Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from Mali

I hear vague rumours that it is cold elsewhere. Here it is a solid twenty-something, the kind of air which makes one think twice about which piece of clothing to perspire through today. Despite that, every now and then you see someone in a puffy coat and/or knitted hat. As if it is officially cold under 32 degrees. Solstice has no meaning here but is another subtile hint that there is something out there beyond Mali.

We spend Christmas Eve mostly zonked out at the Bla Bla Club in Badalabougou, a district in Bamako. People on the street in white cotton beards sell festive hats and plastic Christmas'y toys. We have been playing Santa Claus to ourselves all day, my friends mailing out boxes of merchandise and me, a box packed with a balanfon, mosquito net, and a small slab of Timbuktu salt.

We meet up with our now former driver to go to see a concert - "Nuit des Stars". The ticket says that it starts at 8, but they only start warming up at about 9:30. We are impressed with their warm-up and are ourselves warmed up. It reminds me of exhibitions of sketches and how beautiful practice can be. But there are few in the audience, and proportionally a large number of Red Cross and security personnel. The musicians at about 10:15 stop, and instead of being treated to some fabulous mystery band, they leave as they can't play for so few people. We leave in the small kerfuffle that follows, and retreat for ice cream at Patisserie Amandine.

Today has been a do-nothing day. I received a book from my travelling friends on the Dogon mythology. It is really very fascinating. I like the idea that the combination of the sounds of words, and the words themselves make up a parole. That fire, air, and earth are found in speech - and for me these are warmth, humility, and depth. And water - the fluidness of it all. Speech and textile are compatriots and find definition in each other. Scarf-songs and shirt-speeches.

We are off for a sunset something at Hotel Mandelay - the something being whatever we can afford. We have the odd inverse problem in having inaccessible finances - me having traveller's cheques I have yet to crack open and they having cards that don't work here. For us, banks are bingo halls where we try our luck every so often. Luckily they are open a few hours on Satuday and Sunday for weekend fun.

Looking forward to Damascus, am there on the 30th after a day and a bit in Tunis.

Eid Milaad Mjaid / Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Femmes Farafina

Happy Islamic New Year! It was yesterday but I am online just now. Currently at Hotel Ya Pas de Problème in Mopti, after a few days in the Dogon Country, Mali.

One of the things my friends from are doing here is visiting various women's cooperatives. It's been great seeking these places out and buying products that help literacy, recyling, and other initiatives. We visited a centre this morning here in Mopti that supports young unmarried mothers. We are going back tonight, to pick up an outfit I've ordered made-to-measure, as well as dinner.

Other cooperatives we've visited en route include:
Gafreh in Bobo, Burkina Faso - woven products from recycled bags.
Nammoi in Gorom-Gorom, Burkina Faso - artisinal products, with profits going to help combat illiteracy, among other things.

And of course back in Damascus, there's Anat, where I picked up a nice shawl a few weeks ago. They train women in the indigenous art of textiles.

Tomorrow, off to Djenné ...

Friday, December 4, 2009


First full day in Bamako, off to Burkina tomorrow. We are a group of 4 who have hired a 4WD and will be in Burkina for 2 weeks, and back in Mali for 2 weeks. Two are shopping for .
Received a care package from my brother, who sent it to Finland to a friend in Brussels, now here. Arrival a story I will have to recount later. Today saw the photographic exhibition Rencontres de Bamako at both the cultural centre as well as at the museum. Have just spent some time at the antiques market, and am currently being bit by mosquitoes at a cyber cafe.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winter warmth

It is getting distinctly colder here. Whereas just a month ago the street cats were crouched underneath cars, they now come up from underneath, preferring the warmth of car hoods, albeit temporary. I myself find myself googling "date and time bamako", and reassure myself that pretty soon, I am back to highs of 36 degrees. I'm off to BKO next week, via Tunisair which, coincidentally, has oriented its schedule to fly there and back on the light of the full moons next month.

