A Travellerspoint blog

November 2009

Reflections on Lebanon and Syria

Taking a look back and the last couple of months

View A Backpack, A Bicycle, And a Bonderman Grant to Travel the World on dericvito's travel map.

I'm in the airport in Prague right now, still at the begin of my 36 hour journey to Mozambique and I have a little time to reflect on the last 2.5 months spent in Lebanon and Syria. I feel like I've experienced so much in such a short amount of time it's hard to digest everything I've participated in and witnessed. Overall this segment of my trip was exactly what I hoped and planned for and I feel blessed. I toured Lebanon with my family, got to know Beirut and its nightlife, a city I've come to enjoy mostly for the sweet and interesting people who live there, I "lived" for a moment in Damascus and learned enough Arabic to meet people and have simply conversations during my bicycle tours and I organized and supported a cause I believe in.

Comparing Lebanon and Syria has been fascinating, because of their shared culture and stark contrasts. The former a sophisticated cosmopolitan place with very weak institutions, infrastructure and a phyche altered by war. The later a strong state with a modest standard of living and way of life that is more traditional or as one travelers put it "authentic" (HA!) .

While I really haven't been alone much at all because of visitors and the friends that adopted me in Beirut and Damascus, I've found moving from experience to experience alone is perhaps richer then doing so with a partner, but of course more difficult to share, which is half of the pleasure. So here goes:

These were a few of my favorite things

  • When schools gets out in Damascus and children in little blue uniforms pour onto the streets, jumping, yelling, consuming aluminum bags of chips and clogging up the roads on the street.
  • Searching for a Critical Mass in Beirut and finding some very enthusiastic and endearing people
  • Visiting with Lebanese family, and finding out that our common language is Spanish
  • Cycling the mountains of Lebanon; in French!
  • Eyebrows and noses that go on for meters (all too familiar)
  • Seeing the face in my mother in a few little girls and young women
  • Drinking tea with curious Syrians in the countryside
  • Lebanese girls who speak English with the in between words in Arabic, "I think we should go for a walk, BAS it is raining. MUMKIN we could go to a movie instead. INSULLAH we can do something."

Things to bring home

  • Service taxis - why not pick up a few people standing around at the bus stop on your way home from work today? Seriously, with some simple certification and use of the Orca card system this could work!
  • Fresh bread - people line up for bread in Damascus, and clamor to bring home a heap of hot pita because they won't accept anything less than delicious new bread to scoop hummus, Baba Ganounj and maybe roll up a falafel (interestingly falafel far exceeds Western renditions, but schwarma (or Gyros) are significantly less tasty.
  • Bicycles with saddlebags bags and electric bicycles, ubiquitous on Damascus's streets.
  • Beirut nightlife - ok not the Bentlies and porches and fake lips, but the music, carefree dancing and open-minded social interaction at unique venues that makes time slip by and the morning arrive early, lightening your heart and your wallet.
  • The urban village realized in Damascus, shops under homes, small streets with life, neighborliness, abundant sweets and easy access to everything you might need.
  • Daily life, but at night, what a concept, commerce goes on in Lebanon and Syria late into late hours.
  • $1.50 shave and a haircut

In other news, the second Critical Mass was a success. We almost doubled our numbers to 12, including 8 new riders one coming traveling an hour to participate.

Sorry no photos this time - but stay tuned.

Posted by dericvito 00:56 Archived in Syria Comments (1)

600km, 40 Cups of Tea, and 20,000 Olive Trees

While cycling from Damascus to Aleppo

all seasons in one day 51 °F
View A Backpack, A Bicycle, And a Bonderman Grant to Travel the World on dericvito's travel map.

I set out from Damascus with the backend of my bicycle fully loaded. I had a rough itinerary sketched out for an approximately 10-day trip. It turned out to be a fantastic excursion through the backroads and interstates of Syria. First I climbed into the desert foothills outside Damascus to the friendly monasteries of Tecla and Der Marmusa where I consorted with nuns and monks and the handful of travelers like myself who avail themselves of their generous hospitality. Then I moved into the central flatlands of the "Atallas," that's the family name of my Arabic tutor who illustrated a map of her family for me to visit, which I did. I spent the night with an uncle and a cousin, both extremely generous and welcoming, they continue to call and check up on me. Moving from visiting mode to traveling mode, I climbed to a castle on a hill, visited ruins and riverside cities and got deep into the heartland of Syria before finally reaching my destination of Aleppo in the north, a buzzing city where they make, sell and fix almost everything.

