A Travellerspoint blog

April 2010

R2P

sunny 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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Posted by LeiCran 12:12 Archived in Syria Tagged luxury_travel Comments (1)

If You Like It Then You Should Have Put a Veil On It

all my Muslim ladies

sunny 37 °C

I need to take a few minutes away from witty jokes and clever analogies to talk about the women in Syria. I was really affected by them in Aleppo and it's worth a quick mention. It was difficult to write about that trip because my usual style would belittle a situation I feel strongly about. Bear with me.

It seemed that every women was covered in some way (save the tourists whose naked heads stood out like broken thumbs). There were a few ladies who wore headscarves and conservative western clothes, but the vast majority had only their faces showing, some only their eyes (often with thick eye makeup, weird). A few spooky gals floated through the streets without a speck of skin showing. They had their faces covered under their veil and wore gloves. If the invisible man is real I bet you he is laughing and living in drag in Syria.

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Despite the oppression of their attire, however, was the apparent freedom women had in society. One night Em and I were coming back from a lovely dinner in a beautiful old mansion and were shocked to find women everywhere! In Turkey this would never happen - after the sun goes down it's a dude's world - but in Syria there were ladies and children crowding the streets with no sign of tiring. Perhaps the implicit dress code affords Syrian women social freedom after all?

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I wish my optimism had lasted, but sadly on my solo trip back to Turkey I had a negative reaction, mostly in part to the temperature. It was extremely hot. We are talking 35+ before noon here. I am not a delicate flower by any means but I was seriously suffering. I was delirious, panicky for a breeze or any way to cool off, had a headache, and was exhausted to the point of falling asleep in anything with an engine (I felt like Rip Van Winkle's intrepid cousin, snoozing my way around the Middle East).

My discomfort was acute but purely physical until a group of women passed in front of my taxi. Each one was completely covered from head to toe in a black veil, long coat to the ankles and buttoned to the neck, stockings, and black gloves. They were crossing slowly with linked arms, probably to catch each other when they would eventually pass out from the heat. And it isn't even summer yet!

I saw the city with new eyes. All the women who were previously exotic and following social norms of a patriarchal society were now walking manifestations of suffering in black cocoons of sweat and oppression. Call me culturally insensitive if you want, but there is something wrong with a society that encourages or even condones women to live in extreme discomfort for the so-called moral safety of men. It is actually sickening to see, especially in the throes of heatstroke.

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As I sat there full of pity for those women I had a flashback to a few days prior in the inner court of the Grand Mosque. I had been visibly uncomfortable in my rented KKK-in-pinstripes cloak that we had to rent to enter and a sassy young girl remarked, Welcome to my world. Instantly I had images of doing just that, and how joyless my life would be. I will never forget that, nor my how incredibly lucky I am to hold a Canadian passport! As soon as I get home I am going to straight to the beach to comfortably wander around in my bikini because its fun and I can - and it is going to feel AMAZING.

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But ok, there are covered Muslim women all over the Middle East, some with much worse situations than in Aleppo. I am giving the city a hard time and that is not fair because it was very charming and definitely one of the most interesting places I have ever been (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/19/). Back to the happy posts, thanks for listening!

Posted by LeiCran 14:02 Archived in Syria Tagged women Comments (1)

Sushi, Starbucks and Seawall

you will be mine.

sunny 25 °C

There are two afflictions in life that stop me in my tracks: FOMO and FE, otherwise known as Fear Of Missing Out and Food Envy, respectively. My current predicament is made exponentially more difficult because I risk suffering from them both at once! The horrors!!

The task at hand is not an easy one. I must decide where to be for the summer: home in Vancouver with the inexpensive, mouth-watering, addictive Asian kitchen I was raised on, or somewhere in Europe sampling (and justifying) new exotic treats. While FE is pretty much the worst thing ever, there is more to this decision than food.

On the one hand, Vancouver is not going anywhere. My friends will be there with open arms regardless of when I come home (they've patiently been doing this for the past 2 years now, thanks guys!). It would make financial sense to stay as I am already in Europe, plus there are opportunities here that I cannot find at home, such as learning French in France, or volunteering in refugee camps. That said, though, staying put for a while is appealing and there is a part of my batteries that can only be recharged at home.

This choice has been consuming me for a few weeks now. Each time I email or chat to someone it seems silly to even ask - of course Europe! There will be time for career-hunting later. What is hard to describe to non-Vancouverites, though, is the significance of summer. Missing one by choice is like going into a mall on a beautiful day, or doing laundry on a Saturday night. It is an absurd decision that will undoubtedly result in you missing out and becoming the object of scorn. More than that, doing so without good reason becomes almost offensive and borders on sacrilegious.

Of my twenty-seven years I have missed three, each more painful than the last. The first two were because I was traveling, and despite being in Europe then Australia I still felt the pangs of FOMO. Last summer was absolute torture as I spent it working for the federal government in Ottawa where it was too hot and humid outside to do anything and there were no oceans or beaches in sight. While I tried to make the best of it and certainly had the best people to survive it with, my worst FOMOs were realized every time I logged onto facebook. It was awful. Clearly missing my fourth summer is not a decision to be taken lightly, even if it is for good reasons.

A few weeks ago I indulged in one of my favorite past times: making Vancouver itineraries. My dear friend, Jo, is visiting from New Zealand for a few days in May so I set to work thinking of all the best places to stroll, shop, eat, drink and dance. For an hour I tried to express the peace of running the seawall early in the morning, the energy of dinner and drinks on Commercial or Main, the vibe on patios in Gastown, the joy of Granville Island, and the delight of Asian cuisine everywhere. But I fell short. Words and excessive exclamation marks cannot express my love for the city, not to mention the friends I miss so much who live there. It is truly a magical combination and my attempt to tell her that could not have been better-timed. Writing that email got my wheels in motion and I have finally reached a decision.

