June 29th (Noon):
Gary has found the names of the two Czech's that Nicole met on the bus to Palmyra! And better yet, it looks like we have a reasonable translation of their names:
Andrei Pratchar (1970/12/2)
Janac Aminkova (1979/10/9)
We're not certain if the birth dates are YYYY/MM/DD or YYYY/DD/MM but if you can find anyone with these names born in these years, we'll chat with them and worry about whether their birthday is December 2nd or February 12th afterwards.
There are a couple of people who have contacted me about searching for the two Czechs - hopefully with this extra information they're easier to find.
I also heard back from two of the British guests that we found earlier (a mother/daughter combination). Unfortunately they didn't run into Nicole and don't remember seeing her, but even the little details they provide about Hama as well as their impressions are helpful in building up scenes in my mind. I never know which small piece of information will suddenly link up to something else.
Gary is in Palmyra now, trying to figure out where Nicole stayed on March 27th and 28th. We know where she was on the 25th and 26th, and the 29th onwards, but the 27th and 28th are unknowns. According to online weather reports, Palmyra is 5 degrees warmer than Hama today with a high of 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit), and the Internet is still unavailable.
June 28th (Evening):
Another late update - it's only 30 minutes away from June 29th. It is becoming more and more difficult to find new pieces of information or thoughts to share. I worry that as the leads and ideas dry up, I will slowly slip into weekly, monthly and eventually no updates at all as we are forced to give up searching. Not a happy thought.
A spark of media interest today - "The Province" in British Columbia interviewed my mother and I and will be publishing an article on Sunday. With mom heading over to Syria in the middle of next week, either of us is happy to do additional interviews if there are media types reading this and waiting for the right time to call.
What we really need is a small lead that can spark some interest. If we can't find any clues where we're looking, then maybe one of our basic assumptions is wrong? What are the other possibilities and how can we rule them out or follow up on them?
I just finished "Married to a Bedouin" by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. While it paints a favourable image of the Bedouin (which I had already), it concentrates on the day-to-day lifestyle (recipes, raising kids) and doesn't really offer much in-depth analysis. It's also covers her early years in Petra from 1979 to about 1985, which was a much different time and a slightly different place.
June 27th (Evening):
I didn't manage to do an update yesterday - it was just too hot here in Toronto. And that's just a hint of the heat that Gary is suffering as he walks the road from al-Hamrah to Qasr Ibn Wardan each day, talking to people in hopes that they might remember seeing Nicole. I do not envy him.
We found another guest! I still haven't received a response from my email to the last guest we found, which is disappointing - hopefully they'll answer soon. The new guest is one of the Brits that arrived the day Nicole disappeared - thank you very much to the reader who found her. It's an example of great detective work as the name in the guest list was male, but the guest is female - the translation errors are not making things easy.
If people are looking to help search, perhaps searching on the last name and "Syria" will bring up blogs or other links that mention a recent trip?
Another example of fantastic generousity is an offer we received today from Etihad Airlines, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates. They've offered the family free round trip tickets to Syria!
Unfortunately, mom had already purchased tickets for her trip next week and they are not refundable. But should additional trips to Syria be required, Etihad Airlines is there to help. I'd like to thank Mr. Poonoosamy, the Head of Government and International Affairs at Etihad, for his work in quickly arranging things when a reader brought his attention to the matter, as well as the CEO (Mr. James Hogan) and his assistant (Ms. Dianne Craig) for approving the tickets and getting everything organized. This kind of corporate support is key to funding the search, but extremely difficult to get.
I'd also like to thank Thair Hassan in Syria for his help in translating the website to Arabic. We're still working on getting that up, but hopefully everyone in Syria can soon be reading along and helping us figure out clues.
June 25th (Evening):
Gary has been back in Syria for a week now so I figure it's a good time to update everyone how he's doing.
After a brief stay in Damascus to digest the latest news firsthand, Gary headed straight to Hama to begin putting up posters and handing out business cards. He's been a bit tough to get emails out of, likely because if I found the Internet cafe hot when it was 30 degrees out, I expect it's an inferno at 40.
This makes it even more exhausting to imagine Gary's current self-assigned task - to walk every step of the 42 kilometers from al-Hamrah to Qasr Ibn Wardan and talk to the people. He's covering about 6-8 kilometres a day before he has to return for shade and rest. Chatting with locals, looking in ditches, trying to find anything that might stick out or link back to Nicole.
