May 12, 2009

And All The Roads That Lead You There Were Winding

I came to the Middle East to do just one thing: see a part of the world that I felt I needed to learn more about. Its language was alien, but familiar – many Malay and Hindi words have roots in Arabic. Its customs and food strange, but not dissimilar – much of the Indian subcontinent that I love and call home was influenced, for the better and the worse, by centuries of Mughal rule. Dubai and Singapore had many things in common, and then not at all.

My months through the region are coming to an end. As I travelled through Dubai I fell hard for the United Arab Emirates, but not for its most famous, brashest city. I loved Abu Dhabi and I loved Al Ain. I loved the weekend drives into the desert, and camping trips to Oman. I discovered the lengths people will go to for bootleg alcohol, when liquor licenses and hotel drinking start to dry up (driving to Ajman to get bootleg supplies etc).

And as I embarked on my quest to see the real middle east, after giving up on Dubai – I was in for a treat. Yemen, bombs and all, shook me; it was like nothing I had seen before. Then my ambitious overland journey, beginning with Beirut. That’s now drawing to an end.

The last month or so that i’ve been properly on the road, I’ve navigated my way around Lebanon through Syria through Turkey, without once knowing how to drive a car. I’ve met ridiculously awesome people. I’ve had countless cups of tea with strangers. I’ve seen some sights.

And the sights I’ve seen, I’m amazed by the opportunity – and good luck I’ve had in seeing some of these wonders. From a castle built by one man, still alive, in Beiteddine, to the phenomenal Kraks des Chevaliers in Syria (the embodiment of all childhood castle jousting fantasies, says Theroux, and he’s right – again). The ancient cities of Damascus and Sana’a. The friends I’ve made all through Beirut, Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo, Antalya, Cappadocia and Istanbul.

The long bus rides. I left Damascus last week and 36 hours later arrived in Antalya, but not before being stranded in Adana with too many Syrian pounds but no Turkish lira – and no money changer or warm clothes in the freezing cold of an eastern Turkish morning.

Done with my last bus ride (12 hours from Goreme to Istanbul), I now sleepwalk through Taksim Square at 7 in the morning, pleased to be back to one of my favourite cities in the world. One that makes me thankful for the beautiful people I call my friends, who last shared this city with me

– Alp, Z and gang. It was the city where Fortylove.tv was conceived, at the start of this tremendous journey.

But journeys never end, only their chapters do. It strikes me now that for all my complaints and grievances about the middle east, this region is truly special and needs to be seen to be understood. And I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I could.

If I could do it again, I would do a few weeks in Iran. But that will have to wait.

For now, long Turkish bus rides and what’s left of my Istanbul days – one filled with lots of ‘midye dolma’, wet hamburgers, fish sandwiches, Bosphorous views and raki when the sun goes down, I’m sure.

Then London. Then moving into my new pad in Kuala Lumpur. Then a new chapter in life, love, and adulthood. I think I have airtickets booked or planned for every month from now through January, though, so the adventure doesn’t end – it’ll be the last of the middle east and Europe for some time, but more awaits.

Time to finish breakfast, put on my heavy backpack, and walk the last 1km to my hostel. It shall be the last hostel in awhile – I’m not giving up backpacking, I’m just… Upgrading. Life, travel, trading in my hobo life for the chance of getting to own things beyond my baggage allowance for the first time in a while.

I’m happy.