The Smell of the Sea

Ah yes, I made it to the Mediterranean Sea. I love the smell of the sea. For some reason I feel relieved to be here. In Syria I feel like I am now really in the Middle East. Here is my route and current location.

My introduction to Syria, though, was not a pleasant one. Within two days I had three flat tires and a bad case of diarrhea.

I also had a bit of trouble with immigration, but that was my own fault. Syria requires US citizens to acquire their visa in advance. But the only consulate nearby was in Ankara, Turkey, which was not on my route and therefore inconvenient to get to. Searching the internet, however, it appeared I could “probably” get a visa at the border (other travellers have done this). So I took my chances.

Sure enough, when I got to the border the immigration officer asked me, “where is your visa?” I played dumb and said I thought I could get one at the border. Eventually I was taken to the head honcho officer, looking smart in his military uniform and sitting behind an enormous desk  in his dark panelled office. He told me I should have gotten the visa in advance.

He said, “We will have to send a fax to Damascus. If they approve it you can get your visa. If not you must go to Ankara. This will take 2-3 hours. Do you want to wait?”

“Do I have a choice?”

He smiled and said, “so, Obama president? Bush no. Obama good.”

That seems to be the reaction wherever I go. Bush is universally despised, but everyone loves Obama. I always shrug and say “we will see.” I don’t particularly trust the aggregate American vote. After all, they elected Bush for eight years. Next time you happen to flick past Jerry Springer or Cops on TV remind yourself, these people can vote. Worse, their vote carries as much value as yours. That’s not right. As I’ve said in previous posts, this one person one vote system is flawed. Smart people like Warren Buffet, Colin Powell, or me should have more voting power than unemployed trailer trash, don’t you think? Boy if I were president I would change a few things that’s for sure. Democracy may not be the best political system devised. A few years of Kevinocracy would straighten out this country.

Anyway, I sat at he immigration office for three hours and the visa was eventually approved so I was on my way.

I had to pedal hard to get to the town of Aleppo, 50 km away. I only had three hours of daylight left and the traffic is chaotic in Syria so I did not relish the thought of riding in darkness. Of course as I was furiously pedalling at dusk when I got two flat tires within 20 km.

Some photos of Aleppo. This shop is for serious cigarette smokers. They don’t sell naught but smokes.

I visited the great mosque there. This one they actually let me go in.

The prayer board. This tells you what time to pray each day. But why should it matter what time you pray? Does Allah keep office hours or something and he will only listen at the designated times?

This casket supposedly contains the head of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist. Women on the left of the partition, men on the right.

The prayer hall of the mosque.

The courtyard.

There were several blind men there. They give blessings for a small donation.

A shop stuffed full. It was crazy. The guy said, c’est une melange.

My first glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea.

The best business to have in Syria must be printing and distributing photos of president Assad. There are millions of them. I think there is a law in Syria that says no matter where you stand in the country you must be able to see a photo of Assad. It’s worse than Starbucks. I think he looks a little squirrely.

A restaurant in the seaside town of Latakia. Of all the names they could have chosen they picked this one?

Near the town of Tartus I visited the medieval castle of Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader fortress and one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world.

Crac des Chevaliers was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades. It was expanded between 1150 and 1250 and eventually housed a garrison of 2,000. The inner curtain wall is up to 100 feet thick at the base on the south side, with seven guard towers 30 feet in diameter.

King Edward I of England, while on the Ninth Crusade in 1272, saw the fortress and used it as an example for his own castles in England and Wales. The fortress was described as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world” by T. E. Lawrence.

The castle was never breached. The knights just gave it up. Long story.

Here are a few pix.


As I continued south toward the Lebanese border I had a slightly strange encounter. A car with three men in it flagged down and indicated I should stop. Normally I ignore these requests but they were persistent.

They identified themselves as policemen and asked to see my passport. The problem was they were in plainclothes and driving a beat up old clunker, not a police car. Naturally I was suspicious. They did not speak much English but I didn’t care. I said, “you don’t look like policemen. Do you have identification?” They did not. So now I am really suspicious. One of them seemed to understand this and he dailed a number on his cell phone.

Meanwhile I was chatting with the other two (well, on a basic level). I tried to explain I was cautious about handing my passport over to strangers, even policemen, if they could not prove who they were.

Then a silly thought struck me. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to quote one of the great lines in cinema. I thought of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I said,

“So if you’re the police where are your badges?”

Then I cracked up.

Now if the guy had been quicker, spoke English, and was a movie buff he would have picked up on the line and provided the appropriate response:

“Badges? We don’t have to show you any stinkin’  badges!”

If he had said that it would have been the highlight of my trip. But alas, he just started at me, a look of incomprehension on his face.

In the end they made me follow them down the street to an old building where three more dudes in street clothes were hanging out. They motioned for me to come in. I refused, saying the building did not look like a police station and I still have not seen any ID. Finally one guy approached and held out his card. It read: SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER.

Ah. OK, that explains it. I capitulated, gave them my passport and accepted their offer of coffee while they checked me out.

Satisfied I was not a Hezbollah spy, they apologized and let me go.

