Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Anthropology of ‘Public’ Transportation in Beirut and its Surroundings: GETTING AROUND BEIRUT

Public transportation in Beirut and its Surroundings is actually quite good, but does require a little bit of getting used to.  The purpose of this post is to offer the newbie to Beirut some useful information on getting around Beirut and its northern suburbs.

How to get around Beirut?  You simply stand on the side of the road (the busier, the better), and look to make eye contact with drivers – usually they will have taxi signs visible, but many will not. DO NOT WAVE YOUR HAND, that will indicate to the driver you are an idiot.  JUST STAND, and make eye contact.   The driver will slow down …you should lower your head a bit and tell the driver where you want to go. Examples include: “Rawsha,” al-Malla, Sodeco, Downtown, Cemayza, Hamra Mustashfa Rum, Mar Mikhail, Zarif, Sanayeh, Saluumi, Sinn al-Fiil, al-Mathaf, Dawrah, al-Port, AUB,” and so on.  These are all ‘nodes’ in the Beirut sense.   They are more or less agreed-upon locations, that all drivers in the city will know about.  You are going to want to tell them the closest ‘node’ to where you want to go.   You do not say “biddi aruu7 3 Sinn al-Fiil”… You do not even say “a3 Sinn al-Fil”  (to Sinn al-Fiil)…. You just say “ Sinn al-Fil). 

Thus, whenever you go anywhere, always ask someone (what do I tell the driver to get to “X Y or Z”).  This goes for getting to restaurants, bars, archives, libraries, universities, and anything else you want to go to.  You need to know the ‘node.’  The actual name of place will only become relevant if he asks you his next question (which he usually will, “wenn biddak?”) where do you want to get off?  You could tell him something like “the Starbucks” or “bi-qalb Hamra” (in the center of Hamra).  Or he will frequently tell you he’s only going to drop you off at the Mafraq (intersection), and you have to walk the rest of the way. (This is common for destinations like Cemayza, where the drivers don’t like to enter to due traffic.

The driver then has a few options.  Sometimes he will drive away.   Sometimes he will say “itla3” or “tla3” that means the price is 2000 ($1.33), and you get in the car.  Sometime he will just nod his head, and pull over, which also means he’s willing to take you, and it also means the price is 2000.  There is no discussion over the price, it is a completely silent agreement.  For foreigners, this can be a very strange thing, who are always trained to “agree” upon a price before getting into a cab.   In Beirut, it’s exactly the opposite. If you ask qaddesh?, and try to “agree” upon a price, then you will almost certainly get ripped off.  Essentially what you are telling the driver is, “I’m an idiot, I have no idea how the system works, please take all my money.”   

Always pay the driver AT THE END OF THE RIDE.  ALWAYS.  This avoids confusion, insofar as sometimes, if you pay at the beginning, he’ll try to ask you for money AGAIN at the end of the ride and pretend as if you hadn’t paid him.  Remember, Beirut taxi drivers will always try to cheat you.  Always.

If the driver accepts your offer, this means he’s obligated to get you within a block or two or of the ‘node’ you mention.  But the driver is never on your team.  He will always try to pick people up all along the way.  Sometimes this can be frustrating for you, especially if he picks up a few people, then goes quite far out of the way before you get dropped off.  It’s fucking annoying.  But that’s a service.   

Or, the other thing that can happen, is that you get into a car with people already in the car, who might be going in an absurdly out of the way direction for you, but the driver still wants his next service ride (i.e., the standard 2000) after he drops off his current riders.  You get fucked over again, and miss your connection bus to Tripoli at 7:20.  This can also happen and it’s fucking annoying.

But remember one thing as well, the price for a standard ride is always elfayn (2000), which is called a “service”.  (1.33dolars).  IF THE DRIVER WANTS MORE THAN THAT, HE IS REQUIRED TO SPECIFY AT THE OUTSET.  If he tries to get more than 2000 from you at the end of your ride (not having specified the amount AT THE BEGINNING), punch the bastard in the face and stab his tires with you pocket knife and start cursing at him in Russian. 

