What am I, a woman in my mid-fifties, doing, lugging a backpack around Syria and Jordan on my own in 2000?
I’ll tell you. I’m trying to keep up with my family.
J is walking the scenic rim, guided by a mud map and a snake, and sailing a boat across Moreton Bay – he’s never sailed before.
H and his mate (and dogs) are exploring the tip of Cape York.
S has just embarked on fatherhood.
F and her then partner are packing their pushbikes for a ride through Borneo, Sarawak, Bangladesh and India.
R is picking tomatoes manically to top up the budget so she can cycle alone through Laos, southern China, across the Sinai, through Jerusalem, to Sardinia, via Paris.
And me? I’m living a banal, routine life, going to work and coming home (mind you, sometimes that’s three days later.) I settle down with the Saturday paper, and suddenly I’m on full alert. Sydney University is looking for paying volunteers to go on a dig at Pella in Jordan. That’s me. Always interested in archeology since reading my uncle’s books as a child. In funds, because that same uncle has just left me money. Familiar (sort of) with travel in the middle east after three weeks in Egypt a few years before.
So I apply, face the interview, get my teeth and appendix checked, and feel secure in the thought of travelling with the group.
Until I settle down again with the Saturday paper. This time I open the travel section, and I’m confronted by a full page colour photo of the Treasury at Petra viewed through the slit at the end of the siq. That photo! Well, I think. Nothing daring about hopping on a plane with a group. What if …? And before I know it, I’ve booked flight to Syria and extended my stay in Jordan.
That’s how I end up in Damascus, backpacked and travel weary, muttering the mantra against my terror: “Other people do it: why not me?” There’s my hotel, the Al Haramein, just up that alley. A man accosts me offering to carry my bag. I say “No thanks”. He lunges and tweaks my nipple. I say “Get out of it.” He disappears. I feel my self-confidence expand: if I can deal with that, jet lagged and in a strange place, I can deal with anything.
On my first morning alone in the Middle East I make my way to the ancient covered market and walk under ruined Roman arches to the Umayyad mosque with its striped walls and unreadable Arabic calligraphy. I sit on the cold marble of a decayed fountain and watch the orange juice man throw water over his uncut oranges; boys playing shuttlecock, old men drinking tea, boys cantering on horses decked in bells, cars moving through impossibly narrow spaces. Then the haunting call to prayer.
That night I ditch my go-go-go itinerary, because I’ve discovered the pleasures of following my nose and of pausing.
Such is the personal background to my next series of Postcards from the Past. The other unspeakably awful background is the destruction and death taking place in Syria now, which make my blithe reminiscences seem almost indecent.