Filed under wandering

Merhaba Damascus

After a long flight and in a very sleep deprived state, Brent and I arrived in Damascus this afternoon. Between the jet-lag and the endless social commitments of the London leg of our trip, I think I’ve been averaging abut 4-5 hours of sleep a night and, not surprisingly, it hasn’t been enough. Whether that will change in the next few days, I can’t yet say.

Stepping off a plane into a new and very foreign country is never an easy task, and doing so when your body is screaming for sleep is setting yourself a special degree of difficulty. We had a small mix-up with what I thought was the exchange office, but which turned out to be the place where you pay for your visa if you don’t have one. I had already obtained my visa, but the man happily took my money anyway. It took a few minutes to sort it out but it was resolved smilingly. A note to the operators of this facility, if they’re reading: the sign that says “Foreign Exchange” has a tendency to confuse first-time visitors into thinking that this is the Foreign Exchange office.

If the sound of London is the sound of jackhammers, then Damascus’ auditory accompaniment is the atonal orchestra of car horns that punctuates every waking moment. Fortunately our hotel is on a quiet street so it’s a symphony heard from afar, but it rises and falls in cadence and intensity as thousands of drivers navigate the madness of Damascus’ chaotic streets. Then there is the call to prayer, mercifully subdued as the nearest mosque is, apparently, a little way away.

After getting to our hotel, we decided that, despite our exhaustion, we’d take a brief turn around the neighbourhood to get a sense of where we are. We were both experiencing a bit of culture shock, Brent especially so because he’s never really travelled beyond the first world, and the airport madness, the white-knuckle taxi ride, the ramshackle buildings, the noise and crowds and incomprehensible language got to us both. Stepping onto the street, you get back to the human scale of things and realise that you’re not in such a foreign place after all.

Our brief neighbourhood ramble took us to the gates of the old city and the start of the al-Hamidiyya souq, Damascus’ famous sprawling labyrinth of shops and stalls selling everything from carpets to gold jewellery to everyday household stuff like sink plungers and cooking pots. We spent a couple of hours wandering (and getting lost), had an ice cream and bought some soap. Big spenders.

Tomorrow we’ll start our visit in earnest and go in search of some of the sights around town, and figure out how to get to Bosra, which we’ll probably do on Wednesday. But tonight we sleep.

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Away

In a few minutes, Brent and I board QF9 for London, where we’re joining our friends Will and Aaron for their Civil Partnership in a few days’ time. After that, we’re flying to Damascus, Syria, and then going overland to Istanbul, from where Brent will fly home, while I continue overland through central Europe to Vienna for the International AIDS Conference.

I’ll try to keep you updated as we go.

Sydney

Sydney smells of cheap perfume and stale urine. Presumably the perfume is meant to mask the small of the piss.

At one end of Brisbane St there’s a man counting a huge wad of $100 notes. At the other end of Brisbane St there’s a man in a business suit sitting in the gutter, taking off his socks.

The footpaths in Sydney are made of used chewing-gum.

Hotel room v. nice, weather fine. Wish you were here.

:-)

London: escape from mud city

So, Glastonbury was pretty cool, but we left early. Brent woke up unwell yesterday and in need of medical attention, so we took the difficult decision to escape the mud and chaos for a warm bed and a hot bath back in London. As much as we would have liked to have stuck it out, we have the long journey home in a couple of days and it wouldn’t have been OK for Brent to be sick on that journey, so that was it. After a long sleep in a proper bed he’s feeling better already.

A reveller walks in mud during the Glastonbury music festival in Somerset, south-west England, June 22, 2007. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Glasto was amazing, exhilarating, hilarious and fun, but also a lot of hard work with the mud and the crowds. We had two days there before the music began, and the first day of the festival proper, to watch the village become a city and the city become a mudbath … photos, including of us in fright drag, will be forthcoming in due course.

Some of the acts we managed to catch included Reverend and the Makers, Chumbawamba, Oi Va Voi and Amy Winehouse, who was very entertaining if a little, um, under the weather. Horsemeat Disco’s Glastobury gay space, NYC Downlow, managed a pretty faithful recreation of queer New York circa 1978, if you excuse the grass dance floor and awful English beer – lots of fun and probably my favourite part of the festival.

As our holiday draws to its close I feel a little sad to be ending the fun and games of the last three weeks, but I’m also looking forward to getting home and seeing my guys again. Plus there is the next big adventure – our new home (once we get the mortgage approved) to look forward to.

Photo: A reveller walks in mud during the Glastonbury music festival in Somerset, south-west England, June 22, 2007. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Istanbul: not Constantinople (etc.)

This will have to be an unsatisfyingly brief post from Istanbul, where we’ve been for nearly a week and from where we’ll be departing in a few hours. I know I haven’t posted anything at all and I am bad but the problem is that the city is just too lovely, the weather too good, and the distractions too — er, distracting — to be sitting in front of a computer babbling on. I have been jotting in my diary and I hope to find some time to share some observations when I get home.

Blue Mosque Boys

I can say that this has been a really great trip so far — no significant hassles, and both Budapest and especially Istanbul are charming, fascinating places to visit. Our train journey across Europe was satisfyingly slow and more comfortable than expected, with lots of time for reflection, discussion and just watching the world go by our window. Our travelling companions in Istanbul, Will and Aaron, have been lovely and great playmates.

This afternoon we’re heading back to London (the quick and dirty way) to meet up again with Will & Aaron, then on to Bristol overnight and to Glastonbury tomorrow for the festival, which is where we’ll be until Sunday. I suppose it’s possible (likely, even) that there will be internet access there and I may even be inclined to post something along the way.

But don’t count on it.

