One thing that wieghed on my mind was how I would be recieved in these countries as an ugly American
. In case you weren't aware, or havn't been watching Fox News, there exists a general perception that Muslim countries are not too fond of American foriegn policy and Americans should stay way clear of the Middle East. Contrary to the media, and politics aside, the people in each of the countries I visited could not have been more welcoming. That is not to say that I didn't hear several opinions on American policy. I did. Often when people would ask where I was from, a long pregnant pause would follow (while they seemingly assesed my political leanings) before delivering a warm "Welcome, how do you find our country." One man ammussingly responded to my telling him I was from America by saying "Ahh, Bush (insert the sound of bomb explosions.)" Most however where more interested in discussing the World Cup. Being American didn't help much in these conversations either. Politics and soccer notwithstanding, I was treated like a welcome guest and often like a friend. Countless times I was asked to dinner, and daily someone was placing tea in front of me with nothing expected (or accepted) in return.
In between visiting fantastic historical sights and getting lost in the colorful souqs and labyrinthe alleyways of cities, I tried to make sure I could watch as much of the World Cup as possible. Other than the entertainment of the games themselves, the different places I watched games and the people I met while watching them provided me with some of my favorite memories
. From Egypt I took a ferry to Jordan and travelled by taxi, with some people I met on the boat, to Wadi Musa the town around Petra. I sadly knew little about Petra prior to visiting (other than what I remembered from the Indiana Jones
movie that featured it), which only hieghtened my awe when I did see it. Petra is a 3rd century B.C. city carved out of sandstone cliffs. To enter the sight you walk over a mile through a defile, the Siq, with towering walls on either side of you. At the end of the path, through the space between the towering walls you see your first glimpse of an enormous building in bright shades of pink and gold carved out of the rock in front of you. Petra is the perfect combination of natural beauty, unrivaled vistas, and rare archaeology.
From Petra I decided to head north on public minibuses, which was an experience in itself. Trying to communicate your hopeful destination while butchering the proper pronunciation of wherever it is your headed makes travel interesting. I only got stuck once and had to backtrack 2 hours to get where I was headed. After a couple of days, and one pitstop in Karak, I made it to Amman. From Amman I went to Mt. Nemo and the Dead Sea. Mt. Nemo is the sight where Moses saw the Promised Land, after wandering in the desert for 40 years. What I saw was the Israeli military having what I hope was target practice off in the distance of Jericho. What started as machine gun fire, quickly grew to rocket explosions fired from helicopters. After Mt. Nemo, I went to the lowest place on the planet, The Dead Sea, for a cooling afternoon swim. There is little enjoyable about swimming in the Dead Sea, other than the fact that you float without wanting to. It's actually hard to stand because your feet continually float to the surface due to the salt content. The salt covers you and burns like hell if you have any cuts, you recently shaved or you are foolish enough (like me) to allow water in your eyes
. When you get out of the water you are covered in salt, which makes your skin feel like it shrunk around your flesh. Thankfully I was able to rinse off in a slightly less salty shower before going back to Amman for a proper shower. After cleaning up I spent the evening in a coffee shop watching the World Cup to the bubbling sounds and fragrant smells of the all Syrain crowd smoking their nargilehs.
While I was in Amman, I was trying to find out the likelihood of my being able to cross over the border into Syria from Jordan. Syria will not issue visas at the border if you come from a country that has a Syrian embassy or you are an American. This changes often, but from what I was able to find out the outlook wasn't too rosy for Americans crossing from Jordan. I did however meet a guy from England who had just come from Syria. He also didn't have a visa and he said he was able to get over from Lebanon, and suggested I try that route. The only problem was that to get to Lebanon, I would either have to travel through Israel or fly. If I traveeled through Israel, then I would have an Israeli stamp in my passport precluding me from gaining entry to Syria or Iran (which I was still hoping to travel to.) So I spent a day finding an airline ticket to Beirut, which was incredibly expensive for an hour flight, and left the next morning for Beirut. Beirut was the biggest surprise of any city I have visited
. What I thought would be a bombed out city trying to recover from years of war was the most cosmopolitan city I have been to yet. The streets were lined with European boutiques, the downtown was newly built and filled with tony shops and highrise condominiums, and the people were dressed way smarter than I was. I found a great hotel across the street from The American University of Beirut in Hamra, which overlooked the Mediterranean coastline. After checking in, and purchasing some new clothes and shoes I headed to the swanky bars and nightclubs on Rue Monot to watch America play Italy. Needless to say, it was a rather partisan crowd, and I was in the minority, the lone minority. Throughout the first half this guy just would not stop telling me how we shouldn't be allowed on the same field as the mighty "Azure". At half I unobtrusively asked "Oh, where in Italy are you from?" The overbearing reply I got to such a stupid question was "I'm from Beirut." As the trap closed I asked "Did the mighty "Cedar Trees" fail to qualify this year?" Sadly it only took me 45 minutes to figure out a way to silence him. His friends however thought it was pretty funny, buying me a drink and inviting me to join them for the second half and the rest of the evening. Before moving on, I decided stylistic Beirut would be a good place to get a haircut. I only saw the "Mens Salon" part of the sign as I walked into the first place I saw. I didn't notice the "Jihad" proceeding "Mens Salon" until I was leaving. It will probably be a while before I get my hair cut again
From Beirut I travelled north along the coast to Tripoli, which had little interesting to offer, so after one night I headed back South to Beirut where I caught a bus to the Bekka Valley and the town of Baalbek. In Beirut, a man had advised me to be careful and think twice about going to Baalbek. What I didn't undertsand at the time but quickly did upon arriving in Baalbek is that the Bekka Valley is the homeland of Hezbollah (Party of God). Of course if I had a gudebook it probably would have told me this, not that it would have mattered. I still would have gone. The tipoff were the countless posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejade coupled with the guys selling Hezbollah t-shirts. The t-shirts would have made a great souvenir, but I am rather keen on being able to re-enter the US without unnecessary difficulty. Baalbek was still no problem and the people I met were just as welcoming as everywhere else I had been. The ruins here were pretty incredible and some of the best preserved and most complete of anywhere I visited. After two nights in Baalbek, I gathered the nerve to give the Syrian border a try. I took a bus south to Chtaura, where I got a share taxi to take me to the border and on to Damascus, assuming I got a visa. The Lebanese border gaurds politely tried to dissuade me from even trying, explaining that several Americans had tried yesterday with no luck and it would just cost me more money to re-enter Lebanon
. I appreciated their advice, but I just wanted to give it a try. At the Syrian border, they flatly told me "no" even with the taxi driver pleading my case. I asked if I could just fill out the form and wait while they faxed it to Damascus for approval or more likely denial. They skeptically handed me the form and I grabbed my bags from the taxi that I had already paid for. After six and a half hours of waiting and watching others breeze through, the guard came to me smiling saying I just had to buy the visa stamp and I could go on to Damascus. Somehow the visa only cost me $16 instead of the $100 it was suppossed to cost.