So, back to this Rolls Royce dilemma. My flights are booked. My next Utopian summer at home commences June 21 and it feels fantastic. Neither FOMO nor FE is anywhere in sight.

Posted by LeiCran 04:28 Archived in Canada Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

Sorry Paris

but you've been replaced.

sunny 25 °C

Istanbul is the most romantic city I have ever been to. Please send my apologies to Paris, but it can no longer compete.

A five minute walk from my flat is the Moda seaside, aka MakeOutFest2010. Ever since spring arrived the area has been increasingly crammed with loved up couples. What was once a jog with a view has become a game of running-and-dodging interlocking duos who are oblivious to what is going on outside their couple-bubble. If I try to run up on the rocks between the path and the sea I ALWAYS spy with my little eye numerous pairs of entangled lovers sheltered from view for a sneaky snog. Always. It's prime pashing real estate. BRMOs (behind rock make outs) are the new DFMOs (dance floor make outs), fo sho.

How could these Turkish ladies resist though, seriously?

First of all it is springtime, nature's most potent aphrodisiac. The revival of warm sun and tanned skin mixed with the smell of lilacs and wisteria blossoms likens rufies to tic tacs. Savvy suitors know the powers of springtime and take their lady-friends to the Moda seaside to gaze at the Princes Islands across a flat-calm, sparkling sea. As if it were not already a swooner's paradise, there are roses for sale by mysterious dark-skinned gypsy women, sweet keetans to tickle and demonstrate a softer side, and balloons to shoot to flaunt some machismo. A few lads, eager to see the other side of the rocks, pull out all the stops by serenading their eye's apple with guitars. Every single tree has a girl leaning against it whispering sweet Turkish nothings to her beau whose head she holds in her lap. Passing through the area is like walking through a romantic warzone with cupid's stray arrows filling the sky (this must explain why I have fallen hard for a few keetans along the way). It is as if the final scene of a romantic comedy overdosed on speed, in a good way.

Sure, Paris may have the Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, and Seine, but these are old news. True romance is about sincere gestures and not relying on cliched symbols of love. Nothing says sincere more than wedging yourself between boulders for a BRMO.

Lucky for me, the only gesture I am interested in comes served hot with a large glass of wine. Don't worry Mem, my heart (and Tina) are not being swayed to stay.

Posted by LeiCran 06:18 Archived in Turkey Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Convictions and Contradictions

Aleppo

sunny 30 °C

My trip through Syria and Lebanon was a trip into a different world. Truly, I have never been anywhere even slightly similar to any of the places we visited. Each was a contradiction of itself, something that made Aleppo in particular both fascinating and frustrating.

Aleppo's contradiction is its age. You see, Aleppo and Damascus share the title of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, with evidence drawing their first inhabitants to 8000 B.C.! By contrast, London is still an adolescent and Vancouver still kicking about in diapers. Syrians have some serious street cred so you would think that a city like Aleppo would be quite progressive, right? In fact, going there was like going back in time thousands of years to a period where Bedouins lived in tents, hearded sheep, and traded in the souq; and women were commodities (see http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/23/ for my thoughts on that).

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The souq was my highlight and is still haunting my memories of the city. Wandering inside truly felt like exploring the souq of the past, with its uneven stone floors, smoky avenues under the high arched ceiling, sea of insistent stares, and shops grouped into themes, creating little villages of spice, scarves, or soap. I loved the charming alleyways around Al Jedeida, the famous (and delicious!) cherry kebab, and of course appreciated how inexpensive it was: first class seats on the 4-hour train between Aleppo and Damascus cost $4! Thankfully even the prices have not yet caught up to the rest of the world. The view from the top of the citadel was fantastic, and we were lucky enough to hear the calls to prayer echoing up from the sprawling city below. Nothing gives this area ambiance like a well-timed call to prayer.

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The people were extremely friendly too. We wandered into a scarf shop where I gravitated toward a beautiful scarf made from the hairs of deer chest, valued at close to 100CND. Dammit! The owner took one look at me and stopped his sales pitch because he knew I couldn't afford it, which of course only made me want it more. It turns out the shop caters to the gay Syrian community and the owner is an Australian-Syrian man who is not gay himself - 'yet' - but who fell so in love with the gay scene in Sydney's Kings Cross that he is now catering to those few Syrians who live there with a sexual preference the state has deemed illegal. He did not sell me the deer-chest scarf but did buy me an Arabic coffee, and he and his friend were a breath of fresh air.

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Another highlight was going for a drink at the Baron Hotel, a place that epitomizes the spirit of the city because sitting at its bar you really feel time has stood still. The Baron is the oldest hotel in Aleppo and used to cater to the elite crowd traveling on the Orient Express, with notable patrons including Agatha Christie, Lawrence of Arabia, David Rockerfeller, Mr and Mrs Theodore Roosevelt, Kemal Attaturk, Lady Louise Mountbatten, and Charles Lindberg. Most significantly, King Faisal declared Syria's independence from the balcony in room 215. You feel that any one of those past guests could saunter through the lobby in khakis as you sit at the bar, and that feeling can be applied to Aleppo generally. The charm and Middle Eastern antiquity of Aleppo seems to transcend modern day, so that it would not be altogether surprising to see a caravan of camels or hooded Bedouins navigating the hair-raising traffic of the city.

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Posted by LeiCran 05:53 Archived in Syria Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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