Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Albertan Embassy

Damascus, Syria


Last I wrote, I had seen nothing of Syria. Now I’ve seen everything. I am replete with Syrian observations. Erin and I went on a serious high-speed sightseeing binge, interrupted only by that day and a half when I couldn’t stop pooping in Palmyra.

Above: Palmyra

I saw that awesome citadel in Aleppo that I posted those groovy photos of; we went and saw the ruins of a 1500 or so year-old cathedral built on the site where St. Simeon lived on top of a column for a few decades like a complete moron; we saw some dead cities, which were built in Roman times and then abandoned about eight hundred years ago; we saw the ruins of Apamea, the chief remains of which is a column-lined street about 2 km long; we saw Palmyra, which is just an awesome set of ruins.


Most importantly, we saw Crac des Chevaliers, a crusader castle I have been having dreams about ever since I saw a picture of it when I was about 8 years old. It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Everything you ever thought a castle should be, that thing is. I felt like a kid. What a place to let your imagination run wild. You can go spelunking in the dungeons, you can walk the walls, go into the towers, enter the enormous vaults where they kept 5 years’ worth of siege supplies, and feel your way down the long, dark corridors that lead to the arrow slits in the inner walls. I wanted to be besieged there so badly.

Below: Apamea

Syria is one of the best places I’ve ever been for old broken Roman stuff, and it is absolutely the best place you can go for looking at castles. Almost all the castles in Europe are gone, unfortunately; they were torn down by kings who didn’t want local lords to have a place to hide from them, and they were bombed to atoms in the Second World War. In Syria they’re mostly still standing and some of them are in pretty great condition.


It’s a pretty easy place to travel, too. Arabic is nearly as difficult to learn as Mandarin, and is as impossible to learn to read, but the locals are friendly enough that you’ll usually get where you’re going. There are a few difficulties you have to put up with to get to the castles, though.


The drivers all over Syria are so convinced that they have the right of way, it’s like they can’t even see pedestrians — even when they’re driving on the sidewalk. Erin and I went into the train station and found a bunch of displays in Arabic and English about the new subway system they want to build here in Damascus (first line opens in 2016 — buy your tickets now!) The displays had a bar graph showing fatality rates for various forms of transportation, with motorcycles way at the top and trains way at the bottom. In between, walking had about 20 times the fatality rate of driving. Now wait a minute — how many pedestrian-on-pedestrian collisions have you ever heard of that resulted in a fatality? Walking never killed anyone. It’s getting driven over that kills — don’t blame the pedestrians. Anyway, the point is, nobody here wears a seatbelt, and they still kill 20 times more pedestrians than other drivers.


The thing is, as nice as Syrians are when you talk to them, they’re real dicks about getting places. In Aleppo particularly, people walk down the street as though other people weren’t even there — they just walk right into each other. This evening, Erin got out of the bathroom at a restaurant and two women who were waiting for her completely blocked her way out. They just stood there looking at her, waiting for her to dematerialize and let them by; they weren’t even considering doing that politeness dance we Canadians do when we find ourselves in someone else’s way. I’m sure that new subway is going to really help clear up traffic around here, but I’d hate to try to get on it during rush hour.


But like I said, these people are nice, even when they are ripping you off. We often laugh while we’re haggling with cab drivers over whether we’re going to pay four times what locals pay, or just twice as much.


My favourite haggler was the coffee vendor in front of the Aleppo Citadel. He had a pot of Turkish coffee and some plastic cups, and he spoke a few words of English, so his main trade was in ripping off tourists. The first time Erin and I went to the Citadel, he offered us a coffee, which we enthusiastically accepted. He gave us two little plastic cups of strong, strong coffee, and before we took a sip, we asked him how much.


“One hundred,” he says. That’s about three bucks. In Lebanon, we were paying about 25 cents.


“What is this, Starbucks?” I shouted and I handed the coffees back and made a big show of walking away, and he shouted out “welcome, welcome!” and we went back and took the coffees from him and we asked how much again.


“One hundred,” he says, like nothing had happened before, and again I made a lot of noise and flailed my arms and I gave him the coffees back, but before I could walk away, he said “fifty!” Pretending to mishear him, I give him 15. He saw a five-lira coin in my hand and asked for that one, too, and I gave it to him and we smiled and said thank you, happy with our 80% discount.


