..: Seat of My Pants :..

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Some from today...

Just posting a few picsh I shot about half an hour ago. Bloody cold day (count your fingers when you come in from outside...):

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Maaloula, Syria - 1994

It was an easy crossing. The border guards barely looked at our hard-won visas and waved us through into Syria.

It wasn’t that much different from North Jordan on the other side of the border. Scrub, sand, cinderblock buildings, the odd brown tent pitched at angel against the wind (did I mention sand?). There was a small bus waiting and we climbed on after learning it was Damascus-bound. We waited for a few more passengers to collect from the border crossing and then the bus rattled off spewing black out of the tailpipe. It must have been an uneventful ride into the capital, as I think I feel asleep.

The arrival at the Damascus drop-off point downtown was on an elevated concrete area overlooking a large plaza in the middle of town. Opposite us were large buildings perhaps 30 storeys in height, several with enormous multi-storey drapes with Bachir Al Assad’s image on them. His father had recently died and the son had come to power. He looked like a weakling, surprised by the events that overtook him. His weedy moustache did nothing to improve his visage and his gaunt stance made him slope forward slightly like Lurch from The Addams Family. Hardly the despotic Syrian hard-ass his father was, he seemed unlikely to grow into the position. But grow into it he would over the coming years, and take up the reins of state terrorism-as-policy. But that’s another rant.

We located a philatelist to look for some stamps for my father back home – the first thing you should do in Damascus, really. It happened to be quite close to our drop-off spot and we spent a happy hour or so looking through stamp books. Next was a money-changer, followed by late lunch/early supper. The place we were to stay the first night in-country was nice enough. Barely a small room really with a sink and bathroom down the hall. However, they did have an in-house restaurant that overlooked a small conflation of three streets, which provided lots to look at while we ordered. The dishes were more geared toward larger groups and so we settled on just two dishes and pops. I ordered a simple baaba ganouj, and when it came saw that it had a thin black swirl of bean curd wound through its centre. I swabbed a hunk of bread through it and took it in. I was flooded with the most sensuous, smoky flavour I had ever experienced. It was instantly remindful of campfires as a boy, spices from the far east, and a wholesomeness good food always brings to the pallete. I remember that taste still.

We were bound, on that trip, for the Aramaic town of Maaloula. It lay nestled in some sharp rises coming up out of the desert near the Syrian ridge overlooking the Bekaa valley in The Lebanon. Aramaic is a language, a long disused language actually, surviving only peripherally in one or two towns such as Maaloula anywhere in the world. Old enough linguistically, to be believed the language Christ spoke. I looked forward very much to hearing it. It would be like hearing the dead speak, I thought.

But first, the covered souk (or Market) of Damascus. Long fabled, the souk had been in-place beside the Grand Mosque since antiquity. Lawrence had written about having lunch there in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Waugh had sampled its Turkish delight in the ‘20s. There had been some diplomatic squabble long ago (1960s?) and Syria had opted to deny tourist passports to British citizens. We were the envy of the archeologists at the British Institute in ‘Amman later when we said where we’d been. The borders opened once again to Brits shortly after our trip. My companion had mentioned an ice cream place in the souk where several generations of Damascenes had made the stuff by hand and pulled portions for customers from great barrels. I became fixated and felt driven to find this place and sample the flavours. So we set off and eventually found the winding alleys that made the market. It was, indeed, covered (as many in the Levant are not) by cotton sheeting far above our heads – perhaps 4 storeys or so with the bordering buildings opening their windows out onto the throngs on the streets below. Very medieval it was, with light streaming through edges in the fabric above, boring down through the musty air, creating long shafts of bright light. People flashed brilliantly for a second and then vanished into darkness when passing through these beams: flash, dark, flash, dark. I was mesmerized. There were the usual textile stalls and cheap clothing places, but not far in we came upon what we were sure was the place.

I ordered a vanilla pistachio, the first barrel I saw. The fellow across the counter pulled out an odd instrument. It had a worn wooden handle with a flat blade branching out from two sides. The blade flattened out and the branches met in the middle making a sort of rectangle with the handle on one end. He sprinkled some very green pistachio nuts across the surface of the vanilla and then struck into the ice cream and pulled it towards him. The ice cream curled up and around in a circular fashion and he took this curl and placed on a plate. I had ordered two scoops and he repeated this procedure with the second. Now, as many will know, eating ice cream in the developing world is never a good idea due to possible contagion lingering in the cooled substance. Eating handmade ice cream is foolhardy. But oh that pistachio looked good and I threw caution to the wind. It was, of course, delicious and the pistachio nuts stuck in my teeth for hours – something I have never minded in the least.

