Thursday, April 30, 2009

İstanbul was Constantinople

Today I went to the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace, both on the European sıde of İstanbul.

My hotel ıs, ın fact, just a couple blocks away from both of those places. It's really amazıng how much hıstory ıs crammed ınto a tıny space. It's slıghtly less amazıng how many foreıgners have fıgured thıs out, as well. You can hardly spıt wıthout hıttıng a crowd of tourısts, or somethıng older than 300 years.

The Hagia ıs a mıghty ımpressıve church. It's one of the few I've been ın that makes Prınceton's Chapel seem small. Now whıle my use of the word Chapel there mıght suggest that ın fact, I haven't been ın many churches, those of you who have been ın ıt know ıt's a mıghty bıg house of worshıp. And the Haghia ıs even bıgger. The Mosaıcs are fırst-class as well, although some of the dome was obscured by a gıant scaffoldıng, I presume sınce they're doıng restoratıons. I would be terrıfıed to make ıt halfway up those scaffolds.

Next, I went ınto the Basılıca Cıstern, buılt by Justınıan, I thınk. It's basıcally a bıg underground room wıth water. But ıt's really bıg.

After that, I went to Topkapı Palace, whıch was where the Ottoman Sultan lıved untıl the mıd 1800s. Its sınce been converted to a museum, basıcally showıng off all the very fancy junk the Emporers accumulated ın theır 500 year dynasty. Lots of ıt was 'such and such was a gıft from so and so', but my favorıtes were thıngs lıke 'thıs was a gıft to some Shah of Iran, but the Shah dıed before we could gıve ıt to hım, so we just kept ıt' and 'Thıs was a gıft to the Tomb of Muhammad, but we took ıt back durıng WWI', the latter beıng especıally common.

They also had an exhıbıtıon of photographs of the Alhambra, ın Spaın. I thought ıt was really cool because ıt was tıtled 'Wıthın the Confınes of one same Sea', whıch more or less descrıbes my trıp as a whole. The dates of the exhıbıtıon were even pretty close: 6 Aprıl-31 May.

Then more wanderıng around the Bazaar quarter, and I found thıs net cafe, whıch has reasonably cheap prıces. I left the camera cable back at my hostel, though, so once agaın, no pıctures. Sorry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I have met all the foreigners in Turkey

I'm in Istanbul, I've found a hostel.

Yesterday, I went to Troy. The morning I spent in my hostel, since I again woke up with GI problems. I've got a couple theories, ranging from more to less probable as to why. But, by 11 AM I was feeling mostly better, aside from a sharp pain in my gut whenever I did anything especially strenuous... like stand up. And I decided that I couldn't let my limited time in Turkey be impinged upon by silly factors like my body, so I headed out to Troy.

Now, the site itself is actually surprisingly small. Or compact, at least. But there is a lot of stuff there. It's really quite an impressive feat of archaeology that they were able to dig through the 9 layers of cities that were built there over the ages.

After Troy, I went back to my hotel, rested for a bit, then took the bus to Istanbul. I actually accidentally took my second ferry ride, since on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, you have to go significantly out of your way to get to Istanbul, while the European side is pretty much a straight shot.

Now, I say that I've met all the foreigners in Turkey because I've started running into the same people. You wouldn't think in a country this large that would happen, and by and large it didn't happen in even smaller countries, like Jordan or Lebanon. Remember that Czech/Slovakian couple from Selcuk? They were at Troy. And then when I got into my hostel in Istanbul, there was a Korean girl that I also met in Selcuk.

And the ANZAC house hostel in Canakkale was practically deserted (just me and 3 other people--oddly, 2 of them were also academic biologists, bringing the count to 3 that I've met so far on this trip). This was a big surprise to me, since ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli invasion, was just last week, and so I figured there'd still be a pretty big complement of Oceanians around, but this is apparently not the case. I guess they all went home.

In Istanbul, apparently I'm staying in the Korean hostel. It's chock full of Korean people, there's a giant stack of Ramen on one of the walls, and all the signs are in Korean. There's a water cooler, and all that I know is that something about it is OK.

Anyways, I'm off to procure transport to Athens (bus or train, I don't know... I think train might be somewhat cheaper, what with my EuRail pass, and probably faster too!), then explore Istanbul!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoughts on Turkey

Thıs mornıng, I went to the Ephesus Museum ın Selçuk, then wandered around town for a bıt, and then I spent many hours on varıous busses, puttıng me now ın Çanakkale, just down the Dardanelles from İstanbul, across the water from Gallipoli, and near Troy. So anyways, I had lots of tıme to thınk, and vaguely sum up some thoughts on Turkey.

* Thıngs are not as expensıve as I had been led to belıeve. Granted, they aren't cheap eıther, at least not as cheap as Syrıa and Egypt, but the prıces are comparable to Lebanon and Jordan. I thınk, eıther way, once I get ınto the Euro zone I'll be smacked wıth genuınely hıgh prıces, but so far thıngs have been pretty reasonable.

* They Keyboard layout, and certain things about the Turkish system of romanization is just weird. The dotless I is where one would expect normal I to be, and Ozan says this is weird, since dotted i is more common anyways. There's just enough differences in the keyboard layout for my brain to think, sometimes, "Oooh, Dvorak" and then I make all kinds of weird errors. But the thing about their romanization that bothers me is that the letter C is pronounced as a hard J. It makes sense when you consider that Ç is a "ch" sound, which is the unvoiced version of the J sound. But nobody else does it that way!

* There is no culture of "Let me show you around. Then take you to my shop" that I have detected. There was one guy I met in Adana who did that, but it turns out he's actually Syrian. I think it was always present in the Arab world, to varying degrees. Less so in some places than others, but it was always there. Here, I pretty much trust that people just want to help me.

* Turkey feels like California, only more so. Its as if someone took the same general terrain, then turned up the contrast. The mountains are the same sort of greeny rough as the Santa Cruz mountains, but way, way taller. And then they just sort of drop into the sea. I've tried taking pictures, but they inevitably fail to capture the grandeur. And the USB cable doesn't work on this computer either, so no pictures for a little while.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I have seen Atatürk's PJ's

They are Ok.

Yesterday, I stashed my backpack ın a locker ın teh traın statıon and hıt the major sıtes ın Ankara. The Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılızatıons was quıte well put together, had a coherent chronology and good explanatıons for everythıng. For those of you who have been to the Egyptıan Museum: ıt's not at all lıke that.

Next up was the Temple of Rome and Augustus or somesuch. Thıs was less worthwhıle. In fact, ıf ıt hadn't been so near to the Museum, I wouldve been annoyed that I took tıme to see ıt. At fırst, I got to the square where ıt was supposed to be, and I thought thıs small, ruıned wall was all there was (Exhıbıt A: Pıcture of Ruıned Wall). More wanderıng around showed that there actually was somethıng of a stıll-standıng structure (though ıt abutted a mosque), but ıt stıll wasn't very ımpressıve (Exhıbıt B: The actual temple). Or perhaps my standards for 2,000 year old monuments have been raısed somewhat. Also: ıt was closed.

Next, I took the subway (wıth consıderable local help) to the Anıtkabir, Atatürk's mausoleum. Now, as I got onto the subway goıng to the Mausoleum, I thought I could notıce some small raın drops. As I got off the subway, ıt was sprınklıng. By tıme I walked up the hıll to the mausoleum, ıt was defınıtely comıng down (and my raın coat was ın my backpack back ın the traın statıon, though I dıd at least have my fleece). I hıd out for a lıttle whıle ın varıous structures around the mausoleum, as the raın got even harder. It was at about thıs poınt that I decıded the raın must be followıng me around. Damn raın. After seeıng the mausoleum and the museum, though, ıt cleared up, so ıt was actually sunny on the way back to the traın statıon.

As far as the mausoleum ıtself, frankly, the whole thıng ıs a truly remarkable propaganda pıece. The attached museum has an ıncredıble collectıon of hıghly trıvıal thıngs. What got me most, though, was the hıstory (ıncludıng dıoramas) on the war of ındependence, as well as later reforms. Rıght down to the recorded choır sıngıng (what I assume were) Natıonalıst Anthems. Now, maybe my perspectıve on these thıngs ıs skewed as an Amerıcan, but I don't recall anythıng quıte so jıngoıstıc among, say, Washıngton DC's major monuments.

