Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I needed Damascus to decompress. Parking myself in a guesthouse, I intended to chill for only a few days and head on toward Jordan. Things change...

I ended up meeting an English girl named Leonie who had studied in Damascus before and was coming back to see friends and brush up on her Arabic. She was kind enough to invite me out to meet her friends at a cultural center in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in Syria. The center was run by local Palestinian volunteers and was non-political. Because of this, they refused funding from any Palestinian political factions and were forced to run on nearly nothing other than the good will of its volunteers. I was introduced to a really kind man named Deeb and he invited us to break Ramadan fast the next day with his family.

That was a meal to remember. The next day we were driven to the far outskirts of Damascus to a park marking the boundary between concrete apartment buildings and rural countryside. As the sun set, we prepared food with Deeb's approximately 20 family members and played a card game called Abu Foul.
*important note: Palestinians cheat at cards

After a hilarious few minutes watching the brothers try to get the coals going, the meat was on the grill and the call to prayer was blasted from the minarets. We feasted. One of Deeb's brother in laws made me eat a piece of raw sheep liver. Other than that it was all quite delicious. After the first round of food, a few people got together and played music (Oud, tambourine and tabla). Then horrible Arabic children's pop music was blasted and some kids came out in animal costumes and became to dance with all the children. As entertaining as it was, my ears were about to start bleeding, so Deeb and I took a seat in the far corner of the park while Leonie fended for herself among the relatives. The conversation was one of the best of my trip. I was deeply inspired by Deeb's commitment to peaceful means of helping his fellow Palestinians. I couldn't help it but I had to ask about Hamas. What did he think of them, and was their leadership really based in Yarmouk?

-Hamas is like a relative that you really don't like because he is a bad person but he is still family."
-Why is he bad?
-They advocate violence and employ former criminals to act as enforcers. And though they point to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority's corruption, they are equally as corrupt.
-I know the leadership is based in Damascus, are they in Yarmouk?
-You want to see Hamas? Go to Mezze (the richest district of Damascus). That's were they are.
-Really? (This really surprised me)
-Think about it, they get all this funding from radical religious governments and they have no way of getting it into Gaza so they spend it on themselves here.

We moved back to the family and grabbed Leonie for a little walk up the road before coming back for more food. Finally after 2:00 am the party was over and we returned to the guesthouse.

I was planning to get moving after some exploration of the old city but I one night I met a French girl who in turn met the head of the Health Department of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and we went to meet him at his work the next day. Adam, a Sudanese man for had worked for Borders without Borders for a decade, was relatively new to the UN scene. He was now overseeing the health support for Iraqi refugees in Syria (of which there are 2 million). Everything sounded wonderful. They received decent free health care and were given living stipends. Many thousands were being granted asylum in the US and Europe.

Leaving, more than slightly optimistic about the situation, we next to a nearby shop and bought drinks (even though it was Ramadan) and relaxed for a few moments. After some time, an older woman missing her legs came up to the shop in a wheel chair. I help her get what she needed and paid for it for her. She thanked me and began asking me questions in Arabic and telling me about herself. She was a Shia Iraqi from Najaf (or was it Karbala?) and she had lost her legs in a car bombing. The same explosion claimed the lives of her three sons. I wished her all the peace and luck I could with my limited Arabic and gave her 100 Syrian pounds (a little more than 2 dollars). Caroline and I walked away and I felt like I was being torn apart. We hit a park and I asked to sit for a second.

I wept.

This woman's suffering was a result of my country's foreign policy. I faced it; as an American for a moment and then as just a human being.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 3)

Alright here it goes...

After a failed attempt at teaching a Lebanese girl how to ride my bicycle (my fault not hers), a great swimming trip up the coast and some more general insanity, I left Beirut. Pedaling up the windy road crossing the Mount Lebanon range, I was drenched in sweat. The general stickiness was amplified by the humidity. Near the top (after some stunning views) I hit some low clouds. Quite suddenly I was cold for the first time in months and loved it. The clouds/fog became quite thick and soon my visibility was limited to less than 50 feet. I accidently ended up on a small road though some eerily quiet towns. Stopping for a drink from my water bottle, the fog temporarily lightened and I found myself in front of a Scooby Doo style abandoned mansion. Getting higher and higher I ended up stopping to chat with some Greek Orthodox guys who, after some offers of tea and biscuits and a pleasant discussion about the mountains, launched into a tirade against the Shia and Hizbollah. I finally reached the top and after accepting a free water bottle and bread from some Indian migrants who were delighted that I knew three words of Hindi and I began my descent to the Bekaa Valley. Quickly emerging from the mists I was greeted by a specacular view of the valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range. Stopping for food in a small town on my way to Zahle, I met Khalid who insisted that I come break Ramadan fast with his family at sunset (this quickly transformed into an invitation to stay a few nights).

The town was Sunni Muslim and I was asked what I believed. I said I didn't really know (usually you just say whatever is convenient because these matters are rarely up for debate). I went into some details about my philosophy and how I try to live my life. They were positively delighted.