Relative to Gary's task, I've got it easy back here on my computer.
June 24th (Evening):
I have just returned from dinner with my mother and step-father. The plane tickets have been purchased (very pricey!) and it's a matter of figuring out how best to take care of the house and keep an eye on my little brother while they are away. Unfortunately, at 18, he's a bit too big to send off to camp for a week.
While I was visiting I looked over the list of donations. It's hard to describe the feeling of gratefulness one gets from seeing just over 100 gifts from friends, family and total strangers. It really confirms one's faith in people and their desire to help when others are in need. Once again, I would like thank everyone who has donated, it really means a lot to me and the family.
Along with reviewing the incoming funds, I also got a quick overview of the outgoing monies. Lawyers are expensive, especially when you need two of them, as are plane tickets, printing out posters and business cards, etc. What started out as a few hours on a blog has rapidly turned into a very costly search. As we commented to ourselves after dinner, every penny that Nicole saved with her budget hotels and public transit buses will likely be spent on the first lawyer bill! The media asked me what I expect the search to cost and it was a bit frightening to add up the $50,000 spent so far (including the reward that we always have to have available) and see places to spend another $50,000 if necessary. Hopefully we'll find Nicole hidden in a secret cave filled with food, water and ancient Babylonian gold!
June 23rd (Noon):
It has been exactly twelve weeks since Nicole disappeared.
A work and social event kept me from updating yesterday, and two more events today are limiting my time as well. It's a delicate balance between not obsessing on the search to the point of doing nothing else, and feeling guilty whenever I'm doing "normal" things that aren't directly related to Nicole.
I have a lot of new emails to process. I've read through them all but following up is the part that takes time. I only work on it when I'm alert to avoid dismissing a suggestion out of weariness.
With regards to the other hotel guests and trying to find them, I now have their passport numbers. I don't want to make them public, but if you or someone you know has access to the passport databases in a relevant country and can confirm spellings (or contact information), please contact me. But please don't do anything illegal or unethical on our behalf!
Of course, we would prefer that the various governments (specifically the Americans) assist us with this in an official capacity, but getting their attention and navigating privacy laws makes this difficult. I can't imagine that this was the intent of privacy legislation as I'm sure most people would gladly help if they could, but it's the result. Frustrating.
June 21st (Evening):
My mom is going to Syria! The tickets have been purchased and she'll be heading over in July. By merely delaying a single week the tickets were $3,000 cheaper. Hopefully that bring even more attention to our search and perhaps reach someone who knows something or prompt them to finally come forward.
Today I'd like to find a Belgian. The same person is entered twice on the Cairo hotel list - once as "Riro Arthur" and the next day as "Arthur Thierry". Born in 1987, this may be a student. I have no idea if those names are properly translated and/or what order they should all be in. Do what you can.
I'd also like to start searching for two Russians. Andrew Bolino (b. 1977) and Amgen Goldson (b. 1978) are both listed as registering in the hotel on March 28th. Russia is a huge country, so I suspect these ones could be a bit tricky. And who knows if the names are translated properly.
June 21st (Noon):
We have found Najla Dowson-Zeidan!
At least, I'm pretty sure we have - the name and age is a bit too similar to not be the same person. I have sent her an email and hopefully will hear from her soon. Thank you very much to the UK reader who found her for us.
I just wanted to let people know that they can stop searching for her and presumably her relative (though keep searching for the other people mentioend in yesterday's post). Tonight I will post the next person we want to find - searching one country at a time seems to be working quite well.
June 20th (Evening):
Wow - apparently all it takes is an example and suddenly I have a bunch of Finns and people with Finnish relations and friends rushing to assist in finding people! That's really fantastic, and I'll be going through the various notes over the next few days.
I'd like to direct that energy once again - today I'd like to try and find the two Brits. Nadina Dawson (born 1956) and her daughter (I believe) Najla Dawson Zedan (born 1986) arrived at the Cairo Hotel two days before Nicole disappeared and share a common language. If we can find them, maybe we can get someone who spoke with her or recommended an itinerary.
