Ma'asalama Middle East

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
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Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Flag of United Kingdom  ,
Friday, November 1, 2002

2 Entries this time. My European tour visiting new and old friends and a last concluding entry.

-- Ma'asalama Middle East

"Ma'asalama" ... Good bye... I arrived in Amman from Cyprus for a quick one day stay before catching my flight to London.

Returning to Amman was like coming back to my old stomping grounds. After all, I'd spent over 2 weeks in this city over the passed 8 months. The longest I'd spent in any city.

I had arrived at 2am and haggled my way to a decent fair for a taxi to the Cliff hotel, as usual, the taxi drivers were up to their old tricks.

"Cliff, no no no, very bad. I know better hotel."

I laughed, slumped over my pack in the back seat and tsk'ed, as one does in Jordan.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk, I know the Cliff, it's very good, take me there." I said. He continued his slightly amusing my-hotel-is-better lecture until we finally arrived at the Cliff.

When I knocked on the door and woke Sam, the owner's son, he peered through a fog of sleep into the hall.

"Sam, open up, it's Luc!"

He's eyes popped open. "Luc! Come in! Where have you been?"

It had been 3 months since my last visit at the Cliff. He quietly snuck me into a tiny room where I could get some sleep while I waited for the morning, when I could be given a proper bed.

The next day I set out to accomplish the one task I had been thinking about for a long time, buying a Nargila. I'd wanted a water pipe for a long time but didn't want to carry it with me. Now was my chance to buy one before going to London.

I managed to haggle a nice, uniquely black Nargila with a fresh supply of tobacco and went back to the hotel to meet some new guests and to catch up with Sam.

After meeting with some old fiends in Amman, I went to sleep early, to get some much needed rest.

The next morning I awoke as the 5am call to prayer filled the air.

It was quiet outside, which was a change. The music vendors outside my window, who had the nasty habit of blasting music all day, hadn't woken up yet. The mosques Arabic chants filled the air.

That morning it sounded less of an invitation to Muslims and more of a song. I sat up on my bed, removed my earplugs and listen to what I knew would be the last time I'd hear the now familiar prayers for a long time.

When the time finally came to leave later that morning, I picked up my baggages, which had grown to a backpack, a daypack, a cardboard box and a Nargila, and climbed into my taxi to the airport.

As we rolled out of Amman, into the desert which lead to the Airport, I smiled and said,

"Bye bye Amman."

The taxi driver overheard me and stopped humming to the radio, "Bye bye Amman eh?"

"Yeah... Ma'asalama"

-- London, Reunion

I had been thinking of my 3-week stop over in London, for months. Thoughts of visiting old and new friends in western Europe seemed so far distant before, something I would do, months, weeks, days, and now, just hours from now. Those 3 weeks would be my last 3 weeks abroad before making the last jump over the Atlantic to end my 9-month Asian adventure.

Leaving the desert carpeted country of Jordan behind, and flying into a bitterly cold, ultra-modern London didn't quiet register until I landed. I was staying with Linda while I was in London and she was waiting for me at the arrivals hall along with hundreds of other onlookers scrutinizing each passenger exiting the gate for a sign of recognition.

Linda had brought me a jacket and a scarf, something I didn't realize just how much I would need until we left the terminal.

"My God! It's freezing!" I shouted upon seeing my breath materialize into cloud of white mist.

It was a sunny day but the dry cold weather was so bitter that I imagined that it would snow at any moment. Somehow the weather report I'd seen on CNN that morning in balmy Amman didn't leave me thinking it would be that cold.

I remembered leaning over to the French rock climber sitting next to me with wild hair and half a dozen earrings on each ear to say "Ahh, 10 degrees in London, that doesn't sound too cold", he laughed a sympathetic burst. He knew.

The first few hours of decompression as you arrived into a new city where always the strangest. Those were the hours during which you noticed the little changes. The hours in which you adjusted, changed your attitude and behavior according to the local etiquette.

As we motored home in a classically British looking, black cab, I gazed out of the windows. I was smiling ear to ear. The weather reminded me of home, as did the passing view. Modern suburbs, well-paved roads, for all I knew I could have been in a Canadian town. It was the last step before going home, and I could feel it.

On the way home, I couldn't help but to pause every so often, look out the window and say "My God, I'm in London" looking on realizing that I had been thinking of that bit of the trip for over 7 months.

-- Home sweet home...

