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When we were in Dubai in February of 2012, we met a Syrian national at couch surfing party we attended with our host.
Nellu and I had tossed around the idea of visiting Damascus on our trip. That was not going to happen. The conflict in Syria was almost a year old at that point. Russia and China had recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution calling for an end to the violence. And the Syrian government was still claiming the extent of the conflict and crackdown had been greatly exaggerated.
We expressed concern over the conflict and asked our new friend about his family.
He still had a brother in Syria. His brother had been out in the streets during the protests only to go inside and hear from the state-owned media that it was all a farce.
The big question that night—would the U.S. intervene?
Of course the U.S. would intervene in Syria, our new friend said, just look at what they did in Libya. (The technicality that it was a NATO-led intervention is apparently as lost on the rest of the world as it is on the U.S.)
In so many words, I told him, I wouldn’t count on it. (I don’t know why I said that.)
By the end of the month, the U.N. would estimate 7,500 people had been killed since the clash began.
In the last year and a half, we’ve watched this conflict dissolve into an all out war.
Peace talks continue to stall. New evidence suggests that both sides used chemical weapons. And the death toll and destruction mounts.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report to the UN Human Rights Council concluding that “crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria.” And it’s coming from both sides:
“Government forces and affiliated militia have committed murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts. Many of these crimes were perpetrated as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations and constitute crimes against humanity. War crimes and gross violations of international human rights law – including summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property – have also been committed. The tragedy of Syria’s 4.25 million internally displaced persons is compounded by recent incidents of IDPs being targeted and forcibly displaced.
Anti-Government armed groups have also committed war crimes, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and pillage. They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas. The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”
I am haunted by the exchange that night in Dubai and others that we had with people from many different countries. Love us or hate us, the world still looks to us-the U.S. We’ve been telling them could and should since we got our name on the map. (Nellu says we’re the Coca-Cola of freedom.) So do we have a responsibility to show up when things get bad?
Why did we intervene in Libya but not in Syria. The official answers is because it’s complicated and it is.
“In Libya, I thought we had to help with respect to Libya, because the leader of the country stood up and said, ‘We are going to go into Benghazi, and we are going to go house to house, and we are going to kill you like dogs.’ And I thought the international community had an obligation, knowing what was happening and going to happen, to try to make a difference. And we were able to because you had a different situation in Libya. You didn’t have the kind of sectarian divide — though you had tribal — but not sectarian divide that you have in the more complicated situation in Iran — in Syria, because you had Hezbollah coming from Lebanon, you have Iran involved, you have Russia sending support. It’s a very much more complex and different situation from Libya.”
So this is my question today: What should we do when things are complicated?
We assumed when we left London at the beginning of February, we’d left the only cold we’d see all trip behind as well. When we mapped out our flights, we planned to be in the Middle East in February and early March so we could miss the cold creeping out of the Northern Hemisphere. We assumed it would be warm in February in Dubai, Jordan, and Israel. You know what they say about assumptions and in our case it’s true. This is the story of how misperception can frost bite you in the arse.
We landed in Amman, Jordan on February 17th. We’d booked two night’s at Genny Bed & Breakfast. It was one of those places where we felt the hosts took pity on our ragged selves, tending to our comfort as if we were their kids, but they were probably just good hosts. We ended up staying three nights on the outset and made sure to stop in for one more before heading out. It was 50 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived. The moment we pulled up to Genny’s, rain hit and the mercury sank. It snowed twice while we were there. When we asked people if this was normal, we got a consistent response, “Well not really. But it is February,” whatever that means.
Despite being relatively unprepared for the cold, we layered up and headed into town to do some sightseeing.
As a woman entering the King Abdullah I Mosque, I was required to wear a hooded abaya (borrowed from the shop downstairs) and cover my hair. These kind of clothing restrictions for women usually get under my skin, but this time I was grateful for the extra layer.
Then we headed over to the Citadel in city center to take in the ancient Roman ruins and the Temple of Hercules.
Now, I bet you’re thinking what Nellu was thinking, “Wow! Ruins! Ruins are cool.” Well let me set the scene a little better. The Citadel in Amman, as many citadels are, is on top of a big, open hill. This kind of vantage point may have protected the fort during a siege in ancient times, but it left us exposed to the cold and the wind on this frigid day in February.
We spent some time exploring all that the Citadel had to offer. I can’t remember how much time, but it was long enough for the chill to get so thoroughly in my bones that I begged Nellu to leave and find some place warm.
But that was part of the problem in Jordan. Internal heat doesn’t exist in most of the buildings. We were able to find shelter and yummy food at Hashem’s at the foot of the Citadel but most of the famous eatery was open air. We headed to the back corner but the only heat we found came from our hot mint tea.
But this day in the cold wasn’t the straw that broke this camel’s back for one important reason: Genny’s had heat.
I didn’t break until we went to Petra days later.
Now just to make sure I don’t get misread on this one – we loved Petra. It was an amazing anthropological site and the reason that Jordan should be high on the list of countries to visit in your lifetime. We’ll have more on Petra in future posts.
