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January 2008 Archives

January 2, 2008

Going to the Vatican

In sixth or seventh grade, my friend Cathy was invited to bring a friend along with her to her weekly Catholic religious instruction class. She brought me. I was curious. I had been raised by an atheist. I asked too many questions. She was told not to bring me back.

I grew up in a largely Catholic town in New York state. When my high school classes debated the issues in the news, abortion, the death penalty, Catholic arguments were well represented.

Then in high school, I played a nun on the day the Pope came to visit New York in John Guare's play, The House of Blue Leaves. One of the subjects of the play was the veneration in which Catholics hold the pope, both the man and the office.

Yet I never thought much about the Catholic church before this trip. We've just spent 6 months in South America and Europe, and I've spent far more time in Catholic churches than I had in the previous 49 years of my life. Then we went to the Vatican on the Sunday between Christmas and New Years.

What a strange experience. The scale of St. Peters is so much grander than that of any other church we were in, the crowds so much larger, the security so much more visible.

We came out of St. Peters, and the crowds were much larger than when we went in. There were professional photographers aiming at the far side of the plaza, and we asked why. They said the Pope was about to make his weekly address. We decided to wait and experience the event.

The pope started out talking about the sacredness of marriage, one man to one woman. We left.

I'm reading over what I wrote, and it feels inadequate. Strong feelings swirled around the day and the visit, yet I'm still not clear what those feelings were.


The first six months of our trip have been spent in places where we had at least some language and some cultural familiarity. We could read, and count, and make ourselves understood.

Today, we are illiterate, innumerate, and cannot speak.

Damascus is immediatly fascinating and appealing, in spite of the language barrier.

We arrived late yesterday after 21 hours in transit, and got to our hotel about sunset. We went out looking for dinner, and immediately found ourselves in a street of many small markets, surrounded by textures and smells of delicious food. We had trouble choosing: street food or restaurant, many nibbles or one meal. We chose, and had a good meal in cafe full of people smoking flavored tobacco from giant hookahs. Men and women, together and separately. (The hookahs smelled good, but I'm afraid of them.)

We slept in, and went to the old city. It was the first rain of the season, cold and occasionally heavy, but that was okay, since much of the old city is covered souks, markets. Our eyes feasted. Beautiful inlaid wood, tea sets in glass or worked metal, outrageous fabrics, all sorts of clothes from traditional Bedouin to Victoria's wildest Secrets. Occasionally we dashed across a rainy street to another covered souk.

We ate lunch, and when we came out, the rain was clearing. We walked around the main mosque, a beautiful space that has been sacred since before the Romans. There are graceful Roman columns and arches that glowed in the beautiful after-rain-before-sunset sky, as beautiful as anything we saw in Rome. Yet we saw almost no other tourists.

We will be in Damascus at least three or four more days. There is so much to see here. We have only scratched the surface.

I'm going to go upstairs and practice writing numbers.

January 3, 2008

I am loving Damascus

Today I got cold and wet and muddy and lost and tired and hungry. I also saw magical skies, a Roman arch glowing in the sunset, heard the chorus of muzzeins after sunset, and ate fresh grilled lamb. I had a brief conversation with one of the other customers at this internet cafe, and sat down to write. 5 minutes later, he gave me the cup of sweet strong tea I am gratefully sipping.

I am illiterate and dumb, but people are kind and helpful and I can walk down a dark alley without being afraid. Shopkeepers give me tastes of their wares. Brass and glass glow in the windows. We walked down the spice souk, and breathed the sweet smelling air. We are happy to be here.

Some women cover their heads, some wear dark robes from head to toe, and some wear tight jeans and sweaters with high heels. I counted 12 different styles of high heeled purple boots in one shop window.

January 4, 2008

The Container

One of the joys of travelling is shopping. I love to wander the bazaars and souks and markets, touching, smelling, looking, and buying. I never buy much: an umbrella that will forever (until it breaks) evoke the rainy day in France or Paraguay or Shanghai or . . .(I've bought a lot of umbrellas), a leather coat from Buenos Aires that I wear for days on end in San Francisco, some cotton shirts from a surprisingly warm visit to London that I wore till they fell apart, books, earrings from here, there and everywhere. It's (almost) all practical, and every time I use one of these objects, I remember where and when I bought it.

I love visiting homes of travelers. The treasured, beautiful objects, each with a story behind it, in use and enriching each day, are at the very least conversation starters. I live with souvenirs of Edward's grandparents' travels, and of my father's travels, as well as my own travels.

This trip is different. We're traveling for a year. Even if we buy only tiny, useful things, a tiny thing here, a tiny thing there, and pretty soon your suitcase is too heavy. Sure, we've bought some things: some warm clothes that don't weigh down our suitcases because we wear them every day, cosmetics and underwear to replace worn out, used up things, maps and guide books that we use and abandon or trade on the way. But we can't buy souvenirs.

Of course, we could wait till the end of our trip, and load up on souvenirs there, but the end of our trip, insh'Allah, will be in Australia, where I don't plan on buying a lot of handicrafts.

Edward and I, engineers at heart, have found a work around: The Container.

Here in Damascus, we've put some beautiful inlaid wood side tables, book holders, and chessboards in The Container. We had a lot of fun choosing exactly the right shop, and then exactly the right pieces. We found a really lovely tea set of delicate gold metal holding even more delicate glasses, and a big, round, brass tray with stags leaping around the rim. I want to buy Edward a sheepskin coat for The Container, but we haven't found the right one yet. We're also still looking for exactly the right tiles for the deck. (We've seen some nice carpets, but we're holding off on putting carpets in The Container until we get to Istanbul.)