In addition, I'd like to ask the many Syrians who are reading this if they can help me find the foreigners who stayed at the Cairo Hotel but are living in Syria. Aron Marcio (USA, 1980) is the companion/husband of Daria Brococia (Russia, 1982) and both are Syrian residents. William and Catherine (or Kathryn or Katharine, etc.) Powers (born 1977 and 1978) are both American and Syrian residents. Perhaps they are teachers at an International School? Or perhaps archeologists or researchers? If you have contacts in these areas, or can think of other professions for foreigners in Syria, please ask around and see what you can find.
Anyone who likes to play with Google and other search engines can also help search - remember, whoever finds information leading to someone who leads to Nicole may qualify for a reward.
There's mixed news regarding the ads in Syria. Reports that they weren't put out for all three days, or weren't in colour, or even had incorrect information, are all a bit discomforting. Hopefully we can find the truth before the bill becomes due. The perils of ordering something from thousands of miles/kilometres away.
June 19th (Evening):
A couple of things today.
After a pair of German volunteers scoured the list for fellow citizens and attempted to find them for us, I realized that the hotel lists are too long and include too many guests. Now that we know for certain that Nicole disappeared on March 31st, I've shortened the lists below (both the Cairo and the Riad) to exclude guests that arrived on April 2nd or later (which, unfortunately, excludes all the Germans). I've also edited some names to match what people have told me, and removed the one guest that we found. If you're looking to help, please concentrate on finding the guests that arrived on the 30th and earlier because they are more likely to have run into Nicole, though any guest on the list is good.
In addition to this, the lists have been uploaded in text format for easier reading as people were having trouble with the PDFs.
If you know someone living in one of the countries listed, please forward the list to them. For example, for all I know, there is only one "Nina Layos" in all of Finland, but because I don't have a Finnish phone book, I have no way of checking. But if you have a friend who lives in Finland, they may be able to find this person very quickly (or correct the spelling of the name based on likely Finnish names).
One guest in particular interests us - "Mac Madison" from Slovenia. Nicole met a Slovenian earlier on in her trip (as you can see in the "Can You Help?" section of the website) and "Mac" arrived on the 28th and stayed quite a long time, leaving on April 2nd (Hama doesn't really have four days worth of stuff to see for most people). We've been told that "Mac" came down from Aleppo, not Palmyra where the Slovenian ran into Nicole, but I'd like to double check that information by chatting with him. If you know a Slovenian, or enjoy solving puzzles, please try and find him!
We have received a few leads from the reward offer. Before anyone gets their hopes up, I can assure you that most, if not all, of them will go nowhere - people who have seen someone else or are just causing trouble. But it's better than nothing and makes us feel like something is being done.
June 18th (Evening):
At least one newspaper advertisement was published today in "Tishreen". I'd provide a link to the official website, but they're all in Arabic. If someone happens to find an online version of the ad, we would love to see it.
We found our first hotel guest! A reader in Switzerland looked up all the similar sounding names and it turns out there was one person who's name matched almost exactly. We called him today and he had no new information. This is understandable given that he was in the Riad Hotel next door and part of a tour group (so they don't mingle as much). But it gives hope that we'll find some of the others.
The plan is to update the hotel lists and remove the guests that we find as well as correct errors in translations. Hopefully that will get done this week and we'll have a text version that's easier to download/view than the version we have now.
I felt inspired tonight and responded to a chunk of emails. My apologies again to people have not heard back from me - every email is read and acted upon, I just don't have the time to respond to them all.
And a big thank you to all the people that have donated money. People from work, friends, and absolute strangers have chipped in to help cover the costs of the newspaper ads, the flights and (hopefully) the reward payout. It is very gratifying.
June 17th (Evening):
Two more updates to the Official Website tonight.
We've added a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page with answers to, you guessed it, frequently asked questions. A lot of people make similar suggestions so this lets people figure out if we've already tried their suggestion without having to read through six weeks of blog entries and 500+ comments. This section will be expanded over the next little while as I think up more questions to answer.
We've added an Events to Date page with a summary of our search so far from a few days before Nicole disappeared to the current date. It allows new readers and press to quickly catch up on what's happened without having to spend an hour reading postings and messages.
If you have any suggestions for either page (or any part of the website at all), please let me know.
June 16th (Evening):
Two night ago I had a dream that we found Nicole. Because it felt real, my brain responded as I expect I would respond should Nicole walk into the room - tears and an incredible, immense feeling of relief. I wasn't aware of just how much emotion I've got packed away right now until I let loose with it in my sleep Thursday night.