I was told that I would get lots of attention outside Damascus. My Arab face and elementary Arabic (which now can last as long as ten minutes) can confuse some, but my helmet is a sure giveaway to my foreignness, "Anjabi" the children cry as I ride by. Riding through small towns I developed a sort of bicycle vanity from all the attention. I started to think every holler and wave were directed at me. While they probably saw me as the freak show passing through town I fancied myself a beauty queen waving and smiling so much that brown and red desert dust and earth built up on my gums.

Within a day of setting out I learned I would need to ration my journey not by kilometers, but by cups of tea. How many offers of tea could I accept and still make it to my destination? About four. There were street bystanders making tea-drinking motions, shouts of tfudal "~come in" from voices hidden in balconies high above, and motorcyclists who approached from the rear, pulled along side and said "biduck shai?" do you want tea, and again when I didn't get it "DO YOU WANT TEA!" When I could I accepted, but by the end of the journey it was less frequent as I became spoiled and exhausted. It was a challenge to distinguish which offers to accept, I sought not to take advantage of the overwhelming generosity if I felt it would create a burden, unless I was truly in need or they were truly interested in talking. My trip was made up of hundreds of interactions with people, some as quick as a wave or smile others as long as an overnight.

One of my favorite moments was sitting under an olive tree with a family as a they rested from picking. It's genuinely cold here and while that is a minor inconvenience it also means it's olive picking time. Throughout the trip I witnessed families gathering in the olive fields, eating and drinking tea as often as picking. Most of the product will be pressed into some really tasty oil.

I have twelve more days in the Middle East before I take off for Mozambique. Below are some stats from the bicycle trip and photos of some of the folks I visited with along the way. More photos are in the gallery.

Sleeping: 2 nights in monasteries, 2 nights with families, 2 nights in a hotel, 2 nights outside, 1 night in a rented apartment.
Cycling: 0 flat tires or major mechanical issues, 60-90 kilometers per day, 8 days cycling.
People met: countless


Posted by dericvito 11:09 Archived in Syria Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Rolling Around Lebanon

Seven days on the bicycle from an organized tour to a disorganized mini-mass

storm 64 °F
View A Backpack, A Bicycle, And a Bonderman Grant to Travel the World on dericvito's travel map.

I had the most incredible shave and haircut this week. Life in Damascus continues to amaze me with its earnestness, simplicity and small pleasures. At least that's how I feel with the depth of knowledge three weeks in a place can provide. But that's not what this post is about.

I spent the majority of last week on two wheels. First, I was hosted by the Lebanese Military in partnership with a Swiss group in the Polyliban, a four-day bicycle tour of Lebanon's mountains and valleys. The tour followed a Ski-to-Sea type event called the Polyatholon. It was incredibly well organized, all logistics were handled by Lebanese volunteers and supported by the red cross and military who let us sleep in their barracks and even cooked for us. There were about forty riders from Lebanon and Europe (you can imagine the amount of kissing) and the common language was French, which allowed me to let my mind wander from time to time. They were all really nice folks and it was a lot of fun to explore some of the beautiful countryside of Lebanon I had not yet seen. In total we did about 300km and climbed something like 5000m on this route.

Also last week was the first Critical Mass in Beirut! Critical Mass is a monthly bicycle ride that takes place in cities across the world with no leader and no specific purpose except to celebrate cycling. It began slowly with me sitting in a park with four members of the press who had come to see what Beirut's cycling revolution would look like (here's what they said). However, one by one participants came to rescue me, some with bicycles, some without, some Lebanese and some oreigners living in Beirut. In total we had seven true participants, although we attempted to recuit a boyscout troop on bikes and the cycling bodyguards of a millionaire dog who were taking him for a walk. We might not have made a dent in the traffic of Beirut, but four new cyclists took to the streets of Beirut that day. Plus it was a ton of fun. I hope for at least 15 next month.

More photos are in the gallery

On Saturday I depart for a two-week solo bicycle trip up to Aleppo from my home here in Damascus. All the best to you, let me know what's happening in your life!

Posted by dericvito 00:00 Archived in Lebanon Tagged bicycle Comments (1)

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