It was 1 pm when I set out for Fatri, a village I was advised to go to when I asked about a camping spot in the mountains I could easily reach on my bike. It had been one full year since I last rode my bike and my legs weren’t yet trained for mountain trails. The plan was to get to my destination and find somewhere I can camp in for 2-3 days hoping I would get answers to many unanswered questions I’ve had. As I had mentioned in my previous post, things were getting kinda blurry in my life in terms of ministry and career and I felt I could use sometime away from it all to get things sorted out.
At 3 pm I got to the base of the mountain. So far, I was surprised my legs were still in intact shape but then again, the road up to this point was relatively easy, mostly level ground. I took a minute or two to swallow in what was waiting for me with my eyes fixed on one thing… a cute girl passing by. Ok no, rewind… with my eyes fixed on one thing, that steep hill in front of me. At this point you should know that in my mind, Fatri was probably an hour up on my bike because the guy who advised me to go there made it sound so easy. So I said to myself “Ok Antoine, you’re gonna do this. An hour or so and you’ll be taking a dip in the cool Nahr Ibrahim as a reward for your arduous journey”. Little did I know that Fatri was nowhere near the river, I guess another minor detail that guy from the bike shop failed to mention. Nevertheless, I buckled up with that treat in mind and started my way up the hill.
Five minutes later, with barely two turns crossed, I was pretty much done for. My hands were foamy from all the sweat rubbing against the handles as if I had washed them with soap, I was out of breath and out of water. I stopped in the shade of a building on the corner, got down from my bike to give my legs some rest and started talking to myself, on the likes of “Antoine, what on earth do you think you’re doing you idiot?”. While I was getting worked up in my monologue I got interrupted by someone calling me from the other side of the road. I turned around to find a guy gesturing me from the inside of a garage if I wanted to drink. I nodded and crossed to the other side with my bottle in hand. The kind gentleman filled my bottle with cold water and asked me from where I had come. I told him I just came all the way from Beirut and he and his coworkers were amazed. When I told them where I was heading, the amazement grew all the more. Intrigued, I asked how far still to Fatri and what I heard next made the words of my recent monologue echo back in my head. The first guy said Fatri is 6 km up and had he barely finished his sentence when another guy jumped in to say “Are you crazy? There’s still at least 13 km to Fatri”. You can say that was a decent slap back to reality. When I asked if things were looking bright for me, one of them tried to reassure me by saying “it’s all up hill until you reach Fatri”. Another guy confirmed what he said with more words of comfort: “And you have one segment like this…” – with his palm held up straight. And then they started discussing among themselves how hard the road would be for me while I slowly pulled myself out with my face down and nothing but a “thanks for the water”. I crossed back to where I had left my bike and sat down on a small ramp to rest my legs and resume my monologue where I had paused it. “Ok you’ve proved you can go that far Antoine, you’ve by far broken your record on the bicycle, how about you go back now and find a nice spot on the beach and camp there? Besides, you’re not even trained to go that far uphill, do you wanna kill yourself? Do you wanna impair your legs?”. All this was going through my mind for about 15 min and while the idea of just hitting the road down to the beach started growing all the more tempting, something inside me was saying: “You didn’t come that far to go back”. Although the voices of reason tried their best to shove that little faint voice back where it came from, I decided to follow that voice and just go up, at least for a few more turns to see whether or not the guys in the garage actually knew what they were talking about. I mean maybe, just maybe they could be wrong or better yet, pulling a prank on the newbie from Beirut, and Fatri was in fact like I had imagined it a few more turns up. I guess that little stubborn head of mine finally paid off for once. In a matter of minutes I had my helmet back on and was up again on my bike ready to face the unknown.