Linda lived in a posh London neighborhood where every second passing car bore a Mercedes or Porsche label. Well-dressed new mothers proudly displayed their Gap adorned babies, as they strolled down the streets carriage in toe.

I wasn't sure what to expect but when we arrived at Linda's I was pleasantly surprised. Her apartment, which she shared with 2 other roommates was a welcome change to my 8 months of hotels.

It's the little things that you notice. Within the first hour of settling in, little discoveries were made.

"Wow, I can actually flush the toilette paper without clogging the toilette?"

"Woah, a sit down toilette, no more squatting."

"The water's drinkable here right?"

Once those first few curious hours of adjustment passed, I quickly adapted to my new home which was reminiscent of my home back in Canada.

--

After some quick talks over where to spend the upcoming time off Linda had book from work, we settled on Ireland and plopped down in front of the TV. Sitting at home and watching TV on the couch was one of those things that you wouldn't think of as a moment to cherish, but I soon realized how much I missed down just that, not that I did it much at home, but it was nice all the same.

-- Reunion

The plan was to meet some friends that I had met on my trip, in London, for a night out. In all 12 people were invited to a Saturday night get together. Unfortunately, all 12 either had other plans or couldn't make it.

Oddly enough, the only person who could come, other than myself and Linda was Justin. I'd received an email from Justin, a member on my website ( TravelPod ) and at the time a stranger to me, which he'd sent to TravelPod Admin thinking a fleet of tech support engineers would receive it. It turned out that Justin was also in London on a short break from his travels, so, I invited him out.

Despite the low turn out, we had a good time, only to be stopped by the ridiculously early 11pm closing time at the pub.

We passed the rest of the weekend doing very little, simply laying in front of the tele watching rented videos. After 9 months of travel, I couldn't ask for much more. I was happy.

-- Monday Madness

When Monday rolled around, Linda was off to work and I was ready with a long list of logistics.

Laying in bed that morning I heard a horribly familiar sounds from outside.

"SCCCRRRAAAPEEE"

"Linda, is that what I think it is?"

I rolled over to push the drapes open a bit.

"Yep, that's what I thought it was" I said shaking my head as I looked down to see a woman scraping ice off of her BMW's windshield. It was just like winter back home. A world away from the warm and sunny days in the middle east.

That day I bundled up as much as I could before heading out. With Linda's slightly too short jacket, scarf and my only long sleeve shirt.

I ran out to catch the tube. It only took a few minutes to figure out the London tube, a fantastically far reaching and efficient metro system. By the end of the day I actually found myself giving other people advice about which line to take or which button to push on the automatic ticket machines.

It was a busy day. Flight tickets for a short trip to Belgium and Holland, email, money, train tickets, my schedule was full.

I managed to get most of my chores done but I still hadn't found any decently priced clothes that I could buy. I wasn't planning on borrowing Linda's clothes for 3 weeks and was on the look out for a nice warm shirt.

After 7 shops I was ready to give up when I suddenly noticed people starring oddly at me in the streets. They were looking at my chest. I walked by a large clean window to see what the fuss was about in my pale reflection. When I looked, I knew what was up. My shirt, which I had bought in Israel and was actually the nicest shirt I owned, had a V shaped neck, which opened quiet low. With my jacket zipper slightly opened, only my bare chest was showing. I must have looked as though I was topless under that jacket.

That was it, I needed clothes, and fast. I ducked into Marks and Spencers in a determined shopping frenzy finding a perfectly warm, thick and, most importantly, a very "chest-covering" pullover.

On the way to the cash register a leather jacket caught my eye and tickled my spontaneous mood. I threw it on, took a quick glance in the mirror, and to the clerks delight, dropped it on the counter. "I'll take this too."

Just as he was wrapping everything, I pulled the clothes out and asked if I could change into them before leaving.

Walking out of the store, confidence restored, I now blended into the crowd. Entering as a potentially half-naked lunatic roaming the streets of London and leaving as another shadow in the crowded streets.

I spent the rest of the day ducking in and out of tubes and trains to finally end up back home, exhausted.

-- Side Trip to Brighton

"Hey, just got your call, when did you arrive?" Tom's voice crackle on the phone.

"Last weekend, so when's a good time to come down to Brighton?"

"Right, umm.. well tomorrow would be perfect."

"Done!"

I had met Tom in Pushkar and we'd traveled to Delhi together. Tom nursed me back to health during my most violent episodes of atomic-diarrhea mixed with full-body-convulsions. He lived 1 hour south of London, in Brighton, a small, university town full of energy.

