Webmaster's Note: Because the BikeAbout team is traveling in smaller groups for a little while, we have changed the format of the journal slightly. The rider notes for the lead group (today it's the guys who are in Beirut) are followed by notes for the other group(s). When the group rejoins in late February or early March, we will return to the original format for these pages.

BikeAbout Log

While, Corinne and andrEa have remained on Cyprus, and Anthony is biking in Syria, Ethan and Padraic are in Beirut:

topics: Leila Mouammar (Person of the Day), Beirut (reconstruction, Hamra), Civil War, war, HISTORY, Aid el-Fitr party; jump to dispatch


Rider Notes: January 29–30, 1998

Food of the Day: Cracked-wheat and tomato stew

On the 30th, Padraic and Ethan enjoyed a hearty meal prepared by one of their new friends: a simple concoction of cracked wheat, tomatoes, and onion. The nameless stew is apparently typical of the food prepared by people living in the Lebanese mountains and reminded both Ethan and Padraic of the kushari they so enjoyed in Egypt. Warm, dense, home-cooked, and loaded with carbohydrates, it was precisely what the two calorie-packers needed.

Word of the Day: Haram

Haram click to hear an audio clip, a word that apparently does not have a direct translation in English, is used to express regret, concern, remorse, or condolence to another with an understanding that sometimes life does not treat us all with kindness. It is uttered in response to statements like: "I got fired today because I was late for work . . . and all because of the traffic." Or, "My goldfish died yesterday." It is also used as irony, like when you see a large man with a big cigar and an expensive car, you can say, "Haram, he hasn't got any money."

Tech Fact of the Day: Lebanon's multi-religious population

After centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence, the people of Lebanon were deeply divided during the Civil War of 1975–1991. These divisions were exacerbated by religious differences. Today, even thought the war has more or less ended and people are once again trying to find some form of social harmony, animosities certainly do exist.

Less than half the population of Lebanon is Christian and half is officially Muslim. The "officially" Muslim half includes Shi'ites and Sunnis, as well as Druze, a cultural-religious group lumped with the Muslims but which practices a unique religion only loosely related to Islam. The Christians are divided between the large majority Maronite sect, followed by the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, the Armenian Orthodox, the Armenian Catholics, the Syrian Catholics, the Chaldeans, the Protestants, and the Syrian Orthodox. Roman Catholics, Copts, Baha'is, and Jews are also represented by small populations.

Person of the Day: Leila Mouammar click to view a photograph

Leila Mouammar was our Lebanese savior. Really. Like a flash of light through the night she appeared, found us, adopted us, and made us feel like we were part of Beirut. We would never have seen what we saw or lived as we did the days and nights of this exciting city if it had not been for her. We salute her and wish her the very, very best in all and everything that she undertakes in Beirut or anywhere life takes her.

We learned about Leila through a mutual friend who sent advance email to her about us, establishing that we were, as she put it, "legit." Of proud Palestinian descent and Canadian citizenship, Leila was, perhaps, a little more receptive to our goals and plight than others might have been, but only her generous and open nature can truly explain the degree to which she took us in.

Given only a single back-and-forth with her by email in which there were no concrete dates mentioned, and then Ethan and Padraic's hasty decision to fly to Beirut, it was a bit presumptuous to call when they did (late in the evening) and without forewarning, to say that they had arrived. But they did. They succeeded in reaching her roommate, who gave them directions to a location in the Hamra district of Beirut, with further instructions to call again. But while the guys were pedaling through the darkness and into town, Leila returned to her apartment and found the sudden news of their arrival. In the ensuing excitement, she tripped over her phone wire and accidentally ripped it out of the wall jack! Knowing that they would be calling at any moment, Leila ran into the street to the rendezvous point and with an "Excuse me, are you from New York?" found us just as we were pulling up. With helmets on our heads, we were unmistakable.

And then it was back to Leila's apartment for a snack, some early conversation, and realization that it was much later than anyone had realized and therefore time for bed. Leila barely knew who we were or how long we would stay in Beirut (nor do we now), but she assured us that we were welcome for as long as we needed, and even, despite repeated objections, insisted that she was more comfortable on her couch and left her room to the boys.

