Saturday, August 10, 2019

Race Report: Beirut Marathon

I would've never thought to be going to Lebanon to run a marathon.  My friends Zander and Richard had been the US ambassadors of the race for a couple years, and when I started to run more marathons (including international races), this was one of the first that they had tried to convince me to do.  2018 became that year, and I cemented plans to head to Beirut at the end of the summer for November, over Veterans Day weekend.

Lebanon is a unique destination for many. Despite having 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline and forested mountain ranges, as well as some of arguably the most delicious food in the Middle East, its well documented past has prevented tourism from reaching its full potential.  While the country is at relative peace internally at the moment, it was only thirty years ago that it was engaged in a fifteen year bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990 that revolved around a number of issues that dominated regional politics in the Middle East, including the Palestine-Israel conflict, Cold War competition, Arab nationalism and political Islam.  Plus, not having very good relationships with its neighbors, in particular Israel to the south, doesn't necessarily connote a travel destination.

Unfortunately, many travelers still believe that safety in both Beirut and Lebanon is an issue. But today, Lebanon, including Beirut, is one of the safest and most liberal countries in the Middle East. The only reasons why it’s not considered as such are the media and inaccurate government travel advice and warnings, including the US Department of State, who puts travel to Lebanon at a risk level 3. Although Lebanon is located in a highly turbulent region, the government's investment in military security here is quite substantial; soldiers and checkpoints are found in absolutely every corner of the country, especially in Beirut.

Driving through Beirut to my hotel!
I flew to Beirut via Paris on Friday after work, at first a bit concerned with our departure considering I only had an hour and a half of a connection in Paris and the weather in New York was not great.  But it was not a concern, and we took off and arrived right on time. The Paris to Beirut flight was also on time, and I landed in the early afternoon at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport, getting through immigration fairly quickly (American citizens can obtain a visa on arrival for free).  I booked a two night travel package through the marathon's official tour operator, Kurban Tours, which included transfers to and from the airport and transfer to start line on the day of the marathon for $230, at 35 Rooms Hotel, located in the popular tourist neighborhood of Hamra.

The course map, in neon lights!
Beirut traffic was as expected, and it took about 30-40 minutes to get to the hotel via the main four lane motorway from the airport into the city. Traffic was much more congested when we reached Hamra Street, and it took a bit of time before arriving at the hotel. I checked in and made my way to the room, which was ENORMOUS for just me.  After a quick shower to wash off the long travel day, I got an Uber to the race expo, located at "Train Station – Mar Mikhael," a former train station along Beirut's long defunct rail system, now turned into a bar/restaurant/event space.  It had rained the night before, and some of the roadway getting to the expo across town was partly underwater - but it didn't stop the car from going through!

"We Fill the Heart of Beirut"
At the expo, I picked up my race bib and also purchased a nice branded hoodie featuring the race's logo and catchphrase, "We Fill the Heart of Beirut," then found Richard and Zander, as well as my friend Johannes from Zurich (and his friend Ben from Mannheim, Germany), who were there to meet with other ambassadors as well as overseas guests who were members of both Marathon Globetrotters and the Marathon Country Club.  Among these runners, I was introduced to Budiaman (Budi for short), originally from Indonesia, who now lived in Berlin, but had also spent some time living in Australia, England, and the Netherlands over the years, and had been a member of both Sydney and London Frontrunners. We quickly learned that not only did we run around the same pace, but we both had about the same amount of marathons under our belt - though I had been filling my schedule up with races within the US, while he was checking off European countries.  We ended up becoming fast friends, and decided to head out to get dinner as I was starving.
With Budi, Richard, Johannes, and Ben
Posing with Budi near the oversized medal!
A bite to eat with Budi
The rain had restarted when we left, so after grabbing an Uber, we made our way back to Hamra (where he was also staying) and decided to go to Bardo, a cafe/restaurant serving Mediterranean and Asian specialties that also doubled as one of Beirut's few gay bars. We had a lot of great conversation, talking about our respective marathon experiences over the last few years. After dinner, we headed back to our respective hotels, and being exhausted from my travels promptly went to sleep as I had an early wake up call the next morning for the race!

Lebanese Army band at the start
On race morning, I woke up just before 5am, to be ready for pickup to transfer to the startline by 5:30, but I got a call from the front desk that the taxi was waiting for me at 5:20, so I rushed out the door and was the first person in the van.  We proceeded to another hotel to pick up a few more runners (from France, Slovakia, and Canada) before heading near to the start line venue at the Beirut waterfront, just down the street from some road closures that were already in effect. Speaking a little bit with the Canadian woman, I learned she was spending three weeks in the Middle East, and just two weeks prior ran a marathon in Erbil, Iraq.  Who knew there was one there in this current political climate?

