Friday, 20 August 2010

A Day in Damascus

Well it wasn't too bad at first. This hotel was dirty and stained in bits but there was a lovely Syrian rug on our bed and we slept well. We had planned to spend the day in Damascus and sleep another night. Working out whether to sleep our second night in this hotel, I got up from the bed and saw we had a friend joining us. A little, fat, hairy friend. Our first experience of what is known to many as a COCKROACH (shhhh don't tell Nick. Don't tell Nick because he is insisting we call them CRICKETS instead. He thinks crickets are similar but way more friendly. The idea is that you see an enormous and terrifying cockroach and say 'ooh yes a little cricket's popped in to say hello' and you don't really mind.) It was a gentle start into the realm of the c-blank-blank-blank-r-blank-a-blank-h-blank-s because he was only a tiddler but nonetheless I encouraged Nick to speedily pop an ashtray over him. Shutting him out our minds we enjoyed singing to Jesus and getting empowered for the day ahead - we SO need this time with him every day. (When Nick lifted the ashtray to set our cricket friend free there was nothing there. Disconcerting.)

We have booked our second night at the Orient Palace hotel - a three star - as a treat! We will stay there this evening. It was built in the 1920s and is recommended in the Lonely Planet if the traveller enjoys 'faded grandeur'. I think I do. The room is so spacious with a balcony and a beautiful blue and white woven rug on the bed... and yet it has a a bit of a battered feel. It is superb! After we waved goodbye to our cricket this morning we had breakfast here at our new hotel. LO and BEHOLD there was Lurpak on the table. I admit I had a mini-weep. We realised maybe we find the travelling harder than we realise. We had a large barney over suncream (which resulted in me agreeing to wear it every day you will be pleased to hear all four parents!) and here I was weeping over Lurpak! It's hot, everyone stares at you, you don't know where you are going and no one speaks your language. I think that is challenging, and it was good for us to admit it! And very good to enjoy some Lurpak whilst doing so.

Cheered up, we embarked on a stunning day in Damascus. It is the most enchanting city. Everything drips with age - particularly the ancient stone and the winding walkways between homes. We loved being on Straight Street - where Paul headed after being blinded by Jesus' brightness and prayed for three days, until Ananias came to help him. It was so awe-inspiring to imagine Paul walking down the very street we walked on (and that this net cafe is on!) We visited Ananias' house - which is now a small stone underground chapel. I lay on the floor (it belongs to my Daddy so I could be at home!) and both of us felt His presence strengthening us.

We also spent some time around the Umayyad mosque in the Old City, so important in Islam that only Mecca and Medina are more esteemed. We walked past as the Friday call to prayer resounded and hundreds of men and women flocked to it. I found this quite painful as I saw a great number of people who do not know Jesus not walking to him, but to another religion. It felt as though my eyes were clarified and I felt an acuteness about how much we need to share Jesus with the world. Often in my home setting my eyes are dulled and it feels okay that people don't know Jesus. Today I had a fresh clarity and a renewed brokenness. That passage from Romans turned in my heart: 'How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"' And I thought Lord I am not sent here at the moment! But please send those who are! Let them be obedient! And my encouragement to anyone who reads our blog is to go and to share the love and saving words of Jesus!

For lunch we stumbled upon perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever seen! It was like a little palace... with beaten dark wooden doors, white and blue mosaics, purple and pink and white stones, a fountain with flowers surrounding it, pearl & wooden chairs with deep cushions, delicate copper lanterns hanging... It's beauty was so perfect, and our delicious lunch of hummus, flatbread and falafels SO in our budget...

And here we are, still on Straight Street, recovering from the baking heat in our little cool internet cafe. Off to supper now and our faded / grand hotel tonight!

Nick & Cate
By the way, we love reading all your comments - every one means so much and is a real encouragement. Thank you!!! xxx

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???!!!!!! .....