Sampling the local vices in Southern Ethiopia (Day 871)

I recently volunteered at perma-culture farm in Southern Ethiopia for 2 weeks.  At the farm there was a great mix of locals and foreigners working side-by-side.  I lived in a hut without electricity, did some carpentry work, put up some fences, fed the chickens, etc. 

One example of the drama that would occur on the farm was The Great Rabbit Mass Murder.  One night, a fox (or something) got into the rabbit pen and killed 12 of the 15 rabbits.  Two of the survivors got loose on the farm.  Another volunteer and I had to catch them (damn rabbits are fast!), you should have seen that, it was a comedy for sure.

In response to this tragedy, we turned the rabbit pen into an impregnable fortress.  There isn’t another one in the world like it, I’m sure of it.  Nothing is getting in or out of that place now.  It’s a masterpiece.

Double-walled fencing, with the outer wall extended and angled-out.  Come on fox, let’s see what you got now.

I’m glad to have volunteered somewhere on this trip, but I was relieved when had I finished.  To be honest, after so many years of doing whatever I want whenever I want, doing what somebody asked me to do got really old and annoying after about, oh, 4 hours :)

One of my heroes, The Most Interesting Man in the World, once advised, “Find out in life what it is that you don’t do well.  And then don’t do that thing.”  At this point in my life, that “thing” for me is working.  So, after I had fulfilled the 2-week commitment I had made to the farm, I quit.  As the other volunteers soldiered on, I went back to doing what I do best:  having a good time.  I visited local towns and villages, drank beer, went to the market, chatted with locals, socialized with the volunteers, and sampled the local vices.  Let me show you a few:

Chaca is a drink that the locals love in the south.  It’s full of sediment.  Afterward drinking it, your teeth feel like you just ate a fistful of sand.  Every once in a while a bottle spontaneously explodes!  (My fellow volunteers call this a “chaca bomb”.)  This seems to me like a good reason not to drink it.  Plus, it tastes like shit.

Tej.  Now here is some good stuff.  It’s a honey wine of some sort.  I once went to a tej bar at 10am on a Sunday.  The place was packed and everybody was trashed on the stuff.  (Including yours truly… these Ethiopians are always filling up my glass again, you know how it is.)  The other volunteers and I went out for tej so often we turned the word into a verb, as in, “Were you out tejjing again last night?”

That’s an Ethiopian pour, right to the rim.  To do otherwise is considered bad luck.  I won’t argue.

Chat is a plant that grows in Ethiopia.  It seems like the locals are always chewing it.  If you want to fit in, there is no better way than to learn how to chew.  That’s where I got you covered!  In installment #24 of my “How To” videos on world travel, I enlist a local expert to show us how it’s done.  The leaves of the plant are supposedly a mild hallucinogenic. For the record, all I got was a stomach ache. The video is a bit long, but chewing chat is a … slow process.

Oh, btw, I was told after the video that chat is now illegal in the UK as well.  Sorry to get you folks excited.

As I have said too many times:  in travel, timing is everything.  I have been pretty lucky on this trip, but I think this one takes the cake:  I visited a village while the locals were digging their “30-year lake”!  That’s right, the people of this area dig a new lake for holding water once every 30 years… and I was there.  As was everybody else from the surrounding villages.  The sight of all these people working together, and the celebrations afterwards, was mesmerizing to watch.  (Truth be told, I only worked for about 20 minutes, then took part in the party :-)  Watch:

Here are a few other random experiences/observations:

– At the farm, local women do all the real hard labour.  I once spent an afternoon helping them carry rocks and sand from one place to another under the vicious African sun.  We couldn’t speak a word to each other, but we would smile and laugh together just the same.  I really liked those ladies.  But, the work was so tough it almost killed me.  After that day, whenever they invited me to work with them again, I would pretend I needed to go feed the chickens. 

– The African sky has so many stars it’s incredible!!  Many a night, we walked home in complete blackness (the village rarely has electricity) after drinking too much tej, navigating only by the billions of stars that dot the sky here, from horizon to horizon. 

