Hello again! I am writing from an internet cafe in
The people in this country are amazing - warm, friendly and very helpful, even when they only speak Arabic, and we do not!
We started our journey crossing the border from Turkey in a very rural area, having passed through several small towns and villages after traversing rolling, rocky hillsides filled with herds of cattle and goats and flocks of sheep. The villagers waved and smiled, if inquisitively.
The border crossing was unlike any I have experienced, and I consider myself a well-seasoned border crosser! The senior officers were friendly and happy, asking us to share tales of our journey and allowing our passage without any hassles.
We arrived in Latakya, a very busy city that is located along the Mediterranean Coast, late in the day and spent a bit of time trying to locate a downtown hotel. After seeing it, and its distance from the actual "action" of the city, we decided it made no sense to stay there (very noisy) so we opted for a more remote hotel along the sea. That turned out to be a good choice as we were greeted warmly and were treated to a wonderful dinner overlooking the beach and water. Since the day had been long, we called it a night and enjoyed a restful night's sleep.
The next morning we headed for Hama, a city known for its ancient water wheels. These wheels, no longer used for carrying the city's water, are very large, wooden wheels that groan as they lift water out of the river (which is lower than the city) and to the different parts of the city for
On the way, we drove through many mountain villages, waving at and being waved to by locals out strolling the streets. There were many wonderful sites and sounds, and many great smells, especially from the small bakeries! After a few hours of "lostness," we rounded a corner to find a massive and imposing site on a mountain across from us - it was the Krak de Chevalier, the best preserved Crusader Castle in the world. We shot a few pictures and headed, through the strong winds, for the site. Another photo op presented itself, prompting us to make another stop on a downward curve. A car, coming uphill and spotting us as he rounded the corner, stopped. The driver, a local man, motioned to his passenger to grab something from a bag on the floor. He then jumped out of his car and presented us with local, freshly picked apricots, and a warm smile and "welcome my friends!" Simply amazing!
We soon arrived at the Krak where a local guide and resident offered us a personal tour of the Krak. We gladly accepted and learned that he had been guiding here for more than 15 years, and that his parents had once lived in this fortress/castle, in the days when all the people in the area lived inside the Krak's walls. Our first stops, inside what proved to be immense, indescribably thick walls, were the first and second walls, the soldier's latrines (bathrooms) and the inner moat, which was bordered by a sliding door as high as the outer walls (probably the first of its kind). We were simply awestruck!
Since we had not eaten since out very small breakfast, we asked about eating in the castle. Our guide took us to the Princess Tower where we were treated to enough mezze (like Tapas) for 8 people! The food was wonderful and provided us enough energy to climb around the Krak for the next 2 1/2 hours, all the while being treated to stories of "castle life" and the best positions for great photos of the castle's interior. This must have been quite an amazing place to live and work, and protect. We said our goodbyes and headed for Hama.
We arrived in Hama late in the afternoon and were given a hotel room overlooking the water wheels and the lit city below, including the many green lighted minarets of the local mosques. It was really a beautiful site! We showered and headed down for a drink by the river's edge and a chance to take a few shots of the wheels. As we stood by the bridge many locals stopped to say "hello, welcome my friend." This was unlike anything we had ever experienced and brought great comfort, especially to me since I had some real "concerns" about coming here. Families even stopped their cars and asked us where we were from before welcoming us to their country, most offering to be of assistance if we required their help. Amazing warmth!
We then stopped at the riverside cafe, filled with local families (it was Friday and the Muslim holy day so many family members were sharing free time together), a few young singles and many groups of scarf covered women. All were enjoying a jovial evening and we were quite happy to join them. My DH even ordered a water pipe, which is brought out by the water pipe "sommelier," and filled with apple tobacco. The attendant lights the tobacco and hooks up the tube which is equipped with a plastic (and fresh!) mouth piece. The aroma was intoxicating! We enjoyed an hour of relaxing and headed back to the hotel for another good night's sleep.
The next morning we headed for the Jordanian border, a country I was very comfortable visiting (given our good relations with this country) and very much looking forward to experiencing.
