Now the guidebook is there and how I fell in love with Lebanon again

On Tuesday 8 October at 2 am I can finally call myself the official owner of 1627 Living Lebanon guidebooks. Stored at the attic of my friend’s place (the printer company forgot to deliver them in boxes, so let’s forget about how they got there) they are ready for distribution and sale.

After the small pre-launch party on the 9th of October, where I shared the first copies of the guidebook with my friends, and distribution of my guidebook to the first 9 selling points in Beirut, I felt there finally was time to relax and enjoy.

It was only two weeks later that I laid sick in bed, caught by stress, exhaustion and every lack of perspective. I guess it’s like giving birth to a child: you think that after you get rid of that big belly, things will get easier. Well, no… Like a child after birth, also a book after publishing gets to lead its own life. First of all, people start to share with you their opinions about it. And trust: one critical comment against a hundred of positive ones; you can only focus on that critical one. As of now, I will only share positive things about my friend’s newborn babies. Not liking the name that much; I’ll tell them I do! Secondly, and the most difficult to handle, are the tiny omissions you slowly become aware of. In spite the many times people in the business told me that publishing a book without at least a few mistakes is impossible; I wanted my guidebook to have none. So finding out about them, especially in pages that you have had edited so many times, is awful, nerve wrecking and a guarantee to become very insecure. Even after I spent several hours on Google to find out that the Lonely Planet guidebooks are filled with omissions, I felt devastated, sad and angry.

It was a phone call with my mam to make me realize I did not only publish a guidebook, no, I also became the guidebook. Fortunately, a friend from the Netherlands had just called me with the good news that she was planning on visiting me for 6 days; so I took the advice of my mam to plan these days without focusing on my guidebook and take some time off.

Having a visitor in Lebanon is amazing; finally you can share the beauty of the country you have been talking about for years. But there always is also this tiny pressure; what if they don’t like it. Knowing myself, I have this tendency of exaggerating, especially if I am enthusiastic about something. So there my friend was, and now it was up to me to show her the greatness of Lebanon.

Following a visit to the picturesque old centre of Byblos and two days of sunbathing – adding to the latter the enjoyment of the knowledge that in the Netherlands people are long wearing their winter coats – it was time to head to my favourite part of Lebanon: the mountains!  With a rental car under our butt, our first destination was Qadisha Valley where we tested the strength of our tires during a dirt road drive from Deir Mar Elisha to just before Deir Qannoubin, and from there enjoyed a lovely hike to Saydet Hawqa and back. As there where some protests in Bcharre – some tire burning just next to the hostel we were planning to stay – we headed to Ehden, a 20 minute’ drive from Bcharre.

Back in Ehden… Ehden is the mountain village where three years ago I started to realize I wanted to live in Lebanon. Although I had returned there a few times after, this time it was different. Enjoying a morning coffee on the lovely three-shade square of al-Midan, spending two nights in one of the amazing new cedar-wood bungalows of restaurant el-Rabieh, waking up with splendid balcony views and taking a hike in the beautiful autumn-colored Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve. And then it happened: I fell in love with it again!! The exact happy feeling I experienced in November 2010, yet now with one big difference: I lived in Lebanon, I had published my guidebook and I had the freedom to visit these places as many times as I felt like.

Also included in our mountain trip was a visit to the Khalil Gibran museum (where I bought The Prophet again), a small hike in the old Cedar forest, enjoying a Lebanese Brew in the chairlifts of the snow resort, hitting one of the hiking trails of the Tannourine Nature Reserve and enjoying the views and (now very tiny) waterfall of Balaa sinkhole.

And my friend: I think Lebanon won another soul!

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While the guidebook has been pre-launched and is now for public sale, new blogs are coming soon. In the meantime, please follow the latest developments on my Living Lebanon Facebook page.

The concept of finalizing

My guide of Lebanon is done, really done. It is now in the hands of the printer company; there is nothing I can do about it anymore. And I guess that all is a good thing.

 

The last 4 months have been tough, challenging and time pressuring. Finalizing the text, finalizing the maps, finalizing the cover and finalizing the lay-out. Looking at the definition of to finalize ‘To put into a final form’, it seems short and simple. Finalizing my guide was a whole different story.