Oh, Vienna

Just a brief update from Westbahnhof station in Vienna, where we are in the process of changing trains. Our journey from London to here has been pretty easy, on the Eurostar to Paris and then the Orient Express to Vienna. In an hour or so we will be on another train, the Avala, to Budapest where we spend the next couple of days.

Travelling by train is so comfortable and easy and human scaled — we have the privacy of our own cabin, a comfortable bed, and instead of sitting in a cramped seat waiting for some trolley-dolly to toss a muffin and a cup of tea at us, a nice bottle of Bordeaux, cheese and baguettes purchased from near the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The scenery rolls by, and when the time comes the man puts the bunks down so we can be rocked to sleep in the gentle embrace of the train.

More when we get settled in Budapest.

London: In search of the authentic

Travelling — exploring unfamiliar places, seeking out new experiences, actively going in search of the exotic and extraordinary. It’s an odd concept when you think about it, that humans would cross great distances and endure substantial discomfort just to look at stuff that is a little different to the stuff they look at at home. But we do. It is an artifact of modernity that has grown into a very popular passtime (if the crowds in central London around the various tourist haunts are anything to go by).

Having both been to this town a few times before, Brent and I are trying to approach it from a consciously reflective position. Yesterday on Westminster Bridge I saw this young kid, maybe 15 or 16 years old, one of a hoard of tourists crossing between the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, or vice-versa. He was taking photographs of the Thames, as were many others as they crossed. But he didn’t seem to be making any effort at all to record anything of significance to himself, just snapping mindlessly because that was what one does when crossing Westminster Bridge as a tourist. He just lifted the camera, snapped a shot, and another, then walked on.

When this kid returns to wherever he came from, I imagine he’ll show his holiday snaps around, but he’ll have no narrative to connect them with. They’ll just be photographs of some river taken from some bridge in some town overseas with a big ferris wheel.

Here’s what William Wordsworth thought of that view on 3 September 1802:

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

To be so disconnected from what is going on around you that it is incapable of having any meaning as an experience but rather just another empty photo opportunity in a day or week of shuttling from vacuous experience to vacuous experience. This is the normal world of the tour-group tourist, and Wordsworth’s words foresaw the dullness of soul it reflects.

If being on Westminster Bridge (or at the foot of the Great Pyramid, or inside the Aya Sofia mosque, or wherever) has no particular meaning as experience, why bother? Is it any more authentic to have been there and taken a snapshot (but not reflected on it or sought meaning from it) than to have looked at a picture in a book, or seen it on TV, or just never have engaged with it at all?

Yesterday as we wandered around the city, strenuously resisting the urge to sleep all day after a 24-hour flight from Australia and just as strenuously turning the other direction whenever we chanced upon a crowd of tourists (difficult, in central London) we decided to avoid all museums, galleries, exhibitions, historical sites, churches and other “tourist attractions” — except those we stumble on without intending to. We will explore the cities we visit on foot, and if we can find a quiet moment in a handsome street or stumble upon a local delicatessen where we can try some regional foods, if we can meet a local or two, lose ourselves in a bookshop, learn just a little and open our eyes to the real world we are in, that is what we are after.

After sitting in an economy-class seat for 24 long hours, standing in the immigration queue at Heathrow for a couple more, after dragged ourselves and our luggage halfway around the world, surely we owe ourselves at least that.

Glastonbury

Tickets to this year’s Glastonbury festival have sold out in record time, 137,500 tickets sold in less than two hours, according to the BBC.

Organisers said the 137,500 tickets available to the public were snapped up just one hour and 45 minutes after going on sale on Sunday at 0900 BST.

They added that they were happy with how the sales went despite websites and phone lines struggling to cope.

“Struggling to cope” seems about right. Brent and I each had a half-dozen browsers open, trying to load the web page without success for about an hour of Cmd-R, Cmd-R, Cmd-R.

The good news is that the UK arm of our operation had much more success, and we are going to Glasto. W00t!

Atop Hanging Rock

We climbed Hanging Rock on Saturday to celebrate Brent’s birthday. The panorama above was shot from the summit, stitched together from 8 individual images and Flashified for your entertainment. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice a little blue speck in the distance at the end of the forward sweep — that’s our friend Sam. The original image is here, if you’re interested.

I’ll put some other pictures from the hike on Flickr later today.

Oh yeah, happy new year. Hope it’s a good one.

In Sydney

I’m in Sydney tonight — came up for the Making Links conference. The first day today has been quite good although from the program tomorrow looks better. The conference brings together people working in web or IT roles in community-based organisations, so there’s a lot of focus on ways of making the greatest possible use of limited resources. The highlight today for me was a presentation by Nick Moraitis from GetUp.org.au, a group I’ve got a fair bit of admiration for. It was great to see the infectious energy behind the website in human form.

It’s somewhat bittersweet being back in Sydney. It always is, but seems more so this time as it’s been six months since I was last here. King Street Newtown is as delicious as ever, and it’s easy to simultaneously enjoy the stranger-in-a-strange-land invisibility of the traveller with the familiarity of an old and intimate acquaintance.

This afternoon I stopped off at Better Read Than Dead (an essential pilgrimage site for me) and picked up a copy of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. Having read the first few chapters tonight I’m finding it very stimulating, perhaps because of my current status as a traveller (of sorts). I bought the book because Brent and I will be travelling next year — first to London and then by train from London to Istanbul, via Paris, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. We’re cashing in our frequent flyer points and making as much of them as possible. I’m tremendously excited at this and, so the book purchase.

I guess I realise how much I am invigorated by travel; invigorated even when I’m in a crappy hotel on a work trip to a city as well-worn to me as this one. My eyes are open.