These silver beads are of a design from the Byzantine period and may in fact be hundreds of years old. They share space with lapis lazure beads that are of a shade of blue that I will always associate with Syria.

 

 

 

Photo: Chris Watson

Standing in front of the National Military Museum. My travel partner Chris Watson says I look just like President Al Asad's son who is expected to take over from the aging dictator. There is a small image of Asad above the four propaganda posters. He is everywhere and the walls have ears as they say. This is a land of rich history, culture and history, and the friendliest of Arabs I have met.

 

 

 

What am I doing in Syria?

This country is virtually at war with Israel, is run by a ruthless dictator, and few tourists come here. I want to check out the "world's oldest continuously inhabited city" of Damascus, but honestly, the reason I am here is to find a dentist. They have great reputations and I want to replace my aging crowns. I also face 17 days in Riyadh without work or pay during the Haj.

I do get my new teeth for a fraction of the cost back in Canada, but I must tell you, that within 24 of arriving in Damascus, I realized how narrow my original reasoning to come here was.

My days in Syria are filled with so much discovery and adventure, I pinch myself daily to make sure this is really happening to me.

It's not every day that you get to meet a people who were building cities 4,000 years ago, and see Palmyra, the hometown of Queen Zenobia (who I think inspired the popular role model for girls, Zena the Warrior!)

I sat down to write you a short piece, but found it quite difficult to restrain myself, so you will find more than a few anecdotes.

First, you must know that I was accompanied by Chris Watson, a teacher from my school. He was also my "flatmate" for the last month. Chris arrived in Saudi Arabia February 10th, took one look and started talking about going for a trip. I did not understand Chris' desire to travel to Jordan and Syria, after all he'd just arrived in the Kingdom and there was plenty to see here too. I was just gonna sit in Riyadh for 17 days and make web pages! Imagine that? The horror. What you must know is that he had made a dozen such trips in his life as an ESL teacher. I deferred to his better judgment. After about two weeks I decided to go and we ordered our exit visas for $80, yes, you do need a visa to get out of here.

With the help of the Lonely Planet guidebook, he skillfully organized our itinerary. My fabulous experience had a lot to do with the fact that I was also seeing the world reflected by a fairly energetic and travel-savvy 30 something Californian.

We are traveling as backpackers on a low budget. I mean really low, like $250 Canadian a week, including bus fares from Riyadh, hotels, visa, food, the works. In Syria it's very easy to live on $20 a day. Just imagine a place where your hotel costs only $4!

The 22-hour long bus ride from Riyadh to Damascus is uneventful except for the amount of smoking we endure by the other passengers. Chris is really suffering and insists that the bus's overhead air vent remain open as long as people smoke. This made the bus pretty drafty and a little tension develops between the Syrians (guest workers returning for holidays) and us, the only Westerners. But all is forgiven the next morning when we pass through Syrian customs and contribute to the "bakshish" that we pay to the boarder guards. We don't understand at first. When we ask the bus driver why he is collecting money, one of the passengers explains, "so bus go". We are happy to throw in a few dollars. If we didn't pay this welcome tax, the bus would sit maybe for hours while the soldiers carrying AK-47's rummage through our bags and arrange other "border formalities." There is another welcome tax awaiting us in Damascus as we crawl off the bus. The taxi overcharges us by about 500%, but this seems funny since he's taken us five miles for about two bucks instead of 25 cents. We are fair game. By the way, most of Syria's cars are 25 years or older. The feeling of being in a time warp never fades in the seven days I am there.

We check into the Al Haramein Hotel which is really a hostel for young people from all over the world. It's this charming old Damascene house with goldfish swimming in a little fountain in the tiny enclosed courtyard. The hotel guest books recorded over 20 years of thoughtful, and occasionally moving reflections and stories of touring Syria and the Middle East. After a few moments of reading you realize that you have just entered a very special and interesting place on the planet. Damascus is a travelers' gold mine. Richard Burton slept here, it is said. I can't imagine him surviving the chilly nights in the room that we had on the third floor. Chris gets to chid me for assuming it's the current Burton. "It's was the other one." It's more likely that it was the great adventurer Sir Richard Burton that explored Arabia in the 1840's who stayed here. The beds are extremely old and I imagine that they were the same beds he slept on.

