Friday, 20 August 2010

Desert Dillydallying to Syria

Since we last wrote we have traveled through many places beginning and ending with the letter A. We have been from Ankara to Adana to Antakya to Aleppo. Aleppo does end with an O but it's Arabic name is Halab which has two As in it to make up for this. Let me start with Ankara, which is where we left you last time.
We chugged off from Ankara to Adana on a sleeper train - air-conditioning and comfy bed (with tartan rug!) making it a smooth ride. Our only blip came at the beginning - from our ticket inspector who used his authority to suggest we pay him a substantial tip. It was our first experience of feeling quite intimidated - stuck in our cabin with the supposedly most trustworthy man around now forcing us to give him money. We gave him a few coins. I also offered him some of our pizza as he left, which he gladly went for. We pondered our reaction afterwards. He was in the wrong - using his position to instill fear into his passengers to give him cash. But maybe he doesn't get paid enough and maybe he is hungry (happy to take pizza) - Jesus' words ringing in my heart 'it is more blessed to give than to receive...'

We awoke in Adana, the heat piercing us as we leapt from the train station to a taxi. This taxi took us to a very discreet bus station, where we were ushered by several young guys onto the Adana to Antakya bus. Sweetly they stopped five minutes in to let me go to the loo and gave us cold water. (These moments are so precious - when we really feel a need and someone in kindness meets it!) This was our FIRST BUS JOURNEY! I think my expectations were too high - the few hours we were on it felt very arduous. I also got bus-sick which was my fault for looking at the crossword too much. (I find it difficult to imagine the word as Nick says r-blank-blank-blank-f-blank-blank-e-blank. By the way that is not a real word. In case you are trying to guess it.) By the end I felt very rough, as we heaved up and up the mountains into the highlands of southern Turkey.

I stumbled off the bus with Nick at Antakya - our final stop in Turkey! Antakya seemed to have only three ingredients - men, white buses and mountains. It felt as though we were off the beaten track for the first time. It was all quite exhilarating as were suddenly surrounded by several men offering us a taxi to our destination: Aleppo in Syria. We discovered there were no buses to Aleppo until the morning so we decided to get a taxi. The group all jostled for their plan and price, guiding us into a small air-conditioned office and sitting us down. We had no money and Antakya had no ATM, so after a lot of liveliness, Nick hopped on a motorbike with one of the dudes to find a bank and I was left with our bags in this office. As soon as Nick left I think the group all got a bit shy, and it was quite a quiet ten minutes!

Soon enough we were in a taxi speeding along to Syria - three in the back, three in the front. We had a young Turk guy in the back with us. In the front was our driver in a black shirt who was often in a rush, and two Syrian gentlemen. The first couple of hours were fun - a hot wind powerfully blasting in the car and the desert blurring past our window. We stopped at the border Duty Free which felt like an odd mirage in the desert - ice-cold selling things like Swiss chocolate and Clarins moisturiser. But no food - and we'd only eaten a lot of twig biscuits and a pretzel that day. The afternoon was pressing on. We found a guy selling biscuits and quickly bought some before hitting the road again.

The Syrian border was a nightmare. There are no other words for it. It costs $100 for us both to get in and we didn't have enough dollars. Not only this but there was no ATM for miles and miles - we were in the middle of nowhere - and so we were stuck. The heat felt stronger than ever and I began to feel very weak. We also hadn't eaten much and couldn't find our driver who had the keys to the car - where all our water was. Weak, thirsty and hungry I sank into my metal bench and waited with the Syrians and the young Turk. Meanwhile hero Nick and hero driver were zooming around trying to fix this standstill. They walked all the way back to Duty Free and asked for dollars there. No luck. The driver - who, as I said, was always in a rush and sweated even more than us - amazingly bought a phone. Nick paid using his card and the driver gave Nick the right amount in dollars. The driver saved us! Meanwhile I waited for what was maybe an hour in the heat for these guys to return. I bonded a bit with my fellow passengers - mainly because I was constantly apologising for our muck-up. Finally we got through. Beyond caring what I looked like, I slumped on the marble counter in front of our official. Surprised the official asked me 'This is boring?' 'Yes' I replied. He smiled. 'It is boring for me too!' Seems nobody likes borders.