In Italy, Edward put some lovely purple shirts in The Container. There was one in particular, black with purple stripes in several shades. I put an embroidered cashmere scarf in The Container.

In Portugal, we put some tea and tiles in The Container. In Bolivia, it was textiles. In Chile, there were lots of big chunks of beautiful rock. In Argentina, it was cookware and leather, and a cream colored suit for Edward in which he looked like a movie star, he was so handsome.

You must think the container is getting pretty heavy and difficult to deal with. It's not. The Container exists in another dimension, so it's volume is infinite, and its weight is zero. Nothing breaks in the container, no matter how fragile.

There's just one problem. Once a souvenir goes in the container, it can never come out.

January 5, 2008


Muslim hospitality is legendary and real. People here in Damascus have been reserved but welcoming and helpful and warm. Our guidebook describes Syria as one of the safest countries in the world. "Violent or petty crime towards foreigners is virtually non-existent. . . To steal something from a foreigner would be regarded as shameful and against the principle of hospitality to a guest." So Edward thought nothing of leaving his shoes in the pile outside the mosque.

The main mosque in Damascus, the Ummayyad Mosque, is magnificent. It has been a holy place for more than 2500 years. The current building incorporates Roman, Christian, and several eras of Muslim architectural elements in a harmonious, peaceful whole. I could spend hours just looking at the 1300 year old mosaics that surround the courtyard. Inside, the sanctuary is an island of calm (but not quiet) in a busy city, with Roman columns defining the different spaces, and a tomb said to contain the head of John the Baptist in a place of honor. We sat, Edward in the men's section, and I in the women's section, and enjoyed the peace and the beautiful space.

When we came out, Edward's shoes were missing. We looked everywhere. A kind Muslima (Muslim woman) told us that the guard had just told her to bring her shoes with her, that there had been some problems recently. Edward's shoes had been stolen!

It wasn't a disaster. He has comfortable, lightweight hiking boots with him, and had been contemplating abandoning his shoes after Istanbul. The mosque is right outside the souk, and I quickly found him a pair of cheap flip-flops he could wear back to the hotel. Perhaps someone needed a pair of shoes more than Edward did. Edward had a pleasant hour in the mosque, unencumbered by shoes.

I carried my shoes with me. I was not unencumbered. My dangling shoes were annoying. But I am less trusting than Edward, and have enormous difficulty finding shoes. Was I right? This time, yes.

But which outlook is right in the long run? When you travel, you have to trust. You have to trust the taxi driver, the airline pilot, the air traffic controller, the baggage handlers, the people who give you directions on the street, the people who make change by handing you a handful of coins in a script you can't read, the people who name a price for which you have no context. . . Was it so much of a leap to trust in the pile of shoes outside the mosque?

January 6, 2008

Words fail me

There's a beautiful old train station in Damascus. Today, the main waiting room held a small book sale. I saw only one book with a title in the Roman alphabet. It was Mein Kampf.

Traveling companion

I was really afraid when I started this trip.

I was afraid of constant change. I was afraid I would get homesick. I was afraid I'd get really sick. I was afraid something bad would happen to the house.

All those fears have come to pass. We've had days on end where we didn't spend more than two nights in the same bed. I've been homesick. I got sicker than I'd been in years in Buenos Aires. We lost our tenant, and I just found our plum tree fell down in the big Bay Area New Year Storm. And though I've had some sleepless, worried nights, I've survived.

Those fears, serious as they were, were not my biggest fear. My biggest fear? I was afraid of Edward.

I was afraid that spending 24 hours a day together would be too much, that sharing tiny hotel rooms would drive us crazy, that the inevitable hassles of travel would make us snap and snarl and hurt each other. I was afraid that, after more than 25 years together, we'd discover we were bored with each other.

It's not, it hasn't, they didn't, and we're not.

I love seeing the world through his eyes, bouncing my ideas off his brain, having my perceptions enhanced and altered by his. I can't imagine anyone else I could travel with for this length of time, anyone else I would want to travel with for this length of time.

On January 4, we celebrated our 26th anniversary. I am so very, very lucky.

January 7, 2008


Today I spent 3 hours in an almost perfectly preserved Roman theater that seated 30,000 people. I walked the ramps to the top level, explored the back-stage areas, climbed up and down the stands, checked out the best seats in the house and the worst.

For much of the time we were there, we had the theater to ourselves. Occasionally other people came through. A mother and her baby sat in the sun on the stage for a while. The acoustics were so good that we heard the baby's cries and the mother's lullabies from the top seats. One woman from a tour group sang a classical (Japanese) song, mesmerizing everyone in the theater, all 20 or so of us.

Later, we explored the town, ancient and modern juxtaposed. We entered a mosque built 4 years after the death of Mohammed, with a large electronic calendar showing today's prayer times. One of the men there pointed out the different architectural elements: Islamic, Byzantine, Roman. We saw the steam pipes in the 2000 year old baths, the Roman market place turned soccer pitch, with broken bits of Roman columns serving as goal posts. Ruins had satellite dishes and smoke coming from stove pipes. I heard a bell, and turned around. There was a shepherd with his flock, going through the intersection behind me. I said to Edward, "What century are we in?" A minute later, a motorcycle sped through the same intersection.

We sipped tea, and took our bus back to the traffic-clogged city as the sun set gloriously over the eastern slopes of the Golan heights.

