Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rockwoods in Peru

Goodbye Damascus, we (I) loved ya', we have now moved to Peru at: http://rockwoodsinperu.blogspot.com

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Goodbye Damascus

It's down to my last week in Damascus and I'm starting to miss it already. I've been up in the mountains climbing a lot, and I went this last week with my classmates up to north-western Syria up near the Turkish border and saw a lot of sights that reminded me of back home. I went swimming in lakes surrounded by pine-trees and frolicked on the best beach Syria has to offer (which is about as nice as the Great Salt Lake). All of our teachers came with us and it was fun to finally be able, after a year of toil, to switch seamlessly between English and Arabic, depending on the audience, without even thinking about it. We visited the late presidents tomb, guarded by men in black leather jackets, and the mountain castle of Salah Ad-diin, and Ugarit, the place the first alphabet was discovered.

Now I've had all of my farewell parties and it's just a few more days until my plane leaves and I see Vanessa and Alexa in DC, then it's on to Peru. I can't wait to see them, it's been over four months. At the same time I will really miss Damascus. Of course there are many things I won't miss, like the pollution, the non-variety in food (I can't even look at shwarma, kebab, shish tawuuk, or falafel for at least a year), the zionist conspiracy theories (which now incluces Facebook), close mindedness when it comes to change ("but that's how we do it here..."), fashion that's stuck in the 80's, being followed and monitored by secret police, blocked websites, annoying Arab men, etc. But there are many things that I will miss, like the safety, how there is literally almost no crime or violence at all in Syrian society, the markets and shopping, eating in the old city, bootleg DVD's, the innocence and naivete of Syrians, the archeological sites, the good friends I've made, etc. Most of all I'll miss the absence of a monotonous job and the same routine every day. Above is the lake called the "7 seas" that we stopped at for lunch, and while others were admiring the view I snuck down and did a little swimming.

I'm glad I got to witness a change in Syrian society as it is now coming out of it's post-soviet era bubble and has started to open up to the world and experience the joys of things like a class divide, with the appearance of expensive coffee-shops and restaurants and shops that suddenly only a small, exclusive section of society can enjoy. And I'm exited to return sometime in the future and see how much more it will have changed. All in all it was quite an experience, and although I wish my family had been here the whole time, the six months with them was memorable and I learned a lot. It sure went by quickly. That's my graduating class above, minus 3 that already left, and our 3 teachers.
I highly recommend Syria to all, and thanks to those REAL friends who did visit me. Keep posted for rockwoodsinperu.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Spring Climbing

I wish I had found the Damascus climbing group sooner, it would have been the perfect diversion from schoolwork. I just didn't think that climbing was very developed in the Middle East in general, but it appears I was wrong. There is an active community, plenty of bolted routes, a Syrian climbing guidebook, and multi-pitch climbs that go back decades. The pioneers of Syrian climbing were Austrian and Swiss UN soldiers, but now the group includes an international crowd (even a few Syrians). I spent a beautiful day up in Wadi Manshuura near Bloudan, high up in some crags that overlooked Hizbulla (the Bekaa) valley in Lebanon. It's right on a common arms smuggling route from Lebanon and we saw a few shifty looking people with dubious cargo on thier tractors. It was wonderful to get out of the city and on some mountains though.

I'm actually really glad I'm not going to have to go straight back to the US, but am heading to Peru instead. I'm a little intimidated by the US right now. I mean over here, in a third-world country I'm really a somebody. Just by being foreign I'm automatically thrust into the upper echelon of society and am considered an "expert" on just about everything because I'm from the US. I could have my pick of jobs here just because everybody wants a "foreigner", there's the impression that they work harder, know computers, speak good English, serve as a status symbol to the company, etc. Whereas in the US I'm just another schmuck trying to make a dollar, climbing up the anthill with other people that have the same qualifications as I do. I can see how being an ex-pat in these types of countries could be addicting. We'll see what Peru has to offer.

In other news, they've doubled the cost of transportation in Damascus because of rising gas prices. Now the 5 pound minibus ride is 10, and taxi's are no longer that cheap. I guess it's happening all over the world, rising prices, but if they don't stop here in Syria soon I think you're going to see riots. Everything from vegetables to bread has doubled in price in the one year I've been here and people are starting to complain publicly.

