Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Palmyra, Damascus

Having seen the best around Hama, our little group headed a few hours east into the desert to Palmyra. Palmyra is one of the best ruins in the middle east and enjoys a spectacular setting. The town itself is small and exists solely for the tourism and with a lack of them right now it is really suffering and quickly becoming Palmindia with everyone fighting for business. It is a must see though. It became an important city on the trade routes in Roman times. Its most famous character was Queen Zenobia who at one point threatened Rome so the Romans marched over and put the city to the torch. From a distance the ruins (which are open and free to run around in) don't look like much but once you get in there crawling around the rubble and ruins it is huge. The pink sandstone really comes alive at sunset too. The main attraction is the remains of a temple to the God Bel (think Bible bad God) but I liked running over, under and between random standing and fallen columns, walls and temple facades better.
From Palmyra we went to Damascus and split up as I had some couchsurfers to meet. Great group of guys, I've been taken all over the old town and we hang out in the evenings. Damascus claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, which could be true. It is refered to in the Bible all the time and there is tons of history here as it has been the capital of numerous local empires over the years. It has seen a huge population boom in the last 50 years and is now pushing 7 million. It is busy, crowded, polluted and terribly interesting. There is a huge religious history and a large Christian quarter in the old city including many churches and sites related to St. Paul. He was converted here and I've now seen the church that he was lowered out of a window to escape the Jews. Contrary to popular belief, the different groups enjoy a peaceful and easy coexistence. The Umayyad mosque in the old town is also one of the oldest and most important in the Islamic world. The Umayyads were the first major Islamic empire and had their capital here so they converted the church into a mosque. In the first years of the empire, Christians and Muslims prayed side by side at the site. Inside is a shrine to John the Baptist (also a prophet in Islam) containing his head. Damascus also has one of the largest covered markets, or souqs, in the middle east. Very nice for a wander and the hassle factor is very low. It's just business as usual as it has been for a very long time.
One of the nights I went to a free concert program of traditional Palestinian music in the national theatre. I don't know how traditional it is when played on piano, sax, violin and drums but it was very cool. The singer is great. Arabic is a pretty soft language and easy to listen to even if you don't understand it. The Palestinians are very supported here and the biggest issue in their beef with Israel is what to do with all the refugees. They won't accept peace unless they are taken care of and of course Israel won't accept them so it is a stalemate. You see photos of the leader of Hezbollah all the time around here too.
The couchsurfers were not really able to host me but I was invited on a hike this past friday so I had been stalling and hanging around for that. I made a trip down to Bosra, very close to the Jordanian border to see some more ruins. I was hoping to stay the night there but there are no hotels. I ended up sleeping in a large dining tent with a guard of a restaurant. Bosra is famous for it's excellent Roman amphitheatre, unique for its being build freestanding and not carved out of the side of a hill. It was later fortified and turned into a citadel. A bit odd but impressive. The ruins are scattered around the old town as grey and black rock which has been partially reused for the current "houses" there. Funny how people will live in horrible areas and under really strange conditions and still be happy because they can set up a satellite dish..... It has cooled down and started raining these last few days.
In the end I didn't go on the hike because the plans changed at the last minute. Oh well, I guess I can get into the life here a little more. Have finally found some annoying people or at least some cheating bastards that didn't like me much. Nothing I couldn't handle......
On friday I went to a town called Maalula instead. It is one of only three towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic (the language of Christ). It is a small Christian town stacked with very old convents and churches. All are Greek orthodox and I ended up staying in one of the convents with a bunch of nuns because there was nowhere else. It was cool. They have a local saint there and some legends around it. One of the ladies in a different church did the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic so we could hear it. Cool. The old town itself is pressed against a small mountain cliff with houses that are so crammed together and piled above one another that the small pathways around them are actually mostly tunnels under the houses above. Very strange effect. As with Bosra, there is just too much garbage lying around. It was actually snowing this morning when I left Maalula.
I am back in Damascus for another day. I am at the end of my visa so I am leaving for Lebanon on monday. I know things there are at a tense level and I am watching it but honestly, if I don't survive it I don't deserve to lead Africa later..... It won't be a problem.