On the road again! The Turk jumped off and we sped towards Aleppo. I continually poured water on myself the whole way and tried to eat biscuits and water to inject some life into me. Gradually I began to feel better. After a while the older Syrian started arguing with the driver. We had noticed that in this corner of the world people do not hold back in terms of voice level. I thought this was casual discussion at HIGH decibels but after a while the driver stopped the car and pulled over. The Syrians and the driver jumped out the car and carried on yelling at each other next to the car. After a bit I thought about asking them to hurry up but after our border error I decided against it. In the end the driver drove off without the Syrians. Nick tried to say bye to them but I don't think they heard.

Syria looked beautiful. I immediately loved it - so ancient, with grey stone and white fabric holding up houses and children playing in the street. We pulled into one of these settlements and arrived at our driver's family home. Still about an hour or so from Aleppo it was yet another detour! The first person I saw was a tiny little boy who gazed in astonishment at us. Then followed two sweet girls who shook our hands and an older lady, head covered with a wide, kind smile. The driver rushed in and his father appeared to take his place in the driving seat. It was a very touching moment - to catch a glimpse of family life and to see a father faithfully helping his son in a stressful moment. One more mad dash from the driver - into the house to get us an freezing cold bottle of water and a glass for the rest of the journey. A wonderful first experience of Syria. As the sun set we hurtled towards Aleppo, and eventually we arrived. We had no hotel booking - but we had arrived, and after my most exhausting day yet, that was enough.

So there we were, dropped off by our driver's dad in downtown Aleppo & we set all our bags on the side of the road so Cate could wait there while I went to check the prices of the hotels in that area. After checking a couple and being gone for about 2 minutes I returned to find about 6 men around Cate - one old guy and 5 younger guys. This sounds a little alarming, but I quickly got the impression that they were very friendly types - plus they were in uniform (which always seems more trustworthy) - they were parking attendants for the posher hotel over the road. The younger guys were giggling away and mucking around. After a bit they even bought us sandwiches which were these giant wraps with cheese and tomato (how did they know we were veggie?) which were incredible and after a lunch of biscuits they seriously hit the spot. We found a decent little hotel (with air-con, though the temp we set it at for nighttime is rising - now 28°C - so I think our bodies are really starting to adjust.) On that note, it turns out that heat ZONE 2 has come upon us earlier than we thought. According to locals and BBC weather, it has been in the 40's °C these last few days in Syria. They are saying this year is unusually hot - they even find it a bit hot - yikes! But amazingly it hasn't been that bad. A think a combo of our bodies adjusting and it being very dry. But I don't want to pretend it isn't full on - it doesn't feel that much hotter in the sun than in the shade and in the old city parts of town the stone acts not unlike a pizza baking stone - you can feel it baking you as you walk along! Gosh, I hope I don't actually bake - though at least Cate wouldn't be able to eat me as she is vegetarian.

The next day, after a pretty full on journey, we decided to have some treats. First, we went to a big hotel's cafe to have a nice coffee. They said they offered either Turkish coffee or Lavazza. Cate's ears pricked up at this, and we ordered the latter. Turkish coffee, we have discovered, means instant nescafe and they love it. The waiter obviously thought we must have made some kind of mistake and brought us a beautiful pot of hot water, an elegant little jug of hot milk & lovely cups - empty, bar a little sachet of instant nescafe. Risking breaking his heart, we did clear up the order and he did then bring Cate a perfect espresso and a latte for me.

Our second treat was to go for a swim. We had thought of going to a local big hotel, but our hotel receptionist told us of what sounded like an almost mythical swimming experience called The Blue Lagoon that was a short taxi ride away. He said there was a lagoon, and a river and a beach and well he convinced us that it was well worth the journey. It was quite a long ride way - about 25 minutes - and in the middle of the desert. We paid up and checked that it was mixed and that Cate didn't need to cover up. We found... a water slides theme park! And it was excellent fun. We started on the 'river' where you had a rubber ring and were taken around in a kind of mini flume. We went round 3 or 4 times! Then we went on the slides which were scarily fast. Then we went for a dip in the 'beach' which was a pool which gradually got deeper. Then we had a spot of lunch and we'd only just started when the 'beach' started getting pretty wavy - the wave machine was turned on and to a man everyone there (admittedly mainly under 14) rushed into it. We had to leave our lunch for a bit and get involved. Finally I jumped off the 10m board to show off to Cate. (This did hurt a little and I did a little of the swimming equivalent of hobbling. For the guys only - what I'm saying is, it hurt!) It was great fun - so nice to be in the water after so much heat.

