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Archive for July, 2009

Police

I had four encounters with the police in Syria, all of them bizarre. The first time I was introduced to their funny ways, they stopped in their car while I was walking on the road and asked me for my passport. That’s a bit unfriendly but not particularly surprising, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much they didn’t look like police. There were five of them, two carrying machine guns, one wearing a towel round his head (they have taken up neckerchief fashion round here quite keenly) and the other two doing the talking. None of them had uniforms and the car was a battered rusty old non-police car. What they looked like was, in fact, terrorists. My first reaction was to go a bit shaky and then I asked for some ID which completely baffled them but eventually one of the talkers produced a laminated piece of paper with some Arabic writing on it which he claimed said Police. That totally didn’t convince me, but they he said “Please?” and that made me think they probably were police so I gave them my passport. A quick look, a quick phone call and they were on their way. I asked someone about it later and he said “What, you want them to go out and buy costumes?” and I said “Um, yes” and he said Pff as if that was a totally unnecessary and namby-pambyish thing to do. He didn’t think I’d been terrorised at all.

The second time I was staying with someone and he got off the phone and said “I need to take your passport to the police.” so naturally I said “My eye you do!” but he insisted and eventually persuaded me to hand it over. Apparently the policeman heard about me but couldn’t be bothered to come and find me to hassle me so he did it remotely through my host.

The third time was the most bizarre. Someone by the road in a tent hailed me over for some tea. I went. A little later another guy came and sat down. He said after a little while “Bassfor” which I pretended not to understand so he said “Police, Bassfor” and so I said “Yes yes, I have one” and then when he carried on insisting (Bassfor is Arabic for Passport), I made him show me his ID which he did, incredibly grudgingly, and it was the same yellow as the other one I’d seen so I believed him. Then he wanted a photocopy and I was glad to be able to tell him that since we were several kilometers from the nearest town and I was walking, he couldn’t have one. He tried to persuade me to get on his motorbike (non-police) and I refused but it took quite a while to persuade him. A few minutes down the road and I found him talking to an American guy on a bike who was similarly unconvinced that he should hand over his papers. I told him I thought it was ok and the police once again tried to persuade me to get on his bike. Then he told us to carry on, but we wanted to talk to each other, so we sat down in the shade. The policeman huffily drove off. Then he came back. And he just sat there next to us getting more and more impatient. Eventually he was sitting on his motorbike with the engine on, beeping his horn to get us to move and when I once again refused to get on his bike he couldn’t believe it. He drove off. He came back. He tried to get me on his bike again. He drove off. He came back. He showed me the photocopy of David’s passport. He kissed me on the cheek, he blew kisses at me, he grabbed my arm and pulled me onto his bike. I wriggled free and carried on walking. For the next two or three hours he reappeared about ten times, every time suggesting that I get on his bike. I stopped for tea with two different people and he invited himself along both times. When I got to his town he drove along next to me and shouted at anyone who tried to talk to me so I’d get to the photocopier sooner. I really thought that when he had his photocopy he’d leave me alone but he didn’t. It was quite dark by the time I persuaded him to stop following me around and to do that I had to be quite stern.

Quite late that night I met a guy who said I could stay at his house, which was nice because finding a campsite in the dark is a drag. I went to his house and ate some food and then I noticed that my host (a 25 year old guy) was crying about something and the more I ate the more I began to suspect that I was the cause of some problem. It turned out that the police had phoned his father (whose house it was) and warned him not to take me in, and although it wasn’t against the law, he would have had to put up with a load of questioning the next day if I stayed. Or, probably, he had to anyway. That confused me because I knew the police by this stage, and had been kissed by him several times and he had insisted that his hounding me was for my safety and peace. Apparently it wasn’t exactly the police who had interfered but something which is ironically called “The Intelligence”. Goodness knows what the Intelligence thought I was going to do, but thanks to them I slept on a patch of dirt outside town instead of in a room.