I love Crac

Whatever you thought about Syria before, forget it. Apart from the odd cop or guard (and they are much less common than in most of the other countries we've been to), I have not seen a gun here, let alone been shot at. On the contrary, people here are very friendly, and everywhere you go, you hear people shouting "hello, welcome" It has been a great experience and one of the best countries of the trip. My only problem is that Arabic is a horrible alphabet (the music is nice though) and tehre is very little (or no) translation at critical locations like bus stations. But someone always helps you out...... I knew it wasn't going to be bad but I was very surprised to find that "Arabic" doesn't necessarily mean "Islamic". With its rich history and diverse religious backgrounds, there are sizable minorities here including many Christians and even Jews. Pakistan and Afghanistan are much much more strict. There is no mandatory separation of the sexes, and although many muslim women are covered, there are a lot that are not and it certainly isn't required. There is even a Syrian made beer, go figure. It is like Pakistan however, in the sense that chaos and dirtiness reign supreme again, with insane traffic and a total lack of city planning in many parts. Compared to Turkey, it can be quite backwards. Compared to what you might be expecting, it is quite developed. It is almost the same price as Pakistan too, which is very pleasant. Not many tourists these days as all its neighbours seem to be falling apart. They also have a huge problem with refugees with millions of Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese in the country. Something like 10,000 Iraqi refugees are crossing over per week (or was it day?) which is seriously affecting the economy and prices. The population here is around the 20 million mark, making it quite dense. It is also not all desert as you might be thinking. Yes it is very dusty, hot and dry most of the year but there are nice mountains and quite a few green fields and farms. You can even drink the water from the tap everywhere here. I would never've guessed.
The country is having a strange influence on me. I seem to be doing nothing but talking about sex, politics and religion (as if I am an expert in any of these). The hospitality here is such that you end up visiting and having tea (in some places it is more like slightly diluted syrup) with random people on the street all the time. They don't really understand the concept of polite refusal so I have also found myself drinking coffee for the first time (probably not best to start on this strong stuff), tomatoes (still don't like them) and even ice cream. My diet has mostly consisted of an unhealthy combination of felafels, shwarmas and mixed fruit juice.
After the breakup of the Ottoman empire, Syria (and Lebanon) fell under French control so there is a lot of french spoken here, but quite a bit of english too. Half the tourists they get are from France. I don't really know french but because it is not their first language, they speak slow enough and pronounce it so that I can follow most of a simple conversation or follow directions. Forget my replying though, it's hopeless. The weather has been nice and sunny in the high teens during the day but only a few degrees at night. They don't have central heating in their homes so instead they have these gas furnaces that run off a drip feed of diesel from a little pot. Works well for the room you are in but because it is exposed, you are sucking diesel fumes the whole time. Probably not a good thing. Diesel is less than 20 cents/L. Most homes seem to be made of pinkish stone or grey cinderblocks and cement haphazardly stacked on to p of each other. Internet is slow and relatively new in the country so there are still restrictions. I can't read the blog. The president is a young guy as well and his picture is everywhere. More than Ataturk, Mao or Turkmenbashi. As they say here, he is better and more progressive than his father but there is still room for improvement. Some of these Syrians are very white skinned too. You'd never guess if you met them.
After crossing from Turkey, I arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city of Syria and one of the oldest in the world. The couchsurfing host there made it clear that it would not take more than a day to see the city and that I would be moving on soon. He was eager to be rid of me because of exams and I've learned that Syrian teachers are in demand all over the arabic world because the education system is very difficult and strict with very harsh penalties for cheating. He even knew some guys that were doing time in prison for cheating. Wow, better study then. Not much to say about Aleppo really other than the apartment buildings are really think stone and look like they could withstand several barrages of artillery fire without suffering any damage. It's an interesting style with nice big balconies and the stonework carved very deep and fairly simple. Nothing delicate. The citadel on the hill was closed but is a totally new style for me as well. The mosques all over the country all h ave this eerie green light on all their minarets like soem strange alien video game. Still not sure why.
