Archive for January, 2009

Another day another freighter!

Friday, January 30th, 2009

One of our new Izmir friends, Mustafa, works for the government and is somehow associated with Ulusoy Freighters. He was able to get us passage on a small (180m) roll-on-roll-off freighter from Cesme Turkey to Trieste Italy. This has been a huge help, and meant that we could spend an extra week in the Middle East and Turkey.

We arrived at the boat without any difficulty – looking into the harbor in Cesme, they are pretty hard to miss. We entered the Ulusoy office and the staff there processed our tickets. While we waited, we asked if anyone wanted to try out the bikes. One of the guys from the office was brave enough to give it a try, much to the amusement of everyone else in the office and the customs police too.

Several of the customs police in Cesme remembered us from our arrival in Turkey back in November. We guess our funny looking bikes provide a pretty good memory aid!

After clearing customs, we were escorted onto our ship, the Ulusoy 10. The ship had not started loading yet, so boarding was easy. One of the crew helped carry our gear up to the crew lounge while our cabin was being prepared. Originally they were going to give us two cabins, as the bed is only a single bed. Upon seeing the cabin (the 3rd mates cabin), which had a sitting room with a couch and a separate bedroom, we decided that we did not need a second cabin – there is plenty of room in this one for the two of us.

We have since learned that the Ulusoy 5 is better outfitted to take passengers, as it has extra cabin space for 10 additional people. The Ulusoy 10 only has 1 passenger cabin with 3 bunks. Given the economic downturn the ship is running with a skeleton crew of 19. Her normal crew compliment is 30. As a result, there is no 3rd mate, which is why we were given the spacious 3rd mate’s cabin rather than the smaller passenger cabin.

The ship did not start loading until after dinner. At 2 am, while we were fast asleep, it left the port of Cesme – so we missed a ceremonious departure from Turkey.

When we awoke, the ship was loaded and under way, with semi trailers filling about half of the main deck and fire trucks in the covered deck aft keeping our bikes company. The lower deck and the bilge deck are apparently full, but we haven’t been down to check.

By the afternoon of our first full day at sea (Thursday) the waves picked up. We passed through a few storms (wind, rain, hail) early in the afternoon and the waves continued on into the wee hours of the night. Both of us spent most of the afternoon reading and relaxing. We do wonder if we would have noticed the waves as much if we were still on the MSC Alessia – it is 300m long compared to the 200m of the Ulusoy-10. It reminded us of how lucky we had been on our Atlantic crossing with such beautiful weather. We can only hope our trip from Italy to Singapore will be so calm!

One of the biggest joys with being on the freighter is the ability to take a long hot shower. It may sound trivial, but after staying in so many budget hotels where the water may be solar heated or the heat only turned on for selected hours during the day, hot water is nice. Also, the shower head is not clogged or damaged and is affixed to the wall at a height that allows each of us to stand up straight and enjoy the hot water pouring over us. It is quite a luxury. There is no shower curtain, but we have become so accustomed to this that it isn’t a big issue. We just lift the toilet seat so it stays dry, and sweep the water off the floor into the shower basin when finished.

Like the MSC Alessia (and virtually all other large ocean-going vessels), waste heat from the main engine is used to run an evaporator, creating fresh water from sea water. It typically isn’t used for drinking, but provides virtually unlimited (18 tonnes per day) hot and cold fresh water for personal use. Large volumes of fresh water are use for cleaning, especially when pressure-washing the decks and other exposed surfaces.

On Friday with some calmer weather, we explored a little more. We were quickly invited onto the bridge and subjected to Turkish hospitality – coffee, tea, and interesting conversation. In the afternoon, the steward knocked on our door to let us know that cake was being served. Unsure where to go (the message involved the words Captain and cake), we went to the bridge where the steward brought us tea and some delicious banana, nut, carrot cake – yummy!

We also got a chance to see the campaign brochure from the AK Party candidate for mayor of Cesme. One of the crew had brought it on board, and it was quite interesting. The AK Party is the Islamic party in Turkey, and currently holds both the presidency and a majority of parliament. Municipal elections are coming up, and they are pushing hard to win in many places where they are not yet in power, especially in the coastal areas like Izmir and Cesme. The mayoral candidate for Cesme is a wealthy local architect, and has produced a 40 page glossy brochure with his vision for Cesme in 2015. It is filled with fanciful high rise buildings, glorious monuments and floating holiday islands – like Dubai on steroids, all up and running 6 years from now! We had a good laugh about this with the crew, but later Scott wondered how a candidate for a mainstream party could produce something so off-the-wall, and whether it would help or hurt his chances of election.

On Saturday, we arrived at 1330, but did not clear customs and immigration until 1500. This did not mean much, as our bikes were blocked by the fire trucks being shipped to Italy, so they needed to be unloaded before we could depart. By 1730 boat time (1630 local time) the upper deck was clear and we could proceed into Trieste. With darkness soon approaching and no Internet in sight , we found an inexpensive 2 star hotel for the night – it was quite the luxury to have heat, two sheets, unlimited hot water, and an enclosed shower stall all in the same hotel room! We were surprised at the comforts that we had become accustomed to doing without over the past several months.

A brief visit with our friends

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

After a short visit to Aleppo to see Fadi and pick up our bikes (2-nights), a short taxi ride from Aleppo to Antakya (3-hours), and a long bus ride to Izmir (18-hours) we were glad to be greeted at the otogar (bus station) by Metin. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so our ride back to Metin’s apartment was a little on the soggy side. It was raining so hard that the streets were not draining, so we rode through many giant puddles. Fortunately, it was 15 degrees out, so we were not at all cold. Our wet-weather gear proved to be up to the challenge though, and with our feet in front of us they were high enough not to get splashed by puddles. It was only when Becky stopped suddenly that Scott put his foot down in a puddle, he got a soaker.

