Lebanon

Interlude: In The Beginning

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Eight years before I found myself in an old yellow taxi cab, driving across the Beka’a Valley during the 2006 War, in the company of a fearless, if hygienically-challenged driver, I arrived in Lebanon in exactly the same way; by cab from Damascus. 

I was on my way overland from England to China, where I had grand visions of becoming a journalist by blagging my way into one of the foreign news bureaus that were just opening in Beijing, while I spent my nights studying Mandarin. Lebanon was intended as a side trip.

Back then, it seemed the future was (and possibly still is) Chinese, so getting a head start on learning the national language of the next world hegemon seemed like a clever idea, and besides, I’d nursed a desire to study Mandarin ever since I’d spent three years in Taiwan as a child.

For me, Asia in all its diversity, felt like home. In addition to Taiwan, I’d lived in Pakistan and had spent several years traipsing around India in search of Enlightenment, or at least a (spiritual) high and after college, where I studied Hindi and Urdu – neither of which are, in fact Mandarin, but then anyone who has read this far will already suspect that I make a habit of allowing life take me in unexpected directions - I found myself teaching English to high-school students in Japan.

As much as I loved Japan, I hated my job. I was a poor excuse for a teacher, which nagged on my conscience, and I also didn’t like the town in which I had been placed by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Takasaki was a former agricultural town that was now on the edge of Tokyo’s sleeper belt, even though it was about an hour and half north west of the sprawling megacity of 35 million people by train. While it was far enough away not to be in Tokyo’s suburbs, it wasn’t far enough away to be rural, so I ended up in a town that offered me the benefits of neither. Still, the money was easy and so I’d continued, ignobly, to take it until I finally got tired of hearing myself complain, and decided to kick my addiction to the steady drip of Yen and move to China.

In the summer of 1997, I left Takasaki to make what I thought would be a brief return to England, and enrolled in a language course in Beijing that was due to begin the following May. With time in hand, and an accommodating friend looking after my belongings in Tokyo, I decided to travel overland to China, through Turkey and possibly Iran, to Central Asia and then into the wilds of western China, and on east to the capital.

For a variety of largely uninteresting reasons, including sloth, indecision and a raft of illicit temptations, by the time I finally left London, I was several months behind schedule. I pottered around Turkey for a couple of months as planned, enjoying the last of the summer’s warmth on the coast and had just plunged into the more bracing climes of eastern Anatolia, when I was dealt a curveball in the form of an invitation to spend Christmas with a close friend near Athens. Naturally, I accepted, even though I was deep in eastern Turkey by then.

After a cracking Christmas and New Year in Greece, I headed back east again. As I had been denied an Iranian visa for the third time, I rerouted to Georgia, from where I planned to travel into Azerbaijan and then across the Caspian to Central Asia, but by the time I got the Turkish-Georgian border in mid-January, it was so bitterly cold that the idea of soldiering across Central Asia on a budget in the depths of winter didn’t appeal, so I turned south and headed for Syria instead, thinking that I could always make the trip to Beijing once the weather warmed up a little in March or April.

I spent January and February of 1998 visiting ruins in southern Turkey and northern and eastern Syria, including a number of sites that have subsequently been plundered, damaged or even entirely destroyed by the Islamic State, and I was staying in a musty hotel in Deir-el-Zor - the kind of establishment less punctilious travel writers might call ‘interesting’ or ‘charming’ when what they really mean is ‘decrepit’ or ‘flea-ridden’ – on my way down to the ruins of Doura Europos, when I had a very peculiar dream.

I was standing alone on a stage. A man I didn’t recognise but who seemed familiar, walked towards me, stopped, held his hands out with his palms upwards and in a firm voice said: “Go to Lebanon.” After delivering this peculiar message, he disappeared. I woke with the sound of his voice still ringing in my ears. 

I thought no more of the dream until a week later, when it occurred again. This time, I was in a darkened street rather than on a stage, and the man was now a woman, even though in my dream, I knew she was the same he as before. They grabbed me by the arm, and in a slightly louder voice urged me to go to Lebanon. Once again, I woke with the sound of their voice in my ear.