From Aleppo I went south to Hama, a quiet and pretty, if still large city. It is a popular place to relax and has a handful of ancient waterwheels called norias in the little river flowing through the middle of town. They used to feed huge aqueducts that spread out to the farms nearby. The norias still turn but are non-functional now. The aqueducts are just short pieces now and the water just spills back into the river after a short distance. It was in Hama that I ran into a Dutch guy staying in the same hotel. We saw Hama together and ended up playing football with some local Christian kids on the church grounds. They are always playing here. There are tons of kids here (almost 50% of the population) and most are very curious. When asked if he liked Hama, one of the kids said no because there is no McDonalds or Burger King yet. Oh man. Note to you guys, if you want to be popular wear a football shirt like my Brasil one. They love it. The following day, two friends of his (a pair of Canadian girls from Winnipeg) arrived. They were all studying in Istanbul and are on a short trip through the region. Together the four of us hired a driver with car (a very old Mercedes that looked like India's Ambassador cars) to take us around to nearby sites.
The historical sites in Syria are amazing. They are not as famous as the ones in neighbouring countries like Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Jordan but experts have said that there is probably more stuff here and in better condition. With a student card, entry is 25 cents/site and there is nobody there. Awesome. The people are really nice, the hassle factor is low (though I've heard of some females having problems) and even the annoying touts and beggars leave you alone after only 1 or 2 "no" replies. If only half the cars weren't taxis..... They are, of course, the biggest scam, as always.
First we went to Apamea, a town set up by the Greeks but most important as a Roman city. It mostly consists of one very long street of tall columns. Then it was off to some random citadel in the middle of some ordinary town. Even no-name, small town castles out here are better than the best in most countries. And there are tons of them everywhere. The most famous and impressive is Crac des Chevaliers. Built by the crusaders some 900 years ago, it is still in excellent condition adn might be the best I've ever seen. Nobody there, outer wall, moat, then inner portion and you can roam all over its numerous stories and enjoy its great views as you like. We were there a couple of hours just to give it a once through. Best 25 cents I've ever spent :) The thing was built for 2000 crusaders and built to last and would've been impossible to take. The crusaders surrendered it at the end of the crusades, probably because they knew they wouldn't be beaten and couldn't be bothered to sit there for years when everyone else was going home. In all it was an excellent day, made even better by the excellent company.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Farewell to Turkey

3 weeks into the 2nd half of the trip and already 3 weeks behind schedule. The excuse is simple, Turkey is an amazing country and shouldn't be done quickly. It is a place full of contrasts, from ancient ruins to all the modern conveniences, massive cities like Istanbul to the natural beauty of mountains or sea. It can be as conservative or liberal as you want it to be, heavy security yet amazing hospitality. It leaves you wondering, along with everyone else here, just what is the real Turkey? It simply cannot be defined generally with any accuracy at all and to try to do so is to waste one's time. It's a place where the 3rd question people ask you, after you name and where you're from, is "What's your team?", referring to the three main football teams of Istanbul, Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce.
I always knew I wanted to go to Turkey. My primary interest was in the ancient ruins like Troy and Ephesus and all the mythology of the region. What I never expected, especially after all the bad things I've heard about Turks from various Europeans over the years, was to come away with my best memories of Turkey being of its people. I've spent a total of about 1 1/2 months in Turkey and have only seen some 8 places but I have had 10 different hosts in that time. Some have been a little stranger than others, but all have gone well out of their way to welcome me/us. Although the least interesting place of the bunch, I have by far had the most fun with the people in Ankara. Inanc I had met before when Sandra, Bre and I were passing through so I knew I was in good hands with his parents taking care of me for a week. Great food and as I said before, Inanc is tons of fun. He is my favourite turtle man :)
For the last 2 weeks I've been with Meryem and her two flatmates. They're so cool I was tempted to stay forever and one could argue that I tried :) I can't thank them enough for all they've done for me and believe me it was a lot. To fully appreciate it you have to understand that at thetime I arrived they had been turned off the idea of hosting as a result of a bad experience with a sketchy Iranian guest, really only Meryem speaks english, they were just gearing up for finals and in this country, if certain individuals had learned that there was a male living with them someone, or everyone, would've been shot. Ok, maybe not shot but who really wants to find out? So, despite all this, they went beyond the call of duty to make me feel at home in whatever way they could. I managed to finish 4 books and watched a few movies (Lost in Translation was very fitting given my current circumstances) and tried to get a feel for teh everyday lives of a group of young university students. Honestly I don't know who finals can take only 30 minutes to finish but it is good to know that not all females are as disorganized and messy as my former travelling companions. The more I travel the more I realize that despite teh surface cultural differences and the various crazy systems we all live under, the more we are all the same. Really, at the end of the day, everyone is the same. There is the same mix of good, bad and ugly personalities as anywhere else. I'm just lucky that I met all the cool people over here.
