Monday, July 19, 2004

Sorry Mom, did I neglect to mention I was going to Syria?

I’m in Syria. And don’t believe the hype, or the State Department, the Syrians are among the nicest groups of people that I have encountered anywhere. This even takes into account that Americans are about as common as brontosauruses here, and things are further complicated because I speak French like an African and Arabic like an Egyptian.

Bur first things first. I last left you in Amman, where I was about to embark on the Day of the Dead [Sea]. I headed out in the morning with a group of fellow backpackers to the shores of the Dead Sea. My ears popped continuously and my bottle of water was twisted into strange contortions as we descended to the lowest places on earth. The water was thick, like swimming in soup or watery porridge. I could float on my stomach, with my arms crossed, not moving a muscle, like I was on a beach float. The only problem that I encountered was that fat floats, so my caboose felt like it had a life preserver strapped to it. Floating upright was challenging. One false shift of balance and over I go like a duck in a shooting range. I also took the opportunity to smear myself with Dead Sea mud. It is supposed to be good for your skin. I felt like a side of salted pork. After returning to Amman and a VIGOROUS shower, I set out with a British guy that has spent a collective 7 years of his life backpacking (this does extremely strange things to a person) to see the local sights. This included the seeing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the local museum, and the requisite citadel. That night I did something I haven’t done in long while. I went out for a beer. Bars in the Middle East are, um, interesting. They are all frequented by men, lit with red lights, and have 60s Playboy pinups all over the wall. I was with the British guy so no one hassled me, and in fact, I was a bit of a local celeb. I actually got an honor guard to close off the bathroom for me when I had to pee.

Next morning it was off to Syria. Nothing too much happened on the road to Damascus, Jesus didn’t appear or nothing. Crossing the border was relatively painless, except for some big jerk Saudis who would have walked right though me on line had it been humanly possible. That afternoon I walked around the Hamidiyya Souq, eating everything in sight. Syria has the best street food. Anywhere. Ever. I guess the shopping was nice too. It got in the way of the food stalls though. There was one interesting guy though. He was selling taxidermed hawks. Multiple taxidermed hawks. He had some sort of cat too. I can just imagine what the Customs officials at Kennedy Airport would have to say about that.

I also visited the Umayyad Mosque, whose main claim to fame is that it contains John the Baptist’s head. I will remember it more for the silly rent-a-robe they made me wear. I was covered from elbow to ankle, and had on a bandana, they still made me get one. It was made of earth tone brown polyester and had an incredible number of straps hanging off it, and a big hood. I looked like a cross between a 70s bondage queen and a druid. The next mosque I visited was even better. It was the Raqai’ya Mosque, built by the Iranians. This place was flash. All tiles and mirrored ceilings. Definitely where the Prophet would pray if he were in Vegas. The robes were flash too. They were shiny black polyester and had the name of the mosque embroidered across the back in gold. This time I looked more like a little white Moslem Druid Boxer. After that I hit the markedly less pizzazzy Al-Azem Palace, then gave up and wandered through the small side streets of the Christian quarter. And ate more.

The next day I browsed the National Museum (which had a neat-o Palmyrien tomb in the basement) and then got generally lost in downtown Damascus. [Never ask a Syrian traffic cop for directions. Three different guys on three different corners of the same block gave me three different sets of directions - all wrong. It appears that the only pre-req for the job is to share the same taste in mustache fashion as the country’s president.] When I eventually made it back to the hostel and packed up, I grabbed some baba ganoush on the go, and headed to the bus station. I walked through the metal detectors to a scene from Dante’s Inferno. People screaming at me, trying to get me into their bus to Palmyra. Fistfights broke out. I wonder if they do this with every passenger? I chose the one leaving the soonest and got the holy hell out of there.