What, you may ask, am I doing in Damascus. As one might respond to any such question (i.e., why are you learning Arabic, etc.), I ask that of myself every day.

I divide half of my time to learning Arabic, and half of my time to preparing for a project in January and February, when I return. The most understandable way to explain the latter is that I am studying Islamic tile, in particular the geometric stone mosaics of the Omayyad Mosque.

The vehicle has been well warmed up now. Aside from the "must-sees" of the Hillenbrand and Ettinghausen literature of Islamic architecture, it has taken me on a quick tour of ideas of beauty and aesthetic experience in Classical Arabic thought, introducing me to philosophers such as ibn Hazm, ibn Sina (Avicenna), ibn Rushd, and al-Misri. There's been a prolonged stop, of course, at the Mosque itself, which I've come to understand much, much less as a mosque. There are frequent visits to the Danish Institute and a growing appreciation of it from various angles. The most recent of which is a side street diversion into the concept of waqf, from which (I think) derived the initial partitioning of the Roman theatre into an endowment, and which (I think) is related to why there is a lease agreement rather than a wholesale transfer of property.

I remember that learning in architecture school that once we were to become architects, and if we had any personal assets we wished to protect, we should establish a trust (in the name of a spouse, ideally a non-architect).

If you wiki "trust law", you will see it stemming from the Crusades, and thereby how the Crusaders needed this concept when they came back from the road and how perhaps they knew about this concept, as the waqf, when they were mucking around in the Levant.

The reality and concept of a religious city is ajnabee for this Vancouverite. Years of geographic and architectural studies do not prepare one for the Islamic city - except readings about Orientalism. Would it not have been better to acquaint myself with the Andalusian geographer Idrisi (which I knew more as the name of a GIS program) rather than Said? In the introduction in my current reading, Waqfs and Urban Structures, "Cities were meant to reflect the sacred, or, more specifically, cities as spatial structures imitated a celestial archetype and were incorporated into the heavenly order, which shaped the hierarchies of earthly space." Really?

So it is not so much what I am doing in Damascus, but what it is doing to me ...

Monday, November 23, 2009


It's a beautiful day here. It has been for the past week - a warm winter sun, 19 degrees, but cool in the shade otherwise. It's very unusual, and should be about 10 degrees and raining.

I walk one of my routes to the Danish Institute. As the sun sets, it gets chilly in my unheated room, and with my incandescent lamp now broken and replaced with a weak flourescent one, the warm, bright library at the Institute in the evenings makes enlightenment a temptation.

At one point a truck tries to move through an alley I am on. Vehicles in the Old City have, I think, whiskers. They somehow can tell if they have 15 cm / 6 inches of clearance on either side. From other cars, from walls, from people, from the flick of my coat. Last night, after a dinner at Beit Jabri (one of the 3 "original" Old City restaurants), a truck was probably within a cm of the walls on each side.

So I am hemmed in for a little bit, and find myself with a young man with a cart, which has a big pot of chickpeas in broth. Despite 2 months here now, I still can't have a normal conversation. But I can smile a lot and we can exchange names. I ask him what he is selling. Melina, he says. A beautiful name. And he makes me a cup as we wait for the truck to back out.

And at the Institute I am reading about the building itself - Beit Al Aqqad. The history of Damascus runs through the veins of this building. Whereas in Vancouver the oldest house dates to 1888, this house begins in 1st c. BC. A Roman theatre funded by Herod the Great was built here, and the Institute is sited over what used to be the stage. An arch over the east entrance to the orchestra was revealed during the restoration process. Surprise. Whereas I have only really associated buildings with history, here - Syria in general - I am confronted over and over again to face archaeology as well. They even had potsherds under the cellar here, where they found ceramics from China.