Within 15 minutes of my arriving at Al Haramein, I am out on the balcony banging on a guitar and swapping songs with the other guests. Yoshiko is from Northern Japan starting the second year of a 3-year journey around the world. She wants to visit the Inuit in 2002 and I give her instructions on how to get to Nain., Labrador on the coastal ferry. Aaron, from Ottawa, freelances for the cultural attachés of various Embassies and Britta, a German student of Muslim art, wants to work at the museum in Riyadh. She is currently embroiled in a "Romeo and Juliet" style affair with the son of the hotel's owner. His parents aren't too fond of Britta and are making his life pretty miserable. I hadn't considered the social aspect of the trip, and coming out of the social barrens of Saudi Arabia, meeting these travelers becomes quite an overwhelming experience. I join up with these kinds of travelers practically everyday, either on the street or at the hotel/hostels. The bond is quick and exhilarating. There is always someone new to have dinner with or go with for a beer.

My first pictures in Syria are of the children getting out of school for the Eid holidays, the two-weeks when Muslims go to Makkah for the Haj (pilgrimage). I've been in the country only about 8 hours and here I am facing all these beautiful children giving away sweets to everyone they meet, as is their tradition. Standing in front of their gaily painted school bus, I am thinking how amazing it is to be here at this precise moment. I'm feeling dizzy enough from the trip, but I know this is a great KODAK moment! Still dizzy from the bus trip, I'm also feeling homesick for my own beautiful children, Lena, Annie and Sarah. So I start sending them postcards.

On the second night I dine with some Lebanese folks who popped over for the evening to see a whirling dervish dancer. They'd never seen this Turkish dance before either. These people are memorable because one man had lived in Montreal for 10 years and wanted to return, so we talked about that great city, more homesickness. And the other couple are hardcore communists. This man had fought in several wars, fighting Israelis, joining the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, rebels in El Salvador and several other conflicts. He pulled up his shirt and showed Chris a bullet wound. His wife explains that growing up in a family of communists, she wasn't able to see these traditional dances or have anything to do with religion. I am being told how Beirut is more like a European city than a Middle Eastern one when suddenly a gypsy woman in the audience gets up and starts dancing on the stage. Boy, she doesn't leave too much for the imagination (photo to appear in next edition). Our other guest was Kayla, an ESL teacher from some little town outside of Reno, Nevada. Get this, she works three years in the public school system, then travels for 14 months. She was among a half dozen single women we met who were undaunted by the sexual harassment of Middle Eastern men; something that was very real, but easily handled by these travelers.


When some Saudi men enter the restaurant the conversation turns to stories of how Damascus is like a playground for Saudi's looking for women and drink. They have their own "red light" district. Our Lebanese friends figure this is where they went when they left the restaurant after a short time. There is more gossiping. Perhaps the Saudis are shocked to see men and women eating at the same table and smoking shisha together! I am almost defensive about the ridicule and the Lebanese smugness. All Chris and I can manage to muster under the circumstances is, "we know our students, and they are good people," which is true. If these are the only Saudis Damascans meet, it would be hard not to see Saudi men as wealthy, arrogant and perhaps hypocritical. But on the other-hand, could these men be on the vanguard of social change? Saudi Arabians take a real beating on the whole trip.

Syrians are the most welcoming and generous people I have met in all my travels. Steven Freygood was right, but I think he was being a tad flippant when he wrote me before going, "you'll love the Syrians". You're most welcome" is repeated about every minute in any conversation I have with ordinary Syrians. And there is a sincerity the likes of which I do not find later in Jordan. Syrians don't care if I am an American, from a country that pours billions into Israel while they spend a majority of their tx dollars to support their huge army. They are honestly so happy that I am here to visit their country and their generosity is real.