Some things are improving though, they've been working wonders in the old city, to the left are the latest Roman and Greek statues and columns that they've been dragging up as they tear up the asphalt roads to make cobblestone streets. They've also promised to make the old city "car-free" by 2011 (which probably means 2020), and each new section they re-cobble they close-off to traffic. They are going to install underground parking lots at each end of the city and make the entire thing for pedestrians only. That means that the once busy, crazy, main straight street (medhat basha, below right) has already become a pretty, quaint, quiet little pedestrian walk with trees and flower beds, and bab sharki has wide pedestrian squares and is enveloped in relative silence (I have no pics of these yet, stay posted). It has a lot of potential and I think that in a few years the old city in Damascus is going to be one of the prettiest, authentic Mid Eastern old cities around.

Alexa goes to nursery for a few hours a day and likes it once she gets there but cries when she has to leave Vanessa. She also loves the beach and her two new parakeets. I really really miss Vanessa and Alexa and can't wait to see them again.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Can't get you out of my head

Took another trip through central Syria with some of my classmates, all places I had been to two or three times, but I'm running out of things to see and this trip was financed by the school. I'd rather hang out with fun people and eat good food and sleep in nice hotels than travel another weekend budget style and end up looking like death on Sunday morning. We saw the more prominent cities of the dead, saw the sights in Aleppo, Hama, Homs, some castles, and a few random tell-style ruins like Ebla. I learned that there are over 3,000 prominent archaeological sites in Syria and less than 1000 have been even partially excavated over the last century. There is such a potential for tourism here it is incredible, but there is absolutely no current infrastructure. Dirt roads with no signs mark most of the major sites (enormous ruins that would be the main attraction in any other country), nobody speaks English or even knows where the site is to direct you, entrance fees are a dollar or so per person (if there is one), there are kids climbing all over the ruins breaking things and families eating picnics and throwing their trash all over, beduin scavengers digging in broad daylight looking for coins and other trinkets to sell to the few buses of European tourists that come through, etc. To the right are some of my colleagues at the Qasr al-Azem in Hama.

We have a funny list going around us students entitled "you know you're studying Arabic in Syria if", a few of the good ones are:

-You still have scars on your body from bedbugs and various other ailments suffered during your "homestay" in Bab Touma
-Even though a ton of Syrians got paid to hang out with you you still couldn't make any friends
-You're still waiting for your residency, 11 months later
-The theme songs of the year were: Acon's "Smack dat," George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and, of course, anything Fairuz.
-You've seen more of Syria than 95% of Syrians
-The veiled women wore tighter clothes and more make-up than you did
-The phrase in shah Allah now means "it ain't gonna happen"
-You've begun to attribute all physical ailments, no matter how unrelated to one another, to a mysterious phenomenon called "greeb."
-You've forgotten what it's like to talk to friends/family from home with even the slightest degree of privacy.
-50 percent of your daily activities are governed by whether or not you have appropriate change in Syrian lira.
-That being said: you will tell bald-faced lies to store owners and even friends, claiming that all you have is a 1000 lira note, in order to hang on to your small bills.
-You speak English with "dangling modifiers" ie. "The town which I traveled to it"
-You sweat in places you once thought impossible
-You feel like a slut wearing a short sleeve shirt
-You've smoked more (second-hand) than the Marlboro Man
-You go to Turkey and think its Amsterdam.
-Your internship teaches you to become an expert on tea and turkish coffee
-Fake eyebrows and leopard print start to look like normal fashion statements
-You don't need the menu's at restaurants any more, (there are the same 5 dishes in all 2000+ restaurants)
-You look over your shoulder before logging onto Facebook
-Your home stay family is still calling for money
-You've learned how to hack blocked websites.
-You have time to cook dinner and watch a boot-leg dvd in the time it takes to load one web-page.
-The sound of dial-up doesn't seem that strange any more.
-You have contracted strange uncommon diseases and rashes that were eradicated in the west decades ago
-Personal dress now includes pointy shoes
-you've acquired at least one disease that no doctor can diagnose
-the more popular you are, the more gel you have in your hair
-there is no such thing as a line or "I got here first"
-you got frostbite in your apartment
-Depending on the day, Syrians will either tell you that you speak better Arabic than they do or that you should really consider taking beginning classes
-"Wallahi ma b'arif" (I don't know) is the national motto
-Everything was first invented/discovered in Syria, including the pyramids and the Japanese language
-Correct English is now your second language

