From Lebanon

2012: The Year in “Wow, that happened?”

Ah, the year-end recap. Some silly things, some momentous things–and not just a rehash of old blog posts. Genuine new material here.

1. We got a pet.
Well, not really. But we did get Sugar Duck, a very easily anthropomorphized sugar canister from Turkey. He speaks with a lisp, and sounds sweet, but sometimes he can be a bit snippy. Peter and I are rapidly progressing toward being one of those awful couples who only talk to each other via hand puppets.

After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!
After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!

2. I made Saveur!
Well, really, the excellent restaurant The Curious Kumquat made Saveur, as #39 in the Saveur 100. It just happened to be my name at the end.

3. I got a cover story in a magazine, and I won an award.
Please indulge my career brags briefly. I was moving too fast this year to fully appreciate these things at the time. Typing it now, I feel kinda bad-ass.

Both were via New Mexico magazine, where I’m always honored to be published. The cover story was this roundup of cool hotels in my home state, in the October ’12 issue.

And the award was from the International Regional Magazine Association, for the feature I wrote in 2011 about taking the train to Las Vegas, NM [PDF].

The best awards are the ones you didn’t even know you were up for. A Macarthur is next, right?

4. I traveled alone throughout the Middle East, and I did not die.
Back in February, I was quoted in a story about how Americans were still traveling to the Middle East.

A reader felt compelled to warn me of my foolhardiness:

Hi,
I know you feel travel to the Arab nations is safe, but you need to appreciate is how fast the situation over there can change and as an American you are a symbol of hate at the moment.

We had the student hiker’s capture, when the USA has plenty of Mountains to climb.

We have the Aid workers freed by the Navy Seals in Somalia; BTW I think 10 Somalia’s were killed. So sad considering the Aid workers could be doing aid work in plenty of places right here in the USA.

Please don’t promote the middle east until women in Saudi Arabia can drive and vote. Or until women can choose their own husband.

[redacted]

Er.

Anyway, “the Arab nations” (I can’t vouch for Iran or Somalia) I visited this year are safe. I even picked up hitchhikers in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE is unintentionally hilarious; Doha is delicious; Lebanon has great hiking; Morocco is full of sweet people.

Actually, everywhere is. I don’t think [redacted] appreciates this, and I feel sad for him.

5. I took up a sport.
If you consider hula hooping a sport. It’s certainly more of a workout than I usually get, a bit of a break from my couch-and-bonbons schedule. And, remarkably, it is the only physical activity I have ever been reasonably good at on first attempt.

6. I made friends in Arabic.
For all my years studying Arabic, I have never actually gotten to know someone in the Mid East purely by speaking in that language. That has a lot to do with studying at fancier schools in Egypt, where most people speak English as a second language.

This year, I went to more French-as-backup countries, and my French sucks. And those countries also happen to have some charming and outgoing–and patient–women I’m honored to have met.

7. I went back to Morocco with my parents.
They spent a lot of time there in the late ’60s, which is why I have the name I have. I also finally figured out what my name is really supposed to be in Arabic.

My dad sat down here and said sardonically, "Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man." Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.
My dad sat down here and said sardonically, “Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man.” Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.

All the details will be in the book.

(Oh, sh*t! The book! Why am I writing this blog post when I should be writing the book?!)

8. I turned 40.
And I feel pretty good about it. Even though I almost immediately had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. Life is so much easier at 40 than at 20. And so is traveling.

9. I might have just hit my limit with traveling.
I hope this isn’t related to the previous point. But it was a long year. As I’m writing this, I should have been on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. But general tiredness and a creeping sense of responsibility made me stay home. What’s happening?!

I do have a book to write (ack, sh*t!), and that requires sitting still. I’m a little behind schedule. After this post, you might not hear from me for another month or so.

(The book, in case you’re new here, has a lot to do with “the Arab nations”–and how they’re a great place to travel.)

******

I dedicate 2012 to all the wonderful people I met on my adventures: Maala, Btissam, Said, Alaa, Mido and family (oh, that was late 2011–but still!), Agnes, Holly, Arva, the women behind Qatar Swalif, Habooba, the Asrani family, and many, many more.

May your 2013 be filled with nourishing food and kind strangers.

Also, many ice cream sundaes!
Also, many ice cream sundaes!

Summer Break #1: Name That Fruit! (A Mediterranean Mystery)

Help me out here, Internet. I’m trying to identify a mystery fruit. Or maybe fruits.

There are three stories to tell:

Incident #1: Lebanon
A nice Druze woman on a bus in the Chouf mountains in Lebanon told me her favorite fruit was Persian aprict–mishmish ajami. She said it stayed green, and was both sweet and sour, and was not very fuzzy.

Sadly, I was scheduled to leave Lebanon just a couple of days later, and had no time to look for this fantastic fruit.

