Tag Archives: moving to Beirut

The foreigners’ guide to moving to Beirut, part 3

Ok..so, so far we’ve discussed what to pack in Part 1,,,and finding an apartment, driving/taking taxis in Part 2..

In Part 3 we will be tackling cell phones (more in depth as I covered it briefly in Part 1) & the internet, how to pay bills, health insurance, and going to the doctor/pharmacy.

Let’s get started, shall we?

I’m going to require a lot of help from Youssef on this one as I recognize that a lot of what I knew of these specific topics 1. has either changed since I left or 2. is completely inaccurate and misleading! So, again I’m thankful to have Youssef to kind of set the record straight.  The good thing is though, that most ‘neighborhoods’ in Beirut are pretty self-sufficient; meaning you won’t need to go too far outside of where you are living to access most of the above (cellphone stores, cafes with internet, pharmacies..).

Beirut, Lebanon

So you want to move to Beirut huh? You crazy person you..

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Cell phones

Danielle’s take:

After spending the better part of an hour ranting and raving about my cell phone woes, Youssef kindly point out that most of my experiences ‘were probably unique to you‘ and ‘whoever was guiding you obviously wasn’t aware that there is an easier way to do things.

Oh. Right..

Well,..umm I guess for my part of this section I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in Part 1 about cellphones. Essentially you can use the phone you use in your  home country as long as it’s unlocked. There are options to get your phone unlocked in Lebanon, as well as to buy phones (I came with an iPhone but ended up buying a blackberry for between $75-$100)..so essentially what you do is up to you. I will tell you that cell phone rates are kinda sorta completely ridiculous in Lebanon. Call your top 5 contacts for free? Free nights and weekends? Roll over minutes? HA! Non-existent. So, if you’re one of those who likes to have loooong drawn out conversations about that Lebanese guy you met in poli-sci..you will have to have your conversations over BBM or Whatsapp.. If you’re planning on staying in Beirut for an extended period of time I really recommend that you go with a postpaid line rather than a pre-paid line. For some reason (I was under the impression that it was really difficult for foreigners to get a postpaid line) I used a pre-paid line for a year a half..and take if from me it was a royal pain in the a**. So..yeah, go with a postpaid if you have the choice. (If you end up going with pre-paid there are cellphone stores and corner stores everywhere, so it will never be too hard to fine a recharge card).

Ok, I’ll let Youssef take it over from here.

cellphones Beirut

If you're really cool, you can even buy a cell phone number that has the numbers 69 in it. Trust me, you won't be the first one.

Youssef’s take:

Oh the days of free nights and weekends and the 3000 roll over minutes accumulated along the years!!! If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to worry about how much credit you have left on your cellphone or how long it will last you, etc, you’re better off getting a postpaid line. Unlike the US, Europe, and the majority of the world, postpaid accounts do not require a long term contract. That’s because contracts do not come with offers for the handset. The nice thing about it is that you are not bound to a long term contract and are free to cancel it at any time. You are also not boxed in with a limited number of phones that you can choose from. On the other hand, you have to pay full price for a phone you want to buy which is subsidized in the long term contract with carriers like AT&T and Verizon. (so you’re best bet would be to bring your phone from home).

So how does a postpaid line work? To get one you have to provide the following to one of the two carriers that monopolize the market:

MTC:

  • Copy of an ID.
  • $100 cash deposit or Bank Direct Debit
  • Completed and signed mtc touch contract

Alfa:
For the Lebanese Resident:

  • ID or Civil record or Valid passport or Military Service Card or Army Reserve Card or Military Specimen number 2.
  • Proof of Residence (Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor not older than 3 months, or Water, PSTN or electricity bill issued in your name, or a house lease contract, house property deed in your name)
  • Deposit: $100 deposit when migrating the line from prepaid to postpaid and $50 when purchasing a new postpaid line

For the Foreign Resident:

  • Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card or Residence Permit
  • Deposit of $100 in case of line migration or $50 Deposit in case of new postpaid line.
  • Proof of Residence or Letter of guarantee or deposit of $250 per line or Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor or Water, PSTN or electricity bill * issued in the name of the customer or House lease contract, house property deed.
  • N.B: If you have a residence permit, there will be no need for any Proof of Residence or its equivalent.
  • Payment method automatic direct debit at the bank is obligatory.

For the Foreign Non-Resident:

  • Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card
  • Deposit: 250$ (deposit or as a letter of guarantee) per line
  • Payment method is obligatory through automatic direct debit at the bank

You can get the full details here for mtc and here for Alfa.

Alfa MTC

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mtc seems to have the least demanding requirements. It’s very easy to get this setup. My advice is to go directly to the mtc or Alfa offices and get all of the paperwork done there. This way you avoid any extra charges a reseller would charge you, or any confusion and obstacles.