The next day we caught another small bus to Maaloula and arrived midday. There were Christian symbols throughout the town; an enclave really, because the high ridges of rock very closely guarded the town, even from the sun when at any angle but directly above. There was a large crucifix painted onto a flat wall of rock above the main street leading sharply up into town. It was perhaps sixty feet up the rock and maybe 20 feet long on the nave. Huge. We inspected a very old church dating from the turn of the first millennium and then, prize of prizes, stoked ourselves with a very cold beer from a canopied terrace above the church. It was somewhat thick, almost mead-like and had a slight sweetness to it. Perfect for a hot day’s walking and hiking.

We needed to return to Damascus for the evening and strode down out of town back to the main road leading south and east. We hadn’t a ride organized and hoped to find a station or staging area for transport. Slightly alarmed to find none, and it approaching 4pm, we felt our only option was to attempt then to hitchhike. And within a few minutes of the familiar hitchhiker stance known the world over, a minivan pulled over ahead of us and crunched to a stop on the gravel. Approaching the vehicle we saw that it already had a number of people in it. Perhaps there was a bus staging area after all and we had missed it? We squeezed into the minivan, my companion over to the far side next to some women and I next to the sliding door and a jovial fellow beaming at everyone.

The driver was singing and clearly enjoying himself as he sashayed between the lines on the road, softly but clearly singing a little ditty. A woman joined in, and then the smiley guy next to me, and soon all were bouncing off each others’ shoulders as voices were raised in song. A national tune, a folk song? No, the driver called back over his shoulder in broken English, We have come from a wedding! They’d picked us up simply because they’d been in a good mood. How refreshing to have that happen. I could not imagine my own culture allowing for happy people to happily pick up strangers and happily carry on with them in their midst. How repressive Canadian society seemed at that point. Suddenly, I noticed the driver was fiddling around in his seat as he drove, the van careening around in the lane. He feet came up and planted themselves on the steering wheel and his hands fished out a short recorder from his pockets. He began to play a melody and drive with his feet. He even stuck his left arm out the window as he drove to show off further. My companion and I were aghast, but soon laughing with the rest of the company. Not to be outdone, I slid open the window next to me and pulled out my yo-yo and stuck my arm out as well. It was difficult, and my yo-yo wonked off the side of the van a few times, but I did manage a couple of inside loops and even one around-the-world. There were shouts of hurrah for both of us and we were soon back in Damascus and clapping one another on the back.

As a denouement, we were detained at the Jordanian border for what were declared insufficient multiple entry visas. We were clear that we had obtained them in Canada and were very stubborn about it. We sat in the office of the commandant for two hours, as he grew increasingly bored of us, asking the same questions over and again not really interested in the replies anymore. We were eventually released and passed through back into Jordan. I remember it felt good to be back, like our home for some silly reason. I had only spent a couple of months there that year and the previous one; hardly enough to even warrant the idea of living there. But home it felt and to ‘Amman we returned.

Picture below taken with B&W infrared film:

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Eastern Cuba - 1995

Should it be a box or a bag? A box would be cumbersome, but be more protective against bangs and knocks. A bag would be easier and we could keep them and use them on the trip home, but be less protective. In the end we opted for bags. Bicycle bags from Royal Airlines came in about 15 mil thickness and seemed very tough indeed.

Gary and I decided to bicycle into the Sheraton in Toronto that morning where we would meet and take the bus out to the airport. We threw our bikes in the bus’ under-compartment and swung aboard. We had decided also to take only carry on luggage to Cuba. It had been a toss-up between panniers (two each, maybe three with one in front) and small backpacks. The latter won the toss-up and we sauntered onto the plane in our cycling shorts, t-shirts and two very full and round packs. How very odd to sit there among the holiday-makers in Hawaiian shirts and hear talk of swim-up bars when we knew we’d be sleeping on the beach and trying to find local food throughout the week ahead.

The airport in Holguin (whole-geen) was small and provincial, with the inside resembling a stable more than an international destination, but the openness was directly to our liking and advantage. We unloaded our bikes from the trolley as it trundled up on the tarmac side of the terminal and proceeded to customs. Without much more than a pursing of eyebrows, we were let through, much faster than the Hawaiian shirts to our delight. Stopping outside to put our pedals back on and right the handlebars, we set off in short order out to the road on into town. I immediately got a flat. We had each brought a spare tire (one), and I changed mine as the Hawaiian shirts passed us by in twos and fours in their taxis, gaping out the window at us as they passed. I had decided to use my spare right then and patch the first later on.

