Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lessons in Jerusalem: Preparing for Exodus

Today was our last day of Jerusalem, and of Spring Break. Itinerary? To climb the Mount of Olives, see the Garden of Gethsemane, and visit the Church of Nations. According to the Book of Zecharia, the Mount of Olives is the place where Jesus will resurrect the dead. The mount was more like an oversized hill, but we had a great time wending our way up through lush olive, spruce, pine and Cyprus trees, and admiring the Dome of the Rock from afar. After the garden (where Jesus prayed after the Last Supper), we went to the Church of Nations. This church is probably my favorite in the Middle East thus far. The ceiling is supported by rose-colored Corinthian columns, the ceiling breaking into mini domes between the columns, almost like a dozen brilliant blue bubbles rose up and pushed the ceiling outward before popping. The stars windmilling out from the center of each mini-dome, the olive branches spidering from each corner, and the earthy tones of the columns give the impression one is standing in a bower of trees rather than a church.

The last thing most of us wanted to see was the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in the New City. No sooner had we gotten to the neighborhood than we were confronted by a large sign saying something like, “Women, we beg you with all our hearts to respect our traditions and dress modestly. Please, no short sleeves, no tight clothing, and no trousers.” Well crap. We were all wearing pants, so we abided by their wishes and quickly walked out. We made a loop back to a café and spent a pleasant afternoon reading and doing homework (hard to believe, but necessary).

Towards the end of the afternoon I decided I still really wanted Thai food, so I sucked up my pride (which was not hard; I repeat, I still really wanted Thai food), and went across the street to get some Phad Thai. Ainsley was in the mood for something super healthy, so we went to a vegetarian restaurant for her, and I discovered they had…gluten free carrot cake!?! Incredible! I bought two small loaves for the long bus ride home the next day, and we headed back to the hostel.
I was excited about our plans for the last evening in Jerusalem. We had heard earlier in the day that this night was when the new Israeli army recruits would be inducted at the Western Wall. Wait. Hundreds and hundreds of young, cute Israeli men in uniform? Oh yes. This was definitely a cultural experience we would be ashamed to miss. Tim and Brian were also intrigued by the huge military event, although they were probably focusing on some different aspects… When we got there, we started out observing the ceremony from a balcony far away from the stage, but Ainsley wanted to get closer and um, experience the energy of the crowd. We shimmied our way through the masses, trying to find some Israeli soldiers who might want to take pictures with a few Americans. Ainsley was hesitant, though.

Me: Ainsley, our mission is to take pictures with cute men in uniform. We’re at an Israeli military ceremony; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Ainsley: Hmmm...ok.

She soon realized her roommate would be insanely jealous if she came back with proof of her escapade, so we soon found a few good men who were quite obliging and posed with us for pictures. With a few quick shots we were done, and bounded back up the stairs and to Tim and Brian, who were confused why we both seemed so giddy. We spend a quiet evening back at the hostel before our early departure back home to Cairo. Hopefully we’ll get back to Cairo relatively easily. It’s been one crazy adventure, but I’m ready to head back to home base in the morning.

Lessons in Jerusalem: Peace and Conflict Studies

Since we were in Jerusalem and Palestine was literally a 20 minute busride away, we decided we should make some short day trips. It’s really quite easy and common for tourists to go to Ramallah and Bethlehem, both of which we did. Bethlehem looks like a slightly cleaner, heavily-commercialized version of many other Middle East cities. The only thing we did there was go to the Nativity Church, which was built on the site where Mary gave birth. The church was beautiful, but we didn’t stay very long. After that we headed north again to Jerusalem, and then north again to Ramallah. Ramallah is considered the hip, urban center of Palestine. I don’t say that to be facetious. Travelers expecting Palestine to be a land solely of tents and sporadic infrastructure are going to be quite surprised. We went to a café called Stars and Bucks for lunch, which had a much more extensive menu than its American counterpart. After that Nur-E and Camille wanted to take a tour of Parliament. They had heard visitors could simply walk in and ask to be shown around, so we headed off in search of the building. Initially everyone we asked either seemed to be offended or didn’t know what we were talking about, but eventually we found the way.

The Parliament building is bright and clean, and amazingly there is no security. Parliament has not been active ever since Hamas took over rule in the Gaza Strip, but the government in the West Bank maintains a sort of watchdog authority, regulating the areas they can and communicating with the press. We were shown to the office of a man whose children actually go to AUC, and who was head of the Communications Department. He was incredibly nice and took an hour or so to sit down with us and explain Parliament, as well as the politics of the Security Fence, Palestinian economic problems, the various travel restrictions he faces, etc. It was all incredibly interesting. Afterwards he pointed us in the direction of a refugee camp, which we’d wanted to go see. We walked through the area, which just looked like a lot of run-down apartment buildings. We could have just been in a nicer part, but like most of the Middle East, it was not at all what I was expecting.

