There is nothing more fulfilling than walking into the maws of a city you’ve not yet met and spending hours wandering through its gut.
Becoming completely lost on alien concrete is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In Beirut, that pleasure was realised with remarkable immediacy. Probably only 20 minutes after checking in to the “four-star” hotel.
I won’t tell you the name of the hotel for fear of ruining your wonderment should you choose it for its online charade. But I will say that whoever hands out those stars in Lebanon – if anyone – must be applauded for their unflagging generosity of spirit.
When I arrived, I inadvertently interrupted the concierge mid-gaga. “SABAH, SABAH, SABAH,” he yelled in capitals at an old fellow who seemed not to notice the raging beast he had awoken, as he shuffled off to a table with a crusty cup of Turkish and some uncommonly cheap-smelling cigarettes.
“He will kill me,” said Desk Daneesh. “He’s been asking me that question for three hours.” Either repetition was fatal to this gentleman, or he had a personal disagreement with the Arabic word for the number 7. Or old people.
When his attention finally returned to his reason for being behind a desk, and the focus slowly returned to his eyes, Daneesh pfaffed about for half an hour before producing a keycard to the sumptuous room I had seen on the online booking site. He also repeatedly told me of the spa and massages they provided “in the basement”. I’m sure it was all perfectly legit, but I kept looking for a wink and wanting a shower.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of survival, I went to my room. On opening the door, the first sight was the bathroom, which was generous. So generous was it that it gave its sink to the living room. Lovely to see how well the two areas got on.
The space provided for the khazi left me thankful that I had no penchant for razor-sharp earrings. My knees would have been in tatters. (But as luck would have it, it soon became obvious that sitting that way only made the task at hand easier).
The shower had no fungus.
The bed was comfortable and there were plenty of blankets to ward off the cold Levant nights.
It was 8.30pm, and I was hungry and still buzzing from my ill-planned travel itinerary that turned four hours of journey into 10. Off to the famed Al Hamra stretch for some welcoming bars and restaurants.
It was then I discovered why the taxi delivers you to what seemed to be the back of the hotel. The front road, on a steepish hill, could only have been 100 metres long. That was still enough for three security booms, manned by young blades with large guns and much, much smaller senses of humour.
After wandering around lost for more than two hours I finally found myself again within 20 minutes’ walk of my digs, at a place called TootBeirut, with a few local beers and a chicken shawarma plate that could have made 10 guards break into smile substitutes.
And after a contented belch and a cigarette, all seemed right with the world.
I even considered taking a doggy bag for the poor old bloke at the hotel. After all, sabah was a long time to wait for breakfast.
I like to think Mr Phen and I are friends. All right, I probably choose to think Mr Phen and I are friends.
Phen’s story is like thousands you hear in Phnom Penh. His parents fell victim to the systematic butchery that defined the Khmer Rouge regime. He was forced into the city by the fear of starvation to scratch out a meagre living by driving and sleeping in his tuk-tuk.
He’s an earnest, endearing fellow, and although the cynicism bred through more privileged circumstances had me thinking, “I bet you say that to all the boys”, I much prefer to think that the offer he made was as genuine and firm as his hug after five days together. A hug’s a hard thing to fake.
Pointing towards the Tonle Sap River, he said he lived five hours’ drive away and that, if I returned one June, I should make the trip with him to his village where “we drink, we eat chickens and dance”. Brilliant, I thought, and promised I would.
I grudgingly presume I’m not the first to receive the invitation but it sounds a glorious way to spend a few nights – Indochina with all the hedonistic generosity of Cannery Row – but with one exception.
In Sihanoukville, on the same trip, another tuk-tuk driver offered a back-seat tasting of the local wine. Lovingly decanted into a plastic bag.
It had an attractive rose hue; sturdy, confident aroma; and given the right machine could probably mow two hectares of the most stubborn grass. But maybe I was being unfair. Maybe it needed a few more minutes to breathe. (Lord knows, after the first sip I did.)
It also showed the resilience of plastic bags and why it takes the bloody things so long to break down into the environment.
I’ve since been back to Phnom Penh, but not in June, and it was only on the eve of my departure that I finally caught up with Mr Phen, who had been missing from his normal station.
I recalled his offer and fully intend to take him up on it, although it will be many years down the track given commitments that have since been made.
Yes, Mr Phen, we will eat those scrawny chickens – 57 of them, if it makes you happy. And yes, we will dance like the silly old buggers we will be, until our hips give out or one of us treads on a landmine.
But – and I must insist – it will have to be BYOG.