For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Syria Part 1 - Damascus

Son and I did our last cook group session EVER that morning, preparing a bit of brekkie but having to omit the milk/cream we’d bought especially for the cereal as it had turned out to be a salty concoction more aligned to a lassi (my bad, Arabic labels are not my forte). From where we were on the shores of Jordan’s part of The Dead Sea, we drove until we reached the border at about mid-day. There we met our “fixer’ who sorted us out for what was a relatively painless border crossing. We’d become pretty good at idling away admin time at borders and played hacky-sack in the car park to pass the time as forms were being filled out.  We even tried doing that trick where you stack pennies on your elbow and then quickly drop your arm and catch all the pennies.

Once on the other side we were in country number…er…26 (I think) since the Trans began…not counting the UK (home for me) and of course not counting Botswana – which Lara and I had missed due to passport setbacks.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a Philistine and don’t know much about the countries visited on the Trans. (Hopefully, I’ve come away with a lot more knowledge.) I knew NOTHING about Syria other than a vague recollection of stories about Damascus in Religious Studies when I was in Yr 9 at school. Apart from that, a few years ago I started watching ‘Syriana’ (one of George Clooney’s movies) in the cinema at the Braye Beach Hotel in Alderney…but I fell asleep within 15 minutes of the film starting. So…I was heading into Syria as an ignoramus with no expectations….

We drove for the majority of the afternoon and ended up sleeping in a somewhat abandoned petrol station – the pumps were still being manned, but the accompanying amenities (including toilet block and another derelict building) had seen better days. It was f…f…f…. freezing that night, so I put together a suitable iPod playlist (think: Foreigner – Cold As Ice, White Stripes – In The Cold, Cold Night etc) and we ate grub (cooked up by Berbs that night I think) before huddling around the fire. We didn’t really mind the cold, in fact we’d brought it upon ourselves: we’d discussed the previous night (at the Dead Sea) how that could have been our last ever bush-camp and we persuaded Marjane to give us at least one more. This was our treat.

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…

It was still early morning when we reached our campsite - New Kaboun Camping -  in the Damascus suburbs and, in spite of the bitter cold, the sun was shining so most people took the opportunity to wash their clothes and hang them up to dry before getting a nice warm shower. That afternoon, the majority of the crew headed into the city to do some shopping, sightseeing and general exploring. I wanted some time alone, so hung back and sat in the winter sun with my book (after re-organising the truck’s library…GEEK!).

When everybody got back towards the end of the afternoon, they were absolutely enraptured with the city and its buzzing bazaars, marvelous mosques and larger-than-life locals.  It seems I’d missed out…at least the truck’s books were now organised into fiction and non-fiction, biographical and just pure trash.

That night we braved the eye-watering smoke of a wee fire (built in the large brazier provided by the guys at the campsite), made even worse by the indecisive wind, blowing one way one minute and another the next.  As we sat and cradled our hot drinks, we drew names for the long-discussed Secret Santa – Christmas was looming fast. Everybody agreed that the shopping here in Damascus was so good that it was the perfect place to do it.

I drew Kyle (Homeless) – and was stoked about it. Often these things can be so difficult and cringe-worthy if you don’t really know the person. Homeless was one of the other passengers I’d gotten closest to on the trip so I had a good idea what to get him from the very start. The only difficulty was the $5USD budget cap. Drawing Secret Santa names is one of those moments in life, like a bad smell in an elevator, or a text message alert at a funeral, where nobody wants to make eye contact after the fact….just in case people guess it’s you. Well…little Miss Kimbo Slice, drew a name from the hat, and, even under watchful eyes from the rest of the group, looked straight up at me with an inquisitive (blonde?) look. I wonder who she drew? Love you Kimbo.

So the next day, pretty much the entire group piled into a mini-bus to the city centre. Berbs and I were very similar in that we had no expectations of the place and just wanted to in essence, “lose ourselves” in Damascus, so we sauntered off together…skipping into the bazaars like two giddy little school girls.

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…

Damascus was a Mecca for Casio watches…and I very nearly sold my soul and bought one of those hideous gold strapped things most often seen on the wrist of a used-car salesmen or hairy-knuckled Armenian Mafioso. Whatever…the point is, our hunt for cool watches got us walking the streets and interacting with the most welcoming local folks we’d met in a long time.

With a few watch shops visited and some ideas to come back to at the end of the day, we ventured on into the heart of the hubbub in search for our Secret Santa gifts. Given that we couldn’t really hide it from each other, I confided my recipient to Berbs and he did likewise, telling me he was buying for Marjane.