Leila is in Beirut for an eight- or nine-month stint working as a consultant to UNICEF. Her excellent Arabic, sharp and inquisitive mind, beautiful smile, and open demeanor will definitely hold her in good stead while she is in Lebanon. They will also stand sharp as one of our strongest memories of Beirut . . . and the Mediterranean. THANK YOU, LEILA!

Place of the Day: American University of Beirut

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is famous around the world for having suffered material and human resource damage during the Civil War in Lebanon (1975–1991). The hostilities — including bombings on campus, the kidnapping of professors, and the assassination of the school's president — certainly put a damper on things; however, with the exception of only a few days after the well-known clock tower was destroyed and during which the rubble was cleared with the help of students, classes continued throughout the war.

One of the only (and certainly the largest) bits of green in the city, the campus is situated facing the sea on the city's steep northern slope only a few minutes' walk from Hamra, one of the city's most lively districts. The campus buildings are spread out along the landscaped hillside and in the midst of tennis courts and impressive sports facilities. Unfortunately, we visited the grounds during a rainy holiday, so we were unable to visit the interiors of any of the buildings or talk to any of the students. We were nevertheless very impressed with the walled-in area and appreciated the calm that it must represent during the day.

Group Dispatch (Lebanon), January 29–30

picture of Ethan

Reputations can be funny things. Especially when they are wrong. Such was the case with Beirut. What for years has been known as a city ripped to pieces by war, kidnappings, and lawlessness . . . what for years was off limits to most Americans (until this past summer when President Clinton lifted the travel ban for Americans) . . . what for years and up until a few days ago stood out in our minds as an intimidating destination . . . is today a vital, thriving, and exciting metropolis working very hard to recover — materially and spiritually — from its wounds.

During the Civil War that devastated the country from 1975–1991, the city's downtown area was practically leveled. click to view a photograph A long strip of razed land right through the heart of the city was thusly turned into Beirut's Green Line. Factions in a constantly changing pool of strategic but short-lived alliances battled across this line and throughout the country. However, finally, today, seven years after a 1991 Syrian-army-brokered peace saw private Lebanese armies throughout the country surrender their weapons, people are still coming to grips with the 16 years of division and rancor. Buildings everywhere — throughout the city and beyond — are riddled and punctured by evidence of bullet and rocket fire. click to view a photograph There are burnt-out shells of weather-browned and fire-blackened cement structures (former apartment and office buildings), parts of which yawn wide where walls are crumbling and unsupported floors are sagging under their own weight. click to view a photograph There is no question of a war having been fought here. The question now is: How and when will the physical and emotional traces of a generation of anger be washed into a history that need not be revisited?

This question is much more important than the more press-worthy traces of war that should not be the focus of our attention, nor should it change anyone's impression of how worthwhile it was for us to visit the city. Beirut (and all of Lebanon) is today in the midst manouche, a word meaning reconstruction (of its downtown area and elsewhere), and everywhere signs of repaving, rebuilding, replastering, repainting, repair, and renovation are evident. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Manouche is happening on a massive and sweeping scale that we hope will one day have this city back on track as an important banking and trade center. Perhaps when the infrastructure has been restored, flocks of tourists eager to take advantage of the warm sun, beautiful coast, and many, many distractions, will return.

The morning after our late-night arrival in Beirut, Padraic and Ethan were eager to see the city by day. As it was, we had arrived on the eve of Aid el-Fitr, a holiday marking the last day of Ramadan. The city was basically shut down, and cold and rainy to boot. So we were treated to a calm morning in a city that can often be hazardous just to walk around.

With Leila (see the Person of the Day) as our guide, we strolled north down the hill to the American University of Beirut (see the Place of the Day). On the way, we walked right through the middle of the normally bustling Hamra click to view a photograph, a word meaning "red" and designating what used to be the "red light" district — and is now one of the liveliest parts — of the city.

From the grounds of the university, we had an excellent view of the bay and the unusually strong waves of the Mediterranean crashing against Beirut's coastal "Pigeon Rocks" click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We had never really seen Mediterranean waves quite as high and forceful, but then we had never faced such consistently strong winter winds. The incessant and sometimes explosive pounding of the waves was an interesting background noise as we wandered through the streets that still show the effects of war. It was also a pleasant reminder of how beautiful and satisfying this seaside city will be when everything looks like the many new structures mixed in with the rest. click to view a photograph

Near the university, we stopped for some humus and mana-eesh to talk to Leila more about what brought her to Lebanon. Leila, of Palestinian heritage, is sensitive to and working to appease the plight of the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and around the Middle East. Her work, which keeps her in touch with the latest news from both inside the refugee camps and beyond the oceans, has made her even more aware of how strong her identification with Palestinians is. And of how desperately the world needs to turn its attention to solving a bitter problem that shows no sign of improvement.

