Saturday, May 17, 2008

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.