Kit

  • My boots have now got holes in both sides of both feet which means that the sweat can get out, so it’s good.
  • My shirt which Annie gave me has a few small holes here and there but has resisted incredibly well considering I have worn it almost non-stop for more than 6 months now.
  • I lost my rosary and my statistics beads disasterously, but luckily someone gave me some more. I think before I left I had probably said the Hail Mary less than 50 times in my life and now I think I have said it more than 10,000 times. That’s from saying a rosary every day for about 200 days, though these days I use Muslim beads which makes me feel like a bit of a rebel.
  • My tent is still intact though less used these days. My stick is the envy of everyone who likes sticks.
  • I’ve read The Pilgrim’s Progress and I’m reading it again. It’s excellent, I’d recommend it. All the characters are called things like Piety or Honest (goodies) and Worldly Wiseman or Simple (baddies) and at one point Faithful says about Talkative “You would as soon trust a Turk as trust him” which was a cool thing to read in Turkey.
  • I still have the candle from the Romanian Gypsies which I’m to light in the Orthodox church and the page from Ghislain’s Saint’s book which he tore out for me.
  • Since coming to Turkey I have very rarely carried any food with me. People don’t really offer it to me to take away and there’s not really any need for it since there are always other people inviting me for a meal.

Monastaries

Nacho and Pilar, these two Spanish pilgrims I met (and if you’d like to read even more, put this address into google translate) taught me about staying in monastaries and told me where to look. In Syria I stayed in four monastaries and on one church roof. The Jesuits in Homs were totally unvisited and seemed to have real lives outside the monastary which was more of a commune really. The huge convent in Saydnaya had maybe 1000 visitors a day, swarming the place in coachloads. I spent an entertaining half hour talking to one of the nuns there who, between dashing off to fix the water problems and yelling “La wehn?” which means “Where do you think you’re going?” at any of the orphans who tried to sneak out and answering a million questions from pretty much everyone, told me off for going to the mosque. It was Friday when I spoke to her and as it happened I’d been to an Orthodox mass in the morning, Friday nammas in some mosque at lunchtime and Orthodox vespers in the evening. She also told me off for being a Protestant because we don’t love Mary. She was cool.

Jews

One of the monks I came across asked me where I was going and then he said “Don’t say Jerusalem, say Jordan. People will know you’re going to Jerusalem, but don’t say it.” I ignored his advice, but I have definitely come across some hostility because I’m going to Israel. “Do you recognise Israel?” is a question someone asked me and most people say “Ah. Philistine” when I tell them Jerusalem, as if Israel doesn’t exist. I began to think that if I was a Jew I might have had quite a different experience in the Muslim world, but I’m glad to say that David, the American guy, said that everyone was nice to him. They always say “Jews, Christians, Muslims – brothers” like they say to me.

Jordan

As well as the preposterously large $52 visa for Syria, they also stung me with a leaving tax. What the heck is that? Leaving tax my foot. It was another $12, which left me five quid short for the Jordan visa. Luckily Jordan is a friendly country so I could say “I’m going to Jerusalem and I don’t have enough money for a visa and can I camp in the border because I’m tired?” and instead of booting me out, they said Wilcom Wilcom, someone gave me the fiver I needed and I slept on the pavement outside the police building, stamped visa in my passport and totally legal. Jerusalem in… a week? I’m almost there.

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Route

My map of Syria is rubbish and so is Googlemaps, and I can’t read Arabic so my route through Syria is both a guess and in English which will probably disappoint almost everyone.

  • Reyhanli
  • Bab Al Hawha
  • Idlib
  • Maarrat an Numan
  • Khan Shaykhun
  • Hama
  • Homs
  • Shinshar
  • Qara where there’s a cool monastary
  • Maalula where there’s a couple of cool monastaries
  • Seydnaya where there’s a couple of cool monastaries
  • Damascus
  • Khan Dannun
  • Ghabaqhuib
  • Shaykh Miskin
  • Dara’a where I am now.

I know for a fact that I’ve been through towns which are mentioned on neither map, but that’s what you get.

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This is the family who were hosting Andre. Notice how there are two wives where normally youd find only one.

This is the family who were hosting Andre. Notice how there are two wives where normally you'd find only one.

The mighty Andre with his Hazel stick, becalmed in Turkey

The mighty Andre with his Hazel stick, becalmed in Turkey

Nacho, who turned out to be an orthopodiatriast. With one sumo chop and a massive crack, all my back problems were fixed. Actually he told me to do a bunch of stretches and see a doctor. Rubbish.

Nacho, who turned out to be an orthopodiatriast. With one sumo chop and a massive crack, all my back problems were fixed. Actually he told me to do a bunch of stretches and see a doctor. Rubbish.

