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Back in the Belly of the Beast—رجوع إلى بطن السوء

July 10th, 2009

I’ll continue with the travel narrative in a bit, but here’s something a bit more recent

Well, after a hellish day of traveling, I’m back in the US of A.  It was something of an unhappy arrival.  I had a short scheduled layover in JFK  airport in New York before proceeding to my new home of Washington DC.  Unfortunately, neither the fates nor the Department of Homeland Security were with me.  First, I got stuck behind an American dude with his new Spanish wife and kids and their dachshund (which had previously managed to escape during landing).  That required some amount of paperwork, including the immigration official checking through the Spanish woman’s secret envelop (she was obliged to carry it with her, but was not able to see it before the immigration officer did).  When it came my turn, the fellow was courteous enough, asking me the usual questions about what I was doing in the Middle East, etc.  He assured me, “don’t get me wrong, I’ve visited Egypt.  I like Egypt.”  “I don’t,” I replied, while trying not to be too impolite.  He did, however, find it quite strange that I would chose to take a trip to Sudan for tourism.  “It was winter and we wanted to go somewhere warmer,” I said.  “I’ve been to to Cairo in winter and it’s not that cold.”  “We’re from California,” I clarified.  “‘Nuff said!”

He then escorted me back to another room, saying to one of his colleagues, a Mr. ‘Abd al-Aziz, “I know you’re gonna hate me, but I got a CTR109 [or some such nonsense code] for you.”  “You’re right.  I do,” came the response.  My name had popped up on the monitor and I was getting some special treatment.  Me, a young Egyptian kid with an unfortunate name, a guy with a bit of a zabiba and a skullcap, an Egyptian family and a very tall New York Jew working between Cairo and Chicago, sporting a shaved head that nevertheless failed to disguise previous decades of Orthodox grooming.  Depending on what you consider the latter, I was the only white person in the room, and the second to last to get questioned.  Before it was actually my turn to go through the process, Mr. ‘Abd al-Aziz made a bit of small talk about Syphilis (that’s our cat), asking what kind of cat she was.  I responded that she was a tortoise-shell.  His answer was that he had some special breed at some point (I forgot what it was), but he had to get rid of it because it was “too emotional.”

After the poor kid who shared a name with an equally unfortunate Arab was waved off by ‘Abd al-Aziz, annoyed that he was obliged to bother this kid and have him open his bags, and after the New York Jew was advised to write to his Congressperson to complain that he is stopped and processed like this every time he goes back between Cairo and the US (writing the head of the DHS just won’t be going high enough, they assured him), I was then once again asked a number of routine and, considering the situation, not particularly invasive questions about what I had been doing in the Middle East, none of which would have been news to anyone reading this blog.  About two-thirds of the time was spent not answering questions, but waiting while Mr. ‘Abd al-Aziz typed who-knows-what into the terminal.

Next, I had to proceed through customs, where I spent about 15 minutes waiting for someone to show up.  The Customs official on duty was tied up dealing with the 20 cartons of Marlboros getting smuggled in by an Egyptian dude.  The person that finally came again asked me a number of questions, most of which I had just answered with the previous two guys.  Again, most of the time was spent waiting for the Customs official to type whatever it was he was typing.  I should have just told them to save themselves the trouble.  I’ve already done plenty of typing, they could just cut and paste from this blog.

Of course, by this point, I had missed my connection, so I was obliged to wait around for four hours for the next flight.  Contrary to the Egyptian handlers who were more than happy to take my baksheesh in exchange for slinging my cat into the X-ray machine, the woman at JFK prit-near had a conniption when I slid Syphilis in her cat-carrier toward the X-ray machine with every intention of removing her before reaching the machine.  I walked to the gate, where I was immediately assaulted by the sound of CNN turned up to 11.  What’s more, aside from a couple minutes here about the police shooting of a serial killer and 15 seconds there about Honduran President Zalaya in the US, CNN spent every other moment “covering” the Michael Jackson memorial—”coverage” which largely consisted of footage of black cars driving around backed by repetitive interviews with people who had nothing interesting to say about Michael Jackson or anything else.  I tried for a few hours to sleep through this ridiculousness with old Bruce Springsteen blasting in my ears to drown out CNN.  Eventually, I realized there was a bar upstairs, so I proceeded to medicate myself with a Sam Adams cherry wheat beer.  The cherry flavor was over the top.  I felt like I was eating a McDonald’s cherry turnover with a beer chaser.  Welcome to America.

