Thursday, August 11, 2011

construction zone

So cab drivers are tricky business here. Apparently there is a code to which all taxi drivers adhere. I have not had the honor of physically seeing this clandestine cabby constitution, but I am assuming it includes the following statutes:

  1. honk at least every 25 seconds lest someone forget you are one of 30 other taxis around
  2. shout "taxi!", "taxi!" at anyone that looks remotely foreign and follow the poor soul along the curb until she ducks into a store
  3. look a nice American woman like she shot your mother when she offers you the LEGAL rate of 2,000 lira for her ride and not the 15,000 you are demanding
  4. suddenly forget you know all english if in a precarious situation... or one you simply don't like

Exempli gratia:

It was our second day here and I wanted to walk along the shoreline where my professors are working with Steven Holl on a marina project being built at the very head of the city. I kindly asked the taxi driver to take us to the port, something which apparently was not clear because he kept pulling over asking unsuspecting passers-by what I meant by "port" or "marina". This should have been a warning, but instead of reading the omen, I simply got more and more annoyed. (My typical response with any inefficiency or confusion.) We finally made it to the downtown area and were driving along the coast when I saw the construction site.

-- Here, Sir. You can just drop us here. 

-- Here? This is nothing.

-- We want to see that building there. We are going to take pictures.

-- This building? (pointing)

-- Yes.

-- This building? (pointing again)

-- Yes. Just drop us here and we'll photograph it and then walk into the city. Thank you.

-- This building? (Are you freaking kidding me?!)

Ignoring our constant reassurances that yes, this was the building we wanted to see, he slowed momentarily at a red traffic light, spun around the traffic barrier and into the construction site. The new building was close to the water and we were still a good 150 meters from it. He pulled next to a small gate house (for lack of better word) and started shouting and pointing in Arabic. The other guy shouted and pointed back. We drove into the construction workers' "parking lot" (which by the way, was filled with only Mercedes and BMWs- very strange cars to see parked along side of bulldozers for sure) and navigated through the tight spaces left by the nice, though dusty, cars.

Got through the car maze. Darn. Blockade at the end of the lot.

Back we went, this time faster-- our guy was getting mad since clearly the guard had told him the way was unobscured. Drove by the guard. More shouting. More waving.

--Sir! This is fine! Drop us here!

-- This building? (pointing to the SAME and ONLY building in sight!)

-- YES!!!!

-- This building?

Through more traffic lights. More U-turns. Hit another guard post. This time it was actual security guards with uniforms and official looking badges. More Arabic and rapid hand waving transpired. This time he kept pointing to us then to the building then to us again. Somewhere between the high-speed driving, heated discussions in a language that always sounds like someone is pissed and Mom, who was still trying to tell our guy that we were better on the street taking pictures, I decided to stop trying to translate and see how this one played out. On we went in the direction of the confused guard's gestures. That is, until we hit another barrier.

Have no fear! We just drove around the barrier! Off the paved road, into the dust. Bouncing up and down in our "off-road" BMW getting closer and closer to the construction site. Piles of rocky sand? No trouble! We'll just go over them! Ramps of dirt meant only for construction trucks? No worries! Our tiny car will undoubtedly make it down their slippery slopes! Construction workers hollering at a small car with cab light driving through their construction zone? Forget it! Surely they can't mean us!

you want hard hat?
If there was a soundtrack to our trip it would be some sort of arabic circus music that ended with an abrupt high note allowing the whooshing sound of the dust settling after our spin-out to be heard. We came to a stop literally 20' in front of the building and I'm pretty sure that the only reason we didn't drive into the building was because there were piles of construction material in the way. We got out at which point confused workers came out of the woodwork and our lovely cabby invoked rules 3 and 4 of the previously stated code. More money. No English. Apparently he thought he had done an excellent job at getting us where we wanted to go. I mean, I guess I can't argue with him... I did get great pictures.

After attempting to "talk" with a few construction workers, being taken into a trailer and being offered hard hats and then taken to another trailer to meet the construction manager, we were finally able to explain that our presence was a mistake and confusing even to us! We began the long trek back to the street, back up the dirt ramps, through the cut stone, waving as huge trucks stopped for us to pass in front of them. I mean, seriously?! Were we really in the middle of a Lebanese construction in our open-toe sandals, sporting large purses and cameras?! Needless to say, we were pretty much peeing our pants from laughing in disbelief the whole way back (either that or gagging from the dust that was flying everywhere around us!). Good lord...

our view from construction zone... this building?!

After such an eventful morning the afternoon seems a bit dull. We walked and walked and walked while I took picture after picture after picture. The construction downtown was swift and immediate. The developers took down every last building that was destroyed by the war and put up brand new ones in their place. As we got further down the old Green Line things were not quite as cut and dry.

Before the war Beirut's downtown was owned by many people of different religions and demographics. After the war the country was left trying to piece itself back together, dealing with remnants of things established in the 70s and with a financial system that no longer existed. Therefore new construction can be as tricky as dealing with cab drivers. If a tenant signed a 50 year lease in 1974 (before the war) for 700 lira a month (about $350), that lease still would be upheld. However, the troubling thing was that now 1,500 lira = $1, meaning that if the tenant had stayed throughout the war and wanted to continue living there, they now only owed $0.50 a month. Needless to say, there were lots of Lebanese who liked paying nothing to live downtown.

Since the building owners were making no money on their land and they couldn't break their contract, they either stopped maintaining their buildings or began sabotaging them themselves, trying to convince the inhabitants to leave (our tour guide from yesterday had a story where his building owner threw dead animal carcasses on all the balconies until people left. Apparently he had watched The Godfather earlier that week). The property owners are waiting for their contracts to expire before they start fixing their buildings and the State has no ability to buy the property of people that abandoned their land during the war; therefore, it is very often that one sees a brand new building sharing space with one that is completely derelict.

The city is literally a construction zone throughout. Everywhere new buildings are being erected; cranes dominate the skyline. On one hand it is extremely exciting that a country as a whole can be so ready to move on, but on the other hand, the presence of these run-down older homes makes it hard to forget that while all this "moving on" is happening, no one is really dealing with the heart of the situation: rules and regulations set up and unchanged since the 1930s, money coming in surreptitiously from outside the country and politics that do not include everyone, nor solve all the country's problems. Big name architects have arrived on the scene to give Beirut a facelift, but will all these construction zones really fix a broken social system?

If not, can they at least be made more easily accessible by cab?