This guy gave me the rest of the $52 I needed and another $19 just because it said $70 on my sign. I had all the money I needed before Id finished breakfast. Good old Turks.

This guy gave me the rest of the $52 I needed and another $19 just because it said $70 on my sign. I had all the money I needed before I'd finished breakfast. Good old Turks.

Cool sign. Notice how Arabic writing looks like English letters hiding in a bath. Occasionally one of the letters droops an arm or a dot over the edge so you can have a guess at what it might be, but mostly theyre hidden.

Cool sign. Notice how Arabic writing looks like English letters hiding in a bath. Occasionally one of the letters droops an arm or a dot over the edge so you can have a guess at what it might be, but mostly they're hidden.

This total nutcase broke through the language barrier by showing me his pistol (notice his pistol). I tried to say Why have you got a pistol? and he responded by showing me his AK which was in his car along with another massive gun and an ammo jacket. All loaded, just in case war breaks out suddenly or something.

This total nutcase broke through the language barrier by showing me his pistol (notice his pistol). I tried to say "Why have you got a pistol?" and he responded by showing me his AK which was in his car along with another massive gun and an ammo jacket. All loaded, just in case war breaks out suddenly or something.

The Orthodox Church roof in Homs. Complete with two wooden beds which presumably stay there all summer, ready for vagrants and the like. (Me)

The Orthodox Church roof in Homs. Complete with two wooden beds which presumably stay there all summer, ready for vagrants and the like. (Me)

My constant companion in Syria - a massive pile of effluent. Surely theres a better solution.

My constant companion in Syria - a massive pile of effluent. Surely there's a better solution.

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The contents of my snack sack somewhere in Hungary. Eggs, bread, cheese, three different types of smoked fat, two types of sausage and a mug of tea.

The contents of my snack sack somewhere in Hungary. Eggs, bread, cheese, three different types of smoked fat, two types of sausage and a mug of tea.

I thought it might make a good header photo

I thought it might make a good header photo

Spring in Romania

Spring in Romania

Obviously it was breathtakingly stunning at the time... notice the cow.

Obviously it was breathtakingly stunning at the time... notice the cow.

They gave me a bottle of tsuika to take with me

They gave me a bottle of tsuika to take with me

The Hungarian vicar who lives in a Hungarian town in Romania (Tormac)

The Hungarian vicar who lives in a Hungarian town in Romania (Tormac)

I was given this meal in an Orthodox Monastry. Potatoes, garlic and bread. They thought they were giving me something rubbish because it had no meat, but I actually liked it because it was hot. Ha.

I was given this meal in an Orthodox Monastry on Good Friday. Potatoes, garlic and bread. They thought they were giving me something rubbish because it had no meat, but I actually liked it because it was hot. Ha. Some cool icons are almost visible in the background/

This is even more wildlife, this time disguising itself cunningly in an urban environment. Spot the riverbird.

This is even more wildlife, this time disguising itself cunningly in an urban environment. Spot the riverbird.

Easter Sunday at 1am. The main priest and his two subordinates wave candles while everyone else crowds round in the town square.

Easter Sunday at 1am. The main priest and his two subordinates wave candles while everyone else crowds round in the town square.

As soon as Abi left I was taken to this scene of outstanding natural beauty.

As soon as Abi left I was taken to this scene of outstanding natural beauty.

Me feasting with Yoto and his family.

Me feasting with Yoto and his family.

Another family of friendly gypsies who I stayed with, posing by the house theyd built.

Another family of friendly gypsies who I stayed with, posing by the house they'd built.

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Eggs and Chickens
If you’re following my journey with mild detached curiosity you might have the idea that I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve done some calculating and also some chicken counting and I reckon I’m pretty much almost there. I’m definitely on the home straight, that’s certain, and I think it’s all flat and a total breeze from now on and maybe there’s a touch of desert in the way and some border controls but to all that I say Ptsch and I think I’ll be in Jerusalem in three weeks or so. Now I’m in Homs or Hims or Hummus or something which means I’m already on the second half of my Syrian map.