Naturally, this made more of an impression and when, a couple of weeks later, towards the beginning of March, I was staying at another dive in Damascus, one just as ‘interesting’ as my lodgings in Deir el-Zor but marginally more bearable for being covered in the most impressive wisteria I have ever seen, and I had the dream again, I knew the universe was trying to tell me something. That, or I was finally paying the price of my extensive exploration of the psychedelic underworld whilst at college.

This time, I was standing in the dark, and the person - I no longer remember if they were male or female - marched towards me, grabbed me by both shoulders, pulled me close and with their face inches from mine bellowed the now familiar injunction. Obviously, the only way to stop these dreams, which were becoming increasingly stressful, was to do as I was being instructed.

I had been planning to leave Damascus the following afternoon anyway. Winter was winding down, and it seemed like a good time to start heading north, back into Turkey and then on through Central Asia into China and my language course in Beijing. But as Beirut was only a couple of hours drive, and as I was never going to come back to this part of the world ever again, I decided that I might as well pay a quick visit to Lebanon, while I was in the neighbourhood, if only to put an end to these dreams.

I hatched a plan to see the three B’s: Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, Byblos, one of the oldest cities on earth and Baalbek, either the remains of the largest temple complex ever built by the Romans, or a landing site for ancient aliens, depending on whether you prefer your hats made of tin-foil, or not. 

It was to be a minor incursion, I would be in and out in three days, four at the most, and back en route to my new future in China. I told myself that if nothing else, after two months in Syria, the change of scenery would be welcome. 

The idea of visiting Lebanon had never crossed my mind. I was vaguely aware of its unfortunate past because as child in the 1970’s and 80’s, Lebanon was a regular feature on the nine o’clock news. I also remember reading a somewhat tongue-in-cheek travel feature written shortly after the war was officially ended, an account of a walk around Beirut’s derelict, bullet-riddled city centre, written by someone who had known the city before the war, which made pre-wars Beirut sound unbelievably glamorous, but even that hadn’t been enough to make me want to hop on plane. My destiny, I was sure, lay further to the east.

There was no Lebanese embassy in Syria, but after asking around the hostel, the consensus was that I could probably get a visa at the border, so I bought a seat in a shared cab and set off for Beirut. 

The ride out to the Syrian border was idyllic. It was a beautiful March day, soft blue skies and brilliant, golden sunshine, which took the chill out of the air. As we drove through gently rolling hills towards the frontier, the only fly in my ointment was that everyone in the cab was smoking, including the driver, and they complained loudly every time I tried to crack open the window for a little air, so I resigned myself to being pickled in smoke, for a few hours.

As we left Syria for Lebanon, the weather turned. Dramatic black clouds rolled in, obscuring the sun and as we pulled in at the Lebanese border post, it began to rain.

My first sight of my future home was not pretty. The border post still bore the scars of war and there were soldiers and heavily armed policemen everywhere. The Syrian border post had been comparatively organised but here, the immigration office was packed full of people, all waving their passports in the air and shouting at the same time, none of whom appeared to be getting served by the border guards.. It felt like a scene from a crass, pre-PC parody of a developing world nation.

After waiting for a while, I realised that politeness would get me nowhere and I managed to wiggle my way to the front, where the official pointed towards a counter on the other side of the room, and told me in French that the man I needed to see about the visa was at lunch, so I’d have to wait.

I went back to the cab and tried to explain the situation. The other passengers, who’d already been processed, looked distinctly unimpressed, but as our passport numbers had been registered when the taxi drove in, the driver couldn’t leave without me, like me, they had no choice but to wait.

I went back in to the chaotic immigration hall. Through a door behind the counter I’d been told to wait at, I could see someone tucking into a roast chicken with obvious relish. He noticed me watching him and pushed the door shut with his other hand. Twenty minutes later, he emerged, wiping his mouth with a napkin and then seeing that I was the only one at the counter, sauntered over to the other side of the hall, where he had a long, friendly chat with some other officers. Obviously, he was intent on ignoring me, but there didn’t seem like much I could do.  So I continued to wait.

Eventually, one of the other officers took pity. He walked over to Mr. Visa Guy, and pointing towards me, must have told him to do his damn job. He sauntered back casually, picking his teeth. At this point, I half expected him to scratch his balls and belch. Instead, he held out his hand for my passport, thumbed through it, peered at the photo and then, stamp in hand, asked me why I wanted to come to Lebanon.