I asked her what happened and Nicole said that while arguing about the fare for the minibus, the driver was signalling for people nearby to grab her. I'd like to think that my unconscious mind was piecing together all the facts and providing me with the clues I needed to find her, but unfortunately nothing in the dream leads me in any new directions. I suspect I was just acting out what I feel is a possible scenario, though that particular sequence hadn't occured to me.
As you can tell from this talk of dreams, there hasn't been a lot of movement on any front. It's tough to keep up the huge effort when so little progress seems to be coming out of it.
June 15th (Evening):
I have brought back the links to the Cairo and Riad Hotel guest lists - they are further down this page right above the picture. As it says, please take a look and see if you recognize anyone. None of them are suspects, we're just hoping they might have spoken to Nicole and maybe got an idea of her plans for March 31st when she disappeared.
Gary is returning to Syria this weekend, arriving on Tuesday. On the one hand, I wish I could go with him as I hate working through other people and getting all my information second and third-hand. On the other hand, I'm much more effective with a good Internet connection and access to all my notes. I do not envy Gary and the many hours he will be spending in planes and hotel rooms.
It will definitely be fantastic to have someone on the ground who can follow up on leads and put pressure on getting things done. Maybe now we can find the other hotel and bus lists and see if there is any matching names!
A lot of people have asked about hiring private detectives. This is not an easy thing to do, and may not be the correct thing to do. A private investigator would need to have Arabic roots so he (and it would have to be a "he") could blend and ask questions in the appropriate language. Right there, we've ruled out the majority of firms in the world. We can also pretty much rule out all the American firms purely because they are American.
If you find someone with Arabic roots, they're extra vulnerable to the Syrian police putting them in jail for interfering and nosing about. Even with Arabic roots, you'll still stick out as an outsider in Hama which is very small and conservative. Note that there are no private detectives in Syria.
Even getting someone into the country will be difficult - currently the Syrians are not willing to allow the RCMP to assist with the investigation by sending over a Canadian officer so I expect a single individual or team isn't likely to get an entry visa either. But presuming we somehow find someone who can get in the country, you want to make sure they're working with the local cops or they risk getting in trouble. Unless, that is, they're investigating the local cops, and that path just leads to even worse trouble. If the cops are in on it, there is very little we can do other than involve additional security forces (already done). And we really don't think this is the case. So we needs the Syrian police on board.
Say we've found an investigator that is acceptable to the police and allowed into the country and speaks Arabic, now what? An investigator would have to be able to show us that he has talents or leads or connections that are not available to us. That implies a lot of Syrian experience and there is no agency or investigator in the world with a lot of experience in Syria. What is he going to do other than interview the same people we've interviewed, and visit the same sites we've visited? There's a chance he might notice something we didn't notice, or make a connection we haven't made (and by "we" I include the RCMP's Missing Person team), but it's not particularly likely. The security forces (Syrian government) are going to have a much wider network of contacts and informants than anyone we could hire.
And investigators aren't cheap - they want travel costs and per day expenses covered, plus additional funds as profit. And it's often difficult to actually ensure that they're working when we're here in Canada - a standard ploy is to claim "we've almost found her, we just need a bit more money" until you're broke.
Thus, even if we wanted to risk $20,000 on a private team, there are few to zero investigation firms that could meet the required criteria. And the good firms will likely turn down the case for all the reasons I've just mentioned. It's not impossible that some value could be found, it's just very unlikely.
That's why we're going it alone.
I should also mention that if we ever do go with an investigation team, we wouldn't be able to mention it in public, so please feel free to provide options and suggestions, but I won't be able to respond to most of them.
June 13th (Evening):
On the Official Website we've got a link to the newscast from Tuesday night at the top of the home page. It ran across Canada and will hopefully attract a bit more attention.
More important is getting the information across Syria. We believe the 30,000 flyers went out on Tuesday, but I haven't received formal confirmation. If you're in Syria and have seen one of the flyers with Nicole in them, please let me know.
The Canadian Embassy has come back to us with the costs for putting an advertisement into the national newspapers. There are three such newspapers and we're thinking a three-day run should catch most people. As reported earlier, in an unprecedented move, the Syrian government has allowed us to use a large colour advertisement.
The catch? It will cost us $15,000 (Canadian).
