Saturday, July 11, 2009
Suddenly I was in the Middle East. The real, Lawrence of Arabia Middle East, which is difficult to find in much more westernised Turkey. Bearded, turbaned men in long white tunics, reminding me of a child putting on a doctor's coat, strolling brown sandalled on dusty paths in the Syrian semi-desert; flat roofed concrete housing, made off-white by years of dust.
Reaching Syria's second largest city, Aleppo, by midday. I dumped my backpack in the nearest hotel and set off for the town's claim to fame: its very, very friendly tourist office which routinely greets its visitors with gifts of dusty calendars, large posters and its key phrase: 'Welcome to Syria: The Cradle of Civilizations.'
Cradle of civilizations aside, the imperative stop for any visitor to Syria is one of its numerous and delicious falafel shops, which fills the stomachs of locals and travelers for a mere 25 Syrian Pounds, equivalent to less than US 50 cents. Upgrade to a Shwarma, the chicken version, for only a little more.
Once full I wandered the streets and souk (market) of Aleppo, the largest covered souk in the Middle East, which sells everything from dates to car parts and everything in between. Aleppo's citadel is another beautiful sight, best seen in the evening, when the town comes out to flirt, drink tea, smoke nargile and people-watch. We were (un)lucky enough to be the main subject of people- watching that evening; groups would just stop and stare. A few came up to introduce themselves and welcome us to Syria, others shuffled closer and with big smiles proudly dropped the few English words they knew within earshot; still more just stared drop-jawed and motionless for several minutes until the novelty of having two young western women in their town wore off.
We dragged ourselves out of bed early the next day to tackle Syria's so called 'Dead Cities'- ruins dating back to the 11th century AD. While the ruins were of course spectacular, it was with thanks mainly to the bilingual skills of an Egyptian/Australian friend that we struck up a fine friendship with our Kurdish taxi driver, becoming one of the highlights of the trip. It wasn't long before he had his leg out the door, holding it open with his foot and had us all dancing to Arab love ballads at high volume.
He took us to a Bedouin community in the semi-desert, about 100km from Aleppo. The men of our group were instantly offered a sheep for slaughter, which was gently refused, followed by introductions to the children, women, men, cats and donkeys of the family. A generous dust coating and a few marriage proposals later, we headed off a little overheated and overwhelmed.
By the end of the second day we had his wife and child along on our adventure, squeezing all seven of us into a hatchback on the way to dance on dusty roads and end the day on a pirate ship at a seemingly abandoned Syrian theme park.
After missing the stop to Hama, we got off at Homs, described in guide books as simply an 'ugly city.' While it would be difficult to describe as the most stunning city of Syria, Homs was charming, friendly and lacking in tourists. Unfortunately our backpacker budget could not stretch to the town's five star hotel, so we had to settle for 'no stars', which by Homs standards extends to grimy sheets,
stained walls, morose staff and one of the worst toilets in the Middle East. At the risk of catching any number of physical and mental diseases, we fled the city as soon as we could the next morning for Crac des Chevaliers, described as 'one of the most beautiful castles in the world.'
Like every experience in Syria, even the castle was made more special by a bizarre combination of circumstance. So it was that we stumbled on a film set and I had the chance to ride Ahmed the acting horse in an ancient castle on the hilltop amidst fake fog.
With all hopes of 'Sollywood' fame fading with the sun, we headed for the desert, to the ruins of Palmyra. With its barren landscape, swaying palms, concentrated tourist population and one of the most notorious prisons in the country, Palmyra is a contrast to the cities of western Syria. Most visitors come to see the ruins, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ archeology museum and perhaps to ride a camel, before moving on quickly.
There was a distinct buzz in town, and it didn't take us long to figure out that one of the country's richest men had booked a two night wedding celebration amongst the ruins. We put on our best outfits and tried, unsuccessfully, to enter. On the way back we were hit by a sandstorm, so we left disheveled and rather dusty....
From Palmyra we took the bus to Damascus, the lively, chaotic and charming capital of the country. In the five minutes of waiting outside a shop for my friends I was fed with dates, dried apricots and figs by shopkeepers eager to pose for photos and welcome me to Syria, again. The days were spent following the sweet scent of nargile smoke through narrow streets packed with antiques, 'real fake' watches and sizzling kebab. It's easily one of the most exotic capitals in the Middle East- a city easy to love and difficult to leave... rather well in tune with its country.
When the drizzle cleared and my backpack was finally dry, I found the nearest kebab shop and sat down, relaxing my limbs and nose to the senses of the city. The first hit wasn't what I was used to. Not a tepid sewerage, acrid sweat, South-East Asian kind of hit, but more like a shrieking mosquito in strike mode, approaching from every corner to try to suck me into its carpet shop.
Once I was fed and somewhat closer to human, it didn't take long for the carpet sellers to figure out that I had the greatest repellent of all- a backpacker budget- or for me to find the best way to deal with the one-liner conversation starter, 'Where are you from?' when the repellent wore off. Somehow, every man in Turkey seems to have a relative in New Zealand, Australia, U.S.A, Ireland, South Africa, or whichever other country I tried to convinced them I'm from. It was 'Iceland' when I was in a bad mood, and 'Space' when I was in a good one.
The hair also helped. Being blonde in Turkey is preferable to having a diplomatic passport, as long as you don't mind your boyfriend/husband/father being offered camels for your livelihood. After visiting the main (and truly magnificent) sights of Sultanahmet- the once Christian-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum of Aya Sophia; Topkapi Palace; and Istanbul's stunning landmark, the Blue Mosque- I gave up on royalty and religion for awhile and decided to do what I do frequently and well- get lost. Descending the steep and ancient alleyways towards the sea, I was followed by a harem of well fed and friendly street cats. There's a story in Turkey about Mohammad who cut around his tunic to avoid disturbing his cat, and it's easy to see that this reverence of felines prevails, even in the cities.
By the time I reached the Galata Bridge over the Bosphorous, my stomach full with fresh fish and Turkish cay (tea), it was difficult to imagine a place I would rather be.
If you don't mind being woken by wails from the minarets at sunrise, or the occasional terrorist insect in your hotel room, it's easy to give a little of your heart and even your blood, to this city.
I fell for Istanbul, and even almost for its mosquitoes.