The unexpected warm spell lasted throughout our visit to Izmir. For the most part, the rain also stayed with us throughout our visit. It seems every time we come to Izmir it rains!

Looking back, we didn’t actually do that much, just relaxed and enjoyed spending time with friends. In both Aleppo and Izmir it was surprisingly comfortable to be back someplace we understood, even if it wasn’t home. Even knowing where to buy groceries, or how to get around is a big deal!

Saturday evening we were taken out to dinner and traditional Turkish music. The band played many songs that our friends knew well. It was especially amusing to watch Metin and Mustufa belt out a song or two with the band. Scott caught the band’s attention with his vigorous drumming along with the music, and they were greatly entertained. The girls enjoyed a little bit of dancing at our tables. All-in-all it was a really enjoyable evening – Becky enjoyed a little too much Raki, making the next morning a little less fun (oops).

Sunday evening we were invited to Gul’s parent’s home for a traditional southern Turkish dinner. They made an adaptation to the meal to not have lamb so that Becky could enjoy it. The raw meat ball dish (Cigkofte (Cheekufteh)made with potato rather than lamb) was particularly yummy. The other specialty was Lamachun (pitas with spread made of peppers, meat and onions?) with lemon drizzled over top, and wrapped around various greens. It was neat to meet Gul’s family, although with our limited Turkish Gul and Metin were stuck translating much of the time. Becky also enjoyed playing with Gul’s brother’s new puppy.

On Monday, Becky cooked a traditional Canadian dinner of Hungarian Chicken Paprikash (it is traditional at our house anyway), and baked chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were especially delicious.

On Tuesday, Mehmet came back from another interview in Istanbul, so we got a chance to visit with him as well.

Tuesday evening after work, we went out for goodbye beers at a local pub in downtown Izmir with many of the friends we made in Izmir. It was so nice of everyone to come out and say farewell. We really enjoyed meeting everyone and are so grateful for all the help we received throughout our time in Turkey. We will definitely plan to come back sometime in the future. We also extended invitations to come visit us in Canada, and hope that they will come visit sometime and let us return some of the hospitality.

Reflections on Jordan

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We spent 17 days in Jordan: 3 nights in Amman, 8 nights in Aqaba, 3 nights in Wadi Mousa, and 3 nights in Madaba. We left our bikes in Syria, so we cannot comment on riding in Jordan, but we can say that the hills on the Kings Highway are steep and there are significant distances between services, so be prepared.

The entire time we were in Jordan, Israel was bombing the Gaza strip. That definitely influenced our impressions of Jordan and the entire region. More than 50% of Jordanian citizens are Palestinian refugees. Every store that had a TV was showing the constant news reports showing blood soaked children. This led strong feelings of empathy for the people of Gaza, which could not help but wear off on us.

We met Egyptian hotel owners who were very friendly and provided great hospitality and yummy breakfasts.

We met an Egyptian trained doctor who was more than happy to give Becky more medication than she needed and possibly did more harm to her health than good.

We met Egyptian store owners, restaurant owners, and vendors who were more than happy to charge exorbitant prices and to see just how much money they could extract from tourists.

We met Jordanian Bedouins who were very friendly and welcoming. They were happy to share their culture and provided what felt like genuine hospitality.

We met Jordanian Christian hotel owners who provided hospitality that felt familiar to us.

We met Jordanians of Palestinian descent. One of them made some comments that we still find disturbing. His view seemed to be that no peace was possible while Israel existed, and he made several comments in favour of the Holocaust, including “Hitler did not kill all the Jews, so they would remember why he did what he did.” If this is a common sentiment, (and from what we understand, it is), there’s little hope of peace. Until Palestinians and Israelis can feel empathy for one another, and view each other as neighbours and fellow humans rather than faceless enemies, we don’t hold out much hope for the future.

We experienced a Jordanian state hospital whose staff gave the appearance of cleanliness but the bed sheets did not. We were later told that the private hospitals are much better.

We laughed at the story of a Jordanian tourist association who printed 50,000 copies of a brochure on desert tours in Arabic while only printing 20,000 copies in English. Do they really think that Arabs would come to Jordan to see the desert?

We enjoyed the stark and yet varying landscape of the Western Jordanian deserts. We spend many hours soaking in the sun and enjoying being alone in the desert.

We spent two days taking in the atmosphere and the awe inspiring vista of Petra. We rode camels and donkeys along the streets and pathways of Petra. Becky was given a gift of a necklace by a Bedouin girl that is one of her great treasures of this journey. Petra is a special place.

We saw the Dead Sea and enjoyed picnicking on one of its many cliffs. For 12 JD each (about $20 CAD) we enjoyed a brief float in the Dead Sea followed by a very cold shower!

We saw the rustic site of Jesus’ baptism and the construction of a tacky “baptism resort” on the Israel side of the River Jordan. We came within 5 or 10 meters of Israel, but never crossed over.

We drove through many police checkpoints with young men holding machine guns, smiling, and welcoming us to Jordan.

Overall, we very much enjoyed our time in Jordan although are wary of Jordanian health care, but were also very happy to return to Syria where you don’t feel ripped off every time you go to the market to buy vegetables. The influence of Egypt is strong (a country where poverty and tourism meet – such that tourists are constantly bombarded with scams and overinflated prices), but the friendliness and genuine hospitality of the native Jordanian’s provide a balance. It is definitely a country at the crossroads in the Middle East and is influenced by its various neighbours.