This seems like a ridiculous amount for a country where a staying a night at a cheap hotel costs approximately $2. I suspect we are paying "foreigner prices" that perhaps weren't negotiated too fiercely - as usual, it's frustratingly hard to tell from here in Canada.
I hate to do this, but if you're pondering donating anything to assist in the search, it would be greatly appreciated. Flights to Syria could be handled, the reward money ($20,000) will be a burden, but now that we're thinking of adding another $15,000 (and who knows where it ends), the numbers begin to reach areas that we'd hoped to avoid. Quite frankly, we had hoped we would find her first.
Of course, it will all be worth it if we find her.
It was pointed out to me that if someone was interested, they could create an Arabic LiveJournal (or other blog page) that mirrors this one. Whenever I updated, they could update as well once they noticed (it wouldn't have to be up to the minute or anything). If anyone has lots of energy, free time, and the ability to type in Arabic, feel free to get started and I'll post a link from the blog.
Alternatively, I'm hoping to write up a summary of the blog so far so that people can quickly get caught up on what has and hasn't been done without having to read through six weeks (and 500 comments) of entries. Once that's done (tomorrow?) then I can just get that translated to Arabic and achieve roughly the same effect. Should we get these ads in the Syrian newspapers, I'd like to have something for people to reference if they want further details.
June 12th (Evening):
We've updated the website with a "Pictures" page that has close-up images of various items Nicole was wearing, or might be seen wearing. Anyone in Syria who comes across these items should immediately contact us or the police. As indicatd, a reward has been offered.
We've also added a "Can You Help?" link that contains the itinerary that we'll update as we discover details (it's a bit behind right now). Later on we'll add other items where people might be able to assist.
I'd like to thank my step-father Bruce for handling the updates to the website - I thought I would have the time to learn the technology but when I didn't he stepped into the gap and learned it himself.
June 11th (Evening):
A long day. Met with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) at 10am this morning and it didn't end until seven hours later. I'm glad I didn't plan for a half day at work.
The meeting was mostly a "get everyone updated and on the same page" kind of thing. Not a lot of new information. We did find out that Nicole attempted to login to her email account twice within three minutes on March 30th at 8:30pm, but didn't send any emails. Based on my own frustrating experiences with Syrian internet connections, I suspect she showed up, wasn't able to stay connected (or the connection was too slow), and headed back to the hotel to relax.
The RCMP confirmed that they are unable to conduct an investigation in a foreign country without permission from that country. This is frustratingly reasonable and means we need to continue to hope the Syrian police will follow up on all the leads and ideas that we have. Unfortunately, we haven't received a lot of feedback from the Syrian authorities, so we're not really sure what's happening over there. Gary will have lots to follow up on when he returns, as we'll have the list pre-printed so internet disconnections don't slow us down.
Two questions for everyone today:
1) Does anyone have any familiarity with women's groups or organizations that operate in Syria? We're not certain that we're reaching the women of Syria due to the cultural differences and are hoping that they might be able to help.
2) The Black Market in Hama. I'm looking for information on the black market for both goods and passports and even women. If someone wanted to re-sell Nicole's camera or passport, where would they go in Hama? Is there "organized crime"? Do people routinely use "under the counter" foreign exchange places because the rate is much better?
The reward information is supposed to be sent out to the Syrians tomorrow, but we're not sure if it got to the printer in time. If you happen to live in Syria and notice a flyer with Nicole's picture in it, please let me know!
June 10th (Noon):
It has now been over 10 weeks since Nicole went missing.
On the "Downloads" page I have added a scan of the last two pages of her guidebook. It has some handwritten (yes, it is her handwriting) notes about possible destinations, including a map and directions from Hama to the beehive houses and the dead cities. This is one of the main reasons we suspect she's disappeared along these routes (along with the testimony of the hotel staff). The maps and notes are roughly copied from the Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook that she must have borrowed or read somewhere on her trip.
Please take a look and if anything jumps out at you, let us know. The part that is a bit confusing is the extension on the map to Sa'an because there is nothing to see in Sa'an (this has been confirmed by the locals themselves when I visited). However, maybe she thought there was, or had been told there was, and headed this way? I don't want to influence other people's impressions too much - take a look and tell us if you see something we missed.