January 9, 2008

Letter to my niece

Dear Alice,

Today, your Uncle Edward and I spent the day in Palmyra, Syria. We got up early, and spent the day wandering around Roman ruins dating from the 1st century. We wandered at will, probably walking 6 or 7 miles or more. Only once in the day did we have to pay an admission. For most of the day we were alone, out of sight of any other people. We wandered through forests of Corinthian columns, climbed staircases of worn stone to views for miles, walked on Roman roads, puzzled over inscriptions, marveled at carvings as fresh as the day they were carved, and others weathered into fantastic shapes. We saw buildings built from recycled materials a thousand years ago with materials a thousand years older still. We clambered over piles of fallen columns and stones like some Roman salvage yard. We watched the light change from overcast to almost cloudless to a sunset with fiery clouds. It was a very special day.

I hope that when you are old enough to travel, you, too, can experience the magic we shared today, but I fear you will not. We saw signs of wildcat digging, holes like bomb craters in the field of tombs. We saw toilet paper in the ruins, and plastic bags and water bottles and cigarette butts. Young boys who should have been in school came running up to us begging for pens and selling post cards. Men were riding motorcycles in the largest temple. A semi-paved road ran through the center of the complex, and a constant stream of trucks and taxis spit up dust and stones. Palmyra has survived two millenia, but I don't know how many more decades of this abuse it can survive.

January 10, 2008

One fine journey from Palmyra to Hama

We start by taking a luxury bus two hours from Palmyra to Homs.

While we're waiting we chat with the friendly teacher who is heading back to Tartus, 3+ hours away. She'd come to Palmyra to buy an olive tree seedling. Apparently they have particularly fine olives in Palmyra. She's nearly as surprised as we are when a man roars up on his motorcycle, a trussed, live, goat in his lap. Fortunately, after the man shakes the feces off the goat, the goat goes in the hold of a different bus, not ours.

This is Syria, so I get the window seat. Heaven forbid some man have to brush against me in the bus aisle. Normally I like the window seat, except when a cold wind is blowing in on me from the not-completely closed door right in front of me. This is a luxury bus, (USD2 for the two hour ride) so the attendant comes around offering Nescafe. I'd take some to warm up, except that there are only two cups, which are reused over and over without washing. It seems impolite to use one, since I have a slight cold.

My window fogs up almost immediately, but that's okay. The only scenery is featureless desert under an overcast sky.

We get to Homs. Edward asks me whether the cold pellets are sand or rain. I say that I'm not sure, but I think they're rain. In any case they bite through my clothes, even though I'm wearing every layer I have.

We find out we're at the wrong bus station. The nice teacher tells us we have to go to another bus station, the one she's going to. She'll show us. We cram the three of us, our packs and her seedling, into the microbus. She insists on paying for us. We travel for about 30 minutes past miles and miles of 5 story, 4 apartment per story apartment blocks. We go on and on and on and I begin to wonder whether we're being hijacked. But a lady with an olive seedling isn't going to hijack us, is she?

We arrive at the bus station, and I know only one thing. I must pee before we start any further journey. Edward stays in the bus station while I go looking for a WC. I am unable to communicate what I need until I write the letters on a piece of paper. Then I am pointed improbably far across the parking lot. I get there, and the WC's were last cleaned during the reign of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.

I trek back to Edward, and he says, "We're leaving NOW." Our rule for this trip is that if one of us says this, the other person asks no questions till later. When we get outside, Edward explains we had to leave because there was a particularly insistent tout who got abusive towards Edward for not buying anything while he was waiting for me. He yelled at Edward, he kicked our bags, he was yelling to other people about Edward. Some of the other people in the bus station had tried to intervene, but the man wasn't stopping.

We're outside in what is now sleet and start asking hopefully, "Hama? Hama?" We get pointed to a herd of microbusses, and eventually, within the herd, to a bus that's leaving, "Now." We pay for three seats because of our packs, but are still crammed in the last row of the bus. If something happens to this bus, there's no way we're getting out without being cut out.

The bus is so small that my knees are cut off. I can't imagine what Edward does with his legs. It reeks, but at least no one is smoking. Then, the big, burly, macho man in a flowing kaffiyeh in front of Edward takes out a small vial of perfume, and rubs it all in great quantity over his beard. This isn't some sophisticated men's cologne (which would be bad enough) but some flowery, girlish scent of the type I didn't quite become inured to when I was teaching 8th grade. When the man next to him (in front of me) expressed interest, the man with the kaffiyeh loaned him the vile vial. Now we have two bearded scent-emitters. I take a cue from the covered women around me, and pull my scarf up over my nose, which helps some.

At this point, we notice that the rain has turned to snow. Edward helpfully points out that this is the first precipitation of the year, so not only is the road slick, but this is the rain/sleet/snow where the people who need new tires discover the fact.

It seems like forever till we get to Hama, but we do get there, in one piece. We came to Hama to wander by the river and look at the ancient water wheels, still in use today. However, that itinerary doesn't sound so enchanting in a wet snow. We're going to be penned in our hotel room, so we need a slightly bigger than usual hotel room. We don't want to wander in the wet, so we pick a hotel from the guidebook, and check in. The room has a slightly funny smell. I make the mistake of mentioning the smell to the front desk, so they helpfully spray the room with perfume while we're drinking our welcome tea in the lobby. Ack! Fortunately, we notice that there is a leak from the plumbing. The hotel is empty, so they move us to the suite, which is actually quite nice, and a bargain at $35/night.