Next up: the traın to İzmir. I fıgured out, by the way, just what makes them so uncomfortable to sleep on. The sıngle seats (whıch I was assıgned both tımes) are on the left hand sıde of the car, and have about a 3-4 ınch gap between the sıde of the seat and the wındow. Whıch means, basıcally, that ıt's really awkward to sleep wıth my head agaınst the wındow, so I had to put the arm-rest near vertıcal, put my jacket on that as a crude pıllow, and try sleepıng that way.

I arrıved ın İzmir the next mornıng. At least, I thought ıt was İzmır. Everybody was gettıng off the traın. Fıgurıng I was gettıng the hang of thıs, I got off too. Just off the platform, I queue up for a bus, even askıng a local for a bus to Kona statıon (one of the 2 bus statıons ın town, and the more southern of the two, whıch was the way I was goıng). I hop on the bus he tells me to. And I rıde. After a few mınutes, I thınk to myself ''gee, the traın statıon ıs only supposed to be maybe a couple of Kılometers outsıde of town. And I've been on ıt for... 5, 10 mınutes now. And thıs area really doesn't seem lıke the thırd largest cıty ın Türkey.'' After some more tıme, tryıng to back-seat navıgate usıng my crappy map, I conclude that the traın dıd not, ın fact, fınısh ın İzmır. I then realıze what those OTHER busses that people were pılıng on to were... busses to the İzmir statıon. Oh well, thıs wıll get me there.

After some tıme, the bus does, ındeed, get ınto İzmir, and I'm even able to fıgure out where we are. Aaand then the bus takes a wrong turn. Now, Im sure the bus drıver knew exactly what he was doıng. But, for me ıt was the wrong turn. So I get off, and walk the maybe 1 km to Kona statıon. Upon arrıvıng, I notıce that there are no ınter-cıty busses. It ıs the LOCAL bus statıon. I manage to get some advıce as to what the correct bus statıon ıs, but not really how to get there.

Then, as I ınterrogate a number of passers-by, one of them tells me that ıt's quıte far to that other statıon, and that I may want to take a traın anyways. The man, named Senan, proceeds to lead me to the traın statıon (whıch ıs actually ın İzmir). There, he fınds out that the next traın ısn't untıl 4 ın the afternoon (though there was one maybe 30 mınutes before we got there... crıtıcally, 30 mınutes that I could've saved by goıng straıght to the traın statıon). So he then leads me to a bus company's offıce, where he helps me buy a tıcket on to Selçuk, then pushes me onto a shuttle bus to the bus statıon I actually want. All of thıs took maybe 20, 30 mınutes. DUrıng the walk through the cıty, I decıded that ıf there was some tıme before the traın/bus left, I'd lıke to at least buy hım some tea to thank hım for hıs tıme and effort. But havıng been pushed onto the shuttle bus, I had to just verbally thank hım profusely. There truly are great people ın thıs world.

I then take a mınıbus to Selçuk, fınd a hotel (after 2 nıghts on a traın, there ıs NO WAY I'm not stayıng ın a hotel tonıght). Then, out to the ruıns at Ephesus. Excerpts from a Skype conversatıon:
[21:07:13] Ozan Demirlioğlu says: i've been to ephesus
[21:07:17] Ozan Demirlioğlu says: it's nice
[21:07:37] Ozan Demirlioğlu says: though i don't know how much more of the ruined city stuff you can take
[21:08:16] Peter A. Combs says: Yeah... I thınk I may be about done... Rıght after Troy.
[21:08:49] Andrew Chen says: Ruined cities are great inspirations for mini-terrain building.

After perusıng the ruıns, racked wıth hunger (I last ate on the traın, sınce my tıme ın İzmir was mostly spent on a bus or desperately followıng Senan), I walked back to town. It was durıng thıs walk that I realıze that whıle many hotels offer transport to and from the local ruıns--same deal at Petra--coordınatıng return tımes ıs quıte dıffıcult wıthout a phone/phone card. In town, I stop ınto a cafe and have a nıce chat wıth the Swıss expat owner and a Czech/Slovakıan couple of customers about Relıgıous freedom ın Turkey. The conclusıon we came to ıs that Turkey needs a new Atatürk to once agaın brıng Turkey up to modern, western standards. After that, I talked to a man ın the park. He asked me what my opınıon was on Turkey and Turks, and wanted me to tell you that everyone ıs very frıendly. Then he gave me some moonshıne. So far I feel okay... ıf I wake up blınd tomorrow, I thınk we'll know why, though.

Fınally, back to the hotel for a shower and shave (ıt's been a few days sınce eıther), and then out here. Tomorrow, I thınk I'll check out the museum ın town, then head on to Çanakkale, usıng that as a base of operatıons for Troy, and possıbly Gallipoli.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Ankara, feelıng better

So yesterday, I kınd of half-heartedly wandered through Adana. There really doesn't seem to be that much to see, so ıt's just as well that I spent the mornıng convalescıng. There ıs, however, the very fıne brıdge above, whıch was orıgınally buılt by the Romans. Now that ıs some ımpressıve engıneerıng, almost 1800 years later (though ıt has been restored a couple tımes).

Then I took the nıght traın to Ankara. It was overcast towards the end of the day ın Adana, and between gettıng my tıcket and makıng ıt out to the platform, ıt had transıtıoned to full-on raın and thunderstorms. The raın let up a bıt by tıme the traın pulled out of the statıon, but as ıt got dark, ıt was really neat seeıng the countrysıde lıt up ın ıntermıttent vıolet-whıte flashes. On the traın, I ended up chattıng wıth a Turkısh man and hıs Brıtısh wıfe who were sıttıng behınd me. And then sleepıng somewhat fıtfully on the seats.

When I woke up, the traın was, ıf not totally empty, at least much more sparsely populated than when I got on. And ıt was about 8:30, whıch ısn't that bad untıl you consıder that the traın was supposed to get ınto Ankara at 8:10. And the couple I had talked to the nıght before, who had told me they too were goıng to Ankara, were nowhere to be seen. So, you know, a lıttle bıt of panıc there, sınce I thought I mıght've mıssed Ankara and now be on my way to god-knows-where. But then I notıced that the traın was passıng ınto more populated areas, and lo and behold, half an hour later, were were ın Ankara.

In the statıon, I bought my tıcket to İzmir (though maybe I should've taken the bus? For cheese sandwıches), stored my bag ın a locker, then headed out to explore. On the docket before 6 PM (just over 7 hours from now) are: Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılızatıons, the Temple of Augustus and Rome, and the Mausoleum of Attatürk.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I've made ıt to Turkey

Also, you may note that some letters (partıcularly 'i') wıll look funny... mıssıng a dot. Thıs ıs because ın Turkısh, there ıs both a dotted and dotless İ, and the dotless one ıs where I expect the regular I to be. I'm lazy, so I wont bother to fıx thıs.

I have been accused of 'blunderıng' through thıs trıp. Never has thıs been more obvıous to me than yesterday. See, my orıgınal plan was to make ıt as far as (The Holy Hand Grenade of) Antakya. But then I got ınto town, and saw that the statıon was pretty far from the town center, and that I was runnıng low on Turkısh cash (I've sınce hıt an ATM), so I decıded to push on to Adana, the major raıl center for thıs area. İ then went to the traın statıon to see ıf there was any way to make ıt to İzmir, from whence I could go to Ephesus. To do thıs, I have to take a nıght traın to Ankara, and then the next day to İzmir. And İ had mıssed the only traın*. So I wandered around the cıty and eventually found a hotel. Then, I went out and got dınner and trıed to hunt down an ınternet cafe. Except by now ıt was about 10 pm, and apparently everythıng was pretty much shut down. So I went back to the hotel and crashed.

Now, the part where I felt lıke I was blunderıng occured approxımately 25 seconds after arrıvıng ın Adana, when I realızed that although I know the local scrıpt, and can therefore pronounce (badly) any word I see, I have no ıdea how to speak the language. And the book I have has a) a crappy map, and b) no word for 'Traın Statıon'. So I was forced to depend "on the kindness of strangers," as ıt were. And people were generally pretty nıce, often goıng well out of there way to poınt me to where I wanted to go next, once they flagged down 3 of theır frıends to fınd the one who spoke Englısh well enough for me to let hım know what I was lookıng for.