Busing in Syria

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Taking a long-distance bus in Turkey is a very civilized experience. Buses in Syria are less refined, but much more of a cultural experience. We never know quite what we’re getting into. We have not yet (and likely won’t) perfect the ability to catch the best bus between two places. We did managed to avoid a scam in Homs and take a nicer bus than our morning bus out of Palmyra.

Smoking on buses in Syria is not only allowed, and the rule is enforced – unlike many other places we’ve been – even on the local buses. On our small bus from Palmyra to Homs, someone lit up a cigarette. Our initial thought was that this was just like Turkey, Greece and Italy where a table with ashtrays might be located right below a no-smoking sign. We were surprised when seconds later the bus attendant came over and talked to the person smoking. This quickly escalated to shouting back and forth and it was clear that the attendant was prepared to have the driver stop the bus and kick the smoker off in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere. Fortunately, the smoker extinguished his cigarette and put it away. It was truly delightful to see the rule actually enforced!

The first lesson about taking a bus in Syria, is to arrive early at the station (Karajat – sounds like garage) and take your time. Inevitably someone will try to rush you, because their bus is leaving in 5 minutes. This of course means that you are not looking at any of the other buses who may also be leaving in 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. If you have the flexibility to take a smaller bus, then you will have a lot of options and no need to rush to the first people that you see. That being said, the smaller buses are often filled beyond capacity, so you may get a seat but there may also be people standing or sitting in the aisle.

The bus we took from Palmyra to Homs was arranged by our hotel. The bus (a minibus) stopped right in front of the hotel to pick us up. The attendant evicted two people from their seats, so that we could sit down – since the hotel had reserved a seat for us, it was ours. We were also paying a tourist premium (likely of 25 SYP), which we guess a portion will go back to the hotel somehow. The bus was full enough that 3 younger men stood for part of the trip and sat on the floor for part of it. The ride from Palymra to Homs was about 2 hours.

Unfortunately, the minibus from Palmyra arrives at a different bus terminal than the large (Pullman) buses that leave for Aleppo. This meant we needed to take a taxi across Homs. We did have a couple of offers of a minibus ride to Aleppo, or possibly a service taxi, or perhaps just a ride to the other terminal for 100 SYP each. We couldn’t quite tell what they were offering, but have gotten wary of people approaching us as we get off the bus to offer something. Scott wanted to take the 2.5 hour journey in a Pullman bus, so we decided to take a taxi to the other terminal. We have gotten wise enough to not take a taxi directly from the bus terminal – rather we walked out of the terminal and then flagged down a taxi. We found a taxi that used a meter and he took us across Homs to the right bus terminal, pointing out some key sights in Homs along the way. It was a rather long ride, but with the meter running, we felt we got a fair deal.

Upon arriving at the second Homs terminal, just outside the doors someone in a rather plain uniform claimed to be police and demanded our passports. Scott complied. He checked the passports, then asked where we were going and if we spoke Arabic. When we said we did not speak Arabic he gave our passport to his friend who ushered us to a desk and stamped out tickets for us and asked for money – 300 SP each, too much for the bus fare. We said no, that he wanted too much for the bus tickets. The person with our passports put them down for a minute and Becky immediately snatched them back. Once we had our passports it was easy to walk away from this scam. We quickly found the washrooms (a priority at the time) and then found a quiet place to sit, have a tea, and strategize about how to get our tickets from Homs to Aleppo. We decided to talk to Al-Alihah, a company mentioned in our guidebook, and whose buses looked both good and plentiful. Without any pressure, Scott was able to get us seats on a Pullman (full size) bus for 140 SP each, which felt downright luxurious after our last two bus rides.

The bus from Aleppo to Antakya turned out to be another challenge. We asked many companies at the Aleppo International bus terminal, and coincidentally all the buses left at noon (all the big buses that is). One of the companies told us that they are all actually selling tickets for the same bus. You don’t actually buy the tickets until the bus arrives, and we found out why. The bus never came! Apparently this is a Turkish bus company, and they only run the bus when it looks to be full enough to be worthwhile. We waited for an hour after its scheduled arrival time, and eventually realized it wasn’t coming. There was a mini-bus from another Turkish company (HAS) leaving, but they could not easily take our bikes. They suggested that they could strap them to the roof, and would charge us a 1000 SP fee for doing so, on top of 250 SP each for the ticket. We opted for a taxi and with the help of Dani and Fadi, managed to get one for a reasonable price, 2000 SP. This made the drive to Antakya less than 3 hours including the customs and duty free stops. As we travelled we saw at least two other Turkish buses headed to Damascus, so it may be easier to get a full-sized bus directly from Damascus to Antakya.

Scott made good use of the Turkish-English dictionary given to us by Wendy and Peter, since the driver only spoke Arabic and Turkish. We managed a few conversations over the course of the drive, and the driver drilled us on our Turkish numbers. Unfortunately, we still can’t count past 5 :(

The area between Aleppo and Antakya was much greener than when we were here in December, with plants sprouting in the fields, and even the hills of no-man’s land were green. Quite the contrast from our ride last month.

The desert oasis of Palmyra

Monday, January 19th, 2009

The bus out to Palmyra proved to be another opportunity for cultural exchange. We arrived at the North bus terminal in Damascus and entered the first place that offered a bus to Palmyra. We were immediately rushed to get on a bus – this is a sign that we should have slowed down and analyzed this further! We bought two tickets and went immediately for the bus.