We have enough space to celebrate Edward's 48th birthday in style tomorrow. (Too bad all our friends are on the other side of the world!) The weather tomorrow is supposed to be clear but cold, and we are going off to Krak des Chevaliers, supposedly the best-preserved crusader castle in the world. It sounds fascinating!

January 14, 2008

A Birthday, Fresh Meat, and Red Tape

Hama, Syria, was wonderful.

We had a very comfortable suite at an even more comfortable price, and then celebrated Edward's birthday by going to a real fantasy castle.

We started off in a thick, cold, damp fog, but by the time we got to the castle, we were driving in clear, sharp sunlight with a dusting of fresh snow. The cedars were a deep dark green, the freshly plowed fields a bright orangy red, and both met a sky as blue as any I'd ever seen. We drove up and up and up through twisty roads and villages towards the castle, visible in the distance. And what a castle, complete with a moat (with water!), secret passages, stables, giant kitchens, a chapel-turned-mosque, throne room, inner and outer battlements, towers, window seats, and more! The air was cold (there was hard ice in the shade all day) but it was warm in the sun. We sat on the battlements and enjoyed views for miles and miles.

For Edward, it recalled all the Crusader history he hadn't read, but for me, it recalled every novel I'd ever read with a castle. I hope I can bring Alice here someday.

We got back to Hama in mid-afternoon, hungry and tired and happy. We wanted a good meal to celebrate Edward's birthday, so we asked at the hotel desk for a recommendation. An older man, sitting at the desk with the desk clerk, said, "If you can wait five minutes, I'll take you to my restaurant. If you don't like it, you don't have to pay for it." What a deal.

It turned out he owned our hotel and two others, as well as the restaurant. There were only a few other very well dressed large groups in the restaurant. The decor was spectacular: beautiful wood and tile and linens, fountains, comfortable furniture. We shrugged. It was Edward's birthday, and if we didn't like it, we didn't have to pay for it. We put ourselves in the waiter's hands. We ate spectacularly good food, in quantity. We worried about the bill. When it came, it was about thirteen dollars. We paid, happily, and went off into the night.

The next day, we caught the noon bus to Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. I fell asleep, and woke up only as we arrived. The bus let us off at the luxury bus terminal in Aleppo, which turned out to be a street corner with not even a bus shelter, let alone left-luggage or a WC. We were the only foriegners on the bus. Have you ever seen a video of hyenas with fresh meat?

A horde of taxi drivers fell on us. They all wanted us. They grabbed at our bags. They grabbed at our arms. They yelled at each other. We didn't even know where we wanted to go. That didn't seem to slow them down. They knew where we should go. We finally got them out of our faces for a second, decided where we wanted to go, and turned to the eagerly waiting men. And it started again. They all pulled at us, but they all wanted double what we knew was likely to be an already high foriegners' price, khamseen (50) lira, about a dollar. One came down to our price, and we started to get in his cab, but then the yelling, the grabbing, the threatening started again.

I cracked. I wasn't getting in any of their cabs. We left them yelling at each other, and walked a hundred meters away and around a corner. Now what? We were a long walk from where we wanted to go. We started hailing cabs. One stopped. He didn't know the hotel we wanted. Another stopped. He didn't either. Another stopped. He knew the hotel, but wanted 100 lira. We waved him on. Someone offered to help. He knew the hotel, and explained where to go to the next taxi driver. The guy wanted 100, our samaritan thought we should pay 25, we settled on khamseen. It annoyed our samaritan, but we were okay with it, until the taxi driver dropped us off without the hotel in sight, lying to us about where we were.

I cracked again. I wasn't getting in a taxi in Aleppo ever again! We were walking! We went into a shop to ask where we were. We went into the only visible hotel. It looked lovely, but they wanted $75 and didn't have a double bed. We started walking. Some helpful people walked us partway, and pointed us on our way. It was okay at first, but it was a long walk, Aleppo has extremely high curbs, and we had our luggage with us. We were nearer our second choice than our first choice, so we tried our second choice. It didn't have a good value for money ratio, so we went on. Ditto the next, and the next. I wanted to find a place to hole up and drink tea while Edward looked for a hotel room (something it's easier for a man to do here in Syria) but we couldn't find a teahouse with even one woman in it. We finally checked into a too expensive but comfortable island of could-be-anywhere, and hid from the world for a bit.

Now we're in our first choice, a restored house in the heart of the souk, a short walk inside the walls of the old city, the Dar Halabia Hotel. Guidebooks complain about the location, a roll-up-the-sidewalks neighborhood. We love the night-time peace, the day-time bustle, the rugs, the lending library, the chorus of muzzeins, and the helpful staff, and put up with the quirky bathroom design.

Fortified in our new base, moved into a warmer room, and invigorated by a cold shower after the hot-water pipe froze last night, we set off this morning to renew our visa.

We picked up our Syrian visas the morning we left the US, July 16, but the visa was only good for six months. At Damascus International Airport, they stamped our passport 15 days. The immigration officer told us we had 45 days, but he wouldn't write 45 days in our passport. We went to the immigration office in Damascus. They told us we had 30 days, ("The stamps haven't been changed yet.") but wouldn't write 30 days in our passports. We know what happens to Syrians who overstay their visa in the US. If they're lucky, they're only banned from the US for life. We might want to come back some day. We wanted visa extensions.

We had three passport photos each, our itinerary, proof of solvency. What more could we need? We headed off (in a taxi) for the passport and immigration office.