After we got back to Jerusalem, Kathleen, Ainsley and I went to the market (and bought cottage cheese!) then sauntered off to the Garden Tomb, which is one of the two places religious historians believe Jesus could have been entombed. The garden is really lovely, and it was so peaceful to wander through the quiet, leafy sanctuary in the middle of the city. When we were done with the garden tomb, Kathleen and I went shopping in the Jewish Quarter, and I FINALLY succeeded in finding a gift for my Dad, which was not an easy feat.

For dinner we really wanted to head back to the Thai restaurant that had closed early the day before. We got there early, but as soon as we walked through the door the man behind the counter started yelling that they were closed. He was very angry, and was yelling at us to leave without any explanation. This was not ok. I had been looking forward to actual Thai food for that whole day. I was famished, tired, and this rude man was standing in the way between me and the solution to my problem. All my small travel anxieties and frustrations came boiling to the surface, and I just started screaming back at him. Brian and I had made bets before the trip on who would be the first to legitimately lose it, and I am not proud to say it was me, but I’ll own up to the fact. We discovered at the next restaurant that the reason for an early closure was that it was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the government mandated restaurants close. We didn’t understand why our hostel would not warn us about Jewish national holidays and such, but we managed to find a burger joint and some pudding, and I felt better. Aside from mean Thai restaurant owners and sporadic early closures, I must admit Jerusalem is pretty cool.

Lessons in Jerusalem: Intro to World Religions

Today was our first day in Jerusalem. We woke up feeling considerably cleaner and better rested. Israel is much more expensive than the rest of the Middle East, so staying in a cheap hostel meant sharing one big room with 12 people, but everyone is considerate and we slept well. Most of the people here are students, but some of the hostel residents are much older. These older guests are quite a cast of characters. They have all come to Jerusalem to study religion in some form or another. They want to stay in the Old City, but because it’s incredibly difficult to get an apartment here, (families keep them for generations) they are staying in the hostel. My three favorite long-term guests are a gangly blonde German w/glasses (we’ll call him Heimlich), a mumbling, overweight man with an accent I can’t place who smells perpetually of cheap wine (we’ll call him Tipsy McHoodwinked), and a wandering Russian Jew who has lived in 40+ hostels in Jerusalem since 1994 (his alias shall be simply The Pilgrim). All three of these people are very nice, although Heimlich likes to talk about how much people’s souls are glowing, and this morning we decided he has a huge crush on the woman who works here. I noticed they were flirting over breakfast when I walked in the room. I also noticed the room smelled…pungent. ‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘The smell of romance is in the air.’ Alas, I realized after a moment it was simply the canned sardines The Pilgrim is addicted to. Lovely.

After leaving our host of characters, Ainsley and I set out for a three-hour tour of the Old City. We are staying in the Muslim Quarter (the largest); the other three are Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. Our tour guide was great, and she took us through the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and to all the famous sites in each quarter. It sounds silly, but I hadn’t realized that Jerusalem was so important to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. We saw tour groups from China, India, England, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the US.

After the tour Ainsley and I went back to inspect the sites more closely and to shop. We then met up with Nur-E and Camille, Brian, Tim, and Kathleen (who had come to Jerusalem alone), and we headed out for a dinner of bagels in the New City. (I had salad with bagel toppings.) The New City is completely different from where we were staying. The new part looks like Europe, and has anything Western you could want. We were initially jarred by how Western everything was. Three signs we were definitely not in Kansas anymore: The streets were almost blinding, they were so clean; we could order our lattes with soymilk; when we went to use the bathroom, we found the stalls not adorned with Quranic verse, but rather phone numbers for women’s groups and rape crisis centers. We had a great day taking it all in, and the bagel-topping salad and the soy latte were an excellent way to end the day. When we were done with our coffee we headed back and easily fell asleep, lulled into slumber by Tipsy’s resounding snores.

Monday, May 19, 2008

One day, two borders, three countries

Today was our second day of extreme travel during vacation (the first being the day we set out). We left the hostel around 2:30 AM. After making it to the bus station and finding our bus, the adrenaline/tequila started to wear off. We had left four of our comrades behind and our troop seemed too small, like we weren't equipped to take on the next great adventure. Soon enough sleep took over, though, and we dozed for a few hours before stopping in Damascus. From there we were going to catch a taxi through southern Syria, across the border and all the way to Amman. After catching the wrong minibus and being misdirected a few times, we finally found a very nice cab driver who agreed to take us. We made small talk and he kindly offered us gum and cigarettes. Just before the Syrian border he got out a purchased two huge, Costco-size packs of cigarettes at the Duty Free Store. He gestured to each of us, holding out two packs. "Oh, no thank you." "Eh, no!" He gestured again, and we realized he wanted us to hold the packs in our luggage and help him get them across. Oh, ok. Big grins spread across our faces. That's fine, we can become willing co-conspirators in a Syrian cigarette smuggling operation.

