Wednesday, April 28, 2010

middle east: as-salāmu alaykum.

2 weeks in the Middle East felt more like 2 months (time is a funny thing). but now that i'm back, it's as though i never left, my travels but a distant dream. the only way to recall those many images are by recounting experiences/stories to friends and family, zoning out at work, and of course, sorting thru the many, many photographs taken - all of which i hope to distill into a rather lengthy post (hardly something new).

"you're going WHERE?"
most people (mom, girlfriend, and friends' moms included) all asked WHY i wanted to go somewhere "so dangerous." full disclosure: i was just as reticent as the next guy, falling susceptible to all the (western…US-media) noise that paints a far more harrowing picture than actually exists. but still, i HAD to go. it's hard to explain my wanderlust (though some of you have it worse than i). i knew it was probably NOT going to get any better (the region or my desire to go), and frankly, i've come to realize my "young and invincible" years are fast winding down as i finally "grow up." it also didn’t hurt that quite a few friends (from previous lives) had traveled, and even lived in the Middle East, and they had nothing but positive things to say. so thru the advice and experiences of others, as well as a little consulting from the ever-handy Lonely Planet, the trip seemed doable. in reality, my mind was already made up long ago, before i probably even knew it.

i won't lie. it was an exciting thing, knowing how close we were to Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq - frequently seeing signs marking distance in mere kilometers, or passing thru security checkpoints, as a LOT of distance was covered by road. during our brief stay in Dubai, we even had the potential to skirt into Iranian territorial waters. (un)fortunately, the sea was not angry that day my friends.

now having returned in one piece (if anything, more enriched than when i left, though i would have been probably been most upset had i not returned to see the final season of LOST) i'm happy to report that this trip ranks up there with other top travel experiences. below is a quick recap with some interesting anecdotes, and of course, pictures embedded in slideshows beneath each section:
click the above mosaic to skip past my verbosity straight into ALL the pics

broad observations/generalizations:
if you read any of the previous automated posts, you'll know we hit 3 countries - Jordan, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE - specifically Dubai) - with the intent to cover a TON of ground within, charging pretty hard for 2 weeks straight. joining me was my college roommate Will, who opted to take a break from his current state of early-retirement (let him explain it, but be warned of impending jealousy). the great thing about Will, beyond being a fellow traveled lad (with an unhealthy obsession with flagpoles), is that he easily puts up with my inane nature (4 years in a dormroom and a trip to the bottom of the world being proof), not an easy task. an added plus, is that he's one of the few guys who, while standing amongst the world's many natural wonders and/or ancient ruins, is able to fully entertain a lengthy conversation about random science, religion, politics, or, more often than not, television (Star Trek TNG, Seinfeld, Saved by the Bell, etc). i guess we're just a couple of cultured fellows like that.

along our journey, we encountered a number of travelers, many of whom were spending a significantly longer (2-6 months+) wandering the region. what's most interesting to note was that we all skewed much older (late 20s, early 30s) than those you often expect to find in Europe (late teens, early 20s, just out of college and ready to party) or Asia (mid-20s, trying to figure out their life). but in certain corners of the world (the Middle East, Africa), i find that that only us old guys are willing (crazy enough?) to go.

they were Irish, Dutch, Kiwis, Aussies, Koreans, Hong Kong-ers, and of course, Canucks. there was even an elderly (70+, easily) Australian couple with whom we shared a day-long cab ride down Jordan’s King's Highway – whose travels made Will + I, in comparison, feel like we'd hardly left Alabama. some of the only Americans we encountered in Jordan + Syria were a gaggle of girls (students) atop "the High Place of Sacrifice" overlooking Petra's ruins. i think they were just as shocked to see two fiendishly good-looking American gentleman as we were to be considered good-looking. as for the UAE? I was overwhelmed by the sheer # of ex-pats, Yanks, Brits, and otherwise. but let’s save Dubai for the end of the post, as that’s another story altogether.

the locals: i cannot stress how friendly most of the people we encountered were, old young, or in between. while being greeted with smiles and welcomes, and followed around by little kids everywhere we went (unnerving at times), the real highlight was getting to talk to many of them (especially our contemporaries) about their view of the world - whether it be regional politics, the ever hot topic of Israel, American life, or anything else in between. as we expect many to do of us when we travel, it’s important to make the distinction between a government and their people (despite then MANY pictures of royal/political leaders found on posters adorning every street and store), and remember that everything we say and/or do is a representation of our own countrymen. unfortunately, I left my beltpack and bellowing flag cape back in NY.