Once again I am reminded that the hardest part of travelling is not dealing with all the crap that gets thrown at you,but leaving the people and places you love behind. I've had a lot of practice with that these last few years but if anything it is getting harder to do.
As it turned out, it was harder to leave Turkey than just getting out of Ankara. I had planned to make it straight to Aleppo, Syria using a combo of trains and buses but it was not to be. After an overnight train south to Adana and another southeast to Iskenderun, it got a little more interesting. From Iskenderun to Antakya there was a minibus but after that the transport stopped. I was down to only a few Lira and it is a pretty big city that should've had more cross-border traffic going. It was only 2:30pm but the day was done. So I went to the side of the road to see about hitching the rest or finding a way to short hop it to the border on local transport. A few locals came up to me thinking I was crazy or something and just when I had finished my cardboard sign and was really getting serious about it, one of these random guys told me I was going to get killed. Well, Antakya was once the Roman city of Antioch and infamous as its most depraved city. Seems that it hasn't gotten much better because he was not the first Turk that told me that I could expect to have a very bad experience there. Not that I believed any of it. Anyway, this guy (turns out he is a 24 year old student back from studying in Izmir) tells me that it is better to come stay at his house with his family instead. These people are unbelievable. I've known him for 5 minutes and I'm some random foreigner on the street and the next thing I know, I'm back at his house being stuffed with tea and food, trying to have a converstation in very very broken english. Spending the night with them was a much better plan than ending up halfway to nowhere and once again proves just how hospitable these people are. The following day I am sure he was stalling letting me go in the hopes that I would have to stay again but I did get away and am now in Syria. It's nice too.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I have promised that I would write about my trip to Turkey, so here I am again. It is nice to revisit my travel journal… pictures from CD bring back the memory when I first touched the land. It was a blessing that I arrived in one piece at 1:00a.m. Nov 12 with the fact that I jumped on plane after my 6 hours work in hospital and the 8 hours layover in Amsterdam. Of course that was also a miracle that someone did not fall asleep and forget to pick me up… For some reason, I felt distance from the airport to the place where we stayed was long and the ride was long enough to make me fall in love with Istanbul. It is a really beautiful city especially when everything lights up at night. If I could choose, Istanbul would be the place I want to stay forever. Instead of trying to kill myself like when I was in India or Kenya, I choose to take things easy this time. Of course without mom Maggie and Savannah, how could I push the limit during the trip? Without a fixed plan, what we did everyday was sleep to whenever and slowly moved our limbs to make sure they still do move. But I still can’t figure out how I misjudge the step during my normal walking and end up having the lovely shade of purple and yellow on my knee. Thanks God that I did not need to get on a 54 hours train ride and sleep on the floor of the train stations this time. (but sadly I do miss that!) Even a BIGGER thanks for the hosts from couch surfing who provide us space and food, priceless is the friendship and the time that we spent together. Share the culture differences, experience in life and expectation of the future. Inanc, if you are reading this… Just want to say I really appreciate the courage that you have. You will have a new start in Australia, and I know you will be successful whatever you choose to do because you have faith, and you are willing to work on your goal. Promise you that I will do email later… Meeting with all the people there, I realize how much I could learn from them and how little I know about this world. Think back, I do feel a little guilty about spending TOO MUCH time talking with Bre instead of them when I was there. (Will you agree with me, Bre?) Well on the other hand, Ammon should feel no guilt. He is pretty good at keeping conversation for hours and hours. I remember that one night we stayed with Abraham. I was completely convinced and impressed. That picture still stays in my mind. The two men set on the floor, without much facial expression, but they kept mumbling for more than 5 or 6 hours after the 2 or 3 hours talk in the afternoon of the same day. I know that conversation would never stop if they never look at the clock. They talked until 3 in the morning! The other highlight of the trip is the