Arriving at the bus, we were a little concerned. The bus was really warm and everyone on the bus was local – and Becky’s immediate thought was that they were all men. Our seat was listed at 45-46, but as we reached the back of the bus we discovered that the seats numbers ended at 40. We took a seat in the back corner of the bus, surrounded by a bunch of young Syrian men. Scott pulled out our new translator (thanks Mom & Dad Hogue!) and tried to have a conversation with them. That lasted about 15 minutes before it because too frustrating and all parties gave up in preference for napping. Scott did manage find out they were policemen from Deir-el-Zour in eastern Syria, that none of them were married (and Sami planned not to marry) and a few other things. The usual explanation of what we were doing and how long we were gone was interesting to them, but in the end Sami was more interested in showing off his expensive (10000 SYP – $300 CAD) mobile phone. Scott thinks Sami was quite disappointed by our super-cheap mobile phone which is just a phone – no camera, video player, music player…

Fortunately, once the bus started going, the air conditioning kicked in and it became more comfortable. The seats were haphazard – the recliner working for some and not others. Becky’s was permanently in the reclined position. While Scott napped, Becky spend the 2.5 hours of the ride watching the empty desert go by. There is a lot of nothing between Damascus and Palmyra.

When we arrived in Palmyra, we were quickly ushered off the bus. As it turned out, we were the only ones getting off at Palmyra. We were quickly accosted by Muhammed, owner of the hotel Al Faris. It’s out of town, but has a great view of the ruins to the south. Talking to him, we found out that our friends had also stayed there – his description of Miroslav’s dreadlocks and the way everyone was using the kitchen to cook meals were confirmation. Between that, the nice rooms, and the price he offered, it was an easy sell.

View from above Diocletian's Camp

View from above Diocletian's Camp

It is impossible to describe the scene when you first enter Palmyra. The castle definitely dominates the skyline, but as you look around and see the various pillars standing out in the brown desert fields, there is an overwhelming awe of neatness. At night it is also neat because many of the ruins are lit. Just past the town site there is a sea of green, an intermixing of palm trees and olive groves.

We approached the ruins from the side – we walked straight out from our hotel until we hit the old city wall, then followed a dirt track into the ruins. There is no main “street” in the ruins, rather a series of foot paths. Apparently the main “road” was never paved to make it easier for camels to travel along. Many of the ruins are still strewn on the ground, creating mounds of rock around the various pillars that are either still standing or have been resurrected by the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

It was fascinating to just wander around the ruins. For the first two hours, we only saw one other person – a boy selling jewelry at the Diocletian’s Camp. As we were walking back along the main street, we saw a couple of folks on motorcycles going to visit the family that lives near the Diocletian camp (there is a small house there). We were amused at the modern-day camels and how they just rode the bikes right across the field of ruins.

It was very nice to wander through the ruins and take photos. Between the two of us, we took over 250 shots, and would have taken more if Scott hadn’t been shooting in RAW mode and ran out of space on his card.

As we approached the main gate, we were accosted by a couple of vendors selling things. After extensive negotiation, we bought some nice postcards from a boy (his card were nicer than the other we had seen). There was young man selling jewelry that was way too aggressive. He would not take no for an answer and he followed us for quite a distance. Becky wasn’t happy because he was leaning up against her / touching her – which is just not appropriate. She moved to put Scott between her and him. Being Canadian, she did not say anything. In hindsight, she realized that had she said something that might have got him to stop and go away sooner!

The site at Palmyra is so large and accessible that only certain portions are charged for. We declined to pay for the theater or tomb tour, but did go into the Temple of Bel – a huge complex which has been a temple to several gods, then a Byzantine church, and finally a Mosque. Remnants of all of these are visible in various forms, and lots of restoration work has been done. We initially had doubts about the cost, but in the end Scott thinks it was worth it.

On the way back to town for lunch, we decided to follow a path through the palm and olive groves rather than taking the main road. It was really neat to walk through the pathways that the locals use to get to their gardens. At one point a gentleman on a bicycle had invited us in to see his garden, but alas, we declined the invitation – we were both tired from walking and hungry. In hindsight, this was likely the most genuine invitation we received all day and would have been a nice cultural exchange.

Our interactions have been a little more guarded today, especially after the aggressive jewelry vendor. We also found the kids to be rather mercenary, with the kids on the street coming up and saying:
“Hello, what is your name?”
“My name is _____”
“Money?”
“Pens?”

This was such a contrast to the kids practicing their English with us at the Mosque in Damascus. The exchanges there were authentic and the kids never asked us for anything. From what we’ve read, Palmyra is extremely dependent upon tourism, and since 2001 tourist volumes have dropped dramatically. Thus, everyone is fighting hard for the remaining tourists and their money.

In the end, we are both extremely glad we came out to Palmyra. For the most part, the people are really nice and friendly and the sites are amazing. We would love to have had more time to wander around the desert ruins and perhaps even camp out. Unfortunately, our time in Syria is quickly coming to an end. We will definitely plan to be back – perhaps a cycling trip around Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey in the spring in a few years. March through June would be ideal!

More photos below…

(more…)

Wandering about Damascus

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

We really like Damascus. Becky thinks that our image of a place is certainly nicer when the sun is shining. Like Aleppo, Damascus also suffers from daily power cuts. When the power is out, you can see the pollution in the air – which is a real shame because otherwise, Damascus is a very neat city. We would have liked to spend more time here, but we don’t want to risk Becky getting sick again.

