The first thing that strikes you when you exit the airport is the bright sunshine without the humidity and the cool breeze without the cold. It feels a bit like Mumbai, but without the clamminess and the perspiration that make the summer months so painful as against the glorious sunshine in Beirut that makes you want to be outdoors all the time.
Sometimes it is best not to have read up about the place in advance. Virtually all reviews mention that the taxi-drivers in Beirut as in most other countries charge whatever they want, once they know you are a tourist. While that may be true to some extent, the fact is that you have to be careful with cab drivers wherever in the world you are, including Mumbai. The first one we met was jovial, a little too talkative and came on so strong about wanting to drive us around the city that we instinctively said no…eventually we found out that he was going to charge us the same amount as the others…we were just prejudiced from the beginning!
Beirut is still re-building itself and for us Indians, is extremely affordable. The buildings are a mixture of the old and new, but unlike our rent-controlled decrepit ones, even the old buildings here show signs of care. Most importantly, the roads are well maintained despite whatever issues they may have, the surroundings are clean, despite the occasional homeless person or beggar and the Beirutis are proud of their city and country. Here and there, we still see the after-effects of the Civil War that ravaged the country from 1975-1990, but people seem to have put this behind them to quite an extent.
Because of the French influence, the city is an amazing blend of modernity and conservatism. Tight clothes, but fully covered, extensive make-up, but with head scarves and a lot of French, along with Arabic.
Some things make you feel at home…the traffic and the insane driving, but with a little less honking, and people crossing the road wherever and whenever they feel like. And yet, like in so many other cities including poorer ones like Nairobi or equivalent ones like Cape Town, the squalor is minimal, the roads are clean and the people are polite to a fault.
I have never tried to equate Mumbai with other major cities in the world like New York, London, Singapore or for that matter even Shanghai. It would be like comparing chalk to cheese or apples to oranges.
The problem with Mumbai hits you when you land up in cities that seem comparable but despite their financial constraints, manage to remain clean and the people by and large, polite.
So what is it that makes us continue to throw garbage out of the window, food out of the car, spit on the streets and urinate and defecate everywhere! I do not want to sound like a stuck record in my column revisiting this issue again and again. Yes, we have poverty and over-population and infrastructure constraints. But that’s not the issue…even other cities like Nairobi for example, have similar problems, but somehow are cleaner and neater.
There is something intrinsic in us that abhors cleanliness around us. I don’t know what it is, but it is cultural and hard-wired into our genes. The behavior can be changed as happens when we migrate abroad, but when in India, whether we are locals or NRIs, we revert to our original state.
Is there some sociologist or geneticist who can shed some light on “why we are like thees only?