"You're almost a Muslim!"

I was taken for a late night invitation to sweets at Khalid's father's friend's house. The man was incredibly fascinated by my trip and my knowledge of Islam. Though Khalid spoke decent English, the man brought out his daughter, who studied English and computer science, to act as a translator. At first glance I could tell that the family was very conservative. She wore a traditional black hijab and long, loose dress. covering all but her face and hands. The girl acted very professionally as if she was a translator for a business meeting. Half way through, she paused and her father explained that I had ridden a bicycle here from Georgia. Her otherwise serious face cracked a huge smile. That moment made all the suffering of pedalling up the mountains earlier that day worth it.

I agreed to fast and perform Salaat (prayer) with them the next day. We woke at 4:00, finished eating before 4:24 went to pray at the mosque right away and then talked witht the Sheikhs in the mosque. They were so intrigued by this curious American that they invited Khalid and I to sleep the rest of the morning in the mosque and then speak with them after. Six more hours of sleep and I was already hungry. Ramadan is cruel to a cyclist, especially if that cyclist has just come over a mountain range and needs nutrients. We chatted with the Sheikhs for a few hours, during which we discussed Islamic philosophy, Quranic Arabic and, most excitedly, Lebanese food. After a little time on the internet and a few hours helping Khalid at his volunteer program teaching young Muslim Children about the Quran and playing games (like Christian Bible School) I laid on the balcony, miserably willing the sun to set. I think the volume of food I consumed that night was taken by the family as a compliment to their cooking abilities and hospitality. Khalid's mother smiled and piled more and more food on my plate. After the last prayer at the mosque Khalid gave me a traditional robe and a Quran with the promise that I keep thinking and trying to understand the world.

I left for Syria with a bundle of food from Khalid's family. In the next town I had to borrow a few tools from a mechanic to adjust my seat and realized that in 3km the population had become solidly Christian. I passed through what appeared to be another Palestinian camp while racing a young boy with his bicycle I came to the city of Aanjar (with it's massive Armenian population) and bought some drinks at a road side vendor. After paying, I began chatting to the guy in my horrible Arabic and told him I was headed for Damascus. "I'm from Damascus!" he cried in Arabic and reached into his cash box to return the money I paid him for the drinks. "Ahlan wa sahlan!" (the welcome I had heard thousands of times.

The haul from the Lebanese border post to the Syrian side was long and hot. Arriving at the Syrian immigration controls I met another American also waiting for a visa (Americans wait 4-8 hours for a mysterious "fax from Damascus"). We feasted on the food Khalid gave me and enjoyed a welcome rest. Welcomed by the familiar face of President Bashar I rode afew more hours and, suddenly, I was in Damascus.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


In Irbid, Jordan just a few hours ride from the Jordan River.

Almost 2 weeks behind. But here I finally have easy access to this website (it is blocked in Syria so I could only occaisonly find ways around it) and I can admit that I started this trip with an 11 day stay in Israel before flying to Georgia (a fact that would have gotten me deported or imprisoned in Lebanon and Syria). While in Syria, Israel was codenamed "Disneyland," leading to rather confusing talk of Mickey, Minnie, Space Mountain, Mouseketeers and Disneyland security.

I am about two weeks behind in this report.

Will eventually catch up but I think I am going to ride hard for Nazareth, Disneyland today and find a net cafe there. The journey is coming to an end.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 2)

I ended up staying 5 more nights in a suburb of Beirut. I had met some very friendly people in Aleppo weeks earlier who invited me to stay with them. Being at their apartment I felt somewhat normal again. It is amazing how comforting and relaxing doing dishes can be. I was also lucky to meet their flatmate, an incredibly intelligent Lebanese Shia girl, who was willing to teach me about her city and show me the southern suburbs. The southern part of Beirut is mostly Shia and most recently famous for being heavily bombarded by the Israelis during the 2006 conflict. I spent a day on my own cycling through the maze of block apartments and noted the yellow and green everywhere. Yellow for Hizbullah and Green for Amal. Yet unlike the image portrayed by the western media, this area is not patrolled by fundamentalist warriors enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam. Other than the flags, the only evidence of Hizbullah are the men directing traffic, collecting donations or overseeing the rebuilding of buildings destroyed by Israeli strikes. Though they are widely believed to be the most powerful force in Lebanon (the military is almost entirely absent from the Shia areas), they don't seem to feel the need to constantly flex their muscle. And as far as the enforcement of strict islamic principles, I saw people eating and smoking during Ramadan, and stores selling sexy clothing for women. Even being American, I was greeted by many friendly people. Hmmm...

The next day, I was taken through a bit more of Dahieh (the southern suburb) and then to Sabra and Shatila. The names intimidated me. For anyone familiar with the history, or for those who have seen the film "Waltz with Bashir," you know that these Palestinian refugee camps were the site of the Palestinian massacres at the hands of Israeli supported Phalange militias in retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese president and Phalange leader.

