DATE: 29 October 2005
CURRENT LOCATION: Cairo, Egypt - Sun Hotel
GPS COORDINATES: same bat time, same bat channel
Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar. Ash-hadu an la ilaha illa Allah. Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah. I dare you to say that three times fast
DHLness is impending, so I'm trying to rip off one last well thought out (and free computer time) note on the travel so far.
Arrival in Aleppo, Syria. The traffic is unbelievable and they're paying no head to the directions of the traffic police on each corner, but I'm not sure that the police are paying much head to the traffic either. Syrians are extremely helpful and friendly. One guy I bumped into at the border told me to follow him all the way into the centre of Aleppo, which saved me much getting lost time. In the end, honing in close to my hotel, a kind gentleman 'walked' me about 15 minutes to the front door, quite explicitly out of his way.
The neighborhood kids were all out and were all over me and the bike with many questions, but none I could understand or answer in Arabic. My favourite was the boxer kid, who at age maybe 13 was already missing a few front teeth and had a nose more bent than a nine bob note. They helped me with my kit up the 3 flights. The Hotel Manager was adamant that I couldn't leave the bike on the street (night thieves would pick it up and load it away on a truck) and that it needed to come up a flight of 7 stairs into the ground floor reception, which looked an impossible feat to me. Nope. The Manager's son, with the herd of neighborhood kids heaved the bike right up the stairs in an act of load bearing engineering on a micro-scale to that of building the pyramids and Mario was safe and sound in his snug in 15 minutes.
I was pretty bushed after traveling an almost clean 1000km, but needed some dinner and wanted to get some orientation with the city so I forced myself out the door. My original plan was to get some eats, quick walk around, and (because I really wasn't in the mood for thinking) take in one of the purported plethora of Hong Kong kung-fu movies that play in a line of cinemas on a major street downtown!! Hey, you can't get as strange a travel experience as kung-fu movies in Syria - and supposedly the audience is rather raucous and often even jump around in the aisles in imitation.
But I was way-layed by a gentleman, Ahmed, down the street who struck a friendly conversation. I quickly find out that hunting the woman and smoking the pipe are the only two things he lives for. My conman-radar was flashing but I'd thought I'd let it go somewhere first. He did turn out, it just so happened, to be a tour guide, a tour gaaaay. Yeah, o-k you know, tour gay. Are you gay..? with a little crinkle in his brow. Ummmm, no. Oh, ha ha ha.. I just joking! I tour guide. Yes, guide - no gay. Yup, well Ahmed, this is obviously your usual fabulous and not in any way whatsoever uncomfortably awkward introduction with prospective clients, non? He was pretty harmless and I did got back to his office a street away, not that I was in any way now interested in him or his tours but at least to suss out rip-off price ceiling for a possible tour or two.
Back in his office, with a nice cup of tea, he offers to put on a DVD of sights of Syria to help show what the sites are so I have an idea of what we're talking about. Good idea, fair enough. But I think Ahmed still had other ideas in mind, as he pauses and then offers perhaps you instead like to watch a sexual filim..? with that same crinkle in his brow. Wha, whaat?! Scuse me Ahmed..? You know, a sexual filim - I have many sexual filim DVDs - we can watch one together now if you like..? Ummmmmm, no. Could we please just watch sights of Syria pleeeease?
Ahmed relented and I put up with his actually rather business pitch for several tours for as long as it took for my tea to cool to rapid gulping temperature and I'm gone. Ohhhhhh, no, I can't remember the name of my hotel..? No. It's over back there somewhere. But I promise to call your mobile tomorrow if I'm interested at all in your tourist sex frolics- errrrr, wonderful tours of Syria.
I will fast forward to my good new 'brother' Ammar, whom I met up at the Aleppo Citadel the next day. Oh dear, I thought another tour con, but he was just a recent graduate trying to practice some English. Tall fellow, with thick glasses always being pushed back up his nose - and a very, very close talker. We have a great conversation about all sorts in the shade of the Citadel mosque and I've got an invitation for dinner and a tour of his mosque that night. Ammar's English is rather challenged and but he conveys himself with passion, and a hefty dose of spittle. After wiping my glasses down, I accept and will meet him later that day. He's very excited about it. Ammar is a business student and awaiting replies on his Masters applications. We spoke about many things, but religion seems to be close to Ammar's heart. He respects all people, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, whatever, we are all people and if you are good person, then you are my friend. But after a little further digging, we does believe that there is a strict differentiation between the correct and incorrect way - and it seems that most of the world's population is doing it the incorrect way and will burn in the fire for everlasting life. You know, this book. This book is red. You can say that it is blue. But it is NOT blue, it is red. If you say that it is blue and I will say, you are my friend and a good man and that is fine. But it is not blue, it is red. You see, you see. There is a correct way and an incorrect way. This book is red, see! See!
