Archive for July, 2010

what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut

July 31, 2010
We arrived in Beirut geared up for a good time, having devoted a tragic amount of online research to ferreting out the best restaurants and bars on offer in the city once known as “the Paris of the East.” Giddy with excitement, we even splurged – wait for it – on a US$40 room. But it soon became clear we were little fish in a big pond, no longer in the truly developing world where even budget travellers are situated disproportionately at the top of the capitalist food chain. As it turns out, in Beirut $40 buys you nothing more than a windowless box with a seatless toilet and such proximity to a drum ‘n’ bass club that we could feel the vibrations through our pillows until 9:30 the next morning. I now feel like I have some insight into what it would be like to be a Guantanamo Bay inmate.
 
There’s a lot of money being thrown around in Beirut – the Lebanese are apparently notorious for living beyond their means. Ferraris and Land Rovers squeal around corners driven by preened trophy wives with pink spangly Blackberrys glued to their ears. A Filipino nanny seems to be the latest fashion accessory – restaurants advertise half-price meals for yours if you bring her along to mind the little darlings while you lunch – and you can buy Cohibas and Bombay Sapphire at the petrol station. For the first few days, I think we were actually labouring under a certain degree of culture shock. It’s easy to reject the trappings of consumerism when a) there’s nothing on offer that you want to buy, and b) you’re really just pretending that you don’t have much money, knowing that “you could call your dad and he’d stop it all” and you can waltz into the best establishments in town with impunity, solely by virtue of being foreign. It’s not so easy when turbo capitalism is in your face 24/7 and you’re just one of the crowd. For the first time in ages, we felt poor and shabby and it dealt a bit of a blow to our morale. That, and a night glued to the seatless toilet, care of whatever I ate that didn’t agree with me.
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Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find a hotel that included toilet seats in the room rate and to learn to laugh at ourselves again. Reliably informed by Taste of Beirut, we set out for the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and had our spirits immediately lifted by homemade arak enthusiasts and the wares of Georgina the Tabbouleh Queen. Actually, if ever there was a case for the benefits of comfort eating, we made it as our mood was buoyed with each bite of everything we’d been missing (roast beef and caramelised beetroot sandwiches; sushi; 70% cocoa Lindt) and everything we quickly grew to love (Armenian spicy sausage; fattouch; anything with zaatar), all washed down with many glasses of crisp, chilled rose. Actually, that might have been what buoyed our mood. It certainly wasn’t my haircut, which I had been so looking forward to and was so disappointed by. Somewhat akin to the haircut I had when I was two years old, I now bear a remarkable resemblance to Julie Bishop.
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Still, the way Beirut has risen like a phoenix from the ashes is undeniably impressive. The city’s nightlife is second-to-none – reservations essential at the rooftop clubs that have revellers dancing on the tabletops ’til dawn, sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean – although we could barely afford to sip a few glasses of cheap plonk in the dive-iest of Gemmayzeh’s bars; the renovated downtown area is superbly glamorous although the ghost-like shell of the nearby Holiday Inn, its walls riddled with bullet holes, belies its recent history. Wealthy Lebanese diaspora are returning in droves and we frequently heard American and Australian accents pop up in this comfortably trilingual city.
 
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Thankfully, after a day of dodging Aston Martins and covering up religiously while everyone else on the beach slathers coconut oil on their bronzed, buff bodies, strolling along the Corniche at sunset is free.

rogue states with tasty intestines

July 15, 2010

Syria’s happy quirks do a lot to contradict its status as a rogue state. Our room in Aleppo was freakishly furnished like my childhood at Gran’s place; the groans of Hama’s famous water wheels sound like a track from Dark Side of the Moon; Palmyra town, despite its distinct post-apocalyptic flavour, happens to be home to the nicest manager of the worst hotel in the Middle East. And Mark Twain has the final word on Damascus:

Damascus measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

Aleppo is a great town and, as we’ve mentioned previously, the souk is really where it’s at, with every twist and turn of its winding alleyways revealing another pungent aroma, tasty morsel or incongruous spectacle. Apart from taking a tour of every ATM in the Old City, we spent an intriguing morning visiting the many churches of the Christian Quarter, which are as beautiful as they are thought-provoking. In a nice display of ecumenical spirit, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic churches share the same courtyard where there is a small museum housing ecclesiastical treasures that escaped the genocide in Turkey. We spent about half an hour chatting to the attendant, a passionate and proud Armenian woman, discussing Aleppo’s absorption of the tens of thousands of Armenians refugees from that time.