Syrians
But you’re probably wondering what Syrians are like and there’s me not telling you. They’re like this – last time I wrote I had been anxiously looking for a place with the internet which do exist in this country but are sparse and well hidden and so when someone stopped in his car and said Is there anything I can do to help you? I said I was looking for the internet and I doubted that he could help with that and he said Here’s a map to my shop in this town, we have the internet there, you can have some tea etc. So I went there and Lo, the whole place was in the grip of a power cut and after an hour or so I reckoned that I could probably get to the next city before they fixed their electricity problems and I left. After not finding the internet a million times in all the places where I’d expect to find it in any other country (including a place called Future Technologies, but maybe the internet will get obsoleted in the Future) another person stopped in his car and gave me a packet of biscuits and asked if he could help in any way. He then drew a map to his pharmacy and when I got there he asked if I was hungry and bought me a whole roast chicken and a pile of flat bread things and some hummus and salad and it was the kind of meal that would be sold as a Family Meal Deal in KFC or somewhere except it didn’t come with 2 litres of Coke but instead about 1 litre of tea. And they had electricity. Also what the Syrians are like is this – in Turkey I was constantly being waved over to someone so they could give me tea or whatever and here it happens even more. I’ve been walking down the main (only) motorway from Aleppo to Damascus which conveniently has another local road running next to it most of the time which has no traffic on it. Yesterday I spent a good portion of the day walking on the hard shoulder despite the available much safer and nicer road because I’m simply not able to avoid the constant barrage of good intentions. Everyone is insistant that I need a rest or if not that I come over and talk to them anyway. I’ve worked out that they’re normally happy if I sit down for a few seconds and then get up and go but all that stopping and starting, I just don’t have the energy. So I’ve been hiding on the motorway. Here’s another thing they’re like – when they’ve finished eating something which came in a packet, they fling the packet into the air in the manner of a Romanian, meaning that the whole place (specially the places I’ve been to along the motorway) is filthy. And another thing they’re like is that twice someone has given me a drink or something from their shop and then when I’ve drunk it they’ve tried to charge me for it. It’s surprisingly like Romania in some ways except you can’t draw an easy racial line between the good guys and the bad guys.

Caffeine and Nicotine
Tea is different here. They still drink tonnes of it but instead of having two teapots they only have one. Weird. And instead of me having control over how much sugar goes in, they put the sugar directly into the teapot. And instead of there being a normal amount of sugar, there’s absolutely loads. Coffee is different too. Instead of coffee being nice, it tastes of acorns. The first time I had it I thought they’d run out but were too embarrassed to admit it because they gave me a tiny little droplet of coffee in the bottom of my cup. Then they poured another similar measure for everyone else and I realised that it was only possible to drink it in shots because it’s so foul. It tastes like acorns but because it’s so strong the overall experience is like being punched in the mouth by a massive acorn. I have about one or two shots a day.
When I was staying with the internet guys (I stayed with them as well) they said Do you like Sheesha? and I said Hmm yeah, it’s nice and then one of them turned round and disappeared and I thought Oh no, they’re going to make a whole sheesha just because of me and I’m actually quite tired and would be just as happy without. The main guy then produced a sheesha and started preparing it and then produced another one and I thought Woah! Two sheeshas. Cool. And then the guy who had disappeared came back and he had a third sheesha and there were only four of us. Apparently here, if you smoke a sheesha then you smoke the whole lot by yourself. Something I’ve never done before and something I’ve done twice this week.

IBS
If my bowel can be compared to (and I think it can) a World War One bomber squadron whose mission is to take out the German porcelaine factories, then I sometimes get these messages:

  • What Ho, HQ! Biffy Atherton here with Colon Company. Hate to bother you at teatime, but looks like we could be running into a spot of bother. Jerry’s seen us coming and he’s putting up a bit of a fight. I imagine we’ll bluster through it but if it’s no trouble to send some back-up, well, you know. Hate to bother you. Love to Helen.
  • What Ho, HQ! Sweaty Blakelock and Clench Dalrymple have just arrived. Sterling chaps, specially old Clench, showing the Hun a thing or two I can tell you. Shouldn’t wonder we’ll have no more bother. Love to Helen. Toodle pip.
  • I say HQ! Bit of a setback. Jerry’s redoubled his efforts and we’re quite put to it. Clench doing his best, Sweaty all over the place. Not sure how long we can hold out. Could manoever better without the cargo. Suggest we drop bombs when convenient and beetle off.
  • HQ! Demmit, Fairclough’s hit. Taken one in the wing, poor blighter. Showing admirable grit but spinning like a top. Strongly suggest he drops his load before it goes off in the hold. Awaiting instructions.
  • HQ – Atherton – Fairclough down – no expolsion God knows how – hard put to it – Bosch everywhere – suggest we drop bombs asap – DEM! – … – Demmit HQ – … – I’m hit – landing gear shot – losing some blood – stiff upper lip – no use making a fuss – tell Miranda, Toodle Pip – Love to Helen – … …