– One day we walked 3 hours into the hills to visit a school that was having a celebration.  As we walked through the countryside we were followed by an ever-growing group of kids.  We lead them, as my friend Eddie put it, “Pied Piper style.”  If only I had a photo.  This school is another one of those places where I’m kind of a big deal (although, so were the 2 other foreigners I was with).  The younger kids hesitantly touched my white skin, like they thought it might be fake.  I would tell them, “Don’t worry, it’s quite real.”  The older ones asked why I was wearing glasses on my eyes.  I explained that the sun was too bright for my faranji (Ethiopian for “foreigner”) eyes and they laughed.  They asked why Eddie was wearing a hat — “Is there something wrong with this head?”  He showed the masses that his head was indeed normal, and every kid wanted to touch his hair.  Funny stuff (you had to be there).

– The locals in the rural areas have some strange beliefs:  ie, moving air causes diseases!  Particularly TB.  So, in a hot, stuffy bus the people are afraid to open the windows.  So, instead we all suffocate and sweat.   Craziness, I tell you.  Or, in some places that see few or no tourists, the people are afraid of cameras — they think it will suck out their soul!  So, in these places, if the kids are bugging you and won’t leave you alone  (common in Ethiopia), one technique I’ve seen is to just point your camera that them:  they will run away in fear :)

I’m heading east to a place that claims to be its own independent country, but the rest of the world doesn’t seem to think so.  I’m not sure who to believe or what to think, but I always find in these situations of uncertainty the best thing to do is go see for yourself.  So that’s what I’m going to do.

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The Danakil Depression: a myriad of bizarre landscapes (Day 840)

This is the Danakil Depression.  It’s the hottest place on Earth (check!), and also the greatest I have been to since Antarctica.  I spent 5 days visiting the Danakil, which contains a slew of strange sights.

The first was Erta Ale, a volcano that with a bubbling lava lake, one of only 5 in the world!  My group and I hiked through the night and after a few hours, we could see the glow of the lake.  The lure of the glow was unstoppable.  I was going to look inside the crater if it was the last thing I was going to do.  This is how it happened:

I hope you like the video, I almost had my eyebrows singed off trying to get it.  I’m not joking.  Every so often the lava lake would explode sending up a wave of heat that burned my face and a cloud of sulfur that stung my nose and made my eyes water.  (A German on my tour was smarter, he had a remote-operated camera; he set the camera on the edge then shot photos from 2m away)

Staring into the lava lake was hypnotizing.  It was like staring into a bonfire, but next level.  I sat by the lava lake for hours and staring into it, taking useless pictures.  Neither my camera nor my skills were up to the task.

Lava!
After the video above, I kept getting drawn closer and closer to the edge.  It wasn’t until the next day, in the light, that I noticed the huge crack in the edge of the lava lake.  In fact, the whole edge was a big cornice.  Very, very sketchy.  In our countries, no one would be allowed anywhere near this thing, it is way too dangerous!  But, this is Africa, here you can get as close as you like!

Visiting Erta Ale was an assault on all my sense:  the orange glow, the heat on my face, the wreak of sulfur in the air, the crack of solidified lava underfoot, the sounds of the bubbling of the lava.  It was truly awesome.  (Even as I wrote this I was sitting 10m from the edge and my ass was hot from the churning lava under the ground beneath me).

If we had gone home at that point, I would have left a happy camper.  But the Danakil was just getting started.  Here’s the roll call:

Rust-coloured terrain all the way to the horizon
Salt flat, for as far as the eye can see…
… and salt caravans, obviously
Bubbling pools amongst strange rock formations (I stuck my hand in, luckily nothing happened)

And then I saw the sulfur springs.  I won’t forget my first view of it as I climbed over the crest of the hill:

A bubbling green lake, yellow shores, strange rock formations, suffocating smell of sulfur, wow!!  (I stuck my hand in, luckily nothing happened)
Is this for real?
Mother Nature spouting sulfur
Mother Nature, as usual, just when I think I have seen all the great things you have to offer, you blow me away yet again.  The Danakil was nature raw and uncut, strutting its stuff a little.  It has lots of goodness crammed into one place, making it one of my world favourites.

In addition, I need to mention that my visit to the Danakil Depression was quite the adventure:  dust, sand, mud, lots of breakdowns (the Danakil eats Landcruisers for lunch), getting stuck countless times, lots of pushing, sleeping in the desert under the stars, getting lost in a sandstorm (not cool)… twice, only saved by local Afar guys.  I have lots of good stories from this trip.