The next morning I hoped on a train and headed down to Brighton to visit.

--

"Hey, Luc!" I jumped up, and turned to see a tall, dread locked, scruff, smiling with his hand extended.

It was Tom. He hadn't changed a bit and after 10 minutes of the slightly uncomfortable chatter which always kick starts a reunion, we slipped back into a routine of telling a long series of animated stories. Tom had a great memory, he had remembered small details from 7 months ago in India and other little things I'd told him. He was also working on a travelogue but he was keeping his offline for now.

"Yeah, it's 200 pages and I haven't even reached the part where I meet you!" he said before laughing. Tom always laughed a short, jerky, series of pops when ending one of his endless streams of stories, which usually brought me into hysterics, causing me to double over and slowly swallow my mouthful of ale.

After we caught up, we walked around the town. Unfortunately, as with most days around this time of the year, it was drizzling. A cold gray day. We walked down to the water front where a pebbly beach infested with pigeons looked out onto the sea.

"Yeah, not exactly the best time of the year to come to the beach." Tom said laughing.

We visited a palace, one which Tom hadn't even visited and walked back up an almost vertical climb to Tom's house for drinks.

Tom lived with 2 other musicians in a small house, which looked much like the other ones lining the streets of Brighton. Colorfully painted and each identical to the other.

That night Tom, one of his room mates and a girl friend came along to some cozy pubs with live music before ending the night at a reggae bar where ganja smoke wafted in the air so thick that I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

We stumbled back up the viciously vertical hill at 4am and passed out shortly after that.

When I awoke the next day at 3pm, I made a decision to get back to London and slowly slogged my way back to the train.

-- Deep Thoughts - One Snowy Day in Montreal

Sitting on the train, looking out at the grassy, green landscape in the fading sun, I thought back to 2 years before. My friend Jonathan, or TJ ( Texas John ) as we called him, had come to visit me in Montreal from Houston. I'd met TJ in Paris 5 years before and we'd stayed friends since. It was his turn to visit me in Canada.

We were sitting in a cafe, on a side street in Montreal's old city. I remembered, it was snowing dime-sized flakes outside. Endless sheets of white snow danced just beyond the thin window keeping us warm. It was night and I was supposed to be driving home soon but I wasn't looking forward to making the 2 hour drive in a blizzard, besides, I had allot on my mind.

We sat and chatted, killing time.

"TJ, I've been thinking allot about it recently."

TJ put his cup down and turned away from the snow to face me, "About what?"

"The trip"

TJ had the same overpowering affliction that I had. He loved to travel. With these 2 simple yet powerful words, he knew what I meant. He understood.

"Right, the trip. What've you been thinking about?"

I looked out at the snow growing thicker outside and sipped my coffee. I'd been thinking about taking a year off for a long time but I knew how serious of an impact it would have on my career, my relationships, my life. Like a bungee jumper, starring down at the drop, having second thoughts and scarred to make the jump, I needed a push.

"I think I need to do this. See the world you know." I said knowing that TJ would understand the implications of me leaving.

"But I need more time away... I think I need a year, not just 3 months"

Without hesitating, he answered with his usually energy soaked way of talking, I already knew what he would say.

"Do it.", he said as if it was just a matter of buying a ticket and packing a lunch.

"... what about work"

"DO it."

"What about everything else..."

"Luc, just do it."

".... but"

"Luc, it's now or never. Do it!"

He was right. I knew it, I just needed to hear it from someone else. None of my friends traveled much and I knew that TJ would be more than happy to give me that big tackle that would launch me over the edge.

A lot of things needed to be done before I left. Sitting in the train, on my way to London, my head resting on the window, I thought back to all of the research I'd done, all of the effort I'd put in at the office to hand off my work to a replacement, all of the logistics of selling my car, storing my furniture, phewph, I'd come a long way.

I was so excited back then. Everything would change, and it did.

... Now here I was, on a London bound train, going back to Linda's, having traveled for more than 8 months, the trip almost finished. I wondered if I'd ever do something like this again.

I sighed and whispered to myself,

"Insha Allah"

... If it's God's will...

--- Go go go...

Back at Linda's, I prepared for a planned week of back to back travel which was about to start. First off to Stonehenge then to Bath, then straight to the airport for a flight to Dublin, Ireland with Linda, then up to Belfast, back to London to pack for a train to Brussels for a quick stop before heading north to Holland to see friends, whoa!. I had it all planned out, almost to the minute.