Cellphone plans/rates are all set by the government and the Ministry of Telecommunications, so it’s futile to shop for better prices between the two carriers. The only difference you might find is in the service. That is both the customer service and line service. Depending on the location, one carrier might have a stronger signal than the other and better service. I personally have had a line with mtc and so far I have had very little problems with it. Everyone experiences dropped calls, but that’s for people who actually make phone calls on their phone :P

Which brings us to the next part about cell phones. A ‘major’ update in service has been made recently in terms of the wireless Internet service/data plans on cellphones. Thanks to the efforts of the people behind @Ontornet, a good portion of the country is now receiving 3G service coverage. Some are even luckier  and get 3.9G (That is of course in theory. In practice some might still be stuck on EDGE if they get connected at all). The prices have also dropped tremendously. Here’s a table of the prices which are the same for both mtc and alfa:

3G Packages

mtc and alfa 3G packages

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for more info go here for mtc and here for alfa

Because the per minute rates are so high, my suggestion is to get the 3G service on your smart phone and use Whatsapp to communicate with your friends. I’ve had long stretches of time where I haven’t made or received a phone call – almost everything can and is done through Whatsapp. And with its emergence and popularity, this app has made the BBM service unnecessary and people are slowly moving away from the Blackberry and more into the iPhone and Android market.

Getting a line is really not that complicated, whether prepaid or postpaid. With both you have to be mindful of your consumption, but with gchat, skype and Whatsapp you can cut the BS talk on the phone and just use voice calls for the necessities/emergencies. Do like the house maids do, talk with your friends from balcony to balcony if it’s something that has to be said and can’t be typed :P

Internet

Danielle’s take:

I had to take a break before coming to this one..stressssss!! before I start, I have to input a few Maya Zankoul comics to give those of you who dont know, a sense of what you’ll be dealing with.

Ok,,so yeah..now that that’s over. The internet had to be one of my bigger pet peeves (there were many, yet I still loved it) while living in Leb. Again, maybe my experience was unique to me..maybe it wasn’t.. but essentially the apartment where I lived didn’t have a land line, and the landlady wasn’t interested in putting one in, so my roommate and I each had to get our own portable wireless internet devices (we soon realized that we couldn’t share one) to use while we were at home. I wrote a post about this little device, called Mobi..here.

Internet in Lebanon

Remember when I said that Lebanon has one of the highest telecommunications rates in the world? Well,,that goes for Internet rates as well..except Lebanon also has one of the worst (if not the worst) internet connections in the world as well (oh the joy!). Internet woes occupied wayyy too much of my time (and money) while I was in Leb. Whether at work or at home, it seemed like every day was a constant mission just to get basic things done online. There would be days at work (and I worked at a digital agency mind you) where the internet would cut for hours!! And at home, I just felt restricted ..not a good way to feel when you work in digital media and have a blog which you like to keep updated! Streaming video? Uploading/Downloading pictures? Having 5/6 pages open and loading at once? Not an option..I mean, not if you want your “bandwidth” to last an entire month. Ahh..which takes me to prices. $45 – $50 dollars gets you internet for a month with a service like Mobi (i believe they have another one called Wise), but..that also comes with a very limited bandwidth..so..if you get busy streaming video, and uploading and downloading a bunch of pictures, it’s very easy to run through your bandwidth in a week (trust me, I’ve done it.)..so that you end up spending over $100 on sh**ty internet service per month!

You can buy a USB mobi dongle thingy at electronic stores (like Radio Shack in Hamra). You can buy ‘internet cards’ at the aforementioned stores as well as at electronic repair/supply stores around town. They aren’t as prevalent as cell phone stores, but you will be able to find them with a little searching. My advice to you is to always keep an eye on your bandwidth limits (when you DL the software that comes with the dongle, this should be easy) so that you never find yourself with no internet..something i’ve done way too much. Or just go to cafes around your neighborhood as most offer free Wifi, or Wifi for a small fee..still, you won’t be able to download/upload/stream as much as you are accustom to..so get used to it. You’re better off buying series from nabilnet.net than streaming from Hulu.

Internet cafe Beirut

If you aren't interested in going to a cafe to access wifi, and don't have internet at home, you can also choose from a number of internet cafes that shouldn't be too hard to find. And at about $1.25 per hour, it's not a bad bet. Just be prepared to be amongst a number of sweaty teenage boys playing Call of Duty or something.

Youssef’s take:

The cap on the internet usage in Lebanon is something that creates lots and lots of stress within the Lebanese community, but guess what? There’s actually unlimited nights in this case! If you use mobi, you get unlimited downloads between midnight and 8am, and if you’re on IDM it’s between 23:00pm and 07:00am. Isn’t that great news? Maybe for all the insomniacs in Lebanon; and if you’re not an insomniac, you just might turn into one.

You can find prices here, here, and here.

The major internet providers in the country (Ogero, IDM, Cyberia) give you DSL which requires having a landline hooked up at your apartment. if everyone cooperates, the process is simple. But you’re likely to either have a stickler for a landlord (like Danielle did), live outside the reach of Ogero’s cables, or have one mafia or the other who is monopolizing communications in your area. I mean, isn’t hassling foreigners over the basics of day to day life the best way to demonstrate how Lebanon is one of the most hospitable countries in the world, whose economy is based primarily on toursim? Of course it is! In this case, you have the mobi option. A portable USB dongle that gets you internet through the wireless networks. In fact, mtc and alfa now offer this service as well through their 3G networks. But this was the option you were going for anyway, you’re new in town, always on the move, meeting people at cafes, and not sitting at your apartment skyping with your mom back home, right?

For mobi’s packages and prices, check their website.

Speaking of cafes, free WiFi is more or less available at every cafe in the country. In fact, believe it or not, free WiFi can also be found at Lebanon’s public parks and with, on average, 300 sunny days a year, why not spend your weekend in the park with your laptop? For a list of public parks, checkout +961’s post.