We found the right line. We found someone who spoke a little English. We explained what we wanted. He said we needed a form from our hotel. We should go back and get it, and come back with four photos.

We got in a taxi, and went back to the hotel. At first, the owner didn't know what form we needed, but then remembered, got the form, and helpfully filled it out for us in Arabic. We were ready. We got our fourth photo, and got back in a taxi to go to the passport office.

It had gotten busier. The man who spoke English was busy, but his superior turned to us after a relatively short wait, only 15 minutes or so. He told us we didn't have the right form. We needed to go back to our hotel and get the right form. "But this is the form he had." "Go back to your hotel and get the right form." "Can you give us the form?" "Go back to your hotel and get the right form." "Can you give us the right form to give to the hotel" "Go back to your hotel and get the right form."

This was not getting us anywhere. The man wrote what we needed in Arabic on Edward's entry card, gave us the four copies of an additional form we would need, and sent us away. He was done.

We looked at the piles and piles and piles of forms in bookcases, shopping bags of forms on the floor, loose forms in the corners, between and behind the bookcases. We looked at each other, shrugged, and took a taxi back to the hotel. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. It was time for noon prayers, and it took six tries and walking a kilometer before we found a taxi willing to take us back to the hotel.

The owner wasn't there, but we showed his son what we needed. He didn't recognize it. We explained we'd have to leave tomorrow if we didn't get the extension. This is the slow season. There was one other party in the hotel last night. They want us to stay. He called his father, and they figured out what we needed, and that they had it. He got the form, and filled it out for us. He made four copies. We filled out our forms in quadruplicate.

We took a taxi back to the immigration office. We had everything. I put it all on the counter in front of the man who had sent us away. The four forms we filled out. The form the hotel filled out and four copies. The four photos. Big smiles and thanks. I held out a handful of change, to pay for the extension. I wasn't sure whether we had to pay 50 cents or a dollar. Uh oh. Frowns. He thought I was trying to bribe him, which just isn't done here, at least not on a small scale like that. I apologised over and over. I was trying to pay the fee. Ok. Not here. We had to pay downstairs, get a form, and come back. What form? He wrote it down and sent us away. He kept our passports and forms, though. That was a good sign, wasn't it?

We went downstairs, paid our 50 cents, and came back. We filled out this new form, and gave it to him. He told us to go to the man at the end of the counter.

We went to the man at the end of the counter, some sort of supervisor, who took one look at us, and gave our forms to the man at the computer. We waited and waited and waited. Other people kept coming up to the man at the end of the counter. He'd take one look at their forms, scribble something, and send them away. Not us. We waited.

Finally, the man at the end of the counter got our passports and forms back. He waved at us to come with him. We walked down a long corridor to a big office of The Department Head. The man at the end of the counter bowed on his way in. He handed our passports to The Department Head, who scribbled something in them, and waved us away. We all three bowed on our way out. We had our visa extension. We can stay for three months, if we want to.

We took a taxi back to the hotel, and a long, relaxing lunch.

(I imagine that a Syrian who wanted to renew their US visa would have to go through a great deal more red tape than we did. I imagine a Syrian who wanted to renew their US visa, and who spoke and read only Arabic, would find it impossible without professional help. I am not complaining about the amount of bureaucracy, merely noting it.)

Oh. For your information, the drop on a taxi in Aleppo, if you can find someone with a meter willing to use it, is 6 cents.

January 16, 2008


Since we left San Francisco, in late June, we have slept in 69 different places. We stayed for two weeks at Lake George with Edward's mother, and for two months at our first apartment in Buenos Aires, so that works out to about 67 beds in about 140 nights, or barely 2 nights per bed. We're tired.

And we've found a comfortable resting place at Dar Halabia Hotel, inside the walls of the Old City in Aleppo. We've got a visa extension here in Syria so we don't have to go anywhere anytime soon.

We're taking a break. We might go sight-seeing, we might take an excursion. Or, since it's snowing lightly and cold and grey, we might just curl up with a book from the hotel's quite large trading library of English-language novels. Don't expect any interesting updates anytime soon.

January 21, 2008


We left Syria for Gazientep, Turkey, on Saturday. We couldn't find the hotel we'd picked from the guide book, and, after looking at a couple of different hotels, checked in to a hotel that was too expensive, but had really nice looking plumbing. We'll find something cheaper tomorrow, we thought.

It turned out to be a lucky thing that we chose our hotel by its plumbing and not its price, because that night I was absolutely flattened by some stomach bug. I spent half of the night in the bathroom becoming very well acquainted with the plumbing, and the other half of the night trying to get comfortable as every muscle in my body complained. I had a fever for most of the next day, and deepened my relationship with the plumbing.

Today, Monday, I am better. It feels almost miraculous, to go from hugging the toilet and wanting to die to wandering around enjoying the sun and light. We're not leaving this hotel for another night, just in case.

Edward has eaten everything I've eaten except the olives, and he's fine. I've never heard of gettiing food poisening from olives!

The head-scarf

Today, I finally got to go out in the streets of Gazientep, a very pleasant city of about a million people near the Syrian border. In the early evening, we found ourselves on a pedestrian street full of clothing and jewelry stores. We stopped to stare in admiration at a head-scarf with the central image of the Turkish flag as its repeating pattern.

I'd just finished reading Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, so I realized what a profound statement this head-scarf made. Most Muslim women cover their heads. Most of Turkey's population is Muslim, but the founding ideology of Turkey is determinedly secular. Women who wear head-scarves (and men who wear beards) have been banned from university classes, fired from teaching jobs, and discriminated against and excluded in other ways.