It is an amazing project. It is the first with a Lease and Restoration Agreement, where in return for paying for the restoration of the building, the Institute can use it for 50 years. There were however inter-cultural hiccups. One, not least, being that workers here are typically paid by volume of material worked, not by the number of hours worked. This does not favour restoration projects and resulted in "intense discussions" with artisans who would rather use new material rather than re-use the original material. It is also a dream project for someone who wants to exercise skills in logistics: all material (including 200kg, 6m long timbers) in or out of the site has to get through a busy souq and through a 2m alleyway. Or be lifted across roofs. Manually.

I walk home, the same way in which I came. Suddenly, a blackout occurs. And it gets to be very, very dark. In a small pocket in my bag I have 2 items related to emergencies - my inhaler (not used once, surprisingly) and a turtle bike light (used more than once). The latter is good to have handy at such times.

Or when, as in the Crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, my guide with night vision says, "Come, give me your hand", and leads me into the pitch black passageway behind the stone oven ....

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dead Sea, check

Current coordinates are in Amman, Jordan. A group of us four ajnabee girls drove down to the 30% saline Dead Sea. We were stopped for what we thought was speeding but really more of an opportunity for a policeman to propose to our friend who was driving. "Marriage, me?" he laughs. We went down to the Sea, paid 1JD to the man with a bucket of mud and globbed it all over. We now smell like mud and are currently trying to clean up before heading out to a Yemani restaurant.

Amman is quite different from Damascus. Whereas in Damascus the traffic is like a circus on a skating rink, people here drive in lanes, more or less. Here there are no sanctions, and there is Coca Cola (took a picture), McDonald's, various American imports etc. This city also ballooned in the past 60 years. A city of white orthogonal barnacles attached to the hillsides. Everything looks the same, and after some driving around one feels a need for some landmarking more stable than billboards. And after Damascus you wonder if any city can happen in less than 7000 years.

Tomorrow, Petra.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I type in the words "sauvaget", "mosquee omeyyade" into the computer. The system is, I swear, DOS or something just after, perhaps programmed in the early 90s. Beside the computer is a binder with a listing of the different subjects and sections of the bibliothèque. Typed. On a typewriter that didn't use electricity but imprints by brute mechanical force.

I am at the Ifpo, L'Institut français du Proche-Orient. The security man at the front walks by the door behind me. I quickly turn on the French button in my brain.

- You have registered with the library now?
- No, I haven't. I was just searching for a couple of books here.
- By yourself? You know how to do this?
- It isn't very difficult.
- Well still you have to register. You must see the librarian.

I have just come from visiting the library at the Finnish Institute in Damascus. Where, although their collection is small and the idea of an electronic catalogue dawned on them just last week, it doesn't take much more than curiosity and a knowledge of how to turn on a light switch to be able to look at their books. They even photocopied a few sheets for me for free.

I humbly walk over to the Ifpo librarian's desk and ask to be a registered member.

- Very well. Are you a student here?
- No, unfortunately I am not.
- A researcher then? Are you working on a thesis at your university?
- No, I have finished my studies. I am an architect undertaking independent studies on the Omayyad Mosque.

This goes on. Focussed curiosity is not enough, and a loose association with the Danish Institute in Damascus just barely gets me over the line of legitimate existance. Exceptionellement, I am allowed to consult these books once. You see, it is a very small library and it is intended for students and researchers working on their projects. There is no room for additional people.

I look behind me. Two seats out of 20 are occupied.

Profusely thanking her, I let her know my gratitude, as otherwise I would probably need to undergo a worse fate in Paris to find these books. I let her know that, as it is late in the day, and that I am going to Jordan tomorrow, I will return one of these mornings in order to consult the material.

I hope to be a quiet and dusty book in my next life, in order to grow my appreciation for this system of information management.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Aramaic and argileh

- "Your Lonely Planet is outdated"
- "It came out last summer. Syria's changing too fast; you can't blame the publisher"

We enter Haretna, one of the 106 restaurants which have mushroomed in the Old City, from an original three 7 years ago. It is early, about 8pm, and we come in from the cold rainy 10 degree weather which has fallen upon Ash-Sham, the local name for Dimasq / Damascus. People are puffing it up here, and the argileh warms the place up. They say that a restaurant without argileh is like a bath without water. But the president has declared a smoking ban in public places, and this will come into effect in about 2 weeks.

