Desert Oasis

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

And so we were off to see Palmyra or Tadmor, as the locals call it, Syria's greatest attraction. Palmyra is an ancient city that was built on an oasis in the middle of nowhere and has long since been reclaimed by the desert. A town has grown up around the ruins, comprised of Bedouin people trying to make a living from the tourist trade. All around the town you also see Bedouin tents and their herds of sheep. The women flog their wares on the steps of Palmyra's temples with their children in tow, their faces baked brown by the sun. I noted the small blue tattoos adorning the women's faces - on the forehead, beside each eye and on the chin. Their smiles flash mouths full of gold dental work. (In hindsight, I wish I would have taken a photo, though I don't know how much it would have cost . . . .)

We were met at the bus by a man named Zacharia in a little two seater van with a fuzzy dog on his dash. That seems the extent to which people have pets here; besides a couple of canaries in restaurants, we have seen some cats and a few dogs, but it would be an exaggeration to say they're anyone's pets. Most of the dogs were roadkill.

At our request, Zacharia took us to one of the hotels in our guidebook and it was more than double the price that was listed. (Sometimes hotels take advantage of becoming "officially" recognized by a travelguide.) We opted for cheaper digs and were quite OK, even though you had to sit on the toilet sidesaddle to have enough room for your knees. The desert is warm during the day and cold at night, so we were happy to have a place with central heating.

It is nice to be in a smaller place, even if there are people always in your face wanting to buy, buy, buy. The kids hawk postcards and dates; the adults tablecloths, jewellry and camel rides. As I have never been on a camel before, I opted for a ride, but, by the end, had wished Martin had gone with me. I think the young driver was trying to be suggestive, but his English was so poor I couldn't understand what he was trying to say, so I just ignored him. It's pretty pathetic when you have to get your jollies out of talking dirty to a Western woman who's old enough to be your mother! There seems to be so little interaction between genders here; I haven't even seen men and women sitting together on the bus and little girls and boys don't play together, at least in public - I'm not sure men and women know how to relate to each other on equal terms. It doesn't help that Western movies and the media portray Western women in the way they do.

We've certainly noticed the litter in Syria. Several times Martin has caught people laughing at him when he's been very careful about putting cigarette or a piece of paper in the garbage can (if you can find one). Most people just throw their garbage on the street. Each time our Hama-Palmyra bus driver would finish a cup of coffee, he would throw the plastic cup out the window and get a new one. Along some stretches of road, the trees were festooned with plastic bags. We did not notice as much trash in the desert, perhaps because 1) there are fewer people - and thus less waste 2) the Bedouin live off the land and may be more conscientious about ensuring the health of their environment 3) their way of life is more sustainable and they use less plastic, etc. It's probably a combination of all three.

Palmyra is a spectacle worthy of the long drive into the desert. The columns, tombs and temples of tan (some say pink) sandstone date back to the 2nd century AD and cover over 50 hectares. It's challenging to walk, so we hired Zacharia to take us to the tombs and then to see Palmyra at sunset from the citadel. Sunsets and sunrises are usually a letdown to us prairie folk because, as we all know, Saskatchewan has some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

French used to be widely spoke in Syria and some older people speak it. We often hear Syrians intermixing French with English, using words like "camion" (truck), "stylo" (pen), "salon" (dining/living room), "bonbons" (candy), madame and monsieur. Here, too, when we say we're from Canada, some people have retorted with "Canada Dry"! The gingerale, I guess.

We met a number of the shopkeepers when we walked through the town. I was particularly interested in the silver jewellry and some of the Bedouin designs are very attractive. One man we befriended was Ahmed who owned a dark little store with a ceiling that was made to look like a cave. Appropriately, he called his shop "Ali Baba's Cave". Like most of the people in the town, he was Bedouin and had opened to shop to try to eke out a living. He had spent five years in Egypt making and selling bottled sand designs (the camel, desert, palms, etc. layered in sand) and also sold them in Palmyra. It was quite amazing to watch him make his designs; each bottle (about four inches high) took only five minutes. He teased me about being a hard bargainer and we had lots of laughs.

Ahmed had just returned from spending six days following Ramazan with his family in the desert; he referred to it as "Syrian Christmas". He misses the desert life and told us about a number of Bedouin customs. He said that when you visit a Bedouin family you are never expected to pay for anything - everything is provided for you as a guest. The Bedouins thus can't understand when they go to Damascus as visitors why they have to pay for accommodation, food, etc.

While visiting with Ahmed one night, Urs (our Swiss friend whom we met in Goreme, Turkey), wandered across the road to say hello. We went for a drink at one of the few bars in town and caught up. (Where you can find it, beer is good here and wine is generally available, though some is better than others.) He was heading for Damascus and then on to Lebanon.

As the sun sets each night, boys gathered in the desert to play soccer or ride the bikes. I have not seen any little girls outside playing. The female gender seems to mostly stay indoors and out of sight. We have only seen women working at the telephone office in Hama and cleaning rooms at a hotel in Palmyra. I have had only one woman talk to me; mostly they seem to avert their eyes when I try to make eye contact with them. It's as if women should not be seen or heard and it makes my feminist hackles rise.

We keep following around this Imaginative Traveller tour group (or perhaps it is they who keep following us). Imaginative Traveller is an budget "adventure" tour company that basically gets you from place to place and hotel to hotel, but mostly you are on your own to explore. We have seen and talked with them in Goreme, Aleppo and now here and they will also be travelling through Jordan on a similar route to ours. There are five Canadians on their tour: three from Edmonton and two from Kamloops. We mentioned to the couple from Kamloops that Martin's brother was a surgeon there and, wouldn't you know it, they go to the same church as Jon and Shannon and know them very well. His family was from Success, SK and her parents had lived in Wawota at one time. There's truth to the saying that it's a small world! (We will be meeting Jon, Shannon and Arlene - Martin and Jon's sister - in Morocco to take an Imaginative Traveller tour, so have been quite interested in what that tour group had to say about the tour company.)

Of course, we had to try some Bedouin food while in Palmyra. We had "mansaf", consisting of couscous, peas, nuts (peanuts, pistachios and almonds) with meat (either lamb or chicken). It was good, though somewhat bland. (I read in our guidebook that it is traditionally served with a sheep's head in the middle of the platter; the eyes are reserved for the most esteemed guests and the less favoured ones get the tongue. Ohhh . . . yum!) Martin also had Bedouin coffee which make Turkish coffee seem weak in comparison; it was campfire coffee x 1,000! Desert flower tea was also very interesting - and very sweet. Bedouin music is very exotic - kind of reminds one some of the psychedelic music of the 60s. The main instrument (I don't know what it's called) sounds like bagpipes on drugs.

Polygamy is legal here and is still practiced, though not as widely as it once was. Our hotel owner's son-in-law, Mohammed, had an uncle with three wives, but it is usually too expensive to have more than one wife now-a-days. I asked Martin what he thought about more than one wife, and his response was, "Oh, God". I guess that says it all!

We heard from the Imaginative Traveller group that there has been terrorist bombings of three up-scale hotels in Amman, Jordan and we are headed in that direction. Fifty-seven people were killed and the border has been closed. Hopefully the situation will cool off by the time we get there!
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