The Road East

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
–Mahatma Gandhi

Merry Christmas to everyone at home and abroad, and wishes for a Happy New Year as well!

Picking up where my last post left off, I was very happy to leave the (cozy) confines of my Serbian hostel room in Nish and get back on the road to Bulgaria. I had been attempting to get there a few days earlier, but got held-up with a nasty bout of strep throat, so when I finally hopped on the train for Sofia the anticipation that had been building was well rewarded.

The train was smoky, as usual, with entire cabins occupied by moving Roma families with bags piled floor to ceiling, but this train had an extra twist: a cigarette smuggling ring. We were crossing the Bulgarian border, and into EU territory from a non-EU country, so I knew customs would be a hassle, but when I saw a sketchy looking lady start to pry the paneling off the inside hallway of our car, I got really worried. What the h*** was going on?! The Hollywood blockbuster began to unfold and I had a front row seat. Next a large (drunk) man singing a Serbian folk tune, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth ran past my cabin with a ladder, soon to return and toss it up against the wall in order to pull down the ceiling tiles and stuff up cartons of cigarettes. At some point a metal piece form the roof fell down and got tossed out the window of the moving train with just a shrug. “Guess they didn’t need that piece very much.” Just before we crossed the border the situation took an interesting twist, two of the head smugglers decided to come in and share my cabin for the passport and customs control. Great! Just what I need, to be mixed up with cigarette smugglers! The interesting bit was that the Serbian girl who had been with me in the cabin before, and who spoke excellent English, was able to relay the story behind this illegal operation so I could understand what was going on, and why. Turns out, this happens every single day so I had nothing to be worried about. Whewf! Sure enough, at the border both sets of customs officers were extremely lenient with the smugglers and only confiscated about ½ of all the cigarettes they found. They just didn’t care. Bribes were paid to the ticket officers to look the other way (literally as the guy with the ladder hauled down what remained of the cigarettes not even a meter away), and as soon as all officials were off the train the race began to sell everything before we got to Sofia. The smugglers looked pretty sketchy, but other than that, like normal, middle-aged people, the majority of whom were women. I found this surprising, but it turns out they had all worked for state run companies back in communist era Yugoslavia (modern day Serbia), until the company had sold out to an international corporation and they had all lost their jobs. Without other training these people had been left to fend for themselves in a country with an economy in poor shape, and an even worse social system. The only option they saw was to smuggle cigarettes across the border to make ends meet. They weren’t proud about it, but they did what they had to do to supplement their 80euro (about $115) a month income. Welcome to reality for so many people in the East.

Into Bulgaria I saw a country filled with contrasts. The rugged rural landscape and farming history are a shock against the urban concrete monstrosities left over from the Communist days. Within the capital of Sofia there are beautiful buildings, and old churches dating back to the early AD years, quite often these are in better shape than the newer apartments that are already peeling and crumbling. My favourite places in the city were the farmer’s market, which stretched for many city blocks and was chock full of all the grown, collected, dried, or butchered goods I could have ever imagined, and the Cathedral of St. Nicolas. The Easter Orthodox church towered above the ret of the city and inside the detail in all the votives and murals was astounding. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and in the dark interior all you could smell was beeswax and incense with a healthy dose of dust for good measure. The floors were marble tiles and the altars were veritable thrones with regal Bulgarian lions standing guard. Unfortunately I couldn’t even sneak a few photos to show you, so I’ll leave it up to your imagination with the guidance I’ve given you, but be sure it was truly breathtaking. By the time I left, I was ready to continue my journey and head to Istanbul, the gateway to the Middle East (or so I thought).

Istanbul is a gem of a city with a history that makes it all the more intriguing. Population 18 million- yes, that is about half of Canada in one city- the metropolis didn’t feel that overwhelming to me. Each little neighbourhood had its quirks and it was very easy to maneuver around… provided you weren’t driving on the roads! Everything was loud in Istanbul, that’s the best word for it. The store owners shouting at you from their doorsteps, the colours in all the bazaars, and of course the streets. Monuments were truly “Istanbul-sized,” like the Aiya Sofia and Topkapi Palace, the food had flavour to spare, and the tourist rip-offs were Istanbul-sized as well. After six days I had explored enough for this trip and was ready to move on, even if I didn’t know where to.