The elite runners preparing to start
I separated off to find the entrance to the VIP section, armed with the credentials Richard provided me at the expo the day before, and immediately found Johannes, still dressed warmly pre-race with only 35 minutes before the race start. While announcements were being made and the Lebanese Army band started playing some music, a few other friends were mulling around and I grabbed some of the mixed nuts that catering was passing around to have some food in my stomach. Before long, we were being escorted toward the start line, somewhat haphazardly and chaotically, lining up after the para-athletes while the elites were still being organized in a group next to the start corrals.  It was all a bit of a mess, and eventually, things were sorted out with the elite athletes moving to where they needed to go and the rest of us behind them, self-seeding.
Just before starting the race!
Running along the Paris Corniche
Eventually, 6:30 came and we were off!  I took my time to wait for some similarly-paced runners to come by me (and for my watch to grab a satellite signal) before I crossed the start mats as we made our way westward along the waterfront on Paris Corniche. It was a beautiful morning in Beirut, 66º, as we hugged the coastline. Within the first kilometer we passed by Zaitunay Bay, the quayside commercial and tourist strip around the West Marina; and most notably, the St. Georges Hotel, a landmark building from the 1920s that sustained quite a bit of damage from the Lebanese Civil War that ravaged the country for decades.  The bomb blast that killed former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (whose name also adorns the airport in Beirut) in 2005 seriously damaged the building, which was being restored at the time of his assassination. Work to renovate and reopen the hotel has since stalled in a dispute with Solidere, the planning and redevelopment organization that is responsible for the rebuilding of the Beirut Central District since the end of the war, and the hotel has remained closed for more than a decade.  A "Stop Solidere" protest sign hangs on the scaffolding.
St. Georges Hotel with the "Stop Solidere" sign.
Running toward the lighthouse
We continued along the waterfront, enjoying the DJs playing great music - many pop remixes - almost every quarter mile within the first 10K of the race. As the marathon course passed the Beirut Lighthouse, we eventually reached a turnaround point (the first out-and-back of the day), where we ran along the other side of the boulevard headed westward.  Along the way, we could see the half marathoners begin their race, a half hour after ours began, and soon, their speediest runners began to speed right past us along the same route.  These early miles took us past the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East; as well as the historic Phoenicia Hotel, a 5-star luxury hotel in the neighborhood of Minet El Hosn. Four miles have passed; each mile just under 10 minutes per mile, a pretty decent pace for the start of this race.

American University of Berlin
We turned right onto General Francois El Hajj Street, which had a small gradual downhill before we could see the road rise upward, passing more highrises in the city center such as the sharply angled Berytus Park Building, slightly offset from the road, and the Bank Audi Headquarters at the end of the street.  When we reached the top of that hill, we turned left, following Bab Idriss and Waygand Street eastward. We passed by the Beirut Souks, a major shopping district that is a reconstruction of the old medieval market, after it sustained irreparable damage from the war.  Containing over 200 shops, 25 restaurants and cafes, a science museum, entertainment center, movie theatre, periodic street markets, piazzas, and public spaces, it is Beirut's largest and most diverse shopping and leisure area. It was rebuilt by Solidere according to the ancient Greek street grid, maintaining the historic landmarks and pre-war street names.  Though our surroundings were quite cosmopolitan, we were quickly brought back to the reality that we were in the Middle East, running a past a couple historic mosques in Beirut's downtown, including the Al-Omari Grand Mosque (dating back to 635 AD as a Byzantine Church) and the Emir Mansour Assaf Mosque (inaugurated in 1597), both fully refurbished and restored in the 21st Century after war had damaged their exteriors.

We passed Foch and Allenby Streets, the two main north-south avenues that formed the origin of the orthogonal grid of Beirut’s new waterfront district.  We continued on along Waygand, passing by Martyrs Square and the heart of the city, with the massive Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, the blue-domed mosque that dominates the city's skyline, and the site of our finish line. Waygand became Charles Helou Highway, and we began to run on the closed off wide motorway that my Uber driver had taken me down the day before to the expo; I was a bit concerned that we'd run into that major puddle on the roadway, but I had nothing to be worried about - despite the wet weather the night before, whatever water was on Charles Helou Highway was gone! We would run along this street for about a mile and a half, running by the Port of Beirut (one of the largest and busiest in the eastern Mediterranean) to our left, before turning right onto an unassuming street called El Khodor, just after a Total gas station.