We made it across the Syrian border without a hitch. Crossing out of Syria is considerably easier than getting in. Our journey through Jordan was reasonably uneventful...and then we arrived at the Israeli border. Once we'd gotten through the Jordanian exit and then taken another bus, we arrived in a very sparse, very clean Israeli border waiting room. Aside from being shocked by the cleanliness and the glorious state of the bathrooms, we were also amazed to see that every guard there looked younger than us. Israelis have to all give two years of military service before college, so the border was being run by 19 and 20-year olds. Every time an especially cute foreigner would come through, all the girls would gather together and giggle. It was like being in high school again, but everyone was wearing fatigues and occasionally carrying an uzi.

We weren't going anywhere fast, so I took a nap. When I woke up, it was time for us to go through. The whole border crossing took about four hours, but we were relieved just to be in Israel. After exiting the border we caught another bus and cruised through the hills into the epicenter of religious clashes; a site of prayer, world pilgrimages and century-old land disputes: Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was definitely not what I was expecting. It was green and cool, and everything outside the Old City is incredibly modern. We were staying in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, which is fenced in by a huge stone wall. We traipsed along the wall and up a hill, through a gate, winding our way through cobblestone streets, and finally stumbling into our hostel (while carrying considerable baggage). After finding an ATM and searching forever for an open restaurant, we finally discovered someplace open. Why is it that when you're hungriest/thirstiest/have to pee, you can never find a restaurant/drinking fountain/bathroom? Dinner tasted amazing after a day of chips, dried figs, falafel, and oranges, and finally satisfied we went to bed.

The end of eight

Today was the last day we would all be together before we split into two groups, one bound for Turkey and the other for Israel. The day started at a reasonable hour. We caught a van to the ruins of St. Simeone Basilica, which is about 45 minutes outside of Aleppo. The basilica is on a hill overlooking a wide valley. In any direction you look, you're met with trees, grass, and poppy spatter-painted fields. Huge, graceful stone archways still carve over the grass, and we spent a peaceful hour exploring all the nooks and crannies of the ruins and gazing out at the scenery. Brian did not do much gazing. He of course was busy scrambling over every rock and tower, looking for new ways to tempt fate. Thankfully he and everyone else arrived safely back at the van and we drove back to Aleppo.

In the afternoon a group of us wanted to go back to the Armenian Church, but it was closed. Alison and I meandered back to the souk, but we both soon decided we would just rather take naps, so we returned to the hostel and passed out. We were awoken a few hours later by Dan and Andy, who barged into our room wearing police hats. To their glee they had discovered the army supply shop, and apparently the store owner had no qualms about selling uniform pieces as souvenirs. They insisted that we cease referring to them by their given names and that they be henceforth known only as 'immigration' and 'customs.' Brian went along for the ride and dubbed himself the Syrian D.A.R.E. officer. The boys had to take the hats off for dinner, but quickly put them back on when we headed back to our rooms for some final merrymaking before the Jew Crew had to head off to catch the bus. We had originally allocated two days for travel from Aleppo to Jerusalem, but had decided spur of the moment to leave at 3:00 in the morning and consolidate all of our travel into one day. We made the most of our last few hours as a group of eight, playing cards, watching MTV and finishing the last of our Duty Free Store purchases. Sadly, soon it was time to go, and Ainsley, Brian, Tim and I gathered our things and set out into the night for the bus station. Hopefully we'll get to the border before it closes today.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Two days in Aleppo: a break in the action

The last two days in Aleppo have not been incredibly jam-packed, which is a good thing. The first day's morning was spent juice bar hopping and surfing the internet. In the afternoon, Ainsley, Dan, Ariel and I wandered around the Christian Quarter. We probably walked up and down one street seven times, but eventually were able to navigate the ancient labyrinth and go explore one of the old houses that's open to the public, as well as see the Armenian Church. The house was gorgeous. Part of it is now used as a hotel, although clearly one outside our price range. I've decided that my future house should probably come with a courtyard, though.

The Armenian Church was unexpectedly ornate. It was jarring to see so many pictures and paintings of Jesus. We've been visiting a lot of mosques (amazing, really...) and Islam bans the display of icons (aka pictures of people or things). We were given the 411 on Armenian Orthodoxy by a dour-faced Armenian with permanently furrowed eyebrows who'd been studying theology since he was 12, and who made the revolutionary pronouncement that Armenian Orthodoxy was the purest way to interpret the Bible. While we were contemplating converting, I noticed that one of the portraits bore a striking resemblance to my 8th grade chemistry teacher. I was about to remark on this fact to the Armenian...but I did not think it would go over well. After the church we were to a cafe and drank real cappuccinos, which were delicious.

After the cafe we met up at the hotel for dinner. We were going to meet up with Dorea and another friend of hers, Syndi. Syndi is from Texas and is married to a Syrian, but they currently live in Yemen. She was visiting and kind enough to have us over for dinner. Her husband Aziz, a very large but friendly-looking man, picked us and Dorea up and first took us to a music store. We were told the store had the best music from all over the world. Aside from some really cool Middle East and Central American folk music, they also had some little-known American greats, such as Michael Bolton, Hilary Duff and Beyonce. Our group purchased the non-American things.