Paying bills

Danielle’s take:

I was fortunate in that I didn’t really have many bills to speak of while I was in Leb. I never ended up getting a credit card, mainly because I didn’t have a residency visa 1, nor did I have any credit in Lebanon 2.. so that’s that. I just applied for a checking account while I was there – which is pretty standard so I didn’t really feel the need to go into depth about it.. Now when it came to electricity and water,..the caretaker (“natour” as the Lebanese call it) would come to my apartment every month, show me my bill (or leave it at my door if I wasn’t there), and I would just give him the amount in cash so he could take care of it  (pretty informal – I know, but we never had a problem with our electricity shutting of..so yeah I love this about Leb). My roommate explained to me that if we didn’t have the money on time to give it to the caretaker, we would have to go the water and electrical companies ourselves, and THAT’S where it gets complicated. So, in the year and a half that I was in Beirut this is how I paid my bills..I never wanted to find out what it was like to pay them myself so I made sure that I always had the money on time. I’m not sure if this system is standard in Leb, so we’ll see what Youssef has to say…

électricité du liban

The half lit sign at Electricite du Liban - Lebanon's national electricity provider. Did we mention that you will most like be experiencing daily power cuts since Electricite du Liban cannot power the whole country at the same time so they do so in intervals? Yeah..I think we did in part 1 - but we'll probably go into a bit more about 'why that is so' later on in this series.

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Youssef’s take:

There aren’t that many bills to account for usually. For the postpaid cell lines, you can either have an automatic bank draft that takes care of it automatically or pay your bill monthly (usually either on the 1st or the 15th of the month) at any OMT or Money Gram store (they’re everywhere and easy to spot). The internet bill is payed at the LibanPost if you’re with Ogero, or prepaid cards if you’re on mobi or Wise or any of the other providers. As for utilities, a bill collector usually comes to your house to collect the money. It is possible to ask the collector to actually come at a later time to collect the money, so for example if you are not at home when the electricity bill collector comes, he’ll leave you a small green piece of paper with the amount you owe and the day he’ll come back. Like Danielle said, it’s very common to have the building caretaker (every building has one) take care of the bills for you, just don’t forget to leave him a nice tip during xmas/ramadan.

For the most part, cash is the common method for recurring bill payments in the country. Some services give you the bank draft option (eg. cell phone carriers, which might actually be enforced if you’re a foreigner) and some also use credit cards. But you might have problems paying with a foreign credit card, for example mtc does not accept foreign credit cards if you want to pay your postpaid bill online. There’s an abundance of ATMs, especially on a street like Hamra, so you do not have to worry about getting your hands on some cash, same goes for money exchange booths who also sell mtc and alfa recharge cards.

Health Insurance & Going to the Doctor/Pharmacy

Danielle’s take:

Health insurance is yet another thing I lived without during my time in Beirut. (No car, no health insurance, no credit card, prepaid phone and internet, electricity cuts for 3 hours a day amongst other things..yeah..talk about building character) I guess I figured that if anything serious happened I always had health insurance in the States..and being young and invincible, what could possibly happen right? And from what I know about health insurance in Lebanon (through work at least) or in general, it’s not at all like it is in the states, where you pay a co-pay of let’s say.. 20% of what the actual cost of the visit is,,and they cover things like annual physicals, etc etc. In Lebanon, insurance covers things like hospitalization and death (again, I may be mistaken here). The good news is, doctors visits are relatively reasonable. A doctor’s visit well generally run you around $50 – $75 dollars. (Always be prepared to pay cash when you go to the doctor..in my experience some of them only accept cash).

going to the doctor in Beirut

Who knows what exactly constitutes as an "extended visit" and "special consultation"..but this is an example of some of the prices you will see when you go to the doctor. Divide the amounts by 1.5 to get the US rate. So.. 100,000 LL = around $66 US

Again, coming from the States (where you’re advised to show up 15-20 minutes early just to fill in 15-20 pages of paperwork)..going to the doctor in Beirut was a very different experience. It’s very informal (shockingly so actually) – they don’t even ask you for your ID to verify your identity – which i thought was strange in the case that you fall unconscious and they want to access your medical records? Or in the case that you’re using a false identity?  ..and from what I remember, patient privacy doesn’t exist all that much either (maybe this is just the American in me talking,,maybe we have a skewed sense of what patient privacy actually means). I remember going to pay for my visit one time, and the receptionist screaming out to the doctor “What did she get done? What do I have to charge for?” I mean, really?