I mention it because with traditional IBS I get this series of messages once every so often when I’m not expecting it and getting over neutral territory isn’t necessarily very easy. At the moment and for the last couple of weeks Biffy’s been constantly scrapping with Jerry so I’ve ramped up my defence accordingly. Now I rarely walk without lav roll or water and I keep my eye out for places with a bog or some trees or something. So really, having constantly liquid out-goings isn’t much of a hardship. I also mention it because I don’t believe I ever give enough credit to my innards who put up with a huge amount of abuse and maltreatment and who deal with it with utmost phlegm. Last night, for example, I passed a movement which was certainly the consistancy but also, I think, the colour of water. Now it is as if nothing happened and I’m ready to walk again.

Motorbikes
When I got to Romania I wrote in my book under the title Things I’ve Seen In Romania, ‘Three children on a motorbike’. I now wonder about how that could have made any impression on me. I am often offered lifts by people on motorbikes, more than once by two people on a single motorbike. Yesterday I thought I saw five people on a bike but as they drove off I doubted myself. Then later I definitely saw six people. Six people on one motorbike. Two parents and four (pretty small) children in this order: Wife, child, child, father, child, child – the last of which was fairly well squashed against the handlebars.

Arabic
Turkey was so big that I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to learn a totally new language with a different alphabet from scratch by complete immersion. It’s getting easier. The best place to start is with hostile border police when you have a complicated and stupid history to tell them. I have since discovered that there are a bunch of Turkish words which are Arabic, so I have a sneaky headstart. But really this country’s so small that I’m not sure I can be bothered to put much effort into it. I’ll be out of here in a week or two.

The first bit of Syria
If you’re following my journey with mild detached curiosity you might have the idea that I’ve got a long way to go.

I’ve done some calculating and also some chicken counting and I reckon I’m pretty much almost there. I’m definitely

on the home straight, that’s certain, and I think it’s all flat and a total breeze from now on and maybe there’s a

touch of desert in the way and some border controls but to all that I say Ptsch and I think I’ll be in Jerusalem in

three weeks or so. Now I’m in Homs or Hims or Hummus or something which means I’m already on the second half of my

Syrian map.

But you’re probably wondering what Syrians are like and there’s me not telling you. They’re like this – last time I

wrote I had been anxiously looking for a place with the internet which do exist in this country but are sparse and

well hidden and so when someone stopped in his car and said Is there anything I can do to help you? I said I was

looking for the internet and I doubted that he could help with that and he said Here’s a map to my shop in this

town, we have the internet there, you can have some tea etc. So I went there and Lo, the whole place was in the

grip of a power cut and after an hour or so I reckoned that I could probably get to the next city before they fixed

their electricity problems and I left. After not finding the internet a million times in all the places where I’d

expect to find it in any other country (including a place called Future Technologies, but maybe the internet will

get obsoleted in the Future) another person stopped in his car and gave me a packet of biscuits and asked if he

could help in any way. He then drew a map to his pharmacy and when I got there he asked if I was hungry and bought

me a whole roast chicken and a pile of flat bread things and some hummus and salad and it was the kind of meal that

would be sold as a Family Meal Deal in KFC or somewhere except it didn’t come with 2 litres of Coke but instead

about 1 litre of tea. And they had electricity. Also what the Syrians are like is this – in Turkey I was constantly

being waved over to someone so they could give me tea or whatever and here it happens even more. I’ve been walking

down the main (only) motorway from Aleppo to Damascus which conveniently has another local road running next to it

most of the time which has no traffic on it. Yesterday I spent a good portion of the day walking on the hard

shoulder despite the available much safer and nicer road because I’m simply not able to avoid the constant barrage

of good intentions. Everyone is insistant that I need a rest or if not that I come over and talk to them anyway.