This headscarf, bold and red with the sickle moon and star, just like Turkey's flag, said, "I am a Muslim, and I am Turkish."

As we admired the scarf, the proprietors came out to talk with us. We speak no Turkish, and they spoke no English, but with the help of my phrasebook, we communicated. They gave us tea, asked if we were Muslim, if we were married, and, as we stood to leave, gave me the scarf I had so admired!

I couldn't refuse. I can't wear the scarf here, because I am not Turkish, I am not Muslim, and to wear the scarf would be to take sides in a struggle whose parameters I don't fully understand. I can't wear it at home, because it's red and I live in the Mission. But I couldn't refuse their extraordinarily kind and generous gift. Now what do I do?

Edward points out similarities in the "no head-scarf" rule here in Turkey and the "no hat" rule in San Francisco classrooms. Both rules claim legitimacy based on fear that the allegiance symbolized by the headgear would spark violence, he says. I'm not convinced, but I have food for thought.

I have another entry to write about my decision to cover or not to cover, but that may have to wait for a different keyboard. This Turkish keyboard is driving me crazy!

January 25, 2008


We're in Antalya, Turkey, 14 hours by bus and a continent away from Gaziantap.

Gaziantap is a thirdworld city of about a million people, an Asian city where the melodies and dress are Arab, a gritty and dusty industrial city, where tourists are rare and interesting. Our hotel desk clerk told us, "We had a tourist last week . . . from Morocco." The guard at the medieval citadel at the heart of the city walked us around and made sure we saw everything he felt was important, and didn't expect a tip. When we started to leave the city's museum of amazing 2nd century AD mosaics rescued from the rising waters of a reservoir, the guards said, "No, no!" (in Turkish, of course) and directed us to a gallery we'd missed. Shopkeepers who knew we weren't buying pressed tea on us, and gave us gifts, and tried to chat with us. Edward said he felt like saying, "We're Ruth and Edward, we'll be your tourists today."

Gaziantap is a hard-working, growing, prospering city, but it's hard to imagine it as an EU city.

Antalya is different. I began to sense the difference at the last bus-stop before Antalya, when the music wafting through the bus stop sounded more like Greek music than the Arab-influenced music we'd been listening to. Then we got off the bus, and began to walk towards our hotel through a pedestrian street with trees and fountains and cafes and Global brands. Very few women wore headscarves, and no men wore the baggy pants we'd seen in Gaziantep and Syria. The air was warm and clean. The cars were bigger and newer. It's easy to imagine Antalya as an EU city.

There's another difference. This is a tourist city. In season, tens of thousands of package tourists arrive from England and Germany and Russia. We're not interesting and different. We're potential customers. Almost everyone who talks to us is a tout, and some get abusive if we ignore them. It is not pleasant.

At the same time, it's very beautiful. There are snow-capped 2800 meter mountains rising straight out of the sea just a few miles away. And the sea isn't just any sea. It's the Mediterranean, whose color is like nothing I've ever seen. Today, the sun was shining, the breeze was refreshing, and we sat on the smooth pebble beach at the end of the tram line and watched the fish jumping and the water gently rising and falling so smoothly that we couldn't even hear the waves.

Tomorrow we head on to Izmir.

January 26, 2008


Everywhere we have gone on this trip, people have been very careful to distinguish between the American government, and the American people. In Syria, in particular, everyone we met said, "Welcome!" and told us how much they liked Americans. Turkey is feeling very betrayed by American policies these days, but we have been treated like visiting royalty.

The strongest thing anyone has said to me, is what our hotel clerk in Gaziantep said a few days ago: "You must change Bush, I think."

It's touching to see how much hope people have for a new president, a Democratic president. I don't have that hope. But I always hold my nose and vote. I think in 2008, remembering the hope of the people I have met, I might not have to hold my nose.

ATMs, the Internet, and Foreign Policy

Sometimes you get blindsided.

Edward and I put a lot of effort into arranging our finances before we went on this trip. How were our bills going to be paid? How were we going to get money? How many credit cards should we carry, and which ones? How could we put our affairs in order to minimize the impact on our family and our tenant/housesitter?

Edward discovered an internet bank that not only didn't charge for using other banks' ATMs, (it didn't have any of its own) but reimbursed any ATM fees charged by other banks. So far, it's reimbursed about $130, a significant sum.

Wow! We opened accounts, got ATM cards, and arranged for transfers from our primary accounts. Banks use automatic fraud-detection software that can be pretty stupid. Edward once had his card blocked because of some overseas transactions his bank thought unusual. We didn't want that to happen again, so, to be safe, we gave the bank our itinerary.

I set up online bill paying for my bills from my other account. Edward, who has more bills than I do, signed up with an online bill-paying service from this account. Our tenant was wonderful about taking care of the few things we could not take care of.

Since June, whenever I've needed money, I've gone to an ATM, and gotten money. Whenever it's been time to balance my checkbook, I've gone online securely on Edward's tiny little UNIX box and checked my account history. When I've had to pay bills, I go online and pay them. Edward's bill-paying service has worked well for him.

We had a hiccup here and there, but nothing major. The bank was perfectly happy with my use of ATMs in Boston, New York, Washington, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Portugal. Then for some reason, its automatic fraud detection software flagged my first withdrawal in Spain as potentially fraudulent. They didn't block the account, but did call, and left a message. I called, reassured them that I really had withdrawn the money in Spain, and gave them my itinerary AGAIN. I used ATMs through Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, without any problems.

