Monday, September 28, 2009

March 18th: Hama and bus to Amman [updated with pics and more; first posted 06-04-09]

I got up early to have breakfast and get ready to meet Alaa' for some shopping - I wanted to try to find a little backgammon game board that I had seen in Aleppo but didn't buy. Backgammon seems to be quite popular everywhere over here - in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, ... I talked to Abdullah about the bus to Amman. I had him book me a ticket on the midnight bus and then went out to meet Alaa'. He wasn't there!!! I waited for quite a while, but he didn't show up. So I went in to call him. He had gotten busy with some family things and couldn't come early. He said he'd come after a couple of hours so then I had time to wait. I sat behind the reception counter with Margo, an older Australian/Estonian woman who had also been staying at the hotel and was going to Amman on the afternoon bus. She had been sick in bed the past few days. Poor woman! Abdullah was there talking with us for a while. We had tea, and then he left. We were brought fresh strawberries and such. :) Nice. Eventually I saw Alaa' outside (they have security cameras - one of the sidewalk outside the door, one of the stairway, one of the salon, and one of the restaurant/dining room).
Alaa' and I wandered for quite a while. We checked out several shops but either they didn't have them or they were bad quality or they were charging way too much. Finally we found one that I liked, with mother of pearl inlay. I paid 500 Syrian pounds (about $10US?). We then went to see some of the (ناعورة) norias of Hama. I love them!!!The Norias are along the Orontes River of Hama and are very old and big.
The Noria Al-Muhammadiyya is supposedly the largest noria in the world, as well as one of the oldest. According to an info board near the noria, it is 21 meters in diameter (about 69 feet) and was built around 763 AH (1361 CE). We walked around quite a bit checking out the norias.I think that is the 3 norias. Most of them had no posters or info boards so I can't really label the pictures other than how many were at a specific spot if there were more than one. We tried to get down to the 4 norias from the back side but couldn't, so went to the 4 norias restaurant. I had lunch, but as usual, he wasn't hungry. Also, he had a stomach ache. He had a special kind of tea that is supposedly good for stomach problems. I took a small taste of it. YUCK!!! It kinda tasted like stomach acid!! It was lemon with cumin. Not something I would ever want to taste again. After I ate, he talked to the manager about going to see the norias. They said there was no separate entry, and there was a gate, but we could jump over the gate if we wanted to get closer to the norias. Funny. We did just that. Out the back door of the restaurant to their patio and then over the gate that separated the patio from the norias.I'm not sure I mentioned it before, but the water REALLY stinks. Near the hotel area, the water is actually bubbling (with noxious gas?) and has a thick iridescent film on it. DISGUSTING!! It smells like human waste among other things. At the norias, it smells like sulfur. It is amazing that anything can live in it!!! Near the 4 norias, there were frogs living in the water. We stopped for a while to toss tiny pebbles to try to make the frogs jump (not to hit them, so you know). I went back to my hotel to rest and get my things ready. I watched a movie (Shining Through) and took a bit of a nap before going to sit in the salon for a while, with Cookie sitting on my knee chewing my pen, and then sleeping on my foot. :) A little later, I went out to pay for my bus ticket. They said the bus was at 12:30AM. Then I went back to Alaa's restaurant to have tea and say bye. We had some tea and sat and talked for a while. Then he got busy for a moment. While he was up, a guy from the next table came over and asked me to join them. He was with his fiancee and her mother. I said okay, for a short time. He siad he is the mayor of a village to the east of Hama. I'm not sure if I believed him or not. He spoke English quite well. His fiancee also spoke some English. She just started studying English literature in university. She is only 18!!!! The guy looked around 28 or 30. He was looking at me and watching me in an odd way. When Alaa' returned, I went back to join him. I had a cappuccino and we chatted some more. When it was time for me to go, he said he would try to see me off at the bus station but would probably be too busy. No problem.