Our plan was to visit Petra, home of the ancient Nebateans and Bedouins, the Dead Sea and the baptismal site of Jesus of Nazareth, located on the Jordan River.
To say our experience in Jordan was "challenging" would be an understatement.
Our first stop, the Syrian border exit point was wonderful. I was even offered tea by the senior officer, Hamet, as the guys processed our papers!
That is where the kindness ended and the trouble began. It started at the border, where we were told we could not take our motorcycles into Jordan due to their law prohibiting bikes (we knew this to be untrue as many people have written about riding in Jordan, and one of our Turkish guides had just been there). Apparently motorcycles were reserved for the Royal Family (the King loves riding Harleys!) and their friends.
While the guys were getting our bikes through, I waited with the bikes - great for protecting the bikes from tampering, but a big mistake for me personally. The men in the border area, all crossing into Jordan from Syria, were fascinated by the bikes and with a woman from a foreign country. Now mind you, I was wearing very masculine looking riding gear, no makeup and had my hair pulled back, under a helmet. Apparently this was still attractive to them as they stood very close and tried to make contact several times. At this point my "fight or flight" A.K.A. "tough bitch" mode took over and I made it very clear that I was neither interested or going to tolerate anything from them. It was a truly scary experience. Of course my DH was furious when he returned to find me very upset and wanting to head back to Syria. We didn't, moving on in hopes that this was an isolated incident of very poor and inappropriate behavior by these young men.
We arrived in Madaba and found a very nice little family-run hotel. As we pulled in I noticed a young (American looking) woman getting out of a cab from town. We began chatting and I learned that she was a grad student attending the University of Madison, and she was traveling in Jordan doing research...by herself! Of course I thought she was nuts! I learned that she had also encountered some unwelcome advances, but that she had learned to wear baggy clothing, never make eye contact with any men, and to always walk with someone. We shared a bottle of wine and shared travel stories and opinions about cultural differences between our country and the others we had both visited. We agreed that there seemed to be an aggressiveness felt by the young men in Jordan and she expressed many thoughts shared with her about the citizens of Jordan - many are very unhappy. This differed greatly from what we have been told by the media.
At this point I examined what a surprise the trip had become - I had feared entering Syria and had had no fears about Jordan. Just the opposite became my reality. This was why we were doing this travel, to learn the "truth" about these countries. The truth was becoming very clear to me!
The next day my DH and I walked the town and met a few kind locals, but I must admit my guard was still on high alert. I never roamed away from my DH (which I usually do when we are shooting) and never made eye contact with any young men. I saw only fully covered women, many with only their eyes showing. Another revelation arose - maybe they like wearing their covering as a means of protection from the stares of the young men? I certainly thought about it!
I had noticed many shops selling very skimpy and sexy clothes and had wondered why these were sold in a town where modesty seemed to be of utmost importance, and required. I soon got my answer when two women, one completely covered and one with her face showing and hair covered, entered a shop and started looking for a few new pieces of clothing! Aha, they were modest to the world, but feeling very sexy under their black robes and dresses. Yeah for them! I had just been given another gift, a better understanding of the women of this land. Again, this is why I am here.
We then headed for Petra, in the south of Jordan. The ride was long and uneventful, except for the two incidents of issues with groups of young men, again. Once we had rocks thrown at us (luckily none made contact) and once, when we stopped for a picture of a wrecked motorcycle by the roadside, we were surrounded by a group of adolescent men who thought nothing of grabbing at things on the bike (like our keys and iPod) and at my arm. I was so shocked by the outward aggression toward us and the anger that seemed to fill their eyes.
After a very rough ride, through the first sand storm the area had had in 2 years(!), we arrived at Petra. I was so happy to reach our hotel and the safety of its walls. It had been another exhausting (both physically and spiritually) day.
The next morning we arose to clear skies and the opportunity to spend the day in Petra. This was a true marvel and was the beginning of a better part of this trip. The slit canyon one enters through is immense, rising from 20 to 200 meters above one's head, and revealing wondrous natural forms and shapes at every curve. I am sure my mouth hung open for much of the day.
