Syria 2010

Travelling from Beirut, Lebanon to Damascus, Syria is easy; that’s the theory.

Damascus Railway Station, now a book store

Two hour express bus ride with efficient exiting and entering procedures (I already had my Syrian visa). It was the getting to and from the bus stations that proved to be the challenge. In old Beirut I quickly hailed a taxi: a really nice taxi man who spoke a little English, drove safely without anger and didn’t smoke in his car. Just as well as we spent the next 45 minutes together because: the Charles Helou Express Bus Station is on the other side of the city centre; it was rush hour traffic — more rush and more traffic than the usual Beirut frenzied craziness; and the area around the Hotel Phoenicia in the centre was barricaded due to Ahmudinejad’s controversial presence. Sit back, relax, but I had limited money and certainly not enough for 45 minutes of taxi even if we did spend most of the time stationary. Once we had crawled, stopped, inched forward and eventually penetrated the blockade, Mr Taxi Man and I were broken English friends.

The old city in the centre of Damascus

At the bus station, I didn’t know what to pay Mr Taxi Man and he didn’t know what to charge me (no meter as usual). What was fair? I showed him my money; how much is the bus ticket to Damascus? I gave him the remainder; about three times the usual fare for a trip that had taken even longer.

The old city in the centre of Damascus

Noon in Damascus, hot, really hot, and the express bus discharged us at the remote southern bus station. Two British travellers and myself eventually found a minibus which emptied us into a traffic jam somewhere in Damascus. The traffic in Damascus is even worse than in Beirut, and this was the middle of the day.

Damascus covered souk

Bakdash icecream and desert shop in the Damascus souk

We had no idea where we were. Eventually we received some directions (stand on street with guide book in hand and look helpless — not difficult) and made our way to the museum, a landmark (no street signs). Eventually (= the short short version) another long taxi ride which, with the help of a married couple who shared the

Bakdash icecream store in the Damascus souk

taxi, and two men on the street whom the taxi driver stopped to ask, I made it to my hotel — three hours after arriving in the city. And here I was thinking that I was rather silly joining a small group tour to take care of the logistics of travelling in Syria and Jordan. After this prolonged arrival I was delighted to hand over the travel organizing to the guide, enabling me to move into the ‘no decisions required’ mode.

Azem Palace in the old city of Damascus

I spent the afternoon walking around the Old City of Damascus — a maze of souks filled with small shops mostly selling goods and food to locals (very few tourist-oriented stalls), houses built above each other, some Turkish mansions,

Azem Palace in the old city of Damascus

khans (camel travellers’ inns), mosques and churches. Damascus’ Old City is remarkably similar to that of old Jerusalem, as least when I visited in 1975. There is a Christian quarter, a Jewish quarter and an Arab section; getting lost is fun because it’s busy with local people walking, looking and shopping; the shopkeepers aren’t pushy (you buy or you don’t buy); and before long a landmark appears; and the sellers of handcrafts speak six languages competently and a smattering of a United Nations of others.

The Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus

Over the next few days I walked and walked within the Old City and the new parts of Damascus, alone and with the Djoser group. Highlights were the Umayyad Mosque and the Azem Palace, both wonderful examples of well preserved architecture of their times.

The Umayyad Mosque courtyard

In a restored Sufi hostel/khan, now filled with artisans, I was an early and solitary tourist, so I took the opportunity to chat with each of the merchants — they were conversational, informative, sharing (too much detail of how Omand got his girlfriend-now-wife pregnant) and offering great coffee. In the old city, ‘Bekdach’ dessert store has semolina ‘ice cream’ topped with crushed pistachio nuts costing C$1.15 for a huge scoop — refreshing, not too sweet or fatty, and totally delicious. And then I found Al Khair cafe — great salads, cheap local beer, free Wi-Fi and a huge ‘No Smoking’ sign (the rarest admonition in the Middle East). I’m a repeat customer.