After the shop we headed to Syndi and Aziz's house. Syndi was not quite what I was expecting. She is short, wears glasses, pulls her hair back in a scrunchie and wears big, flowy dresses she's collected from all over the world. She loves Syria, but has more of a love-hate relationship with Texas. She and her six brothers and sisters were raised by a leftist-activist single mother in a small, very Republican town. They did not mesh well with the local community. We listened to Syndi's brother's spoken-word CD, which described some of her experiences growing up. Highlights included: visiting the local shooting range, where one could pay to shoot any animal he wanted, including imported water buffalo; getting hurtful messages written in shaving cream on their car every morning. The community apparently got so tired of Syndi and her family that her mother had to leave the town Syndi's senior year of high school while Syndi stayed to graduate alone. Despite the fact that Syndi clearly stood out like a sore thumb growing up, she seems to have absorbed some of the Texas culture. She speaks with a slight Texas drawl and does everything at a very deliberate, unhurried pace. We spent five or six hours sprawled out on her carpet with Syndi, Aziz and their two boys, listening to her amazing yarns and eating delicious food. Syndi is definitely one of the most interesting characters I've come across in the Middle East thus far.

The next day the girls reunited with Syndi and Dorea to take on the souk, and the men went to reclaim Andy at the airport. Syndi took us to her favorite shops. Alison and I have been obsessed with Kurdish carpets, so when we got to the carpet store Alison and I sat ourselves down and proceeded to watch as brilliant color after stripe after intricate pattern was thrown at our feet. We were there for awhile but in the end both walked away with two beautiful carpets apiece. My favorite is my giant, seafoam green carpet. It looks like what The Grinch would have made had he been Kurdish, and will be hell to carry around, but is fabulous. Alison bought two versions of Joseph's technicolor dreamcoat incarnate, and we soldiered on, through scarves, through newly-butchered animals, through produce and nut stands, out into the fresh air.

When we got back to the hostel, we found that Andy had returned victorious, and we were eight once again. That night we went out for an authentic Aleppan dinner. We sat around for hours, eating, drinking fresh juice and smoking shisha. Something about the curls of smoke must have inspired us to send our own amorphous, shifting thoughts out into the air, and soon enough we'd started a discussion on The Big Ideas. We stayed for hours, until they finally kicked us out and we marched back to our hotel. After briefly watching MTV on satellite cable and being supremely weirded out, we went to bed.

Of waterwheels and wishing walls

Today was my favorite day of our break thus far, mostly because it involved two of my favorite things: water and trees. We got up around 6:00, planning to 'sneak out' of the hostel around 7:00 for our day in the country. We failed utterly at this, banging around with our luggage like a herd of baby elephants and waking up the poor front deskman who sleeps in the lobby. Apparently none of us have future careers as stealth fighters/secret agents. Oh well.

We got to the bus station and proceeded to wait for Dorea, who was coming with us and going to find us a new bus. (Our driver had called yesterday evening and canceled.) We got to the station and waited...and Dorea. Finally Ariel resorted to desperate measures and used Dan's Blackberry to call her. Al hamdullulah for technology. After a bit of confusion we realized Dorea was at the other bus station. Ah, of course. The second station for minibuses five minutes away with exactly the same name. How could we have possibly been confused? No matter. We got on our bus and drove a few hours to Crac de Chevaliers, or the Knight's Castle. The van felt like a giant aluminum roasting pan, but I was excited just to see the countryside growing greener and greener as we headed north. Finally the castle loomed into view, perched on a hill at the edge of a village. We meandered around the boomerang curves of the huge hill, higher and higher until the village below was just a sea of patchwork green, and the chalk-blue sky seemed like it might take us captive and hold us for ransom.

The castle itself was fantastic. It's enormous. It was apparently built to house thousands of people with five years of provisions. I understand why they only restocked every five years, because I would pity the poor people who had to lug all that food up the mountain. The castle was cool inside. Hundreds of cobblestone corridors led every which way. Stairs which had once supported soldiers' armored feet had gone to seed, literally, and leafy green plants sprouted from every crevice. This lent the castle an organic, malleable quality, and its gentle decay granted us greater license to conjure up the castle's original appearance according to our own devices. I let my imagination start conjuring. I half expected to see a giant pumpkin couch waiting around a corner, or for an enchanted rose to shimmer into existence in one of the shafts of light. I climbed up towers and down secret passageways, which we triumphantly discovered, probably in part due to the huge bronze plaques outside their entrances labeling them, 'secret passageway.' Then Ariel, Ainsley and I stumbled upon the ancient bathroom, and because we are highly cultured and mature, we decide to pretend to sit on ye ancient toilets and read ye ancient magazines.