A lot of people have approached us about using psychics or other paranormal avenues to find Nicole, especially in these past few weeks as the trail has grown colder. Our policy is to not pay for this kind of help, but we're more than happy to have people try, and we can provide any information they might need within limits (Nicole is a Sagittarius, for example). We've been given a few locations to search via this method, but it's difficult to convince the Syrian police to investigate so we need to wait until Gary is back in Syria before following up.
We've also had a lot of offers of prayer and a few requests for permission to ask prayer groups to pray for Nicole. The family gives everyone permission to pray for and/or otherwise pass along the search for Nicole to groups that can help, including prayer groups, local backpacking groups, travel agents, or whatever other connections people might possess.
Initiative is greatly encouraged. I mentioned a few instances in yesterday's posting, and there have been others. A travel agent offered to include a "missing" poster in all her ticket mail-outs for people going to the Middle East. A young woman paid to join a "people locator" website to help us get information on the guests lists. A friend of Nicole's created the YouTube video that we're still using (the link is down below a bit). Another friend of ours spent hours early on contacting media and experts and rounding up support online. Everyone who has posted a link in their own blog has helped spread the word.
Everything that someone else does is one less thing that we have to do, and that is greatly appreciated. I've always been a big perfectionist and always wanted to do everything myself, but in this case, it just wouldn't work. We can't do it without you!
June 9th (Afternoon):
There was no update yesterday, not because I initiated my plan of taking one day off, but because there was a violent 20-minute storm in my neighbourhood and the power went out for 12 hours as trees fell everywhere. This left me un-connected from everything Nicole-related, but did give me an opportunity to spend time with family and go for a walk.
Today mom and I did an interview with Global for their National News show that will go out either tonight or tomorrow (depending on the line-up and whether they can get it ready in time). Still no word from the American or international networks.
Some of you may have noticed the links for the hotel guest list going down. This was an immediate reaction to a potential liability risk of displaying the private information of various guests around the world. Not only do the privacy laws of other countries not apply in Canada (or Syria), but I suspect most people on the guest list would not mind being quickly contacted if we can find them. Should I be unable to resolve this issue (we don't want to put the trust at legal risk), then I will post them directly here. If you are on one of the guest lists and wish your name to be blacked out, please let me know - I'd love to hear from you.
If I ever get any other hotel or bus lists, I will also post them if possible. Unfortunately, it appears that Gary will have to go back to Syria to actually get any action on that from the Syrian police. It's been weeks since I was there and we asked for this information so it's a bit frustrating to still not hear anything back.
Some readers have done a great job of taking the initiative to try and track down the guests from their country using phone books and the Internet. This is exactly the sort of assistance we need. The police don't the resources (intent?) to follow up on all of this, so it's up to us to find them. Another friend is attempting to get Nicole's story into the Czech newspapers so that we might be able to find the couple that had dinner with her just a few days before she disappeared and see if she discussed her plans.
June 7th (Morning):
[EDIT: The hotel guest lists are temporarily down - see the June 9th entry for details]
Several updates to the website! On the "Downloads" page I have added the end of March guest lists for both the Cairo Hotel where Nicole was staying, as well as the Riad Hotel which is right next door. Please take a look at the lists and let us know if you know any of the people listed. My apologies that the Riad Hotel list is sideways, I don't have a PDF editor here at home.
Note that the spellings are all phonetic translation from English to Arabic and back to English. This means the names are frequently mangled. For example, "Vienneau" came out as "Vinoi". We are particularly interested in English speakers as Nicole indicated she spoke with people in the foyer two nights prior to disappearing and this has been confirmed by the hotel manager.
On the "Downloads" page I have also posted our best guess as to Nicole's itinerary from when I left her in Jordan on March 13th to when she disappeared on March 31st. This is based on reading her journal and contains questions at each step about what bus she was on, who she was talking to, etc. Please review this itinerary and contact us if you think you can answer any of the questions or can offer any suggestions. For example, if you happen to know a Swiss fellow who was travelling in Damascus on March 17th, we'd love to chat with him. Same with the Czech couple and a Slovenian in Palmyra on March 25th.
I've never done any website editing before except for writing this blog. It was great to see that some of the skills were transferable as it made things a lot easier. There was a great rush of satisfaction when I successfully got the new links up and working. That being said, if you find any problems with the website, please let me know - what works on my machine may not work on everyone else's.