About half of the courtyard is full - it isn't until about 9 or 10 that the places gets going. A fountain gurgles in the middle, trees dot the space, and a cat peers from under the temporary winter roof cover. A number of waiters flock around, not seemingly doing much but all patrons are somehow served quickly nonetheless. Aside from ordering mezze, we 3 girls order beer and arak, as we specifically came in order to be able to, and not all restaurants serve alcohol. Still we imagine that we are probably the only table that does order booze. The first time I had come I had arak straight / no ice or water. This is apparently very, very unconventional. My friend said that my ice-less arak would be the big news that night in the kitchen.

There are a number of parties happening this evening, perhaps that is why there is live music and a Sufi dancer, a "whirling dervish", on the stage. A mesmorizing sight, calm and twirling around and around. The night was meant to go on forever, but we get overheated by the excess argileh and leave around midnight.


Yesterday I tag along with a couple of friends to find "a woman" - this is how I understood it, and not much more. She is known to have had recurrent stigmata. She is otherwise a completely normal housewife. We get our first directions as "about 100m from Bab Touma", and are not exactly aware of what we are looking for. A neon sign? A picture? A big cross? After my friend bravely asks along the route, we come along to a modest house at the end of a street. We enter and find a shrine in what otherwise would be a small courtyard. A man tells us that there are prayers every day at 5pm (in Arabic), and gives us pamphlets which has the website address: . We plan to return for prayers later in the week.

And just now I have returned from Maalula, a small town about a hour by servees or mini-bus. It is most known for its continued use of Aramaic, the language of Christ. A community nestled in the mountains, the music of the bells or of the prayers of the muezzin resound against the rocks. It was a beautiful and sunny day, literally a breath of fresh air from the constant car horns of Damascus.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


It is hot hot hot. According to weather websites it is 34 degrees C today. Just as I acclimatized to 29 degrees. This is very abnormal as it should be much cooler, but voila le global warming. However, when this breaks, it will really snap. Entirely contrary to Vancouver with its long spring and fall, Damascus has a long summer and a distinct winter, with no much in between.

About to meet with a friend for coffee. This is a guy who I met at the Damascus airport, who I swear was just one person behind me at Heathrow security, and now lives across the street from me. And who I've met twice in Bab Touma. This area has an extremely tight Arabic-learning community and it is unbelievable how many connections - for better or for worse - are made in the 2-week period prior to each university session. I know people in 2 houses within a block radius; I think my coffee friend knows people in 4. And then indirect connections branch out.

Last weekend consisted of "adventurous days". This included some travel admin (i.e. visa extension, a 10-step process involving 6-8 people, the end result was someone telling me I didn't need to do it) and a trip out to Palmyra and Bosra - sightseeing days which are great but also have their fair share of "adventure" that is undesirable, like taxi-haggling and the non-existance of return busses to Damascus. My taxi-related vocabularly is improving immensely, like "Please turn on the meter" and "It is prohibited to not use the meter". At one point, after refusing 10 taxi drivers who wanted to charge 4 times the known amount, I gave up and decided I would just pay whatever to the next one. And the heavens sent down an honest one who turned the meter on.

Started Arabic yesterday and have done my verbs: past, present, future and present participle.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Thanks to all who have sent me Facebook messages the past day or so. I can read them via e-mail but I haven't been able to access Facebook in Syria. If I twittered, I would.

Today has been a checklist day: National Museum (check), Azem Palace (check). The Museum is about as comprehensible as [blank]. There are many objects in it but as I refine a glazed look at all of them, so do they to me. With few interpretive texts they seem to be just a clue to something further, like the shake of a hand when I ask for directions. However some things are just beautiful. Case 13 in a room full of script shows an absolutely gorgeous piece of text. It's as if Beethoven wrote a symphony using Arabic script. BOOM dah dah dah daaaa...