Our first order of business for the day was to get Becky’s running shoes repaired. She has a tendency to wear holes in the heel of her shoes, making an otherwise perfect pair of shoes unwearable. At home, the only real option is to replace them, but here there are many places that repair shoes – plus it would be impossible to replace them with anything similar as light hiking shoes are not available here. We found the street of shoe repair vendors and left the shoes with one of them while wandering around for an hour. Upon our return, a patch had been sewn into the heels. Scott first thought the vendor wanted 1000 SP for the repair, but Scott paid him 100 SP and he was happy. Later Scott realized that the number mi’a (which sounds like mille – French for thousand) is actually 100, so it was just that he was confused. So, for about $3 Becky’s shoes have been rescued. Hopefully the repair will give them 4-5 months (until we return to Canada and they can be replaced).

The vendors in the markets are a refreshing change from our experiences in Wadi Musa, Jordan. Each time we bought something (bread, olives, cheese, fruit, vegetables) and gave the vendor a 100 or 50 SP note, we got change back. The prices seemed fair, and Scott is getting better at both reading the price tags and understanding Arabic numbers. With 36SP = 1CAD, the numbers are much bigger now!

The flat-bread was being freshly made in the ovens just behind the stall, and it was a fascinating process. The guys making the bread invited us in to get a closer look and take some pictures. Later, the guys in the cheese stall were especially amused with us. Wanting to ensure that the cheese was not goat or lamb, we were mooing and bah’ing as we pointed at different cheeses. This caused many laughs but also ensured that what we bought was cows cheese! We found all the vendors to be very tolerant of our attempts at Arabic, and friendly without being pushy. The souks in Damascus and Aleppo feel real to us in a way that the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul doesn’t. The Grand Bazaar felt to us like it is mostly there for tourists, and there are pushy touts everywhere. In Syria, the only touts are in the very touristy portions of the souk. Everywhere else it is just the occasional vendor crying his wares. Scott enjoyed listening to two fruit vendors extolling the virtues of their respective oranges today, and it was neat that he could actually understand this was what they were doing, even if he didn’t get the details.

Walking through one of the market streets, Becky wanted to get a picture so she pulled out her camera. Suddenly there were many kids asking to have their pictures taken. It was especially amusing when an older guy jumped into the fray to have his picture taken kissing his son on the cheek. We laughed, and obliged by taking a few photos before continuing on our way. This is the side of Syria which we love, and we’ll definitely miss when we head back to Turkey.

We happened upon the Azem Palace in the old city as we wandered while waiting for Becky’s shoe repair, and decided to pay the 150 SP entrance fee to see it. Our guidebook says that it is a Museum of Popular Arts and Tradition. The Palace itself was not that interesting although Becky found the decorated ceilings quite neat. It was very interesting to watch all the locals who came for the tour. This was Saturday and the place was filled with mostly women and children. Scott found it challenging as he tried to be careful not to smile and make eye contact with all the women in Hijab. Becky enjoyed the opportunity to not have to worry about who she was making eye contact with – it was a nice reversal of roles!

No trip to Damascus is complete without a visit to the Umayyad Mosque. We initially tried entering through the main door, but were quickly re-directed to purchase a ticket and enter through the tourist door. Becky was wearing a long skirt, jacket and her buff as a headscarf, so decided not to wear one of the grey robes they give out to women who are not appropriately dressed. Despite the guidebook comments that all tourist women needed to wear one, she didn’t get any hassles. We did notice that even local women who are not wearing skirts donned the grey robes when entering.

Unlike the Grand Mosque in Istanbul which felt like a Museum or silent place of worship, upon entering the Umayyad Mosque you are immediately struck by the activity. There were children running about in the courtyard (one girl was skating around with her rollerskate/running shoes). The kids climb over every structure in the courtyard as well as some of the structures within the prayer hall. People were sitting and chatting or having a picnic – and of course there were also people praying. It felt like a real community place – much like the Mosque in Ottawa.

The building itself was beautiful. The prayer hall was immense, with four separate minbar (nooks that indicate the direction of Mecca), each one decorated in a different style to represent a different type of Sunni Islam. There are also tombs for John the Baptist (whose head is reported to be buried here although two other places also claim that honour) and the Prophet Al-Hussein, son of Ali, the founder of Shi’a Islam. Just as we were leaving the Mashad Al-Hussein, a large group of pilgrims entered the hall. Scott guesses they were Shi’ite pilgrims (possibly from Iran), although we aren’t sure.

The courtyard is surrounded by many gold inlaid mosaics. We were there as the sun was setting, which caused several of the mosaics to glow – truly beautiful. We were frequently distracted from our picture-taking by children coming up to say hello and practice their English, something with which we’re always happy to help.

Christmas in Damascus

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

Showing off our Christmas hats, decorations and chocolate

We took the early morning bus from Amman to Damascus, and arrived at 10:30 am tired. Unfortunately, Becky wasn’t thinking and Scott didn’t effectively clue her in, such that we spent too much on a “taxi” to the first hotel we wanted to look at. As the driver ripped us off, taking way too much money, he said “Welcome to Damascus” in a tone that was so un-Syrian! It is good that we have already had many positive experiences in Syria, as this might have spoilt our impressions.

We checked out a few hotels from our guidebook, but they were way too expensive. You know you are being overcharged when the hotel quotes you prices in dollars rather than Syrian pounds! We quickly gave up on the guidebook suggestions and started walking towards the old town where we knew there were many less expensive places. We happened upon the Al Ahram hotel on the main road, and went in to take a look. The rooms are nice and clean although a little noisy, and the cost was half of the other places we had looked at (1000 SP a night). The staff do not speak much English and the hotel guests are Arab tourists rather than Western tourists, but is it clean, warm, has hot water, and the bed is comfortable.