The really fun part ıs that I woke up thıs mornıng nauseated, and wıth the runs. So I basıcally popped Pepto-bısmol and Immodıum lıke candy, and spent the mornıng lyıng ın bed watchıng Al Jazeera ın Englısh and Scooby Doo ın Turkısh. I thınk İm feelıng better now, but we'll see... Tomorrow: to Ankara!

Also, the ınternet here seems much faster than any of the rest of the arab world. I was goıng to post a pıcture of the eastern-most poınt of the Medıterranean, near İskenderun, but the USB cable doesn't seem to work on thıs computer... It worked at the next net-cafeç

* Further examınıng of tımetables reveals that I could have caught a traın goıng towards İstanbul, gotten off ın Kütahya, and caught a nıght traın from there; and thus have wasted only 1 day ın a cıty İ wasn't that ınterested ın, ınstead of 2 (Adana and Ankara). Ah well.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Aleppo sooner than I thought

Immediately upon returning to my hotel from my last post, the guy
behind the desk tells me that the one group they have going out the
next day (now yesterday) is a trip to Krak des Chevaliers, Musayaf,
Apamea, the Dead Cities, and Aleppo. Now, I'd already been to Krak,
but the rest of them were at least marginally interesting, I was
really hoping to go to the Dead Cities, and Aleppo was next on my
itinerary already, so I decided to plop down the 1,700 SP (~$34) and
go along.

There were 6 other people in the van: 3 Japanese and 3 Malaysian. The
3 Japanese girls were in their 30's, and the Malaysians more like in
their 60's. Generally, though, a pretty good group of people to hang
out with.

So the Castle was, again, our first stop. I thought I might try
walking around the castle 7 times in the hour and a half or so that
the rest of the people were exploring the insides, see if I can make
it fall down... but after my first circuit I decided I didn't really
feel like doing that 6 more times, so I sat down and got tea in a
nearby cafe.

Next up: Musayaf, another castle, this one the base of operations for
the Assassins. This one was a bit more collapsed than the other, but
still generally pretty well preserved.

After that: Apamea and the Dead Cities. Now, the Lonely Planet says
about Apamea something to the effect of, "If Syria didn't have
Palmyra, this would be a can't-miss site". It certainly is a large
site, but after wandering around, you get the impression that there
really isn't that much to see. Or perhaps I'm just ruined-out. Or,
at least, Roman-ruined out. Because the Dead Cities were next. Now
these are basically just cities that people abandoned at various
points in history, from about the 7th century on. So now, there are
ruins more or less interspersed in Olive groves. And some of that was
pretty neat to see.

Finally, on to Aleppo. Now, I didn't have a hotel when I got in here,
and the Malaysians had a hotel that had come recommended highly to
them, but they only had doubles... So Boon asks me if I'd like to
share a room with him. I figured sure, why not. After that, I went
out to dinner with the Malaysians, and then to bed.

Today, I slept in, then wandered around Old Aleppo, which is more or
less one giant market. Bought a few gifts (of the light, packable
variety), got pulled into some shops by various shop-keepers, and
drank their tea, before informing them as firmly as I could that, "no,
I can't afford that rug, though I'm sure it's a very good price. And
even if I could afford it, there's no way I want to carry that for
another MONTH."

And finally, I have bought a ticket to Antakya, Turkey, tomorrow
around noon. I don't anticipate any problems at the border, but we
all know how well that's worked out for me before...

Peter Combs

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Syria Part II

So, as I noted in my last post, I was a little anxious to get out of
Lebanon. I think, really, there were just a few people in Beirut that
got on my nerves way too much. The rest of the country wasn't so bad,
as I recall now, but I had heard the phrase, "It's better for you"
just one too many times. Inevitably, the "better for me" route was
more expensive. Plus, as a later rough calculation would reveal, I
don't necessarily have that much time left.

So I took a bus from Tripoli to Homs, in Syria. Or rather, I tried
to. Now, coming from Syria into Lebanon, the Lonely Planet guidebook
says there shouldn't be a departure fee. All the same, I got charged
500 Syrian Pounds (about 10 dollars), and everyone else I talked to
also seemed to. But they gave me this ticket, and although nobody
really explained what it was for, it had printed on it "Return
Coupon". Throughout my time in Lebanon, I heard various speculations
to the effect that if you travel through Lebanon, then return to Syria
that there isn't as much scrutiny at the border. And someone else
thought the "Return Coupon" would waive the Visa fee (I only had a
single entry visa before, so presumably otherwise I'd need to a) get
another visa, and b) pay for said visa). Thus, I was honestly
expecting to be able to pretty much waltz across the border, no




I get in, and there's a couple Argentines also on the bus, though they
claim to already have a visa. I first try to go up to the "Foreign
Arrivals" window, but the bus driver pulls me out of line, and hands
my stuff to a border control officer. We stand around for a while,
and they get handed arrival cards to fill out, and nothing really
happens to me. I sit down for a bit, anticipating that, despite
everything I've been hearing about smooth sailing, it may,
nevertheless take a while. I try and give the border officers the
copies I had made of my passport, but they don't take them, or my
"Return Coupon". Suddenly, this guy not in any discernable uniform
comes up to me, asks me a few questions, then takes my passport away.
I start to walk with him, but he tells me to stay put. He returns a
few minutes later with copies of my passport. Then I get called into
this office behind the windows, and answer a few more questions,
mainly things like "What your father name?" (They seem to care about
this on all sorts of immigration documents). Then, they tell me to
sit down, and that it could take a while.

So I sit. I note my watch, and it's 3:00, and I've probably already
been there for half an hour. I read for a bit. The Argentines leave.
I listen to music. I finish <em>Dreams from My Father</em>. I just
stare off into space for a while.

The border crossing I was at before was a pretty fancy thing... there
was a hotel, Duty Free Shop, restaurant, and a bonafide arrival hall.
This place was more like an arrival hall-closet. No hotel, no
restaurant (that I could find... someone told me there was, but after
some searching, no luck. I made it as far as the actual border
crossing, where they told me "ma fii mTaam", meaning: no restaurant),
and certainly no DFS. I, expecting either a breeze or at least a
well-appointed wait, did not pack any food, and just a little bit of

Five o'clock rolls around, and nothing. I figure either my previous
theory about the bored civil servant is wrong, or somebody in Damascus
read my blog post and hates me. The first seems more likely, since a)
Blogspot is banned in Syria (I won't see this post until I"m in Turkey
and am submitting it by email), and b) it would take a little bit of
effort to associate me and my passport number with the blog (though a
truly bored and malicious official could no doubt do it). Also, c)
that's paranoid. But mainly a) and b) are why I think there may
actually be some amount of processing that happens, though I still
can't figure out what processing that would be, exactly.

I get through a modest chunk of Aristotle's <em>Ethics</em>, which
Alex loaned me. Maybe only 50 pages, but it's slow reading, and I
spent a fair amount of time staring off into space, and also figuring
out how to construct the center of a given circle using compass and
straightedge (this was inspired by something Aristotle said...
apparently I qualify as a Geometer).

Around 9, the first real english speaker I've seen shows up. I think
her name was Mahaa, though we never really exchanged names (for
students of al-Kitaab, she looked closer to Old Mahaa than New Mahaa).
She, I think, had a visa, or at least some special way to get through
that I didn't, so she didn't have to wait nearly as long. But she did
give me a couple candy bars, one of which I ate on the spot, and the
other I saved, thinking at this point that I might need it for
breakfast. Then, she left, and I was alone again.

Finally, around 10:30, they give clear me for a visa. It does,
however, take another half an hour to deal with all the formalities,
including a significant chunk of time where the guy dealing with my
passport just disappeared for no apparent reason.

Still, I was thinking they were going to keep me until morning, so
this is a big victory for me. I find a service taxi to Homs, and get
into my hotel.

Today, I went to Krak des Chevaliers, as I said that I would. It was,
indeed, pretty cool. The chapel, though not as large as Princeton's,
had some pretty good acoustics. I dunno what else to say, really,
other than it looks frikkin' cool, and is in really good shape given
that it's 800 years old and was captured by invading armies a couple

Finally, I went on to Hama, wandered around town for a bit, then came
in here. I should go back to my hotel and meet my other dorm-mates.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Safe in Syria again

I'm safe, and alive. I have stories to tell about the Syrian Border
(again), but for now, I'm in Homs, and I'm going to Krak du Chevalier,
a supposedly really awesome Crusader castle. I should go now, before
it gets too much later.