Out on the quiet Sea Side Road
We turned left onto Armenia Street, crossing over a bridge over the Beirut River, the natural border between the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Governorates, before being directed to turn left onto a dusty and really shady looking side road that took us out to our second long out-and-back of the day along Sea Side Road. We would go out some three miles along Sea Side Road, out into the northeastern suburbs of Dora and Jdeideh.  This segment of the race was not that scenic, very industrial and a bit out of the way; it took us out to a few oil and gas refineries and factories that were closed for the day (and probably made sense to be part of the route, so that it wouldn't impede on the daily lives of those in the more residential parts of the city.)  The lead runners of the half marathon were already on their way back just as I started this part of the course, only 4km from their finish line. One of the notable landmarks along this road was running along the backside of the massive 80,000 square meter City Mall, one of Lebanon's largest malls.  Half marathoners had their turnaround point not too far after the mall, right around the 14 km mark, while we went on for another kilometer.

Very dusty on Sea Side Road
We got closer and closer to the turnaround point just as the multilaned Dora Highway (a continuation of the Charles Helou Highway) started to appear to our right.  Strangely, the Canadian Embassy was all the way out here, which I thought was strange for being so far from the city center, but later I'd realize they weren't the only country with embassies outside of the city; it made sense, not only for security reasons, but also when I learned more about the civil war - Beirut became split along sectarian lines and East Beirut (controlled by the army with the support of Christian militias) was considered safer than the west, which was controlled by Shiite Muslim militias.  The further east we got, the more we encoutnered some massive construction projects actively happening along the highway, in particular some onramps merging into the westbound lanes. It was a bit of a dusty mess as we ran through here, and I had wished I brought a buff to cover my face as we continued on.  Before long, though, we reached our turnaround point, and began the long slog all the way back to where we had turned onto this street.  My last several miles all stayed around the 10 1/2 minute per mile range, giving me good hope to get to the halfway point in at least 2:15.
An out and back past an industrial/manufacturing area
Street art along Sea Side Road
Dates served at an aid station
When we got back to where we had turned onto Sea Side Road, we were directed through some side roads before returning to Armenia Street, where we began another eastward trek, first through the busy commercial center of Bourj Hammoud, the heavily Armenian-populated municipality that oversees the Dora suburb we had just ran through.  I did make my 2:15 goal for the first half, and we continued on, back through Dora, though this time on the other side of the highway.  We veered slightly left onto another road, called El Sekkeh, eventually hugging the already bustling Dora Highway's eastbound lanes - literally, a lane closed off just for us. Thankfully, running along the busy highway was shortlived, and we were directed toward St. Joseph Road, where we ran through a fairly highly populated commercial area, a very different surrounding compared to what we had just run on the out-and-back along Sea Side Road. We eventually crossed the fairly busy Mirna Chalouhi Boulevard (a crossing thankfully managed by local policemen directing the traffic), before continuing into the heart of the suburb of Jdeideh. We passed an aid station staffed by members of a Lebanese scout troup offering dates (so uniquely Middle East!) to runners.  It was a delicious treat halfway through the race!