As introductions to countries go, this wasn’t the greatest, and I was beginning to wonder myself, but I told him that I was a tourist, and had heard Lebanon was beautiful, so I’d come to see the sights for a couple of days.

He seemed to find that amusing but after flipping through the pages a few more times and finding no obvious reason to deny me entry, he finally stamped my passport and with a nod, tossed it back to me.

I was on my way back to the cab when I ran into the driver. He’d been in to check up on me three or four times already. Clearly the other passengers were getting restless, because with every visit, he was more and more agitated. Back in the cab, I was greeted with muttering and smouldering looks, and found that even though I had paid extra to sit in the front, I was now to sit the back, where I was wedged between a statuesque woman with sharp elbows, and the juddering cab door that threatened to pop off its hinges at any moment.

As we passed through the checkpoint, the heavens opened and it began to pour in earnest, with such vigour that I might have applauded the drama had the other passengers not all rolled up the windows and on cue, begun furiously and in unison, to smoke.

We drove across the Beka’a Valley through what looked to me like a war zone. Buildings shredded by gunfire, pockmarked with mortar blasts, Lebanese soldiers at checkpoints sitting on tanks or shivering in sandbagged, barbed wire outposts, Syrian soldiers in checkpoints of their own, and then more random-looking checkpoints where sullen, unshaven men dressed in plain-clothes but carrying a machine guns over one shoulder, would appear out of nowhere and demand to see papers. The latter lot inspired a degree of fear, for cigarettes would be stubbed out and dark looks replaced by blank gazes, and as I was later to learn, these men were members of Syria’s ever-present and much-feared secret police.

The countryside we drove through looked every bit as morose as the people we passed. It was still pouring and as we crossed the valley, the temperature dropped precipitously. Not that it was much warmer in the cab. The other passengers still hadn’t forgiven me for making them wait, and my foreign passport inevitably lengthened our transit through the many and assorted checkpoints, so they either studiously ignored me or else stared stonily whenever I caught their gaze. 

By the time we stopped for coffee in the grim, grey and charmless market town of Shtoura, I was certain I had made a huge mistake coming to Lebanon, and considered staying in the cab and returning with the driver to to Damascus, once he’d dropped off the others.

A few kilometres on, warmed by shots of bitter, cardamom-scented coffee, as well as prices that were shockingly European after Syria, we began the long climb up and over Mount Lebanon to the coast. Within minutes, we were enveloped in thick cloud, which did help obscure the ugly buildings we passed, but also made the tank outposts, checkpoints and blown-up buildings even more sinister. Patches of snow began to appear and as the taxi wheezed over the pass at the top, there were icy grey mounds of it piled around the checkpoint, where cold, inadequately-dressed soldiers, both Lebanese and Syrian, shivered pitifully in the downpour.

As we began our decent to the coast, clouds still obscured the view. I’d read that seen from the mountains, the Mediterranean was a particularly beautiful sight, but as the rain was now falling even harder, it didn’t appear that was something I was going to see for myself. 

Slowly, towns and villages began to appear, but with the exception of the occasional shop, most of the buildings visible from the road were badly damaged, their doors and windows gone and gaping holes blown through what once must have been lovely sandstone walls. Some had collapsed almost completely, their floors sandwiched together, hanging by rusting steel rebar at odd angles.

My impression of Lebanon wasn’t improving. Maybe in better weather, maybe after 20 years of rebuilding it might be worth visiting. But now? If the towns in the Beka’a and the mountains looked this bad, I wondered what kind of mess Beirut would be in, after all, that was where the heaviest fighting had taken place. Dreams be damned, I told myself, Lebanon was a terrible mistake. I’d go straight back to Damascus and begin making my way to China in the morning.

Then, just as we arrived on the outskirts of the old mountain resort town of Aley, which was marginally more intact than the towns we’d driven through higher up, everything changed.

As the cab rounded a bend, we broke through the clouds. A thousand or so metres below us, Beirut cae into view, a triangular peninsula of towers that thrust out into the grey, wind-flecked waters of the Mediterranean. 