This informality definitely extends over into the pharmacy as well. I wrote a very detailed post about what I think about pharmacies in Beirut, and about a few personal experiences I had..so I suggest you read it just so you know what to expect.

pharmacies in Beirut

pharmacy in Beirut..nice assets..

pharmacies in Beirut

typical pharmacy in Beirut

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In a nutshell, if you’re coming from the States, there are a few things you will need to get used to:

  • the things you are accustom to being over the counter, are actually behind the counter
  • many pharmacists are dressed in plain clothes, and tend to not be very discrete when discussing your personal business (inside voices anyone?)
  • Lebanese people don’t seem to understand the meaning of personal space, and will stand up right next to you or almost on top of you while you are trying to speak with a pharmacist.
  • you will end up using many generic brands, as well as brands from Europe that are cheaper but work just as well (even so I recommend that you research the brands to make sure it is in fact what you need, as there have been incidences of pharmacists prescribing the wrong things..i think this is mainly due to miscommunication..and obviously things/medications might not have the same names as they do in the place you’re from)

Youssef’s take:

Yup, pharmacies in Lebanon are not the over glorified candy stores like CVS or Walgreens found in the US. In most pharmacies (except maybe in Hamra) you can only get medication – no shampoo, beauty products, etc etc. The key to a successful visit to the pharmacy is the same as a visit to any other place in Lebanon: be friendly, initiate small talk with the person you’re dealing with, and you’ll be well taken care of. Now, I’m not a female who doesn’t feel like broadcasting when her feminine cycle is due, nor am I a person who cares much for privacy. So although I have not experienced the annoyances Danielle mentioned, I know the Lebanese mentality and way of handling things, and that kind of behavior is typical and is bound to cause awkward moments for those who aren’t used to it. On the other hand, there are plenty of female run pharmacies who tend to be a bit more discrete and mindful of a girl’s need for privacy.

As for insurance and Dr’s visits, there are options available for you obviously. If you are working for an employer with the proper legal paperwork, your employer is legally bound to enroll you in a health plan. If your work is under the table like many foreigners I know, then you’ll have to resort to getting your own insurance. I am personally enrolled in “Sm@rtcare” by United Medical Group. My contract was done through Bank Audi, but their offer is limited to Lebanese nationals only. I did ask them about a plan for foreigners and Bank Audi said they do not provide one, but the provider they use does. That is one option, and I know a few other options exist as well. You do not have to go through your stay without medical coverage. Depending on what plan you get, some cover doctor visits, some cover medications, others cover ER visits, and any combination of the mentioned services. I believe, I may be wrong about this, an insurance plan that covers hospitalization and lab work would cost you less than $2,000/year (that’s what my 60 year old father pays, who’s considered at high risk to be hospitalized). But in most cases, you will have to pay upfront and then get reimbursed at a later point. Although, since a sizable portion of the population is not covered by insurance, many private practices cater to these cases and give reasonable prices for the visits, and labs like Dr’s Laboratories near Bliss St also provide reasonably priced lab tests. Some things are cheap enough that you might find it more convenient to just pay the bill cash and not worry about filing a claim.

So there you go! part 3! Probably not as interesting/exciting as the other two before it, (and as usual, long as hell) but information anyone moving to Beirut needs to know.

Hope this helps!

If anyone has anything to add, please do leave it in the comments! Again, think about how we could making people’s lives just a little bit easier! ;) They’ll have enough on their hands when they get to Beirut.

Cheers!

-Dani and Youssef

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Filed under life in Lebanon

The foreigners’ guide to moving to Beirut, part 2

Ok, so now that we’ve gone through things to pack, let’s move on to a few other things you need to know about moving to Beirut.

Finding an apartment in Beirut

Danielle’s take:

This has to be the singlemost frequently asked question I receive from people considering moving to Beirut. It’s also one of the most difficult for me to answer. My first three months in Lebanon were spent at a friend’s home in Hazmieh (which is outside of Beirut). When I decided I wanted to get closer to B-City, I spent weeks trying to find something online or on-foot, and that was WITH the help of a Lebanese friend (although his Arabic wasn’t that good – he had recently moved to Beirut from Montreal).. Everything that I thought was promising online, either demanded six months to a year’s rent up front, or just wasn’t what it professed to be (old, unfurnished, in an inconvenient area..etc etc..)..

Apartments in Beirut

Finding an apartment in Beirut is a mission and a half. Actually, it's two missions. Yep. two.

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Finally, I got so desperate that I moved into an ALL GIRLS DORM if you can believe it, called The Diva House (shameful, I know..) I paid $700 for a ROOM with a bed, a TV, a closet, and a toilet (at least it had daily maid service!). Even the kitchen was shared. :( (At the time, I was making $1100 a month..so, do the math. It sucked). One day, while I was at work, a friend of mind who went to AUB forwarded me an email from someone in her program looking for a roommate,,and that’s how I eventually came to find the bliss street apartment I lived in for nearly a year (A two bedroom place that went for $1000 a month $500 per person..still expensive versus what I was making, but a good price considering the size and central location).

So, yeah that’s my story. My advice to people looking to move to Beirut would be to check out websites like ahlein.netrealestate.com.lb, lebanon.dubizzle.com (thanks Bass B.) and even beirut.craigslist.org and to get a sense of what you’re dealing with size/furnishing/price wise. Chances are if you’re moving to Beirut, you already have a job or are attending a program that should be able to help you with finding accommodations, or at least point you in the right direction. Finding an apartment is REALLY difficult to do on your own. If you are like me,,and are winging it, it WILL take you time to find something that suits your preferences/price range..(that is, unless you’re balling out of control and money is no object for you.) So you will need to figure out a place (either a hotel or a private home) to stay in the mean time..If you are really adventurous,,you can try couch surfing while you look for a place!!  Either way, I STRONGLY advise having someone local help you/do the talking. Be advised: People WILL take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner and will try to raise the rent on you.

