Thursday, May 6, 2010

Day 18: London to San Francisco - Coming Home

Summing up the trip. We arrived in London on Monday, April 12. Initially everything proceeded as planned: a couple of days in London, Oxford for Katherine’s conference on Wednesday, the 14th, and then back to London on Friday, the 16th, for our Saturday flight to Syria. We knew that British airspace had closed for an indefinite period on Thursday, the 15th, due to the ash from the Icelandic volcano which had erupted on April 14. We hoped against hope that our Saturday flight would take off as planned.

It was not to be. That flight was canceled; our rescheduled Monday flight was also canceled. Uncertainty reigned supreme for about five days. Waiting to see what would happen with the ash plume. Waiting to see if the airports would open. Waiting on the phone to reschedule our flight yet again. But unexpected pleasures as well: lunch with Susan Ware and dinner with Chris Kuelling, stranded like us.

Finally we were able to fly to Syria on Thursday, April 22. Turns out we made the right decision to stay and wait for the skies to open. From then on, everything worked even better than we had dared to hope. Touring with our guide, exploring Damascus, Katherine’s business meetings and the extremely capable Monitor team she joined, gorgeous food, lovely people. Rather than 12 nights abroad (UK for 6; Syria for 5; 1 flying), we had 18 nights abroad (UK for 11, Syria for 6; 1 flying).

Our stay in Syria was memorable for many different reasons; three or four stand out.
Because I was traveling with Katherine who was here on business, many of our travel arrangements were made for us, thanks to Emad, Silvia, and Rebecca. The comfortable hotel, great dinners around the city, our escorts to and from the airport, our tours of Palmyra and Damascus had all been arranged ahead of time. Without having to worry about or plan for these basic necessities and helpful amenities, we had more time and energy to let this place sink into our spirits, to breath it in, to appreciate its ancient splendor and current dreams.

This was my second trip to Syria. The first time in 2003 I was part of a very interesting Christian/Muslim delegation. Our group leader, Imam Bashar Arafat, who is from Damascus and now lives in Baltimore, wanted us to speak with as many Muslims (religious leaders, government officials, academics, etc.) and Christians as we could. I saw one side of the city in great detail but I didn’t have time to explore, visit shops, or walk on my own. This time I did and I established a heart connection that feels very precious indeed. I look forward to the next visit to explore the art scene more fully, find a cooking teacher, and visit the National Museum again. Each time moving a little deeper.

The warmth and graciousness of the Syrians we met seemed genuine. Some of the friendliness was perhaps prompted by commercial interests. But there seemed to be an underlying gratitude that we, as Americans, were here in Syria, learning about it, traveling about, having a great time, and a hope that we would return to the US to tell their stories, to show our snapshots (such as this one), to make this country real to our friends and family.

Our tour guide, Ghiath Abdallah, in his early 40s we would guess, was superb: knowledgeable, funny, wise, and organized. His family has lived in the same house in the Christian Quarter for 150 years. He lives there still. The youngest of four kids, his one sister lives down the street from the family home and his other brother and sister live in Athens. When Ghiath vacations, he goes to Athens or San Francisco. We hope we can repay his kindness the next time he come to SF.

In the market, merchants who wanted me to visit their shops responded when I said “No” as graciously as I could: “You are welcome here. Please come back tomorrow.”

In our hotel lobby, we were standing with a young hotel employee watching a Syrian wedding party gather in front of us. He asked, “Where are you from?” We responded, “California.” He said, “You have a beautiful country.” We responded, “You do too.” He said, “My country is not yet beautiful but it is getting there.” Wistful, hopeful, honest.

And the kids, oh the kids. The pictures say it all.
Boys from Tartous at Palmyra practicing their English.

Boys in the market in Damascus, trying to tell me something about my pistachios.

The shop of Bashar's father in the market, tended by a lovely young fellow. A relative of Bashar's perhaps?

1 comment:

Jim said...

Hi Katharine and blog readers. I just finished the whole series from London to Syria and back to London and home. The only problem I encountered was the guilt for not working on the magazine and the drool dripping on my shirt. The food has a lot of "eros". And of course I want to visit Syria as well.

Did you know that the synagogue at Dura Europis is considered the first Christian Church as well? There is a fountain thought to be used for baptisms. From the house church to the Cathedral to the Prairie Gothic style in America, architecture tells the story of Christian theology.

I love your chairs! I didn't know you had this habit. Will you do an installation somewhere? I met an artist in the 90s showing her work at the Buena Vista Winery. One print was of a wolf in the center of three empty chairs. She said it was the wolf energy of post-menopause and the chairs were her children gone from home. She had been a nun for many years.

Hope to see you soon and eat something with you.