There are several cities in this world that appear to be on the verge of extinction. They either have too many people to survive on what little the land can produce, too many ethnic or religious factions living in too close a proximity to one another; or the toll of an on-going war has been too prolonged and too severe. Cairo is such a city as are Calcutta and Istanbul. But none of these cities has suffered from the ravages of a 25-year-old war the way Beirut has.
I had been lucky enough to visit Beirut before the mid-seventies when the factional fighting began. I had to wait 10 years before I had a chance to return and observe the devastation of the war and the peculiar personalities such a civil and religious conflict produces.I had been in Israel for a week. I was scheduled to fly on to South Africa before returning to the United States. The day before my departure, South African Airways contacted me with the news that the flight would be delayed a few days while a new jet engine was flown in from London.
When I told a friend who worked at the U.S. Embassy of my dilemma, she offered to obtain a Lebanese visa for me if I would be interested. She said it had been relatively quiet in Lebanon for the past few months. She also needed a favor. Her boyfriend was somewhere in Lebanon and she was worried. He had gone there to cover a story about the Khomeini Shiite group that now controlled the immense Roman temples at Baalbek. She was sure they had taken him prisoner because it had been six months since he had last written.
I told her I would go up and look around, but four days was not much time to find anyone.
The visa application asked what my purpose in traveling to Lebanon was. I wrote, "to investigate the possibilities of developing the tourist trade." My friend burst into laughter but typed it on the visa form. This attempt at humor, I believed, could save my life at one of the checkpoints within the city of Beirut. I reasoned what 16-year-old with an AK-47 would shoot some infidel American with a sense of the ridiculous.
As I drove that afternoon to the Israeli/Lebanese border, I listed all the reasons someone should choose to visit Beirut at this time. In order of their importance: Hotel rooms are plentiful and no reservations are required; There will be almost nightly a fireworks-like display over the city; There will be no Japanese or German tour groups to contend with; I just may have a chance to beautify the world by paying some 15-year-old member of the Druse militia with a grenade launcher to blow up that hideous green sign from hell that stands in front of the bombed-out Holiday Inn in downtown Beirut. You just can't find travel opportunities like this anymore!
In the spirit of fairness, I also listed the disadvantages of visiting Beirut. There were only two: The Arab fundamentalists in this part of the world love to kidnap American journalists; and I could very easily get killed. In my mind, the advantages clearly outweighed the disadvantages.
My Israeli taxi driver left me at the border with these words of encouragement, "You're out of your mind to go into that country. Everyone over there is nuts and they all carry a gun." I thanked him and gave him a tip for the tip he gave me.
After I crossed the border and showed the guards I was neither exporting goods of a contraband nature from Israel or importing similar items into Lebanon, I took up the next half hour locating a taxi and driver. It has always been my policy to seek out a taxi with the fewest number of dents or in the case of Lebanon, the fewest number of bullet holes.
(To be continued.)
- Jim Kimball is a Salt Lake travel consultant.