Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Border

From Bordertown

11 August 2009 - Lebanon - Syria border, driving from Beirut to Damascus.

It takes a long time to cross the border on a bus. First there's the Lebanese exit process, then the Syrian entry process.... and there aren't orderly queues - it's just a bunch of taxi drivers, bus drivers and regular drivers cramming their way to the windows to get the proper stamps. It's hot and there's nothing to do but wait.

From Bordertown

While we were milling around outside the bus, a young boy asked me to take pictures of him and the locals with my camera. The kids like to see the photo replay on the camera screen...and I think the adults get a kick out of it too.

From Bordertown
Here are are few more pics on Picasa.

The bordertown shook my hand
It was the gateway to some other land
The bordertown is the great divide
Just the gateway to some other side
I got to get across
-Chris Whitley, Bordertown

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Richard & Kelli

18 August 2009 - Latakkia, Syria - Dixy Chicken

This reminded me of all my Aggie friends in Texas (and the ones that migrated to London). I didn't attend Texas A&M but [bxA] I've been to a few football games, heard all about the Dixie Chicken, and I listen to Robert Earl Keen sing about life in College Station.
When I was in the US in July, I spent a few days with Richard & Kelli, two of my favorite Aggies who now live in Charlotte, NC. We were all living in London when their son Nicholas was born (so he's like 2 and a half years old now, I think). Nicholas is the cutest happiest little guy ever - he sang in the car for over two hours...every children's song under the sun. A week later I was playing with my six year old nephew and when he suggested we employ "teamwork" on some Lego-type project, I burst into song, "What's gonna work? Teamwork!" My nephew was perplexed, "how do you know that song, Auntie Ali?"
The Dixy Chicken in Syria reminded me that I owe Richard & Keli a major thank-you note for hosting me in their lovely's on my very long list of things to do. It also reminded me of that time we did a recruiting road trip to College Station - Kelli looking for junior consultants; Richard, Joe S and I looking for young banker upstarts. Did we find any?
And anything A&M always reminds me of Scott J, another favorite banker friend, who always says "howdy."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bugs and Backpacks

18 August 2009 - Latakkia, Syria

So do you want to hear about the human-size roach in our basement hotel room in Palmyra? Or the stomach bug that bit Alyssa days ago and his finally stung me today? Maybe a little bit of both? The couch-surfing only resulted in free accommodation in Damascus - which was really great and the couch-surf host will be a friend for life. We crashed in an office he no longer uses - over a textile factory in a no frills neighborhood in the south of Damascus. On day two, we hung out in the big mosque with Hemingway Mohammed and his 22 year old Uncle Ali (I had no problem remembering his name). Then Couch Surf Host took us to his home for dinner with his wife and sisters...the food was amazing - fried aubergine and zucchini with garlic in flat bread -and I vow to find this in Beirut (Osama, this is your assignment until I return) or I'm going back to Damascus with the one remaining entry permitted by my visa. The reason I tell you this is because that was the last meal not on the suspect list. There was breakfast in the workmen's food stalls near the factory, where no one spoke English but a young cute guy rolling dough lifted two flour covered fingers for 'peace', smiled big and yelled "Obama!!!" The guys there insisted we have sweet tea in their stall and surely they were surprised when we stayed for a second cup. Alyssa and I love hanging matter the language barrier. So let's assume that lovely experience did not give us the bug. Or the fruit we bought in the nearby market and possibly washed with unfiltered tap water? We both brushed our teeth with unfiltered water but we've been doing that for months.