Needless to say this lasted no more than ten minutes. Three turns later I was so depleted I could kiss the ground and call it Fatri and die a happy man. I stopped to catch my fleeting spirit in front of a grocery store and nursed on my bottle like there was no tomorrow. When the guy came out to sit on his chair in the shade I asked him how much left to Fatri. The morphing look on his face before he uttered a word was news enough for me that I was doomed. “Fatri is 30 minutes up” he said. Gripping tightly on to the last thread of hope I had left I asked him: “By bike you mean or by car”? Before I had time to pray for the answer I wanted to hear that oily thread slipped right through my hands with his abrupt reply, “By car, of course”. At this point, looking for an alternative seemed like the only sensible thing I could think of, and the idea of camping on a quiet beach at sunset started to crystallize the more I looked at that steep hill mocking my arrogance to actually think I could subdue it. But the question that presented itself was which beach was I to go to? And which beach will actually receive me to camp on its shore overnight and for free? The only free beach that would come to mind was the one at Byblos, but then again, it closed at 8 and no one was allowed to stay there after. So that was out of the question. While I was mentally going through the numerous options I had, I heard a voice say to me, only this time not from my head but from behind and it was the distinct voice of an older woman so that couldn’t have been God unless of course something had gone terribly wrong: “Sit down Son”. I looked back to find her handing me a chair. The kind lady must have felt the tumult taking place in my head and it was somehow apparent that this was going to take some time. I sat down, assumed “The Thinker” position and within a few minutes in the cool breeze started to fall asleep. I was in a state of conscious abandon that lasted a little more than 30 minutes in which I like to convince myself I was settling deep issues at hand, or at least this seems like the only plausible justification for how long it took me to actually make up my mind. Eventually, in what seemed like a moment of resolution, I said “this is nonsense” while fastening my helmet back on. The man who was behind me the whole time witnessing the battle of thoughts in my mind finally said: “So, did you come to your senses?”. Turning to him I said: “Yep… I only have one option… to go up“. You can tell by the look on his face that it was definitely not the answer he was expecting to hear from a guy who just spent 45 minutes of his life like a stone in front of him wrestling inwardly in what seemed like the Battle of Waterloo. So I hopped back on my bike after I played a game of “Tag, you’re it” with the pedal that kept slipping from under my foot and hitting me on the back of my leg making me look like a retard going up hill and I rode for about 10 glorious minutes before the horses started begging for mercy from all the frantic whipping I had given them.
I guess it’s safe to say that by now you know the drill. So here I was this time in front of a country lodge sucking dry whatever was left in my bottle and having another one of my existential monologues. “Ok I’ve had it! This is lunacy at its best! I’m going back. Peaceful beach here I come! What am I doing here? What’s this life for anyway?”. And just when I was ready to hit the wimpy road down to salvation this voice came back into my head, and boy don’t you just hate when it does: “You didn’t come all this way to go back”. “Shut up! will you!?” came my reply. “This is just crazy! I don’t know where Fatri is and by the looks of it it’s still very far… this mountain seems to have no end, it’s already 5.30… it will be dark soon and if I do eventually find Fatri I don’t know where to camp there”. All the odds were going against me at this point. I closed my eyes in prayer and asked God: “What do you want me to do?”. To that question I heard him say: “Go up”. Then I asked him another question: “Will I make it?”, and to that one he said “Yes”. But since I had lost nearly all hope to get there on the bike I thought hitch hiking in a pickup truck would be the best solution. So my quest now was to find an empty truck that would willingly take me on its way up. A few loaded trucks passed by and soon after empty trucks started appearing in between cars. However when I pulled out my finger to signal for them, for some reason the drivers would either drive away from me or step on it – to avoid looking into my puppy eyes perhaps. A few minutes of rejection later it was apparent to me that no truck was going to stop and I was in fact wasting my time waiting. Alas, what I dreaded was my only option left. In frustration, I got back on my bike, but only this time with a different resolution. No longer did I care about camping, I only cared about getting there. My goal became to conquer this mountain even if it took me the whole weekend to make it up there. I resolved that I would go as far as I could for the rest of the day until I felt drained, find somewhere on the sidetracks to pitch my tent, spend the night there and continue the next day biking up the mountain until I got to Fatri.
Strangely enough, something happened when I had this change of plans. I was no longer in a hurry to get there before it was dark and that made all the difference. It helped me create a healthy rhythm for my legs that allowed me not to wear myself out and as a result my breaks started getting shorter and shorter with every turn I had crossed. I remember at one point on the way up I came across an old man walking up the road whom after watching me ride by him at a very slow pace said to me: “It’s better for you if you walk up the hill and drag your bike along!”. I turned to him and said: “Thanks for the advice Uncle… but I wanna make it”. Then I heard him say: “Listen to me Son, you’ll get exhausted like that… Get down from the bike and walk up the hill, it’s better for you…”. At this point I didn’t answer him back but his advice started toying in my brain. I mean he did have a point there and what he said made sense, but was it really what I wanted? A sense of false humility took over me for a bit trying to fool me into thinking I was being prideful by not heeding his advice but it soon disappeared when I confronted it with the truth that the whole point was to make it to the top on my bike. God reminded me again of that little incident with the old man a couple of days later and taught me a spiritual lesson from it. He told me that on my spiritual walk up the mountain I will face a lot of people who will give me advice out of their own good heart. But I should always weigh what they’re saying to me in light of my ultimate goal. I should always consider whether or not what they’re saying to me will benefit me into reaching what I have in mind and in case it doesn’t, it wouldn’t be prideful of me at all not to take their advice. While it is true that we are going up the same mountain, our purposes might be different and it’s always crucial to base the validity of the advice upon how well it serves the purpose.