As for ‘what part of Beirut should you move to’..I would suggest somewhere in Achrafieh, Monot, Gemmayze, or Hamra, Mar Mikhail..they are all relatively close to (or in the middle of ) all of the action..and easily accessible by foot. They’re also – in my humble opinion – the trendiest parts of the city. You could also consider Sodeco, Rawche, and Downtown (Although Rawche and Downtown are usually reserved for baller shot callers only).

Watched this video by BeirutNightLife to go on a nighttime tour of many of these areas..

* Pete of Beirut Beat suggests that you check out the Apartments in Beirut Facebook page..apparently it’s a good resource for finding places to live. Thanks Pete!

Youssef’s take:

Real estate in Lebanon is becoming ridiculously expensive and prices in Beirut especially are through the roof!! Most Lebanese families who still live in central locations in Beirut are holding on to old lease contracts that pre-date the civil war. This means that what these families pay for a year’s worth of rent, is what anyone else trying to find an apartment in Beirut now, would pay in just one month! (Ridiculous, I know.) This has forced many young people outside of Beirut for affordable rent..and by default has created a significant “commuter culture.”

Traffic in Beirut

Commuting to and from Beirut can be..pretty nightmarish..

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Some young families are settling in areas like Jnah, Dawhet el Hoss and even Dahieh where apartments are, contrary to popular belief, not cheap but many times cheaper than any of the new building coming up in Beirut (which are all sold out by the way, believe it or not).

Lebanese culture dictates that most young professional stay at home with their parents until marriage. Therefore, the demand for rooms/flats/apartment mates is limited to a small number of university students (and expats) coming from outside of Beirut and a handful of exceptional cases (like Danielle). Most individuals looking to share the cost of living tend to be foreigners and thus the supply is very, very limited – and the costs somewhat steep.

The best way to find a place to live in at an affordable rate is to look for student residences around AUB and LAU. Find yourself a local who knows the area (they’re easy to spot, it’s usually the one walking down the street saying hi to every shop owner he passes by), offer them a small compensation and go with them from building to building talking to the doormen to acquire about possible availabilities. (believe it or not I know a Lebanese person who hired someone to find places for her in Beirut, it really is hard to do otherwise..)

Driving/Taking Taxis

Youssef’s take:

Quite honestly, for the most part you do not need to drive in Beirut. And I am looking to start a movement that encourages people to walk more and drive less to places in the city. If you live within the 4 corners: Corniche el Mazraa, Downtown, Manara and Ramlet el Bayda, you can easily get to any place within that area in 20 to 30 minutes of walking. That includes areas like Sanayeh, Hamra, Bliss, Mar Elias and Verdun. Of course there are exceptions and certain situations that require the use of a car and for which the ‘service’ (discussed separately) is a good option. But the Lebanese need to stop taking their car to go from Hamra Main Street to Bliss Street and spend 30 minutes in traffic cursing, shouting and honking for no particular reason.

As for the ‘Service’, it may be one of the cheapest ways to commute in the world (LBP 2,000/USD 1.3 for a short trip anywhere in the city or LBP 4,000/USD 2.6 for longer trips but still within a reasonable range in Beirut and its suburbs). They are also the most common and dominant form of public transportation. They are similar to Colectivos found in Santiago, Chile or other parts of the world where you share a cab with other passengers for a fixed rate. Unlike the Colectivos though, the ‘service‘ does not run on a fixed, predetermined route. In the good ol’ days, the easiest way to spot a taxi was too look for an old Mercedes..or by the red license plate.. While you will still see these Mercedes on the road, there are also many other types of vehicles that operate as taxis.

Lebanese taxi

Typical Lebanese taxi..red license plate..

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As of 2011, private taxis, ‘services‘ and any kind of public transport (which includes mini-vans, a story of its own) are required to have the official sticker on the car. So essentially, look for the red plates, and the stickers.

Lebanese taxisOfficial sticker.

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But not worry, hailing a cab in Lebanon requires zero effort – it’s a hospitable country after all! The driver will actually pull as close to you as possible, honk until your ears bleed, or you notice him (whichever happens first), at which point in time you’ll either yell out your destination, or wave your hand to attempt to get them to go away (they’re persistent, sometimes they’ll try to convince you to come in with them regardless).

Danielle’s take:

Driving in Lebanon. HA! Theses could be written on the subject. In all of the places I’ve traveled to, I have never seen anything quite like it. Anything. (It’s funny how every country you go to,,people always say, “If you can drive here you can drive anywhere.” I say..to hell with that. If you can drive in BEIRUT you can drive anywhere. Period. Full stop. Yeah.)

I mean, why would you even consider buying a car/driving when when you have cheap and relatively efficient public transport options? (That is, unless Daddy is willing to fork out to buy you a car..) Driving in Lebanon seriously forces you to employ all 5 senses, and maybe even your 6th. You see, buying a car was never an option for me. So I never even really considered it. I simply couldn’t afford it..(and from what I know, cars are very expensive because of import duties, etc etc). If that isn’t enough,, parking is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a problem..and although a lot of places do have valet service, it just seems to me that unless you are planning to move to Beirut for GOOD and build a family, etc etc etc..public transportation ie. services and private taxis are the way to go.. That being said, you should know that Lebanese people take pride in their cars. I’ve heard stories of young men who would spend all of their money on their cars rather than using the money to get out of their parent’s house and into their own place. Again, it’s all about image in Beirut..and I think that – especially for young men – that may have to do with the fact that many (not all, but many..yes, I know this is a generalization here people..) Lebanese women consider having a car, a prerequisite when determining whether to date a man or not.. But anyway,,I’m going off on a tangent. Back to the point.