Probably the first thing we both noticed was that it was a bit more difficult riding with the rounded packs on our backs that anticipated. They tended to roll around from side to side, pivoting over the backbone in a most annoying way. But I thought I’d better get used to it and tried to get comfortable nonetheless. The heavier weight on the shoulders meant more weight on the palms as well. We had to watch it as this tended to make our hands go numb after riding for a while. We spent the first night in a place called El Bosque (el-Boss-kay - the Forest), on the edge of town and quite enjoyed the pool and warmth of the day. We tootled around on our bikes and marveled at the quantity of Communist propaganda that was just there, out in the open. Billboard for Che Guevara:
Modelo de hombre communista / Modelo de hombre revolucionario / Simbolo permanente e invincible (Model of a communist man / model of a revolutionary / A permanent and invincible Symbol). Sign above a department store:
Socialismo o Muerte (Socialism or Death). I liked the last one’s sentiment – especially that it was above a department store, except for the Death part. Sheesh, that seemed a little extreme. I had thought Cubans were more laid back than that. We came across a catholic church under reconstruction, and walked into the shell interior. The floor was earthen and muddy in places. There were some pews over and to the right and we made out way there. I spied a lovely life-sized statue of an angel praying off in a corner with a single shaft of light coming down and striking her in the otherwise dimly lit building. I was thunderstruck and hastily took a photograph. There were some stairs behind a wall nearby and we wound our way up their circular path, pausing at one point to peer out a vertical window at the church’s bells above the nave, towering over the town. The stairs opened up into a small room at the top of the tower and we came across religious artifacts jumbled together haphazardly as they awaited restoration to various parts of the church. There was a great wheel from a bell structure, two angels in pretty rough shape, some wooden poles (what could they be use for?), and the like. I took some more photographs.

I had brought ten rolls of B&W infrared film with me, in addition to some Tri-X. BW infrared film is a very interesting emulsion. It’s been around a long time. Edward Steichen used it while in the Navy in WWII to photograph ships. It has the curious property for a BW film of being only sensitive to the far-red spectrum of light. That is, it could only ‘see’ object illuminated (from within or without) at around 900 nm on the spectral scale. To accentuate this property, BW IR film is mainly used with a dark-red filter (Kodak 25A) over the lens. A coloured filter for BW film? Sure, because the red filter absorbs all other colours striking it (blue, green, whatever) and only passes red light. This renders anything emitting or reflecting IR light as almost over-exposed on the film and anything at the blue, or opposite, end of the spectrum as underexposed. The result? Blues go almost black (a deep blue sky for example), and greens become very dark as well, but clouds against a blue sky show brilliantly. Trees (and foliage in general) glow white with the IR they re-emit and reflect from the sun. It is a ghostly result, and startlingly beautiful. It even has some nice applications with non-IR subjects, such as great doors and angels in a certain Cuban church.

As Gary and I rode around Holguin, we were joined by a young fellow, a kid really, on his ten-speed. He rode a clunky sky-blue affair with a fender over the chainstays and a badly rusted gooseneck. There was Cyrillic writing on the fender – a Russian ten-speed, who’d have thought? The kid was 16 and said he was on the Cuban national youth cycling team. We had no reason to doubt him and he seemed quite nice and even amiable. He was very proud of his lycra shorts and carefully pointed out that they said ‘Gar-ee Feesha’ on them. He took us up to a mirador (look-out) so we could see the lay of the wide and shallow valley the town was in and then on down to an abandoned fun park. I was amazed by this park with weeds growing up between train rails, rust stains running down the sides of astral skycars leaning at angles above us, and melancholy swing-set seats sagging to the ground with infinite longing. I shot a lot of IR.

We went back to his grandmother’s house in town while he ran through the place shouting ABUELA! ABUELA! like she was utterly deaf. The old woman rolled out of one of the rooms and we sat in the back courtyard under some trees and had tea. I’m not sure about Gary, but I was starting to feel not a little conspicuous in my own lycra shorts and wished I had regular shorts instead, feeling a bit like a fat man in a speedo. The lad insisted we meet his fiancé and we rode off to meet her – I can’t now remember where that was. At a market was it? At any rate, she was very gentle and even genteel. She sat demurely on the back of the lad’s bike, side-saddle, and repeatedly admonished Gary and I to be ‘cuidado!’ or careful as we rode beside them on the way to their apartment. Their place was lightly decorated and had the obligatory portrait of Castro, but also one of Antonio Maceo (mah-say-o), the original liberator of Cuba from the Spaniards. The girl, 16 also, fussed in the kitchen and brought out some juices for us while we talked shop in the living room; about bicycles and specifically what bits off ours the lad might have. A bit taken aback, we said we needed all parts as we had the better part of a week ahead of us and further that the Cuban authorities at entry had taken quick inventory of our gear and would check to see if we were leaving any behind (true), and would tax us heavily if not (unknown, actually). He seemed very disappointed and we promised to send stuff to him from Canada on return, but he blew this off as wholly unlikely. Not, we thought, because we wouldn’t follow through but because it would all be stolen enroute to his address. He was very probably right. In the end, we did locate a shipper to Cuba and sent him a helmet, bell, pump and so on, on the chance they would get through anyway.