The interior of the Umayyad Mosque

Some observations: The call of the muezzin was back. It was absent in Beirut which considers itself multi-ethnic and multi-religious, and secular; Carmina Burana is a suitable iPod counterbalance. Most women here wear head scarves and flowing robes, many in black (BMOs = black moving objects), a few wear the hajib. In Lebanon, head scarves were common but were often above tight figure-revealing blouses and jeans. Lebanon is east loves the west, glitz and glammer, obvious consumerism, forward looking, the future is now. Syria gave me the impression of the fifties: progress is being made but it’s reluctant, slow and begrudging. And there are policemen with bully sticks and automatic rifles everywhere, but here they actually ensure that the drivers obey the rules of the road — controlled chaos.

Korans in the Umayyad Mosque

Korans in the Umayyad Mosque

Palmyra town and crusader fort

On a personal basis, I enjoyed myself, bus and taxi frustrations notwithstanding. Only challenges make travel tales. I was frequently amazed by the achievements of previous civilizations, and ‘how did they do that?’ I really enjoy seeing, experiencing and understanding, just a little, these countries who are so often in the world news and who influence international events far above their world weight. Amidst the frustrations and insecurity (will I ever reach the hotel?) are the kind efforts of strangers that ease the way, and the satisfaction of solving the problem, or changing the plan, and being flexible (I never take taxis, plan B or C or D). My backpack proved to be the practical luggage choice, gradually lighter as I read a book every 4-5 days. On a technological basis, I loved my iPod and Net book: my up-to-date podcasts and music, Wi-Fi internet access and a full keyboard for typing emails. Generation difference — you bet. I don’t Face book, Tweet or type essays with my thumbs. Well not yet anyway.

Palmyra Roman ruins and oasis

The Djoser group arrived in Damascus a day after my bus-taxi marathon. Everyone was very friendly but they thought I was American. Shudder. No. No. The Dutch guide was considerate of my language deficiency, and the Syrian guide spoke excellent English. I gradually came to know each person with their varying levels of English, and my throat gravelling attempts at Dutch. Like you, they are all bemused at my decision to travel with a Dutch tour group, and for the second time. I like the European (modest, cultural) style of travel, the Dutch approach to travel and life, and that I cannot understand the irrelevant small talk, especially to whining and petty complaints.
Kelly, the Djoser guide is Turkish-Armenian-Dutch.

Palmyra Roman ruins -- the largest in the world

She shared with us her grandparents’ and parents’ stories of life, war, instability and immigration. This certainly personalized the Atom Agoyyan movie ‘Ararat.’ Our driver is Palestinian displaced from the Golan Heights. Hamid, our Syrian guide is Druze, a sect of Shia Islam. He also told us about his family (one son and three daughters, one married, the others at university; five cell phones, two landline phones, one TV and no radio), and ‘The Syrian attitude’ towards Jews (okay) and Israel (not okay). His knowledge of Middle East history, archaeology and the multiple cultures in Syria is extensive and fascinating. And he does not treat us as ignorant. (He is much better than the guides in Egypt).

Palmyra Roman ruins

The amphitheatre in the Palmyra Roman city

We travelled north from Damascus to Palmyra where the largest site of Roman ruins is located: extensive and magical as I walked alone along the Roman road lined by columns in the mid-afternoon heat (the others were sensibly resting at the hotel).

The 12th Century Citadel in the centre of Aleppo

Further north, we travelled through barren desert into the Orontes Valley of olive, pistachio and fruit orchards. The 12th Century Mamluk Citadel in Aleppo atop a hillock is dramatic within this city centre of 3 million people. The souk or covered market in Aleppo could be out of previous centuries — narrow, bustling with people and smells and men hauling huge bundles, real food, real respect, real profits — with the minor additions of electricity, spandex and fifties fashion (not).

Ornate ceiling in the Aleppo Citadel

The ornate ceiling in the Aleppo Citadel

Street in old Aleppo near the souk

Technological time warp: I’m in the Syrian desert at the Roman ruins of Palmyra, listening to a CBC Dispatches podcast that included my email about my experiences in Tripoli, Lebanon, sent from a Wi-Fi restaurant in Beirut.I have to say: quite a thrill, not at my name being on the CBC (although, that too) but the whole electronic communication magic that is now available to each of us. This is the web link; my letter was read 45 minutes into the podcast:—cuba—arizona—tripoli-lebanon—berlin—la-paz-bolivia/
or just go to CBC, Radio One, Dispatches, and find October 14, 2010.