the food: i’m sure i don't have to tell you how well we ate. i can say with confidence had my (ful)fill of hummus with each day. i will be sad to no longer have the everyday hardy breakfast of pita and spreadable cheese with a boiled egg and hot tea. and i now have a newfound appreciation (and talent) for the unique and flavorful buzz that only shishe can deliver (which i find strangely ironic in a culture so restrictive of alcohol consumption, i assume because of it’s mind-altering state. i guess every society has it’s own hypocrisies, ours included). 
the religion: my love of Islamic architecture was only further cemented as we walked passed countless mosques and stared across many horizons dotted with minarets. the calls to prayer heard from every corner of town (whichever one we happened to find ourselves in) were both a beautiful and jarring thing, effectively dividing the day up for us, unlike the the frequent rooster's call, as he was always clearly in the wrong timezone. in all seriousness, these were not a nations of militant Islamists – every measure of the spectrum was seen, as you find in the West with Christianity. to me there are more similarities than differences that religion impresses upon the social fabric - though it is clear to see how in those nations of chaos amidst development, the rule of Islam can bring comfort and order.

the ruins: who knew that the Romans, Nabataeans, and assorted Crusaders left so much behind? a good deal of our time in both Jordan and Syria was spent amidst relics of the past, ancient civilizations that had long since come and gone. houses, tombs, temples, and often entire cities were left for us to explore. and the sheer scale of these architectural feats was not lost upon us, considering the lack of modern construction tools at their disposal (but labor WAS relatively cheap). this is the type of thing you'd expect to find in Rome, Greece, etc. it's usually NOT the first thing one thinks of when they think of the Middle East (my mind usually wanders to flying carpets and genies).

we first arrived in Amman, and while we only stayed there for 2-3 nights here-and-there (acting) as our base of operations, it was underwhelming. but to be fair, our short stays in and out of town didn't really do it justice. but i'm fairly certain you can take the capital city of any semi-developing, growing-middle-class, and burgeoning-to-be-cosmopolitan, country, and you've got Amman. were there (Roman) ruins on a hill? museum remnants of ancient civilization? street vendors (selling produce, trinkets, Iraqi currency)? minarets, mosques, and frequent calls to prayer? all of the above. but again, Amman was just a stop, and we were quickly on the road.

the road south: hiring a car for the day we headed south on the King's Highway, a winding road thru hills and valleys of desert mixed with greenery. we stopped to climbed and conquer ancient Crusader castles (Kerak and Shoback). we pulled over to look down the valleys (Wadis) of Al-Mujib and Al-Hasa. by the late afternoon we were in Wadi Musa, we spent a few hours wandering thru the ruins of Little Petra - "little" because it was an appetizer for the next days main event.

 Petra: i'll spare you the historical details, but if you've seen the end of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (a title that makes way more sense, and upon further reflection, probably not too popular in the Islamic world, given the regional history), you can get some IDEA of how we spent our day in the ancient abandoned city of Petra (though there was no Holy Grail, Sean Connery, or promise of immortality). we entered at 6am, seeing the main attractions before the sun and the crowds were fully out, and opted to spend the better part of the day ascending ancient steps and thru cliffs, seeing more isolated view and ruins. the evening was spent on the far end of the city, atop the Monastery, watching the sunset from a cliff face with a couple of local Bedouins. we descended back into the city thru the dark of night.

the Bedouin desert: the next day we departed early for Wadi Rum. upon arrival we hopped in a beatdown 4x4 (the only retained functions were the door, the engine, and the 4-wheel drive - even the ignition was hotwired), with Hussein, our 20-year-old Bedouin driver/guide. joined by Gerard the traveling Irish doctor, we hiked fallen rock faces, made our way thru Siqs (canyons), scaled rock faces (Will = Spider-Man, squint to see him atop the rock on the left), and scurried up red sand dunes (sadly, we didn't bring a sled/snow-board). insert the theme from Lawrence of Arabia (whose house we stopped by). we had lunch under the shade of a desert rock, using rocks and screwdrivers to open our cans of tuna that accompanied the standard pita. the rest of the afternoon was spent at an empty camp, hanging with our 2 new Bedouin pals Hussein and cook Attalah under the open tent napping, sharing tea ("Bedouin whiskey"), some zany cultural conversations (how many women DO we each have back home?), and using their drums along the beat of music from our phones - theirs and ours (even Meg White would have trouble playing her tunes on the Bedouin drums). 

the right side of our own country would be glad to know that our 2 Bedouin friends in the Wadi Rum desert were pretty sure that President Obama was a card-carrying Muslim. isolated for the afternoon, we made rock cairns as the sun set, and spent the evening hanging out at camp with a newly-arrived family of Catalans and French guys. we slept outside in the desert under the stars. the next day wrapped up our time in Wadi Rum with an early morning harrowing sunrise climb of mistaken death, and we were soon off, saying farewell to our new Bedouin pals.