We then ventured back to fantasyland, and after belting out every Disney princess song and Monty Python castle reference from the top of the high tower, we decided to write wishes down on bits of paper and cast them off the wall into the wind. I think Dan was just pleased to end the sing-a-thon. I could just see him internally heaving a huge sigh every time we launched into a new number, thinking, 'Andy, please come back and save me.' Soon enough, though, we were back to the van and off for a brief stint in Hama.

The reason to go to Hama was to see the giant waterwheels. There are dozens of them on the river, and they carry the water up to stone aqueducts where it's carried away for irrigation. The wheels have been used for centuries, and are made entirely of wood. They groan tremendously due to the friction, which either sounds like an old jet propeller or a baby cow dying, depending on how close you are. The best part was standing underneath and getting misted by droplets. If Brian had had his way, he would have ridden the waterwheels like the locals. A bunch of boys were hitching rides on the wheels, riding them around and jumping into the river on the other side. One especially brave lad climbed to the roof of a mosque right nexxt to one of the wheels. He flexed his muscles and made sure he had our full attention before jumping off. Ah, to win fair lady's heart through daring deeds. Alas, none of us were impressed enough with his giant bellyflop to hand out e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

After seeing the wheels we drove to Aleppo, where we'd read of a great hostel owned by one infamous Madam Olga. Apparently the madam would size you up and decide if you were worthy enough to stay in her establishment. Mirror, mirror, on the wall...who's the fairest houseguest of them all? This made the group somewhat anxious. Did our hear look alright? Did our breath smell? For better or worse we were greeted by one of Madam Olga's family members. We were shown to really lovely rooms. It will be nice to be in one spot for four days. We have yet to meet the elusive Madam Olga, but perhaps we will fare better tomorrow.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Two days in Damascus

Today we woke up at a decent hour and met in the hotel lobby to discuss the day's plans. Our hotel is the nicest one we've stayed in thus far. The staff are incredibly helpful, and the building itself is really interesting. It used to be a private mansion and comes complete with courtyard with a high ceiling from which drip hundreds of green vines. At night the courtyard is lit with green florescent light. This is disconcerting because the light is the same color as the lighting on all the mosque minarets, but this leafy setting seems more like the domain of the green absinthe fairy than a place of worship. There is also a fountain in the center of the courtyard filled with rose petals and bubble bath. Red checkered tables complete the friendly and slightly kitschy ensemble.

The day before we saw most of Damascus's main attractions, so planning the itinerary for today was not difficult. It's been a pretty low-key couple of days, which is good. I think many of our group members have been getting worn out by Cairo, the food, and travel in general, so it's been nice not to rush around too much. Yesterday we went to the Umayyad Mosque, which used to be a church, so it's a really interesting mix of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The mosque was flooded with swarms of black-cloaked Shiites because it's a huge Shia pilgrimage site. Apparently Hussein's severed head is buried underneath the mosque somewhere. He shares his hallowed stomping ground with John the Baptist, so the Shia were competing for space with Christian pilgrims as well. Regardless of religion, all women were required to wear cloaks to go in. I must say Alison, Ainsley, Ariel and I looked dead sexy in our gray druid-like getup.

After the mosque we wandered around Souk Al Hamidiyya for awhile. We got Syrian ice cream, which tastes like a mixture of marshmallows and cream, and doesn't really melt because it has stabilizers in it. Ainsley of course made friends with the ice cream men, and they were more than happy to let her behind the counter and show her the ropes. After acing her ice-cream scooping apprenticeship, Ainsley rejoined the group and we kept wandering, our noses navigating though the onslaught of spice-market cocktail; barbecue one minute and Syrian Cinnabon the next. After the souk we went to go see some really big gates...which were cool, and then Alison and I went carpet shopping. We both fell in love with tangerine carpets, but alas, they are really expensive. After wandering back along the wall to the old city, we met up with Ariel's Arabic teacher, Durea. She and her friend took us to an art gallery and her friend's brothers' cafe. We sat down in the grotto-like cafe interior (which was named after a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh), and listened to live music including an old Syrian favorite, Hotel California. Andy had to finally surrender to the parents and leave to go meet them for a few days, but we had fun despite the diminished number.

Today we went to the old Damascus palace, which came complete with mannequins performing various tasks in each decked-out room. Shwaya creepy, but interesting. After that we went to the National Museum and Ainsley and I discovered to our dismay that we understood all the French captions better than the Arabic ones despite the fact that we've been taking Arabic for 2-3 years. We still felt marginally more cultured, though, and so our spirits lifted, we pressed on to a native crafts fair and then home for a nap.