Then our tenant moved out, and I panicked. Where would we find a tenant or house-sitter we could trust to handle what we couldn't handle remotely? Turns out, we found her at Balboa. My colleague Emily hasn't even moved in yet, but is already wonderful. We breathed a sigh of relief.

Maybe I should have bought one of the amulets we see for sale everywhere in Syria and Turkey before I sighed.

We have just spent a fraught week filled with nailbiting and hours-long late-night phone calls to our bank. It turns out our carefully constructed financial arrangements were a house of cards, and they fell down.

This is what happened.

Syria has been on our itinerary from almost the beginning of our planning. When we gave the bank our itinerary, Syria was on it. If you've been reading this journal, you know that we had a wonderful time there, and are glad we went.

Syria is one of the US government's least favorite governments. There are economic sanctions against Syria. (Edward is telling me that the sanctions aren't against Syria, but against the Syrian government and certain individuals in Syria.) I found the regulations incomprehensible, but Edward is pretty good at reading that sort of thing. I trust him when he says that travel to Syria isn't like travel to Cuba. It's legal for US citizens to go there, and to spend money there. Doing business with the Syrian government is illegal, and flying Syrian Airlines is illegal. No problem. We figured we'd use private banks, and we didn't take the one direct flight from Rome to Damascus on Syrian Airlines, but instead, spent an extra 12 hours in transit and flew via Qatar.

We arrived in Syria on New Year's Day. At the airport, I went to an ATM of a private bank, and got some Syrian currency. I had no problem. Why should I? It was legal.

After our overnight flight caused by US sanctions, we wanted a comfortable hotel. Our comfortable hotel had internet and an in-room phone. How convenient! That evening, I tried to check my balance on line. I got a message: "We need to verify your identity. Please contact us." They gave a US toll-free number. The same thing happened to Edward.

You can't call a US toll-free number from overseas without going through some hoops. The hoops we were to go through were three links away from the message. I followed the links, and jumped through the hoops, but it didn't work. So we found a not-800 number for my bank, and made a very expensive phone call.

We talked to the bank. We were told we couldn't check our balance on-line from Syria. Okay. A little weird, but okay. Certainly not alarming, not an emergency. We were only going to be in Syria a few weeks. As long as we could still get money when we needed it . . . One ATM didn't work with my card, but the second one we tried did, and we didn't worry. I continued to use my ATM to get money whenever we needed it in Damascus.

When we've had to use a credit card, we've used Edward's. So we usually use my ATM card to get cash. We didn't try Edward's ATM card till Aleppo, when we couldn't find an ATM that worked with my card OR his card. We didn't worry, because a friendly Dane at our hotel had trouble finding an ATM too. He found one that worked for him but not us, but different cards are on different networks, so that wasn't that surprising. We changed some cash dollars, and, though we were concerned, we didn't worry too much.

We tried to call the bank a few times to find out what the problem was, using that expensive, non-800 number. We tried from Edward's international roaming cell phone, from my Syrian cell phone, and from a land line. We never got through. We put it down to Syria's serious infrastructure problems, and figured we'd call when we got to Turkey.

As soon as we got to Turkey, we went to a bank. I went to an ATM. I got money. No problem. Whew. Edward tried to get some money. Uh oh. His card didn't work. We figured we better call the bank as soon as possible.

Then I spent a day communing with the toilet.

Saturday night, when I emerged from the bathroom shaken and weak, we called the bank, and got a surprise.

We were told that our bank bans all transactions originating in Syria. It blocks any accounts with any transactions or communication originating in Syria. That means it honors no checks, allows no withdrawals, and rejects deposits and transfers -- from anywhere. As soon as we tried to check our accounts from a Syrian IP address, we were blocked.

"But Ruth continued to use her ATM card to get money." "That was an error on our part." "But we talked to you and you didn't tell us you blocked our accounts." "We left you a message." "Where?" "On your home phone." "Did you listen to the prompt on our home phone, to the part where it says, "We are overseas for a year, and will not get any messages left at this number." The part where it says, "If you want to reach us, leave a message at 415-xxx-xxxx?" " "That was an error on our part."

It turns out that, not only could Edward not get money with his ATM card, but they had rejected all payments from his account initiated by his bill-paying service. They had rejected the payment to his bill-paying service, so Edward couldn't even see what had been rejected. Had his health insurance been paid? The house bills? The bank had sent a deposit of his off into the void, and couldn't tell him where it had been returned to. My arrangements are simpler, so my affairs were not so confused.

We would actually have been better off if my ATM card had not worked. We would have tried harder to figure out what was going on sooner.

We ended up spending about 8 hours on the phone with the bank over 3 nights, and we're not quite done untangling everything. We caught things right before things got really messy, before accounts started getting cancelled. Another few days, and Edward might have ended up without credit cards our health insurance.

There have been some surreal moments. On our first call to the bank from Turkey, we got the same guy we had talked to on our one and only successful call from Syria. He remembered us. He couldn't do anything to help us for three days, because of the MLK long weekend.

On Tuesday morning, I made a withdrawal from a Turkish bank in a Turkish city with my ATM card, which was still working. That evening, someone from another department called us, on our Turkish cell phone with a Turkish phone number, but wouldn't talk to us on the cell phone, because he needed proof we weren't in Syria. Fortunately, we were at a good enough hotel to have a phone in the room.