New Jdeideh Road
Situated in the center of Jdeideh is a beautiful clock tower, standing opposite the local town hall building. After passing around it, we headed up New Jdeideh Street, the main road through the center of the town, adorned by metal archways all along the closed off street.  Runners were coming back in the other direction, giving me the first inkling we were now on our third out-and-back section of the course.  The route took us back once again toward Dora Highway, up next to a jumbled knot of overpasses that merged with Mirna Chalouhi Boulevard, while we ended up on Zalka Main Road out to the village of Zalka, more of the same that we had seen before, but less rundown; perhaps a little more affluent area? Along the way I spotted Richard and Zander on the other side of the road, headed back only a few kilometers ahead of me. The road was separated by a median, a cement barrier in the middle of the road raised about a foot with some nicely manicured shrubbery planted within. We continued to the furthest east point of the race, out into the village of Jal el Dib, a view out into the more mountainous towns of Antelias and Naqqache in the northern edges of Greater Beirut, before reaching our turnaround point just after the 26 km (~16 miles) mark.
Near the turnaround point with Antelias and Naqqache in the distance
Jdeideh Square and Clock Tower
We returned back along the road, where I spotted Budi on the other side of the road.  He had a rough start, but was getting by, pushing himself as best as he could.  As the three hour mark raced by, we retraced our steps all the way back to Jdeideh, where we rounded the clock tower, then continued on along El Madafen Street to Asseily Street. We turned right onto Mar Youhanna Street crossing through the village of Bouchrieh, then northwestward along the strangely named Electricity Company Street back toward Dora.  We found our way back along St. Joseph Road, then onto Armenia Street for a brief segment, hitting the 20 mile mark before turning left on El Sekkeh as we continued further into Bourj Hammoud. Somewhere along this road, I managed to catch up to Zander and Richard, who were not having the best of days and were needing to walk quite a bit since the last turnaround point.
Along Armenia Street
El Sekkeh Street
We turned on Bchara El Khoury Street, curving its way northward, until we found our way back toward Armenia Street. Crossing back over the bridge over the Beirut River, we then began our last out-and-back section, turning left onto the Pierre Gemayel Corniche/Corniche Al Nahr, a road taking us two miles south, alongside the governorate's boundary line. We veered slightly off of this main road to 88th Street, taking us alongside the Souq el Ahad Sunday Market, a bustling eclectic mix of trinkets, jewelry, antiques, clothes, and electronics, contained in a very crowded and slightly uncomfortable flea market style space tucked underneath a highway bridge. Vendors eyed us runners questionably as we ran by.

Near the BIEL
Eventually, we were directed onto our closed off Beirut Street, running parallel to the busy Emile Lahoud Street right up against the Beirut River. Four hours had gone by as we now ran by the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center, better known as BIEL, Beirut's largest such complex, which hosts exhibitions, conferences, concerts and private events. After the turnaround point, we ran by a fun aid station with volunteers dancing to Middle Eastern pop music with 5K to go.  My watch read just under 4:09, so I was We then turned left into an industrial area known as Jisr el Wati, past the Beirut Art Center. After passing by some fairly new construction, we returned back up Pierre Gemayel Corniche/Corniche Al Nahr to Armenia Street, where we turned left to take us all the way back into the center of Beirut.

2 kilometers left!
With just under two miles to go, turning onto Armenia Street meant ascending a slight hill, probably the hilliest part of the whole race.  After passing by the Mar Mikhael Train Station from the day before's expo, we reached the highest point of the course (only 140 feet above sea level) at about the 25.5 mile mark. We continued westward along the street, and I became more confident as the minutes ticked by that I would finish this race under 5 hours, my hope all along. With a mile to go, we ran along Pasteur Street, which turned into El Arz Street. We reached George Haddad Road where we turned left, then running around the edge of the square along Waygand Street to El Shouhada Street, where the finish line waited for us.  Located right next to the Martyrs' Statue in Martyrs Square, runners were guided to the finish line by a cavalcade of dancers in traditional dress. I happily finished the race in 4:51:18, as I made my way to the post-finish VIP party near the awards stage.
Nearing the finish... roughly 1 kilometer to go!
Dancers in traditional dress at the urging us on to the finish line
Victory Headstand, Al-Amin Mosque
I grabbed some well deserved food (or at least what was left!) from the VIP party, many of which was being cooked on the spot by chefs at makeshift ovens in the finish area. There were even couches and divans where we could rest our tired feet, which I definitely took advantage of! It was right around noon when I finally left to make my way back to my hotel, about a 1.5 mile walk.  After getting a stranger to take my headstand photo, posed with the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in the background (getting lots of stares in the process), I found my way back, at one point having to pass through a tunnel with a very awkward and narrow sidewalk path, eventually getting me to Hamra Street.

Jeita Grotto
After a shower and change of clothes, I contacted Budi, who had finished his race and had made his way back to his hotel, too. Still having energy and not wanting to waste the rest of the day, Budi and I met back up again and shared a $16 Uber headed up into the mountains north of Beirut to see Jeita Grotto, a beautiful cave that’s one of the most visited sites in Lebanon. Its upper grotto contains one of the longest stalactites in the world, measuring 8.2 meters. The lower grotto can only be seen by boat ride. It felt very Pirates of the Carribean-like! During this visit, we ended up befriending Shannon, an American living in Saudi Arabia, also in town running the half at the Beirut Marathon! Shannon invited Budi and I to dine with her and her hired driver Ziad at a seaside restaurant, Manuella, in the town of Jounieh - just north of Beirut. Our incredible dinner for four was barely $40 per person, which included several meze platters, a bottle of Lebanese wine, and even a shisha pipe! After dinner, Ziad drove us back to Hamra, since Shannon wasn't staying too far away either.  I went to bed that night with a full stomach!
Jeita Grotto's Lower section, where a boat ride is required.
So much food!!
Good company with Shannon, Ziad, and Budi!
With my flight not leaving til late Monday night, I decided to escape Beirut for the day on Monday, in order to explore more of this unique country... I prebooked a tour that began with a van picking me up from my hotel first thing in the morning. With a Ukrainian woman named Ellen, with her two kids Daria and Sergi, we met up with our guide Hala and crossed over Mount Lebanon to head east for a full day tour in the fertile Bekaa Valley that sits between Mount Lebanon and and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. On the agenda were Anjar, Baalbeck, and Ksara, with a late lunch at the end.