That evening we decided to head up Jebel Al Qassiyun, which I had misheard as Jebel Al Passiyun, or 'Passion Mountain.' It didn't cross my mind to think that languages were not normally meshed together so blatantly, but I still don't know what Qassiyun means, so I shall forever remember it as Passion Mountain. It's a better name anyway. What really won me over about the mountain was that we didn't have to climb it. It sits on the edge of the city, and you just hail a cab to take you up to the top. Once at the top, we scouted out a good cafe, brought out the fresh juice and snacks and started playing cards. We were admiring the beautiful sunset when Durea called, telling Ariel that unfortunately our driver for the next day had canceled on us. We were planning to go to Crac de Chevalliers, a giant castle out in the country. We definitely needed a driver, but Durea assured us it would be easy to find another one at the bus station. Inshaallah she shall be right...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Just wishing...and hopin...and thinkin...and prayin: crossing the Syrian border

Today was the day we would cross the border for Syria. We'd heard horror stories of people waiting 18 hours, but we didn't think it would take that long. (Note: apparently before the Bush administration took office Americans were pratically waved through.) We'd been told the reason for the wait was that officials had to fax American passports to DC for confirmation. Since the DC office doesn't open until 8:00 AM or so, Americans were spending a lot of time waiting for the office just to open. 'A ha! Perfect!,' we thought. We'll just time our crossing so we're at the border at 2:00 or 3:00 PM our time so the faxes will be waiting for the DC officials when they come into work in the morning. We decided to prematurely congratulate ourselves on our know-how and craftiness.

When we got to the border, our two taxis went through several Jordanian checkpoints with lots of friendly guards. The guards had been very welcoming. At one point when they asked us if we spoke Arabic, we replied "shwaya," or sort of/a little bit. They asked if we knew the song. There's a song!?!? They then proceeded to burst into a musical number, complete with dance. The song goes like this: shwaya, shwaya, shwaya, shwaya, shwaya, shwaya, know the rest.

We finally arrived at the Syrian visa office. Everything had gone well so far. Furthermore, the owner of the taxi company we'd hired had told us we'd probably wait for two...three hours max. When we got to the visa office, the guard at the door told our driver it could take two, it could take 7.5 hours. Our driver's face fell. So we sat ourselves down on some very uncomfortable chairs and proceeded to read The Economist, people-watch, and take walks around the parking lot. After a few hours we finally discovered a decent way to keep ourselves occupied. Three words: Duty Free Store. The Duty Free Store was a giant candy box, glittering with chocolate bars, perfume bottles, electric kettles (random), and...liquor. Vodka, gin, wine, whiskey, Bailey's. tequila, schnapps, etc. Ariel and Ainsley went in first and bought two bottles, then Alison and I went and bought two more. We were well stocked and feeling good about things, so of course it was time for something to go wrong. Right about this time our driver threatened to leave us instead of drive all the way to Damascus. Apparently the bus company had told the drivers they only needed to wait until 5:00 PM. While Tim practiced his Arabic/international diplomacy skills with the drivers, I headed back to the Duty Free Store to notify the rest of the troops. I found them not crowded around the chocolate or cologne sections, but rather focusing intently on complex lego structures they were constructing while sitting on chairs sized for four-year-olds. Their tongues and elbows were sticking out and the guards were all gathered around, highly intrigued by these foreign creatures constructing little block masterpieces. It was a sight to behold, and my heart swelled with pride for the genius of my fellow compatriots. I had to tear them away, though, and we headed back to the office.

Fortunately my timing was quite fortuitous because just as one driver was about to leave, our passport approvals came through. Hamdulullah! Now there was only fee paying and a trip to the sketchy stamp office, and then we were on our way. We were actually half hoping there would be another small delay. It was getting late, but Andy could still theoretically make the flight he had booked for the same night out of Damascus. His parents were visiting Cairo and had demanded Andy take a Spring Break detour to go visit them. He really wanted to see Damascus, though, and fortunately we didn't roll into the hostel until after 11:00. His flight was in 15 minutes. Oh darn. We went to our rooms and passed out, happy to be in Syria.

Amman: land of designer mud

Yesterday we hopped on a bus from Petra to Amman, which we'd heard would be uninteresting; the suburbs of the Middle East. Amman turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is much cleaner than Cairo, and the government has made uttering any sort of public comment towards women illegal, so it was very nice to walk around the clean and calm streets without the usual side commentary.

The main reason to go to Amman was to visit the Dead Sea. So, after dropping our bags at the hostel we caught a cab to Amman Beach. The Dead Sea is aptly named, because nothing normal can live in it. It's 30% salt and other dissolved minerals. The fun part is that it makes you incredibly buoyant, but if you accidentally swallow some your mouth tastes like fermented rusty bicycle...that's on fire. Since Ainsley and I were the only responsible ones in the group, (read: whitest) we sat on the beach waiting for our sunscreen to soak in while we watched everyone else bobbing like technicolor corks. When we actually jumped in, we discovered that the water made us so buoyant we couldn't even put our feet on the bottom before the water pushed them up to the surface again.