A few cultural places close at 2pm, as that is when lunch is. People don't come back after lunch apparently, and as I am meeting someone in half an hour I was thinking how to fill that gap in the day. I walk up to Souq Sarouja, the place where I started out in Damascus, and head for a falafel stall. My Arabic is much better, particularly with ordering falafel. I have branched out and can order a fresh squeezed juice of banana (mooz), orange (boort'nan), and pineapple (ananas). And with each encounter I learn another word, like pomegranate (romaan) which I will dish out next time.

I continue walking up to the commercial district. Bank-wise, it is a bit of a circus and to have a reasonable pleasant banking experience I go to my favoured bank which offers an ATM that is compatible with my VISA. I believe it is a new private bank that popped up like a mushroom in recent years.

And I go onto a new section of the city - for the city and for me. Much here and there reminds me of parts of China - the hope and the grit of it all. And much in the shops comes from China here too. I go for bit on a walking street - about 40 feet wide, with shops on either end, culminating in a small park. Continuing further up north I come to Souq Al-Jooma, a much more laid-back souq that the ones in the Old City. Much easier to walk through due to fewer cars and fewer people, and the products are everyday - vegetables, clothes, toiletries. And there are no tourists. Syria, I hear, gets 4 million tourists every year. So in all, a very much different experience than I had in Iran a few years back, when for example I would be the only one in a museum.

Tomorrow I head to the Immigration Office to do passport admin, and then off to Palmyra for a couple of days with a friend. It's quite warm here - somewhat chilly in the mornings but a good solid 28C over the day. Despite that, people are talking about imminent snow and the need for sweaters.

Friday, October 9, 2009


...and now I've fallen for Damascus.

I have settled in, much like a piece of dust blown in from the desert. With the help of an angel - who tells me that I will be looked after, whether I like it or not - I move into a room in a house tomorrow, in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter. Things are more or less fine. I have just had lunch at a very good restaurant near this internet cafe, and though I am in dire need of a siesta I thought I would update you.

The money situation is not entirely solved but also not entirely a problem. The Commercial Bank here is yes, where I go. They have many branches, each branch dealing with one thing - i.e. one branch for depositing, one branch for withdrawing, another for loans, etc.. I went to the one for foreign exchange and they said "no travellers cheques". However, I have been tipped to go up to the second floor so I will try that. The process to study Arabic has been formally initiated, although I have to say that some Arabic is needed to "begin" in the first place. My placement test is on Tuesday, and classes begin on the 18th.

The old city here (of which Bab Touma is an integral part, especially on Fridays when the remainder shuts down) is enchanting, enticing, enduring. It is a city where a grid system and a labyrinth come together, and where upper storey extrusions and ground floor eye-candy make for a truly sculptured city. As the angel led me to my future home, it was as if I was drowning both vertically and horizontally.

I have had a very sophisticated introduction to my stay here by way of a conference at the Danish Institute in Damascus (a place I will be returning to many times), entitled Cultural Encounters during the Crusades. Listening to hard-core crusader historians and experts on canonical law is like seeing the surficial intricacies of mosaic tile without a knowledge of the structure behind. I have yet much reading to do to prepare for the past. We have seen some major sites here in Damascus and beyond, and as we have gone through some sun-drenched courtyards and rooftops, dimly-lit spaces and just plain pitch-black tunnels, it has been both an eye-dialating and eye-constricting experience. Yesterday we went to a castle called Krak de Chevaliers, with the person who wrote the book on Crusader castles, Hugh Kennedy.

And today I was initiated into Syria. Someone asked me how many children I had.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Day 1 in Damascus

I'm here, I'm safe, and I'm healthy.