I could sit here and describe what driving in Beirut is like (even though I haven’t experience it first hand, being a passenger and all), but that would take a year. or two. or ten. Instead, watch this video to get a sense of what it’s like. You only need to watch 45 seconds to get the point. You will notice that pedestrian right of way does NOT exist in Lebanon. Drivers don’t stop for the elderly, or for women with strollers..so chances are, they will not stop for you! Something I definitely had to learn the hard way.

So, yeah. I never drove in Lebanon and I never will. Ever..

Instead, I took ‘services‘ or private taxis wherever I went. And it worked out just fine for me.. When I first started this blog, I wrote a post detailing my first time taking a service and outlined the important differences between a ‘service‘ taxi and a private taxi service that every foreigner visiting/planning to move to Beirut should know..but as this post is already wayyy longer than I anticipated, I suggest you click the link if you really want to know more about it. However, Youssef and I updated the post to include some important information, which I will repost here, just to round off this section. So here goes it:

Danielle’s take:

Almost all service taxi drivers are out to ‘make a buck’ in whatever way they can..I mean, they lead difficult lives. Fare prices are low ($1 for god’s sake!), gas is expensive, and traffic is insane..which means that oftentimes they can’t even afford to maintain their cars or fix their parts – which is a contributing factor to why the pollution (and noise pollution) is so bad in Beirut (a conversation for another day)..so for those of you, like me, who have been driving your entire life, getting used to the sometimes squalid conditions of the taxis will take some getting used to. (The vast majority of the taxis on the road are..I want to say..between 30 – 40 years old Mercedes Benz..feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) For those of you accustom to clean public transport systems (subways/buses) I guess it will be easier for you, but an adjustment all of the same. Now back to my point..

If you are a foreigner, and obviously look and dress like a foreigner, taxi drivers will try to rip you off EVERY SINGLE TIME. Without fail. I was relatively lucky because people often mistook me for being Lebanese.. But even so, I made sure to pay my fare as soon as I got in the taxi. The thing is, Lebanese service taxi drivers all like to think they’re political pundits..and their monologues about the latest political bru-ha-ha begin as soon as you enter in the car..Often times, when they’re finished, they’ll expect you to contribute to the conversation or at least have something to say.. On several occasions, when they learnt I wasn’t Lebanese and didn’t speak a word of Arabic (due to my failure to contribute to their conversation),,they oftentimes tried to up the fare on me..or they would automatically turn the service into a taxi without my consent, and then expect that I give them 10,000 LL at my destination. Not cool. So not cool.

It will be hard at first, but stand your ground..they can be a bit intimidating at times, but if they picked you up and made no mention of “Taxi?“..then it is safe to assume that your fare will cost 2,000 LL.. If, before you enter the taxi or as soon as you enter the taxi, they determine that the ride is going to take them a bit longer than than a 2,000 LL ride, but not as long as a “Taxi ride” then they will say.. “servicen?” Which simply means “Two services”..thus doubling the service fare = 4,000 LL..

As Youssef pointed out above, finding a taxi is never a problem. They honk, and honk, and HONK at you..even if you haven’t even given them the slightest indication that you want to take a taxi.

Arabic taxi Beirut

Just had to put a picture to break up all of this text! ;)

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Youssef’s take:

As a foreigner, anywhere in the world, in order not to get ripped off always ask local about how much getting to and from certain destinations should cost. For the ‘service‘, you will not get a receipt and there is not a price list (although there should be, I need to have a talk with my friend who works for the Consumer Protection Agency) so there is somewhat of a guessing game..and it’s often times up to the discretion of the driver,,or determined by negotiation between the driver and the customer. But if you go in to one already knowing what to expect, you can avoid this. So..ask people what price to expect and they should be able to tell you. If you have no one to ask here are a few general rules of thumb (not 100% accurate but bear with me). If you are in Beirut, going between Raouche, Manara, Hamra, Verdun, Mar Elias, Downtown or any smaller area in between should cost you the regular fair of 2,000 LL. Going from any of those places to within the greater Beirut area but not in this list should be the double fair of 4,000 LL (examples: Ashrafieh, Dahieh, Jnah, etc). Any other major city should be about the same, like Saida, Tripoli, Tyre, etc, where you have the central locations and the surrounding areas. Going from one city or town to another (unless they are adjacent small towns) will usually require a taxi. And for those instances, you might as well just call one and not grab a random one from the street. You could take a ‘service’ to Dawra and take a bus from there all the way up to Tripoli (or any stop in between) if you’re going north or go to Cola and take a bus to Saida if you’re going south. This becomes a matter of ‘it depends’ for what is best for each scenario.

