Saturday, November 27, 2010

Damascus, Syria

The courtyard at Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Damascus and I did not start off on the right foot. After assuring me a ride to my hotel, my ride dropped me off at a minibus station about 10km outside of town. In my frustration, I left my brand new helmet in the bus. I wore it for exactly 2km and owned it for maybe eight hours. Also, my back rack's vertical supports broke on the van ride. It made for an interesting ride in to the city with the supports trying to grind on the tires. Lesson learned, never pay for your ride before getting to your destination.

My broken back rack.

My broken back rack.

A Damascus neighborhood.

Once I finally got into the city, life was better. I found a bike shop that would be able to help me the next day. Damascus had a good vibe and Lebanon had restored me enough to have patience with the unpleasant bits. At least, it did until I tried to buy a new rack and helmet the next morning. At first, I could not leave because I was locked in the hostel. The night guy would not wake up. I made vocal noises. I knocked loudly. He was having none of it. Not even a stir. Maybe, I should have jumped on or thrown stuff at him. Once he finally woke up, I headed for the bike shop I had checked out on foot the night before.

My new bike rack.

Miraculously, the price of a back rack had gone up 80 syrian pounds overnight. The honest old guy from the night before wasn't there. The morning young guy was trying to make a couple extra bucks. I didn't like it, but had grown use to this type of behavior and didn't let it get me fired up. However, not being able to buy a helmet in any bike shops and then getting hit by a car five minutes later did bother me. I was on the right side. The car was behind me. It pulled up on my left side and turned right. I said hello to his mirror and then bobbed, weaved, and was just able to keep my feet. The tire was misaligned and I had a couple cuts, but I was alright. The driver stopped for about 10 seconds and then drove away without a word.

Souq al-Hamidiyya. Check out the bullet holes in the roof.

Trendy winter jackets to wear over the boring burka.

An old Roman gate at the entrance to the Souq al-Hamidiyya

Bakdash ice cream shop prepares their type of ice cream.

The only solution to my car grumpiness was ice cream. After dropping by bike off at the hostel, I headed out on foot for Bakdash, an ice cream restaurant in the Souq al-Hamidiyya. On the way through the souq to the ice cream parlor, you could see evidence of Syria's national rebellion against France in 1925. There are bullet wholes in the roof from planes strafing runs.
When I got to the ice cream parlor, it was flooded with locals, a sure sign I was in for a treat. Bakdash serves up a pistachio-covered ice cream with an elastic texture from its main ingredients mastic and sahlab. I'm not going to say it was Ben & Jerry's, but it was enough to put a smile on my face.

Umayyad Mosque courtyard.

Umayyad Mosque courtyard.

Two different pilgrimage groups at Umayyad Mosque.

John the Baptist's shrine at Umayyad Mosque.

With restored confidence, or at least a full belly, it was time to explore again. I went to two pilgrimage sites, the Umayyad Mosque, the 4th holiest place in Islam, and Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque. While I loved the buildings, the atmosphere was a bit overwhelming. As major pilgrimage sites, there were people making journeys from who knows how far to be close to the people who played important roles in the founding of Islam. Umayyad Mosque is rumored to have John the Baptist's head, but a few other places make that claim as well. I wonder if anyone has ever just opened the box to check. The site also has, more importantly, the shrine of Hussein, the son of Ali, the grandson of the Prophet. The Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque is dedicated to the daughter of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

Part of the Hussein shrine at Umayyad Mosque.

Reaching out to be closer to the Hussein shrine at Umayyad Mosque.

Umayyad Mosque.

Walking the street to a pilgrimage mosque.

Visiting those sites was a very emotional experience for people. Some came in large groups being told the histories of their religious heroes. It was interesting to see the different clothing styles of the different groups that came through. Other people came to the Holy sites as individuals. Some were quietly reflecting. Others were shedding tears and a few were wailing in sorrow. It made me a little uncomfortable to be passing through as a tourist with no emotional attachment. No one said a word to me. It was my own feeling.

Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque

Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque courtyard and inner shrine.

Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque shrine.

Praying at the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque.

Along the way to see those mosques, I passed two great example of old architecture, Azem Palace and Khan As'ad Pasha. Azem Palace was built in 1750 for the Ottomans. It had two large areas, one private and one for public functions. In the center was a large courtyard. My favorite feature was the horizontally striped stone that is created by laying down a layer of black basalt followed by a layer of limestone. The Khan As'ad Pasha is the largest example of a khan in Damascus. Khan's were large inns with courtyards that housed caravans when they stopped in town. This one was conveniently located in the souq which, I am guessing, would be the main stop for any caravan passing through town.

Khan As'ad Pasha.

Azem Palace hamam.

Azem Palace.

These old courtyards make for great restaurant settings.

After fighting the masses going to and from the pilgrimage sites, I needed another refresher. I went back to Bakdash for a second helping of elastic ice cream. It was just as good as the first, maybe better, because it was hotter in the afternoon. When I got back to the hostel, I restarted a conversation I had been having with a Dutch bike tourer. She had come from Holland and was hoping to make it all the way to South Africa. She was only doing 50-60km a day, so she was, very smartly, taking it easy. One of the things about her trip that made it special was that she was hand delivering letters to people in towns along the way. I didn't know anyone in Africa to have her deliver to, but I took one from her to drop off with her grandfather in Buena Vista, CO. Ahh, to be a bike messenger again.

Standard cafe serving up coffee, tea, and hashish.

A different kind of spice rack.

The regular spice rack.

During my last night in Damascus, I was wandering the streets. I saw a juice bar that had a line half way around the block. I passed it by at first, but when I came back, I decided I had to find out what all the fuss was about it. The fuss, at least for me, was that they were not serving juice. They were serving smoothies and I had been missing them since leaving the States. After placing your order, you wait a few minutes before they serve up your huge drink in a glass jar. There are no to go cups. You just take the glass, drink it on the street, and return it when you are done. It was a neat set up and very, very tasty. It was a great way to close out my time in Damascus.

Juice bar.

The next morning, I hit the road. I just wanted to get out of the major cities and back to the rural areas. A recent University of Michigan study found that people learn better after walking in nature than walking in a busy urban environment, suggesting that the barrage of information leaves people tired. I was definitely feeling that through out the Middle East as I was always having my senses assaulted and rarely had quiet time on the bike anymore. As I was heading out to the rural area, my senses picked up one more thing that wasn't right. Something was rubbing on my tire. When weighted down, the new back rack was touching my back tire. I had to take if off and jump on it a few times to bend the metal so that it would not touch the tire anymore. It was a pretty silly, but fun fix at 6am on the Syrian streets. On to Bosra.

Pictures of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were everywhere, but sometimes there were also pictures of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah like on this shawarma restaurant. The Syrian conservatives triumvirate?

Monday, November 22, 2010


I've been crazy busy these past couple weeks in Jordan and Egypt. I just ran out of time to blog or as I like to say, I was out living instead of writing about living.

I fly out of Cairo today. After a 13 hour layover in NYC, I'll be in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving and my birthday. Then, I'm driving back to Colorado. When I get back there, I'll mix in updating this blog with the rest of my trip with job hunting and a possible South American adventure.