The rain, which had been battering the cab relentlessly all the way from the border, stopped so abruptly, it was as if God had turned off a tap. The clouds parted, and a beam of intense sunlight burst through the gloom and struck Beirut and the Mediterranean, turning the sea into a shimmering sheet of silver and glittering off the rain-wet windows of the city, which was transformed into a dramatic blaze of golden, fiery lights. 

My mouth dropped. My heart stopped. And there, on the road from Damascus, I fell in love, at very first sight.

 

Chapter 16: Of God and Global Warming

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Refreshed and ready to take on the world, we return to the trail and continue on towards the shrine of Nabi Ayoub, the Prophet Job, which is perched on a hill, thickly forested in twisted, gnarled Mediterranean pine, just above the town of Niha.

Curiously, Niha is one of at least three towns to bear the same name in Lebanon – a fact that led to some confusion when I tried to visit the Roman temples of the Niha over in the northern Beka’a Valley shortly after I arrived in Lebanon, and found myself arguing with the taxi driver who insisted that the only Niha in Lebanon was the town in the Shouf. Back in 1998, with no cellphone, no Google and no guidebook to hand, it was hard to prove otherwise and the driver argued so convincingly that I thought I might have been mistaken, and so we’d ended up outside the decidedly un-Roman fortress we had walked past again the previous day, instead.

Nabi Ayoub is an important Druze shrine and the guides have arranged for us to be met by its guardian, a Druze elder, or uqqal, who regales us with the story of the much put-upon prophet, who according to the Druze, lived in Niha for seven years.

In the uqqal’s telling of the story, Job is a paragon of extremes, a man of unmatched wealth and poverty, happiness and sadness and, of course, health and sickness. He’s also a heavenly punching bag and is afflicted with a terrible ravaging of the skin, just to see if this will cause him to renounce his faith. To further encourage his defection, Job loses his wealth, his happiness and his children – the latter conceivably a blessing, as he apparently had ten of them – and ends up so badly ravaged that he cannot walk and is carted around in a basket, as parasites eat away at his flesh. 

In a further act of divine love, the parasites are prevented from eating away at his brain, because it is the seat of his spirit, and so Job remains lucid, and fully aware of his torment, which, as he is also immortal and so unable to die, threatens to continue until the end of time. Talk about the dangers of catching a deity’s eye.

Perhaps the only bright spot in Job’s tale of woe is that he somehow ends up on this mountaintop above Niha, and so as the prophet decays slowly in his basket, cared for by his long-suffering wife, he does at least have a cracking view.

Eventually, God tires of his little test, and sends Gabriel and Jesus to Job to deliver the good news that he' has passed. Announcing that his suffering is at an end, the Archangel strikes a rock with his sword, causing a spring to gush out of a rock. He instructs Job to bathe and instantly, the prophet is not only healed but is also transformed from an doddering old man into a strapping 20 year-old. For extra fun, Gabriel decides to test Job’s wife, who has probably had the life sucked out of her already by the loss of her family, her comfortable life and decades as a pariah as she carted her putrefying husband around in a basket, by asking her to pick the rejuvenated Job out of a crowd of people, if she can. When she does, presumably passing the ‘good girl’ test herself, she too is made young again. 

The kicker – well apart from the obvious disconnect between the God of mercy and love and this Old Testament sadist - and especially if, like me, you harbour aspirations to immortality, is that the water that makes Job young, also makes him mortal. Healthy and now free to die - no sense in having too much of a good thing, is there ? - he and his wife leave Niha and is the fact that both Iraq and Oman lay claim to his body is an indication, apparently begin wandering the region. 

The Druze version of the story an interesting take on the Biblical one and although the Archangel’s fountain of youth no longer flows (see above), there are a few massive oak trees nearby that legend has it were planted by Job as thanks for his deliverance.

As for Madame Job, whether she is also buried with her husband, or decided that as she was young again and no longer needed to carry that basket, it was time to break free and live her Very Best Life, well that is not part of the story, but I like to think she chose to settle on some nice beachfront in Byblos or perhaps retire to a life of perfumed indolence in a townhouse in Tyre, rather than traipse around the sun-baked wastelands of Arabia following hubbie. 

As the day draws to a close, we descend to the town through the forest. The path is steep, and rocky and after almost an hour of knee-knackering downhill walking, we reach Niha and climb onto the trail bus, which is taking us to our lodgings for the night over in the lovely, but very empty village of Ba’adaran, which like many villages in the mountains is a virtual ghost town during the week, as most inhabitants live and work in the coastal cities. 

