So here we were, just outside of Damascus, with tents pitched in and around a big derelict building next to a petrol station forecourt. Most people retreated to the warmth of their sleeping bags in their tents (those that managed to get their tents erected first had quite a snug set-up within the four walls of said derelict building). It was really starting to hit home that we were soon to be hitting home so a few of us boys stayed up, reminiscing of bush camps gone by and thinking about what the “real world” might have in store for us. With the hearty meal we’d had that night – complete with dessert by way of marshmallows on skewers to toast on the fire – I wasn’t sure if the fire was keeping us going or we were keeping the fire going: with just the boys around the fire, the infamous campfire scene from Blazing Saddles was being acted out…
|In the mini-bus to the centre of Damascus.|
Another thing Berbs and I share is our penchant for cool (read: tacky) digital watches. But we’re pretty snobby when it comes to digital watches, they have to be Casio and have at least some kind of cool gimmick (i.e. change tv channels, tell the time in 100 different countries, store a million phone numbers or be water-proof down to 7 miles deep). The wrist strap for my Casio G-Shock broke somewhere in Cameroon and I was going to get it fixed til I lost it further down the line….but I digress…
|The covered souq.|
|Most of the shishas went for the traditional ceramic/coloured glass look, but the one on the left here went all out with carved out log, and plastic fish tank complete with fake fish.|
|Berbs poses in front of one of the many local confectionary / "baklava" stores.|
|Baklava - the headgear of choice during the Northern Ireland struggles in the 70's and 80's.|
On the way around the various stalls and shops, we stumbled across a kid doing those personalized coloured sand in a bottle things, so I stopped to get one for each of my siblings. Berbs decided to get one for Marjane too, and when he told the guy the name to write, the guy looked up in disbelief…
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking photos of bits and pieces that caught our eye, chatting with locals, pigging out on street food (pomegranate juice, various unnamed pieces of confectionary, kebabs…) and we even stopped off at a shisha café to sample the good stuff.
|The shisha house where Berbs and I met Syria's answer to Arthur Fonzarelli and made the local tv.|
On the way back, we passed Batman chilling by his batmobile (yeah, you ‘eard right) before Berbs ducked into one last shop to buy Marjane a pair of furry, monster feet slippers - after all you can’t really just buy somebody some sand in a bottle and a piece of seaweed for Christmas.
|As if the 'Batmobile' wasn't enough, this guy also owned a pimped up "Mercedes" push-bike...|
After spending all afternoon getting lost in the city and the labyrinth-like souqs, Berbs and AK’s big day out was nearly over. We'd seen buildings that looked ready to collapse including one that was made of not much more than mud and sticks...but housing an internet cafe. I'd had a gun pointed at me by a grumpy-bollocks guard who didn't want me taking a photo of the (I think) Presidential building. I merely wanted a photo of one of the propaganda posters to show everybody back home how much the Syrian President - Bashar al-Assad - looked like Ian Rush (a legendary Liverpool footballer of the 80's).
Nevermind these distractions, we had a date to keep with the owner of a watch shop near where our taxi was picking us up. We went in. Paid the money. Came out smiling. Berbs with a Casio that tells time in multiple cities; has a thermometer, barometer, altimeter and various other perks…and me with a Casio that can tell me where Mecca is wherever I am in the world, at the push of just a single button. (The novelty wore off later that evening; the $80 price tag however, still shines brightly in my mind.) It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…
|Syrian President - Bashar al-Assad - doesn't look as much like Ian Rush as I thought.|
|Berbs wanted this shot to show off to his mates back home.|
|Internet cafe in the mud/sticks building.|
Back at camp, some people had done their research and found that Damascus was home to “Bawabet Dimashq" or Damascus Gate - The Biggest Restaurant In The World” (straight out of the Guiness Book of World Records) so we made a reservation and hoped for the best. A few hours later, about a dozen of us were in town again and being escorted through the unimaginably huge restaurant to a table in - from memory - what I think was the Indian part of the restaurant. (There were sections to cater to all world cuisines.) As with the watches earlier that day, it was a novelty more than anything: the food was ok but given the places we’d eaten on this trip, we were in no position to complain. The service was so-so and thankfully, the bill wasn’t worthy of the Guiness Book of World Records. I’m sure the place would have had a better atmosphere during peak season.
As if being the largest restaurant in the world wasn't enough, the owner had bought a piece of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite (Siberia, 1947) and placed it in a glass case at the restaurant's entrance.
|Massive...but empty...at this time of year at least.|
|CW from front left: Spence, Ish, Gab, Elisa, Son, Marjane, Homeless, Kimbo, Ronaldo, AK, Allison.|