Sergi caught a lizard!
First on the itinerary was the ancient ruins of Anjar. The citadel dates back to the 8th century under the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I, and is based on Roman city planning and architecture with stonework borrowed from the Byzantines. The well-preserved ruins contain some unique stonework and brick bonding (supposedly to combat seismic activity) that is unlike other similar sites. There are lizards all over the place; Sergi found a small one and was able to get ahold of it to play with! Another interesting note: we are less than 5 kilometers from the Lebanese border crossing with Syria at Masnaa; probably the closest I can get to Syria without actually being in Syria. An 8 kilometer “no-mans land” of desolate neutral territory buffers the two countries’ border stations.
The unique stonework at the Anjar ruins
Up next, we drove an hour through the Bekaa Valley up to Baalbek, a massive temple complex, fortified as the town's citadel during the Middle Ages. Considered by many to be one of the most significant archaeological sites in all of the Middle East, it was constructed from local stone, mostly white granite and a rough white marble, as well as columns with stone imported from Aswan, Egypt. Over the years, it has suffered from earthquakes, the iconoclasm of Christian and Muslim lords, and the reuse of the temples' stone for fortification and other construction. The complex sits on a set of massive monoliths quarried from nearby limestone, one being the “Stone of the Pregnant Woman,” sometimes credited as being one of the largest monoliths ever quarried, at over 1000 tons (that's TONS, not pounds. 1000 tons equals 2 million pounds. Huge, I tell you.)

The ruins at Baalbek
One enters the complex through the propylaea, a broad staircase rising twenty feet to an arcade of twelve columns; directly behind it is a hexagonal forecourt; the Great Court, where an altar sat for offerings with ablution pools on both sides; then continued up stairs to the massive Temple of Jupiter, which was massively ruined by earthquakes and pillaging - of the peristyle’s original 54 columns, only six remain standing. The site's Temple of Bacchus is considered one of the best preserved and grandest Roman temple ruins in the world. The temple is known for its impressive dimensions, richly decorated stone work and monumental gate with Bacchic figures - among them some of the most refined reliefs and sculpture to survive from antiquity. A music video for a Dutch singer was being filmed when we arrived - I didn’t catch his name (we think it was “Ray X” or “X Ray?”), but the song sounded very similar to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know." We observed from afar, with production assistants milling around making sure tourists didn't get into the shots.

Ksara Wine Caves
With the day winding down, the last stop of the day was at Château Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest, largest, and most well known winery. Founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests, the winery produces approximately 3 million bottles annually. Supposedly, the discovery of the caves happened when a fox stole a chicken from the priests’ farm, and after a short chase, the fox led them to the discovery of a labyrinth of caves, which today are the Caves de Ksara, which serve as its temperature controlled natural cellars. There are some six tunnels that span over two kilometers within the caves, all lined with oak barrels filled with wine, aging gracefully. All of Chateau Ksara’s vineyards are located in the central and western Bekaa Valley, at an average altitude of 1,000 meters. The Bekaa enjoys dry summers and has a water table fed by the melting snow of the mountain ranges on either side of it. At the chateau, we got to try three of the wines they offer - the 2016 Blanc de l'Observatoire white, the 2016 Le Prieuré red, and their 2017 Rosé de Ksara, after having the already tried their bestselling “Blanc de Blancs” the night before at Manuella Restaurant.