I went back to the hotel to check out and wait a bit until it was time to go to the bus station. I was a little late leaving the hotel because I didn't have enough Syrian money - I paid the hotel bill but also had to have enough to pay the departure tax, so I had to change some money. I finally left the hotel at around 12:15 and got to the bus station in less than 10 minutes. With only a short time before the bus was to leave (according to what I was told), I thought I was in a hurry. I went to the office there, and the guy told me to sit and wait. What? There was a bus at the station that was almost ready to pull out. The guy took my passport to write down my info, and then disappeared in the back to make some tea for himself!! I was thinking what the heck is he doing??? The bus was pulling out. I looked worried, as when he came out and looked at me he said to relax, because the bus wasn't there yet and wouldn't go until 1. Grrrr. After he got my info and I got my passport back, I went out to find some water and a snack, then went back to the office to read my book. I had just sat down and opened my book when I looked up to find Alaa' sitting beside me. He had rushed to get there and had though he would have missed me. His friend from the restaurant had driven him on his motorcycle. He then stayed until my bus came. We went and got a tea and a cheese (salty Arabic cheese) sandwich for me since I really hadn't had anything for dinner. We had just started to drink the tea when the bus came, about 15 minutes early. Well, I had to go. The busses here don't wait until the departure time. When the bus pulled in, a bunch of people all of a sudden appeared. I'm not sure where they were waiting. I was put in the front seat behind the driver. A young guy tried to sit next to me but the driver shooed him away and told him to find another seat. Yay!! I had the whole 2 seats to myself. Good thing, as the bus was very old and not very comfortable. There was almost no leg room, but with the 2 seats, I could stretch my legs out. It was around a 7 hour bus ride. We stopped a while before the border at a little place where everyone had to pay a departure tax of 500 Syrian Pounds. Then it was back on the bus for a while longer. I slept between stops. I wish I had some warning before the stops or had some instruction as to what was going on, as each time I woke up, I felt very disoriented, and every time there was a stop, I sort of just had to follow everyone and figure out on my own what had to be done. First, there was the departure area where I had to go in and get a departure stamp. For some reason, the guy stood there looking at my passport for about 5 minutes before even starting to put it into the computer and stamp it. Not sure why. Then I sat on the bus for about 20 minutes waiting... not sure what for. After that, it was a short drive to the Jordanian immigration/entry section. First thing, all bags had to be taken off of the bus and out of the baggage storage to be opened and quickly inspected, and then put back on the bus. Then I had to go around to another building for the immigration procedures. I went to the VISA counter, where I was told to go to the immigration counter first. At the immigration counter, the guy looked at my passport, and told me to go to the VISA counter. That little look at the passport was apparently an important part of the procedure. I had to then run outside to another building to change money to pay for the VISA. Then it was no problem. I got the little VISA stamp and had the immigration guy stamp the arrival stamp and off I went back to find the bus (it moved to part in front of a little store). We waited there for almost half an hour!!! I guess it was breakfast time?? I wasn't yet hungry. I just wanted to sleep. After that there were no more stops until we reached Amman. Where we were dropped off was not at any bus station but just behind some building. Odd. I went out and quickly found a taxi to take me to the hotel I had chosen - the Palace Hotel. The driver took a while to understand the little map on the back of the business card I had. Then he didn't even drop me off near the hotel, but rather about a block past it on the other side. ARGH!! He didn't want to turn around to go back. Then he wouldn't give me all of my change. I didn't think he deserved a tip but he tipped himself with my money. GRRRRR.