An aside:  A long time ago I watched a movie called “Blood Diamond.”  In the movie, whenever something peculiar or unexplainable would happen, the main characters would just shrug their shoulders and say, “T.I.A.”, which stands for “This is Africa.”  At the time, I remember thinking it was overly dramatic, but after now having spent some time in Africa, I think I am beginning to understand.  Nothing is at it should be, nothing can be counted on to work, be on time, or anything else.  Even as I type this, the incredibly slow internet connection in Addis Ababa, the capital, is constantly cutting in and out.  Shrug.  This is Africa.

As a result of this phenomenon, Africa is a gold mine for padding my collection of “How To” videos on the Unique Art of World Travel.  I now have a bunch of them (of varying degrees of quality) up my sleeve.

In installment #23, one of our 4WDs is stuck in the desert of the Danakil.  When you’re in the desert, getting unstuck is key, as it not a place you want to be stranded for very long. Here is the little drama that was getting our 4WD unstuck. Enjoy.

This post has set the record for number of pictures.  I couldn’t stop myself :)  Given the slow internet connections in Ethiopia, writing this blog post was exhausting.  I’m spent.  I’m going for a beer.  And a nap.  Check you later!

Posted in Africa | 11 Comments

Of all the places to ring in the New Year… (Day 827)

You probably wouldn’t have chosen Sudan.  Especially not Northern Sudan where, under Sharia Law, the penalty for possession of alcohol is 40 lashings.  40 lashings!!  Shit!  No, Northern Sudan is not a party destination.

But that’s where I was for New Year’s Eve.  Needless to say, I didn’t get wasted or party like a rock star.  But, I still had fun.  Through some good luck I hooked up with some great people that took me camping on the sandy banks of the Nile River, which was very cool.  Definitely a NYE to remember.  We ate, danced and had a good time, just like I hope you did that night, just minus the intoxication.

Camping on the bank of the Nile:  Where the party’s at in Sudan

Half the fun of Sudan was getting there.  I had a very memorable an overnight ferry ride from Egypt.  I slept right on the steel top deck, which was a mass of humanity.  Every piece of real-estate up there was crammed with foreigners, Sudanese and luggage.  It sounds hellish, but for a traveller, it was a great experience, sleeping on deck with a whole bunch of people I had never met before, under the stars, swapping war stories with well-travelled people.  Ya, all the travellers on this ferry were veterans, no first-timers here.  The story-telling was awesome.

The Egypt to Sudan ferry.  A luxury cruise, it ain’t.

My accomodation for the night:  crammed on a cold steel deck, under the stars, with other travellers and Sudanese.

The big tourist highlight in Sudan are the Meroe Pyramids.  Although not as grand as their famous Egyptian counterparts, these pyramids were just as memorable when I realized that I was the only guy there.  Actually, the way the winds covered up the tracks in the sand, it looked like I had been the first guy there in 100 years.  Add to this the sand dunes that envelope the pyramids, it makes them look very cool (much cooler than, say, the parking lot of tourist buses that envelope the pyramids in Cairo.)

Before travelling to the Middle East, I never knew how beautiful sand dunes are… now I love them.  Check out the pyramid.

A few random Sudanese thoughts:

– The amount of buracracy to enter this country is ridiculous.   Upon landing in Sudan, I had to make about 10 stops in different offices to get all the required signatures, stamps, fingerprints taken, etc.  It took about 2 hours; there was no line-up whatsoever, that is just how long the administrative baloney required.  This is after we had already been stamped into the country on the ferry.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

– A fellow traveller opinioned that the less tourists that visit a country, the nicer their people are.  Sudan fits that theory — almost nobody travels there and the people are wonderful.

– Something unexpected for me was how eye-catching some of the Sudanese women were, especially those that were seemingly mixed Black/Arab.  In Muslim tradtion, their bodies and hair were covered, but their facial features were striking.

– Sudan has surprisingly good travel infrastructure.  The buses in the North are fast and comfortable, although they constantly play Arabic music videos at ear-shattering volumes.

– Celine Dion’s #1 fan is Sudanese.  I met a guy outside the pyramids who, after hearing I was Canadian, shouted, “I love Celine Dion!  Songs about love and emotion!  Very good, VERY GOOD!!”  He couldn’t contain his joy.