the road (back up) north: back on the road, we made a quick stop in Aqaba for some black-market Saudi gas (our driver pulled up next to a residential garage, darted into a house, and brought out a couple of gas canisters). as we sped up the Dead Sea highway, Israel was just a few miles over the mountains due West, which probably explains the numerous military checkpoints we passed thru. we were soon driving alongside the Dead Sea, where we made a stop at Amman Beach for a quick float, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. note to future travelers - make sure you take your dip in one of the world's saltiest bodies of water (8x that of the ocean) BEFORE a few days of hiking, bc the inevitable cuts, scrapes, bruises and chafing sting JUST A LITTLE (but nothing that a little mud couldn't cover up though). next was ascending Mt. Nebo, where Moses apparently saw the promised land (+ proceeded to croak), which was a bit lost on me, not being a good Sunday school student (incidentally enough, Muslims consider Christians + Muslims to be their brothers who are "of the Book", they just haven't yet been enlightened to the ways of the Prophet Mohammed). a quick trip into the mountain-top town of Madaba (where we scoped out a mosai-carrific Cathedral), before an shisha-filled evening in Amman with some of our fellow travelers with whom we were reunited.

north(er) Jordan: our next (and final) day in Jordan was spent in the greener northern hills - heading as far north as Um Qais - overlooking the Syria + Lebanon border, then zig-zagging down to another Crusader castle (Aljoun), followed by the ruins of the Roman city of Jerash with our Korean pal Hyegyung (where i saw the most GInormous centipede of my life). dinner of nationalist conversations with a Taiwanese-Canadian (named Louise) over a traditional Jordanian meal of almonds, rice, and chicken, followed by the first free candy (of much, much more) handed to us by a local purveyor of sweets. by 3am we would soon be off to the airport, saying farewell to Amman, making our stupid-o-clock flight to northern Syria.

wow. i cannot say enough positive things about what must be "the friendliest rogue state* you will ever visit" (*though that status is quickly changing, as the US considers reopening it's embassy...we missed John Kerry's state visit by just a few days). the when future folks ask about "what's the coolest/favorite" place you've traveled, Syria is going to give the rest a run for their money. the people were warm and hospitable, the food was amazing, and the scenery - both of the natural and ancient variety, often took our breath away. i cannot reiterate how the locals were some of the friendliest i've encountered in ALL of my travels - be it drivers, children, merchants, or just plain locals we encountered in the small towns that dotted the country, never before have i felt so welcome as a stranger in a strange land.

Will was a BIG hit with kids and teens alike - with me often taking pictures of them and him with THEIR cell phone cameras (to be fair, that happened once or twice in Jordan as well). i'm pretty sure they thought he was a European football star of sorts. i guess i was merely dismissed as some comic-book-shirt wearing weirdo local guide. i lost count of the times someone offered us free candy in the streets. the merchants constantly wanting to chat us up, not even to necessarily sell us anything. the Kurdish waiter in Aleppo who was such a fan of Obama that we got some free ice cream for dessert (i have yet to write my pal Barry a thank-you note for that).

Aleppo Friday: the first half of our day in Aleppo was spent wandering thru town like zombies (per the ridiculous-o-clock AM flight), while the afternoon was spent wandering the empty souqs (markets) of Aleppo (it was Friday, the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Sunday), that have been around for centuries. we conquered (yet another) Citadel. we ran from little kids hounding us, and we relaxed in Turkish bath. did i mention that our hotel room was like a cavernous castle-manor room with pink comforters? 

on the road again: early the next day we explored the souqs as they opened. whether it be locally made soap, woven silks/scarves, nuts, spices, meat, jewelry, or some intimate attire for your lady-friend, the friendly and willing to bargain souqs had what you wanted. but by mid morning, it time to leave town. the next three days would be spent winding thru Syria roads with our driver Abraham - a rather large chain smoking, vest-wearing, Arabic music-singing, ace driver and father of 4 who knew ALL the best stop of in-between-towns along our route - whether it be a random vantage point or locals-only hole-in-the-wall restaurant. though to be fair, taste in American music (Celine Dion, etc) left something to be desired (so we kept to the Arabic music and talk-radio for much of the trip, making up humorous translations in my head for the latter).

things that Krak me up: after perusing the the hilltop (Roman) ruins of Apamea (and more encounters with the local teenage population), we descended into town for a late lunch of fresh fish (taken-out-of-a-tank-and-gutted-cleaned-and-grilled-on-the-side-of-the-street fresh). we rode south to the massive Krak de Chevaliers (THE crusader castle to visit when passing thru and/or crusading/conquering Syria), where an Egyptian-Syria film production of Cleopatra was taking place. by dusk we found ourselves in Hama amidst the water-wheels filling the towns many aqueducts. i didn’t really get it, but they were bigger, cooler, and noisier than i expected. 