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Northern Jordan–شمال الأردن

July 2nd, 2009
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The following day, we planned to go somewhat early to the Dibeen Reserve, one of the less-developed of RSCN’s nature sanctuaries, hoping to avoid the fees associated with the parks that have more facilities for visitors.  I asked the hotel owner where we could get some foul, a question which prompted him to lead me once again by the arm to the window, whereupon he gesticulated wildly in a manner that almost seemed to be a formal sign language in order to try to communicate to me where it was.  A few Arabic words were thrown in for good measure, though they made little sense without a full understanding of the sign language.  Nevertheless, I felt like I had a reasonable idea of what he was trying to communicate and we headed off in search of breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

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Chariots Afire—عربات مشتعل

June 29th, 2009

Getting out of Damascus ended up being rather more complicated than we had expected.  The staff at our hotel had given us rather specific times—five of them, in fact—at which busses leave from the Sulmariya station on the outskirts of town to Amman.  We were aiming to catch the 3pm bus and arrived at the station after having ridden the 12km through Damascus and its suburbs at about 2:15.  We were beckoned by one fellow to the window of a particular company to get tickets.  I was a bit dubious, being under the impression that there were competing companies with service to Amman, but it turned out that this company actually had no spaces left, it was leaving at 2:30, it was the only bus of the day, and this was the only company offering service to Amman.  I called to hotel to verify the information and make sure that there wasn’t something that I was missing.  Maybe there were departures from another station, or another company whose window was not yet open.  The woman at reception simply insisted that there were five departures per day from the company which had just told me there was only one and seemed unwilling to accept that her information might need to be updated. Read the rest of this entry »

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A war, in three dimensions—الحرب في ثلاثة أبعاد

June 26th, 2009

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I decided to visit the Tishreen War Panorama in the morning of the day we were to leave Damascus. Tishreen Al-’Awal is the Levantine name for the month of October, so this was a monument to the war begun on the 6th of October, 1973, commonly called the Yom Kippur War in countries allied with Israel. As in Egypt, which fought the war alongside Syria against Israel, where there are numerous roads, places and institutions named “6th October” or “10th Ramadan” (the date in the Islamic calendar), or simply “October”, Syria has done the same with “Tishreen”. One of the state newspapers, for instance, is called “Tishreen”. Unlike with al-Naksa (variously translated as “the setback” or “the debacle”) of 1967, the October War is cast as a monumental victory for Egypt and Syria, not so much due to actual territorial gains made (somewhat slight for Syria and in the negative for Egypt), but by challenging Israel’s claim to military invincibility. The same could be said of South Lebanon in 2006. With all the death and destruction on the Lebanese side, it is hard to conceive of it as anything but an ideological victory for Hizbullah, rupturing Israel’s perceived absolute military superiority while highlighting the senseless brutality of “the usurping entity” (a phrase I put in quotes only for an English-speaking audience, as it is commonplace and self-evident in the Arabic-speaking world). It is in the same way that Syria chose to pick the “recovery” of the town of Quneitra from Israel as the centerpiece of its propaganda. Quneitra is a town in the Golan Heights that Israel had occupied during “the setback”, and from which it withdrew after the ceasefire of 1973, in the process evacuating some 37,000 Arabs and dismantling every bit and piece of infrastructure that could have been used by Syrians or profited from by the Israeli contractors to whom it was sold.

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R&R in Damascus—الإستراحة والإرتياح في الشام

June 26th, 2009
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Our day in Damascus was slow, easy and relaxing. We wandered again around the old city, visiting the palace of As`ad Pasha al-Azem, the 18th century governor of Damascus. It was bigger and more elabrate architecturally than its smaller cousin that I wrote about in Hama, but the latter had been more carefully restored and, on a purely aesthetic level, found it more impressive. This Azem Palace in Damascus was more like a museum, with the focus being on the objects filling the rooms, and less on the rooms themselves. The cheezy dioramas were still there, and there were a great many artifacts that had been left in the old house or recovered from elsewhere. There were copious signs detailing the historical context of this period of the Ottoman Empire, although there was only passing mention of the diversion of resources (including the cutting off of Damascus’s public water supply) that was necessary to build this magnificent palace. What mention there was of such matters was left unexamined, while other signs made note of all the luxurious appointments built into the palace, such a retreat and respite being a virtual necessity for a man holding such grave daily responsibility as the Pasha. What a bunch of hogwash.