Two days later, I went back to the Aleppo Citadel alone. The coffee guy was there again. I walked over to him with a 10-lira coin clearly displayed in my hand and asked for a coffee. He smiled and poured and handed me the coffee, and when I handed him the coin, he said, “No. Fifty.”




So I exploded into loud noises and arm waving and gave him the coffee back and said, “We went through all of this two days ago! The price is ten!” I walked away. He called me back and I handed him the ten-lira coin and took the coffee and he said, “No. Fifty.” So I gave him the coffee back, forgot to take back the money, and stormed off.


He called me back and handed me my coffee. I realized that I’d already paid. I smiled and said thanks.


I spent a couple of hours in the Citadel and when I came out, I went back to the coffee man with a ten-lira coin in my hand. He took the coin and poured me a coffee. Then he offered me a cigarette.


Another difficulty you’ll encounter in Syria is getting a drink. I mean, sure, alcohol is forbidden by their religion, but do they have to make it so hard for me to find a decent bar? It’s impossible!


There are Christians in Syria. There are even Christian quarters in both Aleppo and Damascus, but either the Christians don’t drink out of their homes, or they very cleverly hide the places they drink in. Almost every place we’ve found where you can even get a beer with dinner has been an expensive joint that caters mainly to tourists. But if you really want a drink, you can always count on expensive hotels to have expensive bars.


Last night, Erin and I decided to go out and have a couple of drinks to celebrate my recently recovered ability to choose the timing of my bowel movements. We roamed Damascus for a while, finding absolutely nowhere that looked like it would serve us a drink. Then we started hitting the expensive hotels. Sure, it’s hard to find a martini in Syria, but once you do, you’ll get the best martini olive you ever tasted!


We visited a few bars. They were all dissatisfying to us, mainly because they were ridiculously expensive. The last place we went to was completely dead. There was almost nobody in the joint. As we sat over our Lebanese beers upstairs, we could hear someone downstairs talking loudly about the tar sands. I went downstairs and asked the man if he was from Alberta. He was. His name was Doug and he worked for Petro Canada. He bought Erin and I a beer and invited us to come to his office for a coffee the next day.


I remember the first time I visited a Canadian consulate overseas. I was in Bangkok. I’d used up all the pages in my passport and I needed a new one. I had been away from home for six months or more, and I was getting a little homesick for Canada. In the taxi on the way to the consulate, I thought about what the place would be like. I dreamed that there would be hockey on TV, a consulate bar that served caesars, and that everyone in the place would be a smiling Canadian with an accent straight out of Moose Jaw or Mississauga, who’d be thrilled to see a fellow Canadian so far from home.


Of course the consulate was nothing like that. All the employees I spoke to were Thais, and most of them spoke worse English than an average Khao San Road bartender. All of the other people there for consular services were Thais, too, probably applying for Canadian visas. I did see one back-bacon fed Canadian, but he just walked through the room and went down a hallway without even looking at me.


Petro Canada’s office was just like a trip to Canada. It was a tiny piece of home. They didn’t have any hockey or caesars, but the place was just like downtown Calgary. I’ve spent years being glad I escaped downtown Calgary, but for a few minutes today, I was happy to be back.


We were issued security passes by the elevator guard, who gave them to us because we spoke better English than him, and we knew the name of a Petro Canada employee. Upstairs, we talked to the receptionist, who turned out to not really be the receptionist, just someone subbing in. He had no idea where Doug’s office was, but he pointed us in the general direction and told us to go wander around.


The office reminded me strongly of visiting my dad at work when I was a kid. They looked like any slightly shabby oilpatch office in Calgary. They even had the same art on the wall. All around us were pudgy, back-bacon fed, pasty-faced Canadians, smiling and offering to help. One guy who had no idea who we were talking about admitted that he’d just arrived four days ago, which meant he was probably still getting over being freaked out about being in Syria; he probably thought of that office and the hotel the office is lodged in as a safe zone, protecting him from the murderer-faced men outside who kept bumping into him on the street and trying to overcharge him for coffee.


We never found Doug. He was out of the office. We didn’t spend more than fifteen minutes visiting Petro Canada, but I enjoyed every moment of it. I was reminded of the country full of friendly, pale, pudgy people we left behind us, who smile at you even when they’re not being nice, instead of scowling at you while telling a joke, the way Syrians do.