We walked the trails, stopping first at the Treasury (the most photographed site), and then on for the long hike up the mountain (and 800 steps separated by long, steep stretches of sandy ground) to the Monastery. All along the route we encountered the local Bedouins, an ancient tribe that once inhabited this areas before being "removed" in order to "preserve" this ancient city. They were selling "old" coins and relics as well as souvenirs, but were never pushy and always very kind, often offering us tea and conversation. Their spirit was amazing and apparent to all of us. The children had such beauty and happiness in their faces and I so enjoyed snapping a few shots of them, after asking permission of course.
After several hours of walking, we finally reached the top. The site was breathtaking and we all felt quite a sense of accomplishment, especially since we were carrying camera bags weighing at least 35 pounds on our backs and it was close to 100 degrees! After a few shots, we celebrated by lounging on the pillows of a Bedouin shop run by a man whose family had lived here in these hills for generations. Ishmail explained about the area, his family and life here. I was fascinated! He welcomed us in and let us know there was no pressure to buy anything - he simply wanted to share this wonderful place with us. He had some wonderful silver pieces laid out on a table and I had to check them out! He explained these were locally made and that they were being offered by the foundation for a better life for the Bedouin women which I had been told about by my DH. I was planning to buy a few items and now felt even better about making the purchases.
When I asked about the instrument hanging on the wall, he explained that it was a Rababah, a one-stringed guitar like instrument that only a few people played well. He asked his cousin to play for us and he gladly obliged. The sound was amazing, especially from only one string! He was then followed by another relative playing a flute and finally by singing by Ishmail. I felt so much better about Jordan after this experience.
We made our way down the mountain, sharing chats with the Bedouins again on the way down, and stopped for a quick lunch under shade trees. I needed the break! We had wanted to go back to the Silk and Urn Tombs, massive structures on the hillside above our entry path, when the light was lower and not so harsh. Now was our chance. We shot and climbed, all the while remarking about the beauty and immensity of what were were seeing.
After another water break, and a reapplication of sunscreen, we headed back toward the entrance, in hopes of getting a great shot of the Treasury under the setting light. As we rounded the corner, our view filled with a line of camera-laden men, all lined up in front of the Treasury. They were too close to get a complete shot and I was puzzled by their stances. And, they were no ordinary "shooters" based on the very expensive equipment each had strung over every inch of his body. We soon learned that they were Spanish paparazzi looking for "the shot" of the Prince of Spain and his new bride who were on their honeymoon and visiting Petra! The two of them soon came into view and the cameramen, and many surrounding tourists, after clearance from two large body guards, starting snapping away. I stayed back, more interested in getting a shot of the line of cameras pointed at the Royal couple! I think it's the best shot taken and many of the tourists agreed after seeing it!
After a few wonderfully lit shots, sans tourists (unheard of), we headed out, gazing skyward at changing shades of red, yellow, white, black and beige, every view more wondrous than the last! My trip to Jordan had been redeemed.
The next day we headed for the Dead Sea, the Baptism site and, hopefully, the border. Again we encountered rock throwing, and a new type of "assault"-small cars, being driven by young guys, attempting to run us off the road, or at least push us aside. My bubble was burst and we all quickly agreed we had had enough and it was time to head for the border.
We drove up the East side of the Dead Sea, staring at its salt-laden shores and its azure blue water streaked with a salt content three times that of the ocean, but did not feel safe stopping for many pictures. After passing through many checkpoints manned by the Jordanian Army, we reached a "tourist" area and stopped for a bio break and lunch. While eating we were engaged in a conversation by an Iranian woman nearby. She asked about our trip and I was honest in my stories about the aggressive young men we had encountered. As it turns out, she had come from Boston to Jordan to attend the Royal wedding of the Crowned Price of Jordan. She was an aunt of the bride! She was very disappointed about what had happened to us and assured me the Royals would be as well. Before we headed out she provided me with the name and phone number of the head guy at the Royal Office of Protocol and encouraged us to call on them if we had any more trouble. We thanked her and headed on.