Perhaps the reader is thinking, “and what about you, o intrepid traveler? What has been so taxing about three weeks of vacation (and two more to go), wandering about the countryside of Syria, treated as a guest of honor wherever you go, that you should be in need of such ‘rest and relaxation’ in Damascus?” Touché, dear reader, touché. And it is not without a twinge of guilt that I announce that I’ll be giving up on the part of this trip that has been genuinely challenging: the cycling. Between my bum knee and Elaina’s “delicate constitution”, as she puts it (with a touch of irony, I presume), cycling through the much less hospitable (in terms of the terrain and the elements) territory of Jordan seems like stubborn folly. Instead, we’ll be doing the unthinkable: renting a car. It’s a little more than we’d like to spend, but will allow us to visit the sort of out-of-the-way places we might have hoped to have seen by bike, and is certainly cheaper than a knee operation.

With that in mind, the only obligation we spent the day attending to was figuring out how to get ourselves to Amman via bus (it was not possible to rent a one-way car to al-Aqaba from Damascus). The rest of the day was spent wandering, resting, relaxing and generally vacationing, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Try not to let your jealousy get to you.

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From the cloister to the metropolis—من الدير إلى العاصمة

June 25th, 2009
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I woke up good and early—around 4am—to head out toward Damascus.  Luckily, my alarm wasn’t too loud, and I woke up quickly, so it didn’t seem to wake anyone else up.  I got up and moved my knee around a bit and hoped that the lack of pain would continue through the day.  I packed up the few things I had left out to dry (soap & towel) and headed out, applying some more massage cream and popping a couple ibuprofin on the way.  Things were feeling OK for the first few steps, but then the pain quickly returned, and descending those 340 steps (not counting the ones from the dorms) was a bit of torture, and took about 20 minutes.  

Elevation Profile
June 19th Read the rest of this entry »

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Asceticism—الزهد

June 25th, 2009
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As I look back upon the ride to the monastary of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, I have to ask myself if I wasn’t engaging in a bit of self-flagellation.  It was certainly painful, if it didn’t exactly bring me closer to God.  It started out well enough.  I got up good and early and had to awaken the hotel manager to let me out the metal cage.  I got on the road at about 4:45am, taking the main road out of Homs.  I ended up on the highway for a bit, but exited and pulled a bit of a sketchy maneuver, turning around and going against traffic (I thought it was a two-way road).  Soon enough, however, my intended road appeared parellel to the ramp I was on, and I rode this frontage road the remainder of the way to an-Nebek.  In most places, it was simply the old Homs-Damascus highway, and it crossed back and forth across the highway every so often, almost always at surface level, with no under- or overpass.  There were a number of stretches where it was right next to the highway, which gave me the peace of mind of not having to worry about being run over, while I still had to deal with the consistent engine noise.  For the most part, however, the road was a good distance from the highway, and, as was the case the day before, was largely used only by the occassional motorcyclist or over-laden produce truck.  I’m not sure why, but I got a particular kick out of one stretch of the road that went through the middle of a wide valley, with the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway on either side of the valley.

Elevation Profile
June 18th Read the rest of this entry »

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Homs with Tahini—حمص مع طحينة

June 25th, 2009

Just after finishing that last post and heading out the door of the internet cafe, a torrential downpour struck Homs, quite unexpectedly.  The streets flooded, the traffic cop across the way retreated into his little capsule and, amazingly, I didn’t see any wrecks (amazing because of the very slick roads from an unexpected rain storm, not because of the lack of intervention of the traffic cop, who mostly just seemed to scold drivers for not yielding to pedestrians anyway).  Figuring the rain would clear out fairly quickly, I waited out the storm underneath an awning, casting the occasional sympathetic look towards miserable-looking cyclists (who inevitably disobeyed the traffic light, though I’m not sure if it was in haste or out of habit) and guys on mo-peds, which seem to be quite popular here.  After the winds changed direction, the terperature cooled, the thunder subsided and the rain cleared, I waited a bit longer for the water on the road to clear.  Since my experience in Cairo riding only a couple kilometers in a simarly unusual rain storm, I was keen to avoid getting filthy in the same way.  Another 20 minutes later, there were still puddles around, but it had mostly dried up, so I made my way slowly to the main strip and the cheap hotels. Read the rest of this entry »

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A short trip—مشوار قصير

June 17th, 2009

After several days in Hama hoping for Elaina to recover from her mysterious illness (which at this stage has been diagnosed as a kidney infection resulting from heat exhaustion), I’ve taken off on my own.  Elaina seems to be on the mend (yet still not ready to ride), and with enough experience in Syria under her drawstring to make do without me.  She’ll stay in Hama for another night before heading off to Damascus by bus (they use the word “pullman” here).  It’ll take me a couple days to get there.  I’m writing from Homs, the next big place with a hotel south of Hama, having ridden a mere 55km with few substantial hills to speak of.

