Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dear Family & Friends,
Tonight we are in Dahab, Egypt, on the gulf of
Aqaba in the Sinai Peninsula, having taken a hydrofoil
from Aqaba, Jordan earlier today. It is beautiful
here but very HOT in the daytime – well over 100
degrees, I’m sure. Since one of the purposes of these
travelogues is for us to have a “journal” of our
travels, as well as keeping our loved ones informed, I
am going to continue from where we left off last time,
even though that was nearly 10 days ago. We have been
doing too many things and moving too fast for internet
time, and once, when we did have time, the server was
Our last travelogue was from Hama, a place which
has interesting water wheels for irrigation purposes
and not much else. From there we took a public bus
across the desert to a place called Palymyra. It is
an oasis city known to have been settled from the 19th
century BC, but it really boomed during Roman times.
This was because there were lots of caravans passing
through because this was on the Silk Road, and they
taxed them heavily, which paid for beautiful civic
buildings. Today these are ruins, but quite extensive
and interesting ones. We had an excellent tour guide
who explained everything to us and we walked all over
the site, which is huge. There are a lot of columns
left on the main street and we tried to imagine it
when caravans of over 4000 camels came into town.
After that we drove out to the outskirts where there
were several types of tombs. We climbed the 4 stories
of an above ground one, then visited several
underground ones. Families used these and often there
were over 400 people buried in them through the
centuries they were used. The best one still had the
sculptured heads of the people buried in them
installed on the front of the niches where the bodies
were placed.
The most amazing thing is that there were hardly
any tourists. Usually there are thousands of people
in the town and the time we were there we probably saw
about 50. Of course, this is because of the war and
also Syria’s position with regard to Hezbollah. There
are Bedouin people who live here and we visited one of
them at his place in the oasis and had tea with him.
Later Jayo and Sophie rented a couple of his camels
for a ride through the ruins. In the evening we went
up the hill to the citadel which overlooks everything
and tried to time it for sunset, but there was a dust
storm and we couldn’t even see the sun.
The next day we took the bus to Damascus, another
very old city at about 8000 years old. Bashar bribed
the bus driver to stop for 30 seconds at a sign that
said Baghdad with an arrow pointing left, and Damascus
with an arrow pointing right. We arrived on Friday so
it was very quiet because this is their holy day and
also with Ramadan starting soon, everyone went to the
mosque. We spent some time walking around in the
covered market area which is called the Souk, with the
big mosque nearby. Behind all this there is an
extensive and interesting Christian area, which we
also visited. After all this walking, we stopped at a
place for tea and there were lots of people in there
smoking water pipes called nargile. The tobacco
smells like apples or other fruit and the smoke is not
as offensive as regular cigarettes.
A few words about Ramadan. It lasts a month and
during this time Muslims are not supposed to eat,
drink, smoke, or have sex in the hours between sunrise
and sunset. So they get up before sunrise and eat a
big breakfast, then fast all day, and then about 6:30
PM everything stops while they all break their fast.
Usually this is like a big party at their homes. Even
traffic on very big and busy streets disappears during
this time. The fallout from all this is that many
people are very crabby during the day and they use it
as an excuse to do even less work than usual.
Additionally, we have already seen about 4 fistfights,
probably caused by low blood sugar! Lots of
businesses have reduced hours, it is difficult to find
a place to eat at lunchtime, it is almost impossible
to find a place to buy alcohol and if you can find it,
it costs a LOT more, and lots of businesses are closed
too. This is somewhat like Christmas is for us, and
there are even lights they put up on their houses of a
crescent moon and star, plus other colored lights.
They buy new clothes for the end of Ramadan, and they
give gifts to each other too. We have witnessed so
much inefficiency during this time that we have come
to the conclusion that it is a bad time to travel, but
hey, we are already here!
The second day we were in Damascus started off
badly when I broke my toe by hitting it on the bedpost
in the hotel room. I managed to limp my way through
the Azem Palace, an interesting extensive home of a
former Pasha, and also now a museum showing a lot of
cultural items, such as costumes, musical instruments,
utensils, and furniture from past centuries. We
revisited the souks which were now teeming with people
and much more interesting. The Ummayad mosque was now
available to us and was absolutely stunning with
beautiful glittery mosaics, stained glass windows, and
beautiful tile work. One of the best mosques we have
seen yet. Since this was our last day with Bashar, we
all had a nice dinner at a terrace restaurant and
right in the middle of it the electricity went off and
stayed off. It was a challenge getting out of there
and back to our hotel.
The night before we had gone out to dinner with
Bashar and one of his girlfriends. He is from a very
traditional family and he told us that the way they
arrange marriages is that he would indicate to his
mother which girl he was interested in and then his
parents would visit her parents. If the parents
thought that the girl was a good solid citizen
(meaning a virgin and of good character) and her
parents thought that he was OK, then they would dicker
about a dowry. Sometimes these get quite pricey –
like over $20,000!! Eventually a very expensive
wedding would occur and they would live happily ever
after (hopefully). If not, they can easily divorce by
the husband just saying to the wife, “I divorce you”.
But there are very strict laws about spousal support,
child support, and child visitation rights. We even
were taken into a visitation center in Aleppo where
parents are able to have visitation time with their
children when they are not allowed to go to the
ex-partner’s home anymore.
Now that you have heard almost everything about
Syria, I am going to close this and tell you all about
Jordan in the next travelogue.
Thanks to those of you who have sent us e-mails.
We are always happy to get news and greetings from
home. We are both happy and healthy and hoping that
you are the same. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

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