Dario Escobar. Yes, Escobar. But no, not the infamous drug dealing Colombian Escobar. He's made his home as a hermit in Lebanon's serene Qadisha Valley since 2000 at the Hermitage of Our Lady of Hawqa.
Father Escobar has become a bit of a novelty in the country. Lebanese and foreign tourists trek out to the Qadisha Valley to not only take in the beauty of the mountains' steep slopes but also to meet – and maybe even receive a blessing from – this interesting old man.
Perhaps it was a similar desire, or perhaps it was the ambition of using my rusty Spanish (I'd read Escobar didn't speak any other language) that drove my friends and I on a similar pilgrimage, one taken by so many before us. A few weeks before, my friend had made the journey but was unable to meet the iconic hermit, as he was praying when she arrived – a task that consumes much of his day (more than 10 hours).
Qadisha Valley has been home to Christian hermits for more than a thousand years. The first monks came to the valley to seek solitude only a few hundred years after the birth of the religion. To this day, the valley remains one of the final remaining hermitage sites in the Arab world.
We hiked down the steep trail from the village of Hawqa and were in awe at the natural grandeur of the valley laid out before us. Each corner brought new vistas of surreal beauty, reminding us, as I pointed out, of Jurassic Part (inner 90's kid confirmed).
This time, my friend was in luck. Escobar was already happily entertaining visitors when we arrived at the historic hermitage,. Now, with more than 80 years behind him, he has perfected the skill of welcoming new faces.
Even though I'd read otherwise, Escobar definitely speaks more than just Spanish. When we arrived, we heard him happily chattering in a mix of Lebanese Arabic, French and English. His English and Arabic were actually very conversational, although at times it seemed he had difficulty remembering which language was which.
"Are you married?" he asked my friend in English upon seeing her.
A bit surprised by the greeting, she said, "No."
Escobar went on to introduce himself to each person in our group, smiling warmly and clearly keen to show off his polyglot bent. He attempted German when he greeted the Austrian in the group.
I later learned that Escobar comes from a well-off Colombian family, granting him a sizable inheritance. He was born in La Estrella, Colombia and he entered the novitiate of the Congregation of Jesus in Bogota in 1955. He went on to study theology, philosophy and pedagogy there.
It's a long way from home.
In 1974, his studies took him to the United States and Europe, later leading him to teach throughout Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Of course, he picked up some languages skills along the way. When I spoke to him in Spanish, he seemed confused – as if he wasn't used to speaking his mother tongue – and responded by mixing his native language with English and Arabic.
Several of my friends took photos with Escobar, as he smiled and chatted happily.
"When I see a pretty girl, I'm no more toubawi (canonized/virtuous)," he joked to my friend in a mix of Arabic and English. It took us a while to make out what he was saying, partially because it's not what you expect to hear from a man in religious garb--a hermit, no less--but also because the languages mixed especially awkwardly at that moment.
Nervous laughter ensued. He then bid us farewell, informing us in a mix of French and English that he was heading off to continue his prayers. We headed back to the trail.
"Did he say 'no more toubawi?'" my friend asked.
"Yes, it's weird, no?" another friend answered.
"I think he's just being a friendly, funny old man," I said.
We changed the subject and kept hiking.