Now, if you’re are adventurous and have a little time on your hands to explore, you’ve got the mini-vans option. I do not want to scare you but I want to make sure you know what you might be getting yourself into. One of my friends always used to say, “to me that the mini-van experience is paying 500 LL for an uncomfortable ride on a vehicle that won’t stop until it hits a wall and that’s when everyone would have arrived at their destination.” Now obviously that’s an exaggeration. But the point is that it’s not for everyone. You need to know where exactly where you’re going (meaning you’ve been there before, would recognize it when you get to it and are able to ask the driver to stop), know which area close to you the vans that go there pass by and has a stop, and know which of the vans that passes by is the van that you need to get on. Now I’m sure there’s at least one expert in the matter who’s reading this and will post all the details in the comments ;)

HOT DAMN. This is a long post. But it had to be done. I guess this means there will be a part 3, 4, and possibly even a 5! For all the Lebanese reading, if there is anything we have neglected to include, or have described inaccurately, please feel free to let us know in the comments. Also, check out this site for a listing of private taxi companies in Beirut.

Here is to hoping we helped make someone’s life a tad bit easier. Just a tad.

Cheers!

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The foreigners’ guide to moving to Beirut, part 1

I’m amazed that even though I’ve been away for over two months now, I still receive emails from people seeking advice about moving to Beirut. (I especially love the emails from concerned parents and grandparents!) I’m truly flattered that people trust my judgement so much..and while I always try to answer their questions to the best of my knowledge, I know that I’m most probably overlooking a few things. Which is why I decided to write this post and open it up to everyone willing to contribute in the hopes of making foreigners’ lives in Beirut a liiiiitle bit easier. (Come on now, we know they need all help they can get!)

So, let’s get started, shall we?

What to pack

The first time I came to the party capital of the Middle East, I came with one mission, and one mission only: to party. And party I did. The nightlife reminded me so much of South Beach..the gorgeous people, the fashion, the sexiness..admittedly my first trip to Beirut was very one-sided and was a poor measure of what it was like to live there. But that’s obvious right? Vacationing somewhere is always different from living there. This couldn’t be MORE true in the case of Lebanon. Anyway, I digress.

Palais, Beirut

My first night at Palais (It was Crystal back then..)

Palais, Beirut

This is Beiruuuuuuut!

The second time I headed to Beirut, I packed for what was supposed to be a month long trip. Little did I know that one month would turn into a year and a half! But, let’s just say I packed mainly based on what my experience in Beirut was like the first time around..and hey, I’m from Miami,,so can you blame me? My suitcase was stuffed to the brim with wayyy too many going out outfits, high heels, and things that were very impractical (unless you are going to a bar/nightclub) by American standards. Now, as a woman, I must warn you that Lebanese women have a tendency to err on the side of fabulous – every day, all day. And while I like to play dress up, I like to reserve certain items of clothing for night time only. I can’t say the same for some Lebanese ladies out there!

At first, I felt like I could do what the Lebanese do. But when I moved to Hamra (for those of you who don’t know, think University neighborhood, lots of walking, uneven/slippery pavement, and taxis, etc etc) I quickly traded in my high heels for flats (and oftentimes sneakers..GASP! ), ..and my super fitted clothing for something a bit more free-flowing and comfortable. Hey, if you feel like you have what it takes to play Lebanese dress-up, more power to you..but if you’re anything like me..here is what I recommend you pack:

  • Lots of comfortable , breathable clothes for the summer - Comfortable does NOT mean sloppy. The Lebanese are very image conscious people. Fashion, style, and beauty are woven into the very fabric of their society. Also, there are certain parts of the city where wearing “more” clothes is advised. (At least that’s how I felt at times. Bring a bit of everything, and always make sure to have a cardigan close by..as you get to know the neighborhood you’re living in, you will be able to gauge what’s appropriate and what’s not.) You should probably keep the daisy dukes and the micro mini skirts at home. From what I saw, jeans were the order of the day, even in summer. Keep this in mind when you’re packing. Oh and please,, leave the birkenstocks and jansport backpacks at HOME!
  • Coats, jackets, sweaters, leggings, scarves, rainboots, and fashion boots for winter – It actually gets quite cold in Beirut! And really really really wet! Coming from Miami, I didn’t even pack a sweatshirt..so, needless to say, I ended up having to buy everything when I was there. Not fun..especially when you’re working on a Lebanese salary! So, bring winter clothes!! Ladies, Lebanese women LOVE LOVE LOVE their winter boots. If there is one thing I would recommend buying in Lebanon, it would be a pair of boots..they’re really stylish and uber chic. Fashion boutiques are everywhere in the city, you won’t be hardpressed to find one.
Rainboots Lebanon

pack some rainboots!

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  • Going out/partying attire – Ok,this really varies. You have every type of nightlife you could ever imagine in Beirut. Check out Beirut Nightlife for a full listing of all of the places to hit up in the city. If you’re going to a rooftop or club, you should know that bouncers are very discriminating. You have to look hot..South Beach hot..but always with class! Ladies, you know what that means..Fellas, button downs and dress shoes. always. If you’re more into the casual bar scene, you have plenty to choose from as well. If you’re going to Gemmayze, I’d say dress casual chic. In Hamra, anything goes. Hell, I’ve even gone to a bar straight from the gym. Fierce. I know. If you’re invited to a house party (or as some ppl call them, open house), or other semi-formal function I’d say (as a lady) to always wear heels. Some ppl might argue with me on this one,, but this is my experience!
Flats vs. heels

I'd say to choose the heels! It's Beirut after all!