Erin and I have been away for three months and two days. This isn’t such a long time compared to some of the monster trips I’ve taken in the past, but three days ago when I was struggling not to crap myself while struggling not to get ripped off too badly by a cab driver, believe me, I was homesick.


On the other hand, in a couple of weeks we’re going to be in Egypt. Fucking pyramids, man! [Editor's note: Fuck you, Ben.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aleppo Citadel -- Photographic Representation

Things to think about when you look at these photos:
  1. It's friggin' huge
  2. The only way in is over that steep bridge hanging over the moat
  3. The moat is at least 50 feet deep from the street side, making it way the hell deeper from the other side
  4. The hill the thing is on is manmade!

Note the scale on the satellite shot from Google Maps. Each full measurement unit is 100 metres.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Syrian Men Look Like Murderers

Aleppo, Syria

Syrian men look like murderers — not just any murderers, but your murderers. They look like men who are about to pull a curved dagger out of the folds of their robes and open a window in your abdomen through which your entrails will spill onto the sidewalk.

Syrian men have huge noses, deeply set eyes, eyebrows like black feather boas, and three days’ beard fifteen minutes after shaving. They always seem to be scowling, and when they talk to each other about the weather in Arabic, they sound like they’re shouting death threats.
Someone who looks that nasty is surely capable of anything — just look at Todd Bertuzzi. So what’s stopping any of these Syrians from dumping your steaming kidneys onto the cold pavement between your feet?

Does anyone remember the classic kids’ book, Where the Wild Things Are, where the kid is frightened of some nasty-looking monsters, but when he meets them they turn out to be really nice? Syria is that book. Syrians are some of the coolest cats on the planet.

If you can overcome your dread of a Syrian’s murderer’s visage and talk to him, his face might break into a smile, but it probably won’t. Whether he keeps scowling or not, he will ask you where you’re from, tell you that you’re welcome, help you do whatever you’re trying to do, and probably crack a joke while he’s at it — even if he doesn’t speak a word of English and even though you sure as hell can’t make an intelligible sound in the unpronounceable tongue of his forefathers.

One of my favourite Syrians so far is the shawarma-juggler of Aleppo. He speaks just enough English to sell you a delicious shawarma. He wraps it in paper and, still scowling, he hands it to you, but just before you can get a grip on it, the shawarma falls through the outer paper wrapper and plummets toward the ground and catastrophe. But it’s an act, of course, because the shawarma-juggler’s other hand catches it after it falls a foot and tosses it into the air again, where it flips three times before he catches it again and hands it to you. Everyone in the crowd around the shawarma stand has a good laugh, and several people tell you again that you’re welcome in Syria.

Syria as a country is a bit less friendly than its citizens. Crossing the border from Lebanon wasn’t exactly a trial, but it was a little stressful. I’d compare it to entering the United States at one of the border crossings in the prairies, where the border guards are suspicious good old boys with not a lot to do with their days. In fact, crossing into Syria was probably easier; they were very concerned with the stamps in my passport and whether I had visited Israel, but they didn’t ask me why I would want to visit all those countries like a US border guard once asked me, and they didn’t search my wallet or my car like US border guards have on several occasions. They did leave us in suspense, however, perusing every page of our passports while a bus full of Syrians waited for us to get our stamps.

Inside Syria, we’ve found that we are denied the one freedom that Canadians hold most dearly. I’m not talking about freedom from arbitrary arrest; I’m talking about the freedom to check out whatever we want on the internets. I’m not finding it quite as restrictive as the Great Firewall of China, but these Syrians have blocked us from looking at Facebook and loading any web-logs, including the one you’re reading right now. How else are we supposed to get updates on how people’s cats are doing, and look at pictures of our friends drunk at parties?

For us, I guess it’s okay; we’ll leave Syria in a couple of weeks and we’ll catch up with all the cat photos and inebriated Facebook wall remarks, but what about the Syrian people, living with the inescapable daily terror of not being able to access up-to-the-minute information on the pets and drinking of their friends?

I haven’t yet checked if Syrians are allowed to look at internet porn. Some forms of deprivation are too terrible to countenance. Life without lazy Sunday morning left-handed web surfing would be too dreary to imagine, and if I knew the people here had to do without, I’d spend my days bursting into tears at the sight of them. Think of the children! More to the point, think of the teenaged boys!