Monday, April 14, 2008


I had a low key birthday, I made some vanilla cake and watched "death-defying acts" with Zeta Jones while knitting a sweater for Alexa. This weekend I went up to the northern Kurdish region of Syria for a three day weekend and saw some amazing sights. This area is called "the island" as it is bounded on all sides by major rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, and Khabur. To the left is the Tigris. It is part of the fertile crescent that extends up from Iraq and is very green and flat and consists of Qamishli, Hassaka, and Deir Az-zour. That is until you reach the Turkish border at the Tigris where huge mountains jut up out of nowhere. Below are some kids playing in the Tigris with Turkey just a stone's throw away, no guards or border agents, I could have just swam across. There are remains of an old Roman bridge there that I paid some Kurdish guys to take me out to, and then they got in trouble by the secret police because they hadn't registered me at the main police station. Of course they didn't know they were supposed to, but after a few cups of tea and small bribes we were on our way again.

The most unique part of the landscape is the utter flatness of green mud/dirt fields broken only by intermittent tells that rise out of the ground marking where an ancient city once stood. I visited tell Barak, where TE Lawrence and Agatha Christie met when she was writing "Murder on the Orient Express". Archaeologically there isn't much there, as their building materials were made of only mud bricks mixed with straw (see below). Mud mud mud everywhere. What a place. The modern houses are still made of mud bricks and have a unique slightly domed mud roof that I haven't seen in any other part of Syria. You see a lot of oil rigs across the landscape, but the locals don't see any of thier profit, as it is probably the poorest part of Syria. There were very few pictures of Al-Assad and most of the people I talked to seem to wish they were part of Turkey instead of Syria. They were a really friendly people though, and I even learned a few Kurdish phrases "chawai"!

I made my way down to Hassaka, a predominantly Christian city by small minibuses and to my dismay most of it is of the newer, ugly Syrian-Soviet style construction excepting a bunch of sparkling new Churches. Many Syrian Christians have relatives in the US or Canada that send over loads of money to finance the building of fancy new churches and country homes. Then I went down to Deir Ez-zour which is right on the Euphrates and saw some of the ruins around there. Mari and Dar Europus were the highlights, two really important cities back in the day, but all that's left are crumbling mounds of clay bricks and broken pottery. I was scouring the ground continually for relics and found a few cool partial glass vases. It's my new hobby. To the left is a castle built by nur ed-din, destroyed by the mongols. Below is the Euphrates river at Dar Europos, a place founded by Alexander the Great, the place they found the only Jewish synogogue ever with frescos.

My favorite comment of the trip was from one guy I was talking to from Ad-deir who told me in his thick, thick beduin accent that the dialect of the people from up in Qamashli was "tageela chiteer" (very heavy), which is like a Scotsman saying an Irish accent is thick.

Now I'm back back in the groove in Damascus, hanging out with friends and studying less and less. I've gotten into a romance-movie kick, probably because I miss my family. I'm slowly picking up all the things I want to buy before I leave, some traditional artistic ceramic tiles, some decorative elaborate wooden cookie molds, about 8 pairs of Syrian shoes (they are cheap and awesome), some calligraphy art, textiles, tableclothes, lung cancer, etc. If anybody wants me to bring them anything, now is the time to tell me, including lung cancer.

Below is the monthly Alexa shot - these are her modeling pics. She was "discovered" by an agency the other day in a park in Lima. I don't like the pics very much personally, but fair, blue eyed babies are apparently a rarity in Peru and can fetch quite a price.