It was the first day of Ramadan and Maya drove us up to the Sabra market. We parked and entered a bustling street lined with shops. Sabra is now home to many many Syrians and Iraqis in addition to the Palestinians and is no longer an official camp. We ducked down a side street and slowly entered Shatila. This extremely dense camp houses over 12,000 refugees. Wandering the filthy narrow concrete alleys felt more like slums from the Indian subcontinent rather than the Middle East. Though not the worst conditions I had seen, it was still quite miserable and I could not keep two things out of my mind: the images I had seen in my studies of slaughtered palestinians in the camps and I could not stop pondering the history that had caused this camp to exist at all. Down one small alley, past some old Hamas posters, I spotted something hop in the stagnant puddle we were crossing. A baby frog. How did it get there? For anyone thinking about the situation from a distance it must have been quite strange: an semi-agnostic American man of partially jewish ancestry and a Lebanese Shia woman laughing, bent over, trying to get a picture of a baby frog in a puddle in a Palestinian refugee camp on the first day of Ramadan after they had been secretly drinking some water. That this moment could happen at all gives me hope.

We left the camp after a few short hours. The only startling moment for me had been went we hit an intersection of alleys and we came across a man sporting a machine gun. I looked at Maya and she seemed unworried so I was relaxed. Then she abruptly stopped for a few moments and I caught a glimpse of uncertainty on her face and she uttered "Oh... its a real gun..." I skipped a few breaths. But then we just continued forward and walked by. Later, driving away from the camp I realized how these years of seeing horrible conditions and the need to be stoic had desensitized me to all this. I felt a little sick that I did not feel more. But this did not last long. It came, and not in any small way. Suddenly, emotionally overwhelmed, my shell cracked.

"Hey, are you okay?" she asked me and reached out to touch the back of my neck.
"Yes," I lied.

(to be continued later in part 3)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 1)

First post in a while. This may seem a bit scattered because I wrote different parts at different times.

Part 1:

I am in Beirut...

I feel so confused.

I arrived at the Syrian/Lebanese frontier in the early afternoon on the last day of my Syrian visa. After the Syrians let me go I crossed the small bridge to the Lebanese side. This crossing, over a small river by the sea, reminded me of my crossing from Mauritania to Senegal a few years ago. Well I suppose the Lebanese side felt more like West Africa. The Syrians were surprisingly composed and relatively orderly. Crossing the bridge brought me into a border post of razorwire, commandos, potholes, French language and Mercedes.

When I finally passed the border, I drove hard for Tripoli (Tarablus). Ahead I could see the green mountains rising near the sea. For a moment everything looked idyllic. But closer examination revealed brutal reality. The entire countryside was coated in debris; both food wrappers and abandoned industrial materials. The fancy cars heading for the border did not seem to fit with the poor rural houses they zoomed past. Before I knew it I was suddenly cycling past a Palestinian refugee camp (the site of the 2007 battles). The shacks on the beach reminded me more of the slums of Dakar, Senegal than anything I imagined to be Lebanese. Hitting my first large town was equally as jarring; many people were dressed in quite sharp clothing and there were more advertisements than I saw in the whole of Syria, yet the road needed repair and many buildings looked abandoned.

I entered the jungle of bulletscarred buildings that is Tripoli through a series of military checkpoints. My first impression was of a city under occupation. I reached my hotel after a ride through a confusing blend of designer clothing shops and crumbling buildings. Once I had showered, I came out to the balcony to a crackling sound similar to gunfire. I tried in my best Arabic to ask what it was but could not understand the response other that it was "good." I took to the streets and discovered a large wedding party down tucked behind some French colonial buildings. The bride and groom were just getting into their convertible porsche, while drummers in traditional Arabic dress played over the noise created by others setting off fireworks.

(This post was interrupted. Now I'm in the Bekaa Valley a week later.)

Alright... back to Tripoli. There I met a Norwegian political scientist/sociologist who explained to me much of the political situation in the north. She was reseaching Sunni mobilization in the city (Tripoli is mostly Sunni while the surrounding areas are mostly Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians). We took a day to escape from the humidity of the coast and went up into the mountains looming over the city. Lebanon is quite stunning from the giant Virgin Mary statue high above Ehden.

I passed a few more days in the region exploring, meeting friendly locals and repairing a broken bicycle spoke. With the bike rideable again, I set off down the coast. This was quite possibly the strangest cycle day I have ever had. Abandoned contruction projects and chic stores, stunning coastline and industrial mining, mansions and shacks, headscarves and sexy bikinis. Huh? And this was after just maybe 20kms. I passed a field of high grass near Byblos (Jbail). I noticed turrets poking out of the vegetation and realized that it was a field of abandoned tanks and armoured personel carriers by a military base. Ten minutes later I was in jetset Byblos eavesdropping on some rich French people complaining about their lives and their yachts while I grabbed a shwarma. An hour later and I was invited in by a Maronite Christian family for a meal. We talked in a hastily invented English/French/Arabic creole as we sat by the sea. I napped on their couch for an hour and woke to more food and an invitation to stay for the night. As we ate the conversation turned to politics and religion which at first was fine. Then a deep gash in Lebanese society again reared its ugly head. "The Muslims are no good" Damnit, I really was in no mood for intolerance. The old man went off on the Muslims, specifically the Palestinians and the Shia Lebanese. As he spewed hatred I examined the tattoos on his arms and pieced together the story. The guy was a Phalangist militiaman during the civil war.