I’ve worked out that they’re normally happy if I sit down for a few seconds and then get up and go but all that

stopping and starting, I just don’t have the energy. So I’ve been hiding on the motorway. Here’s another thing

they’re like – when they’ve finished eating something which came in a packet, they fling the packet into the air in

the manner of a Romanian, meaning that the whole place (specially the places I’ve been to along the motorway) is

filthy. And another thing they’re like is that twice someone has given me a drink or something from their shop and

then when I’ve drunk it they’ve tried to charge me for it. It’s surprisingly like Romania in some ways except you

can’t draw an easy racial line between the good guys and the bad guys.

Caffeine and Nicotine
Tea is different here. They still drink tonnes of it but instead of having two teapots they only have one. Weird.

And instead of me having control over how much sugar goes in, they put the sugar directly into the teapot. And

instead of there being a normal amount of sugar, there’s absolutely loads. Coffee is different too. Instead of

coffee being nice, it tastes of acorns. The first time I had it I thought they’d run out but were too embarrassed

to admit it because they gave me a tiny little droplet of coffee in the bottom of my cup. Then they poured another

similar measure for everyone else and I realised that it was only possible to drink it in shots because it’s so

foul. It tastes like acorns but because it’s so strong the overall experience is like being punched in the mouth by

a massive acorn. I have about one or two shots a day.
When I was staying with the internet guys (I stayed with them as well) they said Do you like Sheesha? and I said

Hmm yeah, it’s nice and then one of them turned round and disappeared and I thought Oh no, they’re going to make a

whole sheesha just because of me and I’m actually quite tired and would be just as happy without. The main guy then

produced a sheesha and started preparing it and then produced another one and I thought Woah! Two sheeshas. Cool.

And then the guy who had disappeared came back and he had a third sheesha and there were only four of us.

Apparently here, if you smoke a sheesha then you smoke the whole lot by yourself. Something I’ve never done before

and something I’ve done twice this week.

If my bowel can be compared to (and I think it can) a World War One bomber squadron whose mission is to take out

the German porcelaine factories, then I sometimes get these messages:
What Ho, HQ! Biffy Atherton here with Colon Company. Hate to bother you at teatime, but looks like we could be

running into a spot of bother. Jerry’s seen us coming and he’s putting up a bit of a fight. I imagine we’ll bluster

through it but if it’s no trouble to send some back-up, well, you know. Hate to bother you. Love to Helen.
What Ho, HQ! Sweaty Blakelock and Clench Dalrymple have just arrived. Sterling chaps, specially old Clench, showing

the Hun a thing or two I can tell you. Shouldn’t wonder we’ll have no more bother. Love to Helen. Toodle pip.
I say HQ! Bit of a setback. Jerry’s redoubled his efforts and we’re quite put to it. Clench doing his best, Sweaty

all over the place. Not sure how long we can hold out. Could manoever better without the cargo. Suggest we drop

bombs when convenient and beetle off.
HQ! Demmit, Fairclough’s hit. Taken one in the wing, poor blighter. Showing admirable grit but spinning like a top.

Strongly suggest he drops his load before it goes off in the hold. Awaiting instructions.
HQ – Atherton – Fairclough down – no expolsion God knows how – hard put to it – Bosch everywhere – suggest we drop

bombs asap – DEM! – … – Demmit HQ – … – I’m hit – landing gear shot – losing some blood – stiff upper lip – no

use making a fuss – tell Miranda, Toodle Pip – Love to Helen – … …
I mention it because with traditional IBS I get this series of messages once every so often when I’m not expecting

it and getting over neutral territory isn’t necessarily very easy. At the moment and for the last couple of weeks

Biffy’s been constantly scrapping with Jerry so I’ve ramped up my defence accordingly. Now I rarely walk without

lav roll or water and I keep my eye out for places with a bog or some trees or something. So really, having

constantly liquid out-goings isn’t much of a hardship. I also mention it because I don’t believe I ever give enough

credit to my innards who put up with a huge amount of abuse and maltreatment and who deal with it with utmost

phlegm. Last night, for example, I passed a movement which was certainly the consistancy but also, I think, the

colour of water. Now it is as if nothing happened and I’m ready to walk again.