Soon enough we decided we should do something slightly more interesting than just swim. We decided to engage in a local custom: the ancient Jordanian art, the time-honored tradition...of mud wrestling. People flock to the Dead Sea on both the Jordanian and Israeli side to slather themselves in Dead Sea mud because it apparently has a great deal of minerals that are good for your skin/have magical restorative properties. When we got to Jerusalem later on, we discovered that an entire cottage industry of Dead Sea products had sprung up. So. First, to track down some mud. Alison and two girls from Georgetown, Camille and Nur-E, decided to shell out two dinar and get the more legitimate version, which came pre-mixed and was completely black. Ariel, Ainsley and I went for the budget version and dug up our own. The only wrestling that actually took place was when trying to fend off the Jordanian boys and convince them we were quite capable of putting the mud on ourselves. But when Alison, Camille and Nur-E went to wash off their mud in the sea, Kalaris decided he would still try his luck. He waded in, the lone baracuda circling the pod. He plotted his attack. Would he be suave? "Oh hey, ladies. Need anyone to help wash the mud off your backs? I know it can be hard to reach." Alas, they had no trouble washing the mud off themselves, and the lone baracuda swam away.

Meanwhile, the amateur documentarians Dan and Brian were struggling with Nur-E's camera. What was the best angle to capture the action? Was the lighting really best at this time of day? How did one use the zoom feature? Their endeavor was purely artistic, which they proved by throwing in a few pictures of speedo-clad 300-pound Russians. Still not quite sure what their intended message was...

After we got back from the beach we headed out to dinner and determined that Jordanian food is a lot better than Egyptian food. After that we went to a cafe for hookah, tea and cards. We decided to play 'President.' The goal of 'President' is to get rid of all your cards first. After the first round you get the two best cards from the asshole, or last person to get rid of their cards. Since we're GW and Georgetown students, though, we couldn't just play 'President.' The ruling class had to decide whether the first one out would be a benevolent dictator, and should be a premier, or a prime minister, or a shah, etc. I was having a bad luck streak, and Andy, the established regent, decided he was not purely benevolent. He informed me that I was going to stay serf forever, saying, "Leah, by the end of the night you're going to be afraid of how much you love me." That did it. The serf rebelled. There was major civil disobedience; the hierarchy was overturned. By the next round I had ousted King Kalaris. Ah, victory tastes sweet at the end of the day. Thus ended another most excellent adventure, and we traipsed back to our hostel, excited for Syria (inshaallah) tomorrow.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Rocky Beginning: Petra

Today we walked for 10 hours around Petra, which for good reason has a reputation as Jordan's most spectacular tourist destination. But first, and update on the events of yesterday.

After we got on the ferry (which looked like a wooden yacht and came complete with loudspeakers blasting 'My Heart Will Go On'...bad omen...?), we rode for an hour or so across the Red Sea and landed in Aqaba. We we got to the port, we were informed that since we were not with a guide, we would have to wait while our passports were run over to the immigration office. Twenty minutes. Ok, ma feesh mushkila...but 45 minutes later , the women were bored and the men were growing restless. What do restless men do? Start devising ways to compete with each other. Earlier in the day we had decided that we should have a kind of ongoing sport or competition to keep things lively. We came up with man points. A word on man points: they are awarded by the girls when a boy displays behavior that merits commendation. We don't set the rules out beforehand, but rather award points when we see fit. It keeps things more interesting.
Possible things that might merit man points: any display of chivalry, such as carrying a girl's bag; eating exceptionally manly food, i.e. raw meat or small rocks; building things; preserving national honor by blaming Canada when things go wrong; saving small children from burning vehicles/high places.
Things that might detract from man points: sulking, complaining that one's skin is getting too dry, looking at the calories in a snickers, speaking French.

When we were at the port in Aqaba waiting for our passports, Dan suggested Kalaris play the ultimate trump card in man points and challenge a guard to a push-up contest. The guards at the border have two jobs: unnecessarily complicating the entrance process for foreigners, and looking intimidating, both of which they do quite well. They have skull patches on their arms, and Andy remarked that since we weren't actually in Jordan yet, we should be nice to them. Whimp. Soon we got our passports back and caught a bus and then taxi to Petra. After a much-needed delicious dinner, we all went to bed.

So. Petra. Petra means 'rock' in Greek, which is unoriginal but highly appropriate. There is rock. A lot of it. And it's really pretty. When you first get to Petra, you walk through a gigantic passageway apparently formed long ago by diverging plate boundaries. There are beautiful rippling walls on either side, and it looks as if Moses just parted a solid sea. The light was gorgeous, and had just begun to throw the honey, tanned and rose-colored stone into relief. When you get to the end of the passageway, the Treasury is right in front of you. The Treasury is one of Petra's highlights. It's a giant tomb carved out of the rock wall. There's a huge urn above the doorway, which was allegedly where a pharaoh kept his treasure from the Israelites. No one ever found treasure there, but the urn is riddled with bullet holes from people trying to split it open.