The day trip to Stonehenge and Bath went without a hitch. Surprisingly I was impressed by Stonehenge, despite the countless "don't waste your time on Stonehenge" recommendations I'd had from other backpackers. The dark skies and fierce winds blowing at Stonehenge made me feel as thought there was something strangely mystical about the place. Although it wasn't much different from the dozen times I'd seen it on TV or in books, the goose bumps on my arm as I walked around the stones confirmed that it was a good move coming to see them, if only for 30 minutes.

Once the day was over, it became quickly apparent that I wouldn't make it back to London in time to meet Linda. Luckily the bus driver had an idea which saved the day. They dropped me off on the highway, 1 kilometer from the airport, as we drove by. I scurried passed zipping traffic to the safety of a nearby hotel where I caught a shuttle to the airport. A quick call later and Linda arranged to meet me at Heathrow for our flight to Dublin.

-- Long weekend in Ireland.

When most of the passengers headed to Dublin reached the departure gate, the announcement came through.

"Attention, all passengers headed to Dublin on the 11pm flight. Your flight has been delayed."

A dozen disgruntled would-be passengers moaned a collective grunt.

"What? Still delayed?" I heard a young female Irish voice say from behind me.

"Shit, I left a half full glass of beer back in the lobby!" she continued as she laughed.

"Don't worry, I'm sure it's still in there." someone consoled.

As we waited by the departure gate it seemed that every conversation I'd overheard had something to do with Guinness or a pub.

I chuckled and whispered to Linda, "You know your on your way to Ireland when..."

--- "What was that?"

When we arrived in Dublin, it was 2am. We had had a hard time finding a B and B to stay in because of the marathon which was set to take place that weekend but we'd luckily found some accommodation for that night before leaving.

We jumped into a cab and headed for the hotel.

"Rryya Shtttiia Ffrrr Llllnngg?" a mushy string of what seemed to be English came streaming from the cabby.

I flicked a glanced over to Linda as to say "did you get that?".

"Umm, what was that?" I asked the cabby.

"Rryya Shtttiia Ffrrr Llllnngg?" he tried again

I tried not to laugh as I realized that a) yes, it was English b) him repeating did nothing to help me understand what he was saying and c) I'd have to ask him, for a 3rd time, to repeat.

I leaned in to ask him to repeat just as Linda kicked in. "No, just for 4 days"

Linda had been in Ireland before and seemed to have a much better grasp on the accent than I did. I let her do the talking with the cabby until we arrived. Even though Linda and the driver spoke for over 20 minutes, I jumped out of the cab without a clue of what the conversation was about.

The Irish accent was something of an art to decipher and this poor bastard would need some serious art classes before being able to make it by here alone.

--- Tourist stuff in Dublin

With only 4 days, 2 in Dublin and 2 in Belfast, we packed in the Dublin sights back to back. In all I crammed in the Trinity College, the 1500 year old "Book of Kells", the Guinness Brewery and the Jameson Distillery with enough time left over to fully soak in the world class Dublin pubs for a long series of creamy Guinness'.

Probably due to a late night of Guinness and dancing, Dublin flashed by quickly and before we knew it, we were on our way north to Belfast.

--- Trouble in the north

When Linda proposed that we fly into Dublin and out of Belfast, neither of us even thought twice about it. Once we'd talked to an Irish girl staying at our BB who was from Belfast, we, or I at least, realized just how little I knew about the troubles in the north.

When we arrived in Belfast, a short train ride north, the first thing we did was to take a Black Cab tour of Belfast. The tour would fill in the blanks and highlight the danger still looming in Ireland.

Throughout the tour, the driver explained the history of the conflict between the IRA and rivaling groups. Protestant vs Catholic, loyalist vs separatists, same old conflicts. It reminded me of the middle east.

Murals of fallen rebel heroes decorated houses, scorch marks from napalm scared fenced walls, flags of allies flew high and sidewalks were painted with colors to make sure you would not forget which part of Belfast you were in.

"Hey, when was the last time there was an attack in Belfast?" I asked the cabby realizing that the conflict was still very much alive.

"Just last Monday"

"What happened?"

"Oh, big bomb. It was in a van but the trigger failed. It was a big one too, would have taken out the entire block."

I looked over to Linda and whispered, "Monday, that was 3 days ago."