When I got to Romania I wrote in my book under the title Things I’ve Seen In Romania, ‘Three children on a

motorbike’. I now wonder about how that could have made any impression on me. I am often offered lifts by people on

motorbikes, more than once by two people on a single motorbike. Yesterday I thought I saw five people on a bike but

as they drove off I doubted myself. Then later I definitely saw six people. Six people on one motorbike. Two

parents and four (pretty small) children in this order: Wife, child, child, father, child, child – the last of

which was fairly well squashed against the handlebars.

Turkey was so big that I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to learn a totally new language with a different

alphabet from scratch by complete immersion. It’s getting easier. The best place to start is with hostile border

police when you have a complicated and stupid history to tell them. I have since discovered that there are a bunch

of Turkish words which are Arabic, so I have a sneaky headstart. But really this country’s so small that I’m not

sure I can be bothered to put much effort into it. I’ll be out of here in a week or two.

Read Full Post »

Andre’s Story
I walked for a while along a section of road which would have been called Pilgrim Alley if it had been in America. I met a bunch of pilgrims there. One English guy on a bike, two Spanish people who were biking to Jerusalem and Andre, the French guy who had had trouble with the Syrian border. Before he got to Syria he was set about by two ruffians who were driving a horse and cart. They lurked in the bushes for him for a couple of hours while he had loads of chai at a petrol station and then when he walked past they did a drive-by jacket robbery. Well Andre had probably been singing the second verse of Bunyan’s awesome hymn – the bit about “He’ll with a giant fight” so he wasn’t afraid of two measly little ruffians and he attached himself to their cart. Sadly it only resulted in him getting a chestful of gravel and a bump on the chin but on the plus side he was taken in by the family whose factory he was opposite at the time. After he had been rejected by the Syrians, aggressively and with insults, he ambled mournfully back towards France and when he got to the family they ushered him in.
For some reason they told him that they would pay for his flight back to France when they had the money and also that they would sort out his visa problem. The problem was that by the time they gave him the money his visa had run out by several month. In a most peculiar turn of events he was fined $400 on exit and since he only had $300 they said he couldn’t leave. They forced him to stay in Turkey without a visa. So he went back to the family and is now waiting for them to buy him a boat ticket to Cyprus and from there to Lebanon.

The Spaniards
Pilar and Nacho biked past me and since we were all heading for Jerusalem we stopped and had a chai and since we were all hungry they bought me lunch. They told me that there was a monastary in Eskanderun where I could stay for free which I noted mentally and then they boosted off but at a gentle pace. Three days later I got to Eskanderun and started asking people for a monastry. They all started helpfully saying “Yes, you want the church, it’s down here, come with me, I’ll show you” so I had to fight them quite hard in my best Turkish (which is pretty excellent by now, in case you’re wondering) to make them admit that there was a monastary. And in the end they won and didn’t admit it so I settled for going to the church.
When I buzzed on the buzzer a woman said “Yes?” and I said “Do you speak English?” and she said “Turkish.” and I said “Um, ok, me pilgrim… man speaking… priest have you?” and the door buzzed open. There was a bunch of youth playing volleyball and from somewhere a woman who was plainly the owner of the voice emerged and eyeballed me. I smiled in a way which I thought would persuade her to let me stay for a night and started again “I Jerusalem pilgrim… two Espanol people speaking monastary… sleeping here me one night…” and just as I was about to crumble under the power of her stare, Pilar and Nacho appeared and hugged me. After our emotional reunion I turned back to the grumpy guardian and said “This! This people…” but she had started walking away by then.
Totally baffled, I followed the Spaniards towards another frosty old woman who snapped something in Italian at them and they said “It’s ok, you can stay here, we’ll show you your room”. That was smashing news. We went up some stairs and there was another icy matron who unlocked a door, dismissively handed me the key and then wandered off. The room was air-conditioned, had an adjoining shower/lav combo which they seem to have no qualms about putting in the same tiny area round here, and was in all respects a hotel room except that it didn’t come with a toothbrush (I’ve lost my toothbrush). I’d come just in time for supper which was delivered in the same style as everything else. The nuns or sisters or whatever they were ate somewhere else, the food was just left on the table for the guests (just me and the Spaniards) and it was delicious and plentiful. Breakfast the next day was the same. I think the whole experience was the least friendly and one of the highest quality in other respects of my whole journey. Nacho and Pilar had been there for three nights or so and it seemed that they hadn’t spoken to anyone for more than a sentence either.

