A Travellerspoint blog

Syria

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

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

From Beirut to Damascus

From family and sightseeing in Lebanon to settling down in Damascus

Cycling into Damascus after throwing my bike on top of a mini-bus for the trip from Beirut was like descending into order from chaos. It was almost shocking how put-together Damascus felt after Beirut. The police were directly traffic rather than cowering from cars running red lights. There were red lights. There were no abandoned buildings. For me it was the contrast of capitalism versus socialism. Of a dictatorship versus virtually a complete lack of government (still pending formation after summer elections).

Prior to my departure for Damascus I had just spent about 10 days with my sister, father and one aunt and uncle on my mother's side. During their visit we saw the sights I had neglected in my previous three weeks, such as the ruins in Baalbek, the cave of Jeita, and the port cities of Saida and Tyre (Sour). But our first trip out of Beirut was to visit the remnants of my grandparents family still in Lebanon. They lived in a growing, but still small town in the Beka valley, the bread and wine basket of Lebanon. While our blood-ties seemed distant at this point, they were most welcoming. They filled the living room with familiar dishes that we would pratically overdose on in the coming week.

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We kept quite busy and before I knew it my family departed, one by one. I realized I was ready for a change of scenery and headed out for Damascus. My intention in this trip was to really get to know the places I visit by 1) going places where I could communicate 2) traveling less places and staying longer in the places I do go and 3) use the bicycle to access and build connections with people. Thus in Damascus, I planned to stay at least three weeks , take Arabic lessons and get to know the city by foot and bike.

Thus far, I have been fortunate to spend only a few nights in a hostel. In Lebanon I house-sat, slept at my cousin's ancestral house and stayed with family at a rented apartment. My good fortune has continued in Damascus. I contacted a Brazilian of Lebanese origin I met in Beirut and she arranged for me to take her place in the apartment she shared and for me to meet her Arabic tutor. This type of hospitality is common here. In my first taxi ride in Damasucs the driver pulled out a cup of steaming tea while weaving between cars and encouraged me to drink. I hesitated pondering where this hot cup of tea could of come from, but accepted at the urging of my new friends.

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I've been in Damascus since the 14th of October. I've been getting to know the City slowly and deliberately, taking bicycle trips further and further from home. I've had a week's worth of Arabic lessons and I'm picking up words and starting to form sentences. My roommate is a half-Arab German who has internalized local hospitality. She puts out a fantastic spread of cheeses for breakfast and has been taking me around town. We live above the family of Abu Yossef, his wife, three daughters and one son in a lower-middle income neighborhood near the edge of the old City. I've made friends with a neighborhood food goods shop worker, who asks me to come by every day to converse. We talk slowly in Arabic and English in between transactions with customers, most of whom are less than ten years old and some of whom appear barely old enough to walk. He reads Khalil Gibron in between transactions, is unmarried and spends his time painting poetry after work.

View Video here (youtube is banned here)

While I'll stick to my first impression that Syria is certainly a more organized country than Lebanon, I'm told there is a lot more to Syria than meets the eye. Stories of the secret police, gender issues which keep women locked at home, and of course the lack of justice and democracy is an issue. In Syria, it's unlikely that I will be pulled off the street for a casting call for the part of Misseur le grande as I was in Beirut. Still I'm told the country is fast modernizing. Thousands of electric bicycles cruise silently through neighborhoods alongside modern public buses (which Lebanon lacks entirely). A new stock market has opened, private universities have recently been allowed and the country is working to support farmers while eliminating petrol subsidies. Most of my learning has come from expats and the English language magazine Syria Today which I've been feverently reading.

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I'll be in Damascus through the first week in November save a trip to Lebanon next week to participate in an organized bike tour in the mountains and the first Critical Mass Beirut. Then I head north in a 14 day trip to Aleppo in Northern Syria.

Posted by dericvito 21:55 Archived in Syria Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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