– You might have seen Sudan in the news these days.  The southern part of the country is having a referendum right now about whether or not to separate from the north.  I think it would have been VERY interesting to stick around Sudan to see what happens, but unfortunately I left soon after the New Year.  (I have other fish to fry here in Ethiopia.)

An observation on long-term travel:  a few months ago in Lebanon I bumped into a Czech couple who were half-way through a 2-month trip.  They actually wanted to cut the trip short and go home as soon as possible.  They really missed their house.  They missed their bed.  They asked why, after more than 2 years of travel, I wasn’t affected by the same feelings?  My answer:  “I don’t have a home.  I don’t have a bed.”  It occurred to me that my lack of a home or any other significant possessions had become a great advantage in the travel world.   My life of shirking responsibilities and obligations is finally paying of :)

I zipped through Sudan a little bit faster than I liked, but it was for a good reason – I am very excited about a few Ethiopian adventures I have planned.  Anyway, you already know what you will find at the other end of this link.

I hope your NYE was stellar and your 2011 is off to a great start!  Maybe we will see each other this year…

Posted in Africa | 4 Comments

Walk like an Egyptian (Day 810)

What?  Has somebody used that line already?

I’m about to squeeze almost 4 weeks of Egyptian experiences into one blog post.  Are you sitting down?  Good.

An obligatory stop is those little pyramids Egypt is so famous for.  They are mostly what you imagine:  ancient (4,000 years old!), massive, with perfect geometry… and overrun with tourists.  It’s hard to avoid the hordes, but the pyramids are still worth visiting.  What you might not have expected is that they are not out in a remote desert somewhere;  they are in the middle of a modern neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo.  There is actually a golf course next door.

In Egypt they also have some desert.  (Just a little.)  I visited the aptly named “Great Sand Sea.”  Sand dunes for as far as the eye could see.  I tried to cycle out to the them, but it turns out bikes don’t work well in soft sand dunes.  I had to abandon the bike and trudge through on foot to get some sand dune pics.  Travelling is a tough job .  (Did I mention it’s hot in the desert?).

It was right about this time, right here, when I decided that “The Great Sand Sea” was the perfect name for this place

More desert anyone?  Near the Bahariya Oasis, desert sand clashes with crazy white rock formations.  It’s a creates a surreal landscape.  I had the privilege of sleeping out in this desert, under the stars.  Actually, seeing the canvas of stars from my sleeping bag was a pleasure; freezing my nuts off was not.  Who knew a place so hot during the day could get so damn cold at night??

Chalk-white rocks and sand, a combination I’ve never seen, and probably never will again

I encountered something new during my stay in Cairo:  a sandstorm.  It was official, too, I checked the Cairo weather forecast on the internet and it said “Sandstorm.”  It’s super windy and the sun gets blotted out from the sky.  It’s pretty cool for about 45 seconds, then every exposed square inch of your body gets caked in sand, and you can’t see anything because the sand is stinging your eyes… right about then, it starts to suck.

In other news, I found some peanut butter in the diplomatic area of Cairo.  Score!  I have learned how to find peanut butter in foreign countries.  Go to the neighborhood where the foreign embassies are located.  That’s where the expats live in work.  If there is any PB in the country, you’ll find it there.  That’s today’s travel tip.

After a one year hiatus, I returned to the world of scuba diving in Egypt!  I dived the Blue Hole in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most famous.  The sensation of being suspended underwater has not lost its novelty for me.  Great stuff.

About 10 years ago I stayed in the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.  The hotel is in the shape of a pyramid.  I just realized this is strange, because I’ve now been to Luxor, and there are no pyramids there.  There are a lot of tombs, ruins and temples, though.

These are the two bouncers at the Luxor Temple.  Don’t piss them off.

If you get past the bouncers, here is a little of what you get to see:  columns, oh yeah!On a blog administration note, I’m running out of words to describe impressive things I see around the world.  I used up all my superlatives about 18 months.  My vocab simply is not that big and I feel like this blog is becoming a broken record.  But, I’m just telling it like a see it.  So, when describing some far-flung location, if I use “awesome” for the 83rd time in the last two years, it’s because it is awesome.  You are just going to have to trust me.   (Or better yet, if you haven’t already, get out here and go see the world and see what I mean!)