From this point on, the revelations just started pouring down as I rode up the mountain with renewed stamina and determination and I was already thinking of what I was gonna blog about as soon as I got back home. My notion of personal limits had totally vaporized, I had long gone past the wall of pain and my legs kept cycling like a tireless machine one turn after the other. I stopped at a small bakery to fill my bottle with water and the lady kindly filled it for me. I asked her how far it was still to Fatri and she told me it was 6 km up. It brought me some comfort and satisfaction to realize I had already traveled half the journey and in a couple of minutes I was back on the bike. Every time I got back on it I had to remind myself that I was not in a hurry and made my legs go slower than they actually could, which made the segments much easier to cross. I stopped gazing at the top of the road and just believed by faith that it was getting closer and closer with every cycle made by the wheels.
Segment after segment I crossed with two-minute water breaks in between as the sun was progressively setting down until I saw a blue sign in the distance. Drawing slowly closer to it I could read: “Welcome to Fatri“. Words can’t describe how ecstatic I was to read these letters and for a few seconds there I couldn’t believe what I was reading. When I had lost all hope of getting to Fatri in one day I found myself there! But the village was no where to be seen yet. I rode until I saw a gas station on the left. I went in to ask the men in the office if they had water and the man behind the desk was generous enough to show me to his water dispenser. I filled my bottle and asked him my usual question: “How far still to Fatri”. He took me out and pointed at the few buildings in the distance and told me I still had some uphill segments to cross until I got to the military checkpoint – that’s where Fatri was. I took a short break on the ramp outside and I got back on the bike. It was already around 7 pm and starting to get dark, I turned on my headlight and resumed going up the rest of the mountain. As I went further up, buildings started showing and growing in number, but the whole village was dark – the power was out and it seemed almost no one had generator subscription. At 8 pm the whole village was fast asleep, except for one balcony in the distance that was lit. I slowly approached it and greeted the people sitting outside. I told them I had come from Beirut and was looking for a place where I could spend the night because it was too dark for me to bike anymore. They thought I was asking for a hotel but then I told them I was looking for a camping spot and that I had a tent with me, but what I was in fact secretly hoping for was to be invited to crash at their place because I was drooling over the thought of food (even though I wasn’t hungry at all from all the exhaustion I was feeling) – kinda like those scenes from cartoons where restless wanderers in the desert start craving delicacies and seeing them everywhere, even as far as imagining their companions as a lovely piece of steak. They told me there was a famous camping spot in Fatri called Don Bosco, but they advised me instead to camp in a church backyard next to the military checkpoint being safer for me since I was on my own. At that point their advice seemed like the most sensible thing to do since it was pitch black and I didn’t have the energy anymore to find a proper spot in the woods.
Five minutes later I was on the top of the mountain at the military checkpoint. I greeted the soldiers and asked them if I could spend the night in the backyard of the church, and after they ran it over with the higher officials I was granted permission to camp. I pitched my tent in a matter of minutes and put my stuff in it then I grabbed whatever change I had in my bag to get something to eat from the grocery store on the other side of the road. I had no more than 1250 LBP (all in coins) so I had to scrutinize everything I was buying so I would have enough food and beverage for the exact amount I had. Finally I ended up with a small bottle of water, a tiny cake and a Chocoprince. I took my gourmet meal back to my tent to savor it there but had to take a long anticipated wee first. I posted then on Facebook that I had made it safe and sound and after I degusted my dinner of champions (which I didn’t really enjoy because of the burning feeling I had in my palate) I put my head on my jacket, which I used as a pillow, and all I could think of was: “I can’t believe I made it“. Nothing mattered anymore; I felt that I had accomplished my mission for the weekend. It turned out it wasn’t at all about camping, it was all about conquering that mountain – to prove to myself that I had it in me to conquer every mountain that would stand my way regardless of preconceived notions of self limitations. I felt proud, and that God was proud of me too. I felt him patting me on the back as I fell fast asleep, satisfied and happy.
I set out to Fatri with one thing in mind – to get answers for many of the questions I’ve had recently. I thought that over the weekend I was going to get these answers from God in a quiet and peaceful environment. What I didn’t know was that I was going to get all the answers I needed on the way up. I set my heart on pilgrimage but what I really ended up finding was my heart, the heart of a man that was created to rule in life (Genesis 1:26).
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
(Psalm 121:1-2 ESV)
|A band of girl scouts I met when I was just about to head back home. They were pretty much astonished when they heard my story and asked to take a photo with me to show it to their leader 🙂|