On 6 Oct, I headed to Syria and made it safely to Damascus. Flight was very quick, but I also slept through most of it. The two men I sat next to seemed to know everyone on the plane; wonder if they were anyone important? Exchanged 800 LE for 6,300 SYP at the airport, and then paid 1,300 for my taxi to the hotel. I’m sure I got ripped off, but not much I could do. It looked like one taxi company had a monopoly on airport travel. Even my taxi back to the airport wanted me to pay twice the meter because he couldn’t pick anyone up. Guess the owner of that one company has a good contact in the government to be given free reign on the airport!
I think I lucked out with my hotel. It seemed to be in the middle of a busy area of town. It was walking distance to the Souq Hamidiyya and the Umayyid mosque, which was great. My room was very small, but luckily I wasn’t here very long.
The people are very fair skinned here. Not very dark. Seen lots of red hair and freckles. Not very common in the other Arab countries to which I’ve been. Everyone has been extremely nice so far too, more so than other Arab countries. Everyone is very helpful. The souq was very busy people set up with weird dolls and lit-up-eye mechanical animals. Kind of creepy, actually. There is also a very split mix between very western and very traditional, more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Some men are in the dress I saw in the Persian Gulf, while others (mainly younger men) are wearing what I’m wearing, or graphic tees, or something like that. But it is a more even split than I have seen elsewhere.
No internet in my hotel, but there was an internet café across the street. An hour of internet was 75 SYP, and I got dinner for 60 SYP, which is about $1.33. Not bad, I’d say. Facebook was blocked when I tried to access it. Not a good sign for political freedom in Syria.
Thought of this back in Cairo- no one really knows how to mail anything here because no one uses the mail service. No one knows where the post office is, and to mail something apparently you just have to find these magical green boxes in the street and put your mail in them. Then, maybe, someone will eventually pick up the mail, and maybe, inshahallah, it will go where it is supposed to go. Hopefully, the person filtering mail can speak English to recognize the address and that it says USA on it. That’s a lot of maybes. Then, after a few weeks or months, hopefully it will somehow arrive at its destination in America. We’ll see. I mailed 16 postcards today, 11 Oct, so hopefully they will arrive safely.
A few random observations- there were no western restaurants in Syria at all- KFC, McDonalds, nothing. I got ‘milk’ (vanilla) ice cream for 50 SYP, and they covered it in sunflower seeds. Not bad, just not what I was expecting. Syrians are kind, happy, courteous, helpful, respectful people. No altercations witnessed at all. Not too much of shop owners begging you to come in, etc.
So, today I went back to the Damascus Fort (closed for renovations), Souq al Hamidiyya, and Umayyad mosque. Then walked through the old city for a while and got a taxi to the train station to try to buy a ticket for the sleeper train tomorrow night. No luck. Then taxied (big rip-off- 400 SYP) to the top of Mt. Qasioun, which was a spectacular view. Taxied back to hotel for 75 SYP, a much better price.
On 8 Oct, I started today an hour later than I hoped; I was headed to Palmyra today. I had synced my iPod with my computer, and it reset my iPod to Cairo time. Plus, I managed to hurt my wrist going down the stairs. Something to make me realize where I was- there were road signs on the way to Palmyra to Baghdad and Iraq. I was not in Kansas anymore! At one point, the road to Iraq was straight and obvious- kind of unnerving, really. Palmyra was beautiful and much bigger than I thought. It was very quiet. Place to myself essentially to explore and see. Stonehenge, eat your heart out! Sellers went around on motorcycles- quite funny- and no longer so quiet. Old rich package tours of Europeans encourage the tourist behavior though. Much more enjoyable by myself.
My hotel room in Damascus was slightly smaller than my room last year in DC, if you know what that means. My bathroom was as big as a shower should be- and it had a shower, sink, and toilet in it! The movies they show on these buses are so ridiculous. Arab Bruce Lee now, Arab Matt Damon earlier. Something about killing Israelis earlier in Egypt. My last bus was much nicer- they fed us and gave us water.
I think Syria has been the most authentic place I’ve been. Definitely need some Arabic to get around here. Not as much English spoken or written, no western comforts, etc. I imagine this was the whole Arab world 30 years ago. It rained between Palmyra and Damascus, and when I got to Damascus! It was cold too! Facebook is blocked here. Very big cult of personality going on it seems. Big decals of Bashar Assad on cars, flags and posters and images everywhere. Reminds you that you’re in a socialist, Baathist dictatorship. As scary as Syria may be in the minds of many Americans (it was part of Bush’s axis of evil a few years ago), it was really quite a charming country. I had nothing but very good experiences.
On 9 Oct, I took the sleeper train from Damascus to Aleppo. The experience was out of the 18th century, I swear. The train was modern and I had a nice bed/room, but I felt like a European explorer or something traveling between two Arab cities by overnight train. A guy woke me up to let another person sleep above me. He yelled “Ya al-shabab’ as he opened my door; essentially saying, “Hey you young’un!” The bathroom in the train was pretty disgusting but that’s okay.
I met the guy, a few years older than me, sleeping above me. His name was Samhir, and he took me around Aleppo all day. Helped me buy my return train ticket first, then saved me taxi rides by walking me around the city. It’s cheaper, nothing is very far, and it’s a much better way to see the city. He bought me breakfast (some pretty disgusting Syrian ful. Not the same ful as in Cairo. This was beans, some white substance like mashed potatoes, and oil in a bowl, with pita bread, onions, and mint leaves with sugar to eat with it. It was some hole in the wall restaurant. No menu. No prices. Just a big vat of ful on fire about two feet from me. Again, felt like centuries ago.). Then we took the microbus around the city, as well as the normal buses for public transportation. He paid for all the fares, which is good because I couldn’t figure it out. Also had no idea where these different buses were going- but they seem to have a sixth sense for it. He took me to his family’s house, where I met his brother and mother, and they gave me tea and crackers. He showed me some of his graphic design on the computer, as well as pictures of his family and pictures of pretty, famous female singers. Funny. Especially the graphic art on the family photos. Also had Disney princesses hanging on the walls. Then he took me to his family’s work, a couch making company. I drove an Arabic forklift for a while and then just watched and had lots of tea and talked with him and his four friends. They were quite racist toward the one friend who is ‘black’ although he looks no different to me than the rest of them. Finally, I kissed goodbye like they do on the cheeks! So cool. We talked briefly about 9/11 and Israel. I gathered that we disagree about a lot of Middle Eastern politics. He saved me lots of money- food, transportation, admittance to the citadel. It even rained while I was there! And it got cold too! He never once asked for money like they would in Cairo, and he refused when I offered.
Anyway, I saw the souq, Umayyad mosque, and citadel in Aleppo. Beautiful.
Overall, my experiences with Samhir and Syria renewed my love for travel and especially meeting new people. I loved Syria and will miss it greatly. Most friendly, hospitable, nice, and authentic place I’ve been.
I sat next to a student at the American University in Damascus on the train from Aleppo to Damascus. Great conversation. Says Syrian men are allowed 4 wives- that’s a little different than the U.S.! Information on his passport is incorrect- says he was born on 01/01/1996 for military service purposes. He asked lots of questions about America and different idioms we use that he had heard in movies.
I made it back to Cairo around 4 am, safe and sound. Assigned readings: Washington Post editorial here and New Yorker piece here. See all Syrian pictures here. I’m headed to Istanbul, Turkey, this coming weekend, so I’ll report on that soon!