To be honest, we haven’t seen much of Syria yet. Erin is working on deadlines and I’ve decided to bang out a quick article and see if I can get it picked up by a magazine, so we’ve mostly been commuting between our hotel room, an internet café, and the shawarma-juggler’s stand.
In spite of not having much to say, I sure said a lot, didn’t I?

I send you this missive so that you will know that we are safe. I am smuggling it out of the country tied to the back of an email, in the hopes that it will fly truly, and that Tucker will post it to my web-log for me, for as you know, I haven’t the freedom to post it myself.

Weep not for me; I shall return to a land with Facebook, web-logs and pornography soon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Beirut Photos

My real web-log post for today is below -- these are just some photos from Beirut, starting with Beirut Christmas, then a couple of photos of the rebuilt historical center in Soldere, followed by just a few of the dozens of construction cranes hanging over that city, and finally, some shots of parts of town that haven't been fixed up just yet.


If Lebanon were located in another region, if it had a different reputation and a different recent history, it would be inundated with tourists, all of whom would be happy. The historical sights here are spectacular, the travel is easy, the food is fucking amazing, and the people are more welcoming than any I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The streets are often dirty and you do have to put up with the odd blown-up building, but every country has problems you have to put up with. On balance, Lebanon is one of the best places I've ever been, but part of what I love is the fact that there are so few tourists here.

We stayed in Lebanon longer than we originally thought we would. This started with staying in Beirut for an extra day and then another extra day. Then we went to Baalbek to look at the (absolutely fucking incredible) Roman temple there before crossing the border and going to Damascus, when we changed our minds and went to Tripoli.

If asked to describe Baalbek in a single word, I wouldn’t. There would be no point. Besides, who are you that you’re so busy that you can’t even allow me a second word? And what enlightenment do you suppose you’ll obtain from such a superficial appraisal of an archaeological site of such complexity and importance?

If given several words to describe Baalbek, I’d describe it like this:

Baalbek used to be called Heliopolis by the Greeks and Romans, which basically means Sun City. They built a giant temple to Jupiter, the sun god, there, which I believe was the center of Jupiter-worship in the Roman Empire. I am unsure why they picked such an inconvenient spot, over at one edge of the empire, high up in a valley between two mountain ranges and far (by foot) from the coast, but apparently a lot of pilgrims made a trip there. I do know that I have never seen a ruined Roman temple anywhere near as large and impressive, and I’ve seen a lot of broken Roman shit.

Baalbek is now in my top three Roman sites, and one of the other two is Rome. Baalbek is pretty goddamn cool.

Alongside a lot of really badly broken stuff are a mostly-standing temple to Dionysus that makes the Parthenon in Athens look like a garden shed, and six columns from another temple still standing since Roman times, which are 70 feet tall and 7 feet across. Just building these columns with muscle and rope and animals is an engineering feat beyond belief — the fact that they are still standing moves me to Roman-worship.

There used to be dozens of columns the same size, but between earthquakes, Byzantine Christians and Muslim Mamluks, they all got knocked over, broken up and reused in building churches and transforming this magnificent temple into a castle for their petty internecine wars. I know that I am clearly biased in favour of the Romans because they built the coolest shit, but stuff like that makes me wish that Christians, Muslims and earthquakes would all just go and fuck themselves and leave that awesome Roman stuff alone.

Anyway, look at the pictures:

We stayed in Tripoli longer than we thought we would, as well. Erin has been working and we’ve really enjoyed hanging out here. For most people, Tripoli is a daytrip, but we made ourselves comfortable. Tripoli has an awesome crusader castle (okay, I guess Christians aren’t all bad) and some great mosques, caravansaries and souks (fine —Muslims are pretty cool, too).

The best thing about the castle is that you’re allowed to go pretty much everywhere, and they haven’t put in sissified safety railings and stuff like that all over the place. Apart from a guy selling tickets at the gate and the army unit that occupies one corner of the castle, there are no authority figures around and no other tourists. We got to climb right on top of the walls and look over the city.

If I could have seen that castle when I was ten years old, I would have been in heaven. If anyone who reads this has a ten year-old son, do them a favour and send them to Lebanon — or hell, go along with them — maybe you can do some bonding.



