Sunday, January 26, 2014

Davos: Mary J. Bilge, Bono, and dark woods

                DAVOS, Switzerland – Davos’ brand is truly global. Come here and see 40 heads of state, 350 senior public officials, and 1000 industry titans, or Eric Schmidt, Bono, and Bill Gates. Or walk into a small bar off a hotel lobby (if you're wearing the exclusive wrist band, which grants entry) and listen  to Mary J. Blige belt out “Just Fine.”
                The reality of Davos is that, plus this: Deals in the side rooms, grumpy stars on stage, parties atop mountains, broadcasters on a rooftop in white tents, pure white snow-capped peaks against blue sky, and, for me, a few moments away from all of it.
                This was my first trip to the World Economic Forum and all I really knew ahead of time was that it brought together entrepreneurs, rock stars, development leaders in an atmosphere of sheer excess. That excess (some took a $10,000 helicopter ride from Zurich to Davos to get here; not me) was tempered by what organizers said was a record of results – new ideas were cooked at Davos that ended up doing great good.
                This year’s Davos focused on battling income inequality. There was a great deal of talk around inequality, and there was a great deal of head-turning in the hallways: In a span of 10 minutes, I saw Iran President Hassan Rouhani , a phalanx of Israeli Shin Bet security, Mary Robinson, and Bono. The truth: It was hard to stay focused.
                Walking through the hallways had the feel of speed dating your exs, or attending your high school reunion, with a maximum of 20 seconds per person, no time to get beyond what you were doing or where you were. The smart Davos-goer had back-to-back-to-back, all day long, 15 minute meetings (max), with five minutes in between to get to each meeting. Bartenders served non-stop double cappuccinos and espresos; other patrons seemed high on something else.
                At the end of the work day, 8 p.m., all I felt like doing was lying down in bed. But I knew at night, the World Economic Forum week at Davos picks up. Parties sprinkle the town. You could crash a dozen, drink until dawn.
                I didn’t have the tickets to the hottest parties – the ones thrown by Google that featured Mary J. Blige in a small bar off my hotel lobby, or Bono’s and Bill Gates’ mountainside shindig. I had other prospects, but I also had an anti-Davos idea: a night run through the valley.
                At 9 p.m., I laced up my shoes, put on my windbreaker, winter-weight running pants, hat, and gloves, and made my way off our little hilltop onto a hard-packed trail that I had run in the morning a day earlier. Hours ago, cross-country skiers swooshed  past on perfectly groomed tracks, while walkers (many with dogs) walked on a parallel packed trail that skirted Davos’ small downtown.
                At night, though, with patchy clouds overhead revealing a bowl of mountains around me, I was  alone. I ran across an open field, the only sounds being the crunch of my shoes and my light breath. The trail hugged a fast-running stream and then I veered off onto a trail that went straight up into the forest.
                It was dark. Icicles hung like sinewy beards from pine trees. The trees formed a crown over the path. The only light was the snow underfoot and that was dim. I felt almost blind. I came to a downhill and quickened my stride, a gamble, but it felt good, and I ran even harder, taking long strides.. I trusted the snow and my balance, and I stayed upright into the valley.
                Even in the wide expanse, the clouds cast shadows, and I felt invisible. To my right, I sensed something near, some motion, and I turned my head. Suddenly, large black objects swooped near, 30 feet away, closer still. I stumbled. In a moment, I knew could see their outlines – deer. Huge deer. Four of them. They charged right past me.

                One hundred feet ahead, they stopped. One turned to me. I ran toward them and, spooked, they headed to higher ground, night monsters fading into dark shapes, then gone.
                Ten minutes later, I was back outside my hotel. Swiss soldiers checked my ID. (5000 came to guard Davos this past week, including snipers on roofs). I asked one about the deer and he said to his friends: Where’s my gun! They laughed as I headed inside. A hotel porter told me that he had seen deer from time to time.
                “It was good you exercised,” he said. “Otherwise, you would not have seen them.”
                It’s true. I failed to have the true Davos experience. No Mary J. Blige for me. My highlight was a moment of running with four deer in the dark.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Running in Beirut: Weighing the risks

BEIRUT, Lebanon – I thought the bombings here in recent weeks would put me on a treadmill.
But when I asked security experts here about going out for a run, they immediately said, No problem. Go to the Corniche.
The Corniche, a seaside promenade built during the French Mandate period of present-day Syria and Lebanon following World War I, hugs the coastline for about five kilometers. It is lined with palm trees that are pock-marked by bullet holes from the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Today, Beirut is experiencing no shootouts (Tripoli, in the north, is another matter), but there are bombings, including one that went off in south Beirut about three hours before landing here. I learned of it when I switched on my Blackberry as I walked toward Immigration. As my driver would say, “Welcome to Lebanon.”
The Syrian conflict is spilling into Lebanon in multiple ways, including more than 1 million refugees fleeing across the border (a quarter of the population now here is Syrian); air strikes along the border line; rebel fighters going back and forth; and bombings and assassinations carried out in Beirut – tied, of course, to actions taken in the war next door.
People are resilient in Beirut. People famously go out to bars and nightclubs soon after an attack. But the feeling in Beirut today is tinged with fear. After only a few days here, it is clear that many are shaken by the frequency of the bombings, and the unpredictability of them. My driver, for instance, whose apartment is near the most recent bombings, has two girls – a fifth and first grader – and the first thing he tells me in the mornings is an update about talks with a relative in Dubai. He is making plans to send his girls there. “You are here one day, five days, 10 days,” he said to me one morning. “But my daughters are here every day. I can’t risk it.”
So why run here?
Each morning, over the span over a few hours, hundreds of people walk, run, and bike along the Corniche. Teams play aggressive badminton with wooden paddles, the sharp sounds echoing above the traffic. Old men share small cups of espresso. Middle-aged moms speed walk, their white little dogs struggling to keep up.  Fishermen lean over the railings with 20-foot-long poles and long for a bite. Polar-bear swimmers take brave strokes in the frigid ocean; some yelled in Arabic to the heavens after their plunge.
Alhamdulillah! Praise to God.
It’s a place of life and exhilaration. And it’s a place where many others weighed the risks of running or walking and decided to go.
I’m traveling with my daughter, Paige, who came to work on a project involving Syrian artists in exile. She is a much faster runner than I am – she’s in the midst of training for her college track team – and we decided to venture out together. The safety factor evened the scales in my favor. She would slow down so that we could run together.
We just finished our fifth and last day of runs along the Corniche, sticking to the same route each day. The air was not the best; the cars passed close. The pace was good, mine. At dawn, the view was memorable – pink streaks over the Mediterranean to the west, and snow-capped Mount Lebanon to the east. We dodged groups of walkers, who are bundled up in the 50-degree mornings, wearing hats, gloves, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, chatting so much they don’t notice us. They were often five and six across, linked arm in arm, comrades perhaps.
After each run, we returned feeling physically great, blood circulating, muscles stretched out. Yet we also returned with some wariness. On the Corniche, I was not only looking for beauty or a moment that said something about the place. My eyes also searched for anything amiss that signaled danger; I stiffened once when a group of young men walked toward us from the street. I knew there was a risk, even if miniscule.
It was great to be out in Beirut, not a place like most to explore by running, but rather a run that explored a sliver of a place. Still, I gladly accept my blessings. We were given a few here.