After the Treasury we traipsed around for hours, climbing up hills and in one case up over 800 steps to see the various tombs carved by the Nabateans. One of the most popular tombs was that of Sextius Florentinus, or the sexy tomb. The name lent a great deal of allure to the place, so of course we had to go. Apparently sexiness is something many aspire to but few reach, because we couldn't find it. We persevered, though, and finally stumbled across it. Kalaris, Ariel and Alison immediately started striking poses, including ones that involved the use of columns. I'll leave it at that...Eventually we decided we'd seen all there was to be seen, and after purchasing some souvenirs, we hopped on the bus back to the hotel. Tonight - Indiana Jones (that last one, which features Harrison Ford, Sean Connery AND Petra). Tomorrow - Amman and the Dead Sea.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Spring Break: An Epic Tale, Pt. I

Thus begins a long and detailed series of installments concerning our spring break adventures. These are all the entries I wrote in my journal, and the first is the longest because it's the introduction.

There were eight of us. We hailed from GW and Georgetown, and had united for the ultimate Middle East spring break: 16 days in Jordan, Syria, and the largely-unrecognized nation, otherwise known as Israel. The cast of characters was as follows:

Ainsley: The Mom. Ainsley is tiny, but she has a big presence. She's constantly making sure we have sunscreen, or that we're going to catch the ferry on time. Ainsley has a penchant for wearing large accessories and making sure her mascara is perfectly intact, even in the middle of a desert. She hails from the great state of Texas.

Alison: The Wanderlust. Not only was Alison abroad in Morocco last semester, but she'll continue her travels this summer at an archaeological dig in Israel. To the joy of the group, she happens to be superstitious about baking things before any trip. So far her brownies, cookies, and fudgy-bars have been effective talismans at warding off evil travel demons.

Andy: The Stoic. Andrew Bradford 'Freedom' Kalaris is usually referred to by his surname. Kalaris likes to sit around looking Greek and unconcerned. He also happens to be incredibly witty, which people appreciate all the more after encountering his initial stoicism.

Ariel: The Peacemaker. Ariel is usually bubbly and entertaining, even on 1.5 hours of sleep. She speaks Arabic well, which comes in handy when making friends with cab drivers. She also has an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway musicals, which is entertaining for me/trying for Dan.

Brian: The Good Guy. Brian is just...simply a good guy. He refuses any food the second time you offer it, no matter how delicious it is. He always offers to carry your bag, and he likes to check in and make sure everyone is doing ok. Sometimes he just holds back and observes, but you know his dry sense of humor will soon come to the surface. He brought a lunch cooler to serve as a bag, which lends some soccer-mom-like qualities to his travel ensemble.

Dan: The Tactician. Dan can be sullen and sarcastic at times, which is highly entertaining. He's very smart, and knows a lot about international relations. I constantly feel like he's plotting minor schemes/future career paths. He's been known to say things like, "One day when I'm running [insert name of organization X], you're going to pay for that." He got a new haircut before the trip, which he was initially a little sensitive about.

Me: The Sprite. I'm just happy to be here. I hope my currently sunny disposition stays around, because I'd like to think positive and peaceful vibes will come in handy in sticky situations. Unlike Tim and Alison, I wasn't abroad last semester, but I've now caught the travel bug and can't wait to continue exploring in Argentina this summer.

Tim: The Mastermind. Tim is...slightly Type A...which comes in handy when coordinating a group of eight for spring break. :-) He has everything planned down to a T. Of course most of our plans will go completely haywire, but it's comforting to know someone made them in the first place. Tim likes to 'borrow' food.

We started off on a bus for Taba, Egypt, where we would catch a ferry to Aqaba, Jordan. After some last minute jitters mostly incited by Dan, we decided we would continue with our plan, despite to fact that Taba is a common for to Israel, and later on Syria might think we made a detour to The-Country-That-Must-Not-Be-Named before going to Jordan. However, we decided to risk it. The bus left at 11:00 PM, and we were all able to nap some on the way. We awoke in the morning to find ourselves skimming down a coastal road, Red Sea, sand, and palm trees to one side, while a stripe of pale yellow backlit the mountains in the distance. It was beautiful. Dan added to the scene by making astute observations such as, "We're in Taba. It's fucking 5:00 AM." Meanwhile Kalaris hid in the curtain.

We were dropped off on the side of the road and Tim called the guy who was supposed to come pick us up. The guy said, "Ok, I'll be there in five minutes." Great, five minutes. After about 20, we got the message that we should just walk down ourselves. Ok, well we're by the ocean. Finding the marina shouldn't be too hard. We started walking and asked someone for directions. He'd never heard of the marina. "You know, the place with boats for Jordan?" Nope. "Ever heard of Waterworld Dive Center?" Nope again. Ah, ok, no problem. We just kept walking, and after traversing lots of sand and avoiding the camels mine field (they do not like to move), we found the place. I am now lying on a lounge chair, gazing out at the gorgeous Red Sea and ready to take a nap. At 1:00 this afternoon, we'll be catching a ferry for Jordan, inshaallah.