After our snack, Leila took us to visit a friend, named Basel, at his family apartment, a lovely place packed with his mother's paintings and fronted by a lovely seaward-facing balcony. We chatted about the lives of young Lebanese in a city where things — conditions, roads, political emphases — are constantly changing. It is no easy task to build a base for one's own life in an environment where the foundations of new buildings are still being poured.

Basel then joined us when we returned to the street and made our way to a famous café called Modca click to view a photograph on the main thoroughfare through Hamra. We watched the street life and continued our chat about the city. Basel, a native of Beirut, and Leila helped us understand that, despite its size, Beirut is in many respects like a small town. Word of mouth spreads quickly and faces become familiar in almost no time. This was made abundantly clear to us when a friend of Basel's walked up and asked if we were the cyclists about whom he had already heard. And we hadn't even been in town for 24 hours!

At about 3:30 p.m., our group of four grew to seven. We were joined by yet another friend of a friend, Hadil (who had been on the lookout for us ever since we met her uncle earlier in our travels) and two of Hadil's visiting friends. Together we enjoyed a late afternoon of, yes, even more conversation about BikeAbout, Beirut, Lebanon, and the world. Who would have thought that we would meet so many people so quickly and have so much to learn so quickly in a place about which we had been so concerned?

By 6 p.m., we were back to four people and Basel thought it might be a nice idea to stop by his friend Peter's place. Peter writes for the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut, and has been living in Beirut for almost two years. Basel thought that Peter might be interested in doing a story about BikeAbout. So we knocked on his door and found him enjoying a dinner with his musician-composer friend, Cynthia. And the day of conversation continued with more insights and information about life in Beirut before, during, and after the war.

Finally, at around 10 p.m., Leila led the way back to her apartment and we all prepared to settle down. It had been a long day and our heads were bursting with information. But settling down on a festival night is not something that ever happens in Beirut! Just as we began unlacing our shoes, Leila received a call from a friend inviting her (and then us) to join him and his friends at his place for an Aid el-Fitr party. As in many households throughout the Arab world, parties/feasts were being held to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the period of respectful austerity it inspires.

A few minutes later, we were in a car being whisked through the darkness to enjoy more wonderful hours of warmth and hospitality. We were welcomed into a group of friends who extended to us their joy in song, dance, and feasting. And when in Beirut, one must do as the Beirut-ese do: We listened and danced to Lebanese and Syrian music (some very new songs and some very old), we ate like royalty, and we could not have had a better time. It was the perfect finish to a perfect Beirut day during which all our concerns about Beirut and Lebanon were either put to rest or properly informed. We felt ready to tackle the town with renewed interest and vigor (provided we could enjoy a full night's sleep, it was 3 a.m. before we headed to bed).

Due to the late hour, Ethan and Padraic joined Leila in crashing at the apartment of one of the friends at the party who lived closer than Leila did. We were exhausted and were asleep almost as soon as our heads hit our pillows.

The next day, still a holiday, was a lazy day. We had nothing pressing to do other than meet Peter back at his place and talk more about BikeAbout and the BikeAbout experience thus far. But that was set for 5 p.m., so we all slept blissfully late. When we did all finally achieve some degree of functional verticality, we gathered in the living room for some coffee.

After a first cup, the phone rang and lo and behold, it was Corinne calling from Cyprus. We had had a great deal of difficulty communicating with one another since they had had little or no access to phones and we had no access to phones with international dialing capability. It was good to connect with her and confirm that, after her accident, she was OK. We were also able to work through a plan for the coming weeks. Since we are all currently in countries where travel is hampered by political troubles, we agreed to split the Turkish itinerary between the two groups, thus making up for lost time and money. Corinne and andrEa would tackle the Aegean coast of Turkey, while Ethan and Padraic, once hopefully reunited with Anthony, would cover the Mediterranean coast. We hung up knowing that we might not speak again until late February when we planned to meet in Istanbul! It was strange to think that we would continue apart given how much the group has been together since September.