Apart from the castle, Tripoli is a great place to wander around. The old souks are crowded, noisy, narrow little laneways where you can buy toothpaste, a gold ring, handmade soap and electronics, all at bargain prices, and where you can spend hours wandering without getting bored. Plus, all over Tripoli there are men who sell tiny shots of strong Lebanese coffee for about 20 cents, or espresso for 40 cents, although sometimes espresso is only 20 cents, too.

In Tripoli, we wake up and yawn and stretch and loll around in bed for awhile before we go out and have the breakfast that the hotel makes, which comes with tea. Then we might shower, check the TV for news, and go for a walk through the streets. We stop at the first coffee seller we can find, who may or may not speak a single word of English, but we convey that we want two coffees without sugar and bam, we’re on our way. We walk toward the old town and look at a mosque and hey, there’s a guy, why don’t we get another coffee? And bam, we’re walking again, through the souks now, looking at stuff for sale and bam, more coffee! The souk is going by faster and a mosque just blurred by and bam, coffee! The mosques and souks spin past and a laughing Lebanese face tells us "welcome to my country" BAM! My stomach doesn’t feel so good and everything is fuzzy and BAM and all I can see is my hand stretched toward a coffee pot and BAM!

Then we wake up in our hotel room, not knowing how we got there. It’s about two in the afternoon, so we decide to sit down and do some writing. We work until 10:00 PM, have a sip of scotch, do some reading, and go to sleep, so we can be ready to go out for coffee in the morning.

I was going to finally get some photos of Beirut uploaded here, but the internets ain't workin' so good, so later, eh? Maybe I'll put them in a separate post. Here are a couple of shots of Tripoli to tide you over. Look for Erin on the wall of the castle in the first one -- she's the one in black.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Free Lunch for Canadians

Beirut, Lebanon

There is a widespread belief in Canada that people throughout the world love Canadians just for being Canadians, because we’re a big, peaceful country, an honest broker, a peacekeeper and giver of foreign aid. This belief is untrue. In the developing world, most people have never heard of Canada, and in the developed world, they’ve heard of us, but usually only as the punchline in a joke.

Except in Lebanon. Lebanese people actually love us just for being Canadian. They don’t love us as an abstraction, as a big peaceful country that never hurt nobody — they love us concretely and from experience. Many of the people we’ve talked to have relatives living in Canada, (they say there are 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon and 20 million elsewhere) one guy we met was about a year away from moving his family to Montreal, and another guy had just moved back from Montreal a few years ago. There is a Lebanese-Canadian bank here and the museum at Byblos was built using money donated by Quebec after the Lebanese hosted Francophonie in 2002. Our country is connected to this country, and as a result, Erin and I have been well received everywhere.

I suspect these people would have treated us well wherever we are from. People here are just plain friendly and they’re not getting as many tourists as they did before 2006, so we get a bit of extra attention. We did get invited to lunch by one future Canadian, though, and one former Canadian who owns a nice Italian restaurant gave us a free dinner, I suspect entirely because we are Canadian and we’re good conversationalists. And because I’m good-looking.

Yesterday Erin and I visited Byblos, which is in the running for being the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. They have evidence of human habitation there dating at least back to 5000 BC. There’s a big archeological dig site there and it’s an incomprehensible mess. They swear there are Paleolithic dwellings there, but you can’t see much of that. On top of them are the foundations of a Phoenician city from the Bronze and Iron ages. Then the Persians took over and built walls out of giant blocks of stone, some of which are still there, for all the good they did, because they didn’t keep Alexander the Great out. The Greeks didn’t leave too much of their own stuff behind, and they were supplanted by the Romans, who built a big temple, which then fell over, as everything eventually does.

The most impressive thing that is still actually standing is the Crusader castle, which our guide told us is the least important thing there. The Crusader castle was built in the 1100’s mostly out of recycled materials. They used the big blocks from the old Persian fortifications, and they cut up a bunch of columns from the Roman temple to stick in their walls as reinforcing members. The walls of the castle are full of carved stones, but the carvings don’t match up with each other because they were originally carved as parts of different buildings.

There actually isn’t that much to see in Byblos. We wouldn’t have understood a tenth of what we saw if we hadn’t hired a guide, who told us all about the myths of history and archaeology and Lebanon. We had to go to the National Museum today to see all of the pottery and jewelry and sculpture they found there. Byblos is really just a bunch of rocks and conjecture, but the idea of Byblos was absolutely amazing. Seven thousand years of history all in one spot. Lebanon’s seen eighteen major invasions, our guide said — Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mamluks, Byzantines, Ottomans and every other mother with a few dozen chariots to his name has taken this place over. Practically every civilization that our civilization is founded on drove through this place.