From Aleppo, we took a day-trip to the Dead Cities and St Simeon Basilica, which commemorates the ascetic “pillar-hermit” who spent 36 years sitting atop an obelisk. Not much of the pillar remains, thanks to centuries of pilgrims souveniring chunks of it, but much of the beautiful Crusader-era structure is still standing, making it easy to picture the former grandeur that, no doubt, its namesake would have utterly disapproved of. The Dead Cities are not best appreciated whilst wearing Havaianas, but fascinating nonetheless.


Hama was our base for a road trip to Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Apamea. Crac des Chevaliers is often described as a castle of childhood imaginings, which pretty much nails it – our juvenile behaviour belied our ever-advancing age as we ran around the ramparts keeping an eye out for the armies of Mordor. Apamea impresses with its rows of Roman columns and ruts in the stone road where caravans and chariots from millennia past have left their impression; try as we might to get a photo, it still just looks like a bunch of flagstones.

More of Syria’s oddities include: an omnipresent, dynastic ophthalmologist president-for-life; chicken shwarma with way too much pickle and mayo; more conspiracy theories than a busload of backpacking Frenchmen, and the infamous “waterfall wash technique.” Dust, dirt or debris in your building? Don’t vacuum, sweep or mop! Just hook up a hose at the top of the stairs, turn it on and sit back for a few hours. Darn any damage to carpet, guests’ bags, adjoining businesses and the technique’s inability to actually clean anything – you’ve just made yourself an indoor water feature!

Sunrise is a visiting time often recommended by sites around the world. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you’re at the Taj Mahal for five hours, waiting for the fog to lift. Palmyra looked glorious from a hill high above – it felt like our own little piece of Syria. Nice and cool too – by 11am, the whole place is a furnace. We spent the rest of the day avoiding sandstorms and amorous Bedouins who’d taken a shine to our dorm mate, talking World Cup with the overwhelmingly hospitable Mohammed and sipping tea.

In Damascus, we managed to meet up with some friends from Annapurna, the lovely Megumi and Nev. Not surprisingly, much of the evening consisted of exchanges of “how bad was [insert thing in India]?!?!” It won’t surprise many of you that my statements became increasingly “bold” and “imaginative” as the evening wore on and the arak set in. I’ve since found out that the pour here is none of this homogeneous “standard measure” banality but, at the very least, 1:1. Yikes. Thankfully, Megumi and Nev are forgiving types.

Thanks to the great resource of Syrian Foodie, we enjoyed many a gourmet adventure in Damascus. Al-Mouselli shwarma was a favourite – unlike the usual mutton or chook, the meat on offer is beef which is served with a rather wonderful sour pomegranate sauce and lashings of extras. It was so good we started involuntarily making those Maeve O’Meara-style “mmmmm, ahhhh” noises so hated by Tommy Bell and, presumably, everyone else. Second on the list and only just passing the “French test”* was seja’at (rice stuffed goat intestines), the real highlight of which was the funky cooking broth served alongside. We were both pretty excited about the Narenj Restaurant, reputedly one of the best in Syria, where we had a “tonight cost three nights in our hotel” meal.** Perhaps our expectations were too high or we didn’t order well but it was a little disappointing; a barn of a place, it seemed like half of Damascus was there, although the night was somewhat rescued late in the piece by absurdly large plates of fruit and sweets, on the house, and spying on nearby courting couples.

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* When pondering a meal, ask yourself: “Would the French eat this?” If yes, tuck in. If no, it’s not worth eating. Test failures include bugs, vermin and eyeballs. No one needs that.

