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18/01 – Damour to Mleeta – 4 hours with the ‘speical police’

March 4, 2011

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We leave Chebabs house early in the morning as they have to travel to Tripoli to work as gardeners. We set off up the road we think is the correct one. During our adventures in Tripoli our map holder extraordinare, Harry managed to lose the map so we we’re now relying on our instincts. Good thing one of the guys from the barbers the night before flags us down tells us we’re going completely the wrong way and then offers us some tea. He proudly shows us his fine place overlooking the sea, from what we can understand he’s either built it himself or has had a sizeable role in it creation. Inside he has a wood fire burning and crap american cop films on the TV. In the corner sits a huge Christmas tree and nativity scene which he made himself. We sit glued to the screen drinking tea and eating freshly roasted chesnuts. He’s really great and tells us that he’s a banana eating champion in Lebanon and that he’s taking part in competition on TV in 2 days – Absolute gold, sipping tea with a Lebanese banana eating champion who carves nativity scenes, love it.

We make our way and pass through a small waterside city and i spot a huge pelican across the road. I go to investigate this enormous bird, the guy next to it chucks a Marlboro packet at it – poor bird. Further on we pass a municipal landfill – piles of rubbish 3 storeys high and stinking to high heaven. Keen to have a final swim in the Med before we head inland and away from any large swimable water mass for the rest of the trip we go in search of a bit of beach. We head down a small farm track in between banana plantations and come out on a gorgeous secluded beach, theres a bit of rubbish but we manouvre ourselves so it doesnt affect our experience. Clothes off and into the sea, its decently warm and feels amazing to be swimming in the sea. We eat our lunch on some rocks whilst drying in the sun

We continue to Mleeta through areas with black flags hanging from lamp posts – Hezbollah territory. Peeling off the main road following the brown cultural landmark signs we’re stopped by a guy sitting outside his shop. He assures us there’s no problem and calls someone on his mobile. Within 2 minutes a car and a motorbike have arrived and again they’re asking for our passports and looking through our cameras. Again we’re really wary of handing over such important articles but in the situation it’s difficult to know what to do and based on the experience yesterday and the fact we’re in Hezbollah area which is renowned for ensuring they know exactly what non-locals are up to we hand them over.

However it seems they want to take them away on the motorbike and we’re not comfortable with that so we all get in the car with the passports and are driven to a ‘mosque’ up the road. Every couple of miunutes they atempt to comfort us by saying there’s no problem but there’s no way of knowing and the situation doesn’t exactly make us feel at ease. We’re taken to the basement and sat in a cold room with appalling acoustics and ticking clock. A stern mannered guy in a polo baseball cap and timberland boat shoes systematically asks us questions about our family, where we’ve been, where we’re going, what we’re doing here for a good few hours.

In addition to our cameras they want to see any phones or electrical equipment, still very wary of the situation we’ve said that we don’t have anything other than 1 camera. A guy walks in carrying Harrys iPhone and places it on the table, we sink into our chairs. We’ve done a good job of alleviating their suspicions that we are Israeli spies up till now but finding this puts us back a few steps. They’re understanding of our concerns about normally dressed people with no form of identification asking us for the most important things we own and we hand over the rest of the electronic equipment that we own for them to check. After 4 hours of questioning we’re taken upstairs through a computer room where some people are busying themselves on some data software, the screen full of graphs and maps.. a mosque my foot! We’re bought some soft drinks and some chocolate bars and the atmosphere has completely changed, their not as suspicious of us and they ask us if we have any questions about Hezbollah, keen to allevaite any bad assciations they have been given in western media. We learn that they guy interviewing us joined at 16 and has travelled around the world and speaks 4 languages, theyre very secretive of names and exact details and won’t tell us if this is HQ but they’re friendly enough – “you are good people, Hezbollah are good people” is heard throughout our experience.

Keen to avoid any more experiences such as this we ask if we can camp somewhere safely where we won’t arise suspicion and they agree to take us donw the hill to somewhere safe. We load the bikes in to an ambulance (The guy who stopped us is also a paramedic, which is something we learnt about Hezbollah, most have normal day jobs) and are taken to a car park close to where we were stopped. Feeling pretty exhausted by the whole thing setting up camp, eating dinner and hitting the sack is all we can think about. So when another 4×4 pulls up and asks us what we’re doing our heart sinks a bit. We explain that we’ve been to the mosque and spoken with the master, a quick phone call ans all seems ok, great back to camp. 10 minutes later another car pulls up with different people inside, night patrols particularly at this tense political time in Lebanon and in this key region would i imagine have increased dramatically. We had hoped our questioning and subsequent vindication from any suspicious behaviour would have led to a call out on the radio that 3 british cyclists we’re ok to camp where we were but no such luck. We tell them the same information “we have spoken with the master in the mosque at the top of the hill,” they make a phone call and everything is ok.

And so we’re left for 5 minutes until the next turns up, our explanation doesn’t wash and we have to wait for someone else to arrive. Another 4×4 rolls up and a guy in a ski jacket gets out and speaks perfect English to us. He questions us and leafs through our passports as we tell him everything that has happened to us. He tells us that the guys that arrived are local people who are worried about the political situation and keen to keep a close eye on whats going on in their area. We knew what was going on with the political situation in Lebanon, with the recent collapse of the government but had perhaps been naive to base the entire countries response on a placid atmosphere in Beirut and not to think of its repercussions throughout the country. With Hezbollah ministers removed from the government by Hassan Nasrallah people in this region feel particularly vulnerable and so any behaviour which is deemed out of place is quickly confronted. Our mode of transport in these cold months (for this region, it’s like summer for us!) during this tense political time and in such close proximity to Israel has landed us in these situations.

Feeling tired, exhausted and just wanting the day to end without anymore curve balls we ask if we can sleep anywhere where we won’t arise any suspicion. Again our stuff is loaded into a car and we attempt to follow the car on our bikes up a hill to an ominous looking building. We’re taken into the council building adonred with flags which we now know to be of the Amal group and sat in a room with two beds, a desk and 5 or so guys of varying ages sitting around drinking coffee and smoking shisha. ‘Arthur’ the English speaking man exudes authority within the group as he smoke his cigarette through a holder and starts to ask questions about who we are and what we’re doing, all tinged with a fair dose of suspicion. He keeps telling us that you can never know who people are, leaving us with a slighlty uneasy feeling that although he understands we’re young and are just on an adventure he still isn’t 100% satisfied. We ask how his English is so good and he tells us that he studied Business in Portsmouth, where he met his English wife and has now returned to southern Lebanon. Hungry, we’re allowed to use the kitchen to cook our meal and then retire on the floor in our sleeping bags line astern whilst 2 of the guys go to sleep in the beds. What a day!

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