When we last left our motorcycling duo they were visiting the city of Damascus, the capital city of Syria.
After my post at the internet cafe, we headed to Elissar, a recommended restaurant in an old Arabic style house, where stone and marble bands of color decorated the inner walls of the obligatory courtyard. It was amazingly restored and beautiful, especially with the vines climbing the walls and soft light casting a glow over the dining guests. We were shown to a side room (a downside of not making a previous reservation!) and offered menus and a wine list. We chose another Lebanese wine, as we had done several times previously, and set about ordering mezze (like Spanish tapas) and entrees. The food, consisting of more fresh tomatoes and cukes, as well as many local Syrian dishes, was incredible...and much too plentiful! The waiter smiled as we gave up in defeat and announced that desert, a local hot cheese and honey desert, was available. How could we resist?! LOL Little did we know that it would be accompanied by their "standard" trays (yes, I do mean trays!) of fresh apricots, watermelon and cherries. We ate until we just could not absorb any more. This was by far the most I had eaten on this trip...so good. The back to the hotel and hoping for a good night's rest before a long day ahead.
We rose early in hopes of catching the first morning light and to watch the city "come alive." We made our way through the small streets of the old city and into the souq and Khans. The souq is the marketplace for the city and is always centered around the main mosque. This dates back to ancient times. The khans are the merchants inns and include the standard domed entrance and two stories. At the time we arrived both were fairly quiet, with storefronts just being rolled up and goods being rolled out for display and purchase.
At the first fruit stand we came to I stopped to buy some apricots, something Damascus is famous for. When I asked how much I owed, I was once again given the Syrian sign for "gift;" hand over the heart, then hand motioned towards me, and an Arabic phrase I have yet to learn. Another amazing gesture of kindness and generosity.
On we went, winding through the small passageways and old homes, many so old and high that they touched overhead. The construction of the old abodes, mud bricks covered by straw then more mud, were in various stages of repair and blended right into the more modern houses intertwined with them. Each house was very simple on its exterior, with a common metal or wooden door adorned by a hand shaped knocker. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse inside a doorway left open - it revealed an inner courtyard, open to the sky, surrounded by the living quarters. Truly magical!
We encountered many locals along our way, each inquiring as to our homeland and offering us words of welcome. Many invited us into their shops, not to buy, but to have tea. We could learn something from this!
After two hours of wandering and shooting, we entered one of the many smaller souqs. The stores, in contrast to those in the states, are grouped by offering, i.e., all the candy shops were together, all the spice shops were side by side, etc. The smell in the spice "wing" was intoxicating and we were given a few lessons about what each bag contained. Oh what I wouldn't give to have this available at home!
After making a few purchases, we headed to the main mosque (sorry I don't recall the proper name). This mosque, visited by Muslims from all over the world, is third to Mecca in terms of its sanctity. It was massive and beautiful, adorned by brightly colored mosaics depicting rich scenes, all intertwined with gold that shimmered in the sun.
The courtyard, immense and full of kids playing, contained an ablution fountain, which Muslims use to wash themselves before entering the mosque. Watching their ritual was endearing and gave me some sense of their devotion to their beliefs, those that are quite opposed to what we see portrayed by the media and the extremists.
As we entered the mosque proper, were greeted by throngs of black-drape covered women and white cotton robe wearing men, praying with beads and bowing toward Mecca. For many of them this was a very emotional experience of a lifetime and tears and weeping were everywhere. It was a very special place and taking photos seemed so inappropriate (in spite of devout Muslim families doing so in front of every object) that I took only a couple shots.
We soon ran out of time and after returning the required hooded robe I had borrowed to wear into the mosque, and putting our shoes back on, we headed for the hotel to check out.
While the guys headed for the bikes, I handled getting our luggage out of the hotel and checking us out. One thing to remember: pick up your passport, which the front desks must keep during your stay, before you leave. If the bellman hadn't reminded me, we would have driven off without them! He and I spent some time chatting at the hotel's front entrance and I learned as much about him and his family as he did about mine. It was a great exchange of information and we parted shaking hands and smiling.
We were off to Palmyra, one of the best preserved ancient cities built by the Romans, and Syria's most popular sites. We headed out through the very hot desert, along a very nondescript highway occupied by large trucks, tour busses headed back from Palmyra, and cookie-cuttered, white Chevy Suburbans, all donning unusual red license plates and carrying groups of men indicative of what we think of when we think of "desert men." We would soon find out the origin of the red plates: Iraq...only 100 KMs to the Southeast of our path. A little unnerving, I must say.