We got a taxi back, via the hotel to pick up our bags, to the train station for our train to Damascus. At the station a really lovely Syrian brother and sister came to chat to us while we waited for the train. I was able to clear up something that had been bothering me. A new thesis had come to attention regarding the number of stares we had been getting, which was that perhaps people were not used to a man wearing the rather excellent Turkish trousers that I have been wearing. By the way, here is a link to roughly what they look like: One piece of evidence was that while we had seen maybe 3 or 4 women wearing them in Turkey, we had seen zero men. But I had been concerned not to be culturally insensitive. I checked with the Syrian couple and they assured me they weren't insensitive, just funny. Thanks a lot!

The train journey was a measly 5 1/2 hours which is a breeze now. We also went first class because it was only 60p more! Trains in Syria are cheaper and less popular than buses even though they are really nice. I finally went through all our receipts to keep account of all our spending. And we did another crossword. We might have to admit here that after a recount it turns out our best score is actually 20. So it turns out it's the 10's that are the current prize that we seek.

At the Damascus station we shared a taxi with a German guy who was good at haggling. We ended up in the center with our usual hotel search, which is always a bit more stressful at night. We walked past an imposing building with loads of police carrying machine guns. We have generally been going for the cheapest hotel with a/c & we found a one star hotel with a/c that was a lot cheaper than the last few nights, which was great.

OR WAS IT???!!!!!! .....


  1. joyce and bill lear20 August 2010 at 19:25

    Wow, your accounts are SO vivid. A BIG thank-you for taking the trouble to go into such detail! We feel we are with you on the journey...and you have made marvellous progress. We have a big map on the d table with mag glass to follow your route. It's a pity we didn't get you some dried army rations!! Tonight we're having a bbq for 17! With three kinds of pasta. Thinking of you and a prayer to keep you safe. Lotsaluv, B and J

  2. reaffirmed; reinforced; reinformed; reoffended; restfuller; rockfishes. I think this litle crossword puzzle machine was a cheap one - fancy offering rockfishes as a solution! Love Bill

  3. it's all fascinating ... I haven't read anything so vivid for a long time. Much better than Twitter! Clare

  4. No money, no water, no food,excessive heat, lost driver, tiredness,and generally being stuck in the desert(anything I missed?....) - how well you both are coping and maintaining a great sense of humour - as Charlotte commented what a pair! Your trip to the Blue Lagoon the following day must have seemed quite surreal after that. Lovely to hear about the simple kind acts of the Syrian people too. As far as temperatures here we are experiencing cool winds and an early autumn!Lots of love missing you lots xxxx

  5. Dearest Cate and Nick, oh my goodness you really are whizzing across the lands, I love reading it all, I love delving into all the different sights, sounds, people and places, totally transfers me to a different world. You are doing so well, what a lot you are seeing and learning. I keep wishing I could don some turkish trousers, grab my bag and come and join you. It is so encouraging to hear some of what Jesus is revealing to you as you travel, how alive and how dependable he is.
    So much love to you both, may your journey be broken up by many cool oases (just learned that is the plural of oasis!) where you can rest and be refreshed.
    Bry x

  6. Those trousers are AMAZING Nick you muct look like an absolute hero!

    I am lovng this blog.

    All my love Rols xxx

  7. i love your blog! you are so making me crave the travelling life! (good thing it starts soon!)

    love to u both,
    katie x

  8. Just been reading the blog out loud with Erin on car journeys in the dordogne and it makes going to pick up pain au chocolat seem v boring. Loving the vivid descriptions. Also wondering if the Hammer Time Trouser might be a solution to at least two of learby's 'big six'? Keep up the great work. We'll continue to pray for patience and lots of moments of fun and inspiration along the way. Love tobes

  9. Bill's answers are wrong because he thought you said three blanks after the F. My answers are: REDEFINED, REDEFINES and RAINFLIES. Is one of them right?