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  • Multiple pairs of walking shoes, they will wear out with in 1-2 months – Unless you’re PAID and can afford to be chauffeured everywhere, you will be doing a whole hell of a lot of walking in Beirut. Stylish flats, fashion sneakers, workout sneakers are the way to go for everyday wear..In my opinion the shoe selection in Lebanon is pretty poor unless you can afford to buy from some of the local designers. The same goes for clothes  actually! Yes you have H&M, Vero Moda, Zara, and the like..but the price vs. quality ratio just doesn’t compute. I found that the clothes I bought in Lebanon washed, faded, or were completely destroyed after only a few washes. This probably has more to do with the quality of the water, and the fact that my washing machine was like 100 years old..but STILL! And at $30 or so dollars a shirt, you can see how this habit gets expensive. If money is not an object and you shop D&G, Versace, and Prada, disregard this last statement! You will find everything you could ever desire at Beirut Souks and/or Aishti)
Hamra Main Street

Hamra main street. I must've walked up and down this street at least a million times.

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  • Bathing suits, beachwear, sunglasses, sandals (Obviously! You’re on the Mediterranean bizznitches!) ladies, some wedge heels and nice summer dresses and rompers (altho i personally hate them) always work wonders too.. :) If you’re the poolside party type..it’s best to pack as if you were moving to Miami Beach..fabulous swimwear, coverups, and shades.) Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a free public beach in Beirut. If you want to get some sun, be prepared to spend around $25 just for entry for some version of the below (see pic). If you are really craving the beach, you will have to drive about 25-30 minutes outside of Beirut where you will find more “casual” (I guess that’s the right word) beaches..which you will stay have to pay to enter. (suxxx I know..having to pay for something that should be free.)
Riviera-Beach-Lounge-

Riviera Beach Lounge in Beirut

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  • Active wear – There is much more to Lebanon than drinking and partying..so make sure to pack some active wear as well!! There is a plethora of historical, cultural, and natural sights that you will have to visit during your time in Lebanon! Don’t go back home until you’ve seen the ancient ruins of Baalbeck, Anjaar, and Tyre as well as the Beiteddine palace, and Byblos – rumored to be the oldest inhabited city in the world (and my favorite!). You should also take a visit to Tripoli and go see the Cedars! And lastly, there are also a lot of groups that go hiking, like Vamos Todos. soo..pack accordingly!
  • Medication  – this is a tricky one. I’ve heard some horror stories about pharmacies and pharmacists giving out wrong prescriptions in Beirut, and I’ve had some pretty uncomfortable experiences myself.  For those of you used to CVS, Walgreens and the like..you’re in for a rude awakening. You will need to get accustomed to asking the pharmacist for everything. A lot of the things that you can pick up off the shelf in the States, are actually behind the counter in Leb. And while I don’t want to be responsible for turning you off pharmacies altogether, I would suggest you try and get as many refills as possible prior to your move. orrrrrr at least until you find a doctor and pharmacy you can trust. Ladies/Gents..you should know that birth control is available without a prescription for around $15. Be safe my friends!
  • Electronics – Apart from big ticket items (like laptops/ipods/ipads/digital cameras which I assume will be brought with you from home), I recommend buying everything electronic in Beirut. When charging your electronics, make sure to keep in mind that Lebanon runs on 220 voltage. I learned that the hard way when my blowdryer nearly burst into flames and my laptop screen began flickering!! For more information on voltage and plugs in Lebanon check out this site. Make sure to travel with a universal adapter just to be on the safe side. Also, keep in mind that unless you live in a building with a generator, power comes and goes every day, and sometimes, multiple times a day. As a measure of safety, I always unplugged all of my electronics before I left home. Also, if you lose your ipod or Mac charger, they are very easy to find in Beirut.
Dryer catching on fire..

you don't want to be drying your hair with this..trust me!

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  • Cellphones – Obviously, if you’re phone isn’t unlocked, you won’t be able to use it in Lebanon. Now, there are people who can unlock it for you, but I can’t guarantee that they know what they’re doing or that you’re phone will ever be the same. I came to Lebanon with an iPhone, but ended up buying a Blackberry since everyone and their mother is on bb. You can buy an unlocked Blackberry in Lebanon for around $100 if my memory serves me correctly..to me that’s the best bet. Also, for those of you who are used to fixed/postpaid lines, you will have to get accustom to buying prepaid phone cards in increments of $9 $12 or $21 from one of the two telecommunication providers in Lebanon, MTC or Alfa. (Getting a fixed line in Leb as a foreigner is very difficult, near to impossible from what I was told.) Cell phone stores are everywhere in Beirut..like every 5 steps everywhere. You can also buy phone cards from most supermarkets and corner stores..just ask the check out clerk for them. Telecommunication rates in Lebanon are among some of the highest in the world. You will be doing a lot more texting (or bbming) than talking while you’re in Beirut. #fact Ohhh, and how could I forget? You can also buy your phone number if you feel so inclined, like if you’re one of those guys who thinks having 69 in your phone number makes you sexy.. The numbers for sale will look something like this:
Cellphones Beirut

numbers for sale..

  • Toiletries/Makeup/Hair products/Household items – you can get everything you need in Beirut.

I think that just about sums it up! I know that many of these things may seem a bit obvious, but judging from some of the emails I’ve received..you’d be surprised! If I’ve overlooked something or described something inaccurately, help a sista out! Leave it in the comments below..and look out for part 2 of the foreigners’ guide to moving to Beirut!

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