Okay, so then there was Palmyra where the food seemed dodgy and my new American Friend said the Pancake House made him sick. Alyssa was down for the count by sunrise our first day in Palmyra. She is a major good sport about such things, I'll probably be a whiney baby upgrading to a decadent hotel in Latakkia if my condition worsens. Banker scum, I know. After the dodgy dinner in Damascus, we went to our dungeon room in the basement of the Sun Hotel, where it never gets cooler than 90 degrees F (I still haven't converted to Celsius, but it was effing hot.) There was no ventilation and an enormous roach dancing around in the sink basin. I did all my teeth brushing and face washing while the roach scurried in circles around the water flow. Pretty impressive. I wondered if that roach might be the previous guest, possibly overcome by a Kafka beetle-like I almost wanted to feed him, pity him and ask the clerk if the previous guy ever checked out. We were there two nights, while Alyssa slept and I hung out with the American Friend, the French Guys and had dinner with the Aussie Dude, who accompanied us to Hama, which was great except he's a rugged "real" backpacker and didn't even consider getting a taxi from the bus station to the hotel, which we could not find and absolutely no one spoke English. I am sorry to say it, but the food was entirely dodgy in Hama. It's a lovely city, bustling with men while women weave around in groups wearing massively hot looking trench coats and hijab. There's a river running through the city with those wooden wheels I think I mentioned last time. The Cairo Hotel wasn't bad for a backpacker hostel, but let's face it: I'm really old and my budget of banker bonuses does not require things like five flights of stairs with a fifty pound backpack to a room with no a/c and a bathroom down the hall. Still, I'm having fun and it's always impressive to watch Alyssa plow through these difficult experiences. And the modest budget will add a few weeks to my hiatus, so that's definitely the half-full portion of the cup full of [filtered] water.

After two days of castles and ruins in the sweltering Syrian heat, we shared a taxi with a Spanish couple through the mountains to Latakkia - a Syrian version of Beirut and very interesting. We slept in, wandered the city, sipped sodas under an umbrella at a modest "cafe" on the rocks with the Med crashing at our feet. Did I mention we upgraded to a decent hotel after wandering into a massively horrible dive on recommendation of a couch surfer? There was no power so no lift and six flights of stairs to a dingy room with a shared bathroom. When we reneged based on the shared bathroom, the abrasive old man in a white gown scraped together enough English to say "but it's only one other room and they're from Holland."

We're at the Al-Cozino blowing our budget at $60 a night, but well worth it and we're not sharing a bathroom with anyone, Kafka-esque or otherwise. If we're better, tomorrow is beach day. If I'm not better, Assie will go without me. The one thing I want to do in Latakkia is get a driver to take me to the mausoleum that holds the remains of Hafez al-Asaad and his son who died in an auto accident. Doubt I can pull it off, but meanwhile I'm photographing the ubiquitous posters of Bashar, Hafez's son who took over in 2000. I met a Tall Guy in Houston who will likely be the only one interested in seeing my OCD album (I'm still working on the Lebanon album, Tall Guy).

We're trying to figure out the best way back to Lebanon - the plan is to hit Baalbeck on our way back to Beirut, but turns out there's no bus from Tripoli through Bcharre (the Cedars!) to Baalback. We're here in Latakkia one more night. As John C, the captain on Millennium would say, "we'll see how we go!"

I posted pics of Palmyra on Picasa, which should be accessible through my public albums if you can figure out how to get there from here.

If you've made it this far down the page, thanks for helping me get through the stomach bug. Can you see how not-cut-out-for-it I am?

I got chills, they're multiplying...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hot in Hama

15 August 2009 - Hama, Syria

We were up way early this morning to get an 8am bus from Palmyra to Homs, where we got another bus to another bus to Hama. We were tagging along on an efficient itinerary set out by an Aussie guy I met in Palmyra yesterday, hence the early morning. The first bus was overcrowded and the three of us were wedged on flat console between the driver and passenger seats. There were two kids crammed on the dashboard - a five year old and a baby. When the bus started moving I took the baby on my lap and held him for the two hour ride through the desert to Homs - this made room for the five year old to stretch out flat across the dash and sleep most of the way. The perimeter of the windshield was decorated with fake flowers and short curtains. Plastic grapes dangled from the rearview mirror and Arabic music and prayers blasted through the speakers.

It's been a grueling day navigating through Homs to Hama - the weather is hot and few people speak English. The Lonely Planet map was not helpful at all, but eventually we found the Cairo Hotel, a great place for backpackers, and settled in for the afternoon. I roamed the river looking for the norias, wooden water wheels for which Hama is known. Hama is also known for a 1982 massacre that wiped out the city and from which it has never really recovered. The Aussie guy and I went to dinner in the bustling city, but the food was disappointing. Alyssa is still recovering. Tomorrow we do a day trip to a castle, then Aussie Guy leaves us for Aleppo. Ass and I think we're going to stay another night here to do a day trip to the Dead Cities on Monday.