"Where was the bomb?" I continued

"Just over here" he said as we passed the place which was targeted for annihilation.

When we got out of the cab and began walking around Belfast I confessed to Linda.

"Wow, I had no idea that the conflict was this fresh"

"Me neither..."

We walked around Belfast a bit, with a slightly different view of the city, and dipped in and out of pubs for the rest of the day and the next. As with any other conflicted regions I'd visited, we did the only thing one can do in order to enjoy themselves which was to forget about any potential dangers and we enjoyed the rest of our time in modern Belfast.

Once again, before we knew it, we were on our way back to London, another side trip finished and that much closer to my flight home.

--- Brussels

The next day I went off to catch the Chunnel to Brussels from London, something I've always wanted to do. Unfortunately, power problems in Calais kept the trains parked in the stations and I had to make a mad run to an Internet café to book a flight ticket to Belgium. After a long crazy day, I did manage to get to Brussels to meet my friend whom I had traveled with in Israel and Egypt, Francois. The entire journey there had taken 11 hours. We caught up, saw a strange French movie in which everyone ended up by having sex with each other in a plot which seemed to involve just that, and then passed out.

The next day, during a long walk around Brussels with my guide Francois we managed to catch all of the known attractions and we ended the whirlwind day with a strangely addictive farewell meal of fries and mayonnaise.

It was off to see Huib.

--- Holland

When I arrived in Eindoven, a small town in south-east Holland, I was 45 minutes late. I jumped out of the train and pushed aside the hoards of commuters. As I walked towards the stairs leading to the exit, I saw Huib, my friend who I'd met in Myanmar months before waiting, eyes darting between faces in the oncoming crowd. I snuck up next to him, slammed my foot down on the pavement with arms out wide and a "Tada!"-style expression on my face.

"Mr. DiCaprio!" I shouted.
"Mr. Owen!" he replied on his queue.

I still remembered 7 months before, sitting in Mandalay and promising over a pint that I'd come to visit. I'd shaken his hand and made a promise. Not being one to break promises, I was glad that I was able to fulfill this one.

That night, Huib had it all setup. Pickled herring, smoked eel, home made beer, pie, Dutch sausage and Dutch homegrown. Huib had it all worked out. 2 days in his home town and 2 in Amsterdam. It was going to be a good time.

We spent most of the first 2 days just catching up, cycling around and hoping between Dutch pubs and coffee shops before heading up to Amsterdam to stay with his sister.

--- Emails from home

In an Internet Café in Amsterdam, I opened my inbox and glanced at the subject lines of my emails,

"LUC'S COMING HOME!"
"Luc, what's the date of your return"
"Are you home yet?"

My return was looming in the distance like a thunder storm. You could hear the thunder in the far off distance and even though the sun was still shining, you knew that soon enough it would be pouring down.

-- Amsterdam

Amsterdam was just as I'd remembered it. The canals, the red light district, the parks, the bicycles and with every second person we'd pass by, a waft of ganja smoke would trickle in to tickle my nose.

We stayed with Huib's sister, she'd spent 4 years in India, setting up a clinic before returning home to get back to her studies. We all spent most of our time, between going out, trading stories, listening to Hindi tunes and drinking wine.

I managed to see the 2 sights that I'd skipped the last time I was in Amsterdam, Anne Frank's house and the Riks Museum but mostly we sampled Huib's home grown, lounged in coffee shops and just basically chilled out.

When it came time to leave, Huib mimicked his typical mock-tear farewell but this time added a meaningful hand-shake and a promise to visit me in Canada. It was the same promise and hand-shake I'd given him 7 months before and was as good as a contract that he'd be in Canada one day.

--- Back to London... the last stretch

It was the last stretch, the last days in London. I hadn't really soaked in London yet, well not the sights at least, so I spent the next week doing just that. The Tate Museum, some strangely unique exhibit displaying plastified human bodies in odd positions, the tower of London, St. Paul's cathedral, there was no shortage of sights in London.

To cap off my stay in London, I'd arrange for a second reunion. A last chance to meet all my London'ite friends who I'd met traveling over the years. 7-8 people showed up and the night went a little later than expected as Scott, pulled us out to some night clubs for some dancing. Good times were had by all.

--- That's all folks...

I spent the rest of the weekend with Linda just hanging out, watching movies and getting ready for my long journey home. I was going home... home! Canada! Ottawa! wow... yes, I was going home, but... it still hadn't hit me ... and it wouldn't for at least another day...
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