The Aleppo souk

The Aleppo souk -- mixing the 15th Century with the Fifties

My supper in Aleppo was a typical ‘Lea event.’ My first choice of restaurant was not open, the second was fully booked and the third was lost in the local blackout. When I found my way onto a lighted street with a landmark that I recognized, the Sheraton Hotel, I was plan less. I turned up a side street and there was a pita shop. I was saved. When I tried to pay the man Syrian Pounds 100 for my falafel pita, he refused the note. Syrian Pounds 50? Okay with change. This was about C 80c.

Aleppo souk -- wonderful spices: organic, natural and flavourful

Two doors along I stopped at another food stall and pointed at some cheese pastries and held up two fingers. ‘Do you speak English?’ Did I feel foolish or what? My replies to his questions were the usual: I’m from Canada; I really like Syria. From the coins that I offered him, he took about C 20c. I took my perfect meal back to my noisy hotel, sat on the dining room balcony overlooking the main traffic square, now filled with football/soccer revellers, with some Syrian white wine (not bad) and ate my perfect meal.

Our Syrian hotels were interesting. All have air-con units that can be turned off (good), a TV and ashtray (irrelevant), and a bathroom (small, and I mean small; somewhat larger than a phone booth but not by much). Optional appeared to be: hot water, a towel that was actually absorbent, drains that, well, drain, and cockroaches. I lost my Buddhist brownie points in Aleppo when I pulverised a ‘roach cohabitant. The rooms in the Tower Hotel in Damascus have, as a bonus, a prayer mat and a sign indicating the direction of Mecca, also a sign prohibiting the consumption of alcohol or of informing anybody of any complaints.

The Roman ruins at Apamea

Our Djoser guide, Kelly with our Syrian guide, Hamid, at Apamea

After visiting Lattackia and the ruins of Ugarit, where the first linear or Semitic alphabet was discovered, and the city of Hama after the huge Roman ruin site of Apamea (it would be world renowned if it wasn’t eclipsed by Palmyra; 2 Kim long Roman road lined by columns), we visited the perfect Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers — dramatic.

Giant waterwheel in Hama

Lea beside one of the giant waterwheels in Hama

Al-Azem Palace in Hama

Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle

Next were two churches in the town of Maalula set on the side of a steep mountains. At this point in this trip I had fulfilled my church quota; that occurred in Cyprus. Okay, so the Church of St Sergius was built in AD 325 and is one of the oldest churches in existence, whatever. On the road into the village we noticed numerous motorcycle policemen. This meant a visit by some important people. Us? We were just sitting down to a late lunch when excitement ruffled the atmosphere. Outside, two black Audis arrive. It was President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria accompanied by his attractive and very modern wife (western clothes, no head scarf), and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (having just left Iran). There were security men around — tall, suited, coiled wires into ears and dark glasses — but they invited us, tourists, to join the villagers, media and school children to meet these icons of western controversy.

The Convent and Church of St. Sergius & Bacchus in Maalula near Damascus

Lea with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez in Maalula

No metal detectors, no limits on questions, no intimidation. I approached President Chavez and expressed my Canadian support for his social policies helping his people, and his leadership in South America. He beamed and kissed me twice, that is twice on both cheeks. What a thrill. Yes, there are photos.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez greeting Lea in Maalula

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with his wife Asma in Maalula

Later in Damascus, I was walking through the old city to the restaurant that has Wi-Fi. The main square by the Umayyad Mosque was filled with a crowd. One of my best guidelines of travel is: follow the crowd. It was a Syrian choral group performing wonderful Syrian music that had rhythm, melody and recognition by the large audience. Some young men invited me in front of them, and then they, and two older head-scarf-wearing women explained to me, in English, about the concert (about monthly there are free concerts in many of the squares of the city by Echo-Music on the Road) and each song. It took me hours to reach the restaurant, my email and a beer. My summary about Syria: diverse and genuine.

The Roman theatre in Bosra, southern Syria

The Roman theatre at Bosra

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