Speaking of superlatives… These temples, tombs, pyramids, all this stuff the ancient Egyptians have built, really are grand and mind-blowing.  I had figured that the Romans were the most extravagant civilization in history, but no, I think even their monstrous constructions are humbled by what the Pharaohs had built.  Could these Pharaohs be the most egotistical people in history?  Maybe.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas!  This is my third Christmas on the road.  It might have been a little different from yours.  People don’t celebrate it down here.  I don’t think anybody knows it’s happening.  It’s just another day here in Aswan, Egypt.  So Christmas for me consisted of hot temperatures, seeing some temples and going for a felucca (traditional wooden sail boat) ride on the Nile River:

I have a Christmas present for you:  more Egypt pics.  I know, I know, it’s just want you always wanted.  You’re welcome.

I was in an internet cafe the other day trying to open the computer’s CD tray.  The stupid thing was stuck.  I tried a couple of tricks I knew from my years in the biz, but no luck.  The guy who works there comes over and starts rubbing his hand over the computer’s case, all the while mumbling in Arabic.  All of a sudden, WHACK!  WHACK!  he slams the top of the computer!  … And the CD tray opens.  I start laughing.  He smiles and says, in a very thick accent, “This is Egyptian way.”  I like it :)

This is my last post from a part of the world that is traditionally called the Middle East.  I have been almost 3 months in this interesting part of the world.  As I do a quick look back, for me the Middle East has been a lot of history, impressive structures & sites (castles, mosques, temples and pyramids, oh my!), great cities, and incredible food.  For a few reasons, I have partied a lot less in this part of the world than I have elsewhere.  But this is probably a good thing for my shrinking bank account and growing beer belly :)

So.  I’m heading into Africa.  I will be going to places where internet cafes are few and far between, so we might not talk much for the next few months.  But, I’ll be back…

I hope you have killer New Years.  Tomorrow a boat is taking me south.  To Sudan.

Posted in Middle East | 7 Comments

An unreligious man in The Holy Land (Day 806)

I went to church a few times in the 80s, as I recall, but nothing more.  So, I am no religion buff, but you don’t have to be to enjoy this part of the world.  Jerusalem is a sacred place for three major religions:  Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam.  I don’t think there is another city like it in the world.  I will be so bold as to call it a “religious mess”, making it a very interesting place.  I’ve heard the Muslim call to prayer in the Christian quarter and church bells in the Muslim quarter.  Just outside the muslim Temple Mount, Jews are praying at the Wailing Wall.  What’s more, The Church of Holy Sepulchre is shared between 6 different Christian denominations.  So, who holds the key to the place?  The answer perfectly describes Jerusalem:  A muslim family, which has opened and closed the church everyday for over 8 centuries.

The Wailing Wall.  You can write prayers/notes/whatever and stuff them in the cracks of the walls, hoping they will be heard.  I wasn’t feeling inspired and nothing worthy of such a place would come out of my pen.  Btw, if you are too busy to make it here in person, no problem, you can go to a website and they will take care of it for you.  Technology facilitating prayers, there you have it.

Here’s a good one:  You know the town of Bethlehem that is in all the Christmas carols?  The place where Jesus himself was said to be born?  Well, it turns out the place actually exists.  It’s in the Palestinian West Bank.  I went there.  I have seen the birthplace.  It wasn’t that big of a deal for me personally, but others who were visiting as part of a religious pilgrimage knelt, kissed the floor, and wept.  It was quite moving.

All of this religion aside, I also did a lot in Israel of what I do best:  having a good time.  My friend Erez, who I met in Asia almost two years ago, took me desert trekking.  It’s tough.  You have to deal with some things you don’t have, say, in Canada.  One, it is silly hot.  This, combined with the fact there are no lakes or rivers anywhere, leaves you carrying a LOT of water.  As you may know, water is damn heavy.  But, on the plus side, in the desert you don’t have to worry about a bear eating your food.  Pros and cons.

I never thought of myself as a desert guy. It can be miserable during the day (hot, dry, barren and the flies are so thick they can carry you away).  But, oh, at sunrise and sunset, the desert makes up for it all.  It’s true colours come shining through. I slept outside under the stars.

This was my first trek below sea level.  When was the last time you saw a map with elevations BELOW zero?