Monday, March 31, 2008

A very low Summit

This last week was the Arab Summit. That's right, if you're not into the Middle East then you probably didn't hear about it, but around here it was a once in a century event. It's the first time the Arab League has met in Damascus and they really put on a show. In fact they even closed the airport and all the borders for five days, so even if I didn't want to be here for it I had no choice. Most of the roads were closed and there were police everywhere, but the summit ended without incident besides a wave of freezing winter weather after a short heat wave. Most people here outright made fun of the summit and think it is a complete waste of time. But I did hear one person say that in the last few years they have been trying to address the issue of the broken education system, which is a step in the right direction. One of the highlights was watching Qadaffi pour out contempt on all the other Arab leaders as he sometimes does.

There was a brief resurgence of Arab nationalism for the last few weeks, with a few signs around town touting the "Shared heritage and language" of the Arabs, but in general Syria really doesn't have that much in common with any other Arab countries, it's closest allies are Iran and Russia for grace sake. I would make an argument however, that the Syrian people are some of the best candidates in the Middle East to be friends with the US. For one, Syria is the most religiously diverse Arab country with about 6 different Muslim sects, 5 different Christian sects, and throw in a few Yezidis and Jews and a surprisingly large number of Athiests. It is also the most linguistically and racially diverse, with about 11 languages and 15 or so significant ethnic groups. This melting pot effect has made most Syrians by necessity more open minded and permissive than the surrounding countries. When I go out with friends they are a religious mix of Druze, Protestant, Sunni, Alawi, Armenian Orthodox, agnostic, etc. (including two Athiest girls that wear the veil - for social / family reasons), and an ethnic mix of Arab, Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, Turkish, Tajik, and Russian, etc. This in addition to 50 years of a socialist secular government has made Syrians' attitudes closer to American attitudes than any other ME country I've ever visited. Of course there are a number of extremist types around, and some say they are growing, but they are still a huge minority, no more than I've met around DC or Salt Lake City for that matter. Too bad the politicians can't just work it out, cause even after Iraq the people still love Americans and America.

On a family note Alexa is having fun in Peru and just started nursery. The picture to the right is her "glare" that she gives to people she doesn't know or is upset at. It's so evil and scary it's cute. It looks like I'll be moving to Peru after I finish up here. Vanessa came to Syria for me, so the least I can do is repay the favor and move there for a year. She is trying to find a job and I'll mainly take care of Alexa and try to find a part-time job or something. I keep thinking I need to find a job and a career and stuff like that, but it appears I can continue frolicking around the world for a while longer. Who'd of thought.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Generous One

The family came for a ten day Easter vacation and we had a really good time. We hit all the major sites in Syria and went shopping crazy. We rented out a minibus right from the street and went up to the Seydnaya and Maalula monasteries and the tekla gorge, spent 2 days in Damascus seeing sights and shopping, Dad kept saying he was done shopping every day, but the next would bring new antiques or beduin trinkets that he had to have, Tyler liked the baths so we went to the baths three days in a row. We ate great food in the old city restaurants every night, everyone's favorite was Haretna right next to our hotel.

We took off early one morning for Palmyra which was the highlight of the trip for most of the family. We were wandering among the ruins the first day and my Dad looked down and picked up an ancient coin. After that we all went crazy and wandered over the ruins all that day and the next morning from 6 AM and we all found coins and ancient glass bottle pieces copper trinkets, carved bone pieces, etc just lying all over the ground among the 50 acres of ruins. We all love that kind of thing and with the ruins all around and Ayyubid castle overlooking us it was magical. We had dinner in a beduin tent and then went back to Damascus to get our rented car and take off north.

We hiked up to the Mar Mousa monastery and spent the night there and next morning hiking around the area. The monastery is always a cool, serene place, and you meet a lot of Europeans there just hanging out for a few months. Then we went on to the Crac du Chevalier castle, which everybody loved and I almost lost the car when I left it in drive after I parked it and started to walk away. That evening we made it to Apamea, the largest ruin in Syria, 90% still underground, and walked along the main thoroughfare with green grass covering the whole countryside. Dad got suckered into buying some questionable old coins from the illegal vendors that would hang around on the edges of the ruins and call out at us.

We spent one evening in Aleppo in Jdede, the christian quarter that has all the good restaurants and hotels, and then the next day spent a full day exploring the old city, markets, and the citadel. Although they are the most extensive covered old markets in the whole middle east, most of the stuff is for local shoppers, and I still think Damascus has better stuff. We visited the St. Simeon monastery which was fun, and stopped at the Hama waterwheels.

