News from Sydney
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The picture we have chosen for the front page of my website for this installment of overseas adventures is one of snow falling on the camp of my friend Ali's family in the middle of the Jordan desert. It snows at least every few years in that part of the desert near Saudi Arabia, but it lasts on the ground for an even shorter time than it does in large cities. I woke shortly before seven in the morning on January 10th to find that the world had gone white, it was so misty that we could not see the nearby mountains, and thick flakes were sailing earthwards all around us. For me this was something of a relief after the heavy rain of the night before, which had revealed the patches where the family's goat hair tent is less than waterproof (including just above the place I had bedded down - we all had to get up in the middle of the downpour and resettle in a dry zone!). I spent about two days staying in their camp in the second week of January, including one chilly day out (before the rain and snow) with one of Ali's shepherdess sisters, as she walked the family's herd of about fifty adult sheep and goats to various feeding areas (the lambs and kids are kept in the safety of their partition of the tent and its adjacent pen). It was entertaining for a day, and involved a delicious lunch, but I think I would get bored and lonely after a month, never mind years, of such an activity, necessary as it may be for the nourishment of the herd and the resulting livelihood of the family.
Back in Wadi Rum village a couple of days earlier, Alia (Ali's wife), cut my hair the shortest it has ever been, at my request. I had been toying with the idea of a serious crop for months, and when I found out it was she who had cut the hair of her adorable rosebud-lipped 23 month son Waleed I was happy to let her loose on my locks. The result was a very short, and not particularly feminine cut - but pretty much what I had asked for! Since no Bedouin women ever have short hair Alia didn't have much to go on when it came to designing a style for me. But it was very professionally done! I was given ten days to get used to it privately, as no sooner had it been cut than I promptly re-donned a headscarf until I was on the plane back to England from Damascus.
Although one reason to return to Wadi Rum was to see my friends there again, I had an additional hope of gaining a better understanding of and some more precise details about Bedouin food, and with the help of Alia and Ali's sisters I achieved this, along with some good eating too of course. The eating research continued in Syria the following week, where I was looked after extremely kindly by Kasim, his parents, nine brothers, two sisters and mother-in-law - and their respective wives, husbands and children too.
I arrived in Syria three days later than I had originally forecast, staying longer than anticipated first in Sinai (where I had an excellent week's holiday with Nanette, Alexa and Pascal, involving climbing Mount Sinai in the dark in order to see the first sunrise of 2002 from its peak, as well as an excellent two days walking in the mountains and wadis with a guide Hamdan and his camel Sheylann) and then overrunning in Wadi Rum, and then spending an unforeseen day in Aqaba with the family of Jemal the taxi driver. I had not contacted him (Jemal) before coming to Jordan this year since I did not have his address, but when I staggered off the heavily-delayed ferry from Nuweiba and out of the immigration and customs hall into a crowd of taxi drivers in Aqaba at half-past three in the morning, it was a joyous relief to hear him call my name out. I was in the middle of tiredly debating with another taxi driver that I didn't want a whole taxi to myself into Aqaba city, and looking a bit foolish when being asked where I actually wanted to go, when Jemal spotted me. Not surprising perhaps since I was wearing the exactly same jacket, trousers and the old orange fleece that I had worn on my first visit to Jordan. Gratefully I tumbled into the front seat of his cab while he squished four men into the back, and sat passively while he argued with sundry policemen about what I was doing there. I was delivered to his parents' home and piled high with blankets, thereby sinking into warm sleep at last. Having been saved in this manner I could hardly not spend a day with his siblings after returning from Wadi Rum and the desert five days later.