I backed out of the invitation to stay the night, explaining how I misunderstood because I needed to meet a friend in Beirut that night. Cycling away with a package of food and cold water bottles prepared by the old woman, I was deeply saddened. This sadness turned to a feeling of sickness as I passed Jounieh and into Beirut. I don't think I have ever before seen such a disgusting and blatant gap between rich and poor. Well actually I probably have but what makes Lebanon feel different is that it is not a small elite but rather a large group of super wealthy that seem to disregard the rest of the country. I suppose I am just frustrated right now and can't really make a coherent comment on the situation.

Anyway, after passing through a small part of Jounieh where everything was written in Russian and signs for Moldovan travel agencies and "Super Night Clubs" outnumbered all other advertisements I came towards the outskirts of Beirut. I was immediately repulsed by the city (though I loved it deeply by the time I left a week later). Seeing advertisements for alcohol showing a woman saying "plastic surgery made me fabulous" pretty much summed up the initial superficial vibe the bulletridden city presented.

Having survived the drivers, I grabbed a cheap dorm bed and relaxed. Lebanese drivers have to be the worst I have ever encountered outside India. Its not that they driver just badly, they driver as if they don't want to live. You see crazy driving tactics elsewhere but I have never seen so many accidents on the roads. Entering Beirut, I was passed by motorcycles pulling wheelies while weaving in and out of traffic like the beginning of the movie Akira. What compounds the problem is that Lebanese tend to drive huge, gas guzzling vehicles that take up a lot of space on the road. I had one sweet moment of payback for the bad drivers. One woman came up behind me in a brand new Mercedes on a narrow street and began honking. Instead of wait 15 second for the street to widen, she tried to push passed me. She brushed me with the entire length of her car. Unfortunately for her, I was still carrying the ixeace from Georgia and, with a sound like nails on a chalkboard, it left a long scrape down the entire length of her expensive vehicle.

The next day I wandered from East (Christian) Beirut to the West (Sunni) part. The downtown is oddly immaculate while a short walk takes you to the largest monument of the civil war: the Holiday Inn. This hulking skeleton towers over much of Beirut. It seems that nearly every square foot has at least a single bullet hole.

(Fuck it's really hard to write with children screaming and everyone coming up to ask you questions and look over your shoulder. Plus it's Ramadan and I haven't eaten since before sunrise at 4:25 and its now 4:00 which is incredibly difficult considering I biked over a mountain range yesterday so I am obviously a bit cranky.)

That night was quite nice. I met up with two French girls and a Lebanese guy I met in Aleppo and stayed with them .

(Post interrupted again)

Wow I am way behind. I am in Damascus now. I'll go ahead and post this as part 1 and write the rest in part 2.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Syria Part 3 - Like cycling in an armpit

I am speeding through these posts trying to catch up to my present location (Tripoli, Lebanon) so I may update these later to add more.

Hama - Homs short 50km ride to Syria's 3rd largest city. Rather uneventful.

From Homs I pulled a really long day to the coast. The Syrian scenery really redeemed itself on that leg. Half way to the coastal city of Tartus, I made a detour for Krak De Chevaliers (Qa'alat al-Hosn). This crusader castle was quite spectacular. Unfortunately the road up the mountain was the steepest I have seen on the trip. Half way up, in the scorching heat, a motorcycle stopped and threw me a rope. Why not? Towed 2km uphill I made it to the Krak and enjoyed the spectacular view. After the heat of the day had passed, I carried on to reach the Mediterranean for the tail end of sunset. Oh God, the humidity!!!!!!! Hence the title of the post: like cycling in an armpit. It was (and still is in Tripoli) a most miserable combination of heat and humidity (and trash covered coastline). But Tartus was kind to me. I was invited to a Greek Orthodox choir performance for the assumption of the Virgin Mary and most surprising for me I met someone I knew! When I started my cycling trip over 2 years ago from Turkey to Vietnam, I stayed the first night at my friend Paola's apartment on her flatmate Daniele's floor. Well there in Tartus I spotted him again. Small world, no?