Sunday, April 19, 2009 the Shores of Tripoli (or Boutros the Biophysicist and Bill the Buenos-Airean Biochemist Browse Byblos)

Today, I checked out of my hotel in Beirut and, with Guillermo, a Biochemist from Buenos Aires on vacation who was staying at my hotel, went to Byblos, an old Phoenician town that was conquered by Alexander, and the Romans, and the Arabs at various stages in its history. He said the ruins at Baalbek are better, but at this point I'm a little anxious to get out of Lebanon. It's not a safety thing at all--as usual, it feels like the greatest threat to my life is from oncoming traffic. It's just very pricey here (well, in Beirut anyways), and I've been feeling a bit hassled by the local populace. Plus, I have 12 days or so before I have to be in Athens, and I still need to see the north of Syria (2-3 days), get to Istanbul (c. 30 hours), and then I want to be generous with Istanbul and western Turkey.

So anyways, Byblos was reasonably interesting. The signage was actually much better than a lot of other places I've seen in the area. But, since I was moved out of Beirut, and planning to stay in Tripoli for the night, I had my bag with me. I wouldn't say it's excessively heavy... maybe 20-30 pounds, and I've hiked for many miles with a lot more weight. But all the same, I wasn't going to mistake it for a feather any time soon.

After the ruins, we got lunch, then went and relaxed on the beach at Byblos. This was very nice, and I realized that I hadn't yet actually been in the Mediterranean. The sea that, supposedly, this trip is centered on. Sure, I spent a good while next to it in Egypt, on the bus between Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria after Siwa. But the beaches in Alex aren't really that good. And after that, I've been in the Red Sea, and the Dead Sea, but not the Med Sea. Thus, I ceremoniously dipped my toes in the water (it's still not really beach weather yet), then went and lay down on the pebbley beach.

After that, we parted ways and exchanged contact information. He's going back to Beirut, and I went on to Tripoli. No, not the one in Libya... there's another one in Lebanon. Can you only have Tripolis in a country that starts with L? Where's the third one(TRI-poli, right?)? Latvia? I got in to my hotel, then wandered around for a bit, and found this internet cafe.

Oh yeah, on the other half of the Tyrian ruins... I could well believe that the Hippodrome is the largest remaining, but I really don't know about best preserved (LP claims it's the "largest and best preserved" or somesuch). It's only got a couple sections left. I think the Hippodrome at Jerash might've been better preserved, though certainly smaller. I guess it's all a question of how do you quantify "well preserved-ness". Other than that, they had an impressive Funerary city, practically littered with Sarcophagi. It was here that an old woman came up to me and started talking to me, saying something to the effect of she likes America, but not Israel. I respond as politely as I am able to in my fairly poor Arabic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tyre and Other Lebanese Thoughts

Today, after a bit of a late start, I'm in Tyre. Still no word from the people I met the other night, so I'm going to assume they're not going to contact me. Also,the space bar doesn't work well on this computer, so I'm just ignoring it, and will go back and fix things later, if I remember. But if there are spacing errors, that's why.

Tyre is an old Phoenician city, and had the requisite Greek and Roman presences later on as well. I went to the first half ofthe ruins, and am going to go to theother half (maybe 20 mins walk from thefirst). The otherhalf has the best preserved Hippodrome inthe world, or so says Lonely Planet.

Other notes:
*Beirut, at least, feels very European. French, tobe precise, but either way it's the cleanest city I've beento so far. And the only buildings that have exposed concrete and rebar sticking out the top (perhaps the *real* hallmark of modern Arab Architecture) arethe ones that are stillobviously under construction. And there are a fair amount of those. At one point, I saw maybe a half-dozen cranes in one 30 degree arc.

* In Lebanon, you can exchange US dollars for Lebanese Lira almost everywhere at a rate of 1:1500. Sometimes, you give them money and the change comes back as a mixture of Lira and Dollars. I've heard you can give them a mixture too.

* It's pricey here. Depending on what you're buying, perhaps not quite as expensive as the US, but close.

And, a packing list (subject to modifications as I remember more stuff):

  • 1 Internal frame backpack
  • 1 micro-fill sleeping bag (maybe sheets would've been better?)
  • 1 Beach towel
  • 1 Sham-Wow towel (I mainly use this when I can get away with it)
  • 3 shirts: 2 LL Bean and 1 travelsmith
  • 2 pairs underwear (Ex Officio brand... got 'em at REI)
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 1 pair REI convertible shorts/pants
  • 1 "Ultra-Tourist" vest. I don't actually know what the brand is, but you know the kind I mean... about 23 godzillion pockets in various obvious and hidden places.
  • 1 pair Jeans
  • 1 pair swim trunks
  • 1 pair cargo shorts (haven't worn 'em yet)
  • 1 pair Sneakers
  • 1 pair sandals
  • 1 fleece
  • 1 rain coat
  • 3 Bandanas (haven't used 'em yet)
  • 2 rolls toilet paper
  • Camera and rechargeable batteries (AA) + charger
  • iPod shuffle + charger.
  • Travel alarm clock
  • First aid kit (most used item: Immodium)
  • Crazy-Creek camp chair (haven't used it)
  • Several travel guides and other books

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ultra-Post! Syria part I

So I'm actually writing this series of posts some days after they happened, and in fact while I'm just getting back from Palmyra, waiting in Alex's apartment. I don't know how long he'll be, but this could be a good chance to write.

*A day wasted, but friends made*

So, the night before I leave, I make a call to Alex to confirm any last minute details, and in particular iron out our plans for meeting up. As I will discover later, but frankly already suspected, his address (Bab Musalla, in Front of the Department of the Guards, Floor 3 Door 4) isn't very useful in terms of actually identifying his building. So we estimate my departure time, then set up a rendezvous
in a very public, easily recognizable place. "In front of the Ummayid mosque, between 5 and 6 pm". Figuring I left at between 9 and 10, that left 7 hours for what should only be a 4 hour service taxi ride.

In a bout of horrendous optimism, he even tells me if I get in way earlier, I should give him a call from an internet cafe. I already sense that this is too optimistic, but agree (and also let him know I'll call if I get in later than that).

I do in fact leave about when I plan to, around 9:30. That means I get into the border stop in Syria around noon (forgot to budget for the Jordanian stop, which takes maybe 20 minutes or half an hour). I stand in one of the Foreigners lines, and the officer says something to me, "durka durka one hour, two hours, three hours durka durka Copy passport durka Damascus durka durka next building".

I kind of nod along. Everything I've heard suggests that the part with the time was probably his guess about how long it would take, or more likely a refusal to guess. The copying, I think means he's going to copy my passport, and fax it to Damascus. The next building bit really doesn't make sense to me. I step outside, and the next
building in the direction he pointed isn't for maybe 75 yards, halfway between here and what I then think is the border crossing.

I kind of mill around for a bit, then my service taxi driver comes up to find out what's going on. I explain as best as I can that I don't know what's going on. So he comes and stands in line with me, again, then talks to some dudes, and then talks to me, saying in much more broken English than this, "Look, dude, if it were going to be one hour, maybe, maybe I'd stay. But 2, 3, more? No way, dude. Not in a
million years. There's 3 other people in this cab, and they need to get to Damascus too. My friend here will drive you back to Amman, and you can go to the Syrian Embassy and get your visa there, then come back tomorrow". There's no way that I'm going back to Jordan... that would mean another night, and frankly, I think my best chances at getting the visa are sticking around here. So I tell him to go on, but I'm going to wait at the border, then catch another cab if I can.

I recall that I still haven't figured out what he meant by "other building", so I first go to the "Information and Service" desk, try to explain that I've already been in line, and he said something but I don't know what, but the officer there just points me back in line. So I go to the other window, and while waiting in line, the American ahead of me is told in slightly better English that he needs to go to
the next building over to get a copy of his passport. I finally get it, turn around to go with him, but as I'm leaving, they wave me to come back. I show them my passport, they flip through it, can't find the visa, and tell me to "Go to the next building to get a copy of my passport".

