Everyone on this trip who has walked with me will tell you I’ve led them astray at least once. My favorite companions, many times. I think my sense of confidence fools people.
I just walk, whether I know the way or not.
First, I believe “lost” is usually just a state of mind. I might not be where I want, but I’m usually somewhere interesting and I’ve met such great people through wondering.
Second, I have confidence that I’ll figure out where we are or how to get where we want around the next bend. (Really annoying to companions who think we’re lost.)
Third there’s a safety net in the cities we’re in. Almost always, there are taxis I could jump in and say my destination or people nearby I could ask.
The following anecdotes are in honor of going where you don’t know the way.
Today we arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, north of the capital, Damascus.
After ditching my bags, I rushed out of our hotel in search of a water bottle. Usually sold at every street corner and food stand, I expected this to be a quick errand.
I walked past store after store peering in coolers and asking. One guy poured me a glass of Seven-Up, and another filled an ancient looking bottle with tap water. Both I apologetically refused (It’s really rude to refuse drinks when someone offers here).
A boy on a bicycle stopped to shake my hand and held on until I pulled my hand away.
Though occasionally awkward, when someone offers me their hand politely or curiously, I alway shake it. So often when we, as Americans, walk down the street here, however conservatively we’re dressed, we’re a spectacle. A handshake is an easy way to communicate, level, assure and offer respect. Valuable in a part of the world we have screwed up relations pretty badly.
After many attempts, a man told me in English to walk down a street a little further.
At the next stand I stopped at the vendor handed over what I coveted. It took the form of a dirty bottle of Canadian Dry brand water. Despite the dirt on the bottle, the top was sealed. I happily paid 25 Syrian pounds–about 50 cents, for the 1.5 liter bottle.
I remembered my way back because each stand I passed, each old building, each group of men hanging outside, was memoriable.
I traced my way back through the maze of winding streets, some so small no cars could pass. A group of girls I passed minutes before ran to me, asked my name and one by one shook my hand, telling me theirs. A veiled woman who looked about my age looked on from a doorway and smiled.
Another man pointed to me–I thought he wanted me to take a picture–he was holding a box, he opened it and a bird popped its head out. His friend made the universal money gesture–sorry I’m not buying your bird guys.
A man cooking meat who I had asked for water waved and smiled kindly, asking where I was from. He handed me a purple drink over the counter.
Tired of refusing things and not wanting to be rude, I took it and sipped. It was delicious fresh mulberry.
We talked for a few minutes as he cooked customers meet on demand.
He said he loved America, asked where I was from and of course mentioned Obama. (They really believe in him hear guys–let’s not disappoint!)
I thanked him for the drink he wanted no payment for and wandered back to the hotel.
Later I wondered to the souk (market).
I ate the best ice cream of my life and asked for directions.
Five minutes later, down the road, the same man checked up on me–shoes this way, clothes that, he told me.
A few minutes later I ducked in a bookstore because a young tourist police, also eating ice cream, who offered to “be my brother” was tailing me a little too obviously.
I would have been concerned, but since it’s Syria, I was just amused.
Successfully in the souk, vendors of Aleppo were not like any others I’ve encountered here or Egypt.
The prices they offered were so low I didn’t haggle. The people were relaxed, talked and smiled.
Most I talked to were Armenian–many fled here in 1915 during the genocide in Serbia.
Back at the hotel, another student said it was because it’s because in Syria it’s illegal for the vendors to solicit tourists.
And, I found my way back easily by running into Nick grabbing falafel–he knew just how to return to the hotel. Which was right around the corner. I walked in a huge loop.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” –J. R. R. Tolkien