After this call, we all enjoyed more moving conversations about life in Lebanon and Beirut. Padraic and Ethan (and Leila, although to a different degree) were emotionally moved by difficult and touching accounts of life during the war. As young North Americans, we have never had to experience war the way many of the people in Beirut have. We have never had to face mortal danger on a daily basis, never been forced to do things for our friends, family, and neighbors that could result in our own or another's death. We have never really had to confront real hatred, in others or in ourselves, that is so overwhelming it results in a desire to kill. It is impossible for us to understand the devastation of war, how it affects every part of life — how, when, and where you eat and sleep, what thoughts you think, what friends you choose, what streets you cross and when, or where you aim your gun. It is impossible for us to imagine the true ramifications of what it means to give up your own life for your brothers and sisters or your children, or the kinds of extremes to which people will go, to which they will be pushed, when forced to face danger and death. If we have never huddled in the corner of a room while sniper fire has shattered every pane of window in the house, how can we imagine what this means? If we have never jumped from one side of a room to another as the floor collapses away from beneath us due to an exploding mortar, can we comprehend how it could change us? If we have never been targeted for death simply because we are of one religion or another, or of one political affiliation or another, or ready to speak for one group or another, how can we understand the folly and force of affiliation?

These are some of things about which we were asked to think. These are some of the true stories we heard from a variety of different people, young and old, who survived in situations that we are simply unable to comprehend. And it is all very sobering. It is horrible. It is the reality of war that we are lucky never to have experienced. It is the reality of life in a world where we must somehow labor never to have to experience it.

Just before 5 p.m., we all jumped into one of the thousands of "service" taxis that clutter the streets of Beirut. Right now, taxis are the most cost-effective way of getting around. While there are buses that follow fixed routes and are cheap (500 Lebanese pounds, or about $0.30), the traffic is more often at a standstill than it is rolling, and buses don't have set pick up or drop off points. As a result, they crawl along the edge of the road receiving and discharging passengers wherever they are. By contrast, taxis are not that much more expensive (1,000 Lebanese pounds for any ride to most places in the city), but much faster since they can go by any route they choose. This works to their advantage since they too gather and release passengers wherever and whenever possible. But they are still faster.

Anyway, the three of us hopped aboard a "service" taxi and headed back to Hamra where we went straight to Peter's. Sitting around his table in the kitchen, we started talking about BikeAbout but were soon sidetracked by a thousand other topics of equal relevance. And before we knew it, the evening was upon us and the hour was late.

Rather than indulge in another late night (both Padraic and Ethan are very out of practice in staying up late), we headed back to where we had spent the night last night, enjoyed more conversation, ate a delicious meal of something whose name we never really learned (see the Food of the Day) and turned in early. Another full night of sleep was what we needed since we were confident that the days ahead would be as full as the 48 hours we had already enjoyed beyond expectation.

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While, Corinne and andrEa have remained on Cyprus, and Ethan and Padraic are in Beirut, Anthony is biking in Syria:

topics: Ramadan, Omayyids, Islam, souqs, daily life, alphabets, Turkish bath; jump to dispatch


Rider Notes: January 29–31, 1998

Food of the Day: Ramadan dinner

For the last month or so, Ramadan (see the Tech Fact of the Day) has been celebrated in the Islamic world. One of the important tenets of Ramadan is that every day, during the period between sunrise and sundown, there can be no consumption of food or liquids. So, typically, a special meal, called assahor click to hear an audio clip, is eaten in the morning before sunrise and the fasting begins, and the evening "break" fast meal, called al iftar click to hear an audio clip is taken just after sunset.

If you think about it a little, fasting all day and then eating a huge evening meal is not the greatest of ideas (shrunken stomachs traumatized by the lack of food are suddenly forced to accommodate an inordinate amount). Fortunately, though, over the centuries, the typical Ramadan meal has evolved. The idea today is to help your body slowly reaccustom itself to the process of taking in food.

Shortly after his arrival in Damascus, Anthony was invited to a typical Ramadan al iftar meal by a friendly Syrian who helped him find his hotel. This meal is taken very seriously (we are after all talking about fasting and food — both very serious subjects that Anthony takes seriously even when it isn't Ramadan!) and as Anthony walked into the restaurant, the first thing he noticed was that all the tables were already set. Apparently, having the tables already set is pretty normal during Ramadan. Every chair had a place setting waiting and ready, and there were glasses of juice and water for each person, as well as an abundant supply of pickles and a tabouleh salad. Most of the chairs were already filled, so Anthony and his friend Mohammed squeezed in next to two other men. (That was another thing strange about the meal: Everyone in the restaurant was male!) Often restaurants set up special tables in the streets or build tents outside to house all the extra people that come for dinner. And you usually sit wherever there is room; this can mean sitting next to strangers (they do not remain strangers for long, however, as everyone starts talking and joking).

