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.