The covered souq and shops in general were amazing…everything seemed so antique, majestic and mysterious…like something out of Aladdin’s Cave (no, Guernsey readers, not the one back home where you buy cheap tents and gardenware, I mean the one from 1,001 Nights /Arabian Nights). If it wasn’t antique, it was dead and stuffed, or smokable or something brightly coloured, made of pastry and covered in honey/icing sugar/syrup.

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.

Although spoilt for choice, we didn’t mess around when it came to buying our Secret Santa purchases: I bought Homeless a local souvenir guitar and a tiny wee keyring fez hat so he’d never forget his time as part of “Team Amazing” (Gordon Ramsay’s protégés and the best cook group on the truck…nobody makes egg mayo sandwiches like us).

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…

“Marjane? Really?”

I may be a little rusty on the facts (the strong accent threw me a little) but in essence, Marjane is Arabic for a type of coral/seaweed that is considered lucky…and it just so happened that the guy in the shop had some of it just sitting on his shelf…and he looked astonished that we wanted to buy that too.

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.

It was here that we got talking to a local old guy, who, apart from the occasional toot on the peace pipe, looked as inanimate as the chair he was sat on. We struck up a conversation with him (…and if his name had been Mr Jones, we’d have "struck up a conversation with a black-haired, flamenco dancer" too. But we didn’t).

He was a really good guy. So genuine, so hospitable and so knowledgeable. I still have his business card, his name was "M.Ali-S.Al Zouhaili" and he told us to drop him a line once we reached Palmyra...but we never did. He seemed to command the respect of all of the other punters in the place, as much as he did ours. He even took his time to teach us some shisha etiquette (never hand the pipe directly to the person you’re sharing with, never point the end of the pipe at them when passing it over). It could have all been B.S. but we were sold.

The session got a little bit more interesting when a film crew who we’d seen interviewing local punters out of the corner of our eyes, came over to our guy and began interviewing him. He carried on with them, cooler than a polar bear’s toenails, and then their attention turned to us. Our man asked us if we minded, to which we stuttered, “nn…n…not at all.

So with a camera pointed in my face, one of those furry microphone things dangling above my head and a Syrian female interviewer in front of me, I tried to keep composure.


Remember, we didn’t look very cool as it was…Berbs had spent all day getting local attention for his ‘chicken’ hat (which he’d inherited from “Keith” - one of Homeless’s friends in South Africa). To be honest, he looked more like a cock than a chicken. Additionally, I had my hideous ginger beard spewing out in all directions from beneath my beanie and intertwined with my scarf. We looked a state, and I was conscious of this as I fluffed my ten second interview by saying exactly the same thing three times to three separate questions “Yeah. It’s first time in Syria. It’s great” was all I could muster as chicken-head toked on the shisha over my left shoulder. Who knows, maybe we appeared on Syria’s equivalent of BBC1 that night with my wise words shedding light on just why two Westerners had (inadvertently) visited what turns out to be one of the oldest traditional shisha houses in Damascus.

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.

Pretty lopsided.

Internet cafe in the mud/sticks building.

These guys were awesome. Their shop was on the other side of what was essentially a moat. You pointed to what you want, they'd lower a basket on a pulley system (foreground with red and yellow lining), you dump your cash in it, then they reel it back in, trade the cash for your item and lower the basket back down to you.

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 this time of year at least.

CW from front left: Spence, Ish, Gab, Elisa, Son, Marjane, Homeless, Kimbo, Ronaldo, AK, Allison.

On our return to the campsite, we caught up with the few that stayed behind and warmed ourselves over the dying embers of what was left of the fire.  It was here that Kay also dropped the bomb to a couple of us about her plans to marry an Egyptian guy: none other than the skipper of the felucca we did a three day sail on in Aswan (unbeknownst to us at the time, Kay stayed on for a day or two after we left, not just to relax, but to enjoy the company too).

I think a few people stayed up that night under the duress of Finland’s very own “vodka-blooded” princess, Elisa. I went for the rock and roll option and made the most of the powerpoints scattered around the campsite and watched a second-rate film on my laptop in my tent.  Thug Passion.

Damascus had been an absolute blast – I loved the place and kept telling myself how easily I could come back here for a long weekend should I wish to. I know it’s a cliché, but the people were so very, very friendly and it just helped make the experience that much better. We’ve seen so many places in such quick succession on this trip and although we never really got under the skin of any of the cultures we’ve come across, we’ve become good at picking up the welcoming vibe. Damascus – and Syria in general – you’re people have done you proud. I mean that genuinely and it was in evidence in every one of us as our Cheshire cat grins beamed across our face throughout the whole time we were there.

1 comment: