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.
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.
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!
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lift back to the hostel from a new friend.
Photo: Chris Watson
For obvious reasons!