** Admittedly, given our fiscally-challenged state, it’s not hard to accumulate a bill of such proportions and given we had a few hefty glasses of wine too, still very reasonable.

stories from the souq

July 8, 2010
Linds has been looking for a new shirt for quite some time now. We thought we’d hit a winner in the Aleppo souq with a t-shirt boldly proclaiming “I Love Syria” – good fit; decent quality and an undeniable novelty factor – although it didn’t take us long to start questioning the shirt’s utility. In the end, we gave it a miss – we already have doubts about our suitability for admission into Israel, let alone if the border guards found one of those in our backpacks – although we concluded that sales might increase if they also offered a line of shirts that more accurately reflected the attitudes of Syria’s neighbours, to cater to the needs of overland travellers: “I tolerate Syria”, or maybe “Syria: less hated than Israel.” They reckon this souq will yield up just about anything there is to buy, but this might prove a bridge too far.
 
What is available in the souq, amongst a dizzying array of other items, is an alarming amount of raunchy lingerie. Thousands of maribou must have been sacrificed to meet this sort of demand. And while lilac spangly bits aren’t quite to my taste, there is something delightful about a chador-clad woman shoving a gold-sequinned bodysuit into her shopping bag as she thrusts a fistful of notes at the shopkeeper, an elderly, bearded man in a long robe and prayer cap. Had the writers of SATC 2 paid a visit here as part of the script-writing process, they might have avoided being branded as Islamophobes.
 
Some interesting tout techniques going on here too. Fat, young guy with a fag held in a pout between his lips shouts “Madam! My scarves, they are very expensive! Ah, sh*t… I mean, cheap! Cheap!” Admittedly, it had us laughing but when we heard him make the gaff a second and third time, the gig was up.

beer notes #33

July 6, 2010

Al-Shark Beer & Barada Beer Syria

To blog or not to blog? Here we have to weigh up the sheer nothing-to-say-ness of Al-Shark and fellow traveller, Barada, against their somewhat exotic appellation. In light of my failure to track down any Iraqi beer, I’ve decided to forge ahead.

Al-Shark poured completely flat and verged on undrinkable. Likewise, quality control was a bit of an issue with Barada; the can was only 2/3 full (perhaps 1/3 empty is more appropriate here) but the contents were OK. Well, relatively OK. A guy in a bar tried to sell Barada to me on the basis that “every can is a surprise”, but I don’t think I’ll be suggesting they adopt this as an official marketing strategy.

beer notes #32

July 6, 2010

Efes Pilsen & Dark Turkey

I’d prejudged this as yet another faceless man of world beer but it’s actually quite good. Floral and hoppy; I’m sure I got a whiff of wheat beer in there somewhere – although it does need to be really cold for any enjoyment to take place, never a good sign. First beer for some time that has been worthy of a rating: 10/20.

This was to be the beer on offer at our Eminem wedding – that is, before the venue shut abruptly under mysterious, scuttlebutt-inducing circumstances. In the end, I think things worked out better for having the party at Walba, where the Coopers flowed freely….

I only managed to get a picture of the Dark. It’s a disappointment, and not just because it reminds me of Essendon.

turkish love affair

July 4, 2010

We fell in love with Turkey when we first visited in 2002 as fresh-faced, 21-year-olds. It was the first big trip we made together and I look back now with a degree of amazement at the wild route we followed. It was the first northern summer after 9/11 and tourism had plummeted. There was flooding on the Black Sea coast, so we abandoned our intended route and instead headed along the far eastern border with a driver who had to turn his Kurdish pop music down every time we passed through a checkpoint. We gazed over the border at Iran, wondering if we might ever visit; after snatching our passports back from a pair of guys who were either secret police or crooks, we were taken out for beers by the town drunk. The World Cup was on and there were parties in the streets; Turkey finished in third place.

Eight years later, we wondered if we would love it as much as we did the first time and I’m happy to report that we perhaps loved it even more. Great food and great people, enough tourists pass through the south-eastern corner to make travel easy, but not enough to make it worth anyone’s while to hassle them. And who couldn’t love a country where cherries cost $2 a kilo? Highlights included the picturesque mountain town of Mardin and an unexpected plenary indulgence from our visit to the Church of St Peter in Antakya, although Linds was a bit bummed to discover that this doesn’t equate to a free entry pass through the pearly gates. It was only a week but we’ll be back for more later.