We slunk back to the hotel (there’d been a lot of riding that first full day), and crashed into bed in order to get up early to ride on to the coast and Guardalavaca.

It was our third night in Cuba that we slept under the stars, eventually wrapped in our bikes’ plastic bags because we had underestimated the warmth of Cuban nights in March. It was bloody cold and I don’t think either of us would have slept much anyway even if two drunks hadn’t come along and started scaring us out of our wits by asking how expensive all our gear was. We stood up in the cold and dark and tried to appear larger than we really were. They offered us rum, which we politely declined, and we started putting our stuff together all the while keeping an eye on them. They were silhouetted against the early morning sky and I knew I couldn’t have picked them out in a lineup if it had included giraffes. They appeared to give up after a time and sauntered off. Well, we thought, that wasn’t half as much fun as we had expected and a damn sight colder too. So being the wimps we confessed to being, we set out to find a hotel.

But there was a problem. We had chosen the lower, eastern end of Cuba solely because The Last Minute Club had had cheapo fares to Holguin. In fact, we might very well have gone to Mexico if The Last Minute Club had led our wallets in that direction. But we ended up in eastern Cuba and while sure, it would have been nice to see Havana, we then would have had to consort with lots of other plebes and a ton more Hawaiian shirts to boot. We consoled ourselves with this, as we progressed along the beach to the only resort in the area. It was closed to outsiders of course, and this included us. The difference in price between air only to Cuba and all-inclusive became brilliantly clear at this point and we looked at each other and went for a ride to think about what we would do.

Suddenly, not 100 metres from the resort, we came across four small cabanas. Woohoo! They were US$50 per night and while we had very limited cash, felt we really needed to bunk there for the remainder of our stay. We swung a deal with a maitre d’ at the resort for food and gave them US$20/day. This pretty much ate up our liquidity, so to speak, and the remaining days of the week slid into one another as we tootled around on country roads, examined the beach and picked up cassettes of local Cuban musicians.

The last event that Cuba had in store for us was an exit tax at the airport. Ulp. We had spent all our money, all of it, on food and accommodation. We needed $25 each to get on board the flight home! While we fretted and sweated about what to do and passengers shuffled past us in the line and got on the plane, an angel descended in the form of a young man who very graciously gave us the money. We discovered a few minutes later that we were seated beside him and we exchanged addresses with him promising to pay him back on return. I sincerely doubt he ever expected to see us again, but a few days later I showed up at Bell, where he worked, and handed over the cash (with a bottle of wine in addition as heartfelt thanks).

Sunday, March 12, 2006

La Ceiba, Honduras - 1999

The threat of rain had us a little disappointed, but surely must have made more than just us cast our eyes heavenward. Hurricane Mitch had waded through Honduras the year before and taken so many lives and so much property with it that it felt like a permanent scar on the collective psyche of that small nation.

Mitch had become a storm unlike any other previously in Honduras. It battered Tegucigalpa and raged over the small Carib islands off its eastern coast. There are three small islands that are the most populous in the area and Mitch took a special interest in one of them, Guanaja. It hovered over that little island like it had a purpose, an intention. When finished with it, Mitch left the island without even vegetation. All that could be discerned of prior human habitation was the angular runways of a small airstrip, tarmac’d for posterity as the lone survivor of the storm’s fury.