However it has been a frustrating first day. The last guidebook said to bring traveller's cheques; there are very few ATMS. However actually no bank takes them and there are in fact ATMs everywhere. So unfortunately a fair chunk of my budget is locked up in this pieces of paper. So that was this morning.

Afternoon: in search of a place to stay for a couple of months. I had hoped to stay at a monastery. This is a place that has 3 phone numbers and 2 fax numbers that don't work, and does not respond to e-mails. With a picture only of the front facade as my guide (no map) I ask person after person where this place is, supposedly where female students can stay. I get there in absolute disbelief. But no, no room for me.

This is a plain busy, dusty city. Imagine walking around inside a car engine. In Bab Touma now, much quieter, more sane. It is getting dark now, it's about 5:48pm, so heading back to the funduq. Day 2 will have me walking out to the Arabic Language Center, and the Danish Institute in Damascus.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


Currently at the National Archives in Kew. They have public internet stations where one can simply walk up to a computer and start using them. No red tape whatsoever.

Today I was in Kew Gardens, where among the diversity of things there I learned about red tape. The colour of this binding was dyed using a particular plant, and used to bind documents of an official nature. I found this in a interesting gallery called People and Plants, where the connections between nature and commodity can be made. It is part of their Economic Botany department.

I also discovered a book called "Fruit" published by Kew that, if it weren't for its weight, would be in my bag right now. It talks about the fruitiness of fruit, and that it is nature's amazing way of species survival. Some fruit is edible, some is not edible (by us), and some is, well, incredible.

For example, take the fruit of the 'Suicide Palm', a tree listed as one of the top 10 newly discovered species of 2008. A spectacular palm of over 18 metres high, its fruition depletes its nutrient reserves and the result is that the entire tree dies and collapses. There are only about 100 of these on Madagascar. Survival of the hopeful.

Kew is all about studying and classifying plants, now using DNA rather than plant forms and shapes; their stated aim being that if we do not know what we have, we cannot protect it. Protection often is in collaboration with the local community to which a particular plant is native. Another thing that Kew does is the Millenium Bank. For example, all native species of a plant in Victoria, Australia were burnt in the February 2009 fires, but seeds remain at the Botanic Gardens in Australia and in Kew for renewal.

Acceptance of the globalization of commodities and a movement towards species protection through molecular biology. You would be hard-pressed to find the word "colonization" in this botanic haven.

On the road to Damascus - Dimashq as it is pronounced there. Should be there Saturday around midnight.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Currently at an internet café in Roma. The keyboards are much better here.

I drive out of Ponte dell'Olio this morning at 6:30, driving across a misty landscape with a red sun rising in the east. I arrive, via Trenitalia, at the Embassy of Mali at 13:30 in Roma and apply for my visa, which went swimmingly. They even smiled and gave change. And, instead of the 3 days which they had said over the phone, they said I could come back tomorrow to pick it up.

Which is great except that I hadn't planned on staying in this city - I thought I would need to return on Tuesday (3 working days from now). Hm!

I am travelling particularly light today, and flip through my mental files as to where my favourite place to stay here is located. I was last here in 2004, and I wander in the general area until a golden door magically appears in a white marble wall. Tah-dah!

Lo and behold, I receive keys to the same apartment as last time. My Casa Roma.

So I am really roaming around in Rome, which can't be that bad at all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Where the streets have no lanes

At an internet cafe in Affori, a suburb of Milan. My ears perk at the word "mumkin" ... Arabic for please (I think). Eva and I are on our way out of the city. Home for the past two days has been a hostel ... and functioning psychiatric hospital. It was an acoustically bright place where you could hear the clock ticking very clearly.

"Opportunity is the sweet flower of time"

"No pursuit of man has been done in vain"

Phrases from yesterday's opera L'Orfeo, a beautiful production, and like nothing I have seen before. The theatre has a very deep stage - made even deeper by the illusion of the horizon and water in the scenography (by Robert Wilson), which in general was very well done. "Unreal" would be my best description of it. Subtitles on the backs of seats, like on airplanes - as if you were going someplace else by seeing a production in the theatre.