March 17th: Aleppo and back to Hama [updated with pics and more; first posted 03-04-09]

After getting ready in the morning, we checked out and I left my bags at reception so we could go out and see things in Aleppo.We went to the Citadel... but it was closed. :( It is closed Tuesdays.I was hungry so we sat at a nearby cafe so I could eat. Too much food, for too much money. You couldn't order a set. Everything is separate. I had a fried egg, yogurt (which they completely covered in olive oil), a cheese thing that was similar to a quesadilla only with a salty arabic cheese that was quite rubbery, and a tea. They brought olives on the side. It certainly wasn't worth 300 Syrian Pounds (only I was eating, as Alaa' wasn't hungry). Oh well. I was too hungry to wait. Then we walked through some of the old souqs. So nice. Like elsewhere, the souqs are in old caravanserais. Unfortunately not much was open, even at 10 AM. Because it was Tuesday??? In our wandering, we found the Medicine and Science Museum in Bimaristan (hospital/house of patients) Argun. It was a hospital and madhouse/asylum from the 14th until the 20th century, with a part for dangerous patients. Some of the rooms had displays showing the tools and such used. Some looked a bit scary!We tried to get into a nearby madrasa but it was closed... also because it was Tuesday. :(
We went to the Aleppo Museum. It TOO was closed. Tuesdays... why is everything there closed Tuesdays??? Why did Tuesday just happen to be the day that I spent in Aleppo??? ARGH!!We did manage to go to the Great Mosque of Aleppo. It is similar to the mosque in Damascus but of a smaller scale. Still very nice. Like at the one in Damascus, I had to wear a grey hooded robe (though this one really didn't fit very well and with my bag underneath it looked even stranger).[I love taking pics of the minarets of mosques. It's always so easy to get a beautiful shot.]My knee had started hurting several days before and was really getting bad. Not a good thing. I decided I should go back to Hama for a little rest (since the hotel there, the Riad, was so great and welcoming). We went back to the hotel and then went to the bus station to get tickets. We didn't have long to wait. I had to go to the bathroom and wouldn't be able to wait the whole bus trip so I left my bags with Alaa' and went on a search for it. I walked into the main part of the station where all of the offices are. I asked a guy where the bathroom was. He had no idea what I was saying. I asked for the WC. He still didn't understand. I asked for the toilets. He seemed to understand and said "Ah! Follow me!" He took me to one of the offices and tried to sell me bus tickets to some city I didn't know the name of. Argh!! All they want to do is sell bus tickets for the company they work for. That is how they make their money. I said no. Another guy in the office asked what I needed. I said I had to go to the bathroom. He said "Ah." and looked at the other guy, shook his head and said to follow him. This guy actually did understand. By the time I was finished it was time for the bus to go. Alaa' came to find me as the bus was in a different spot. Also, we had to go to the police office to get my ticket signed. Even though the ticket office took had my name and passport info, for some reason the police had to authorize it. They are very protective of the foreigners in Syria.
On the way home, Alaa' was amused by my paper folding. I have a habit of making things (paper cranes, paper boxes, paper stars, etc) with even little bits of paper (like gum wrappers and such). Once in Hama, I went to my hotel. I had a great welcome. The guy at the counter had a surprised look on his face and said to go take my bags off and relax for a bit. He called Abdullah who immediately came down and said I was just on time and had to follow him upstairs. He had made a large lunch for a couple of his friends and wanted me to join. They had finished the fish (which is fine by me since I don't eat fish), but there was still plenty of the rest of the dishes left (salad, fuul, eggplant, cauliflower, etc) that he had made from scratch. He said he sometimes likes to cook. It was all so delicious!!!Back in the salon to relax and write in my journal, Cookie was back on my knee. So cute.
At around 8 I went out for some dinner. I went to the restaurant that Alaa' works in. He is something like an accountant/cashier/manager. All he does is sign the receipts and later on balances the cash and receipts. Because of that, he could sit and talk. We had tea (or I had tea and he had the Turkish coffee that he seems to be addicted to). I then had dinner... chicken on rice with salad and fries (a bit of a bigger meal that what is on the menu) and a Nescafe with milk afterwards. When it was time for me to go, Alaa' refused to let me pay for my meal. :)

Monday, September 14, 2009

March 15th & 16th: Hama, new friends and Lattakia [updated with pics and more; first posted 03-04-09]

Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was downstairs writing, Abdullah made me share his dinner - a burger (half) and some fries. Tasted great, but I ate too much that day. :S
I got up at 8 to get ready and have breakfast. After finishing my small breakfast, I went to my room to pack up my stuff as my plan was to leave around lunch time for Lattakia. While there, Abdullah called me to say I had to join him in the salon as he was having his breakfast of fuul (beans) and bread and such. He said I was in Syria and had to try the Syrian bean dish. Okay then. I had a second breakfast. It was so good!!! Once again I was eating too much. Ugh. Oh well. It was a good chance to try different things. After eating I went out to wander around Hamah, as I had yet to really do that. I went to the Azem Palace museum. It is small but nice. A man there sort of took me around and opened some doors for me. Even outside he kept saying photos were not allowed (there were only signs inside the rooms saying no photos). He would say no photos, then look around as if trying to be sneaky, and then say I could take a photo. He was actually telling me to take photos of certain things in some of the rooms, which I had no interest in taking photos of. Sort of like 'ooh! a window! picture okay!' I said no thanks and then he said no photos but okay for me to take photos. After a while it got kinda annoying but whatever. In the end, he was asking for a tip since he was letting me take pictures when he wasn't supposed to. It was all in order to get money, of course, which I knew right from the start. That seems to be the way it is everywhere over here. After I saw all there was to see in the museum, I wandered over to the nearest norias (water wheels). The water wheels in Hamah are amazing. There are so many of them!!! 17, to be exact, including the largest waterwheel in the world. They are very old, dating back to the Byzantine time, though of the course the wooden parts have been replaced fairly regularly to keep them running. Too bad I didn't get to see them actually moving (though it seems they can be VERY noisy!A street in the old quarter near the Azem Palace.While I was there taking pictures, a guy nearby asked if I wanted him to take a picture for me so that I could be in a picture. He seemed quite sincere (I always use my intuition and it has served me quite well), so I said okay. He kinda looks like Andrew McCarthy. Every time I looked at him it reminded me of the movies Pretty in Pink and Mannequin and I kind of laughed to myself. I walked with Alaa' for a while talking about all sorts of things - Syria, work, travel, etc. He spoke some English but not a lot. He took me to the big Hama Museum. It is big on the outside, but there is not much there to see. Then we went for coffee. I said I was going to Lattakia and he decided, if it was okay with me, he would join me to sort of show me around. He was enjoying my company. He called his co-worker/friend to get him to cover for work the next day (only one of them really has to be there at a time).
I went back to my hotel to check out and he went home to change and then picked me up at the hotel. We went to the bus station to get tickets, but the soonest bus was sold out and the next one was several hours away. So we decided to take a micro bus. Well, the micro bus that was there was already full and was just pulling out so we had to wait for the next one to fill up. They said maybe 30 minutes. That turned into a couple of hours. We were talking to 2 girls on the bus infront of us (we had the whole back seat because of my bag - I had to pay for the extra seat, which is really not much). They were both students, taking nursing in Lattakia. One of them, Fihal, had to go to the hospital by 5 to work. Eventually, after the bus was still not full, we all paid a little extra to make them go. Fihal was late for work as we didn't arrive until after 5. On the way, Rasha, the other girl, made arrangements for us to stay in a beach house (which they kept calling a chalet), as she knew someone that had one. It was fantastic and relaxing. The beach house was large, with 2 bedrooms (with 5 beds), a large living room with a view of the sea, and good sized kitchen (all on the 2nd floor). The Mediterranean Sea is beautiful! The next day we wandered along the shore and I got my feet wet. I can't go to the sea and not at least get my feet into it. ;) After talking a while, Alaa' decided he wanted to go to Aleppo, too. He lived in Aleppo for several years when he went to university, and wanted to show me around. Okay then. After leaving the beach house, we went to the train station to get tickets and leave my bags at the cafeteria (thank goodness they will store bags, as I didn't want to have to carry them around or sit there and wait the whole time). We had several hours to wander. We went along the corniche and down the steep side to the water's edge. So nice. The color of the water there was amazing!! I made Ali follow me and climb up a huge rock/hill, all vocanic rock, I think. On top, it was very windy. Though it was cold, it was very refreshing and the view was great. After sitting there for a while, we tried to get a hold of the girls again, but they were both busy. Rasha was on her way back to Hama already. Oh well.
On the way down the rock, Alaa' noticed that the heel of his shoe had at some point, fallen off. So our next activity was finding a cobbler to fix his shoe. As we searched, we stopped for a felafel sandwich for lunch... SO good. It took a while, but eventually we found a shoe repair shop in the downtown area. The place was literally a crack in the wall. The width of the room was only slightly wider than the guy's shoulders!! It was interesting watching him work. He did a great job of giving Alaa' two new heels. It only cost 50 Syrian pounds, which is about $1. The train to Aleppo was so nice. A lot of space, a smooth ride, and fairly fast. Definitely better than a bus ride! In Aleppo, we caught a taxi to the hotel that I had sort of picked out from my Lonely Planet Guide. It was absolutely horrible!!!! It smelled so bad, the paint was chipped and peeling off the walls. When they opened the door to a room to show it to me, all sorts of dust came flying off the walls. Yuck!!! We were out of there fairly quickly. Around the corner we found another hotel. It wasn't great but was much better than the other one, and cheaper. My room was very large, with my own bathroom/shower and heating. Alaa's room was nice but smaller, and no bathroom. He had to use the shared bathroom and shower with other rooms. Of course, his was cheaper.
For dinner, Alaa' took me to his favorite pizza place in Aleppo, a little place near the university called Mister Taster. The pizzas we had were sort of sampler pizzas with 3 kinds on one - 1/3rd mushroom, 1/3rd sausage/meat, and 1/3rd spicy chicken. It was delicious. Much better than I had expected.
I am still unable to upload any pictures. :( For some reason the computers here won't recognize my camera. I guess you'll just have to wait.