This is the end?

I have arrived back home now for Christmas after an amazing three months in Syria and for 5 days in Lebanon. I thought I should update you all on what I am now doing. Before I left I did some work experience with the UN and have managed to get some kind of unpaid internship there after Christmas. So I am only in the UK for 2 weeks before I head back to Syria to begin this on the 2nd of January. I will keep this blog updated when I can and when I do something exciting, because most of the time I will be working in an office and that is hardly anything to write home about! I will also continue to learn Arabic and I have started to teach English to break even for rent and food, just incase I was slacking! So really this is just the beginning! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

A Spiritual Retreat

After the excitement of Palmyra I decided to take my brother and his girlfriend to Marmusa, an isolated fortress that had in about the 6th century been converted into a small church and monastery. Its turbulent history meant that it had fallen into disrepair and fluctuated in being a working monastery from time to time. However in the 1980s an Italian monk came to Marmusa and though his own will alone helped renovate and repair the dilapidated building. Now it is a working monastery promoting cross religious dialogue and welcomes visitors from all faiths and backgrounds. You can stay for a day or stay for as long as you want for free as long as you help out in some way.

So it was under this introduction that my brother, his girlfriend and I started at the bottom of the path that lead (after 20 minutes) to the monastery after being dropped off at the side of the road by a local service van. Nestled in-between two hillsides the sand coloured building blended into the hillside as we started the walk up the meandering stone path. After getting to the top we entered the very very very small doorway (About 1 metre by 1 metre) and entered into to the small courtyard atop the fortress. Here we were greeted by one of the monks (in jeans and a t-shirt!) and took a seat before tea was brought to reward us for our effort.

From our viewpoint we could see the desert plains stretching off in the distance and more mountains helping to give a canvas for the sunlight to paint. After exploring the small peaceful church complete with original frescos my brother and I went to the extensive yet maze like library to explore. Split on three levels its a great space to explore though narrow corridors and doorways then into large book filled rooms. After having lunch there of lentils, onions and peppers we sadly had to leave, so a service taxi was called by radio for us from the nearest town. We descended the long path with the imposing fortress looking down at us us leaving and boarded the bus as it was becoming dark. A great day away from it all.

Oh no! There is two of them!

Its been busy in the last month of my time in Syria. Graduating from University, hiring private tutors, getting work experience at the UN and my twin brother and his girlfriend heading out to visit! They came at the helpful time of 3 o'clock in the morning so 2 syrian friends and I picked them up from the airport by car. When they came through the arrivals gates my friends and I managed to convince my brothers girlfriend that she needed to cover her head on leaving the airport as "Syria is a Muslim country you know". So she duly covered her head and walked out under the chortles of the security personnel. After about 10 metres or so we couldn't keep it up so we told her it was a joke and in fact Syria is on paper a secular country! Welcome to Syria!

The next day we spent time wandering the streets around my house and showing them the market and general sights of the old city including Azam palace, a lovely ottoman relic surrounded by the busy markets that Damascus is famous for. Inside is a lovely courtyard surrounded rooms of various functions each filled with different manikins, including two in a very dodgy position, one hitler lookalike and one remarkable manikin that looks like John Lennon in Middle Eastern clothing. We also wandered around the Ummayid mosque, the Shi'a mosque (decorated impressively with tiny mirrors) and the jewish quarter. In the evening we prepared for the next 2 days in the desert.

We left in the afternoon on a 1960s Scania bus, the kind of busses you think of in India or Pakistan, to the desert. Inside was cramped, hot and uncomfortable but it was great! We were traveling with about 20 other people. Soon as we got out of the city the music came blaring on and all my Syrian friends got up and danced all the way to Palmyra, getting us involved too and stopping off at one Baghdad cafe for refreshments, on the crossroads with of the same name. Traveling through the desert again was great the landscape of the desert is awe-inspiring, rocky outcrops, Bedouin tents and sandy plains make it easy to see why T.E Lawrence fell in love with the Middle East.

After arriving at Palmyra we turned left and then stopped at the side of the road in the dark. We then sat for 10 minutes before lights came out of the darkness to meet us. A pickup truck then took us slowly into the desert, this was proper Bedouin life! After about 20 minutes we arrived at our destination and headed up a small slope to our tents that were under the gaze of a huge rocky outcrop! Beautiful. After eating a traditional meal of rice, nuts, chicken and peppers we spent the night dancing Dapkai, the traditional Syrian dance, a bit like circular line-dancing!

Palmyra and camels dominated the next day followed by a long journey back to civilisation and the welcome rest of Damascus.