We went for a walk, looking for a place to grab lunch. It being a Friday, most of the souk was closed. On the way, we came across the Umayyad Mosque, just as the Friday noon prayers let out. People were milling about the area outside the mosque, clearly waiting for something. We figured it was likely to be a march in protest of the Israeli attack on Gaza. We were interested in seeing the march, but decided that avoiding the demonstration was a better course. We could feel the emotional charge in the air, and wondered what the Imam had said during his sermon at the noon prayers.

We continued into the Christian quarter of the old city, and eventually happened upon a fancy restaurant which was open – the Narenj near the Greek Orthodox church. We decided to look at the menu. After being in Jordan, we were surprised at how affordable the prices were and decided that a good lunch was in order. We sat down and enjoyed five different mezes (starters) with warm fresh flat bread. When we thought we could not eat anymore, the waiter brought out a complementary tray of desserts that would have fed at least 8 people! Our entire meal cost 700 SP (about $21) – expensive by Syrian standards but cheap after being in Jordan. It could have been much more if we chose to eat a full meal. We also took the opportunity to do some people-watching. It’s clear that this is one of the places wealthy Christians go for lunch on Fridays. We watched many people, clearly Christian by their dress, climb out of recent-model BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars and hand the keys to the valet attendant. It felt strange to be in a place like this as low-budget travelers, but we definitely enjoyed the food and the atmosphere.

In the early evening, Jacques (Scott’s friend Ghanem’s Uncle who lives in Damascus) came out to meet us and deliver our mail – Our families and friends had sent us a couple of packages and envelopes for Christmas, and this was our first opportunity to pick them up. After delivering our mail, Jacques took us out for a nice dinner – our second wonderful meal of the day. To complement the meal, we enjoyed the best bottle of wine we have had since leaving North America (a Lebanese wine). We certainly felt spoilt with two wonderful meals in the same day. When we got back to the hotel, we got to open our packages. With two great meals and the opening of gifts from home, it certainly felt like Christmas.

A brief Servas visit

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Ramez and Becky in front of the Roman Theatre in Amman

Ramez and Becky in front of the Roman Theatre in Amman

We had planned a short time in Amman in order to arrange our bus tickets to Damascus. Amman was a farming village until it was declared the capital in 1924. Because it is such a new city, there really is not much to see in Amman. Rather than spend the whole day on the Internet, we decided to contact one of the Servas day hosts for a brief visit.

We met Ramez after he finished work and walked around parts of downtown Amman. Ramez is a public relations specialist at the Spanish institute and speaks Arabic, Spanish, and English and is learning to speak Italian. He is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent and he has a lot of family in the West Bank city of Hebron, as well as a few in Jerusalem. Unfortunately his fiancée had an exam at university, so we weren’t able to meet her.

At one point, we came across a sand artist, and watched as he made a desert scene with camels in a bottle of coloured sand. It was fascinating to watch. The sand is compacted in the end, so the scene isn’t lost by settling sand. The bottle is sealed with a layer of glue.

We shared a wonderful meal of foul (broad beans), hummus, and falafel at a local café that we would never have found on our own. At $4JD ($7CAD) for all three of us, the price was right too. After dinner, we enjoyed some of “the best kenufe in Amman”. It didn’t equal the Kenufe we had in Antakya (which is apparently where Kenufe was invented), but it was yummy.

Our visit was brief, but we enjoyed the opportunity to meet Ramez and get to know him a little.

Sand sculptor at work

Sand sculptor at work

Wandering around Western Jordan

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Having the car meant that we could take our time exploring different areas and enjoy the desert like the locals – with a picnic. We enjoyed the Dead Sea and stark desert vistas while soaking up the sun and munching away at our lunch. We have been in Jordan for more than two weeks, and it has not rained a drop. The locals tell us that this is supposed to be the rainy season, and the lack of rain is devastating the area. It definitely is brown.

As we drove around Jordan, we passed through many Jordanian checkpoints with guards carrying machine guns and sometimes armored vehicles. These seem to be permanent fixtures on the various roads in the kingdom. In most cases, the guards said hello and welcome and waved us on our way. Our passports were checked once – we suspect because the guard was bored. Unfortunately, the folks at the checkpoints don’t usually speak much (if any) English, so they would not be particularly helpful if we were in need of directions or the location of the nearest gas station. As a traveller, it is a little unnerving at first, but once you are familiar with the process, it is painless. For assistance, there are also Tourist Police nearby at most places, and all the ones we spoke to speak good English.

An afternoon at the hot springs

With muscles sore from walking around Petra, we decided an afternoon soaking in some hot springs was well worth the 10 JD fee. The Ma’in hot springs are located at the bottom of a steep valley, 150 m below sea level. They have turned what was once a natural series of waterfalls into a not very fancy resort – Our Jordanian hosts recalls the beauty of the natural water falls before the development of the resort. Upon arrival, we were not particularly impressed, but once we entered the pools we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

There were about 25 other people enjoying the two waterfalls. Most of them were Jordanian or other Arab nationals, mostly men. At first, Becky was conscious about whether or not her behavior was appropriate, but eventually she decided that she was going to enjoy the experience and did not let any preconceived ideas about Jordanian norms affect her enjoyment of the experience. With the lack of a local female guide, it has been a challenge to determine what behavior is culturally appropriate versus offensive. Compared to other tourists, Becky has been conservative in her attire, so perhaps that is why we have not run into any of the issues mentioned in guidebooks. We noticed one Arabic-speaking family with the woman in a bikini top and shorts, so didn’t worry too much. Watching another woman bath in full chandor was interesting as well.

In a nook at the back of one of the falls, Scott and a Jordanian man who spoke little English exchanged shoulder massages providing a unique cultural experience. This sort of contact appears to be quite common throughout the Middle East, especially between men, but also women.