I think he perhaps also has a limited understanding of the depths of major world religions. The Hindus, yes they pray to the cow! How can you pray to the cow!? The cow will die! Or how do you pray to a stone..? But Allah, he is forever and cannot die. I attempt to suggest that perhaps Hinduism and other religions may be a little more intricate than that, but we've already changed subjects
Dinner was fabulous. He lives with his parents in a little and modest socialist concrete block part way between old and new Aleppo. I never see Mum and Ammar practically tackles me when I make the wrong turn to the living room while he's putting my shoes away ( I assume because I may nearly have stumbled across her while she's posing for her still life nude in the front room). We eat in Ammar's room with his very nice Dad, who's done quite a bit of traveling and keen to also practice his rusty English. Dinner is MASSIVE. Plates of everything and just dive on in with your fingers. Ammar's been fasting of course and ramming 3 or four things into his at a time, all the while firing questions and running me back over all the elements of prayer and Islam I spent the pre-dinner chat learning. I am continually told to take my rest and cajoled for not eating, eat! eat! eat!! Finally, though I really stuffed, Ammar scoops up some meat in tahini with his spoon and literally sticks it straight into my mouth just as his Father loads up both of my hands with other food. I am actually quite stuffed and the meat was actually a great big wad of spongy fat that nearly provokes a fit of gagging as I crunch through it and slide it down my throat. I wash this all down with a few sips of juice that tastes like soap.
Dinner was actually magnificent, but those final moments were challenging.
Also before dinner, my agreement to see Ammar's mosque turns into you will come and pray with me! at my mosque. A different prospect, but how amazing. The New Aleppo is huge and, though quite simple, it was obviously and expensive mosque. There were easily a thousand people there that night - men inside, women outside. Ammar had walked me through the basic procedure at home and we've already 'washed'. Calm yourself Patrick I am told as Ammar squeezes my hand when we go to sit down. Now you haven't learned about Islam until you've got the carpet burn I tell you. At Ramadan, it's not the ordinary 4 prayers, but 20!! It's quite a community feel. You shoulder to shoulder with your brothers. Kids are wandering around and people are chatting moving about at the 'intervals'. Although it is quite more involved than any church service during actual prayer, it has a much more relaxed and 'forum' feeling than any Christian service I've been to. It was really amazing to experience.
Ammar is keen that I remember the procedure so I can continue praying when I go onto Damascus the next day. I think that he really believes he's got me converted. I'm fairly certain that I didn't repeat the conversion adhan and I think I'm safe, but Ammar must think he's checked that box and during Ramadan even! Heck, wonder how many virgins he's expecting now in Paradise
The site and instrument of my conversion
..and my new brother and father. So we part brothers and, with his father insisting I find a way to help his sons move to and study in Canada, he tells me his profound hope that I don't go the way of the fire.
Oh just quickly, though the regime has begun to open, this is the closet thing to the internet that I saw in Aleppo. Now that coffee shop's website address will be easy to remember!
Out of Aleppo and en route to Damascus, exploring the passages and corridors of Crac de Chevaliers - one of the greatest Crusader castles in the Middle East!!
I move now quickly through to Damascus, which I experienced primarily on a Friday while everything was closed. It gave the old city a strange and quiet atmosphere. I was given a few good hints by friends of friends, Raya and Carol.
This is the covered souq, which was done up and roofed in the 19th century. But at some point (I think the capture from the Ottomans in WWI) celebratory gunfire sprinkled it liberally with these sparkly holes. At midday, the sun careens in and makes the marketplace take on a roller-disco feel.
The Umayyad Mosque - built upon two or three previous Roman and earlier temples. I feel it humbles monuments like St Paul's and others in the western world. And I'm not the only tourist!
That is quickly remedied :)
I had to very, very sadly skip out on Israel. If I had any indication on my passport or bike's carnet that I had journeyed in Israel, I would never get a Sudanese visa.
I sadly pass by, but still get
to go for a dip in the Dead Sea! It is amazing, you really can't stop yourself from buoying to the surface because it's 4 times saltier than normal sea water. Honestly, it is impossible to stay down, you just come shooting back up. No wonder the Jordanian attack submarines weren't that successful during the Yom Kippur War It is also the lowest point on earth. You definitely don't want to get any in your eyes and I don't recommend shaving that day either. Just my luck, I bashed my shin on a rock on entering the water and had to endure the acid-like burning flesh eating pain for the rest of my dip.
Jordan.. Really great, though Amman was not a highlight, bar a good evening out for backgammon schooling and some sheesha
Petra is beyond words and I spent a very long day happily exploring.
(though, queue Indiana Jones theme music)
I headed south for Wadi Rum, the site of the Arab Army's and Lawrence of Arabia's camp before it sprung its surprise assault in the port of Aquaba held by the Ottoman Turks. They marched three days across the 'anvil of the sun' to take Aquaba from behind as its guns were pointed out to sea for an expected naval assault.
Out by the Seven Pillars of Wisdom at sunset (though the Bedouin can't see seven either and say that Lawrence must have taken one back to England with him ).
I was able to get out for a night at a camp in the desert via camel.
My trusty Bedouin guide, Selim.
And sunset in the desert.
A little nightlife in the camp.
There's actually so much more to tell, but you'll just have to buy the book ;) I do now have a Sudanese visa!!! It was all rather easy in the end, I don't know why I was fretting. I will be leaving Cairo for a slow week through the western desert oasis of Egypt, to arrive in Aswan net weekend to catch the 7 Nov ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Aiming for Khartoum on 13 Nov. Will be unlikely to hear from me in the meantime, but you never know what communication possibilities lie en route.
Ciao! Ciao! until sunny Khartoum in (fingers crossed) a few weeks