Israeli single track is quite good, with good flow and banked turns.  Who would have thought?  This trail goes right past 2,000 year-old ruins.  Even the mountain biking is historical here!

I want to say a big thanks to Erez and his family, who gave me the all-star treatment in Isreal.  I have never been so comfortable in somebody else’s home.  It got to the point where I was going to the kitchen to help myself to food, something my conscience has never allowed me to do in other places.  Such is the great hospitality here.

Speaking of food, my guidebood says that the best in the Middle East is always in people’s homes.  I found out this was true at the Horesh house, where the food was so good I did not have the self-control to stop eating, even long after I was full, right up to the point of causing myself pain.  I over-ate every meal.  It was a bit embarrassing, actually.  The crowing jewel of all this was a Thanksgiving feast.  Unfortunately, no pics, as I was too busy easting.

The usual post-country album is here.  I left Israel with great memories and a full belly.

Posted in Middle East | 3 Comments

A place where grown men giggle like children (Day 796)

The Dead Sea.  I’m reading with my feet up.  Try this move in your pool back home.  (pic from AL)

This is The Dead Sea (Jordan side).  It’s true, you really do float!  It’s awesome-weird!  I know it looks like I’m sitting on something, but I’m not.  The Dead Sea has a salt content of 31%, 9 times that of the ocean.  It makes you very buoyant!  The sensation is hard to explain, but I can say it is fun and strange all at the same time.

And it reduced me to giggling like a small child.  I couldn’t help it.  It was a little embarrassing until I saw (and heard) 2 Spanish men beside me suffering from the same affliction — it’s contagious.  What’s more, the Dead Sea puts everybody into “Take my picture!” mode.  Even me.  I could see the Spanish guys were in the same boat, as their wives were on rapid fire with their cameras.  Ha!

Last, but not least, I should note that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (422m below sea level).  And now I’ve been there.  Another day, another “world’s -est” falls at the hands of yours truly…

As fun as the Dead Sea is, it is not the most popular attraction in Jordan.  That distinction goes to stunning Petra, the ruins of a 2000 year-old Nabatean city.  Trust the hype on this one, Petra delivers.  You have probably already seen Petra in a movie:  one of its most famous sights, “The Treasury,” was in Indian Jones and the Last  Crusade.  The facade is carved into the sandstone.

Then, just when you thought the Treasury was the finest sight in Petra, it serves you this, the Monastery:

Wait… there’s more!  In the town next to Petra is The Cave Bar, which is said to be the oldest bar in the world!  Over 2000 years!  Obviously, I had a beer there.

Then there is Wadi Rum, a bizarre but wonderful combination of sandy desert and rocky mountains.  I spent one night out there, catching the sunrise and sunset. 

Sand and mountains

Sunset at Wadi Rum.  Check out the camels slogging through the desert.

Jordan is definitely packed full of good stuff.  Great country.

I have a confession to make… I have a crush on Queen Rania of Jordan.  Is that inappropriate?  Nah, hopefully not.  You can do your own research, but I will tell you Queen Rania is doing lots of great things, in interesting ways, to try to make the world a better place.  Incidentally, I think she is one of the most beautiful women on the planet.  Oh, and apparently Her Majesty loves peanut butter :)  Too bad she is already married to a king, haha.

I have now spent more than 2 months in the Middle East and I have yet to introduce you to the Muslim “Call to prayer.”  Five times a day Muslims are called to pray by chants broadcasted everywhere over mosques’ PA systems.  Here is what it sounded like one night from my hotel room in Wadi Musa:

If you cannot go on with your life unless you have seen more Jordanian photos, I will help you out.  I’m good like that.

There is one phrase that I heard countless times in Jordan.  It seems that everybody there, no matter how little English they speak, can say it.  If I had a nickel for every time I heard it, I would be able to travel to the end of my days.  I’ll leave you with it:

“Welcome to Jordan”

Posted in Middle East | 3 Comments

Getting into Syria, persistence is key (Day 794)

The first time I tried to get into Syria was from Turkey.  I walked across the Turkish border then hitchiked through the no-man’s land to the Syrian immigration office.  I politely asked the officer for a visa into his fine country.  I waited for almost 2 hours before they shot me down.  No explanation.  Damn, rejected!  (It felt like when I’m trying to get a girl’s phone number at a bar.)  Was it because I’d been in Iraq the day before?  I will never know.  I got escorted back to the Turkish border by an armed immigration official, like some sort of fugitive.