Now, if the driver wants more than 2000, he can say ‘servicayn’ which means two services, which is 4000 (2.66dollars).  He can also say Taxi, which is a flat rate of 10,000 ($6.66).  But remember that the price is always negotiable, such that if you see he’s empty, he rejects you, and starts to drive away, you can always shout out “servicayn” or, if you are really in a rush, “taxi.”  Most drivers will always take a taxi, unless you have an absurd request like take me from Rawsha to Mar Mustashfa at 5pm.  If that is your case, then he might say something like qaddesh?  When the price is so high as to be beyond the normal scale (2,000-10,000) – the driver will ask YOU how much your willing to pay for that ride.  You can say 15dollars, you can say 15,000 (recall that there is a fixed rate between dollars and Lebanese money, 15thousand = 10 dollars.  And both are legal tender, always.)

You can always get extremely lucky, and be in Rawsha, trying to get to Ashrafiyya, and coincidentally stop a taxi already going although over there.  But that’s rare.  Often times you can walk for 10 minutes, get yourself in a good place, like at the bottom of Sanayeh – great place to stand!  Guys going everywhere from there.
Now, that is how the taxis work. 

You also have mini buses.  Mini buses take exact routes.  You don’t tell a mini bus where you want to go, you ask him where he’s going .  To be honest I didn’t take very many minibuses, because they are not particularly convenient, and usually require you to walk further distances, and they are crowded and uncomfortable, and, of course, they are half the price: for only 1000, you can go very far distances.  Even you need to get to dawrah, for instance, there are a great many services to go in that direction, such as from Sanayeh, or mafraq cemayza, and many other ‘mini buses’ that go in various directions to various places, such as one from Dawrah to the Airport.  You are thinking, Dawrah to the Airport?  That’s far.  But that’s a minibus, and that’s a lucratinve fucking business.  Those things will fill up instantly, one after the other, 9 people squished into a tiny mini van, departing every few minutes.  Mostly working class men going from North of Beirut, where they probably work, to where they live, in the Palestinian camps by the airport, an area popularly known as ‘dahyeh’

Getting Around NORTH OF BEIRUT

Go to the Northern Bus Stop of the Beurt, Charles Hilu [pronounced SHARL HILU, no S].  So there are two lanes of traffic, as you can see in the photo.  Each company will have there own slot at the bus station.  Note to all travelers, there are no venders within a 5-10 walk of the bus station.  They were al thrown out by the government, so remember to bring a bottle of water, because, if you’re going to the north, Tripoli, for instance, you’ll be without food or water for a few hours, depending on traffic. 

Each company has a guy who will sit on the cement railing that divides the two sides of the highway.  One lane is for local traffic, where fancy cars will roll up and drop off entire families (seemingly Syrians).   These guys who sit on the cement railing are paid, as I see it, to do three things.  First, they are to prevent riders from getting snagged up by the other companies.  I saw this happen once, and it’s not a pretty site.  A White Jeep with faint orange and yellow lettering will slow down as he passes Charles Hilu.  Obviously, he’s trying to snatch up someone heading to Sham [Damascus].  The cement-sitter is guarding to make sure this doesn’t happen.  If the White Jeep succeeds, the cement-sitters start cursing up a storm. 

This is why, also, whenever they see someone, male, youngish, carring a small duffle bag, with cheap or raggedy clothing, and some scruffy facial hair [me for instance]--- walking towards the bus station, the guys at Charles Hilu descend like a plague of locusts upon you: ‘3 Sham ‘3 Sham ‘3Sham??????  They are very persuasive businessmen, but somehow  I managed to resist.  So demand for ‘3Sham is extremely competitive, as the drop in demand must have certainly driven many drivers out of business.  I’m sure this used to be a thriving business before Syria descended into madness, but now it must be all but shattered.  For who is going to Sham these days?

Anyways, how to get to the north?  Best way is to go the Charles Hilu on a bus to Tripoli.  Air conditioning, and he doesn't stop every 5 seconds to pick up riders.  You can also go to Dawrah and get on a mini-bus, but these things stop every 5 seconds... and will wait like 5 minutes at every overpass and walking bridge and exit to try and pick up passengers, and drive will slowly... so take the Charles Hilu bus to Tripoli, and bus make sure you tell the driver where you want to get off.


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