So with the other American, I wander over to the next building. Well, the next open building. There's a Tourist Office between the two in a large hut, but it's locked. There's nothing that looks like a copy machine in this other building, but I go up to a window, and show him my passport, waving over it with my hand as if it were the scanner on a Xerox. He asks if I came in a bus or a taxi, and I tell him taxi, and so he tells me to go back to the building I just came from. "No
no no. I was there. I need a COPY", and again the same hand-wavy gesture. He gets it, and points me on to the next building down, this one pretty much abreast with the checkpoint. I hike over there, ask at a desk about getting my passport copied ("copy"-wave hand over passport), and get pointed to a window that says something like, "Immigration Photography". I hand them my passport, and they copy it, and give me back the copy and the passport.

Okay, so back to the original building. By now it's maybe 12:30, 12:45. I really wish I hadn't wasted that time, clock's a tickin', gotta meet Alex in 4 or 5 hours, and I'm still many miles from Damascus, but what can you do? I hand in my passport, with the copy, and they take both, then tell me to sit down. So I wait. Are
they just gonna call my name? How does this work? I guess it'll be reasonably obvious

Some people sit down next to me, talking among themselves in English. They also clearly don't have their passports copied, so I tell them where to go. One of them stays, so I sit and chat with her while her friends are away. Turns out they're a bunch of American University in Cairo students on Spring Break. Her friends come back, and we sit around some more. And more. She decides to go outside, enjoy looking at the Terrain, which is sorely lacking in Egypt (unless you count
desert). I chat with one of the guys, then we all exchange names. Let's call them Mike-the-Half-Asian, Daniel-from-Venezuela, and Dave-who's-been-here-before. One of Mike's first questions to me was, "Are you half asian?" "No" "Oh. I am, and so I guess I kind of see it in other people even if they're not". Daniel is, as my moniker suggests, from Venezuela. He's lucky (almost), since he can just get
a visa without the several-hour wait from Damascus. Except he doesn't want to leave his friends, so hah, he's gotta wait anyways. And Dave (I've forgotten what his name actually was), spent last summer in Damascus, so he's sortof like the group's guide. They call the girl I was talking with earlier Kasha (Kaja? Kashi?), but I'll later steal a glance at her passport and see that her name is Katherine.

By around 3, we decide we're all hungry, so we go over to the Duty Free/Hotel/Cafeteria that's been set up between the two borders (There's a HOTEL at the border? How long is this going to take?) and grab some lunch. Then, at about 4, I wait for a lull in people coming through then meekly go up to the window to see if there's any news yet. One of the topics of conversation among the five of us (although there are other Americans who have come in and
settled elsewhere) has been what they do to people who ask. We guess that if they don't reject them outright, they probably get delayed. They see me before I get there, and shake their heads morosely. So I sit back down.

Finally, around 5 or 5:30, we sense some movement. One of the two officers who's been on duty all day walks around with a big stack of passports that he's collected from hapless travelers like us. After a few minutes of standing around, I conclude that my time would be better spent sitting. And lo and behold, I am perhaps the second person they call up to give me my passport, point me to the "Banking
Window", and write down $16 on my immigration card. So I go over, pay my $16, get handed a receipt, then walk back to the main window to hand over the receipt and my passport, again. Some stamps (really quite anti-climactic), and I now have a visa in my passport, and can go into Syria.

I should, for a moment, speculate on what I think has happened in this 4-5 hour process. I think they just take all of the passport information and fax it over to some office in Damascus. There, the faxes sit until some bored civil servant gets done with his seventh tea of the day, decides he's about ready to go home, but doesn't want his boss to come in the next morning and see a stack of faxes sitting
there. So he puts his "Approve" stamp on everything, and faxes it back to the border, then goes home for the day. That's when the fun happens at our end.

So as I see the stack of passports coming down the pike, I start asking around to see if there's anybody who is in a group of 3 or less. My friends Mike, Kasha, Daniel, and Dave are 4, so they're a full taxi. I find another girl who says that there's room in their taxi. It turns out she's mistaken, that they too are 4. So I find another group of guys from AUC, and they're only 3. But they decide
that we can probably hitchhike to Damascus. So we start to walk. Through what I thought was the checkpoint. Where nobody asked me for any documentation. In fact, nobody even stopped me. A couple hundred yards down the road, the first car starts to pass us. At this point, I realize that hitchhiking probably won't work---there just aren't enough people coming by to play the odds.

Fortunately, this one is a taxi, and agrees to take the 4 of us to Damascus. The rub is, though, that there's already someone in the taxi, and none of the three of the guys I met up with are particularly small. But it gets even better: The trunk is full, almost to the top, with boxes of Crest toothpaste. So my bag doesn't fit. So not only would we have to cram into the backseat, which as time goes on, seems
to be more and more impossible, we'd have to put my bag on top of us. All the way to Damascus, at least a couple hours from here. I say screw it, let the three guys go on their way, and hope to hail another taxi. I do, tell him where I'm going, and he gives me a price that is actually fairly reasonable. Then some more something, about more people. So he drives, in reverse, back to the border

Where, lo and behold, there are Kasha, Mike, Dave, and Daniel waiting, trying to hail their own cab. They've negotiated with this guy before, apparently unsuccessfully, but finally they decide to get in too. I take shotgun, somewhat selfishly, hoping that the four of them will cram into the back. Nope, instead, Dave, the largest of them at maybe 6'3, gets ushered into the front seat with me. So this makes sense... put the two largest people in the front. Sure.
Anyways, we negotiate to go to Dara'a, a small town near the border, from where we can catch a bus to Damascus. Along the way, we do get our passports checked at the real border crossing, maybe a mile from the border station, which I guess has the different lanes and hutches to look impressive.

In Damascus, we take a taxi downtown, a short walk to the Umayyad Mosque. By now, it's maybe 9:30. So I head over, thinking maybe Alex has had nothing better to do for the last 4 hours than sit around. Maybe he's brought a book... But no such luck. So I ask some random passers-by to point me to an internet cafe, where I Skype Alex, and he tells me to come to Bab Musalla, and there's a Mosque there that he'll meet me in front of. So I wander around through the old city some more, asking people for a place I can catch a cab. I eventually make it there, then to Alex's, where he leads me up to his apartment. I sit down, drink some tea, chat with him and his roommate Cole, another Princetonian with whom I had taken Arabic (though clearly he's stuck with it a bit better). Then I go to bed for some well-earned sleep.

*2 Churches and a Mosque*
The original plan with Alex had been to go out to a Monastery he knew about, go to their midnight Easter service, then stay the night. Unfortunately, this relied upon my arriving by 8 PM at the latest, rather than the 10:30 that it ended up being before I even saw his smiling face. So that plan got scrapped, and we decided we'd get up early and go to the Easter service in Ezra'a, which has the oldest Orthodox and the oldest Catholic churches still functioning in Syria, from the 6th century or so.

So get up we do, and catch a minibus out. It's a bit of a walk from town to the churches themselves, but we figure it's the Christ-like thing to do to walk, rather than take a taxi. Also, cheaper. So we get there, and there's a lot of noise, a band playing, people cheering, what have you. We've been asking for directions to the Catholic church, so at first we think this is what we've found. But then I notice people at the gate pinning crosses of (olive?) leaves to peoples' shirts. I think, wait a minnit... that sounds more like a Palm Sunday thing. "Is this the Orthodox or the Catholic Church?" I ask Alex, and we examine the sign to determine that it is, in fact, the Orthodox (which is a week behind on the liturgical calendar). So we ask a few other people, and finally get to the Catholic church.
Which is completely dead. There's bits of crepe paper, broken egg-shells on the ground. But no sign of people. It's as if they have all ascended into heaven or something. The Orthodox church hasn't even started their service proper, but could the Catholics be done? Did they go to their midnight service then leave? We conclude
that they must start at 11, and since it's only 10, we'll go to the Palm Sunday service down the street for a bit, then head out and go to Easter down the street. Sort of a ultra-compressed Holy Week. So we do, indeed go to the Orthodox church, peace out just before the Cannibalism bit, and try the Catholic church, which is still empty, so we go back to Damascus.

Once there, we go out to lunch in Old Damascus, which is this cramped quarter inside the old city walls. Alex has a meeting with a professor, but gives me his guide book and suggests I just wander around. So I do wander around, getting myself lost in various alleyways, looking at the moat around the walls, and going into the
Ummayid Mosque.