The strangest thing of all for Anthony was taking a seat at the table . . . and then not doing anything. Imagine being surrounded by food while no one makes an effort to begin eating. Anthony quickly learned that everyone was waiting for the sunset — the official end of the day's fasting period — before beginning the meal. Everyone also seemed to have a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other; during Ramadan, it is forbidden to smoke while the sun is up, and all the addicts wanted to make sure that they did not loose a moment!

Since this particular evening was the end of the month of Ramadan and the beginning of al Aid (see the Tech Fact of the Day), Anthony heard a lot of the waiting men saying Kol a'am wa antom be chayr click to hear an audio clip and Kol saneh wa anto salmeen click to hear an audio clip, both of which are special "end of Ramadan" phrases. The first is the more classical phrase, while the second is more popular, although both basically mean "I wish you good health every year."

Suddenly there was a great shout (there is an announcement over the radio when the sun has officially set) and the feeding frenzy commenced (at least, that is for those that were not nicotine addicts). Actually, to Anthony's surprise, the feeding frenzy did NOT commence. As previously mentioned, it is important to start slowly after a day of fasting and so everyone started by drinking the glass of juice waiting in front of him. It was a delicious tamarind juice. After it was gone, everyone nibbled on the tabouleh salad. After a brief pause, the waiters then finally filed out with the first course (the entire restaurant is served the same meal at the same time) which was a plate of barak (small deep-fried pastries containing either cheese or meat). After another appropriate amount of time, the next course arrived, namoura, which was a delightful pastry, filled with a custard-like substance and pistachios and then covered with honey. With taste buds reeling from this delicious start to the meal, Anthony eagerly awaited the next course, a delicate cream of squash soup that left him anything but disappointed. Next the "break"-fasters moved on to the main course, a choice between lamb kebab and kofta. Already getting dangerously full, Anthony was presented with yet another plate of namoura, followed by the coup de grace: another glass of ice-cold tamarind juice.

Throughout the entire meal, the diners talked and laughed (and some of them smoked like chimneys). They all thought that it was great that Anthony was traveling by bike and they asked him all sorts of questions about biking and about the current (personal social) troubles in which his president seems to be caught.

Word of the Day: Ba-red — "cool"

If you listen carefully when you are hanging out with a bunch of Arab-speaking friends, you will occasionally hear the word ba-red click to hear an audio clip, which is used in the same sense that "cool" is in English. For example, "We think Jackie Chan is ba-red."

Tech Fact of the Day: Ramadan

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, the four being: the profession of faith, the five daily prayers, the payment of zakat [a tithe], and the pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca.

Ramadan is officially the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and was created so that believers could "cultivate piety." The ninth month was chosen because it was during this month that Mohammed received the first of the Koran's revelations. The fast begins each day at dawn and ends with the setting of the sun. During the day, it is forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke. Exceptions are made for people suffering from diabetes, or who are otherwise too ill or weak to fast. Traditionally, special passages are read from the Koran before retiring each night.

For followers of Islam, Ramadan is a special time often devoted to family gatherings. Business hours frequently change as people go home early to prepare for the "break"-fast meal and to be with their families.

Immediately after Ramadan, there is a three- or four-day celebration called el Aid or Aid el-Fitr. El Aid is a celebration of the end of Ramadan, and is also spent with relatives. Gifts are exchanged and people visit with kin they might not get a chance to see during the rest of the year. During this holiday, practically all businesses and government institutions are closed.

Person of the Day: Hussam click to view a photograph

Hussam is one of those kind souls that all travelers count themselves lucky to meet. He has worked in the Al Maramain Hotel for the last several months and is a veritable font of information about Damascus, Syria, and Lebanon. Without his help, Anthony would have undoubtedly lost untold amounts of time trying to figure things out. Anthony's helmet comes off to this kind soul.