beehives, castles, and (more) ruins: the next morning, after a quick view of Hama's waterwheels by day - we sped further south, climbing up the lone hill-top remains of Shamami's Castle, still in a morning trance (it was windy!). from there, into the bee-hive like den (literally) of a local farming family, and then thru the Byzantine castle Bin Wardn. we finally arrived in the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, where the rest of the afternoon and evening was spent traversing ruins as far as the eye can see. after a hazy sunset atop the Palmyra Citadel (by this point we’d lost count of the castles we conquered), we enjoyed a dinner featuring some bootleg Lebanese beer. 

tombs, monasteries, and near-dead languages: sunrise brought an encore hike thru the Palmyra ruins and tombs, before making a beeline south thru the desert. there was the mandatory quick-stop at the Bagdad café for Will to purchase some brass baubles that would later cause many-an-airline security headache, before hiking up to the the mountain-top Christian monastery at Marmusa, followed by a brief respite in Maalula, one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Christ, was spoken.

and then, Damascus. one of the claimed contenders for world's oldest city, legend has it that the Prophet Mohamed refused to enter, as he only wanted to visit paradise when he died. while much of our time was spent within the walls of the "old city" - my impression was that outside of those walls was a modern urban experience as underwhelming as Amman. but INSIDE those very walls was a completely different story. souqs with merchants selling everything and anything you could want (the grand souq letting sunlight in thru the bullet holes from when the French were forced to leave), grand and beautiful mosques – both Shia and Sunni, fantastic food (freshly tossed pistachio ice cream?), and winding alleys/streets that you could easily get lost in (fortunately Will kept a compass on his watch). we soon ran into a familiar face from Jordan (our Korean fellow traveler), and spent part of evening watching at a tea shop watching one of the last "storytellers" - a real animated character (some other guy's 2008 video excerpt below):

the next few days were spent wandering the Damascan streets, checking out local crafts markets, getting a rocking shoe-shine, and examining a ton of remnants from ancient civilizations at the Syrian National Museum. Damascus was a fine way to spend our final Syrian days.

an underwhelming Emirates* flight got us to Dubai (*Singapore air is waaaay better for regional shorthauls, though for longhaul flights it still remains TBD who is the better airline) for the final 3 days of our trip. we were eager to see what all the fuss was about, while catching up with a few old friends living there (grad school roommate Chad, co-worker Khurram, and Matt - the guy who helped me survive grad school finance). my only frame of reference for what to expect was Singapore - a very cosmopolitan, developed hub in thick of an exciting region. but such an analogy can only take you so far, as Dubai has a BIT more Las-Vegas type extravagant ridiculousness thrown in for good measure.

Dubai - one of the richest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – is a grand middle eastern capitalist experiment that would make the most hard-right American libertarian/republican weep with joy (assuming they could get over the stark religious contrast and lack of easy-booze). we went up the world's tallest building, shopped in the world's biggest mall (featuring a ridiculous fountain and aquarium), viewed shows of the world's biggest fountain, and saw far too many luxury cars. we even got on a boat.

as for the tallest building - the Burj Khalifal is an amazing building (Will couldn't stop taking pictures), and we were fortunate to head to the top, as they had only just re-opened the observation deck. it easily dwarfs any of the world's other tall structures by any measure you choose. at the world’s biggest mall - i enjoyed the fine cuisine of Taco Bell - and saw many Emiratis and Saudis flaunting their wealth, as their familial entourage trailed behind. And while i make no attempt to insult the modesty of the local women, it was interesting to see them strut their stuff from underneath the cover of their black abayas (not to be confused with burquas, worn in other parts of the Islamic world). you know how removed and cool you feel when you wear sunglasses (no one else can see you looking at them)? that's the gist of an Emirati woman's swagger while out and about in her abaya. and on occasion you could see their designer shoes, hinting at the full on designer fashion they were certainly sporting underneath.

as for our final afternoon in Dubai? tired of wandering the desert metropolis, we opted to go skiing, just to say we did. so by far, Dubai exceeded the hype. while in absolute contrast to the prior 2 weeks, it made for quite the exclamation point on the end of our travels.

after a restless 15-hour flight home (just skirting under the European airways made empty by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull eruption), Will had the pleasure of being searched by US customs while i slipped thru (despite my darker complexion). unfortunately, there were no local kids asking me to take pictures.

so if you've made it this far down the page, kudos to you, you can now say you've read about my Middle East travels. but we barely scratched the surface, so of course it's just a matter of time before i return.

wa alaykum as-salām =)


  1. awesome pictures and post, makes a white boy like me want to travel there.

  2. Now I feel bad about never having travelled to that part of the world. Great post!

  3. Awesome, just, awesome, all of it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...