Then, back to Alex's. Except, well, there were a few turns to get from his place to the Old City, and I wasn't paying that much attention because I thought he was gonna be with me when we were coming. So I get lost a couple of times, but eventually manage to make it back there. Except now, I don't remember what his building
looks like. So I show his address to some people ("In front of the Department of the Guards", remember?), and they say, "well, it could be that building, or that building". Neither of which look quite right. Then, some other people have a cell phone, which they very generously loan me to call Alex's number. I tell him that I'm close, but don't remember which building exactly. He leans his head out the
window, then tells me to turn around, where I see him. I head up, rest for a bit, then we go to an Internet Cafe, eat a light dinner, then go to bed.

*Ruins and Busses*

The next day, I head out on my own. Bosra's an old Roman city, south and east of Damascus. The theater there, over the course of the Arab occupation of the Area, gradually got turned into a fortress. And, of course, there are the obligatory ruins just outside of town.

What I found most remarkable about Bosra is the fact that people are living, in many cases, among and atop the ruins. While I was exploring, a local school got out, and so people were walking home from school along a 2 thousand year old colonnaded street.

I also confirmed what I have begun to suspect on this trip: I see things much faster if I'm alone. I don't know that that's a good thing, but it's largely true. On my own, I think I just get bored more easily, or lonely, and eventually head back, whereas if there's other people, we can talk about things, either what we're seeing or totally unrelated things, and thus extend stays, and see things in more

Back in Damascus, I pack up my things. I've decided to head out to Palmyra, where I'll stay the night, try and see the ruins at sunrise, and then come back for one more night in Damascus.

So I head out, catching a bus. The bus stops for about 10 minutes along the road somewhere, pretty middle of nowhere-ish. I get concerned, and even more than that when people begin filing off the bus. I ask the guy sitting in the seat in front of me, in Arabic, "Is there a problem with the bus?" He responds, in Arabic, "Yes. Durka durka Mohammed Jihad". The problem with my Arabic is I can ask questions, but it's far more rare that I'll understand the answer. But he doesn't seem to be moving, and a few minutes later everyone comes back on, and we're back on our way.

Along the way, the attendant comes up to me, and asks to see my ticket. Now, back at the station, a different attendant had pointed me from my seat into an empty seat a little farther up. But now this guy wants me to go back to my assigned seat. Despite the fact that it doesn't look like anyone's getting on or off. So I do, then a few minutes later when it seems like he's done, I go back to my old seat,
the one not assigned to me.

We stop along the way at a small cafe in the middle of nowhere. This is fairly typical, as far as I can tell for these middle eastern buses (and possibly buses everywhere, I haven't ridden enough to say). So I get out, stretch my legs for a while, and start talking with another guy from the bus. "Where are you going?" he asks. I reply that I'm going to Palmyra, at which point he tells me this is Palmyra. My guidebook said the bus stops a bit north of town, so I grab my stuff, and start walking. On a mostly deserted highway. At 11 at night. In thick fog. When a car does pass me, slows down, and asks where I'm going, I'm happy enough to jump in. He takes me to my hotel, where I get a room, set my alarm for sunrise, and go to bed.

I wake up with my alarm, see that it's cloudy, so I go back to sleep. I get up several hours later, and head out to walk to the ruins (maybe 10 minutes from the hotel). Just as I'm about to step out, the proprietor warns me that the weather is bad, and I should take a taxi. I figure he's just trying to get his brother/cousin/friend a tourist to ride in his taxi, since I can see out the window, and it's bright and sunny. I step outside, and a giant wall of wind hits me. It's enough to be mostly unpleasant (and make one understand how a city like this gets buried in sand after it's abandoned). On the other hand, it also makes it comfortably cool, so I take my hat off, and go explore the ruins. I think I can't properly describe it (but unlike Petra, the pictures capture it reasonably well).

I then go back to my hotel, grab my stuff, and go to the bus "station" back to Damascus. I get there just a little bit after the 2 PM bus leaves, but they're supposed to go every hour, so no big deal. I get a ticket for the 3 PM bus, grab a tea, and wait. 3 PM passes. And I Wait. 3:30 passes, along with a bus going the opposite direction. And I WAIT. Finally, at 4:15 the bus to Damascus pulls up with nary an apology. Fortunately, this time there's no hassle about being in the wrong seat.

Back in Damascus I head back to Alex's apartment, where I set up the bed, talk for a while, then go to sleep. One of the things we had talked about was my rain jacket, and in particular how I had felt it wasn't a good investment of space in my bag, given that I've been in mostly desert countries and had only just the hint of rain in Wadi Rum. Since Alex'll be at Berkeley next year, I try to foist it off on him, but he doesn't really have room for it either, so I hold on to it.

The next day, I head back to one of Damascus's 3 or so major bus stations (that I know of), and catch a service taxi to Beirut. It's a little cold when I leave, and mostly cloudy. By time I get to the bus station, it's pretty much all cloudy. And by time the service taxi leaves, there are rain drops starting to come down. By time we hit the Lebanese border, it's pouring. And I am so glad I didn't leave my raincoat in Damascus.

I spent most of yesterday just wandering around downtown Beirut, getting rained on at various intervals (but thankfully I had my coat). At dinner, I met some Lebanese people who took me clubbing. The same people have said they're going on a road trip to northern Lebanon this weekend, and were supposed to send me an email, but I haven't heard anything yet. All the same, I think this trip has been good for my faith in humanity. It's good to know that I can just randomly travel around and meet friendly people. Like today, where I tagged along with two Swiss girls from my hotel, wandering around, getting breakfast, and going to the National Museum.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Blogger doesn't work well in Syria

It's apparently mostly banned, but the posting facility is sortof functional... I'll write up stuff on my friend Alex's computer, save it as a text file on my flash drive, then post when I get into Turkey (or Lebanon?)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Safe in Damascus

I'm safe in Damascus, but need to meet up with my friend alex soon... Bye!

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Castle and a City

Today I went with Liz and Lena, from Austria and Switzerland, respectively, to Ajloun and Jerash.

Ajloun is a castle that Salah ad-Din's nephew built to maintain his hold on the Jordan Valley. Pretty cool castle, overall, but it lacked any sort of explanation beyond "Hey, this is a castle Salah ad-Din's nephew built. Mongols tore it down, then somebody else rebuilt it". So first off... Mongols? In Jordan? Good job, guys. Frankly, I'm impressed the Crusaders got there, and they stopped in Constantinople to get supplies (well, sacked it is more like, but To-may-to to-mah-to). Also: there was a small museum, which had hilarious english explanations for things. Seriously, if it was just spelling errors, that'd be fine... but the grammar was way weird too. I forgot to take any pictures or write it down, but trust me... it was hilariously bad.

On the same note as hilarious signs, in my hotel there were signs up saying, "We serve guests like you as good food" and "If you don't see what you're looking for, you've come to the right place".

Then, we went on to Jerash, an old Roman city (well, older than that, but Rome was it's heyday), that just sortof faded to nothingness, and then (my guidebook claims) was swallowed by the sand for about a thousand years, to be rediscovered in the 19th century, then excavated in the 20th. Very well preserved, overall, although lots of roofs were missing and that sort of thing. Anyways, I have lots of awesome pictures from that which I'll show you all later.

Tomorrow: Syria, in sha allah!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Deuteronomy 34:4

"This is the land I was talking about when I solemnly promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I would give land to their descendants. I have let you see it, but you will not cross the Jordan and go in."

First off, an apology on photography. I haven't been posting pictures here because the internet is slow in the middle east, and it would be about a 40 second per picture investment, which in addition to figuring out what pictures I want and transferring them off the camera (which isn't always possible on these computers), would take more time than I feel like spending. When I get to Europe, maybe I'll post some. Another apology: I forgot my camera today, when going to Madaba, Mt. Nebo, and the Dead Sea. It's okay... I'll know I was there.

Madaba is an old seat of a Byzantine bishop, which meant there was a lot of wealth, which they spent on really nice mosaics. Like, lots of churches with mosaics. Including one that's a 6th century map of the Holy Land. Very cool, and because the pieces are rock (not colored tiles) they haven't faded much.