Place of the Day: Omayyid Mosque

The Omayyid Mosque was built in 705 BC during the Omayyid Dynasty. At this time, Damascus had reached the pinnacle of its power and influence. (For more history, check out a brief history of Syria.) The builders of the Omayyid Mosque (constructed on the site of ancient temples and a Christian cathedral) intended it to be the biggest and best mosque ever, and even today, it is quite spectacular. It was based on early Christian church design, and is thus called a basilica-style mosque. The Omayyid Mosque set the standard for almost all of the mosques we have seen throughout the Mediterranean (with the exception of those in Turkey). It is characterized by an enlarged prayer hall topped by a flat-roofed nave supported by rows of columns and rounded arches.

Having enduring several disasters over the years, including a particularly devastating fire this last century, the mosque remains a beautiful example of Arab architecture.

The minarets of the mosque date from the original construction click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, but perhaps the most impressive part of the mosque is the mosaic work that decorates one end of the interior courtyard and the main entrance to the main prayer hall. click to view a photograph The mosaics are a beautiful gold color and depict various scenes from the countryside and from everyday life. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Group Dispatch (Syria), January 29–31

picture of Anthony

In a sense, Anthony has been stuck in Damascus for the last three days. Well, this is not exactly true. He did arrive (by bus) with a bike and, in theory, could have left anytime he wanted, but there is a reason for his inertia. Anthony's original plan was to have spent two days in Damascus before heading to Beirut and biking up the coast back into Syria and eventually onward to Turkey. Fortunately, Hussam (see the Person of the Day ) warned Anthony that he would need a reentry visa if he intended to return to Syria from Lebanon. Since the only land passage out of Lebanon is through Syria, this was most excellent advice.

But there was a problem: Ramadan, or rather, the end of Ramadan (see the Tech Fact of the Day). During el Aid, the three-day celebration at the end of Ramadan, everything shuts down, especially government offices. Since Anthony arrived on Thursday, the last night of Ramadan, he had to wait until Sunday before the reopening of the appropriate government office where he could obtain a reentry visa.

So what does one do in a famous Muslim city when the streets are empty and all the businesses are closed? For starter, he follows the lead of the locals. It seemed like everyone who was out was taking it easy, dropping into cafés to sit and talk with friends, seeing movies, wandering around the old city where there were still a few shops open, eating ice cream, munching on shwarma sandwiches, and basically just hanging out. So Anthony hung out, ate lots of ice cream, visited a hammam, had a shave, saw a movie, drank an untold amount of coffee, and walked and walked and walked everywhere. Over a three-day period, he managed to stumble across a few ancient sites, historic sights, and museums that were open and make new friends from Syria, Holland, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and Denmark. In the end, it was quite an event-filled three days.

Damascus is the sort of place where you can walk for days and feel like you still have not seen everything. Elements of its past seem to be hidden around every corner, whether it is a Roman arch on Via Rectus (literally the "Straight Street" of Bible fame) click to view a photograph, or the remains of the western gate of the Roman Temple of Jupiter. click to view a photograph To those who are persistent in pursuit of its secrets, Damascus can be very rewarding.

But some things can't be escaped. Again and again, Anthony kept finding himself returning to the Souq of Hamadiyyeh. The entrance to the souq yawns like a giant mouth just to the side of the citadel, on the edge of the old city, where Roman walls once loomed. click to view a photograph The main street through the souq has an arched ceiling suspended 11 meters (35 feet) above. In many ways the Souq of Hamadiyyeh was like other markets we have visited. The gold shops were, of course, open, their windows piled high with enough gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and pins to make a pirate's treasure chest look tattered and empty in comparison. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Entrepreneurs took advantage of the fact that most stores were closed during el Aid and set up makeshift shops on the sidewalk, spreading their wares on blankets. Almost anything your heart desires can be found in these "portable" stores.