The issue that I had with Petra – or more specifically with Wadi Musa, the town that serves as an entrance to the site – was the lack of heat. We planned to spend three days exploring the area: the first two roaming around Petra and staying at a hostel in town, and the third day we’d check out “Little Petra” and sleep at a the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp just a few kilometers away.
The weather when we arrived was warm during the day. We shed layers as we toured Petra, climbing up to lookouts and rambling down hillsides. Before the sun went down, we headed back to our hostel. It was cold in our room so we climbed under the thick stack of blankets on our bed. The hostel did have heat but they only turned it on between 6am and 9am in the morning and 6pm and 9pm at night.
“I’m not getting out of bed until the heat is on,” I declared.
But when 6pm rolled around there was no sign of heat. As the sun set, the room just got colder and colder. At 6:15pm, I convinced Nellu that he should be the one to get out of bed to assess the situation. He walked over and put is hand on the heater. “I’ve got bad news for you,” he said, “The heat is on.”
“What!? That can’t be,” I shouted in exasperation, hopping out of bed to check for myself.
It was true. The heat was on, barely, and it didn’t make much of a difference. I felt my spirit of adventure, the one that kept me going through horrible train rides, camera accidents, and costly mistakes, quietly slip away. You could say it froze to death.
I may have been ready to go home the day we left Africa but this was the first time I wanted to go home. “This isn’t normal!! This isn’t normal!!!!” I whimpered.
We headed out of our hostel in search of food and somewhere warm to eat. Most of the restaurants in town were once again open to the cold air. We found food but little reprieve from the cold.
On returning to our hostel, I thought I would try a trick I learned working as a TV news producer. The best way I’ve found to get the cold out of your bones after a long day out in the field is to take a hot shower and dry your hair with a hair dryer. Shooting hot air at your head for a prolonged period of time gives you a warm halo effect that can last for almost 30 minutes.
Lucky for me the hostel had a hair dryer (most don’t), but my warm-up plan was flawed. The water coming out of the shower head was indeed hot but the bathroom was like an ice box including the tile under my feet. You had to work hard to stay directly under the sorry little stream of water to prevent frost bite.
Would you rather take a cold shower on a hot day or take a hot shower in a freezing room? After traveling for more than a year, getting exposure to both situations, I can tell you that I’d take the former any day.
As we went to bed that night, I held onto the hope of a warm day in Petra and the promise of returning to Genny’s at the end of the week.
Thankfully it didn’t get as cold in our hostel the next night. We also found a restaurant that had a warm upstairs for dinner. It was filled, of course, with foreigners.
For our final night in southern Jordan, we headed out to the Bedouin camp. My spirits had been propped up by the promise of a camp fire. And while I was comforted by my direct access to an open flame, the realization that every warm piece of clothing I had would smell of smoked meat until I got the chance to wash and air dry them (much of the world does not have clothes dryers) dampened my mood.
Oh but thank goodness for Genny’s! After a three and a half hour bus ride and short cab ride back to Amman the next day, I washed and dried the smoked-meat smell right out of my hair. It was wonderful moment for me.
That night, I caught myself staring at the hairdryer similarly to the way Tom Hanks stares at the barbecue lighter at the end of “Cast Away.” He seems to contemplate the ease and comfort of modern life. I can relate.
In July of last year we mapped out how we’d spend our five-continent oneworld round-the-world airline ticket and we found we couldn’t get a simple flight out of Nairobi, Kenya. The oneworld partners just didn’t have the routes we needed. We tried many different scenarios but finally settled on flying from Nairobi to London to get to Dubai. This option wasn’t a favorite solution of mine at the time. oneworld counts the Middle East and Europe as one continent, so we’d need to use two of the four flight segments our pass provides for each continent.
It turned out to be one of the best options we had.
Sometime in December, Eric, one of my oldest and closest friends, told us that he was thinking about coming over to London in February. And it looked like he could be there during the week we were flying through. It took one quick call to the American Airlines oneworld desk (ok, it took two because we were in Livingstone, Zambia and my internet time ran out) and we extended our one hour layover through London into three days. (Sidebar: That’s been one of the nice things about the round-the-world ticket. While we get charged for changing our route, we can switch flight dates and times as often as we want at no extra cost. We’ve moved several flights over the course of this trip.)
This would work perfectly. Eric was definitely one of the last people we thought would meet us on our trip, primarily because as a freelance stylist he doesn’t get paid vacations. (I wrote that line mainly so I could segue into a suggestion that you check out Eric’s work here and here.) One added bonus, Eric is one of the few friends in the world that I could absolutely count on to support our decision to buy a side table in Zanzibar with the expectation that he would carry it the rest of the way home.
The only hitch in this plan was that it was snowing in London. In the 10 months worth of clothes we had packed for this leg of the journey, we hadn’t planned on cold. I had my winter coat in South America but I left it at home in the face of China in August and September in India.
So we did what anyone would do when given the opportunity to meet up with their best of friends after camping for a month through Africa and being away from home for more than 6 months. We layered up every warm piece of clothing we had and headed out into the cold.
And we had a fantastic time.
When we said goodbye, Eric checked one more time to see if I wanted to keep his coat for the rest of our journey. “Nah,” I said. “We should have warmer weather from here on out.”
Famous last words.