Marina and I had tickets in the highest seats, closest to the stage - ie not exactly great. Furthermore, to drive the fact in that we were to go to the peanut gallery, we were to go through another entrance. However, because I love Italy, it loves me back. For whatever reason, all tickets for seats up there were to be exchanged. In the end, we are in the 3rd Balcony, Box 16. So mid-height, just left of centre. I could not have wished better seats.

Also I am pleased to report that I have successfully driven into the heart of Milan, within 2 blocks of Teatro alla Scala, and come out again. It was sort of a 3-D pop quiz. Chaos, combined with intimacy, has developed its own rules of the road. Like a fast-pace secret handshake between the Milanese. Today it will just be the autostrada to Noceto, close to Parma.

If the keyboard was more functional I would write more.

(With normal pressure, the last sentence would be, "If he keyboad was mo unctional I would wite mo" )

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ponte dell'Olio

Unbelievable but I made it! I am here in Ponte dell'Olio, car and all, by the good graces above. Now off to Agroturismo la Favorita for dinner ...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

7 Minutes

... is all I have for this post. Currently at the Norfolk Library in Wells-next-the-Sea. It takes 5 minutes for the internet to start up here, so it is a good thing that there are a lot of books about whilst one is waiting.

And why have I come all this way to Wells you/they ask? Well there is this woman named Jane Digby who was part of the family at Holkham, the estate near here. Among the things she did in her life, she went to Syria. None of the stewards at Holkham seemed to know about her, though I have intrigued them as to who she is. Apparently 'The Duchess' was partly filmed there, though I bet the next big film to be (partly) shot there will be about Jane.

Also visited Walsingham yesterday. Judging from all the religious activity there it would make one think that it was Nazareth itself. Enjoyed evening vespers at the humble St. Seraphin Russian Orthodox Church.

Now off to take the Coasthopper to Kings Lynn, then the train to Cambridge for a night. Then Italy for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Madness and Modernity

I have arrived in Brussels fair and well.

My flight was uneventful, which is the best one can wish for. The night was clear and the moon out there was just waning. Beside me was a young woman with bright eyes, off to begin her studies in law in the UK. She really seemed to make herself at home on the flight, transforming her small seat into a cosy nest, far better than the overhaul Air Canada did to stretch out its foremost passenger seats. She brought with her a full-length, furry fleece blanket, and crumpled more completely into her limited space than I've seen anyone else.

I had just purchased over the weekend a media item, and with the casual insertion of my personal headphones into the seat jack, there was a connection made with this technological world as a conversation started as to when and if personal audio devices were allowed on the flight. We eventually isolate ourselves from each other, and hike up the volume to completely soundproof ourselves from the unending cries of a boy across the aisle. He sounded like he was possessed by spirits whenever he was as awake. They found in him a depth of pain, fabulous lungs and a great capacity for air vibration. If children were allowed to be principal singers in opera, he would certainly be classified as one who could cut through a 100-piece orchestra.

The main errand of my stay in Brussels is to obtain a visa to Mali and Burkina Faso. The details help explain. I arrive in Mali in early December. A Malian visa is valid for 3 months from date of issue, which means I can only start applying for it now, as I will be there in less than 3 months. The timing was too risky to get it in Ottawa, as I would have needed it issued last Thursday and my flight was on Sunday - and so the Embassy there said that I can get it in Brussels.

I arrive at the Embassy in Brussels. At the door, there is a note about special Ramadan hours, which seem to coincide with the hours for dropping passports off but not picking them up. I press a button for "service", and all this implies in terms of desire, hope, and expectation. After the lobby I enter a room where there is no one waiting. A woman is typing and looks busy. I am told that they do not issue any visas to Canadians. I am to get one from the Embassy in Canada. A couple enter and one asks her questions. The servicewoman snarls again and says she is too busy to do that which is being asked.

