16.4.10 - 19.4.10 31 °C
Damascus was a hoot and, owing in large part to our hosts, one of the funnest cities in the Middle East. Sorry Beirut, but the 2010FunFest Award belongs to da clubs in Damasc.
It's safe to say we did NOT expect our visit to be this way.
We had no idea what Syria would be like. We expected to wander the city as quiet observers and get caught up on Anna and Salim's experiences casually, maybe with a quiet drink or two.
We were greeted with a massive brunch expertly prepared by Salim while Anna told us about her life and future internship plans. This was followed by a whirlwind tour of the Old City, including Straight Street (shout outs to the Bible, holla!), the city gate where Paul (formerly Saul) was lowered in a basket to escape the hoards of angry Jews who wanted his head for converting to Christianity, the Great Mosque (second in importance only to the Blue Mosque and Mecca), and other super-famous sites such as the ice cream shop where they beat up the ice cream before they serve it. I like that. I'm going to beat my food into delicious submission more often.
That night while Anna was in Arabic class Salim took us to a beautiful old mansion for dinner. The food was some of the best I've ever had. There were many bowls of different dips, such as mind-blowing humus, babaganouj, a red spicy one - you know what, I don't even want to talk about it because I'm pissed off that I probably won't ever eat it again. Suffice to say it was a sacrifice to chat because that meant time spent not eating.
Once the miracle ended we sat around digesting and played backgammon with a sheesha in the courtyard of the mansion with live music, as you do. NBD. We rejoined Anna and had drinks with some of their friends at a bar filled with expats, tended by a Spaniard (there is your random detail for the day) then headed to a nightclub to watch a friend of theirs DJ. The bar was packed full of Arabic students and lucky-ass kids of diplomats who think it's normal to speak 18 languages and travel the world on someone else's dollar. Little envious, not going to lie. ANYway. It was so fun! We were clubbing in Damascus and it was awesome!
I had a moment on the dance floor. It happened after Emilie and I invented a new dance called the 'boobie robot' (pretty self-explanatory) and just before a schweaty 3-way NPSIA bear hug. It was one of those moments when you're overwhelmingly thankful for everything happening in that moment: the people, the place, the energy; everything. I was pondering how I came to be partying in Damascus with Em and Anna on holiday from my life in Istanbul. Who AM I? It was all so obscure and wonderful, plus MJ was playing. I felt like a pot boiling over with happiness but instead of laughing it out or doing some exaggerated air-punching to the music I was overcome with nerdiness and shouted out: "R2P! Responsibility to PARTY!" (if you're laughing right now and picturing humanitarian aid workers distributing corkscrews and teaching villagers the rules of beer pong, you too are a nerd)
The following day we slept until 11 (ha!) then headed to the Mar Mousa monastery, an active site of ecotourism and prayer that was founded in the 4th century. It is carved out of rock up on a cliff so that the buildings seem to hang suspended over the valley beneath. We brought books and planned to spend a few hours perched on a rocky ledge with a sweeping view of the barren Syrian countryside, but alas it was way colder than expected and we didn't last long. It was fascinating to see how they lived and try to understand what would compel anyone to stay for any length of time (one guy had lived there a year, another girl 3 months. Tensions were flaring).
The most notable part of that experience was leaving (well, trying to). We were 30 minutes early to meet our taxi so had to hang out at the foot of the Grouse-Grind-esque staircase to the top where there was a little parking lot. This is where things got weird. It seemed normal at first: there were families out for a picnic and young guys riding around on motorbikes. But hold on, the families were picnicking on rocks (there was no grass in sight) with their blanket spread out directly beside their car, using it as a wind-breaker of sorts, and the young guys were popping wheelies and racing around the parking lot in a display of bravado that bordered on intimidation. They all had furry seat-liners on their bikes too which made it look like they were riding some sort of motorized and very dirty sheep. So there we were between families picnicking on a cold, windy day sitting beside their car in a gravel field, and young guys racing past us and popping sheepie wheelies inches from where we were standing. It was so weird!
That night was another one of those 'I can't believe this is happening in Syria' nights. We celebrated Anna's birthday with another gourmet meal prepared by Salim then casually inhaled a few spirits, all to fuel a ridiculous drinking game and 4-hour living room dance party. The drinking game was called 'Vache sans Ash' and involved math and singing in French. If you screwed up you drank (obv) and got an ash mark on your face. So fun.
We slept for a whopping 3 hours before we headed off to Beirut for the night which may be part of the reason we didn't experience the Lebanese nightlife. But that trip will have a blog of its own.
To top off the 'Syrian....but not' tour of Syria, we spent our last night at a Qatari symphony. We sat in the first row beside the composer, for $4! It was incredible, unlike anything I've heard before. Em and I both had goosebumps. Sadly the CD wasn't available so it may have to stay a fabulous and random memory.
After a rooftop sheesha session and another 3 hour sleep I was off. That trip through Aleppo was the one that really affected me (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/23/ ) but on the bright side, I did bond with the taxi driver who drove me from Aleppo back to Antakya, despite a rather formidable language barrier. I think I sold him on being friends after I forgot that the starter was broken and turned off his engine to save gas while he was buying me juice, or maybe it was when I passed out, head back, mouth open for a few hours. Hard to say when my charm won him over exactly. Nevertheless we bonded and hung out for the afternoon until my flight. He and his friend took me to see the cave of Saint Paul - the first ever Christian church! Paul (formerly Saul, who escaped from Damascus in a basket as previously mentioned) traveled to that area and preached the gospel in secret from that cave. How cool is that? It's easy to see that Christianity is actually a Middle Eastern religion when you're in this area. I was in the cradle of Christianity. Awesome.
Safe to say Syria was not at all how I expected it to be, in all the best ways! Big thanks to Anna and Salim for being great 'responsible' hosts. R2P4Life!