 

The text – After I had my native English speaking friends pre-editing all my chapters, it was time for the main editor to have a look at them. As much as he miscalculated how much time it takes to edit 216 pages – the total size of my book – I completely underestimated the time for processing his comments, which, I have to say, were great and very useful. In the meantime I had some final things to sort out; a few missing phone numbers, directions, locations, rates, etc. Now knowing there was a reason for these ‘little’ last things to remain unsorted, this took massive time. To unravel a location in Beirut can take easily take 2 hours on Google followed by 2 hours of wandering around. Well, at least a confirmation of that what you are doing is useful. After all information was in place, I printed and read my guide, then printed and read it again. Mistakes are endless, obviously my ability to find them was not; at one point you seem to become completely blind for your own writing. And then a week before printing – after having FINALIZED the text – I saw that a bar I put I my book had shifted owner and name. Yes, I changed it.

 

The maps – I think my friend sorrows the day he offered me to draw the maps for my guide. Forty maps we ended up with. With the exception of a few main cities, street maps of Lebanon’s towns are absent. Creating a map generally means starting from scratch. With the help of Google maps, some existing maps in other guidebooks, and all the information I gathered myself, it still was…a real science. I don’t want to bother you with the details, but I am not exaggerating saying that in total we spend a good 300 hours on them. They came out lovely.

 

The cover – The cover was nice, the cover was fun. No rules, no practicalities, just a creation of how we liked it. I have to admit that the printer company needed to make a small change having to do with bleeds for printing, but other than that, a most rewarding job!

 

The lay-out – When I started my book I felt that Word would do for all pages, with the exception the cover and the chapter pages; these were the only ones I would have properly designed. So, I had done all my lay-out in Word – 216 pages with columns, headers and text boxes – until I realized this wasn’t good enough. All the time I spent, the guide deserved better than that. So I downloaded InDesign; the program that professionals use for designing book, flyers, etc. After a week of teaching myself – with a little help from Google and a friend – the lay-out started all over again and another six weeks passed by. After adding the guide colours – naming them Lebanese green and Lebanese red – I could nothing else than be happy with the result.

 

And then, the printing. I selected the printing company already three months ago. It is the largest printing company in Lebanon and according to their information the most modern one in the Middle East. The way they offered me their time and help was amazing; yet the days of handing over all the files was not. Despite all their expertise, it is you that have to make the final decisions: the colours of the pictures, the thickness of the paper, whether or not to use an extra ink pattern to make the colours more ‘clean’, including the most stressful: signing off the proof prints hearing the words ‘from now one it’s your responsibility’. Yet, putting my last signature on these documents meant it all – THE GUIDE IS DONE!!!

 

Tonight, I will sleep either very well or very bad…

Let’s get lucky

Friday 25 July 2013, 11:19 am: I am sitting in my apartment in Bashoura, Beirut. The cost quote of the printing company is lying next to me and if all goes right, in a few weeks I will be the owner of 30 boxes of books about the country I fell in love with and I call my home. To start with how and why I ended up here, I have to go back two years, summer 2011. I had a good job in oncology clinical research, my beautiful apartment in Amsterdam, my car, my bike, my amazing friends and family, my gym and even a personal trainer. I had everything, but bottom-line: I WAS UNHAPPY!

The feeling of my unhappiness was being fed by my experience I had only one year before: a week in the mountains in Ehden, Lebanon, where I first came to realize that life can be so different, with so much less to hold, but so much more to discover.I called it freedom. I know freedom is something to dispute about, but at that time for me it meant not to be obstructed by a crazy amount of rules and regulations, planning your time day by day and feeling immensely happy just by the view of a mountain. The idea slowly became set in my mind: I want to leave the Netherlands and want to live in Lebanon. The Middle East had always been a favorite for me. I had been travelling around a lot (the UAE, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco), but could never see myself – a woman alone – living in it. But in Lebanon, laysh la (why not)?

To give my ideas more ground, I started to write a business plan for opening a franchise of my uncle’s company – selling medical disposables – in Lebanon. Soon I found out that starting a company as a foreigner in Lebanon required at least one local partner and a lot of money. I was not ready for that. Yet, the idea of creating something for myself, was set in my mind.

So to cut a long story short, I gave up my job, rented out my apartment, packed my stuff and there it was, freedom!! My plan was simple: I give myself a year to find a new place to live and to build a new life. If it is not working out, I can always go back. But before putting that pressure on myself, I decided that the first three months I was allowed to travel and to relax. A brain needs to be empty for it to evolve new thoughts.