The Site of Jesus’ Baptism

We doled out the 7 JD each for the tour of the Site of Jesus’ Baptism. Because the site is so close to the Israel border, the only way to see it is with the guided tour. The actual site is not spectacular, but we really wanted to see the River Jordan and the Israel border, and this was the only way we could manage it. We tried driving to the King Hussein bridge, but you get turned back well before the river or bridge are visible!

The River Jordan used to run about 200 m wide, and now is barely a trickle at 5 m wide. There are many dams to divert water upstream, and this also means the level in the Dead Sea is getting much lower every year. With the lack of rain this year, the entire area was brown and dried up.

Both Israel and Jordan claim that the baptism site of Jesus is on their side of the Jordan River, but from what we can tell, the Jordanian claim has more historical merit. On the Israel (West Bank) side of the border (Jericho) they have built a fancy pavilion and were putting in some tacky palm trees along the shoreline. The Jordanian side feels more authentic and less commercial.

We also visited the Greek Orthodox “Church of the Map” in Madaba, which has an early Christian mosaic map on the floor, showing significant locations in early Middle East Christianity, including the location of the church discovered at the baptism site – quite neat.

Floating on the Dead Sea

We checked out the Marriott Dead Sea Resort, just to see what they had to offer. The cost to use their facilities was a ridiculous 30 JD per person. So, we walked around their site, walked down to the sea, and stuck out fingers in for a taste. We were shocked at the sting when our fingers touched our tongues – It is definitely salty (30% salinity). The Marriott looked like any other resort elsewhere in the world, and we both agreed that it would be a very soulless way to see Jordan – we’re much happier to be self-guided travelers.

Almost immediately after floating in the Dead Sea, you need access to a fresh water shower to rinse the salt off. We thought we would try going to one of the public beaches, and just bring some water bottles with us. We drove up to a beach, but were soon accosted by some young Bedouin boys with camels and horses wanting something from us – some money or candy or something. We did not understand them, but their demeanor was not innocent curiosity or friendliness.

So we opted for the ridiculously priced alternative – the Amman Beach. For 12 JD each, we gained access to their beach and cold showers. Actually, we also had access to their cold swimming pools, which would have been nice in the summer but at this time of year they were too cold to swim in. After we left, we noticed there was a second part of Amman Beach that did not have swimming pools – we think this was where it cost 7 JD. It is a little to the south, but still within walking distance.

Entering the Dead Sea is challenging because any rock or pebble near the shore is encrusted with salt. You needed to walk beyond the salt encrusted shore to get to sandy bottom without scratching your foot. Any open sore or scratch would be exceedingly painful. Once we had passed the salt covered rocks, we did not need to go far to get deep enough to lean back and float. We each had to get the typical shot floating in the sea with our hands and feet in the air. Becky did not last long, as the salt water quickly irritated the skin on her thighs. Scott let the salt dry on his skin, which was rather amusing.

The 12 JD for the 10 minutes we were in the sea definitely make the Dead Sea float our most expensive excursion per unit time (over $200 CAD per hour!) – but we would have regretted not doing it.

The Black Iris – a Jordanian Home for travellers

For three nights, we stayed at the Black Iris Hotel in Madaba, which has the best breakfasts we have had in all of the Middle East! (This includes our breakfast at the Sheraton in Aleppo. Although the Sheraton buffet was more extensive, Odeh’s breakfast was much tastier) Also, all of his rooms are non-smoking – unheard-of since we left North America. Highly recommended!

Our host Odeh has been very welcoming and friendly. He has studied Hotel and Restaurant Management and culinary arts in Switzerland and as a result, the hospitality he provides feels more like what we would expect at home. We made a bargain with him, a wonderful home-cooked Jordanian dinner in exchange for some computer assistance. We think we got the better half of the deal by far, especially since we now have recipes we can try at home!

Odeh’s family owns the Black Iris, and are Jordanian Christians – Bedouin descent. We wonder if the familiarity of Christianity makes it easier for us to feel welcome. We do feel warm welcomes at all the Muslim run hotels we have stayed at, but Becky definitely feels an underlying pressure of “am I dressed right” or “is my behavior appropriate” that she just didn’t feel here. It may also be the presence of all the women at the hotel – Odeh’s mother and sister are often in the lobby and the cleaning staff are female. This is a definite contrast to all the other places we have stayed in Jordan, where all the staff are male, and mostly imported workers, either from Egypt or Bangladesh.

Lots of photos below…
(more…)

Wonderful Petra

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Our first impression upon entering Petra was “wow, look at all the tourists”. We have been lucky so far, that most of our visits to tourist places have been empty. With the nice weather in Jordan at this time of year, we guess it is not really that surprising to see so many tourists – we’ve just been spoilt. Our second day at Petra had the opposite effect – there were very few tourists, and the entire site was much quieter. We guess the Jordanian weekend made a difference.

Walking through the first passageways of the Siq made Becky feel like she was in the middle of one of the Disney mountain theme rides. We definitely know where Disney’s creators got their inspiration. We suspect that it is the smooth paved floor that led to this feeling, as the areas with ancient cobble stones don’t feel quite so supernatural. We were especially amused by the horse cart driver talking on his cell phone!

First view of the Treasury

First view of the Treasury

The first view of the Treasury, made famous by Indiana Jones, took our breath away. After the organic curves of the Siq, the massive façade of the Treasury was a huge contrast, especially since it was illuminated by the morning sun.

The natural rock formations have a breathtaking beauty that cannot be compared to any other place we have been. Petra is called “The Rose City” because the rocks are mostly various shades of red, but it is the greens, yellows and other dark colours that contrast with the red to give the formations wonderful texture and definition.