Our next and final stop before the border was the Baptism Site of Jesus. We had to park our bikes and take shuttle bus, then walk some distance. Although I wanted to see the site, the heat made the experience less than enjoyable. We did get to view the Jordan River and the Baptism site, in addition to the Church of St. John the Baptist and the shores of Jerusalem. It was a must-see, but we were all glad to get moving and cool down.
We stopped only for cold water and blasted, through even stronger winds than we had experienced on our southbound journey, in hopes of getting across the border quickly and without incident. We made it rather quickly and had no issues, this time.
I must say that I actually got off our bike and kissed the ground, literally, when we made it across the Jordan border and back into Syria! And I have a picture to prove it!
We overnighted in Bosra, home of the world's best preserved Roman Theatre, and this morning headed for Damascus, where I am writing from an internet cafe.
I wish the experience we had had in Jordan had been different. I am still thankful for the journey there, but am so saddened to find so much resentment and frustration, and possibly sheer anger, in the young men of the country. It does not bode well for Jordan given that the majority of the population is of this age bracket and "personality." I only hope we encountered the worst of Jordan. The sites of Jordan are incredible, but I would be very cautious of traveling alone, especially as a woman, and would hire a Jordanian tour company to shuttle you from site to site, and hotel to hotel.
I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Syria. You will be welcomed with open arms and loving spirits. And most importantly, you will feel safe.
I do hope you enjoyed my account of our adventure. I hope to write more soon, and will post pictures and more accounts once I get back to the good old USA.
For now, Gule Gule (Turkish for bye-bye)!
For those of you who asked, my husband and I are on a 2-year sabbatical of sorts. We were running a consulting practice in the IT industry and between the events and consequences of 9/11, the maturation of our industry, the outsourcing of IT to India, and business in our specific field (data warehousing and business intelligence) slowing amidst a dearth of consultants and extreme pricing pressure (coupled with seeing too many friends and family members waiting to travel only to be in poor health or in a negative financial situation by the time they could do so), we decided now was the perfect time to get out and learn about the world first-hand, instead of accepting what our media "tells" us is reality. And, since we prefer to travel by motorcycle, we figured we should undertake this more adventurous style of travel while we were in good physical shape (not that either of us is any sort of physical specimen!).
We have chosen to visit more developing countries and third-world nations rather than Europe and some of the other "standard" destinations as we have spent a lot of time traveling in very developed, westernized countries due to our business requirements and my family living in Germany.
Our goals during this travel are to learn about the cultures and the history of these people and places, and to gain a better understanding about what makes them tick, what makes them happy and how they define success. Surprisingly, there are many similarities...and also vast differences!
Our journey thus far has taken us to: Southern Africa (South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia); India (including Sikkim, a former kingdom "absorbed" by India in the mid 70s) and Bhutan (the only Buddhist, democratic monarchy in the world); Turkey, Syria and Jordan (where we are currently). Later this year we will travel to China and Japan. We are also hoping to make another trip to: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; Thailand; Costa Rica (and if DH has his way, all of South America, starting in California, driving East to Texas, then due south!) and Russia.
The biggest gift I feel I can give to the world is to share this experience and encourage others to get out and explore the world, beyond our U.S. borders. There is so much to be learned by meeting other people and truly understanding them, even if we don't agree with their views and beliefs. Acceptance and simply "agreeing to disagree" could be of great value in reaching a more peaceful state in this world of ours. We are strong through our diversity and richer for "knowing each other."
I will post another message today, titled "Message from Allepo, Syria." This will probably be my last from this wonderful country as we are heading back to Turkey, another wonderful place, in just 2 days. I am hoping to take in the sites, sounds and people of this ancient city in these two days, so email and posting will be limited.
I'll post the link to the above post as soon as it's done.
Thanks again to all of you for your well wishes and for encouraging me to share more with you. I miss my pea pals, a great bunch of gals (and guys!)!