We arrived in La Ceiba, enroute to another meeting with Doctor’s Without Borders (MSF). There was a small village inland from the coast being jointly rebuilt by Spanish and French contingents. We were to follow a French civil engineer into the bush to a water source that had recently been rebuilt to supply a village down-country. We met him at the local MSF office in La Ceiba and he shook our hands gruffly, looking down. I took him at first to be a shy man, but quickly revised my opinion to feel his distaste for us, whom he evidently perceived of as cheap eco-tourists. Maybe it was just French reserve, but he answered questions in monosyllables and sighed a lot when we needed clarifications on things. I needed to know how many people the water source served in order to determine whether we needed to travel to that village as well, whether or not the pipe supply was above ground or below as it would depend on the equipment I might bring with us, if Hondurans had been told of our coming beforehand or not… All these questions had a bearing on the day. We crowded into the familiar white MSF Toyota trucks and rattle-banged off into the country.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Balfate Colon (‘Bal-fat-ay Ko-loan’), the commercial capitol in the area – a village of a couple of hundred people, and I found quickly that this was, in fact, the village being supplied by the water source up in the hills. Being a structural engineer, the Frenchman was helping to rebuilt houses and offices with proper regard for foundations and roofs. He had also designed and overseen the construction of the cistern at the source and its pipe’s snake trail through the bush and out into the village. He was one of those varieties of MSF staffers with no medical training. He was a ‘logistician’, in MSF parlance, providing on-the-ground know-how in everything from how to mix cement, how to test the tensile strength of metals for use in piping and what indigenous woods were best for building.

We arrived at the edge of a wall of forest. I slung my camera bag over my shoulder and across my chest. I preferred to hike with it that way. I would tuck my arms behind me, clasping them under the weight of the bag, tipping forward as I walked. This had a comfortable feel and reminded me of my father, for some reason. He never had a camera bag like mine at all, nor did I ever go hiking with him – skiing yes, and many times, but not hiking. In the many ways in which one hopes to improve upon the characters of one’s parents in oneself, there are some pockets of character here and there that I strongly wish to retain in me. I laugh and sneeze precisely like him, which I like very much. I can hear his voice in mine when I laugh and its comforting to feel him in me. I am not an orphan, I was not adopted. Carrie had her gear arranged as well and I turned to see the Frenchman already off and away on the trail.

I grimaced a bit and we set out after him. He set a very fast pace, and we later supposed that he was going to show these cheap eco-tourists what it meant to tap into real work and real purpose. We clambered over roots reaching our mid-riffs and around huge leafs stretching out from acacias and jungle palms. It was wet and humid as it has been in other jungles I have set foot in and while great for your senses, quickly reduces your clothes to sodden boat anchors. We struggled a bit a first to keep up, but soon adjusted to the pace and had little difficulty in keeping up. A white pipe perhaps eight inches in diameter slid through the brush and joined us on our trek up into the hills. We were gaining ground steadily and the white pipe became a metal one, often arcing up over us and suspending from tree limbs. I saw that the path was wet and muddy and well-trodden as I ducked more and more often under fallen limbs and dripping fronds. We paused for breath a few times, but the Frenchman was set on getting in to the source, and after some time we reached a large concrete bunker set into the earth.

There were some Honduran men clustered around the cistern and had its cap off waiting for us. I peered down into the bunker and saw that it was nearly full. I was desperate for a gulp of it, but hadn’t the nerve to ask, nor the confidence that it might actually be potable. The Frenchman seemed more at ease somehow. Perhaps he was now wholly in his environment and therefore more relaxed, I’m not sure. Perhaps we had passed some sort of muster and proven ourselves a little bit to him. Its true that for the balance of the day he was more talkative and we learned some more detail about him. He spoke later of his postings in Bosnia and Russia, where is said he spent five years that he’ll never get back. He was reasonably happy to be in Honduras, but I could tell that this was perhaps his last posting, and that he was starting to long for croissants and French companionship. I had met a Canadian male nurse in Cambodia who had gone the other way and married a Cambodian woman and had no feelings whatsoever for Canada and didn’t think he’d ever return. I just could not conceive of that possibility. Never returning to the country I thought best on earth? Seriously, there is no better nation on the planet, except maybe New Zealand – and I haven’t even been there. Without getting into the whole thing of the criteria that makes up a ‘best place to live’ argument, and the nationalism it can engender (witness the repugnant US government), Canada offers the evenhandedness of civility that we should all aspire to (hand-wringing over recent violence in Toronto notwithstanding).

The Hondurans at the site were jovial and less inclined to a quick trip back through the jungle. We sauntered, rather, back down the trail (after I’d done some photography) and slanted off out onto an open hillside part of the way down, following the pipeline. Men were burying the line a couple of feet down in red earth. We passed a small farm and I could see several red macaws on a perch outside the thatched buildings. I turned to look back the way we’d come and saw a toucan very close near the top of a large acacia, looking back at us in return. We didn't really belong there and we on our way out. Six years later now.... I wonder if the Frenchman is back in France?