Leaving Istanbul, the rest of my time in Turkey was a whirlwind through the beautiful and unique landscapes of Kapadokya, then south to Antarkya for a night before crossing the Syrian border with a fresh mind (and much needed patience) in the morning. This was my first ever visa hassle, so I was thankful that I was traveling with someone else who had already done some of his own traveling around the region and knew what to expect. I got bumped around from room to room meeting, but of course not being introduced to, all the military captains, generals, supervisors and their commanding officers. Each time I would get the same questions: was I married? No. What was my occupation? Student. Why did I want to travel in Syria? Tourism. And on, and on, and on. The hardest answer for the (all male) officers to accept was that I was not married. To complicate matters further, I was traveling with an Australian guy, and it was very difficult to convince the border guards that we were just friends, somehow that would get lost in translation every time. Being the only younger woman in the entire building, I think part of the reason they held me for so long was so everyone could get a look at the foreign girl, oh yeah I felt great being stared up and down repeatedly. Finally after a tense 1.5h and a lot of arguing on the part of our amazing bus driver, they let me into Syria- with a 48h transit visa. That was not what I was expecting, or what I had paid for, since I had already paid the fee for a full one-month visa, but they didn’t really bother to refund that, and I didn’t have the time, or the social status, to argue. Now what?

Aleppo. Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city, and it was my first stop in the country. It’s a dusty, dirty, old maze of a city, mixed with all the traffic hazards and the crescendo of car horns that I’ve now come to associate with the Middle East. I really enjoyed the full experience of the city because it was something totally new to me, and turned out to really be my kind of city. Crossing the street meant taking your life into your hands, and it was there that I came to the conclusion that Syria might be the only place in the world where the horn in a car wears out before the brakes do. The city felt like a big ball of chaos, but somehow Aleppians manage to weave their way through the daily mess and create some kind of order in their lives. The best part about Aleppo for me was that after a multi-hour trip to the Immigration office, I got an extension on my visa, and I didn’t have to curb my plans to visit Syria.

I left Aleppo heading south to Hama, wondering what Syrian adventure I would get into next. Hama isn’t as big as Aleppo, but it certainly makes up for that in hospitality. The people there were the kindest and most open of anywhere I travelled in Syria. A couple friends and I met the most amazing group of women one evening sitting in a park that overlooked the city. The women were very conservatively dressed in long, black, burkas, one woman, with only her eyes exposed. This was the woman who struck up a conversation with my friends and I after hearing us speaking in English. What made this extraordinary was that my two friends were men, and she began talking directly to one of them. I’ve been in similar situations before and usually local women will prefer to talk to other women as opposed to male foreigners, so this came as a complete shock to me. We got to know the women through Safra, the youngest, and most conservative, because she spoke excellent English. They were curious about our respective countries, the differences to Syria, what we thought of Syria and of Islam as well. Safra is 19 and married, but still attending university studying international tourism and had taught herself English and Italian. She’s incredibly intelligent and outgoing, but it was clear that she placed her religion ahead of everything else without conflict and took pride in all of what we, in the West, would see as restrictions in her lifestyle.
I spent most of my time chatting to Safra’s mother in a mix of the little Arabic I understood and the few English words she knew, with lots of hand gestures thrown in for good measure. It was amazing everything that we could communicate. She was an Arabic teach in a primary school (just like my own mother in Canada with English), and her husband and two sons were doctors and dentists that had gone to work in Saudi Arabia because it was more profitable. She had made friends from all over the world and loved entertaining international guests. We talked and laughed for hours until the sun began to set, and the women had to leave. As we said goodbye I was once again reminded of the many joys of travelling and all the magical moments that come along with it.