Syria Part 2 - Marriage arrangements and nostril-waxing

The road from Aleppo to Hama was quite tough. I had planned to do this leg in two days but due to general lack of any kind of shade on the way, I pumped it out in one, only stopping to visit some Byzantine ruins on the way. Outside these ruins I met a man who stopped me for tea. When he discovered my age (21), he became quite excited. My Arabic is horrible but I did understand that his brother had a daughter who was 16 and would make a good wife. He pulled out a picture of his brother's family and pointed to a woman in full black coverings with only eyes exposed. For all I knew there could be a man under all that covering, so I felt it was ridiculous that he was showing me this.

"Jameela jidan (very beautiful)" I said as a joke. He didn't get it.
"Oh yes very very beautiful."

Hama was exactly what I needed. I was wrecked the night I arrived and slept soundly out on a roof mattress (until the dozen mosques surrounding the hotel went off at 4:00 am!).

A woman from New Zealand who didn't know much about Islam asked me, "What are they saying during the calls?" I was curious to know what she thought they were saying. She responded, "Something like, alright everyone it's time to tell God you love him, he's feeling insecure... AGAIN..." I shouldn't have laughed.

At the hotel I met another traveler on two wheels, except she had an engine. Ania was riding a motorcycle from Poland to Jordan and back. We spent a day together wandering the city and enjoying Arab hospitality. I had to go for a shave and out of curiousity she joined me. It all started quite normal until they shaved president Bashar's signature mustache on me. I felt a little bad about making them cut it off, but it was just too ridiculous. From there it got more and more bizarre, as next came a face scrub with a bizarre humidifier, a mud mask, and then they slathered some green crap just about my beardline. Then they stuck two cottonswabs in the same gunk and shoved them up my nose. At this point I thought they were just making fun of me. I tried to express my concern but I got the reply, "No, no it's Italian." Still trying unsuccessfuly to figure out what this was I got my answer from a swift tug on the cottonswabs in my nose and the resulting pain. Wax. Then, to add insult to injury, they spiked my hair and sprayed on a silver layer. I looked like a hip Syrian and have never felt more ridiculous.

A half kilometer of walking later, I found a man with a hose to spray the silver out of my hair and Ania and I moved on to the next objective: to find wine. Unfortunately it was Sunday so all the Christian shops were closed (Syria is 10% Christian) but the Syrians came through again and found us a bottle of Lebanese wine. Covertly drinking on top of the citadel and looking down on the peaceful city, I could not help but think how fast things can change. Just 27 years ago, large parts of the city were obliterated by the Syrian government to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and 10,000 people died.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Syria Part 1 - Aleppo

I haven't updated in a while because blogging sites are restricted in Syria. Thankfully I just met someone who let me use his computer program to get around this.

I arrived in the early morning to the Syrian border post and after waiting a frustrating 7 and a half hours I was awarded with a visa and entry to Syria. The ride to Aleppo (Halab) was a race against the sun. Though all my concentration was directed toward speeding to my destination, I was vaguely aware of the change in my surroundings. Latin script gave way to Arabic, western-style advertisements were replaced by imposing pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and his signature thin mustache, and the Turkish white star and crescent over a red field morphed into Syrian and Palestinian flags.Aleppo was quite an amazing city.

I had intended to stay only 3 days but a week later I was still there; roaming the old city streets, practicing Arabic over countless invitations for tea, enjoying the fruit smoothies, chatting with travelers (this was the first place I had been that I could call a bit "touristy") or helping my new friends Rani and Abdullah fulfill their commitment to live life as a constant party.

Cycling in Syria sucks. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is insanely hot, the landscape has been uninspiring and trash-coated, the drivers are horrible, and I have been against the wind everyday. Even with that said, this country is fantastic. The people have been so welcoming and everyone has been eager to help me. Also this country gives off the strongest feeling of security. You can walk the streets in any part of any city at anytime and not worry (perhaps a result of ironfisted rule?). Quite different from western perceptions, eh?

Another things that one might not expect is how intimate Middle Eastern men get with each other. I am used to the generally excessive touching and ceremonial cheek kisses but I still can't get over the holding hands. I can (uncomfortably) do the walk with arms locked, but I draw the line at holding hands. Thankfully I have developed a strategy: quickly break the hand free, point to something and ask a question about it and then slyly place the hand in my pocket. Crisis averted.

(Will catch up more about Syria later)Peace-James

Friday, July 31, 2009

Shave and a haircut

Just got a shave and haircut from a Turkish barber in Kilis on the Syrian border. The illusion of cleanliness (trust me it is just an illusion) is important in Turkey where the men generally keep themselves looking sharp.

It has been a long journey to get here. Suffered from stomach problems, a cold and physical exhaustion in Erzurum. When everything but the digestive problems passed I headed on through the mountains to the city of Bingol.

Since I look Turkish (or at least I don't look not Turkish) I didn't have people coming up and asking me questions once I got off the bike. A bit bored in this small town, I decided to go to the local music shop. I met some guys and jammed with my harmonica while they played guıtar and oud (spelling?). Turned out that these guys were officers out for the afternoon. They took me to the base, we gathered a few more officers and went out around town. One spoke English and two of them spoke French so I could put away my 30 words of Turkish.