The star of breakfast the following morning – apart from the irresistibly fluffy and very friendly dog – is an amazingly simple dish called emayche that is made of a mix of burghul and kishk, with chopped onions and a hint of cinnamon, that is drizzled in olive oil and eaten with tart, crumbling goat cheese and nutty, chewy rounds of marqook bread, which I consume in vast quantities. 

Shamefully stuffed – speaking for myself, anyway - we are driven back to the trailhead in Niha and set off for our evening destination in Ma’asser el-Shouf, a lovely village of traditional Levantine homes, with an unfortunate civil war past, that was once home to a mixed Christian-Druze population but which is now almost exclusively Druze.

We begin with a long and surprisingly taxing climb up and out of Niha, part of which follows a massive and impressively oriented vertical rock ridge that looks like a gargantuan, boulder-strewn stone dorsal fin cleaving the grassy waters of the hillside. It’s one of many in this part of the mountains, the remains of a once submerged layer of ancient seabed that tectonic forces have pushed out of the water and exposed in vertical folds that undulate across the slopes.

My healthy appreciation of breakfast probably hasn’t helped but the climb leaves me feeling wobbly and quite winded, so I’m grateful when the trail finally begins to level out again. 

As it turns out, this section of the trail is not the most interesting, especially after the visual drama of the first six days of the walk, but it does take us into start of the Shouf Biosphere, the largest of Lebanon’s (erratically) protected areas, through which we will walk for the next three days.

For the first time, I notice that Salam, the only other walker who is going all the way to the end the trail with me, and who is on the board of the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, has attached a black bin bag to her backpack and as we walk, she picks up recyclable rubbish that she finds along the trail, which she drops off at the end of the day. It’s a reminder of how seriously the association takes their job, not only maintaining and reblazing the trail and forging links between walkers and local residents that benefit rural families financially, but also reporting issues of illegal dumping and deforestation to relevant local authorities. 

When I ask her a bit later how much good that does, she points out that even though most local authorities either lack the will, the organisation or, more frequently, the means to tackle such issues (the issue of funding for local authorities is a long and arcane subject better suited to another book), at least by letting them know that infractions are taking place, they cannot say they were unaware.

It also presents an opportunity for the Association to work with those authorities willing to step in, by raising money for specific projects, or helping them find foreign partners or funding they might not be aware exist. It’s a useful reminder of the overall ethos that the LMT is not just a walking trail, it’s part of a project to help regenerate rural communities in a country in which anywhere that is not Beirut or to a lesser extent, one of its other cities, is usually starved of funding. 

After a relatively short day, we reach Ma’asser in mid-afternoon, a couple of hours after lunch. We’re taken to the Biosphere Centre, a couple of beautiful old sandstone buildings on the main street that have been artfully converted, where we are given a short talk about the kind of flora and fauna we’ll see in the Biosphere and then watch a couple of short nature films, including one that is a compilation of hidden camera shots of wolves, which have begun to recover after decades of being hunted to near extinction. 

We also watch a short film about projects to reforest Mount Lebanon, site of the world’s first documented deforestation – referred in the Epic of Gilgamesh – and which has been famously bare since late Antiquity, which includes a million-tree corridor of Cedars that are currently being planted to link the two small existing forests in Tannourine and Al Arz, in northern Lebanon. Assuming, of course, that climate change, which has already caused many of the country’s trees at lower levels to sicken and die, doesn’t make it impossible for the giant beauties to grow here, at all.

Both impressed and heartened – for who does not like to know about things that are going right, for a change - we trundle off to spend the night in the dormitories of a church school in Ma’asser, where, because it is Friday, our little band of long-distance walkers is joined by a massive influx of weekenders, who will be with us again until Sunday night. Naturally the arak flows and soon, the singing and dancing begins, and while I join the festivities for a while, I’ve been walking for a week and still have three to go, so with a bit of a bah and a humbug, I try to get an earlyish night, but whether it is the dancing and clapping, the excessive but excellent dinner of dinner of potato and pumpkin kibbe and kishk soup, or the surprising heat, I am unable to sleep and so, after a great deal of grimacing, I give up and decamp to the library, where I open the windows, collapse dazed into an old, but extremely comfortable armchair, curl up and finally, blessedly, manage to get a little sleep. 