In lieu of a picture of that fruit, or of that woman, here at least is a nice photo of Peter with a Druze man.

Peter's Photo Pro Tips: Always compliment a man on his mustache.

Incident #2: Greece
After the fantastic ladies at our favorite restaurant in Eressos showed us how to make Easter lamb, they pointed to a crate of fruit and told us to help ourselves.

They called the fruit milorodaxino–literally, “apple peach.” From far away, all piled in the crate, the fruit did look like kind of crappy little Golden Delicious apples. Up close, though…best nectarine ever:

The mystery apple peach

And, as you can see, green all the way through.

Was this the phantom Persian apricot, by another name? The farmer who grew the fruit was there outside the restaurant, all burly forearms like Popeye and a mustache to beat the band. He was the only one that grew this fruit, he said. End of story.

Incident #3: Astoria, New York
When we returned to NYC, one of the 24-hour produce stores (yes, we have more than one) had these “honeydew nectarines” in stock:

Honeydew Nectarines

They looked the same, but they were kinda crappy–a little mealy, not intense flavor. The woman who runs the store admitted they were not at their best. It was hard to tell whether it was not the same fruit at all, or just a typically poor American rendition of it.

And because she’s Greek, Peter asked her if she knew if these were the same as the milorodaxino. No, no, she said–those are part apple, and these were part melon.

Er, I think she’s wrong on both counts, because that would be like serious fruit miscegenation, so unfortunately I have to discount her as an unreliable source. But I appreciate that she makes an effort to source new and interesting fruits and veg–we also got these neat bulbous cucumbers from her, and some great liver-colored heirloom tomatoes.

Second data point: After writing all this, I flipped over an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated, and it had an illustration of peaches and nectarines. The Honeydew variety was on there. The issue was from 2002–so this isn’t a new strain.

Further data point: Turkey
Check out these marzipan fruits in a storefront in Istanbul. A couple of them look like they could be the mysterious fruit.

Check out the top row, next to the "kivi"

Ala elma = “ala apple” according to Google translate, which is maybe just the variety name of an apple, like Gala?

Or this one:

Check out the greenish things...

Papaz erik = “pastor plum”

Obviously, the fact that these were rendered in marzipan makes it especially difficult. In retrospect, Peter and I should’ve gone to the adjacent market and looked for the real-fruit equivalents, instead of getting distracted by an antiques store.

So gardeners, travelers, botanists, Lebanese fruit-lovers: tell me what you know. Have you eaten any of these things? Are they all the same? Are they different?

Bottom line, really, is: Did I miss the Best Fruit Ever by not getting those mishmish ajami in Lebanon in the first place?

(If you like stories about cross-cultural plant identification, also check out my old story about purslane[PDF]. That one took years to solve. Now that the internet is more full of information, I expect to solve this question in minutes. Right? Hello? Anyone?)

Summer Break #0.5: Lebanon Mountain Trail

I’m back from an internet vacation, and filing the next rash of posts under “Summer Break.” First, I was in Lebanon. I know it doesn’t look like work, but trust me, I’m writing a book! Later, we went to Greece and Turkey, where I wrote for a bit, and traipsed for a bit. More on that later.

Near the end of my six-week stint in Lebanon, Peter and I planned to hike a few legs of the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a 260-mile north-south route through about two-thirds of the country.

The LMT organization publishes a trail guide, with descriptions of the route (I picked this up in a Beirut bookshop) as well as a series of topo maps for every leg (these I had to buy direct from the LMT). They provide a list of guesthouses and campsites and guides along the route. It’s really very suavely packaged, and inspires confidence.

...the confidence you need to tackle very steep inclines. (All photos courtesy of Peter.)

But then there’s a line in the trail guide, last on a list of bullet points, after the one telling you it’s a good idea to hire a guide: “We walk this trail every year, and there are no land mines. But off the trail…well…”

Actually, that’s  paraphrasing, because I left my trail guide in Beirut. But you get the idea. I sure got the idea: If I were to wander off the trail, who knows what could happen? But I chose to squash down the fear of getting lost and losing my limbs and carry on. Squash, squash, squash.

Because Lebanon is crawling with hikers, all able-bodied, I figured the law of averages was on our side. But I figured it would be better to stick to better-traveled sections of trail, where the chance of getting lost was smaller. (Why didn’t we just hire a guide? you might ask. Well, Peter and I are skilled outdoorspeople who can read topo maps and a compass. But really: We’re introverts and really didn’t feel like chitchatting with a guide all day long.)

I also wanted the start and end points to be places that could be reached by public transport. But I wasn’t so self-sufficient that I wanted to carry camping gear.

The only section that satisfies all these needs–well-marked trail; guesthouses every night; accessible by bus–is legs 19, 20 and 21, between Barouk and Jezzine. A lot of it runs through the Chouf Cedar Reserve, for which there are additional, more current maps available (I picked these up at Antoine in Beirut). This gave me greater confidence in our decision not to hire a guide.

