Here is a tip for travelers in Beirut: when you get into a cab, you say “Servis” and the taxi costs a quarter the normal price, but then is also free to pick up other passengers along the way. You get a practically free ride, and a generally jollier one.
I decided to go to Tripoli on one of my days there, and after inquiring at the hotel about a car and getting a price that raised ethical questions for me (“Do you really feel like playing the role of pasha, today?”), I decided to take the bus, which I was told was 4 thousand lebanese pounds, i.e., a little under $3.00. My very old taxi driver, who was manning a marvelous but clunky early 70s Cadillac, couldn’t find the station and had a very bad habit of stopping in the middle of traffic when he was confused (every few seconds) so I got out and paid him an outrageous 10 thousand lebanese pounds ($7) for the failed trip. I asked a gentleman on the street where the bus station was and he asked, skipping a couple of steps, “Vous allez où?” “Trablous,” I replied, and immediately he gestured up the street, with what I am now going to call a Beiruti flourish: “Voilà, monsieur.” I turned to see a small bus trundling down the road, spewing exhaust. Looking back once to check his face, which remained calm and slightly amused, I hailed it, imagining it wouldn’t stop. But it did! It was no random act of generosity: this was a Servis mini-bus, which picks people up and drops them off as it makes its way up the coast. The other triumph was that it turned out to be 1 thousand pounds cheaper than the normal bus. One-way Beirut to Tripoli: $2.00.
My model traveller is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was given to dining with counts in castles one night and walking and camping with gypsies the next. I was staying in a very nice hotel (another tip: when in Beirut splurge and stay in The Albergo) and happily taking the $2 Servis bus to Tripoli, soon to make my way through labyrinthine streets where no one speaks a European language. So yes, I soon started to feel unseemly pride for being one with the people, just, you know, going up to Tripoli and getting on with my business there. Of course, everyone else on the bus was saying, “What’s he doing here?” which I am going to hope in some cases was followed by, “Well, good for him.”
I observed the beautiful flexibility of the system, the fluidity with which people mounted and disembarked, the cordial familiarity they had with the driver, the driver’s intelligence and fluency as he navigated traffic, pulled over when asked, took money as people dismounted, always remembering where they got on and how much their pro-rated fare was. I was happy and curious to see women using the service, traditional women who nonetheless had to go about their daily activities and couldn’t afford to let niceties such as moral codes stand in their way. (On the Arabian peninsula, one never sees a woman getting around on her own. At most women accompany each other.) I was enjoying the variety of speeds allowed on a Middle Eastern highway. The resulting effect is apparently chaotic, with vehicles using the same roadway for widely varying purposes, but in fact it was a pretty functional ballet. There was active traffic the whole way, but it flowed.
I talked a bit to the man next to me, who spoke English and French fairly well. He is Christian. Others on the bus were Muslim. But the main feeling was that everyone was Lebanese, afloat together on their unpredictable Lebanese boat. Life wasn’t easy but at the same time things were on the whole pretty good. They were lucky to be here, not in Syria. They belonged here. They were getting on with things, shuttling from one arena of activity to another. They were connected to their people at each end of their trajectory, probably pretty closely, and for the time they were in transit they were in loose association with their fellow citizens.
On the Arabian peninsula, the immigrants, not the citizens, take public transport. The citizens are very wealthy and drive nice cars and then interact with people in malls and restaurants in a strictly service relationship. Their “dense” interactions stay almost entirely within the tribe, which is to say the extended family. The Beirut-Tripoli mini-bus was not part of a service culture but a Servis culture: people working out a way to share a service and so bring the cost of it way down. The bus driver was not working for a company for a salary but paying what he had to pay for the bus, or the license to drive it, and working for himself, like a taxi driver.
We were driving along a beautiful coast, a fact that was probably more present to me than to the others on the bus, yet I am convinced that it was part of their experience as well. The fact is, no one lives in the region of Palestine, with all its troubles, and is not continually aware that naturally speaking it is a blessed land. As the bus made its way along the road, a continuously populated and trafficked stretch of coastline, I was thinking that through all the modern surface features what I was doing and witnessing was centuries old. The corridor between these two major trading ports must always have been fairly active, more or less in this way.
At a certain point it became clear that the driver had gotten himself into a manhood-measuring contest with another, younger and more obviously macho mini-bus driver, who would overtake us, beeping and practically thumping his chest, only to be overtaken by our driver in turn. Our driver remained cheery to people inside the bus while hurling abuse at his rival every time he succeeded in passing him. In the end, we won, and I couldn’t help feeling proud of my guy, who was getting on in years but was tough as nails. He’s seen it all and wasn’t taking shit from anybody. For me, it’s a memory, one that makes me chuckle every time I think of it. And then I remember that he is doing much the same thing every day, even right now.