Hungry or thirsty? (Anthony was, especially since he walked around so much.) Pop into the one of the many ice cream shops where they make the unique Syrian product on the premises. The ice cream is actually cut, like taffy, from huge vats and then rolled in pistachios. click to view a photograph Maybe you don't want ice cream (although we find this hard to believe). You can try sahaleb, which is a hot vanilla pudding, or mehalabe, which is a cold custard served with blanched almonds and a maraschino cherry! Of course, you could always have a shwarma sandwich. click to view a photograph And don't forget to stop for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. In Damascus, the last orange squeezed is always a blood orange so the orange juice has a reddish tint! click to view a photograph

Eaten enough and no longer thirsty? How about seeing a movie? In the newer part of Damascus, there are plenty of movie theaters that were very busy during el Aid. Movie marquees hung over the streets displaying larger-than-life action-scene depictions. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Action movies seemed to be particularly popular and Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude van Damme seem to be perennial favorites. And just in case the movie marquees were not enough to persuade you, often the movie theaters have a section where they show still photographs taken from the movie. click to view a photograph This way you can be assured that there will be enough action in the movie to warrant plopping down your hard-earned cash. Plus, if there is a bit of time before the movie starts you could test your strength in the street in front of the theater. You and your friends could take turns trying to slide a weighted cart up a ramp — the stronger you are, the more weight you have to slide. click to view a photograph There are also other games of chance and skill set up for you to try your luck.

Had enough pop culture? The National Museum is an interesting place to spend the afternoon. As you can imagine, in a city that claims to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, the museum is packed full of exhibits. There are so many items on display that some of them have spilled out into the gardens click to view a photograph (including a 12-foot [4-meter] stone lion!). click to view a photograph Almost everything in the museum is from various excavation sites around Syria. There are so many different excavation sites, it is easy to feel like all of Syria is under excavation.

One of the more interesting exhibits that Anthony saw was a display of clay tablets imprinted in cuneiform (from the Latin word, cuneus, for wedge), the first known alphabet. During the Bronze Age (19–18 century BC), the world's earliest civilizations, the Sumerians, gathered their scattered communities at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (the site of modern Baghdad) and built walled cities. Using reeds and pressing into clay tablets wedge-shaped (or cuneiform) characters, the art of writing was born. click to view a photograph Often an identifying seal was pressed into the tablets. click to view a photograph This served as a signature so that the reader knew who sent the "letter." Incidentally, the Sumerians also developed a numerical system based on 60. Does this sound familiar?

Anthony also discovered that the National Museum itself was an exhibit. During the Omayyid Empire, 36 different castles were built throughout the Damascus countryside and Syrian Desert. All were destroyed except for the Qasr al-Heir al-Garbi Omayyid, which was relocated to Damascus and now forms the core of the National Museum. The entrance to the museum is the old entrance to the castle, and inside the general layout of the castle is still evident. click to view a photograph

The Azem Palace is another, albeit a little surreal, must-see sight of Damascus. Former residence of As'ad Pasha al-Azem, Governor of Damascus, the palace was constructed in 1749. Today, its various rooms contain exhibits depicting what life was like in ancient Syria. The palace is a little surreal because each room contains mannequins dressed in traditional clothing and placed in typical situations of Syrian life. There was a typical café, a seed roaster click to view a photograph, leather workers, glass blowers click to view a photograph, etc. The courtyard of the palace contained a beautiful garden and the white-and-basalt layered construction of the palace added to the charm. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

No visit to Damascus would be complete with out a visit to the Omayyid Mosque (see the Place of the Day), which is also the final resting place of Salah ad-Din).

Finally, wrapping up a long visit, Anthony stopped in at the Hammam Nureddin for a bath. This was a slightly more extravagant experience than Anthony was used to. First he was given a sheet to wrap around himself and clogs to put on his feet. Next he was led to the sauna, which was very much like saunas you might see in North America — cedar-wood walls and a very hot radiator upon which you throw water to increase the steam heat in the room. After warming up in the sauna, Anthony was brought to the cold water "dunk" tank, where he cooled off before heading to the "scratch and soap room." Here he was rubbed down, first with a rough cloth (not unlike sandpaper) and then with a soapy cloth. Next it was the massage, given by Mohammed — a mountain of a man, even when compared to Anthony. He devoted 20 minutes to Anthony's body, and even spent extra time massaging Anthony's sore and tired calves and thighs. Then it was time for the "really hot room." How hot was it? Well, it was so full of steam that it was impossible to see more than one yard (one meter) into the room. It was so hot that, in order to enter, Anthony had to bend over and run in, keeping away from the supercharged air that hung in the top half of the room. Gasping, wheezing, struggling to hold himself upright, Anthony could only tolerate the "super hot room" for about five minutes. Any longer and he was afraid that the fillings in his teeth would start to melt. With a sigh of relief, he returned to the regular sauna. A final, cold shower and the cleansing part of the bath was finished.