What? It was cool!

Okay, so I’m a dork — I get a hard-on over a bunch of old rocks. What, you don’t care where our civilization came from?

Yes, the civilization that produced the World Wrestling Federation and Brittney Spears.

Actually, I kinda get your point.

Okay, fuck Byblos.

But Beirut is hella-wicked cool. I got a bunch of photos, but I don’t have any of them with me. We’re leaving Beirut soon, but I’ll post some photos soon, anachronistically-like.

Yes, as anachronistic as a grown man in 2009 who still gets a hard-on about old rocks and gets a little giddy from standing in a spot where Alexander the Great may have once stood.

Sigh. I should have been an Egyptologist or a tomb robber in the 1830s. I’d have been cool back then.

I love Lebanon. I don’t mean to harp on the subject, but one of my favourite parts of every conversation I have here is the look on people’s faces when I tell them that my family is worried because Lebanon is so dangerous. It’s priceless. It's like telling someone that they're taking an insane risk taking a shower without putting one of those little rubber suction-cup mats in the bottom of the tub.

The Lebanese do have a different standard of risk from us, though; you should see the way they drive.

Great things I’ve seen in Lebanon so far:
Byblos — the idea of Byblos, anyway.
The National Museum in Beirut.
A kids’ book entitled “My Trilingual Dictionary.”
Beirut — the awesome new parts and the bombed-out bullet-pocked soon-to-be-new parts, too.
A 12 year-old girl with eyebrows like Groucho Marx’s moustache.

Friday, January 9, 2009

So, we're in Beirut

Beirut, Lebanon

So, we’re in Beirut.

I was going to write about Jakarta and then we were going to have a week to hang out in Java and wait for our flights to Beirut, but we were getting tired of Indonesia and we didn’t have anywhere particular in mind to spend that week, but it was clear we didn’t want to stay in Jakarta any longer, so we changed our flight and now we’re in Beirut.

Beirut is amazing. Parts of this town are so beautiful it would knock your socks off, and other parts of this town are so broken and ugly it would knock your socks back on again. More than 15 years after the civil war ended, parts of the city are still in ruin. There are at least two ruins that are more than twenty stories tall still hanging in there on the horizon, full of bullet pocks and bomb holes. Other parts of downtown, though, have been completely and beautifully reconstructed, and there are dozens of construction projects busily building the new Beirut.

Beirut is a very European city. People here dress like Parisians, except that most of them have bigger noses than most Parisians. The architecture is European with a few Arabic flourishes, and most of the population speak Arabic most of the time, except that they say merci, when they want to say thanks instead of saying it in Arabic.

I haven’t learned to say thank you in Arabic yet — I’ve been too busy saying merci. I did learn to count to ten in Arabic on our flight over here, though. The plane had TV screens with movies and video games on demand, and one of the video games was a Berlitz language game that could teach the speakers of any of thirty different languages how to say fifty or so words in any one of twenty-nine other languages, so I learned how to count to ten in Arabic. The flight attendants must have thought I was Erin’s pet mental defective, sitting there, ordering free cheap scotch and counting to ten in their native language under my breath over and over again.

Counting to ten in Arabic is hard. I swear I’ve learned to count to ten in at least a dozen languages over the years, including Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Mongolian, Mandarin, Thai/Lao, Malaysian/Indonesian and now Arabic. (I’ve never been to Japan, but I took a judo class when I was 8 or 9.) Oddly, I am incapable of having a conversation in any language other than English. I am a genius at memorizing a few superficial words and questions in other languages, but I am an utter moron when it comes to actual fluency.

We’re staying in a hotel across the street from the American University of Beirut, which has had that name since 1920. The neighbourhood is full of students, and consequently, kebab-sellers. Nearby is a high street where Parisian-dressed locals clop up and down the street in their high heels and shop for clothes. That’s where Erin and I went clothes shopping. Winter in the middle east isn’t the same as it is in equatorial Indonesia, and we don’t have anywhere near enough socks or pants to hang out here for long without starting to stink.