For example, on my second day, I enter the nearest two star hotel I can find and ask the receptionist if she can help me find a dentist. The bellhop is summoned who phones the first dentist he finds in his book of business cards. Yes, the dentist can see me immediately! Instead of handing me the address, and letting me take a taxi, this guy insists on walking me to the dentist. After a dozen turns, and fifteen minutes of French conversation (yes, they French colonized this place too!) we spot the sign, Dr. Messanni - University of Munich, Germany. That's promising. He accompanies me up 4 flights of stairs and waits until I actually meet the dentist. Even though I explain I am not even staying at his hotel, he wants to help me, and refuses a tip. Then my new dentist makes about 10 phone calls to ensure that the labs can do the job in time (4 days). It turns out I landed at the office of the vice-president of the Syrian Dental Association, probably one of the county's best. I was his first Canadian client in many years and we strike up a relationship like you don't expect with a dentist. I notice his dental assistant has about four studs in her ears and this prompts a conversation about Lena, who has at least two holes and another in her nose. I show them pictures. He spends about five hours working on me and for all the work he did to improve my smile, I gratefully vow to show him around Montreal when he comes to visit Canada next year.

The bar where I have my first beer in two months, reminds me of the stone walls in the taverns of old Quebec City. But these are walls of stone that were quarried over 1,500 years ago, not just a mere 300 or so. Drinking beer at $2 a bottle, a day's wages for most Syrians, means that we are in the company of the Damascus elite. Arabic disco, beautiful women and MTV on the video screen. We leave disappointed that there is no dancing. It was, however, a Sunday; the weekend had ended on Saturday. Back at the old Hotel Al Haramein and after a wonderful stroll through the lanes of Old Damascus, Aaron tells of recent events at the British Embassy. Reality check. These people are at war, they have secret police, etc.

Two weeks ago students at the University were told to protest the US and British Embassies. The students decided to ransack the British Embassy (for some comment the Brits made on CNN) while the Ambassador's wife hide in a chest. Fortunately they never found her. The demonstration got out of hand and the tanks rolled in the next day. CNN never mentioned it.

I am greeted the next morning by the Sudanese man working the hotel desk. He grabs hold of my beard in a gesture of affection that I am not yet not familiar with and knowing that I'd just rolled in from Saudi asks, "How's it feel now teacher?" He's referring to the freedoms of Damascus that I am experiencing. He knows. He must have seen a few others coming up for air. I reply, "It's much better, and improving by the hour."

"I'm looking for some Bedouin jewelry for my daughters' birthdays," I tell Aaron over tea. He doesn't know anything. Maybe I should ask a woman about this? So I turn to a blond American woman reading a book who has heard our conversation. "I know what this sounds like, but do you know anything about buying Bedouin jewelry?" "Aleppo in the North is the place to go," she advises, "and pay no more than 35 pounds a gram." That was, hmmm, about half a Canadian dollar. She left flirting, "...and you can talk to me anytime, too..." Never did see her again. In the courtyard in the next hotel, over a breakfast of the most delicious apricot jam and pita bread, Chris informs me that these chats are part of the daily exchange among travelers. Hardly ordinary for me! I am meeting the most people in a short period of time - in my entire life! I am the newest traveler here.

I decide I must savour every minute, as this feeling of becoming a traveler is a once in a lifetime experience. I traveled India 25 years ago, but I guess I forgot what it was all about. Or is it the years of a relatively stationary existence in Canada that has made traveling like this such so "intense", no ... a euphoric experience. If everyone feels this way traveling, I understand why so many do this, and why most of my co-workers have made work and travel their lives. Work for only 6 months and travel for a year and a half. What a concept. Within three days I pretend to have joined them.