visit to Cappadocia. Amazing volcanic landscape carved by the nature! All rocks are in different shapes, carved non-purposely, but somehow fit with each other! As there is no theme for this art, it is even better… You can look at them in whatever way you want, depends on how you put your imagination… Savannah in case you feel left out here, I want to tell you the question I asked myself the most during the trip is “Where is Savannah?” … To make up the time that I spent 24/7 with Bre, I will… The day when I miss mom Maggie the most was that night I had to walk up the steep slope. I know I could die on that day! The supermarket saves me. I still remember that supermarket and exactly where water place in that store. Without mom and Savannah, everything was less exciting as it should be. There is more that I could write, but it is never the same and there is no way I can pour my memory out with words…Turkish delight, apple tea, colorful carpet, glass shade for the lights, halva that I once addicted to… I miss the way how people put sugar in tea yet I never like that… I miss all that… I love my time being there.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Conversations with a Consul

Partly because I wanted to stay longer, and in part to play it safe, I am staying in Ankara for the rest of the week to pick up some visas before I move on. If you ever get the chance to talk for a while with a consul I recommend it because you can learn all sorts of interesting things and laugh while they bash the country they are stuck in. It happened before with the Tajik consul in Islamabad and I just had a 2 hr conversation over tea with the Jordanian consul here in Ankara. Super nice guy and very interesting to hear his take on the state of world affairs. I'll try to summarize some of his more interesting comments for you guys.
The west thinks only with it's stomach and muscles and no longer with its heart and mind (as the Arabs do), thus reducing themselves to a more primitive and animalistic moral state. Turkey is pretty much the definition of Islamic sin and far to eager to fall into the western mentality. (I'd have to agree on that point, by Islam's rules these guys are all on their way to hell. As a side note I just want to say that Turkey is not the Islamic danger that Europe thinks it is and I don't think it would actually impact the EU all that much if it joined. I think it is just racial paranoia keeping them out at this point.) He also believes that they (Arabic muslims) are the best religious people in the world simply because their ancestors had to sift through all the different religions that came through or started there and picked the best one. We, on the other hand, only ever look at the religion that made it to our end of the world and don't know any better. (On this I am tempted to agree that we should spend more time studying other faiths because how can you really know what you believe if you never had a choice?)
He was very obviously pro-Arab too which means that his #1 enemy is actually the Persians (Iran). As his argument goes, when Islam showed up and united the Arabs, they were nothing and the Persians, as always, were a regional superpower. Within about 20 years, the Arabs somehow managed to conquer Persia, which apparently the Persians have never been fully able to accept. So what the Persians did was try to regain superiority over everyone by controlling the religion. That is what really brought the Shiite version of Islam into becoming such a strong subgroup. It only constitutes ~10% of the world Islamic population and is only the majority in Iran and Iraq. Thus, Saddam Hussein was a good Sunni, protecting the Arabs by attacking Iran and now the US is shooting itself in the foot because as much as they hate Iran, they are actually helping it in its designs to take over the middle east again by giving it power to the Shiites in Iraq. (Hezbollah is Shiite and Iran backed as well.) That is what scares him the most. He doesn't worry about the US in the long run because: 1. The "heroic" insurgents will manage to wipe out the troops eventually (this might get a little hard to continually hear with Sky currently over there so be prepared mom) and 2. The US will never permanently move in and accupy with 50 million people like the Iranians could and want to do.
In response to questions about Israel (Jordan is at peace with them officially), he says he doesn't care. All the religions can live together and often have but they should have just become Palestinian citizens and not stolen the land. All the recent millions of jews not of middle eastern descent can go back to Russia, Uk, US, etc or take their chances in Palestine too. Either way, Israel will never take over the middle east because that is not its purpose so they are not a real threat. Beware the day that they can't defend themselves with US support though.....
