening landscape of darkness. 

I could not help but think about the transitory nature of life, and wondered how successful Beirut would be in dodging through the mine fields of sectarian differences and Middle East conflicts; particularly after the hopefulness of so much rebuilding efforts since the civil war, and with a number of Beirutis who have lived abroad for decades, who now find themselves returning to begin life anew in the land from which they once fled.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

BEIRUT: PARIS OF THE MIDDLE EAST: PART III MY NEIGHBORHOOD


I flew non-stop from Guayaquil, Ecuador on my favorite airline KLM to Amsterdam; after a few hours lay-over, I then flew to Paris on Air France, another very good airline; and after staying overnight in Paris, Air France flew me into Beirut, Lebanon.

I snapped a couple of photos while in flight as we approached Beirut.  It was a very clear day, and my excitement mounted as I saw these aerial views of what would be my next adventure. It would be my first time to ever visit a country in the Middle East.  I was also greatly looking forward to seeing my son, Marc, who would prove to be the consummate host.  



The views from the air reminded be of the rare occasions when I flew into Chicago over Lake Michigan with a beautiful view of the Lake Shore, Navy Pier, and Downtown Chicago.


Beirut was considered one of the most modern, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world in the 1970's. Unfortunately, a horrendous civil war began among different groups, but primarily between Christians and Muslims.  The war raged on for about fifteen years before it ended in 1990. Tremendous devastation was done to the city. The population of Lebanon, itself, had shifted from approximately 60% Christian before the war, as many Christians exiled to Greece and Cyprus, to possibly forty percent Christian today.  No census has been taken since the end of the Civil War, and some believe the percentage of Christians today may be even lower in the country.

Amazingly before the civil war, Muslims and Christians (altogether there are eighteen different designated religious groups in Beirut today) lived pretty much integrated.  While the different groups have for the most part coexisted peacefully during the post-war period, they generally do so in their separate neighborhoods. Christian groups dominate the eastern and northern parts of the city. Sunni Muslim groups dominate the western part of the city, and Shia Muslim groups dominate the southern part of the city.





If flying into Beirut reminded me of Chicago. Three things about Beirut would remind me of Cuenca, Ecuador, where I live.  Cuenca is a basin nestled in the Andes, and surrounded by mountains on all sides. Beirut (above photo) is also surrounded by low-lying mountains of three sides, but has the shimmering beauty of the Mediterranean Sea along its coastal side.

Beirut at 5,000 years of age is one of the world's oldest cities; very narrow streets and sidewalks, not made for modern day auto traffic; and a great deal of congestion and crazy drivers much like drivers in Cuenca drove when I first arrived seven years ago, but have since become so much saner in their driving habits.





Many buildings, due to the civil war, have been demolished and replaced by newer and even higher high-rises.  Others have been refurbished, and even twenty-seven years after the ending the civil war, there are still many buildings riddled with artillery shells waiting their day of renovation. (One of my friends wanted to know if the bullet riddle buildings also reminded me of Chicago (lol).

The population of Beirut is guessed to be about one million, and about two million including the city and its metro area.

Below is the entrance to my abode for the next two weeks.


I was definitely in an upper middle class neighborhood, within walking distance to downtown Beirut, and once again I was reminded of Chicago, as this heavily tree-lined residential area dotted with many upscale shops, restaurants, and pubs and bars; reminded me of a replay of the north end of Chicago around the Rush Street area.

I came to Beirut In May during a perfect weather season of temperatures in the 70's and 80's, and before the humid and hotter weather would engulf the city in just a few short weeks.


Many a late afternoon or early evening, after a day of walking and site-seeing, I would relax on my balcony and enjoy watching the people as they interacted with each other and strolled by, while I took imaginary bets as to whether or not that car was really going to attempt to pass through that narrow way with parked cars on both sides of a very narrow road, followed by another calculated bet as to whether or not as it went for it, if the driver would make it through without a side-swipe.  Does that woman really think she can pull that off?  Oh my God, she slapped-in her side-mirror and went for it.  Oh that motorcyclist just plowed into the back of that car.  Ah, a little fender bender, no one hurt.




It did not get dark until almost 10:30 p.m.  The family from whom I rented the apartment said it was very safe to walk the neighborhood at night.  I would go out to eat at a restaurant, and generally make my way to one of the many pubs after dinner. Sometimes eating and drinking at the same pub, and mingling with the international set that seemed to dot the various bar scenes.  I would pass single women on the streets walking solo at midnight or 1:00 a.m.  Many of the internationals were embassy people.  One Lebanese pub owner with a heavy British accent said he had lived in London for decades before returning to Beirut and opening his pub. He attracted many embassy staff especially from the British embassy. I could tell who the tourists were even late at night.  Like me, their noses and eyes were honed onto their Google Maps trying to find their way back to from wherever they came that evening.





Above from my balcony and across the street, one can see the Paper Moon restaurant, an Italian restaurant with very good food, and the absolute best creme brulee that I have ever had to cross my palate.  Restaurants like Paper Moon in Beirut generally have patios that are in alcoves adjoining the restaurant away from the noise and pollution of street traffic.  A very nice feature of most Beirut restaurants.

Beirut is the most international and cosmopolitan city in the entire Mideast.  It does not have the oil wealth of a Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, or Qatar. Nevertheless, it attracts a great amount of international business and investment.  

My neighborhood was literally resplendent in new Camaros, BMW's, Porches, and Mercedes Benzes; and this was not the most affluent neighborhood in Beirut.

Below is a series of buildings in my neighborhood to give you an idea of the varied architectural styles and diversity of housing in the area.






Beirut was a mandate of France after the Ottoman Empire collapsed a few years after the end of World War I.  I was amazed at how many people spoke French. In fact, I heard more French spoken in my neighborhood than I did Arabic.  It is obvious that many middle class Christians in Beirut speak French as if it were their first language.  I have no idea how prevalent French is among the Muslims in Beirut, but I would speculate probably less so.

After my two weeks in Beirut, I spent two weeks in Paris.  I have little ear for languages, but I could definitely detect a difference in the French I heard in Beirut from the French I heard in Paris. I assume the Beirut French was spoken with an Arabic accent, because it had a harsher sound than the softer accent of the Parisian French. Much like Castilian Spanish in Spain is harsher sounding than the softer lilt of Cuencano Spanish.











Near my place, was an upper scale supermarket with a multiplicity of  products from all over the world, which covered two floors. I was envious of the choices we could only dream of in Cuenca, because of the high import taxes in Ecuador.  I have only seen this type of escalator (below) once before in Lima, Peru in the two-story Chang Super Market.  Coral in Mall Del Rio could use this to facilitate the movement of customers between floors.

  


Notice that there are no steps.  There must be magnets that allow carts and baby buggies to glide up or down while safely remaining stationary.




About twenty minutes from my apartment was a large horizontal upscale shopping mall, with an expansive food court and cinemas--all on the top floor.  The food court consisted almost entirely of restaurants.  I really enjoyed the feeling of this place, and returned about three times, and even took in a movie.  If the movies were not in English, they then had English subtitles.

Be-forewarned, however, Beirut is not an inexpensive city.  Prices are quite expensive.

Below, near the mall, was a plaza where a number of streets converged.  In Catholicism, May is the month in celebration of the Virgin Mary.  It appeared that preparations were being made for an outdoor evening mass.