So, I’m sure that many of you have been watching the news and getting the impression that the whole region is about to go up in hellfire. We arrived in Beirut just before midnight, and when we woke up in the morning, the first thing the man on the tee-vee said is that some pack of morons in south Lebanon launched some rockets into Israel. This is the kind of thing I was worried about happening, but I’m finding it hard to be scared here. The locals just keep shopping and going to school and dressing like Parisians, and none of them seem to be worried about a thing.

I’ve talked to a few of the people about the security situation, and their finely-tuned understanding of the politics of the region tells them not to be worried about a thing. The rocket attacks weren’t officially Hezbollah-sanctioned and the Israelis know that. So far, the news has borne out their analysis. It’s difficult for me to quiver and cower when I’m surrounded by happy college kids and businessmen in suits and mothers with children, all of them going about their daily business. What makes me so much more fragile than these people, that I have to run and hide while they go on working and saving and shopping and building?

We are going to leave Lebanon soon, though. There’s no point in keeping all of our loved ones in nervous suspense, wondering if Erin and I (of the millions of people in the country) are going to be the first two in Lebanon to get bombed by Israelis.

TV news makes the world a scary place. Actually being in the world isn’t very scary at all. I can’t wait until TV news start covering traffic deaths — nobody would ever get in a car again. More than 2000 Canadians die on the road every year! Kinda makes being scared of war seem silly — Canadians haven't died at that rate in a war since the 1950s.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Indonesia on the Street

Jogjakarta, Java, Indonesia

Erin and I have just arrived in Jogjakarta and are staying in an actual hotel room, not on the street. Thank you, thank you, we do deserve your applause. The Indonesian Christmas/New Year’s rush is abating and things are returning to normal — meaning that we can now drift around without ever making plans or thinking anything out more than a day in advance, and find all the facilities we need available to us. We even were able to get train tickets to Jakarta today, not on economy class, nor even on business class, but on a prestigious air-conditioned express Executive Class train.

In the last couple of days, Erin and I visited 1100+ year-old temples at Prambanan:

And Borobudur:

There isn’t much to say about those places that these photos won’t render inadequate. We had a sober New Year’s Eve in Borobudur in a hotel full of sober Muslims who were partying in that special, desperate way that sober people have of partying. We were equally sober, but at least we had the good sense to sleep and not to try to dance sober.

I actually have no idea if any of the sober people danced; we were in bed before 10:00 because we were getting up at 5:30.

That night in Borobudur brought us through our New Year’s exile and the next day we were able to come back into the city. Jogjakarta is a fantastic city, and we’re both happy to have a couple of days to just hang out here and enjoy the streets. (As I sit here typing, Erin is also writing a post on her web-log at about Indonesian streets — it’s nowhere near as good as the post you're currently reading, but it’s probably still not bad. Feel free to check it out.)

Many of you know that I’m a bit of a nut for city planning. I won’t harp on the subject for too long, because I know how my planning conversations with my brother can bore all bystanders until their tongues hang out and their eyes roll back in their heads. I’m going to take three paragraphs to talk about it, and then I promise I’ll go back to talking about Indonesia like a normal human being.

In the past week I’ve seen a very instructive contrast between Solo and Jogjakarta, which to my mind fully vindicate Vancouver’s downtown streetscape policies (which conform to the ideas of new urbanism).

Many of Solo’s streets are too wide, have buildings set back too far from the streets, have blank walls facing the street far too often, and have huge spaces between the access points at different buildings and complexes. The result was that many of Solo’s streets were dead and boring as all hell. If it wasn’t for all of the cart-borne vendors filling in the spaces, even the main streets would have had tumbleweeds blowing down them.

Jogjakarta’s streets, on the other hand, are a chaotic riot of beautiful, vibrant urban life. I’m sure there was very little planning involved in making the streets like this; the city began with a solid framework of streets of varying width, most of them narrow, and frequent enough that there are few large blocks. Then a developing-world entrepreneurial class with little regard for the needs of vehicular traffic was unleashed on it and allowed to fill it in at whatever densities the local non-car-owning population considered economical. The streets contain no dead space; they are densely populated, and they contain hundreds small of small businesses in narrow shop fronts and hundreds more smaller businesses run out of carts and rolling down the street on the backs of bikes.

Okay, I’m done blathering.