Elevation Profile
June 17th Read the rest of this entry »

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Wrong turns & chance encounters—لفات غلطة ومصادفات

June 14th, 2009

We dawdled a bit on the way out of Lattakia—getting up late, having a leisurely breakfast—mostly because we thought we’d have to take care of some bureaucracy to extend our visas, which meant we would want to leave after the worst of the mid-day heat had passed anyway.  It turned out however, that we could wait an entire month before we had to renew our visas, despite what the entrance stamp and other sources said.  We might have waited for another day, but our guide books indicated that our next destination of Qal`at Salah ed-Din was closed the next day.  So, we made a stop for coffee and then headed up the hill to the castle at around noon.

Elevation Profile
June 8th

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Intermodal—وصائل النقل المتعددة

June 7th, 2009
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The last several days have involved travel via a number of different modes of transportation.  As I noted in my last post, the folks at the Jisr ash-Shughur train station were kind enough to store our bikes for us so that we could ride the train to Damascus to meet up with Adrienne.  It was a bit strange to cover the distance we had taken three days to ride (admittedly with some significant scenic detours) in just a few hours.  We arrived in Damascus early in the morning the next day, after an uncomfortable night’s sleep on the train.  Still, we were in better shape than Adrienne, who had apparently required a little assistance getting to sleep the previous night and was still a bit groggy.  Early as it was, we had some difficulty finding some food, so we sat for a bit in a little park, where, just before we got up to leave, the sort of wingnut I’ve rarely encountered outside of Santa Cruz approached us and seemed very much to want to “help” us.  He was full of all sorts of praise for the European stock from which he had decided we all came.  Despite the fact that some poor Texan was waiting for him, and despite the fact the we clearly weren’t interested in his “help,” he carried on and decided we really needed to know what our names looked like in bad, blocky Arabic and Armenian calligraphy.  We eventually extricated ourselves from this self-professed philologist and headed to Mayssun’s house. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Kindness of Strangers—لطف الغرباء

June 6th, 2009

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If ever there were a place that deserved to have this as their motto, Syria would be it. In the three days Elaina and I spent bike touring between Aleppo and Jisr ash-Shughur, we were constantly offered to share tea, eat food and stay the night. Even at grocery stores, we found it difficult, if not impossible, to exchange money for food or drinks. The country has so far lived up to its reputation for incredible hospitality, and that in spades. While this almost overwhelming hospitality, in combination with some pretty significant mid-day heat, has slowed down our forward progress, we have been able to travel in comfort, with most of our needs in terms of food, water, hygiene and rest generously taken care of for us.

Elevation Profile
May31 Read the rest of this entry »

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Feeling old in Aleppo—شعور بإني عجوز في حلب

May 31st, 2009

The grand plan to cycle around Syria and Jordan started to become a reality for me as we flew over the Syrian coast and the Orontes River valley. For several days I had engaged in that peculiarly modern form of global tourism, pouring over images of the northern Syrian landscape on Google Earth and Wikimapia, judging between road quality (not so large as to be an unpleasant highway nor so small as to possibly be a restricted or private road), terrain (not so steep as to be too difficult on my fixed-gear, nor so flat that we would have to suffer in the higher heat and humidity of the lowlands) and occasionally what the guide books had to say. Looking out the airplane window, as we crossed over the coastal mountains of Syria from the Mediterranean, the constellation of roads and towns and villages started to look familiar and I felt myself moving one step closer to the world below, trading in the digital eye of Google Earth for a slightly older technology that lofted my own eyes high above the earth. The challenge ahead would be to forget what Google Earth and Lonely Planet had told me about Syria, to forget what my view from the airplane window had told me, to forget all of the advice I’d been given and stories I’d been told about the place. And by “forget”, I don’t mean simply to fail to remember, but to remain cognizant and aware of all the conceived and pre-conceived notions that would shape my experience here, and to put them aside as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

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Links for April 6th through April 7th

April 7th, 2009

These are my links for April 6th through April 7th:

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Links for April 3rd through April 5th

April 5th, 2009

These are my links for April 3rd through April 5th:

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