Ty and Dad left the next morning, and Ash, Bryan and Clay stayed for two more days. We went down to Bosra and the amphitheater and I found the perfect carpet for sale among the ruins. I'd had my eye out for a few months and this one was the perfect color and price. Then we did last minute shopping around the old city and handicraft bazaar and bought mostly old trinkets, pearl and silver inlay boxes, and one dollar bootleg movies.

It was a blast to finally have visitors to show off the fascinating place I live in, and luckily my family is adventurous, and we saw a lot of things and places that most tourists don't. There was also a lot of laughter and bonding and I don't think any of us will ever forget the experience. A special thanks to the -Generous One- who made it all possible.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Exotic Dogs

I went this weekend to the Damascus Zoo. It was a bit depressing to see all of these animals in small dirty cement cell blocks, but one of the most entertaining things was that about 1/3 of the animals in the zoo are dogs. They think of them as exotic animals from Europe, so you have all these cages with poodles and spaniels and german shepards and people pointing at them and taking pictures. People don't have pet dogs here, I haven't even seen one in the time I've been here. When I told a guy at the zoo that we had these animals as pets in the US he said it only confirmed what he thought about the US, that we're barbarians, and how keeping a wild animal in the house is unsanitary. I told him that many of the kitchens and bathrooms I'd seen in Syria were more unsanitary than any dog kennel. That's what happens when you spend a lot of time abroad, you become kind of direct and rude. I don't mean to, it just happens.

On the whole though, the zoo here was cleaner than the Cairo zoo, where if you come early in the morning you can catch a pickup truck driving through the zoo piling the dead animals of the day in the back, legs sticking out rigimortis style. The government keeps buying new ones though, as it entertains about 10,000 Cairenes a DAY. One time I saw a baboon eating a cat.

I was noticing the other day on my way to school as I walk through this really poor area, how every mud-brick falling-apart house had a satellite dish on it. Everyone gets free satellite here, all the satellites use illegal unscramblers, so they can watch any satellite channel from anywhere in the world (including showtime, hbo, trillions of european porn channels, etc.) On the bright side, everyone has access to news from around the world and is no longer limited to what the Syrian government let's through, but on the other side, I am sick and tired of my limited choices. Out of my 264 channels, about 100 are Arabic music video channels, 50 are news channels, 20 show constant Arabic soap operas, and the rest are an assortment of sports or religious shows. There's nothing interesting to watch besides the three basic choices of Arabic pop music videos, news, or soaps. There are a few English language channels that show movies, and I can even watch good morning America every morning - but I didn't come here to listen to English, so I stick with the painfully tedious Arabic stations.

That's why last month when MTV Arabia started broadcasting I got exited. They film all of thier popular reality shows and music shows in the middle east, in Arabic. There's never been anything like it in Arab TV before (MBC has made a few lame attempts...), it's amazing. It is producing home-grown Arabic stars with shows like "hip hop-na", "baq a biq", "made", "cribs", "punked", etc, all filmed in the ME for an Arab audience. There is this explosion of creative talent and Arab youth expressing themselves with music and film - and MTV is the only outlet right now catering to them. It's addicting to watch as well as a good way to get exposure to a bunch of Arabic dialects.

On the right is the countryside with the suburbs of Damascus in the distance. Looks pretty when you can't smell the scent of burning plastic and garbage.

Alexa is still loving Peru, loves the food, and doesn't like the sand at the beach.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Hawran

I took a long weekend trip with some classmates down to the mountainous area south of Damascus known to the world as Jebel Druze, but known to Syria as Jebel Al-Arab (the name was changed in the sixties to promote Arab unity, even though 95% of the population is Druze). The Druze who live there now came from Lebanon about 200 years ago as a result of a bloody conflict with Christian Maronites. What they found was a mountainous region full of Roman and Christian cities that had been abandoned in the 7th century after the Arab conquest spread out of Arabiad. So all of the villages today are built among the ruins of ancient houses, temples, baths, and theaters. Some years ago they cleared the residents from around the biggest ruins and you can visit some pretty impressive structures all made out of the characteristic black volcanic stone that covers the whole area. For some reason I was expecting some real mountains, an was kind of disappointed at the hilly nature of the region. There was some snow in the higher areas around Salkhad, but it's mostly just black volcanic rocky hills with a volcanic cone or two sticking up on the horizon. The tops of all of the mountains are Druze holy sites with little temples where they light candles. We stopped on our way back at Bosra even though I'd already been there during the summer, but it is a different place when it's not 120 degrees and you can actually wander around and enjoy it.