Really nice guys. They all complained how small and conservative the city was (since they are all from the West) and said I was the first foreigner they had seen in the city. Shortly after this was said, we saw two other cyclists pull into town. Crazy coincidence. We went back to the base for a great meal and played more music.

The next day I realized that my problems were more serious than I had thought. I'm not going to beat around the bush or put it in vague terms: shitting blood. Passed a very cautious, relaxed day with the two cyclists. Two really sweet people ( I really needed the day to talk with them. The next day I was feeling a bit better and made for Diyabakir. If the Kurdish people had a country, Diyarbakir would be the capital.

This brings me to the issue of Kurdish separatists: the PKK. The Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without a country. For the past few decades they have fought a bitter conflict with the Turkish government. The soldiers warned me to be incredible careful in this region.

Anyway, after two mountain passes I can see the land getting more arid and feel the heat. Technical difficulties force me to repair the bike at a stream when I am approach by some men. They invite me for bread and veggies and I chat with the one who speaks a little English. They ask me if I know about Kurds and are delighted that I know a lot about them. They start singing PKK songs and swearing to fight what they call 'Turkish facism.' Since my bike needs some repairs they refuse to let me cycle to Diyarbakir. Since they are passing the city anyway they invite me (make me) catch a ride with them. In the car it is more talks of Kurdistan and I find out that one man's father is in prison in Bingol for PKK activity guarded by the very Gendarma who I am proud to call my friends (the same people who warned me to becareful because of the PKK 'terrorists'). That was a bit of a mind job. I can get on so well with each of these groups but they hate each other.

Diyarbakir in 5: more blood, a Kurdish man that made me go the local hospital, old city walls, the Tigris River, BIM supemarket

Southeast Anatolia is hot. Really hot. I cycle out of Diyarbakir in 100+ heat and a strong headwind. But I am happy that my gut no long pains me (though it is still in bad shape). Slow and steady with warm welcomes and cold drinks from every gas station attendant on the way. A semi truck passes me and drops a few bricks from the top. The driver stops and climbs the back to fix the straps that hold down the cargo. I help him and am surprised that he speaks some English. He invites me (makes me) catch a ride close to SanlıUrfa (birthplace of Abraham). I find out he is fluent in Russian so we switch languages and (again) I am speaking Russian in Turkey. I find it fascinating how worldly most Turkish truckers are. He spoke 4 languages fluently and had travelled to 20 countries because of his occupation.

SanlıUrfa: Run into supefriendly people but I do not stay because I am making a break for the Syrian border. 50km in 110 heat. I get into the Syrian side of the border and... am promptly ejected. Damn it. Giant billboard of president Al-Assad's head staring at me as I bike back to the Turkish side. Have to either go to Gaziantep to get a visa or try a different border. Meet another trucker at the border. I want to catch a ride back to SanlıUrfa but find out he is off to Gaziantep so I go with. Get out in the outskirts late that evening and start pedaling to Kilis by the Syrian border. Come into a small town exausted in the middle of the night. There a man directs me to a place I can sleep.

Please note the preposition here: I slept UNDER a pile of melons last night. I'll leave that one up to the imagination. Cycled into Kilis this morning and have been eating constantly ever since. Honey soaked baklava, chicken kebabs, spicy lamb and pistachio ice cream so thick I could nail it to a wall.

And the blood stopped!!!

Tomorrow (inshallah) I will be in Aleppo (Halab), Syria

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


It has been a while since my last post. First here are the pictures to match the last post.

(Uncle Joe) Stalin still standing in his hometown of Gori:

A bullet scarred building a few meters away (look closely for the marks):

Cycling out from Borjomi was marvelous. The low forestclad mountains gave way to higher altitude, drier hills with smaller patches of forest. On the way, I passed the most bizarre collections of buildings ranging from imperial Russian Dachas to Soviet era apartment blocks and more recent concrete refugee housing. Before Akhaltsikhe I came across a valley absolutely filled with these curious, meter tall plants that gave off an aroma quite similar to that often found in my hometown of Santa Cruz.

Just before the border, outside a very small town, I stumbled onto this Great Patriotic War monument (The Russian name for WWII). In the moment this had a great impact on me. The dark Georgian, his face tense, gaze turned downward, shoulders wıde, fist clenched and gun in hand. 1941-1945.