Returning to the dressing area, Anthony was given a dry sheet to wrap around himself. A new towel was draped over his shoulders, while another was wrapped turban style around his head. When he sat down, yet another towel was draped over his legs. Barely able to move, completely clean, scrubbed, steamed, massaged, and relaxed, Anthony sipped his tea and wondered how life could possibly get more civilized.

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While Ethan and Padraic are in Beirut, and Anthony is in Syria, Corinne and andrEa have remained on Cyprus:

topics: wildlife, bike safety, diving; jump to dispatch


Rider Notes: January 29–February 1, 1998

Word of the Day: Endexi — "OK"

Endexi, or dax, are two versions of the same word, which in Cypriot Greek means "OK."

Person of the Day: Captain Paris Elefnoui

Captain Paris Elefnoui click to view a photograph runs the Dolphin Diving Centers in Larnaka and Paphos (see the Place of the Day), and heads a rescue team for the many kinds of accidents that happen on the Mediterranean. He has been a life-saving rescuer since he was 15 years old. During one rescue four years ago of scuba divers lost exploring the Mediterranean's largest wreck, Paris suffered a year-long paralysis from bringing the only surviving victim to the surface too quickly. After a miraculous recovery, he's back on the scene, moonlighting as a dive instructor, parachuting, and karate for the armed forces in Cyprus. Captain Paris lives just a few meters from Christos, so we frequently wandered down the road to hang around with him and at his place. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Place of the Day: Paphos visit the World Heritage Site page

Paphos figures on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites visit the World Heritage Site page, thanks to the remains of ancient royal and religious structures of great historical and architectural importance. This hilly town at the base of the Akamas Peninsula was once the capital of Cyprus, and is important in Greek mythology as a site of worship of Aphrodite, who was reputedly born on the island.

Group Dispatch (Cyprus), January 29–February 1

picture of Corinne

Once we were able to talk with Ethan and Padraic in Lebanon, and make a collective decision about how to split up the route to Istanbul among the group, we finally had a plan. The boys will bike as much as possible from Lebanon to Marmarsin (Turkey), and bus the remaining distance to Istanbul. The ladies will simultaneously take a boat from Cyprus to the Greek Island of Rhodes, take another ferry across to Marmarsin and bike up the western coast Turkish coast to Istanbul. It all sounded dax to us.

However, the ferries are much less frequent in the winter due to fewer tourists and rougher waters, so we would have to wait another week before leaving Cyprus. Which meant we were faced with the question of where to stay for this next week, as the people at the Amnesty International office in Nicosia had done their part in hosting us. It was time to move on. Corinne was sitting and pondering this very question when the answer loped through the door: Christos, the climbing instructor who had earlier helped Corinne recuperate from her injuries. He immediately invited us to spend our extended stay in Cyprus at his flat in Paphos (see the Place of the Day), on the western end of the island.

Ready for a new town, and knowing it was time to test Corinne's biking ability after the accident, we decided this offer sounded grand for our "down time." Plus, we knew we wanted to make the ride past the Forest of Missing Persons, despite not being able to find the forest itself. click to view a photograph

We returned the 85 km (53 mi) to Limassol on our bikes, where Nicolas — yet another pal of Christos' — took the bikes and us the remaining 65 km (40 mi) to Paphos. While we had taken the A1 highway into Limassol this time click to view a photograph, the road to Paphos quickly becomes quite narrow and congested — very difficult for bike touring. The Akamas coast and forest, however, is a great spot for biking, hiking, and spotting wildlife, since it is a migratory stopover for many birds from Europe. It's also the home of the endangered Akamas green turtle, which is threatened by continued tourist development along the coast where they swim, live, nest, and hatch their young. More information about the plight of endangered species of the Mediterranean can be found on the Web site and in the newsletters of GreenPeace Mediterranean.

When we met up again with Christos in Paphos, he was on his way out the door. click to view a photograph He is very busy setting up the Greek Island Diving School with Nicolas. Because his home was 100% bachelor pad, Corinne spent much of her time tidying. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph But it turned out Christos wouldn't be in his flat for most of the week! He simply trusted us with his place, and put us in the care (and under the watchful eye) of his good friend, Captain Paris (see the Person of the Day).

We have a few days in Paphos though, so we'll see what it brings before we depart to Rhodes once and for all.

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