 

 

Chapter Three: On the Road, At Last

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I’m not sure when I first had the bright idea of walking from one end of Lebanon to the other.

I vaguely recall it surfacing during a rowdy, arak-fuelled conversation in late 2006, when getting up into the mountains, away from the daily ache of shattered dreams and lives seemed the best of all possible escapes. Like most other dreams that year, it was quickly forgotten, washed away by the gritty reality of daily life in a country picking up the pieces.

Around the same time, I began hearing of plans to create a national walking trail. The Lebanon Mountain Trail, as it was going to be called, would run the length of the country and was being funded by an American aid agency.

More than Lebanon’s first properly blazed long-distance walking trail, the LMT’s goal was to encourage people to explore the more remote parts of their country, to bring much-needed income to the long-neglected villages along the route and to show the world that Lebanon was more than a series of heart-rending headlines.

When the Trail finally opened a few years later, security issues (for which read Hezbollah positions along the southern border and Israeli position on the other side) meant that it couldn’t quite run border-to-border. It ran from Marjayoun, a sleepy town in formerly Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, which looks down over a vertiginous escarpment into the Galilee, to Aandqet, an even sleepier village in formerly Syrian-occupied northern Lebanon, these days just a hop and a skip from the war in Syria. Some 470 kilometres long, the Trail took 26 days to walk, non-stop.

With the exception of the first two sections, which snaked east up into the arid Anti-Lebanon and the foothills of Mount Hermon before turning west and crossing the southern Beka’a Valley, it ran for most of the way along the more lushly forested length of Mount Lebanon. Generally oscillating between 1200 and 1500 metres, it reached a maximum height of 2200 metres and a low of just over 500 metres and the 26 sections averaged between 16 and 20 kilometres in length.

The sections were conceived as a single day’s walk, starting and ending in a village, where overnight accommodation, breakfast and an evening meal could be arranged in local homes. This provided cash-strapped villages along the trail with extra revenue and the interaction between walkers, most of whom were urbanites, and villagers, many of whom felt abandoned by Brave New Lebanon’s focus on its cities, created a positive dialogue that gave villagers renewed pride in their fading culinary and cultural traditions and gave walkers an opportunity to see a side of the country’s cultural richness that many urbanites had no idea existed. 

Because it was cobbled together from ancient and often overgrown walking paths, including Roman roads, watercourses and goat tracks, the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. In couple of places, it led through mine fields, and while these were clearly signposted and a corridor of land on either side of the trail had been demined by the Lebanese army, the Association still recommended that first-time walkers hire local guides, just in case. 

I had signed up to join its annual spring walkthrough. In addition to inaugurating the hiking season, the walkthrough permitted the Association to make sure trail blazing was still visible and that paths hadn’t been swept away by landslides, avalanches, tarmacked or even built over, a constant threat in a country where land records were still somewhat chaotic.

So on the first Friday in April – ironically, April Fool’s Day in 2016 - I joined a small group of weekend walkers and hopped on a bus down to our starting point in Marjayoun.

I’d first visited this pretty southern village, with its cluster of traditional, red-roofed Lebanese houses, during the Israeli occupation when our accommodation for the night, the Dana Hotel in neighbouring Ibl es-Saki, had been a popular journalist hangout. That had been 17 years earlier. When Israel finally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 (apart from a brief reinvasion in 2006, of course), the South had found peace and the journalists, for the most part, had departed. 

What it hadn’t really found was prosperity.

Though many expatriate Lebanese visited during the summer, here at the tail end of winter, we were the only guests. After a slap-up dinner in the cavernous dining room, graciously provided by a local housewife, eager to introduce us to her village’s most famous dishes, including an especially toothsome take on Kibbet Batata, a mashed potato and bulgur wheat concoction sandwiched around a layer of preserved meat that she served baked in a large round dish saniyye-style, we all bundled into bed, to get as much sleep as possible before our 5:30am start.