I got slightly emotional when crossing the border. This crossing (Posof/Vale) is one of the more obsure in this part of the world and I had the feeling that they don't see many foreigners going through on bicycles. One obviously excited Georgian border guard who spoke a little English helped me through. As I was passing through the gate to the Turkish side I heard him call out behind me: You are always welcome in Georgia!
I think Steinbeck after his trip their in the late 1940's said something like:
Georgia is a magical place... and it becomes more mythical the moment you leave.
In the visa office at the border I was sitting with the Turkish officer and two Iranian truck drivers. They saw my passport as I handed it over and the two Iranians started smiling. I turned to them with a smile
-Pa Russky ponimaete? (do you understand Russian)
-no no yok yok
-little little
-You from Iran?
-Yes yes (they looked a little cautious, not sure if the American liked Iran)
-Oh good (They looked surprised) Which city? Isfahan, Shiraz, Tehran, Tabriz...
-Tabriz. You America?
-OOOOHHHHH California(The general response from people in the region followed by a thumbs up) America good.
-Yes. And Iran good.
-America (and usually people list things like Hollywood, Grand Canyon etc but he went off on music) Slipknot, Metallica, Slayer.
I was a bit surprised. But when they invited me out to their trucks for tea, I saw that one had written Slipknot in large letters on above his license plate.
High mountain pass up to the Turkish highlands of the Northeast. That was not fun. Once up the mountain I did not see many trees for a few days. Just smooth, grass and flower covered mountains. Every afternoon it rained which kept the landscape intensely green save for the patches of violet, blue, white or yellow flowers. Quite remote. Kind of felt like the American MidWest and equally as religious.
One evening I ran into a gas station owner who spoke Russian in a town of 100 people. He was quite excited to chat with me no matter how bad my Russian. He after dinner, he sent me over to the gendarma base (that's Turkish military/poice force). The guys were shocked and delighted for the break from the normal routine of their three year deployement in this little, middle-of-nowhere town by hosting a traveller. After a hilarious evening I left to sleep at the gas station. They pleaded with me to stay on the base for the night but I really did not want to risk getting then in trouble. I tried not to laugh as they walked me to the station with their arms around mine and then kissed me on the cheeks goodbye. For a culture so homophobic, I can't help but laugh at how intimate Turkish men get. I remember a similar thing in Georgıa when a man smiled, kissed me goodbye on the cheek, pulled away and suddenly realizing that I may have taken it the wrong way said : I'm not gay, it's just what we do here.
I'm not going to go off too much now on gender relations but I miss seeing equally numbers of men and women interacting freely in public like in Georgia (though it is very far from equal there).

Arrived in Kars (which was once part of the Russian Empire until the Turks re-captured it from Armenian fedayeen forces during the Russian revolution). My main desire was to return to the abandoned ancient Armenian capital Ani.
City walls

Sadly for the Armenians, Ani falls just on the wrong side of the border. It is on the cliffs of a river that marks the international boundry.

Turkey on the left, Armenian on the right and the remains of a bridge that connected them:

The ruins are quite spectacular aside from the Graffiti (Mehmet was here)

Okay this is a disclaimer for the next part. Any Armenians reading this, please take a deep breath, sit down and brace yourselves. In a two different small towns I saw two other churches the first was run down, shot up and turned into a hay storage.
The second was well preserved:

And also in use:

As a storage shed: comment at this second except for a frustrated sigh and an appeal for people to read the history...
On a lighter note, more up and down and up and down. There is nothing really flat in this part of the country. I am finally in Erzurum. It is the most perplexing fusion of ultra-orthodoxy and ultra-consumerism. Women in black chadors or colorful headscarves purchasing fancy new cellular phones next to stores selling sexy, see-through lingerie. I think I need to digest this for a moment.
So I will stay here another day to rest. My body is exhausted after the long haul from Tbilisi. Thankfully the food in this country is fantastic fo I am off for a meal to begin my recovery.
Seljuk Madrasa and flag of Ataturk's Republic against the mountains:

Erzurum from its castle (it is surrounded on all sides by distance mountains):


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

After a long day's ride I landed in Gori. This city was Stalin's hometown and the city occupied by Russian forces during the conflict last year. It was quite eerie entering the town square that I had visited 2 years earlier. Stalin's massive statue was still standing but now the main square was pocked with bulletholes.

I ended up staying with a family and being constantly checked on by a little old lady from next door. She was about the height of an Ewok from Star Wars and made the same noises.

I was very lucky to run into a Halo Trust worker when he was attempting to figure out which colored box in the market was milk (Halo is a demining NGO). He is one of the four foreigners working on Halo Trust's project to clean up cluster munitions left over from the Russian/Ossetian/Georgian conflict in August 2008. He gave me a run though of Halo operations which gave me a little more insight into the realities of a conflict when no one really seems to know what actually happened.

Another long ride today and I am in the former-Soviet mountain resort town of Borjomi staying with a family that is hosting peacecorps workers. Well actually they are ex-peacecorps because their project was disbanded with the conflict but they decided to stay. Lovely couple.

The drivers here are crazy and the roads are bad but the people are friendly. Going through the countryside I seem to keep aquiring massive quantites for fruit from locals willing to share.

Friday, July 10, 2009



The last 10 days have felt quite unreal. I met a German (Simon) and a Serbian (Dragan) in Tbilisi and we headed off to Tusheti. The road is supposed to be the most difficult in Georgia as we quickly learned. The vehicle didn't make it. In fact we actually damaged it and after a night camping in the mountains, we retreated to the safety of Kakheti (the wine region) to repair the car. 