Moving out into the desert, I spent one night at the oasis of Palmyra. The city was small by Syrian standards and it felt like it. I nicknamed the place, “one-horse-town, Syria style,” because that’s exactly what it was, complete with tumbleweeds blowing down the streets. All the buildings were new and the streets were actually planned, so everything was in a grid pattern and became as much of a maze as any old city, because all the square concrete houses and shops looked exactly the same! The main attraction to this place was the ruins. The beautiful remains were of the ancient temples and a sandstone city that was once an envy of the ancient world. At sunset everything starts to glow pink and gold against the saturated blue of the sky, and dusty beige of the mountains, making it that much more impressive. The only drawback to these ruins which seem to go on forever, are all the jewelry peddlers, and men on motorbike who stop you every five minutes to ask if they can take you somewhere or if you want a ride. I was even offered to ride a camel out into the ruins! One evening spent amongst the skeletons of the ancient city was enough for me, and I managed to make it back to town before it got completely dark. One other unique thing that I saw in the desert for the first time, were the Bedouin. They’re an old nomadic, tribe that moves around from camp to camp in the desert. I didn’t expect to find any encampments so close to populated areas, but I could often see them from the highway as we sped along in the bus. Their tents were modern and heavily tarpped down, some even had a portable water tank sitting outside. They lived their lives moving constantly whenever that weather or season demanded it. That was hard for even me to imagine.

My final stop in Syria was the capital of Damascus. I arrived amidst the craziest weather possible. There was snow everywhere in the city and it was piling up on cars and streets making everything messy, but just to make matters worse it had started to rain so snow that was on the ground, was now turning into freezing slush. The main highways in and out of the city of about 6 million, were flooding because the drainage system was not equipped to deal with freaky weather, and this was wreaking havoc everywhere. To give you some perspective of how unexpected this was, it was the first time it had rained in Syria in 3 months, and the people had been praying for rain, but it was also the first time it had snowed in Damascus in 20 years. Welcome to Damascus! Life was a little crazy for a while, but since it was the end of December I enjoyed the wintery weather and had several snowball fights on the streets. Someone even made a snowman’s head with a plastic carrot nose, and olives for eyes. Everything got wet, but so what, everything could be dried. The weather soon cleared up and it was back to highs in the high teens, early 20s,- not bad for December! The hostel was great, and I was a little sad to leave, but happy to be getting on with my trip, and soon to meet my mother for Christmas.

I had an overnight stay in the glittering city of Beirut, Lebanon. That was a shock to my senses. I had become accustomed to the Syrian grunge and chaos, but in Beirut, everything sparkled. There were Christmas trees everywhere and I could have gone to buy a Prada purse right next to the Gucci store. Even the university area was strange. MacDonalds, Pizza Hut, and lots of other fast food chains reigned supreme on Rue Bliss, which ran along the main entrance to the American University in Beirut, one of the most prestigious schools in the Middle East. In this district, English was spoken as widely as Arabic, and there were university kids running around everywhere, doing typical “American” university kid things. I felt like I was home again, but in some place that didn’t feel familiar at all. It was so entirely strange that I was thankful to leave early the next morning to fly to Cyprus, so my brain could readjust itself before I had to come back in the New Year.

It’s been an interesting and very challenging trip so far in the Middle East and Turkey. I’ve learned to “turn off” my Western mind at times when things get frustrating, and always remember that I truly am the outsider and I need to be more open than usual to strange and sometime what I would consider demeaning customs. I didn’t talk about it a lot in this post, but the way I was treated as a foreign woman varied widely in Syria and Lebanon, depending on where I went and who I was with, Turkey was very different so it can’t really be counted. I rarely felt unsafe, knowing that I could use my own wits to get myself out of sticky situations; it was more just coming to terms with being less comfortable on a daily basis. I was conscious of the customs and I think that helped a lot, but of course locals could spot me a mile away as a tourist. Since I’m heading back into the Middle East I am prepared for it to start all over again, and only get more challenging as I head in Egypt (which I have been warned and cautioned about many, many times by other travellers). Despite any challenges I may face, this area of the world is certainly worth travelling and seeing for yourself, since everyone leaves with a different souvenir.

From the beautiful island of Cyprus I send everyone, everywhere Holiday greetings and in true Canadaian fashion, I hope that the weather is as nice for you as it is for me, even if you don’t get to spent Christmas lying on the beach, but that will be my next post. As usual it’s been fun putting all my experiences in order and down in type so that I can share them with you, and expect another post early in the New Year on my mother and my Cypriot adventures. I promise the next post won’t be near as long!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!
Shukran, sahdir (transliterated Arabic)

P.S. I have also just put up a photo album on Facebook, so here is the link, and I’m sure this one will work even if you don’t have a Facebook account. Just copy and paste the link and it will take you directly there!


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