June 6th (11pm/23:00 EST):
I've got someone translating the business card for us. She had offered to help earlier but I had foolishly thought she was based in Syria and figured the time zones would be an issue.
I'd also like to thank our usual translator who we've over-burdened with requests in the past few days. It will only get worse as we try and translate the website, but I have a couple of extra people who are willing to help on that so hopefully it shouldn't be an issue.
I finally caught up on my sleep and had a productive day at work today, but that just puts me behind on doing the Nicole tasks. I have a much greater appreciation of people who work two jobs and sixteen hour days!
June 6th (3pm/15:00 EST):
A quick request to English-Arabic translators.
We're going to print up business cards with Nicole's picture and information on them because they are easier for people to carry. We'll have English on one side and Arabic on the other. We have the English side done, but need the translation to Arabic as soon as possible so we can get it to a printer today and have it ready for Gary when he goes back to Syria.
If you have have a few minutes to help translate, please email me at email@example.com and I'll send you the MS Word document with the text in it.
When this gets done I will update here again.
June 5th (Noon):
The "Find Nicole Vienneau" trust is now offering up to 1,000,000 Syrian pounds for information leading us to Nicole or for Nicole herself. That is approximately $20,500 Canadian dollars at official rates.
I did an interview with the Canadian Press yesterday (the only link I can find is this one on the CBC website) and I mentioned that we were working on the final details of a reward. The news spread pretty quick and this morning I did two additional interviews. That's what we wanted to achieve with this level of reward - get people talking around the world and hopefully get people talking in Syria, even if it's a bit risky for them to draw that kind of attention.
We've also received good news from Foreign Affairs that the Syrians have agreed to allow us to put an ad in the national newspapers. Foreign Affairs went the extra distance to push for colour and a full quarter-page ad, though we're not allowed to mention the reward amount in official papers. One thing no one wants is for people to think that they can start kidnapping foreigners and get a big reward for returning them. There is also a certain reluctance to advertise that a tourist has gone missing, which is understandable in any country.
Thank you to everyone who has donated to the "Find Nicole Vienneau" trust and helping make the reward possible. It is truly touching to see strangers as well as friends and family help out in so many different ways. I received multiple responses to both my questions from yesterday within just a few hours and I really appreciate it when people offer their time and energy. We now have a couple people willing to translate the website to French as well as our offers for Arabic translation from before - it will happen as soon as I get access to the site back-end.
Speaking of energy, I'm exhausted after waking up at 3:30 this morning with my mind racing and unable to fall back asleep. I'm reading a book on creativity to see if it will help expand my mind to options and I suspect my brain was doing extra homework after hours. But at least I'm not crossing multiple time zones every few days like Gary. He is back on the plane to Vancouver and I know his friends and family are keen to see him again.
June 4th (Afternoon - 10 minutes later):
I almost forgot. Gary heard of a site that tourists sometimes visit from Hama that isn't in any of the Lonely Planet guidebooks. It's called "Shmemis" and if you click on the link you can see a bit of information about it.
Does anyone who knows the area know anything about this castle? Do people visit it very often? Is it easy to get to? It doesn't seem to be in the right direction for Nicole to bother visiting (or have very much to see compared to other castles she had recently visited), but since no one has seen her head out to the beehive houses, we're starting to look in other directions.
June 4th (Afternoon):
Another slow day. I received lots of responses on the Bedouin question from yesterday and I really appreciate that. I suspect the only real way to contact the Bedouin is to have Gary go out to the tents and start meeting people when he's back in Syria. I'd rather be a bit more prepared and actually know the local leader's name and so on, but I somehow doubt he has a convenient website.
I'm finding it difficult to put in more than 4-6 hours at work. Not unsurprisingly, it's a bit tough to get really engaged with new projects, and I tend to be pretty tired by mid-afternoon. Luckily I'm a contractor with an understanding client!
I was contacted by Fox News late last week, which was supposed to be our "in" to American media, but their schedule filled up this past weekend so it was bumped and no interview resulted. The Middle East is a busy place these past few weeks - one paper in the UK said their "Middle East" page was full, so they couldn't run our story. These are not the kind of insights into media that I was expecting, but there's not a lot you can do about it.
Hopefully the keys to the new website will be passed on to me later today or early tomorrow and we can start updating our information and begin the translation to Arabic and French. If you have an urge to assist in a few days by translating our website to French, please let me know!