We arrived in Palmyra late in the afternoon, just in time to watch the setting of the light across the ruins, which were openly accessible to the road enabling us to drive by, video camera rolling.
We headed for our newest hotel to relax for a while. Our guide, exhausted from our constant travel, chose to rest (which become 14 hours of sleep!) and DH and I headed down to the restaurant for dinner. We were treated to a lovely window view of the sunlit ruins and another fine meal and bottle of wine, a much needed break for us both. We ate and chatted while watching the sun do its dance across the many towering columns and arches. It happens so quickly here that one only has a brief window in which to capture an image, something the Indian photographer we met that night had failed to achieve after three evening attempts!
The next morning, we headed out, cameras in hand, to catch the early morning light and the relatively tourist-free moments. It was a bit windy and made riding the bike over for a shot in front of the Main Arch a bit challenging. But, we did it and got a great shot of us and the bike. Where else could you ever get this close to something so historical?
We wandered around for a few hours, exploring the site and shooting, mostly close-ups of well-worn frescoes, and both Arabic and Aramaic script detailing the name of the person whose statue had once graced the column on which the inscription was carved.
It was a perfect morning.
Our next stop: Visiting a local Bedouin family, nomadic desert dwellers who had lived in both Petra and around Syria and Jordan's deserts for thousands of years, in a nearby tented area. Details to follow...
I so appreciate all the positive feedback from you all. I have really enjoyed the experience of writing in more detail as we travel this time and am very happy to hear you are enjoying traveling with me!
I'll start where I last left off...
I had read that it was possible for people to arrange to meet the Bedouins, nomadic desert dwellers who had lived in both Petra and around Syria and Jordan's deserts for thousands of years. So, when we arrived in Aleppo, my DH asked the hotel desk clerk if he could arrange such a visit for us. We were in luck - he was off the next day and offered to accompany us to translate. Yeah!
We headed out at 11 a.m., bound for an encampment 20 KMs away. We arrived shortly before lunch time to find several tents, made of items like wool, goat's hair and old food sacks, carefully stitched together to create both living and working spaces. The tents, spaced out from each other, were blowing gently in the breeze. Animals, including sheep, goats, a couple donkeys and three dogs, dotted the area.
As we made our way to one family's tent, we could see one of the women working on making something in front of the tent. It appeared to be milk of some sort and we soon learned it was from their goats and was being separated, with one portion going to make butter and the other for making yoghurt in the nearby plastic barrels. It was a fantastic look into everyday life for the women who do all the domestic work: preparing food and cooking, cleaning, tending to the many kids, etc. Sound familiar? LOL
We were invited into the tent of a family consisting of a man and wife and their five children - five boys and one daughter. Everyone else soon joined us. The family was headed by the grandfather. There was also a grandmother, but she did not participate in our visit and it appeared that she and the grandfather had "separated" at some point. I wasn't sure it was appropriate to ask, so I didn't.
Each son was married and had at least 3 children. When we asked the grandfather how many grandchildren he had he replied he was not sure, having lost count some time ago, but he thought at least 14! His face lit up as he related this.
My DH and I sat with the group of men, while the women sat in a circle just behind the men, with many of the kids. It was a bit awkward for me to sit in this "male" group as it is customary that the men and women sit and interact separately, but I was made to feel very welcome, being offered a set of very nice woven cushions to park myself upon. I glanced over at the women and smiled - they returned the gesture, seeming very comfortable with the arrangement.
We had brought along our portable Canon printer so we could give them pictures of their families and of our visit. While DH set it up and started shooting pictures, I started the conversation, using our Arabic speaking guide as interpreter.
We had so many questions and they were so happy to share answers to whatever we asked, sometimes to my surprise! They were also very interested in us and our lives and riddled us with just as many inquiries.
Here are just a few of the exchanges:
Me: How long have you lived here, and how long do you stay in one place before moving on?
Grandfather: We have been here for only one month. We will stay 10 months to one year, unless the resources are poor, in which case we will move on.
Me: How long does it take to set up a tent this size (approx. 35'x20' in size)?
Grandfather: Usually less than an hour (this includes digging holes into hard desert ground for the stakes and center poles). And, if the men area really strong, perhaps only half an hour.
Me: Wow, it takes us longer than that to set up our American camping tent, and it's much smaller and easier to set up.
Grandfather and Others: Laughter!
Me: Do you celebrate anniversaries or birthdays?