In fact, I got so cocky, I decided we should hike south to north, against the flow of the LMT guide, which describes the route north to south. This turned out to be the least of our worries.

Goats saying, "None shall pass!" on the other hand...that was a serious worry.

If you’re considering this hike, here are some details to know:

  • Hiking south to north is fine. The trail guide is not so detailed that it’s hard to follow the other way. And there were several points on the route (especially hiking down from the Prophet Ayoub shrine to Niha) where we were glad we were going the opposite direction.
  • On leg 21, hiking northbound, once you pass the mountain fort, be sure to stock up on water at the spring. Springs marked on the map farther along the trail were not actually springs–or we couldn’t find them. While you’re filling up your water bottles, consult your two maps–the LMT’s and the Chouf Reserve’s. See where they differ, and follow the Chouf Reserve’s. The LMT directs you through a canyon that is overgrown, and we couldn’t find the trail, and had to backtrack, cursing all the way.
  • The guesthouse in Niha is great. The owner lost his hands to land mines. It’s unsettling, especially if you get lost on the way there, as we did (but you won’t, because you will have followed my advice above). He also works in the reserve cabin by the mountain fort, which you’ll pass on the way from Jezzine. This is convenient, if you’ve neglected to make reservations.
  • Breakfast at the guesthouse in Niha
  • From the Prophet Ayoub shrine down to Niha, there is indeed a trail, as the map suggests, though it’s not well marked at the top, and if you ask anyone, they’ll probably tell you it’s not there. It’s not super well maintained. But it is passable. Just head down through the picnic grounds and keep an eye out for trail blazes.
  • Leaving Niha and heading north, the maps are contradictory, and the trail description isn’t clear. If you head back to where the shrine trail dumped you the day before, don’t cross the river, and at the first opportunity, scramble uphill a short distance to get to a trail running along the irrigation ditch you can see just up the hillside. Leave early in the day–once the trail heads uphill again, away from the irrigation ditch, it’s pretty grueling.
  • We got lost in the last stretch before Maasser ech-Chouf, after Mristi. But we didn’t even realize it because we had convinced ourselves we were following trail blazes, but later realized they were no-trespassing or private-property symbols. The route we went wasn’t terrible, as it’s mostly through fields, and nothing overgrown. There’s another agricultural road a man in Mristi told us about, that goes from near the gas station on the far, far edge of town. Who knows where the real trail is. (Oh, yeah–a professional guide does.)
  • Terraced fields outside of Jezzine
  • The guesthouse in Maasser ech-Chouf is really lovely. The man who runs the shop and restaurant on the plaza is a smooth operator, and he’ll bring you more food than you order, and charge you for it all. But it’s good food, and it’s not expensive, and he’ll probably throw in invigorating herbal concoctions and coffee and sweets and funny hats to wear. Just think of it more as an all-you-can-eat-for-$15 place, rather than an a la carte restaurant.
  • The trail north out of Maasser ech-Chouf (ie, south end of leg 19) is…I don’t know. Let’s just say not well marked. This is the one point where we definitely would’ve been happier with a guide. But we were so bent on leaving before the sun got hot that we didn’t want to wait for the guide to get into the office. We wound up scrabbling up a really steep mountainside and flopping out on the road, and having to hitch a ride to the Cedar Reserve entrance. It wasn’t pretty.
  • Peter's battle wounds from clambering up the hill. Also: holes in both our pants.
  • There are no springs between Maasser ech-Chouf and Barouk. But the trail, after the uphill out of Maasser, isn’t strenous, and partially shaded. Plan accordingly.
  • There are 800 vicious varieties of thistles in Lebanon. Plan accordingly, with thick socks or long pants.
  • The guesthouse in Barouk needs to be booked at least two days in advance, said the owner on the phone, and it was so empty we were suspicious it’s ever open. Humph. But then we hopped a bus to Beiteddine, and walked to Deir al-Qamar, and finally found a hotel that wasn’t exorbitant. (But, it should be said, the owner was a bit appalled at our sweaty appearance–out of context of the hiking trail, we did look like filthy vagrants, by Lebanese uber-grooming standards. Keep this in mind if you plan extensive backpacking.)

Did I mention land mines too much and scare you? I’m sorry–that shouldn’t have happened. The trail is land-mine-free!

Just focus on the idyllic parts...which were pretty idyllic.

I loved hiking in Lebanon–we met nice people and saw millennia-old trees. I’d go back and do it again–I’d love to do some of the more northern legs especially. The Chouf is interesting terrain, and a nice mix of wild territory and farms.

And the efforts of the Lebanon Mountain Trail crew are admirable–it’s an excellent project, and I hope to take part in it again soon.