But, I’m a persistent man.  I flew to Lebanon and tried to cross from there.  No problem.  They barely looked at my passport.  $56 dollars later, stamp, stamp, thank you, sir, and I’m into Syria!  Just like that.

For me, the highlight of this country is its capital, Damascus, arguably the oldest city on the planet.  It has a wonderful feeling to it.  It’s Old City is a labrynth of alleys, beautiful mosques and colourful souqs (markets).  Countless times I got lost wandering through the Old City (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not).  It is one of the world’s greatest places to wander.   The people in the Old City go about doing what they’ve been doing there forever.  The food is stellar here, too.  At my favourite food stall, I bought a felafel sandwhich and banana milkshake for $1.25.  Everyday.  That, my friends is value.  Oh, and don’t even get me started on my shwarma addiction.  To top it off, one can ind a shop to drink tea, smoke nargileh (aka, sheesha, a water pipe used to smoke tobacco), and watch the world go by.  You would love it, too.

A busy souq.  Note the bullet holes in the roof.

The only only issue I had with this city is that it can be tough to find a beer.  A couple of other Canadians and I had to go on a “search & find” mission one night, poking our head into restaurants in the Christian quarter to ask if they had any (they typically don’t list it on the menu, you see).

Other than this, Damascus rocks.  I thought I was quite the astute traveller for noticing its parcularities and its greatness.  But, after talking to scores of travellers during and after my time in Syria, it turns out that everybody loves Damascus.  I guess I’m not so special after all…

Syria has a very long and interesting history to it.  And, where there is an interesting history, there are often ruins.  At Palmyra, I got another Roman ruins fix.  If you are like me and enjoy Roman columns, you will love Palmyra.  Very “columns-y.”

Columns and camels

Maybe you like hill-top castles rising out of the desert?  Syria has you covered there, too.  Here is the Citadel at Palmyra.

If I was going to build a castle, that’s where I’d put it.  Right there.

Of course, Damascus is full of Mosques.  My favourite is the modern, Iranian-built Sayyida Ruqayya.  Most people notice it’s beauty and elaborate decorations.  I noticed that it has a retractable roof!  (That’s the kind of tourist I am.)  This must be the most high-tech mosque in the world!

It’s sunny today, why not open the roof up?

A while back I used to think that beer would bring the world together.  Because everybody loves beer, right?  Not so.  For example, there are whole legions of people don’t drink at all (it’s against their religion).

But I think I have found the thing that will unite the planet:  ice cream.  I was sitting in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor in Damascus.  Next to me was an old guy in full Muslim regalia:  robe, turban, etc.  I realized that we couldn’t be more different.  But, there we were, side by side, enjoying a common love:  ice cream.  It occurred to me that everybody loves ice cream.  I’m telling you, it will bring the world togther.

Do I know why they cover the ice cream in cashews?  No, I don’t.  But, do I love it?  Yes, yes I do.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures in Syria.  Maybe I was too busy eating felafel sandwiches.  But, here are a few more.

Completely unrelated to Syria, I present to you another “How To” video on The Unique Art of World Travel.  In this episode, I show you how to make cocaine.  That’s right.

For this one, we go back more than a year, and across an ocean, to when I was trekking through the jungles of Colombia.  Now, I admit I have forgotten a few details, but you will get the general idea.

I do remember the three main ingredients:  coca leaves, gasoline, and car battery acid.  Nasty.  This video shows all the steps to make “cocaine base”.  To get the 100% finished product, you need to process this base at some kind of factory.

The cocaine base shown here is what they used as anesthetic in dentist offices back in the day.  A couple of minutes after putting it on my lip, it went numb and I was drooling all over myself.

Cocaine.  There you have it.  Do I show you the coolest stuff, or what?!?  Who’s your favourite world traveller?

I’m actually in Cairo, Egypt right now.  Last night I went to the movie theatre for the first time in almost a year.  I love going to the movies, great fun.  This movie was in English with Arabic sub-titles.  So, what movie brought me out of my hiatus?  Something very appropriate for my current lifestyle:  The Tourist.

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