In Telavi (not to be confused with Tel Aviv) our new english-speaking Georgian friend Giorgi helped us find a welder, a mechanic and a wine maker. Driving in his car I asked Giorgi about the global economic crisis.

"Global economic crisis... pshh, we Georgians have 18 years of practice!"

So Giorgi what do you do for work now?

"What any educated man in Telavi does." He reached under his seat, pulled up a plastic taxi sign and laughed as we arrived at the winemaker's home.

Unfortunately in Georgia, when you are trying wine it is not like in California. You do not take a sip, taste it and spit it out. You are given a large glass for each variety that you are expected to finish. Since Dragan was driving, Simon and I shouldered the burden. I spent the next hour as the drunk navigator in the car, professing my love for Georgia the same way a drunk UC kid tells his friend "I love you man."

We sobered up as the landscape changed. It is quite powerful seeing how quickly the high snowcapped mountains of the Caucasus give way to lush forested hills, rich agricultural valleys and finally dry rolling plains. We hit the famous monastery of Davit Gareja on the Azerbaijani border (accidently adding Azerbaijan to the list of countries set foot in during the trip).

After getting a little lost in what appeared to be an abandoned Soviet-era military base (where we spotted quite a unique bullet-riddled sign of the "great communists") we made it back to Tbilisi. 

 Long story short, in Tbilisi I met two awesome Swiss guys and one agreed to attempt to climb Mount Kazbek with me.  Up the Georgian Military Highway!

Kazbek: Obsured by cloud from a church above town

The afternoon before the ascent I was attacked by Georgian hospitality. After long Georgian toasts to friends, family, hating Russia and loving Russian women I was forced to consume massive quanities of food and vodka.

Day 1: 2000 meter elevation change to sleep at the old Soviet weather station above Gergeti Glacier at 3700 meters.

 We met a French climbing team and two Czechs and decided to skip the acclimitization day because we were worried that we would miss the window of good weather and the saftey of a climbing team. So after our long day up to the station, we slept 5 hours, woke up at 2:00 AM and began the ascent the the freezing darkness. The mountains were so stunning in the moonlight. I really can't express how I felt at the time so I won't attempt it.

At 4400 meters we crossed into  Russian territory (the mountain stradles the border so I again accidently added another country to the trip). Unfortunately at 4500 I started getting altitude sickness and was forced to descend.

Of the 12 of us who attempted to  reach the peak, no one succeeded.

Me looking quite ridiculous in front of Russia

 So close to the peak!

My partner suffering from snow blindness the next day:

Now it is time for me to leave Georgia. Tomorrow the two month bike ride begins!

PS: It seems that they place an EU flag next to almost every Georgian one. Many Europeans I meet find it comical 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mount Kazbek defeats me yet again...

I spent the last few days enjoying the beautiful crumbling architecture of Tbilisi's old town. I used the few Hebrew words I knew to try and communicate in the city's old synagogue, practiced a little Arabic with the keeper of the old mosque (the only Mosque to survive the 1930's anti-religion campaigns) and traded some Russian and Georgian pleasantries at the numerous churches. Other than that, I have just been eating gargantuan quantities of Georgian food.

I had finally readied my iceaxe, crampons and cold weather gear for my ascent of Mount Kazbek (the place that Prometheus was supposedly chained down by the gods). I have dreamed of climbing this peak since my last visits to its base in 06 and 07. Full of excitement I just checked the weather forecast and... a week of thunderstorms lay ahead. *sigh*. Looks like I brought my gear halfway across the planet for nothing.

Oh well, better make the most of my time. I met a Serbian man with a car and convinced him to try and head up to Tusheti. This region is the most remote in Georgia. It is bordered to the north by Chechnya and to the east by Dagestan. Looks like that is where I'm headed before I hop on the bike.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The Bike Comes Back to Life:

I'm finally back in Tbilisi! Since our flight arrived 5 hours late last night, a Georgian I met in the airport in Kiev had his friend drive me 15 miles into the city. I thought I had over exaggerated Georgian hospitality in my memories but I really don't know if that is possible. 

Coming into the city brought on a flood of old memories and new thoughts. My new friend pointed out President Saakashvili's new mansion and showed me the road blocks set up by opposition protestors. It is much smaller, quiter and peaceful than the Western news makes it appear.

"People of Saakashvili's Resignation" in front of the Parliament:

The city seems to have changed since I was here two years ago. Modern building projects are sprouting up everywhere and everything seems generally cleaner. It's hard to explain how I feel about it, considering the low levels of developement thougout the rest of the country. It also feels as if the city is losing a bit of it's soul... I suppose I am being a bit over dramatic considering I've only been here one day.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


My hope is two make it from Tbilisi, Georgia to Tel Aviv, Israel on my bicycle. If all goes well my trip should take me through Georgia, the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, The West Bank and Israel. Posting should start sometime after my arrival in Tbilisi in late June.

View Summer 09 in a larger map