Thats all I got. Weird not being able to post photos.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Peaceful Palmyra

14 August 2009 - Palmyra, Syria

Yesterday was a long crazy day getting to the bus in Damascus and onto to Palmyra. It's a remote desert town with amazing ruins. The tiny town has a main street, a handful of hotels and lots of locals who like to chat and welcome welcome welcome us to Syria. We roamed the ruins at sunset and Alyssa road a camel named Bob Marley. Up at 4:30am today to see the ruins at sunrise - and escape the midday heat (that sets in by 8am). Alyssa is a little under the weather so I am going it alone today. Just did a tour of the tombs and may checkout the castle at sunset. Lots of pictures to post, but it ain't happening in Syria. We're off to Aleppo tomorrow and not sure what after that. Should be back in Beirut by the 22nd.

As our friends in Damascus said many times, who knows what the future holds.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day Two, Damascus

12 August 2009 - Damascus, Syria

All is well. Just blogging to let you know we are safe...but, really, there is no need to worry about us. The country is beautiful, the people are kind. Today we slept in, took a taxi to the Old City, explored the National Museum (really cool) and roamed around the Umayyad Mosque for a long time, hanging out with friends. Dinner tonight with the couch-surf host guy and his family.

Tomorrow, Palymyra.

P.S. I tried to upload a pic or two, but it doesn't seem to have worked.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Safe, Sound, Syria

11 August 2009 - Damascus, Syria

We were delayed a day but got into Damascus this afternoon. It's beautiful, the people are wonderful. We're safe and having a great time. Crossing the border was a bit of a long drag, but interesting and we weren't detained for any reason. Our couch-surf host put us up in a nifty little flat over a factory on the south side of the city. Taxis are way cheap and even after the drivers double the fee because we're foreigners, it's still affordable. The sim cards are dirt cheap compared to Lebanon so we've got a Syria phone number (Alyssa had to give a fingerprint for it). We met up with "Hemingway," a guy we met on the Corniche our very first time in Beirut back in April. He's studying English literature and speaks English better than we do. He only started speaking it a year ago and just told us how he spent two months memorizing 3,000 words from the Oxford dictionary. Meanwhile, I'm still working on the "ulchgh" sound in marhaba. Hemingway is hilarious and we laughed our way through the dinner, the souks and ice cream. We're having dinner with the couch-surfer host family tomorrow night.

I am only humouring myself with this post. My access to the blog is blocked so it will be a mystery to me if this posts. Maybe my favorite blog reader will get out of the kapok tree and send confirmation that this gets posted.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Technical Difficulties and Couchsurfing Syria

9 August 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon.

I really was going to blog! However, Blogger is not cooperating.

You were going to see photos of the Sporting Beach Club and our night out with Osama and his brother...and various other shots of random things we've done this week. But alas, it is not to be.

Tomorrow we hope to get up in time for a late morning bus to Damascus. We'll get there eventually. Alyssa has set the itinerary with the help of We will be seeing a Syrian guy whom we met on the Corniche the day before we set sail for Cyprus in April. After that, we'll sleep on the couch of a stranger.

Not sure what the internet situation will be, but I do hope to blog from Syria. We'll be gone about two weeks.

Beirut Basics: Beach and Shawarmas

From Sporting Beach Club Day (public)

6 August 2009. Sporting Beach Club - Beirut, Lebanon.
After a few lazy days of jet lag, we dived back into Beirut on Thursday. Osama invited us to spend his half day off at Sporting Beach Club down on the Corniche. We had the Mediterranean in front of us and Beirut behind us...[bxA]

From Sporting Beach Club Day (public)

Later, Osama’s brother joined us in Hamra for a feast of shawarmas shawarmas shawarmas…

From Sporting Beach Club Day (public)

Then to Achrafieh for dessert…

From Sporting Beach Club Day (public)

Back to Hamra to witness takin' down the wall at Danny’s pub.

From Sporting Beach Club Day (public)

It’s good to be back.

There are more photos on my public album at Picassa, but am editing this from Syria and cannot access much here. In fact, it'll be a miracle if this posts - can't access my blog but somehow got into edit this entry.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back Again, Again

4 August 2009 - Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport, Lebanon.

Flew from (New York) to Amman, Jordan to Beirut and took a taxi back the apartment in Hamra late last night. Slept soundly until a surprise woke me at 6am: Alyssa! In my delirium of late, I got her dates wrong and thought she was due in tonight. I slept through her arrival at the apartment at 4am, but later heard her bustling so we got up and caught up.

I'm going to try to revive the blog and post all my USA trip stuff soon. I have been blog averse these days, but the US trip was great and I should post the pics.