Erin and I spent a good couple of hours wandering around today, first through the streets and back lanes of Sosrowijayan (some of which are less than 2 meters wide) and then down Jalan Malioboro, Jogjakarta’s main shopping street. Between the intense riot of activity and interactions with the friendly locals, we had a thoroughly entertaining time. Sure, the locals are often friendly because they’re trying to sell you something and they’re not always up-front about what it is they’re selling, but they’re good sports and they can usually take no for an answer.

Jalan Malioboro is one of the best streets I’ve ever been on in my life, although it’s fairly useless as a transportation artery. The west side of the street is a wall of narrow shop fronts, mostly containing small businesses retailing all of the bricabrac and whathaveyou of everyday Indonesian life. Immediately to the east of the shop fronts is a narrow channel of pedestrian traffic, crammed with people shopping and walking, but not getting anywhere particularly quickly. To the east of them, occupying a great deal of sidewalk space that the pedestrians would love to be using, are small merchants selling more bricabrac and whathaveyou from tables.

I bought a belt from one sidewalk vendor for $4.00, marked down from $8.50, because I’m a foreigner (yeah, right). He then tried to convince us to visit his family’s marionette manufactory just to look, not to buy.

To the east of the tables is a lane of traffic, choked with becaks (bicycle taxis), horse-drawn carriages, the odd motorcycle and the few braver pedestrians who actually want to get somewhere. Separated from this flow of traffic by a narrow median is the one-way two-lane main road for petroleum-powered vehicles, most of which aren’t going anywhere particularly quickly. I’m not sure what was to the east of that; it was hard to see. It’s fair to guess that in most places it was a mirror image of what is on the west side of the road. For at least part of the road, a relatively pedestrian-accessable shopping mall stretched down the west side, but Jalan Malioboro carried vibrantly along in spite of it. It’s too strong a street to be ruined by one shopping mall.

There are no parking lots for cars on Jalan Malioboro. I can’t remember seeing anywhere whatsoever to park a car. The street does fine anyway.

As far as I can tell, the two best things you can do in an Indonesian street are to ride in a becak, and to eat bakso, but never at the same time. You can get a becak ride clear across Jogjakarta for about $2.00 if you speak 50 words of Indonesian like I do, and if you have exactly my level of stubbornness. I’m sure that more persistent tourists are able to get it for half the price I can, and I’m even surer that the locals are paying a quarter of what I pay.

Even at $2.00, it’s good entertainment value for money. Becak seats are always slightly too narrow to fit both mine and Erin’s asses comfortably; we are wide-assed people. I’ve seen as many as four Indonesians share one, but only when at least one of them is a child and another is a particularly skinny teen, and the four have no boundaries of personal space between one another. If you can cram yourselves into one, the discomfort is worth the ride.

Becaks move through the city at a leisurely pace, but they are considerably quicker than walking, even when the man pedaling the becak weighs a third as much as his cargo, as is always the case when Erin and I are riding. This is largely because becaks have their own rules of the road and don’t have to wait to cross streets like pedestrians do. Becak drivers have a firm belief that they have the right of way over absolutely everyone else, regardless of the color of the traffic lights. Other drivers may not agree with this belief, but Indonesians drivers are reluctant to murder the 1 to 5 people riding in each becak, so the question is resolved by fiat in the becak drivers’ favour.

There is no better way to see an Indonesian city than in a becak. They move slowly enough that you can see all the details, but quickly enough that you will eventually get to where you’re going. More importantly, you don’t have to constantly watch for who might run you over, like you do when walking; you can just sit back and take in the scenery and trust the becak driver and whatever divine beings you believe in to worry about the traffic.

Bakso is another Indonesian urban delight that takes a fair amount of faith to enjoy. The moving or semi-stationary carts that sell the stuff have no running water, leaving it an open question as to how they cleaned your bowl and silverware after the last diner. It’s well worth your while to put your trust in your divine beings and your immune system and dig in, though.

Bakso is assembled before your eyes out of yellow noodles, pieces of pre-fried tofu, balls of daging sapi (cow meat), and broth ladled out of the cart’s broth bucket. You then add crushed chilis to taste. A healthy portion of bakso (i.e. one small enough that it can’t overwhelm your immune system) will run you about sixty cents. If you have a bowl for lunch, you’ll be fucking starving by the time six o’clock rolls around, as I am now.

So I’m going to go get supper. I end this web-log post with my remaining bakso photos, accompanied by five minutes of whale song.

(Please imagine five minutes of whale song while looking at the following photos.)