Damascus was a short hour drive away and I arrived in the early evening. Maybe it was my enthusiasm upon being granted entry, but I was really excited to be in Damascus. The fantastic, frenetic souqs and the myriad of winding, vine covered, alleys made the Old City of Damascus an extraordinary experience. The Umayyad Mosque had some of the most beautiful mosaics you could ever see. From Damascus I travelled by bus to Palmyra and its golden ancient ruins. The ruins here were spread out over an amazing expanse of territory. The pillar lined avenues, the Temple of Bel, the burial chambers in the Towers of Yemliko, the Camp of Diocletian and the Arab Castle on the hill comprised the largest overall site I have seen and made the heat of the desert far more bearable
. There were almost no other tourists in Palmyra when I was there and it seemed like everyone knew who I was, calling out " Hey American" as I walked down the street. At night, I visited a tent at the end of the main street where they had set up a few televisions to watch the World Cup. Both nights I went to watch games there, a cushion would be saved for me and I was greeted in unison with "Hey American." I felt like Norm from Cheers
, subtituting beer for countless glasses of sugary tea. It was great fun and yet another example of the how generous and welcoming the people I met were. After a couple of days I left for Hama, with a stop to visit Crac Des Chevaliers along the way. This one one the most amazing Crusader castles, or castles in general, you could ever hope to see. It was perched high on a hill and was nearly perfectly preserved. Interestingly it was so well positioned it was never breeched during war, and was simply left by the Crusaders and occupied by the armies of Islam.
Hama held me for a couple of days, while I enjoyed the charms of this river city with its giant, groaning waterwheels called norias. The norias have been used in Hama for at least 1800 years as a means of scooping water from the river and delivering it via aqueducts to the surrounding fields. From Hama, I splurged and paid for a driver to take me to Apamea, Qala'at Saladin and on to Lattakia.
Apamea was another ancient sight of ruins founded under one of Alexander's generals in the 2nd century B.C., but instead of being situated in the desert was located in the cool, grassy foothills of the western mountains. From Apamea, my driver chaefurred me in his 1965 Mercedes up the mountains to the Castle of Saladin. Perched on a high ridge in the middle of an evergreen forest, Qala'at Saladin provided some amazing views of the surrounding mountains from the vantage its towers that were simply skyward additions to the sheer cliffs they were built on. Later that day my driver dropped me in the port city of Lattakia, where I spent an uneventful night before taking the bus to Aleppo.
Aleppo is similar to Damascus with its addictive souqs. The biggest exception is its more conservative appearance. Baalbek was the only other city where it was common to see most women wearing the chador, the black, head to toe covering worn by devout muslim women. This sounds bad to say but everytime I saw a women dressed in a chador I was reminded of Cousin It from the Adams Family
. I have had a good time in Aleppo much like the rest of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. My lack of plans, and guidebook worked out for the best and the Middle East gave me many memorable experiences. From here, I will head to Turkey next. I had hoped to travel to Iran, but was unsuccessful at gaining an entry visa in time, though I really appreciate the contacts Sharon and Lachlan emailed me for assistance.
If you made it all the way to the end of this dribble, congratulations and thanks for reading. I will let you know how things went in Turkey next.
I last left off indicating I had no clear plan of where I was headed next, which wasn't entirely true, since I knew I was headed to Jordan from Egypt. What was somewhat true is that I didn't have a plan on where I was going once I got to Jordan. My lack of an itinerary was excacerbated by my failure to find a guidebook for the Middle East while I was in Egypt. So without a plan or a Lonely Planet crutch, the success of my travels would completely depend upon the "kindness of strangers." I couldn't have chosen better countries to find kind and helpful people. Another boon to travelling in the Middle East is the absence of being seen as a walking ATM machine. The touts and hustlers were few and far between, allowing for great experiences without the need to constantly have your guard up for someone wanting something from you.