Then, to Mt. Nebo, where Moses went up and looked on the Holy Land, then promptly died before reaching it. I feel a little like that, since I won't actually be crossing into Israel on this trip (maybe 2013-2014 right before my passport expires). All the same... what was Moses thinking?? He couldn't have just gone around the southern side of the dead sea? The Trans-jordan is actually out of the way, coming from Egypt.

After that, I went to the Dead Sea. It was really cool, just floating in there in the water. And you do float. If you float vertically, with no effort at all you float up to your mid-chest. If you try to do a breast-stroke, you can't really use your legs, since they float above the water. Back stroke is the most effective. A caution though, and a lesson I learned the hard way: keep hands away from your eyes. It is, shall we say, not pleasant, even if you're trying to wipe drops of already salty water away.

For the next couple days: tomorrow, i'm going to Jerash, an old Roman city, very well preserved (not quite to Pompeiian levels, but among the best outside of Italy), and Ajloun, a castle that Salah ad-Din built to fight against the Crusaders. On Saturday, I head to Syria. I've heard that getting a visa at the border is doable, but potentially slow. I'm just hoping that travelling on the Jewish Sabbath will convince them that I'm okay (I've also never been to Israel). We'll see!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Amman's gotta do what Amman's gotta do

So starting from where I left off last night, I got back to my hotel, and sat down to dinner, which they had provided (for 5 JD). For those who have been wondering, I have been eating meat here. Mostly it's a When-In-Rome kind of approach, but also my other major reasons for meat minimalism in general are somewhat moot: I don't know that there's much factory farming that happens here, so you avoid the double-whammy of huge environmental impacts and questionable ethics.

Over dinner, I chatted with another person in the hotel, a teacher from Michigan originally, but who now works in Botswana! After dinner, she decided that she'd like to try some Jordanian beer, and I decided I would too, so we went to a nearby liquor store and picked up two cans of Petra Beer (the 8% abv isn't too bad... sortof lager-y, but the 10% really isn't worth it) and a flask of عرق- "Arak", which is basically Arab Ouzo. I haven't really had Ouzo, so I don't know how different it is. Over our alcoholic beverages, we pulled out our respective iPods and swapped music. And then she named me in Setswana (the language in Botswana): I am now, in addition to Peter, Pedro, Boutros, and PeaCombs, "Malebogo" which means "thank you".

Alisha (for that is her name) went to Petra today, while I mainly took it slow and explored eastern Amman, which is called "downtown". Again, not hugely high-density anything. I went and saw some of the old Roman ruins--a public fountain and amphitheatre--then went and saw the Byzantine and Ummayid Citadel on the hill above the city. The highlight of that, I think, was the Archealogical museum they have up there, which covers the history of jordan from roughly the Neolithic up until the Ummayids. In addition to some more artifacts from Petra and the Nabateans, they had pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibition.

After that, I came down the hill and had originally planned on walking much of the length of the city, but then I realized that it was actually pretty big, so I turned back, although I did get to explore a busy market area.

I went back to the hotel, and decided to sit down for a bit before checking out Darat al-Funuun--"The Little House of the Arts", where I was told that our hotel has a rooftop to sit on. Upon going up, I noticed laundry lines, so I washed my other clothes (which hadn't happened in just a bit too long) in my sink, and hung them out to dry. Then, I went to the Arts House, which is right near the hotel, athough my attempts to locate it yesterday were not successful. And it's too bad that they were unsuccessful, because I get there to discover that at the moment they're between exhibitions, and the last one closed... yesterday! Oh well. I did enjoy a nice cup of tea in their garden. Then I walked around in the neighborhood, which was quite nice. I think, when I become fabulously wealthy, that's one place I'll buy a house. It was mostly quiet villas (and the odd Embassy) built into the hillside, with lots of foliage and occaisional bursts of wild mustard and thistle.

I go back to my hotel, then go out to get dinner. I have a large helping of amazing hummous, some falafel balls, a large piece of pita bread*, and a glass of tea. I think it was probably better than last night's Magloubeh (Chicken and rice and vegetables, basically), so I was expecting to pay about the same. Nope. 1 JD. You can bet they'll have my business in the future. For the next couple days, at any rate.

All right, my hour is almost up (and I just installed skype, too!). Tomorrow: The Dead Sea!

*Not quite how I make it. It ends up being thicker than what I make, and wider at the same time. Also, I think it's with white flour. I haven't seen how they make it, though, but the coloring is solid tan on one side, and speckled tan on the other.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Landscape of Merry and Desperate Drought

So, as I implied in my last post, I went to Wadi Rum. Again, gorgeous, indescribable landscapes. I took lots of pictures, but I don't think they did it any justice. We'll see when I get them onto a bigger screen. Also: It rained. In the desert! Not very much, but it did lead to some impressive views (that probably didn't photograph well).

Then, there was some excitement getting to Amman, where I am now. So the tour was 45 JD through my hotel, which I had been led to understand was all-inclusive. Not wanting to haul my main backpack along on the minibus, I left it in my hotel, taking just my day bag and sleeping bag. So on the bus, the guy tells me and the other person from my hotel on the same tour that we're only covered for one direction of transport. It turns out that what our hotel had said was that after the night camping, we get taken back to Rum Village, from which we can catch the bus. Okay, fine. You should've been more clear. But it's 5 J.D. each way, which isn't so bad. Also there's a 2 J.D. entrance fee to the park, which we hadn't been informed of.

So we get into our tour operator, and someone else from the same minibus, but not having booked through the hotel, walks in, and the (British) girl working there explains that it's 35 J.D. for the tour. So our hotel, with the 1 way transport, took a 5 J.D. markup, which is fair.

Anyways, we get back from the tour of the desert and camping in the bedouin camp, and we're led to expect that the bus will swing by the in-town office to pick us up. Except it doesn't. Apparently it was already full, so decided to skip us, and this is a regular occurence on Tuesdays. So, me and the other guy from the same hotel, who also left his bag there, have a couple options: a) hire a taxi (35 JD total, 1.5-2 hours), or b) hitchhike (maybe 5JD, God-only-knows how long). I figure that it's better to make it there faster, from which we're more likely to be able to catch a microbus to Amman. Except, on the way, somehow we bargain with the taxi driver to take us on to Amman for 60JD total, or a bit less if we can find more people in Petra. Except when we get there, apparently all the busses to Amman have left already. So it's just the 2 of us, and the trip that I was expecting to be maybe 5 JD from Petra just 36 hours earlier ended up costing me 30 JD. Hooray for 600% markups due to situation!

Having wandered just a little bit through what I thought was downtown Amman, I'm not sure there is a downtown. It seems like mostly light commercial mixed with light-to-moderate residential areas. I'll wander a bit more and see what I can find. In terms of City-feel, I think if Cairo is New York, Amman feels a bit like Seattle, although I can't yet put my finger on why (it certainly isn't the weather... that's actually quite like home).

Also: for the list of coordinates for the map thingy on the right: right here!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Princetonian Peter, Polish Piotr partner, peruse Petra

Petra is absolutely incredible. Neither pictures nor words will do it justice.

I did meet a guy on the bus, though, who I ended up splitting a hotel room with. His name is Piotr, which was just too funny to pass up.

Also: I may end up going to Wadi Rum after all. My hotel organizes a trip for 45 J.D., which while not cheap, is at least relatively affordable.

Okay, this keyboard sucks, so I'm going to sign off now.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Some thoughts

* First off, looks like I won't be going to Wadi Rum. It was going to be a little bit too pricey an affair. So straight on to Petra tomorrow. It seems that there are considerable savings to be had a) in groups, and b) with advanced planning, so there's the disadvantage of this way of going about things. Perhaps next time I'm in the area (and there probably will be a next time), in Sha' Allah.

* Aqaba, at least, feels like a cleaner, prettier Egypt. Many of the same styles of architecture that you'll see around, the people are more or less the same (but not quite as tackily dressed), but there just isn't as much trashh lying around in conspicuous piles on the street, and you don't have to play what Sundae has termed "Life Frogger" to cross in front of cars. Now, to be fair, Aqaba is Jordan's only port, and so I think it's sort of like their resort town. You also end up paying a lot more for things here than in Egypt. My hotel room was 17 J.D., which is almost 25 USD, whereas I could get a similar room in egypt for maybe 15 USD (70 L.E.)

* I tempted fate. Last night, I was saying that I've been amazed that, so far, I haven't had any digestive troubles. Whoops. Hopefully the immodium will help. Nothing too bad, though.

