Trip Start Mar 21, 2009
Trip End Apr 29, 2009

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Where I stayed
Dar Halabia

Flag of Syria  ,
Sunday, April 19, 2009

I've just returned to Damascus after spending the past 3 days in Aleppo which is about 5 hours north.   Aleppo is known for its cuisine, amongst other things, and it did not disappoint!   After spending almost 3 weeks in Iran eating mostly lamb and chicken kabobs, yogurt, a tremendous amount of rice, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers, it's been fantastic to have meals where they actually use a lot of spices and flavors and have a wide variety of ingredients that result in delicious dishes.    Iran wins hands down in the hospitality/friendliness department, but they are never going to win any awards for their cuisine (sorry Fari, Negi, and Amir).   Syria, on the other hand, has much more of a Mediterranean influence and they use olive oil in everything but interestingly enough they aren't really a rice people - just lots of pita bread.   I've had some really, really amazing meals here, and since the French were in charge here in the early part of the century there is also a lot of French influence in their cooking too - yum.

All of which to say, the highlight of my time in Aleppo was the food.   The rest was a bit of disappointment especially compared to Damascus.   It probably didn't help that the weather wasn't great - we had gushing, torrential rain for a few days - but besides that it was just a much scruffier place and had more of an edge to it.   I've felt completely comfortable wandering around in Damascus on my own but didn't feel quite as much at ease in Aleppo.   I did manage to stop into the Baron Hotel for a drink.   This is the hotel that T.E. Lawrence - i.e., "Lawrence of Arabia", made famous, and they have a copy of one of his bar bills on display.   Very cool.   The hotel manager has been working there for 40 years and he was great to talk to, lots of stories as you can imagine.

I also had a funny experience arriving in Aleppo from Damascus.   According to my guidebook, the bus station was walking distance to the hotel I had booked.   However, when the bus pulled into the station and everyone got off, it was clear that we were nowhere near anything that resembled a downtown area and I had no idea where I was.  Of course, I was the only foreigner there and everyone around me spoke Arabic.    Now, at this point I have mastered all of 3 words in Arabic - "Hello (Marhaba)", "Thank-you (Shukran) ", and "How much (Bikam)", as well as the numbers 1-10, but you'd be surprised at how far that can get you.   

There were hoards of taxi drivers all trying to get my attention.  Finally I tried to ask one where we were which quickly turned into a comical game of charades.   I said "Marhaba (Hello)" and pointed to my map to show where I was trying to go which of course was no use because it was all in English.   After a lot of animated Arabic and hand signals, I somehow I managed to understand from him that the bus had dropped us off at station on the city outskirts, rather than in town.   Great.   I tried mentioning one of the landmarks near my hotel (Bab Antakya, which means "Gate Antakya"), and luckly this seemed to register with him.   Then his eyes lit up and he said "Dar Halabia?", the name of my hotel.   I jumped up and down saying "Shukran, Shukran!"   We then proceeded to negotiate the cost of the taxi fare ("Bikam"?) - *everything* is negotiated here - and I was pretty happy to have been able to knock his original quote down by a few dollars due to the fact that a) I didn't have too many other options and b) given my excellent command of the language at that point.   But I think he got a kick out of the fact that I tried to play the game.

20 minutes later we finally got to my hotel where I "Shukran-ed" him to death then had to laugh at the whole experience.   After all, it's these kinds of things that make for the best stories.

A few other random tidbits that I haven't mentioned yet in my previous posts that I thought you'd all enjoy:

* Unlike what's displayed on my flightpath on this blog, I noticed that on the flight from Tehran to Damascus we flew up and around the northern border of Iraq, rather than straight across which would have been the more direct route.   Not sure if they aren't allowed to fly in Iraqi airspace (no love lost between the two countries due to the 8-year Iran/Iraq war), or if they didn't want to take any chances of getting shot down by miltants there.   Which was fine by me of course :)

* Crossing the streets here is interesting, and it reminded me a little bit of my time in Vietnam a few years ago.   If you wait until there is a break in traffic, you'll be on the side of the street forever.   So against all logic, you just have to start walking out into the middle of traffic and the cars weave around you.    A little disconcerting at first but it works!

I've really enjoyed Damascus, especially the place that I've been staying at.   Definitely not luxurious - feels more like a summer camp - but it's got a very family feel to it and it's been easy to meet other travellers of all ages.   Tomorrow I leave for Jordan for the last leg of my trip, about a 5 hour drive from Damascus.  Looking forward to floating around in the Dead Sea and riding a camel out in the desert to spend the night at a Bedouin camp, so Sabine you'll get to see those pictures of me on a camel at long last!
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