June 3rd (Afternoon):
Gary has arrived and updated me on the remainder of his trip. As indicated before, the election last week made it almost useless for searching as all the officials were busy with other things and nothing was normal.
Gary was able to get a "Reward" poster inserted into a local flier with a 30,000 person distribution. That will go out on June 12th (always delays!) He was also able to get a local poster printer to create and post 175 posters all over Hama along Nicole's possible routes. This isn't just a poster in a window, but a giant set of posters glued to a wall. In Syria we are also offering rewards for information regarding Nicole's blue bag and her digital camera in hopes that they will lead us to her.
Less heartening was the information that Nicole took a minibus from Palmyra/Tadmoor to Hama. This means she wouldn't have needed to register for a ticket so we can't tell who was on her bus with her. On the plus side, they are mostly used by locals so the likelihood of matching a passenger name to a hotel guest list is remote.
Anecdotally, Gary met with a French-Canadian who has a similar build to Nicole - thin with brown hair. Apparently this young lady has been getting approached throughout Syria and asked if she is "Jacqueline" (her first name is on her passport so the Syrians all refer to her as Jacqueline). Both locals and tourists have asked, especially in Hama. This is encouraging as it means people are aware and searching. It also explains some "false leads" we've been getting - people saying they saw her buying tomatoes the day before in Musyef and so on.
Gary will be staying in Toronto until Tuesday because that's how the flights work out using points. Air Canada has not yet responded to our requests for special consideration on fares and flights. He will then head back to Vancouver to catch up on his life, followed by an eventual return to Syria, likely within ten days or so I expect. As always, airline schedules dominate the procedure.
June 3rd (Morning):
I am presuming Gary arrived in Toronto late last night, but he's staying at my mom's house and I don't want to call in case he's recovering from jet lag. Once he's awake and functioning we'll meet and get updated.
I've done a minor overhaul of the blog as part of shifting information to the new site. Hopefully the blog will load a bit faster and the right information is being emphasized to new visitors. One of the problems we have is new people coming and offering suggestions that we've already received, so I'm keen to get a summarized history of everything we've done up on the new site as well. I'd like to thank Telus for providing the website and setting it up for us for free.
I would also like to thank the people that have donated money. The intent of this blog is not to solicit donations, which is why that wasn't an option for so long, but the entire family does appreciate the gifts that have been given, be they donations or the tips and ideas that everyone has offered over the past month.
I've received some great response on my request for media connections, including a fantastic list for the Arabic media. I'm going to hold off on contacting them until we get an Arabic version of our site, hopefully later this week. Each day of delay grates on my mother, but unfortunately at this point we need to maximize possibilities and long-term options over rushing.
New question: I'm looking for knowledgeable political and social commentary on the relationship between the Bedouin tribes and the Syrian government and police. Are the Bedouin considered "second class" citizens? When the Syrians say they've interviewed people, do they consider the Bedouin "people"? Do the locals in Hama respect the Bedouin or look down on them, or is everyone equal? Do the Bedouin have a separate political structure that doesn't interact and/or respect the established Syrian government?
In essence, what are the chances that Nicole is with the Bedouin, or that the Bedouin know something about Nicole, but either due to cultural prejudices, or political realities, the Syrian police are not able to find this out or follow up further?
Again, I'm looking for knowledgeable and objective observations. Preferrably from the Bedouin themselves or people who have worked with them, though that seems relatively rare on the Internet.
June 2nd (Evening):
No update yesterday, sorry about that. I've always been impressed by people who can do daily columns and blogs, and now that I'm attempting it myself, my opinion has only gone up. That being said, I believe I may follow the Syrian way and take Fridays off or something similar, just to re-charge.
Gary is returning to Toronto late this evening - he is presumably on a plane somewhere as I type this. He will be in Toronto until Tuesday unless he can find a flight to Vancouver earlier than that. It will be good to communicate with him directly and go over all the things he's learned but hasn't been able to squeeze into short phone calls with bad connections.
The new website is working - we're getting comments via the "tips" button. I will slowly shift the static information from this blog (pictures and vital stats) to the website. The blog and comments will remain here however.
Not a lot of new information - it's the weekend in Syria. I'm waiting to learn how to run the website at which point we'll start putting up scans of various clues such as Nicole's hand-written map and directions.
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