* The beach was awesome. Nothing too special on the shore, just fine-gravelly sand. But once you get into the water, maybe 30 feet from shore you start seeing the most amazing fish, coral, urchins, what have you. Really, quite incredible. Unfortunately, it was a bit windy, so whenever I was on the surface, I got a little chilly. The water itself was a bit cool, but fine once you got used to it.

There were more, I'm sure, but I forgot them before I could get to something to write with.

I'm really not good at titling these

So my last post, I think, left off just before the title would actually come in. So as the boat is pulling into Aqaba, and we're getting off, the customs officer forms people into two lines: one for those with visas, and one for those without. Apparently we could've gotten visas on the boat, but by time one of us thought to check, they had just closed the window for doing that. We think they made some announcements about it, but in Arabic only over speakers that, even if they had made an announcement in English, I'm not certain I could've understood anyways.

So they take our passports, then herd us off the boqat into a waiting area. We explain to everyone that we can that we didn't get a stamp on the boat, and that we don't have our passports, but as time goes on I get more and more panicked because I'm in a foreign country and I don't have my passport because some official took it. Eventually, though, they do bring us our passports, stamped with a Jordanian visa. *phew*

We get into town, find a hotel, then head out to explore for a bit. Mainly, though, we just end up sitting in sea-side coffee shops and chatting over tea and hookah.

Today, I've spent some time trying to find out whether it's possible to do a camel trek in Wadi Rum, a rocky-deserty area (I think it is... though it's not clear to me how much an all-day thing will be. Probably not more than 100 USD or so), some time in this internet cafe, and now i'm going to see about either hanging out on a beach, or going snorkeling. Then tomorrow: Wadi Rum!

The terrain here is pretty rugged, very mountainous and dry. I'm trying to think of an appropriate comparison to something in the states, but can't at the moment. I haven't really been to Sedona, but that might be closest.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another stamp in the passport

I made it to Jordan!

After writing the last post, I went back to the hotel, collected my bags, and said good-bye to Evan. It turns out he had met someone else from our hostel in Cairo, and had plans to hang out with him. I, meanwhile, hopped on the train to Alexandria, which was surprisingly punctual in pulling out of the station. I suppose I ought not be too surprised... the trains run approximately hourly, so there's not much reason for them to leave late. It got in only 15 minutes late, too, which was just fine.

From the train station, I walked over to the bus station (probably about 20 minutes), bought a bus ticket to Nuweiba on the eastern Sinai peninsula, and sat and waited. The bus was far less punctual than the train in leaving. Since there was no schedule for stops, I can't say whether it was good at all at arriving, either. Sitting behind me on the bus was, I kid you not, a circus troupe. I was surprised to hear that they were, but not too surprised given their somewhat bohemian appearance. I wish I could tell you that they were exciting and cool, but really on the bus everyone mostly just curled up and went to sleep.

Now, for me this was a somewhat dicey proposition. Public transit anywhere isn't known for spacious accomodations, and busses are no exception. The seats barely provided me adequate leg room if I twisted my whole body and put my legs into the space of the seat next to me. This was fine, as when the bus pulled out of the station, there wasn't anybody sitting there. Then, to my dismay, at the other cairo bus stop, a man sits down next to me. So there I am, sitting with my knees in the back of the person in front of me, and still taking up some of the room of the person next to me. Surprisingly, I did manage to get to sleep, and actually slept reasonably well for the trip. When the circus troupe got off at an earlier stop than mine, though, the man sitting next to me immediately moved to a different seat, and I think we both breathed a sigh of relief.

Upon arriving in Nuweiba, I head to the Port Authority. The guard there asks me for my passport, which I show to him. He then tries to explain, no, not that passport. "Tickes" "Ah, you mean ticket? Where do I get it?" He then points me in the right direction, where there is a small courtyard with a picture of a boat on a sign with prices that approximately matched what I was supposed to pay for the ferry, but $15 higher. I asked some people I had heard speaking English whether they could undertand arabic any better than I could, and together we figured out the prices for the high speed ferry, and bought tickets. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these three british girls studying in Alexandria would be my buddies for the day. We asked the person at the ticket window, then pretty much every other person we could think of when the ferry left. Nobody seemed to have a good idea (up to and including people on the ferry), but my book said "noon, but show up an hour early", and some people said 2pm, some people 4 pm.

We got some tea, chatted, then decided to take a walk into the port authority, probably around 10 am. Once there, we are pointed to a large hall of people sitting around, and then in there to another large hall of people in line, and we're handed departure cards. I head to the back of the line, and start filling out my card on one of the mini-desks, when a police man comes up to me and pulls me to the head of the line, saying something about 6 hours (I thought he was saying if we miss the ferry, the next one isn't for six hours. One of the girls thought he said the line was 6 hours long. Either way, not pleasant.). So I get my passport stamped, and head out to the large hall of people waiting. By now it's no later than 10:30, and our most reliable attempts at communicating seem to say the ferry leaves at 2. Nevertheless, we get herded onto a bus, which leaves for the boat after only about 15 minutes. The bus stops outside the ferry, which we hop on, still attempting to gain some idea of our departure time, which now seems to be "whenever everyone is on".

We sit down, start reading, chatting, attempting to nap, when at 11:30, the boat's engine roars to life, and we pull away from the quay in short order. Half an hour before my Egypt guide book says the fast ferry is supposed to leave. 3 hours before the earliest estimate we'd heard from a live person. A full 5 hours before my Jordan guide book says the Nuweiba-Aqaba leg leaves. But hey, I don't mind getting in early.

On the boat, more napping and reading. I finish the battered 1964 printing of From Russia with Love that I picked up for 5 L.E. in Alexandria...

Okay, gotta go now, but tomorrow looks like mostly just lounging on the beach, so no reason I won't post the rest!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The rest of Siwa

So yeah, that last post was a lie, at least in that it's a "full report". One thing I forgot to mention was that, while out by the Temple of the Oracle, we also went swimming in "Cleopatra's Bath", a natural spring. Now, I'm sure some part of me knew that Oases were fed by springs and not lakes or something, but it certainly wasn't the first thing I thought there would be. It also turns out that some of these springs are hot. Cleopatra's is just moderately warm (which was a pleasant surprise. I was excpecting it to be chilly).

I also promised to write more about the trip into the Desert. There were 5 of us total, and they took us to the Great Sand Sea, where there are lots of dunes. And more dunes. And a few springs, but mostly dunes. We tried some sand boarding, which is fun, except then you have to carry the board back up the large dune, and that turns out to be a hassle. There are also some fossils out there--it was neat to see a bed of broken sea shells in the middle of the Sahara.

Then we went to our campsite, out by another hot spring. We ate bedouin food, which was basically a vegetable stew, rice, and chicken, then spent the evening hanging out around a campfire. The stars were gorgous, when they were out, although it was cloudy for a lot of the time. Having learned my lesson on the coldness of the night-time desert, I slept inside the tent they had. I woke up early to try and take a picture of the sunrise, but alas there were still clouds, so I went back to sleep.

After waking up again, we went back to town, where Evan and I caught the next bus to Alexandria. This one was far more pleasant (aside from some confusion about our seats... despite the fact that the bus was less than half full, the conductor wanted us in our assiged seats for departure). We got into Alexandria around 6pm, then found a hotel, took showers, ate dinner, and passed out.

Today, I went off to explore Alexandria. I went to the catacombs of Kom Al-Shuqafa. Built in the 2nd century AD, with a mix of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian artistic elements. All of the mummies seem to have been moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the tomb carvings were neat. I then walked by Pompeii's pillar, wandered through town, and then went out to the Fortress of Qait Bey, which stands guarding the harbor. I've decided to skip the Library, though, since it's a little out of the way, and having been there before, it's not really anything special. I did take some pictures of it from across the harbor though.

On the next few days: Tonight, I'm taking the train down to Cairo, after which I plan on trying to get the night bus to Nuweiba. From there, I'll take the ferry over to Jordan, so In sha' allah, I'll be in Jordan by this time tomorrow. I did leave some leeway in my schedule, so I think I'm safe from Egypt time, but we'll see. Once in Aqaba, I think I'll stay there for a couple nights to recuperate, perhaps go snorkeling in the red sea. And then from there: Petra!