Syrian Border
After hearing Andre’s story I adjusted my plans mildly. The first change was to take a slight detour which took in two different border crossings to double my chances of getting across. The second change was to practise telling people that I was heading for Damascus – a lie that is not altogether untrue. I got to the Turkish border quite late in the day, had some small interactions with the Turkish chaps involving a certain amount of pointless wandering around and then I was officially dismissed from the country. For some reason the Syrian border is about 4km away through a barren no man’s land and when I got there it was dark and I was exhausted. The soldiers whose job it is to lurk around drinking tea all welcomed me most cordially with such phrases as “Welcome in Syria” and “I love you” and I thought – this is going to be a breeze. I found a place which was obviously selling visas and presented myself to the first people I saw who were police. Pretty much all of them looked at my passport before I was ushered into a small office and told I could have a visa for $25. Bargerooni. I said I only had 51.10 Lira (I’d found 1.10 on the road) and they said actually it was $52 and they didn’t accept Lira because they are Syrians. I said “Come oooooooooon!” and they said No, absolutely not and I was escorted into another office where I presumed a more important person would say “Just let him in Mehmet and stop being so officious.” Actually it was officious Mehmet himself in the more important office and he didn’t like the look of me one bit, so I was escorted to the army guys and driven back to Turkey. My escort said I couldn’t come back even if I came back with the right money tomorrow and that if I wanted a visa I should go to Ankara. Disappointing news.
The people in the restaurant in the Turkish customs were hateful to me and wouldn’t give me water for free and then I found a nice person who said I could put my tent on some grass and some other nice people who gave me sweets. In a customs place! So I slept and I made a plan. The plan was this: if I went back to Syria twelve hours later there would almost certainly be no one there who would recognise me because no one does a more than twelve hour shift. So I changed my Lira (I got $31 for it so I was most of the way there) and I found the friendly guy from the night before. While I checked on the internet to see how badly I’d been ripped off (not badly at all) he made an excellent sign for me which said something like “I need $70 for a visa please.” I had told him $52 but he thought I might need some money for food as well. And then he bought me breakfast.
While I was eating breakfast someone came along and nabbed my sign and wandered off with it. When he came back he had 6 Lira and then a little later he had another 5. I scribbled out $70 and wrote $21 and then scribbled that out and wrote $14. Before I’d finished eating another guy came along and told me to follow him. He took me to the money exchange place, I threw in my Lira with his pile and he handed me $71. I said No No, I only need $52 and he said something about how Turkish people are hospitable and I ended up keeping the $71.
My plan worked perfectly. No one knew who I was at the Syrian place in the morning and I found a friendly Turkish guy who translated for me and was generally helpful. They did say things like “Why have you got this big Cancelled stamp in your passport from last night?” and when I told them it was a money problem, the big cheese was again consulted. Luckily it wasn’t Mehmet and he saw no problem in letting me in. A whole bunch of paperwork later and I have a totally illegible (to me) visa which lasts for I don’t know how long and which cost me $52. And I walked into Syria. Here’s what I learnt – the Syrian border people don’t like people who are going to Jerusalem and they don’t like poor people, so if you’re a poor Jerusalem pilgrim hoping to cross Syria, practise lying truthfully. And do your begging before you try the border.

Syria
You’re probably wondering what Syria is like. I’ll tell you later.

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Route

  • Sülüklü
  • Beyliova
  • Büğrüdelik which is a town full of Asian looking people
  • Cihanbeyli
  • Eskil
  • Sultanhanı where my tent was overturned
  • Aksaray, or at least I kind of went near it
  • Yapilcan where my tent was spat on and later I was screamed at and later still, given a meal.
  • Ulukışla
  • Pozantı
  • Gülek after which I went down a big hill and it got much hotter
  • Tarsus
  • Adana always sticking with the smaller road of the two options
  • Ceyhan
  • Erzin
  • Dörtyol
  • İskenderun where I stayed in a church slash hotel slash sports centre
  • Belen
  • Kırıkhan
  • Reyhanlı tonight, all going well (which is English for Insh’Allah) and then Cilvegözü for the Syrian border…

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