Raouché, or Pigeons' Rock
Our late lunch was much like dinner the night before, though this time, we went to the valley's primary hub town of Chtaura and to the restaurant of the Hotel Massabki, where we enjoyed a massive feast.  After the meal, Francois, our driver, returned us back to Beirut, and I decided to spend the rest of my evening enjoying the sights and sounds of the area surrounding Hamra, where my hotel was located. After all, my flight wasn't until 2am, so I had several hours to continue enjoying the city on foot, starting off with an evening stroll along the Beirut waterfront - and in particular, to see Raouché, or Pigeons' Rock, at night. Located at Beirut's westernmost tip, the two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, are a popular destination for locals and visitors alike. The shores near Raouché have yielded the area's oldest evidence of human existence, flints and basic stone tools, which are displayed in the American University of Beirut's Archaeological Museum. I also made my way along Hamra Street for a bit, searching out souvenir shops for something nice to bring home to remember my quick trip to this magical place.  Altogether, I ended up walking about 3.5 miles to close out my time in Beirut.

And then there was my flight home.  Oh god was it a disaster.  At 11pm, a cab came to pick me up from my hotel (where I left my bags throughout the day) to take me to the airport as part of my package, in time to check in for my 2:05am flight. All was well until I went to get my boarding passes. My reservation, which I had purchased through a travel agent, was ticketed with Air France and for my flights back I was flying Middle East Airlines (an Air France codeshare and SkyTeam partner) and Air France for my flights home, from BEY-CDG-JFK. The counter agent, after reviewing my information, informed me that my reservation for my return flights had been cancelled by Air France, but I had never been notified about these changes.

Panicking and nearly in tears, I got on the phone using free airport WiFi (which only lasted 30 minutes?!) and immediately informed the Delta Diamond Desk of my situation. I was on the phone with them for 27 minutes, getting rebooked until... click. Call failed. What I did get from the customer service agent was that it said on my record that Air France notified my travel agent of the cancellation of the remaining flights on November 8, the day before I left for Beirut - however, this was not the case, as he never received any notification. The flight I had been booked on was oversold, so there was virtually no chance for me to get my seat back on that plane. The last thing I had talked about with the customer service agent before the call got cut was my rebooking possibilities, and the one they put me on was a bit ridiculous: leaving Beirut at nearly 4pm Tuesday afternoon, arriving in Paris that evening; then leaving Paris at 8am Wednesday morning to arrive in NYC at 10am EST on Wednesday morning. Two extra nights of last minute accommodation was not going to cut it for me. But the good thing was that she had put that as our last bit of conversation in my notes.

Well shit. Knowing full well it’ll be $2.50 per minute I sucked it up and called them again. Still trying to keep calm, I’m on the phone with a second customer service agent, who reviewed the notes on my account and worked her magic; lo and behold, I magically have flights “on my original itinerary.” Wonderful... So I go to the counter agent and, it turns out there was some miscommunication and I got put on those shitty flights. Somehow the second Delta agent on the phone didn’t understand what my original itinerary was.

So back to Delta I call. With a third agent I find out there are actually an even better set of flights I could be put on that would be able to get me back to NYC in the same amount of time, just ~6 hours later in my schedule. It was a long 40 minutes of waiting, but eventually I was confirmed on a new set of flights, just getting home a little later than intended. My new flight would leave Beirut at 7:50am, arriving in Paris with a quick connection before the long flight to New York. I lost a whole day at the office, but after chatting with him via text, he was fine with me coming in to log in two hours of work after I arrive (right at the end of the normal work day) to not lose out on vacation time.

The MEA agents took pity on me and gave me my boarding passes early; my elite status gave me access to the beautiful and fairly new Cedar Lounge, so I was able to relax there and get a little bit of sleep, about five hours worth, until boarding the new flight. Eventually, time passed and I made my way to the gate for the flight to Paris.  I've never gone through a more thorough security check; initially, when arriving at the airport, everyone goes through a security checkpoint before getting to the check-in area, a common sight at many airports in the Middle East.  Then, a passport check by agents to allow you into the duty free area; once your flight is ready to depart, you go through another security check, the main one, just to get to the gate area.  This one is the most thorough, sometimes requiring your hand baggage to be searched individually. You're then allowed into the gatehouse to wait for boarding, but when boarding starts, you get one last security check while on the jet bridge - every passenger getting on the plane has his or her hands and feet swabbed and checked before being allowed on the plane!

After going through all of that, I finally got on board.  The Beirut to Paris flight was half an hour delayed, so once we landed, I literally had to RUN through Charles de Gaulle airport, first boarding a train to get to the right set of gates, and then dealing with the inept French security checkpoint. The massive A380 I'm flying back to New York is clear at the end of the concourse... and after sweatily arriving to board the plane (the last person in line), I undergo yet another secondary screening.  This trip home had so many extra bits of FUN!  But I did get back to JFK, and I went to the office for two hours before heading home.

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