Grandfather/Son 2: No, we do not know when they are (they do not use a calendar...refreshing way to live, huh?!).
Me: How many children do families usually have?
Son 1: That depends. There are many children. (Laughter and smiles from all the adults.) (I also learned that it depends on how much happens at night as the women work all day - night time is for them to procreate!) (Much laughter from the women after telling me this!)
Me: What do you eat for each meal?
Son 2: For breakfast we eat homemade bread, butter, yoghurt, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Grandfather: Are you hungry, would you like some breakfast?
Me: No thank you, but my husband might. (I have a very restricted diet and sensitive stomach and have to be very careful about what I eat - bummer!)
DH: Sure, I'd love to try some things!
Me: Are your marriages arranged or do you select your spouses?
Grandfather: Usually we choose our mates, but if a person has not found someone by the age of 30, we select someone for them. Did you select your husband, or was he picked for you?
Me: I was married before and it was not happy. I was single for 10 years and then found this wonderful man (gesturing about my feelings for my DH by touching his shoulders and smiling affectionately).
(The women thought this was great and they all nodded their approval, seeming quite happy that I had made my own choice!)
The wife of the son whose tent we were in soon brought out a large cloth which she opened and laid out on the open ground in the center of everyone. It contained large flatbread made earlier by her. She spread them out in all directions and left. She returned quickly with a silver tray filled with delicious looking foods: Large, red tomatoes; small, firm cucumbers; freshly churned butter; freshly made yoghurt; and a dish that we never did identify, but that looked similar to Mexican Ortega chilies. DH dug in and enjoyed every bite! Again, I was bummed to miss out!
I was then invited by one of the women to visit her tent. She appeared to be very interested in my seeing it. As I rounded the corner of the opening, attempting to communicate with her any way I could, she proudly pointed to some beautiful needlework hanging on the walls. This was her handiwork and she shared, through gestures, how she completed the work. I nodded and smiled, trying desperately to show her how beautiful I thought it was. I asked (again, by hand gestures) if I could take a picture of her in front of it and she gladly obliged.
Her husband then asked me to take another photo of him - he assumed his best "I'm so suave and debonair," pose, holding his head stiffly as the smoke from his cigarette circled his body. He was quite a macho guy - poor wife!
We then headed back toward the main tent as I shot pictures of several of their animals, per their requests. They were very proud of their home and livestock and I did what I could to let them know how special it was that they had allowed us to visit.
When I returned to the tent, there was a sleeping baby lying next to the pillows I had previously used. He looked so peaceful and when I reached down to touch his soft little hands, his mother (wife of son #2) quickly, and proudly, acknowledged that he was her son. This woman, sporting a large gold crown on one of her front teeth, with hair covered and a radiant smile, had the most wonderful spirit. She was quite beautiful, not in our standard sense of defining the word, but in her ability to light up the room with her smile and her great sense of humor. I was so glad to have made contact with her and shared pictures of my kids with her - she smiled, put her fingers to her lips and indicated to me that she thought they were beautiful. We shared a few more smiles and she "joked" about her next oldest son trying to steal the bottle from the now wakened and eating baby. It seemed there was only one bottle and they had to share it. I felt so conflicted: sad that they had so little, and happy to see that their way worked so well for them - they were so happy.
The kids were simply amazing, holding such spiritual beauty in their eyes. Some were quite shy, but most gladly shook hands and exchanged smiles with us. All were thrilled to see their pictures coming to life and they proudly showed them off to their "cousins" and the parents.
We sipped tea (shai), shared stories and information requested and printed the photos that were being taken throughout our visit.
After more than two hours, we had to leave to check out of our hotel. The families seemed very sorry to see us depart and invited us to spend the night with them so we could visit more. We politely declined, knowing we had a very long ride to Aleppo, across the hot desert, ahead of us. Their generosity was amazing.
We said our goodbyes, with my taking the hand of each of the women and girls and thanking them in Arabic - Shukran! They seemed elated at the effort.
Off we went...
As we headed through the very hot desert, passing through small villages made up of mud brick houses, we encountered so many warm welcomes and waves. The road, which had been very well maintained up to now, became an obstacle course of pot holes and washouts from flooding that occurs during the rare instances of hard rain. My amazing DH managed to run the gauntlet with us, bike and gear in tact...remarkable!
Several hours of hot, desert sun later, we arrived in Allepo, tired and ready to check into a traditional Arab style house that had been turned into a hotel - think "A Thousand And One Nights!"