As we walked down the Street of Facades, Scott wandered away to take some pictures. Becky paused by a large display of necklaces to admire the work of the Bedouin girls. After declining to purchase anything, the girls asked if Becky would like to sit and join them for some Bedouin tea – free no charge. After hesitating, Becky decided that this was one of those opportunities that should not be missed. She walked behind the table and joined the girls for some conversation and a cup of very sweet mint tea, exactly what the doctor ordered at that point in time!

While enjoying the tea, Becky talked to the girls about school. They live in a cave in one of the valleys behind the Petra tourist site. The older two were 15 and 22 and both in high school. School is out for a month on the yearly holiday break, so the girls spend their days at Petra selling jewelry that their mother makes at home.

Scott came to join us for tea, and one of the younger girls asked if Scott would marry his sister. The older girls chastised her for it, but we just laughed. Becky said that he was already married it her. It did not even occur to her that to a Jordanian that did not mean anything, as a man is allowed to have up to five wives! Fortunately, Scott pointed out that the rules in Canada were different. It was an interesting cultural exchange.

Before we left, the oldest girl gave Becky a camel bone necklace – a gift. She took no money. It was an honest expression of hospitality – and a highlight of Becky’s day at Petra and likely one of those memories to last a lifetime.

We climbed up to the tombs near the bottom of the Street of Facades, and found a nice place to sit and enjoy lunch while soaking in the heat of the sun and the surrounding views. It was peaceful in a different way than Little Petra, as there were people milling about below, tourists and Bedouin all experiencing different aspects of Petra.

Transportation within Petra has been divided into sections, with different means of transportation for the different sections. Camels only go from the Treasury to the town center, carts go from the Treasury to the dam, horses go from the dam to the main gate. Donkeys go almost everywhere, including up the 850 steps to the monastery. The various means of transportation are managed by the Bedouin men. The younger boys guide the donkeys with the older men managing the camels, horses, and carriages. Over our two days, we took the opportunity to add two modes of transport to the collection for our journey: camels and donkeys.

Our journey to the town center on the first day was a slow three-hour amble downhill involving various side trips to inspect nooks and crannies, so the walk back up would take at least an hour. To reduce the amount of walking, we hired a camel. A camel ride was one of the things that Becky wanted to do while in Jordan, and this was the best opportunity. We negotiated a price (not too bad, 15 JD for the two of us) for a camel ride up to the Treasury. Riding a camel is amusing, with a gentle but deep rocking motion back and forth; however, it is not exactly restful. By the time we reached the Treasury, our legs were jelly and we were ready to walk the remainder of the way to the gate.

The Monastery (yes, that's Becky in front)

The Monastery (yes, that

Rather than climbing the 850 stairs to the Monastery on the second afternoon, we decided that a donkey was a more efficient approach. We negotiated what we think is good price with a 10-year old Bedouin boy (6 JD for the two of us). He hopped off the donkey and had Becky hop on, while Scott hopped onto the second donkey. Becky was surprised at how smooth it was to ride the donkey, when it wasn’t galloping or climbing stairs. The stair climb itself was impressive, and the donkeys performed amazingly well. We did find that at times we were hanging on for dear life! It did not take us long to decide that the way down would be much better approached on foot. The climb up took just under 30 minutes by donkey, and likely would have taken 90 minutes or so on foot at Becky’s current speed (slow) – so it was a 6 JD well spent. It is also impressive to note that the 10-year old boy walked and ran up the stairs pushing the donkeys along and a pretty impressive clip. There is no worry that he doesn’t get enough exercise in his day.

The walk down from the Monastery took us 45 minutes – at our usual slow amble. We were entertained by a couple who had hired donkeys for the trip down. We could tell by their shouts that it was a rather harrowing experience – at one point in time the man actually fell off the donkey after a stirrup broke. Fortunately, he was unhurt. The poor animals looked rather tiny in comparison to their charges. We think we made a better choice of donkey (bigger donkeys) for our trip up; however, the couple did successfully make it down from the monastery and all the way back to the Treasury on their beasts of burden.

The highlights of Petra are both the carved facades and the high places. Sometimes, like at the Monastery, both are combined in a single location – extra spectacular. Our guidebook says that it is possible to climb to the top of the Monastery, and stand beside the 10m high urn (or climb on it). Scott was sorely tempted, but in the end he obeyed the “No Climbing” sign and stayed on the ground. He did take the opportunity to abandon Becky for a morning and climb to the High Place of Sacrifice though. There are many High Places throughout the hills of Petra. They were used for religious rituals of various kinds, and all have spectacular views. The High Place of Sacrifice is the most accessible, with the original Nabatean staircase repaired and upgraded, making the 110m climb much easier. The entire top of the hill has been leveled, and two giant obelisks sculpted out of the rock – a huge amount of work. The obelisks were not carved and set in place – they are actually attached to the rest of the hill! The High Place of Sacrifice also provides spectacular views over the centre of Petra, with a great view of the Street of Facades as well as the City Centre. Since he was at the High Place with no other people around (which is apparently very rare) Scott took advantage of the nice flat rock, warm sun and beautiful views to meditate and do yoga.

We had high expectations for Petra, and it greatly exceeded them. The hills, rocks and colours were beautiful, with something new to look at around every corner and then there was the carving. The facades and caves were awe-inspiring, and changed every hour with the shifting light. For Becky, the most special part was the Bedouin people. We enjoyed friendly chats with everyone we talked to, from the smallest children selling postcards, sitting with their families or guiding us to the right trail, to the women with handicrafts and the men on their animals.

More pictures below …

(more…)