My year off started in Ukutula, South Africa. What I thought was impossible, became a dream come true: Volunteering at a lion farm home to hundreds of lions ranging from cute little new borns till grown up proper wild ones. Six weeks of bottle feeding, bathing cubs, cutting chicken, collecting dead cattle, removing lion feces and cuddling and playing with the most amazing animal creatures in the world. Needless to say, it was amazing!!! It was since a long time that I felt again, that I was aware of my feelings. It seemed like I made the right decision.

At the end of my Ukutula experience, I came back to Amsterdam. A friend of mine was so nice to offer me a room ‘until I would find my new destination’, while most of my belongings were still waiting for me in boxes that I stored at my father’s place. The summer clothes I took were all torn by lions paws and teeth, so my winter clothes were all I had, yet all I needed – I then thought. I was still talking about Lebanon, but one thing kept me away from it: I did not know where to start

Two months after I returned from South Africa, I came to the idea to hike a part of the Camino the Santiago, the pilgrim’s route leading to Santiago the Compostella, a city in the northwest of Spain. Santiago, meaning Saint Jacob, was one of the first disciples of Jesus and the legend tells his remains are held in Santiago de Compostella. The weather forecast was promising, I had my hiking shoes, my sleeping bag AND the freedom to do it. So, laysh la? In two weeks I walked from Leon to Santiago – 320 kilometers – carrying my overweighed backpack and enjoying my daily achievements. On my way, I met many interesting people, all with their own story and at big turning points in their lives. I guess our evening conversations got us motivated to keep following the path we just entered or we were about to enter. Reaching Santiago, my plan was set: I am going to study Arabic in Beirut. This would be my start and I would take it from there. So I booked.

13 May 2012: I arrived at the Rafiq Hariri airport in Lebanon in the afternoon. I arranged a pick up from Talal Hostel, a budget place where I stayed during my holiday just over a year ago, to take me to Saifi Urban Gardens, the Arabic institute and hostel I would spent the next couple of weeks. I shared a room with Nathalie, a girl from Canada, third generation Lebanese, whose parents unfortunately never taught her any Arabic. Something that she would pity even more after our first day in class.

Studying Arabic, Urban Arabic in my case, is something that requires a lot of dedication, persistence and talent. The latter most people – including myself – completely lack. I took the intensive course implying four hours of class a day. In five days you are expected to write and in five weeks you have the basics for a conversation – IF you study three hours a day on top of the four hours in class. I had sleepless nights, bad dreams and before my exams, I felt I was in high school again, only now with a greater fear to fail. But, alhamdulillah, I passed level 1 and signed up for level 2.

In the meantime, Saifi Urban Gardens (‘Saifi’) became more than just a place for sleeping and studying. Beirut lacking good affordable hostels and gathering spaces, Saifi becomes the place where we – the less prosperous foreigners I guess – came to eat, drink and party. It’s amazing how easy it was to meet people here: students, journalists, interns, refugees, locals; we all mixed and long term friendships were concluded.

In July (2012), the temperature in Beirut had risen over 40 degree Celsius and the humidity was insane. Walking for more than five minutes was a guarantee for a need to shower and a change of clothes. This was one of the reasons why each Friday – after my level 2 classes – I would take the first bus to Bcharre, a quiet beautiful mountain village in the north of Lebanon, where temperatures were a bit more pleasant and the evenings even cold. I met a lovely family there looking after me and also managed to make some local friends. Every weekend, I brought other people from Beirut to introduce them to the village. Foreigners, like me, who had the desire to escape Beirut now and then, but did not really know how and where to. Of course there were some travel guides about the country, but most of them were either outdated or provided little information how to get to places, especially if you were dependent on public transport. One thing I found out through my friends in Bcharre is that there actually is a direct bus going there from Beirut. Each Friday afternoon, the bus would be stuffed with youngsters, studying in Beirut and going back home for the weekends. It was interesting to see how many people they manage to get in a minibus, which also served as a courier, which I noticed while boxes with goods were passed on through the windows.

After finishing level 2 Arabic – yes, it was hard, but I did it – I had two more weeks before I would return to the Netherlands. At that time, most of the friends I made had left the country. Cause that is what most foreign people do in Lebanon: they come and go. Saying goodbye turned out to be a big part of the deal living abroad. Being on my own, it was time for some thinking!! After I quit my job, eight months had passed – my summer clothes had left my boxes – but still I had no future plan.

I can’t remember how exactly, I can’t remember when exactly, but when I entered my plane to the Netherlands, I knew I was coming back, and I also knew why: I was going to write a (travel) guide. Laysh la?