The thing is, we did nothing illegal at any time. Our bank, on its own, decided that its customers shouldn't go to Syria, and that if they did, their lives would be hell. It's not in any of the account fine-print. They didn't warn us the two times we gave them our itinerary. They didn't tell us when we talked to them the first time from Syria, before things got really messy. They didn't block our accounts the same way, even though we had the same activity. They left us a message on a machine that told them we wouldn't get the message.

They know they screwed up. They've already offered Edward some money for his time and trouble, though not nearly enough.

But I'm angry that my bank makes travel decisions for their customers without warning their customers they are doing so. The problem for us wasn't our government's sanctions. It was our bank's sanctions.

January 27, 2008

One Fine Day

20 years ago, I did a stiff hike in the Chisos mountains at the center of Big Bend National Park in Texas with my friends Russ and Liz. We sat to eat our lunch high on a ledge with a 50 mile view over mountains and desert to the Rio Grand River and Mexico beyond. We'd been in the park a couple of weeks, and were probably 100 road miles from the nearest grocery store, so lunch was pretty basic. But who cared, with a view like that?

Liz did. As I remember it, she sighed and said, "Some Chinese food would be really nice right now." Russ smiled, opened his knapsack, and pulled out -- no, not Chinese food, but -- two almost cold beers. They were better than Chinese food. It was one fine day.

Today, Edward and I walked a long way from our hotel to the waterfront and then further along the waterfront in Izmir. It wasn't a stiff mountain hike, but it was long enough that we were happy to sit in the sun and look out at the sea, the big ships and the ferries, the mountains on either side of the inlet loosing themselves in the sea-haze, the birds making patterns in the air . . . There was some warmth to the sun, and we sat, contented, for a very long time.

As I remember it, Edward started to recite Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, Recipe for Happiness in Khabarovsk or Anyplace, our refrain this year as we share one perfect moment after another. I pointed out the absence of "strong black coffee in very small cups," a key ingredient in Ferlighetti's recipe. Before Edward could reply, a man bicycled by selling good Turkish tea, hot and sweet in very small cups.

One fine day, indeed.

January 31, 2008

Headscarves, Again

The Turkish ruling party, AK, and the main opposition party have come to an agreement to AMEND THE TURKISH CONSTITUTION to allow women to wear headscarves in universtities.

It astonishes me that a constitutional amendment would be necessary, but that's Turkey.

It is a very limited step: women could wear headscarves that tie under the neck, but not wrapped in the way that is the fashion among young women who "cover" in Syria and Turkey. Other symbols of religious or political affiliation would not be allowed: kippahs, crosses on a necklace, anarchist circle A's, baggy pants, etc.

To me, it doesn't seem like a step forward towards freedom of expression. However, a large part of AK's constituency is the political Islamic community, and this move satisfies them.

Coverage of the debate has dominated the news for the entire time we were in Turkey.

Where are the Greeks?

We went to Izmir for two reasons.

First, I wanted to go to Ephesus, site of very large, important ancient ruins, and Ephesus is only an hour or so from Izmir. Once we got to Izmir, I was less interested in Ephesus. We went to Palmyra and Bosra, and had them to ourselves. Ephesus would be full of other tourists. Second, it was COLD. According to the weather forecast I saw, with the windchill, it was 26 F yesterday, too cold for walking around rough ground without shelter or tea shops. I'm not a classicist, not a specialist. I'm not sure I could tell what was significant about differences between Palmyra and Bosra, and Ephesus. So much for Ephesus!

Second, the family of Edward's step-father, Jim, left Izmir, then Smyrna, in 1922. I was curious. Was there still a Greek community there? Could we find it? Could we find traces of his family?

We found the town his family came from, and spent a day walking around it, finding no visible traces of a Greek community there. I am still glad we went. Our search has raised some very big questions for me.

I'm Jewish. My mother's family fled Germany in the day immediately after Kristalnacht. I'd read about pogroms there, and grew up internalizing the history of the Jewish genocide. I've read about the Armenian genocide, the genocide in Rwanda, the genocide in Darfur going on today. I don't feel their tragedy the way I feel the tragedy of the Jews. Why? Is it a personal failing that I don't feel other's (historical) pain as I feel my own?

But a bigger question for me is this: there was a genocide of the Greeks in Smyrna. The Turkish army literally drove the Greeks into the sea while allied warships, including three ships of the US navy, looked on as people drowned. I never heard of this genocide. Why not? What other genocides have happened in my century, the 20th century, that I don't know about? Why haven't I heard about them?

Ataturk, who is revered in Turkey as much as Mao was in China at the height of the Mao cult, led the army that drove the Greeks into the sea. It is a crime to insult Ataturk, and thus to criticize Ataturk, in Turkey. Yesterday's newspaper wrote about a university professor sentenced to a 15 month suspended sentence for writing critically about Ataturk. What does that say about Turkey?

We looked for traces of Greek culture in Izmir, and found none. So we got on a bus and an overnight train, and headed for Thessalonika, Greece, to look for Greek culture. I'm not sure we're finding it.

We had a lovely Greek lunch in the fish market, and set off to walk along the waterfront. We walked along the grand boulevard, past sidewalk cafes that could be anywhere in Europe (or Argentina, for that matter). We found a very good bookstore, with a large English language collection. We know we're in Europe, in the EU sense of Europe. We've seen plenty of Europeans. We're not sure we've seen Greeks.

We'll keep looking for Greeks here for a few days, and then head back to Istanbul.

About January 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Sabbatical in January 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2007 is the previous archive.

February 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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