My trip to Syria was wonderfully smooth - Jemal's aged father and youngest two children delivered me onto an Amman-bound coach and after arriving at Amman's southern bus station I was directed straight to the share taxi that would take me to Abdali bus terminal, which services northbound travellers. I was virtually out of dinars by this point, but after a pleading question to a policemen with an 'I'm a helpless female' look on my face I was taken to a confectionery and cigarettes kiosk where the owner changed twenty dollars for me at a rate we agreed on. From there I was directed to the queue of share taxis heading to Damascus, and a kind Palestinian man in the ticket office got me a special discounted price since I only wanted to go to just the other side of the border rather than all the way to Damascus. The Palestinian was in my car (a large and ancient American towncar, I sat in the back with two Syrian men, one sleeping, the other smiling), and we chatted amicably as we were driven into the sunset. At his suggestion I didn't bother changing my now unneeded dinars to Syrian pounds as we were leaving Jordan - but when we got into Syria there were no money changing facilities! Luckily, although the Syrian consulate in Sydney had put a note in my passport that I should pay for my visa upon arrival in Syria, the immigration officials welcomed me in without charging me. So my Syrian visa ended up FOC!!! Safely into Syria, the Palestinian and I did a deal involving a twenty pound (sterling) note and some Syrian pounds, and I was handed over to the friendly bearded driver of a brand new minivan just outside the border town of Nasib. Catching sight of the large denomination notes in my mit this man offered to drive me all the way to Kasim's home town, rather than just to Dara'a as we'd originally agreed. I was happy to do this (for a total of about five pounds UK money) given that it was already pitch black and I had by now been travelling all day. Unfortunately however I mispronounced Kasim's name so that it sounded rather like 'chasm', with a 'z' sound rather than an 'ss' and so he insisted that in Syria, that should be pronounced 'Kathm', and when we got there, he started asking for 'Kathm' from whomever we may meet. No luck. Not in this town! I gave the grandfather's name - written in my old notebook as "Saleh", but I put the stress on the wrong syllable so that was misinterpreted too! Eventually we found a helpful local who could hear through my mangling and the driver's misinterpretation of Syrian Arabic, and he jumped in to direct us to my friends' home. They took five minutes coming to the outer gate - I began to worry that Kasim had returned to Kuwait and there was no one else there! But no - he eventually came to the door with his younger brother Fadi, and thus began a wonderful week.
You may remember from my news on December 18, 1999 that my previous experience in Syria with Kasim's and his wife's families had been 'one of the best days of my life'. Well this year I had a week of it. I was continually entertained and looked after, I got the recipes I was hoping for, and I learnt not just an excellent card game (the name for which can be translated as 'colonisation') but at last (after hours of dedicated teaching from Kasim's brothers Ibrahim and Youssef) I mastered the Arabic alphabet. With joy just now when checking the heights of various images in the gallery (some are too big for most people's screens, we realise, but we should be fixing that by the next update of the site), I found that I was able to read 'Masjid Niujie' on the entry ticket for Beijing's Niujie mosque! Shame that I have now forgotten several of the Chinese characters on the very same ticket but I suppose that is to be expected.
I returned to wet and windy England still unused to my short hair, and spent two weeks there catching up with friends and family and reading madly in Oxford libraries. I am truly sorry that I missed seeing many friends - unfortunately the only flight I could get on was the one that I took back to Sydney, last Sunday 3rd February. I wish I could have left a few days later and seen a few more of you! Since getting back to Sydney I have started to study Mongolian (just an hour a day - it's too much for my brain to do any more!) and am now struggling to get the book into enough shape to be able to market it to publishers before setting off for Mongolia in late March. Fingers crossed. One interim week has to be written off for training in Canberra, Australia's capital, for my new job - three days to be spent, I'm told, on 'getting used to living in a different culture' . I'll be taking my laptop and typescripts ..
I will be arriving in Mongolia (after a week of bureaucracy in Beijing - don't ask) on April 2nd, and shall work there (based in Ulaan Baatar) for six months. My next news should follow shortly thereafter. Richard has already begun work on our next facelift for the website - any suggestions, or moans about what you don't like at the moment, should be sent his way ASAP - please do email him on email@example.com.
Hope you are all enjoying 2002 as much as I am. Visitors to Mongolia are all welcome! Stay in touch!
Lots of love
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