No matter the quantity and quality of good will and advance organization, I will never be completely prepared for the irrationality of modern bureaucracy and what feels to be the flick of the whip at the end of a chain of frustration and power struggles. The options now are to courier my passport from Damascus to Ottawa (sure!), or obtain one at the airport in Bamako, Mali, something not encouraged in guidebooks but which is being looked into nonetheless.

I pass by the Burkina Faso Embassy, whose warm, smiling visa servicewoman says that yes, Canadians can certainly apply for a visa, so I initiate the request without delay. I have fond memories of applying for visas for Russia in Rome, and for Mongolia in Beijing. The Embassy of Mali in Brussels is outstanding in its truncated provision of visa services, in a city not faint in international character with its EU parliament.

It's late at night but I have jetlag. I'm staying with friends who initiated the trip to Mali and Burkina. They have a shop and this will be a trip to stock up on items and make new contacts.

Around me are books related to madness, marriage and/in Africa, themes revealed in a Senegalese writer, whose novels are the subject of a doctoral thesis. On the wall is a "cheat sheet" (if you can possibly cheat at this) of Amharic and Arabic characters. Unlike many who go to a coffee shop to get coffee beans, my friends go to Ethiopia, indigenous land of coffee arabica and its associated culture of hospitality. They buy what look like 50kg/100lb bags of these beans and, prior to orders, lug them to a roaster here in town so they are delivered as freshly roasted as possible. They are off to Addis Adaba to bean up, among other things, later this month.

Although I knew that one would be in the library yesterday, by chance we met in the vending machine / lunch area. I am quite grateful for the university libraries I have been through in Vancouver. It is a different story altogether this side of the pond. There is a 2.50€ day entry fee, for starters, which is why I hung out by the vending machines. And according to my friend, the largest library in Belgium has no books related to his thesis, and it is impossible to obtain interlibrary loan (he needs to go to London or Paris for this). So due to limited services of obtaining useful books, he is required to bring in his own books into the library and, every single day, as if the library staff don't know him, he undergoes a modern ritual ("policy") with them, who sign in each of his personal books and check the system to make sure the library does not carry them.

There are a lot of chocolate shops and comic book stores here in Brussels. It is what the city is famous for. Grist to the mill itself, their high consumption and demand is perhaps a tranquilizer against and escape from the madness that derives from the legacy of colonial bureaucracy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Temple Tips

"Dan, put that titanium weld we did last year under the microscope to see if there are any cracks in it. She's going really far away."

She looks at me and explains, "The chances of you finding someone that can weld titanium where you're going is slim to none. I mean, we couldn't do it until 5 years ago."

She hands me back my glasses, with the new temple tips, and Dan confirms that there are no microscopic hairline cracks that would compromise my personal window onto the world. No need to inquire after Souq Al-Titanium, though I imagine people would say yes yes, of course, come with me and let me help you find it...

I mosey into a bookshop. Do you have books on Eastern Christianity? I have recently been reminded that Christianity is an Eastern religion ...

Blog: Whitterings
Book: From the Holy Mountain

... but I am directed to opposite ends of this active, mountainous landscape of processed pulp covered in dust. I have only a few minutes before my lungs give out.

"Theology" (Christianity) on the far east wall, "Middle East" on the far north-west wall, close to "Islam" and "Judaism". I find one book that looks at Christian and Muslim sights / sites in Egypt and Syria, based on research done in the early 1800s. My lungs say it is too dusty.

I buy instead a recent edition of "The No-nonsense guide to Islam".


So I am starting this new blog, the main purpose of which to tell you that I am safe and to share my travel experiences with friends and family. Note that there is no Facebook access in Syria.

I will be in Western Europe in September, and Damascus, Syria from October to March, with December in Mali ("that's nowhere near Syria!" my friend remarks, rather perceptively). After March, the plan is to visit family in Australia.