Of course from the minute we arrived we were followed around by the secret service to make sure we weren't doing anything fishy, although I don't know what anyone would do in this remote mountain wasteland. After being followed around all morning, I finally just I went up to one of them and asked him if he'd drive us around himself as it would be easier for all of us. He had no objection, so we got a free ride and a free guide for the rest of the trip! The only drawback was that we weren't allowed to take many pictures of anything, we weren't told why, just that it was "forbidden". But we successfully teamed up and distracted them to get a few.

Many (usually older) Druze dress in a traditional outfit that consists of some really baggy pants called Sirwal (said to be designed to catch the next Messiah safely in it's folds when it is born to a man), belted at the waist with a white cummerbund, white cap, and huge, HUGE mustache. We met one guy who used hair spray or gel or something till it was at least two feet from tip to tip. It was a really interesting trip though and well worth the trouble.

Alexa and Vanessa are in Peru and loving the food and the warm weather, and the relatives are all loving meeting Alexa for the first time. She is starting to speak, but only knows Spanish for now, I guess that's what you get when your father is absent for 6 months of the first year of your life.

Lesson of the week: if your shower is above a hole-in-the ground squatter arab toilet and you drop your soap - it's gone.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Goodbye Hiz Bully

I wonder how much market research Coca Cola did when it decided to start this campaign of female Arab singers dressed like American housewives from the 50's. Probably not much.

We all heard the big explosion echo around the city last week at around 11:00 pm, but the local news reported a gas truck had blown up and nobody was hurt. It continued with that story until evening the next day when every Arab newspaper in the world reported that a Hizb leader was martyred in Damascus and their denial was starting to look ridiculous. In 2004 another Hizb guy got blown up in a car bomb as well, but people don't get concerned here, they know that when this type of thing happens the target is some high profile leader and the goal isn't general destruction of human life like in Iraq or even in America (latest University massacre, for ex). At first it Israel's fault, then the CIA, but now, experts on the Arab news channels agree that it could have been pretty much anybody, and one guy on Al-Arabiya even told off all of the Arab media for jumping to the same conclusion (zionist-American conspiracy) every time something happens.

The picture to the right is the latest mess in the old-city reconstruction project, they hit some water pipes while digging and have had to dig deeper and deeper and now there's this gaping hole about 100 ft. deep in the middle of one of the main roads with broken electric and water pipes sticking out, and some of the nearby shops are starting to lose thier floors and foundations as they cave in. They've dug down so far they've uncovered an old roman temple, and there are columns sticking out of the dirt all over the bottom, but the tractors have destroyed most of them, and the rest they're just going to cover right back up once they're done fixing the water. You really can't turn over a stone in this part of the world without exposing something ancient, but nobody has the money, time, or even interest in excavating it.

I finished filming this video for a new Syrian Arabic book after three 18 hour days in a row. It was mind-numbingly cold and tedious, but I got to meet a lot of famous people and make a lot of new friends. Below is a picture of us filming in one of the big famous Arabic houses in the Souk Sarouja area where they film the majority of the Syrian soap operas.

I also went to the huge Shia graveyard just south of the old city where there are a bunch of the Shia leader Hussein's daughters buried as well as a number of important Turkish sufis. It was filled with highly emotional Iranian tourists as well as a large number of Mongolian Muslims, who I thought were supposed to be Sunni?? I'm not sure they really knew where they were, but not to be left out they cried and wailed at the tombs along with the rest of them.

Here's a good article on Damascus from the Washington Post, as well as some great 360 views of a bunch of sites from 360 views of Syria. My family visiting in March will not be able to see these famous sights, as I've planned a much more interesting week-long tour of the botany of the Syrian countryside, which I'm sure they'll enjoy much more. Check out the new Alexa video in the video column - Alexa in Syria.