On another note, on this trip so far I have personally seen more theft and pickpocketing here in Turkey than anywhere else. The other day Inanc, Andre and I spotted some pickpockets at work and tried to distract them but ended up having to run away when they started chasing us with a knife. These people are crazy and can get aggressive quite quickly. Whatever you do, don't insult their mothers, even in jest. I also want to change my mind about the costs. Outside of Istanbul, entry for toursist sites and bus transportation, it isn't too expensive here. Somehow the cost of petrol is over $2/litre. Seems pretty mean when oil is surrounding them everywhere.....

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Delays in Ankara

Well, we all know what they say about the best layed plans and mine seem to have gone astray as well. I am still in Ankara actually. I had planned to be here only for New Years and another day or two to see the sites I had missed and quickly press on. In all honesty there is not a lot here for a tourist to see or do but the people I am with out here are so cool that I just can't leave. I do not have cold feet about going to the middle east, I think I am just lazy now and haven't gotten into travel mode yet. Ankara is, after all, not a new destination for me either. There was every reason to delay and wait out the Bayram holiday that was most of last week. It has been a mix of everything here, sun, rain, snow. Anything from 12C to -7C. Inanc and Andre (the Brazilian) and I ran around and saw Ataturk's mausoleum and have gone out a few times. Very cool guys.
If you don't know who Ataturk is, don't tell any Turks you might meet. He is the father of modern Turkey, having put it together out of the mess that was the ottoman empire's collapse and take over after WW1. His statues and pictures are everywhere and in all was actually a very important and powerful guy, reforming the language and creating the secular and western thinking Turkey that exists today.
As cool as Inanc and his parents are, I was eventually kicked out because he had family coming in from out of town. Still not wanting to leave just yet I moved in with another couch surfer host. Maybe I just miss the abuse of travelling with the girls, but I am in a flat with 3 female university students. Ah, it's all good. I just wish I could stay in Turkey longer and see more of the country. Right now, being winter and all, that is just not going to happen. I will definately be coming back someday.
Anyway, I have no idea how long I will be here or what the schedule is at this point. My new motto is "Give me anything but a choice."

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Christmas Break

Hey everyone!
I am back at it and now in Ankara, Turkey again. Everyone I know in Istanbul was either out of town or busy so I decided to jump on a train and move on right away. It was a long ride back out here but I finally made it with enough time to still celebrate New Years. I am staying with Inanc, a couch surfer that Sandra, Bre and I stayed with a month ago when we were last here. It's all good, but a lot colder than home, believe it or not. There is snow on the ground. We went out last night and met up with a Brasilian guy and Turkish girl from couchsurfing and actually ended up staying at their place. New Years Eve is a pretty big party day here as well and people get into it. Not quite the same kind of craziness at home but still pretty good. It is also the beginning of a 4 day Muslim holiday here in Turkey (lunar schedule so not related to new years but just happens to be now) so buses are free and people are not working. It is really dry here and my lips and eyes feel so dried out.
Being home was good for the 3 weeks I was there. Not sure there is a huge difference between the developed and developing world anymore. After all, the roads at home aren't the best I've seen and there was a guy living in the dumpster at the bottom of our apartment building. Ah, welcome to the real world.......
It was good to see those of you that I did, though I wish I could have seen more of you all as well as those of you that I didn't. It was cool to see and do those things that I haven't done for over a year. Sushi, steak, football, I was readdicted to suger (it is very noticeable), had to suffer through a lot of rain, got to drive again (actually I was quite nervous driving in the rain), found out I had a scientific paper published while I was away, got to see a multicultural society and hear lots of english speakers again. I am happy to be back on the road again though I am still not sure what I am doing. It will be another long haul but I don't feel as bad or guilty about it anymore. I am confident that I will have many job opportunities when I get back and that I am doing the right thing. Now all I have to do is stay alive and have fun. Shouldn't be too hard. Hopefully I will have lots of stories for you guys so stay tuned. The rest of the family should be returning in Feb but we'll see what happens.