The next day I buy some jewelry in Damascus after hard bargaining with Joseph Safief, Professeur mathematique. He's minding the store for his 70 year old father. The price drops another 10 pounds a gram simply by showing a picture of the girls. After melting his heart, the merchant says "This piece, which has real Byzantine beads, is a gift to your daughter." I leave knowing that the beads are not 1,700 years old. But I have not since seen any beads as precious or interesting in the dozens of antique jewelry souks (shops) I explored on the trip.

More to Come....

Check back here in a week and I will tell you about my next stop in Hama, where in 1983, Syria's president Al Asad killed 25,000 of his own countrymen, nearly half the town, crushing an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also where the Romans built hundreds of giant, and I mean GIANT, water wheels to create the most amazing plumbing system you will ever see. (Picture below) You'll also visit a Turkish bath, where, guess who I meet!

 

FEEDBACK ON THIS PAGE IS WELCOME

 

axtell@megantic.net

 

 

 

 

On my first day in Damascus these girls presented me with cookies a custom on the first day of the Eid holiday. Look at that school bus, like the one at the Museum of Civilization (Ottawa) except bigger!

 

 

 

 

On the streets of Old Damascus.

 

 

 

Kids have been wearing these school uniforms
for at least two generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

\

 

 

More beautiful faces!

 

 

 

 

 

Streets are full of cars from the 40's and 50's. A 300% tax on new cars encourages conservation

 

 

 

 

Twirling Dirvish and much more!
Step inside.
Just click on the above photo to continue

 

 

 

After visiting Bar-Bar'sGreta, Chris, Yoshiko and I get a
lift back to the hostel from a new friend
.

 

 

 

Meet Chris Watson at the Hammidiyah market, where you must try the Riz Bihalib, a rice, milk, covered ice-cream dessert.

 

 

 

 

Entrance to the Ommayad Mosque. Mulsims say that when Jesus returns to Earth he will first appear at one of the mosques in Damascus. This is one of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world, so....

 

 

 


Photo: Chris Watson

Inside the couryard of the mosque the kids and I had a great time chasing with the pigeons.

 

 

 

 

 

I was getting carried away with the children.
For obvious reasons!

 

 

From: Jacqueline Ascah <jaguar3@videotron.ca>
To: axtell@megantic.net
Subject: Enchanting
Date: Sat, Apr 8, 2000, 10:05 PM

What a trip! The pictures are gorgeous. I was almost breathless when I saw
the one with the huge water wheels. What beauty put to good service. I wish
North Americans would indulge more in beautifying our 'service areas' -
imagine, carved stone shopping malls!

The people - to be so friendly and helpful, I wonder where they get that
from? It's as if they feel 'honored' that a traveller has decided to come to
their country. That seems true of most places with few travellers. I
remember the little towns in Thailand being that way, the towns that were
not on the 'tourist' circuit.

By what you said of the dentist, maybe we should try renting him a dental
office in Montreal when he comes, and we can all get our teeth fixed. Ha!
Ha! Better yet, maybe all of us who are visiting your site could go to
Damascus together, rent all of the hotel for two weeks, and get our teeth
fixed. We could thus all have a great smile, and a trip to make us smile!

Thanks for sharing your travel stories. They sure provide sunshine, and
rejuvenance for little me who hasn't gone further than New Brunswick in the
last few years.

Good tidings,
Jacqueline

 

 

Jalall (in green) and Aaron (light shirt) outside our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

The courtyard of the Al-Haramen Hotel has a goldfish
in the little fountain
.

 

 

Photo: Chris Watson

Hama, the ancient city of Hamat, is famous for its 114 noriahs, huge wooden wheels built in the fifth century and still spinning today, providing water to nearby gardens. More about this place in Two days in Hama. Coming April 21st!

 

 

 

The Photo below is not suitable for vegetarians and small children.

 

Don't scroll down unless you like visiting butcher shops.