Although I’d been dreading it, rising at the crack of dawn turned out to be much less painful than feared and I practically bounced out of bed at 5am. Throwing open the curtains, I could see the sun was beginning to rising and the sky looked perfect and cloudless. After a quick shower, I threw on my clothes, laced up my boots for the first time and grabbed my bag.

Breakfast was a feast. Sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, fresh labneh, a tangy Lebanese yoghurt thick enough to spread, homemade jam, fuul, a hearty cumin-scented stew of fava beans and chickpeas lifted with a squeeze of lemon juice, and rounds of flat Lebanese bread, still warm from the oven.

Stuffed to bursting, we wasted another thirty minutes waiting for a couple of slug-a-beds who’d slept through their alarms, before piling into the bus for the ride back to the official starting point in Marjaayoun. As the collective energy overflowed, the 10-minute drive was all jokey camaraderie, shining eyes and raucous laughter. Our eagerness to get on the trail was tangible.

But just over two hours later, we were still in Marjayoun.

The last time I had spent this much time there had been in 2000, when I was covering the Israeli withdrawal. Then, the streets had been deserted and the shops shuttered. A pall of smoke drifted across the town from the smouldering ruins of the barracks, blown by the Israelis as they’d pulled out a few hours earlier. In this jittery interregnum between one order departing and the next one arriving, we stopped to interview the few inhabitants we could find, and their chest-thumping expressions of patriotism and relief at the end of the occupation had nevertheless been tinged with anxiety over who and what would follow. Then, we’d driven on towards Hasbaya, in pursuit of the last retreating Israeli troops and by the time we drove back later, night was falling and not one of the town’s lights had been on.

Today, the ancestral home of Michael DeBakey, the late American pioneer of open-heart surgery and Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer prize-winning late American journalist, was seething, knee-deep in reporters and television crews. 

It turned out they were there for us, for although this was the seventh time the LMTA had organised a walkthrough, we were still news. The mayor, clearly a master when it came to recognising a shot at national coverage, had organised an official send-off, complete with piping hot tea and an endless supply of some of the best manoushe I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Often, and to my mind, misleadingly described as a Lebanese pizza, this baked, savoury flatbread, which most often comes covered in cheese and a dried thyme mix called za’atar, is traditional breakfast fare, and a personal weakness. Even full of fuul, I couldn’t resist and ended up stuffing a couple into my bag for lunch.

This second breakfast helped take the edge off the inevitable speeches and the pressing of flesh that followed, but as we posed for photos and answered shouted questions, I could sense the collective patience fray. 

Just as it seemed like we might never leave, we were finally on our way.

Well, almost.

We raced off the second the handshakes ended but the camera crews still needed the perfect shot of us setting off. Our two guides, Joseph and Robin, were lumped with the unenviable task of marshalling us towards the old market square, so that we could set off in a more suitably telegenic phalanx. 

Getting a group of fidgety hikers to stand in one place for long is a bit like trying to herd cats. After fifteen minutes of frantic instructions to ‘stay’, ‘group together’ and ‘wave’, as passing cars honked their horns and beaming but bemused townspeople shouted hellos and welcomes, we were finally organised into a cohort tight enough to make a Centurion proud. 

After an eternity, the cameras began to roll and the signal was given to walk, but slowly enough to let the cameramen get their shots. Naturally, this request was ignored. At a pace approximating a controlled trot, we burst out of Marjayoun’s confines, swept past the golden sandstone homes and out into the southern Beka’a. 

The trail pulled us forwards. Open and rolling, our route that day would will take us across the plains and up into the foothills that broke like waves against the majestic flanks of Mount Hermon, passing through lush green valleys that purpled and faded into violet as they rose up, up towards the sky, to a mantle of thick snow sparkling brightly in the morning light. 

It was a perfect day. The sun was warm, the sky as flawless as a Sri Lankan sapphire. As the bees buzzed, a gentle breeze stirred the trees and sent a flock of small birds twittering overhead. Adrift in a landscape of soft greens, gentle purples and bright, floral splashes of colour, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. 

 My shoulders softened and I exhaled in a long, steady stream. Just like that, an invisible weight I had been carrying unnoticed since at least January but also, I suspect, for years longer, melted away. 

Footloose, I was fancy-free. Smiling, I hurried to catch up with the others as we turned off the road and began to walk across the fields in a hubbub of animated chatter.