The bus was hot. It was en principe air-conditioned, but there is only so much you can do driving through the desert at high noon. About halfway through the trip, a man appeared at the side of the road. The only other things in sight were the road and power lines leading to the horizon. We slowed down and he hoped on, carrying only a blue and white cooler as luggage. As soon as we were rolling again, the guy opens up his cooler and starts selling, I kid you not, vanilla ice cream cones. He interpreted my “hell yeah” as a na’am, and before the kilometer was out, I was sucking the crushed pistachios off ice-cold goodness. Everyone on the bus got one. Kids. Veiled women. Business men. Sheiks. Me. And we all silently and contently ate them as the Arab pop blared and we sailed along the dusty desert highway. Ice Cream. The great equalizer.

That night and the next day I explored the ruins at Palmyra, and old Roman trading town. I saw both sunset the night before and then sunrise, which I have to stop doing because they all look the same and I just end up tired and cranky. The ruins were nice though, the best I have seen outside Rome. I also hit the two local museums, which can best be described as eh, and a slightly more interesting eh. Walking around town I was invariably lost, and the guy that gave me directions also gave me a couple of incredibly good dates. (From date palms, Palmyra, you get it.) Then I grabbed the local bus to Hama. Hama is famous for two things. Waterwheels and the bloody put down of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 (?). I will focus on the former. Huge waterwheels, up to two stories high, bring water up to aqueducts, which in turn water the town’s lush gardens. Teenage boys play on them, riding them to the top and diving off. Veiled girls stand on the banks and giggle. It is comforting to know that American teenagers don’t have the corner on the stupidity market.

The room I checked into was my second favorite of the trip (you can’t beat the Indian haveli). The guy at reception kept showing me different rooms in the hotel, but the prices were always more than I wanted to pay. Finally he got to the last one. It was this or I was sleeping on the roof with a group of particularly skuzzy looking French backpackers. He opened the door. I smiled. Yup. This will do. It was an old utility closet. There was a counter top and a pair of industrial side sinks. Wedged into the only space in the room was a narrow twin bed and a fan. I crawled across my bed to toss my backpack onto the counter, dumped the contents into the sink, then kneeled on my bed to do the laundry. Who could ask for anything more?

My sightseeing that afternoon was limited to the Hama Museum. Better than the first two of the day, but you can only get all hot and bothered about arrowheads and broken pottery so many times in a single 24 hours. They had this massive Assyrian Lion though. He was worth the admission. I spent the rest of the day walking around the city, and, as I am in Syria, eating everything in sight. I was headed into a café to try a halawiyyat al-jibn, a local specialty which was kind of like a croissant filled with cream cheese, when a guy started talking to me. Usually I don’t flinch when people talk to me, but this guy was at the same traffic crossing, and genuinely seemed interested in what a little white girl was doing wandering around a residential neighborhood in a random central Syrian city. After I explaining I was a tourist, he asked were I was from. And as I never lie about being an American, I told him. He got very excited and asked me if I had ever met a Palestinian before, because HE was a Palestinian. I said sure, I live in New York, we have all flavors. Then we looked at each other for a couple seconds. This conversation didn’t go at all as he planned. Then he left. I went in and ate my pastry.

That night I had dinner with a reoccurring French couple in the Sultan Restaurant. It was touristy and the food was less than mediocre, but who can say no to eating in an Ottoman insane asylum?

That is pretty much it. I am headed to a Crusader Castle tomorrow, then off towards Turkey. One final note I should mention is the new breed of animal I have encountered here in the Middle East. I call him Defensus Contractorus. This creature usually has just finished his tour in Iraq and is hitting the sights on the way home to whatever southern backwater he crawled out of (apologies to those of you still wearing the Gray but they all drawl). They are not to be confused with the young diplomats and NGO workers on similar vacations. They look like deer that have been slapped around a bit. No Defensus Contractorus is all swagger. I ran into a prime example of one at the Dead Sea. He hemmed and hawed about getting in the water, then got into it and rubbed mud all over himself. All over his fat hairy body. He made an unlucky painfully obliging Canadian film the debacle, “for the neighbors.”

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