I have kept in touch with one of my professors from business school pretty well. He invites me to Skype with his class in Madrid when he teaches a course on corporate social responsibility as I have had many experiences on this journey that tie in nicely with what they study.
One student in the class got in touch when I said I would be coming to Madrid the following month to speak to the incoming class of students. Though I had diarrhea, a fever, and should have been making up for lost time practicing my presentation for the following day, I spent the day meeting up with people including Elias. We had a great conversation and he cordially invited me to Lebanon. At the time I didn’t think I’d be going to the Middle East, but things change..
When I decided to pass by the Middle East I immediately got in touch with him. Lebanon requires a flight in and out due to the political situation with Israel and the war in neighboring Syria. Still, I felt Lebanon was a magical place I had to visit and I’m glad I did.
I’ll remember the incredible food, scenery, and beauty of Lebanon. But what I’ll remember most is the wonderful Labaki family.
I arranged with Elias to be in Lebanon when he would be in Lebanon. He works one week in Saudi Arabia and one week in Lebanon. Unfortunately, due to the Eid al-Adha holiday, his work schedule changed after I bought my tickets in and out and it meant he’d be in Saudi Arabia most of the time that I was there. The plan was to stay with him and his wife, but since he’d be gone he proposed I stay with his parents George and Teresa.
I don’t know how to say this, but I genuinely loved hanging out with them. Teresa is a pharmacist, educated at American University of Beirut, and has an interesting nomadic story of her own. She grew up in Nigeria until she was 12, then her family moved back to Lebanon. George is a retired manager from the water resources management division of the government, currently a business man and self-described chauffer for his lovely wife. Together, they may just be the best hosts a happy nomad could ask for.
I still have wanderlust, but I am guessing it’s not as intense as it used to be, or it has evolved into a lust for different kinds of experiences now. Meeting new people never gets old and I got to experience many new things with these two interesting people.
On my first afternoon with them we took a drive around the area. There were a few monasteries with impressive views of the surrounding hills and Beirut below. Many monasteries have their own shop full of homemade products like honey, herbs, dairy products, and most importantly wine. The monks and nuns work on making these products so the monasteries are financially sustainable and I suppose the “work” serves as a bit of meditation/devotion.
I mentioned that my favorite dish is hummus (without oil) topped with chicken shawarma. George’s cousin has a restaurant and he said it was the best place for this dish. He was right. It was amazing.
The next day we did something I’ve never done before. George collected a year’s worth of olives from his impressive garden – 280kg worth (616lbs). We went to a small factory where they cleaned them, crushed them, removed the seeds, and turned them into liquid gold – olive oil. It was amazing to see.
Teresa had wanted to go to the Saint Charabel monastery for a long time, but either George didn’t want to go or the timing wasn’t right. When I came and said I wanted to go we made a plan and Teresa was very happy! When I started this trip back in Texas in 2011, my friend had recently visited Lebanon and gave me a small Saint Charabel icon. She wrote “to keep you safe” and so far so good. The Lebanese call him the saint of all saints, so I wanted to learn more about him. We had a wonderful time.
Even a simple drive to the post office was an enjoyable experience. George would know someone, they’d meet and greet and share some laughs. George knows everyone. Once when I was in the car he got a call and Teresa put her finger to her lips to indicate we should be silent. It was Lebanon’s former president calling. He and George grew up together as the president’s family rented a home from George’s parents.
Sadly, many of our discussions started with “Before the war…” but they were frank and honest about life in a way that most people aren’t. Since Teresa is a pharmacist she had an important role in the war, caring for the wounded in the neighborhood and ensuring medicine was available. The hill they live on came under bombardment many times during the war. The pharmacy was bombed as well. It was then relocated to their home and they ran the pharmacy from there. At times, George even packed his car full of medicine and drove through enemy territory to deliver it to those in need at great personal risk.
It seems like there are two ways your life can go after such a traumatic experience. You can be permanently broken or you can learn how to survive and thrive. George and Teresa opted for the latter and are truly some of the most wonderful people I’ve met on this journey so far. Though Teresa worries a lot, it’s so obviously rooted in love you can’t help but appreciate it.
George and Teresa were incredibly hospitable and I’ll be in their debt (and everyone else who has helped me along this journey) for the rest of my life. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t spend as much time with Elias and his wonderful wife Stephany, but like everything else on this journey, everything turned out perfectly.
In many ways, even though George wasn’t always like this, he represents what I want out of life. He’s an old man, but he is supremely content and fulfilled with his life. What could be better than that?