Next stop: Beirut

9 thoughts on “The Smell of the Sea

  1. Ben Kilpela November 12, 2008 / 10:35 pm

    The times for prayer and the way prayer is conducted are discussed in detail in the Qu-ran and other Muslim sacred writings, Kev. Allah is highly concerned with the keeping of hard-and-fast rituals. It seems that the setting of strict times for prayer encourages deep faithfulness. The devout Muslim follows the rules for prayer with great care, believing that it is best for him to do so and most pleasing to Allah.


  2. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. November 14, 2008 / 9:21 pm

    Kev , I thought for a moment that you had been to Copper Harbor and took a picture of Don Jr’s back shed. C’est un autre melange.

    Looking forward to some pix from Lebanon.

    Several years of Kevinocracy might send us all up the road or over the hill of up the creek…eh? Apparently you need a good break at South Beach.

  3. Steve November 15, 2008 / 4:13 pm

    I would like to promote the benefits of nepotism, at this point.

  4. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. November 15, 2008 / 6:43 pm

    Well, Kev, you’ve been through Europe on your bicycle, through South America, across Asia and now into the Middle East. Questions are: are you more or less hopeful for mankind; has your level of tolerance for differences in cultures changed to more or less; in short, how has this changed you politically from what you espoused several years ago and today; finally, so far, has this trek met with your expectations, exceeded them or fallen short.

    I realize that you have a long way to go but as is the wont of many journalists who like to give a report card of sorts at about the half way point I would like to rate YOUR feelings (not that you’ve been reticent to speak you mind, of course) at this point in the journey.

  5. Kevin Koski November 16, 2008 / 11:17 am

    Don, good questions.

    I have to say I have very mixed feelings. It depends on what you want to focus on; is the glass half full or half empty? Yes the world is full of unfair, corrupt, despicable regimes that systematically oppress and enslave their citizens. But still, the vast majority of people I have met are warm, kind, helpful and interested in what I am doing. Despite their hardships people endure. They play with their children, they socialize, they survive, sometimes in what we would call unbearable conditions. Yet they seem content.

    Politically I feel more than ever that most problems in all societies are caused by governments, or people who hold power (backed up by force) over others. Governments have far too much power and control. We need to figure out how to govern ourselves better individually rather than rely on the state to tell us what to do. Simultaneously we need to figure out how we work cooperatively with neighboring states (one argument for a strong central government is the need to protect its citizens from aggressive neighbors). If societies were more cooperative we would not need big armies. We need globally to rethink the purpose and role of the state and in my view scale back the involvement of government in our lives so people can just get on doing what they want to do. In poor countries people see the state as a source of money and power, pehaps the only one, so they fight to get their share (look at what is currently happening in Congo). If the state were weak, small and insignificant there would be nothing to fight over.

    As far as tolerance, I have come to accept the cultural differences in most cases. I know sanitation and hygiene will be poor, traffic chaotic, and service unreliable. I’m even more tolerant of the police. But I still curse bad drivers who cut me off or particularly corrupt police.

    As far as expectations, I find I am not riding as much as I thought I would. I end up staying 2-3 days in some cities to explore the sites, so I won’t have as many miles as I orginally planned. Plus I have taken buses a lot more than I expected. But otherwise it has gone pretty well: no accidents, no major mechnical problems, no serious health issues, no robberies or theft. When I think of all the things that could possibly go wrong it actually has been quite uneventful. The one real disappointment is that I can’t seem to get away from all the vehicles. I thought I would be able to find quiet roads to cycle on but almost everywhere I go I run into a lot of traffic.

  6. Wendy November 17, 2008 / 12:34 am

    I’ve never heard of this place. But it looks beautiful. looks like it has alot of history here.
    The castles are beautiful, i bet alot of shows were film there.
    Kevin I hope your being safe and its good to see you doing what you want to do.

  7. DAD November 20, 2008 / 11:06 pm

    Governments are evil. Most people in power are
    evil—–look at Bush. Any ocracy is difficult. We have to get rid of the filibuster and the veto then you can get things done===hopefully good things

  8. Ben Kilpela November 21, 2008 / 8:53 pm

    Can hardly argue with any of your thoughts on what might improve the world, Kev. But you quickly contradict yourself, as is easy to do when talking in such wide scope. You say that we all need less government, and then admit that government, perhaps even big government, is needed to protect the our group we call our own. Well, the ol’ military-industrial complex has been in operation since the first empires of ancient times, and the justification for the existence of its countless versions down through all the ages of humankind has always been to protect the state and its resources from “neighbors,” from those people who are not part of us, who are our kind. Admitting that we need protection inevitably INEVITably INEVITABLY!!! leads to larger and larger government as greater and greater resources are needed by the military “winners” to maintain and expand their hegemony. It is going on in an infinite number of ways around the world. Consider as one example, as we speak, the end to the despicable, grosteque violations of human and legal rights by the Bush Junta at Guantanamo Bay, where, finally, Americans are being shown to our horror that anyone ANYone ANYONE can be justifiably arrested and oppressed by the government (under any leadership) of our own beloved country in the name of state protection.

    Kippis, Ben

  9. JoJo March 1, 2009 / 4:56 pm

    I just have to mention that one of my brother Ben’s favorite shows is “Cops”…….

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