Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
165Trip End Ongoing
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When I was waiting (and waiting, and waiting) in Antakya, Turkey for a bus to take me to border, I met a French woman, a recently quit French teacher from Istanbul - the lovely, and sexy in that uniquely French way, Ursula. It was nice having a fellow traveler to complain and console each other through the craziness. Once in Syria, the bus, which was heading to Damascus, dropped us off on the side of the road, where we had to wait for a mini-bus, called a dolmus. Ours came rocketing across the road towards us, and screeched to a halt. Our bags (and us) were thrown in and away we went. The 45 km ride cost about a dollar. And it was every cliché you could think of. Arabic music blasting out of the speakers, pictures of the President and verses of the Koran plastered everywhere, and pulling over every minute of two through three lanes of traffic to pick up yet another person and stuff them into our little tin death trap on wheels (actually there was really only two lanes, but Syrians drive as if there was 6, or 8, maybe more). Our driver seemed to be a frustrated wanna-be Indy car racer with a death wish. Lanes were non-existent, as were indicators, restraint, seat belts, and common sense. The only defensive driving I saw was constant use of the horn. Come to think of it, it was more offensive driving. Oh, there was that time the driver swerved in front of about four or five cars of oncoming traffic to narrowly miss running over two little kids obliviously making their way across the road.
If anything, Syria is even more amazing than Turkey. I can't believe just amazing the people are here. It's a weird juxtaposition trying to match the posters of the leader of Hezbollah plastered everywhere with the kindness and gentleness of the people here. Today I had some many experiences I could fill pages. Down the street from my hotel are the juice bars where you get an enormous mug of fruit juice, all blended fresh in front of you for less than a dollar. My hotel room, a single bed, nothing to write home about, but incredibly clean, about $8 a night, and that's a bit pricy around here. I spent my day walking through covered souks dating from the 14th century, sunlight streaming in from little holes in the ceiling. There was none of the hassle of Morroco or Turkey. just occasional stares, and startled smiles and returns of my "A salaam alaykum". I crawled over the massive citadel in the middle of the old city, an enormous fortress never once taken by force in it's entire history. I met two young guys from Syria there, one from Damascus who simply wanted to practice his history. He said his favourite countries in the world and his two favourite football (soccer) teams in the world cup were Canada and Germany. (Though I'm pretty damn sure Canada didn't have a world cup team, but it was a nice sentiment).
Yesterday while walking along the street, I met an archeology student from the university here in Aleppo. He invited me to the building he is in charge of restoring. Today I was walking in the old part of town when he spotted me. I ended up having lunch and tea with he and three of his friends/coworkers. They wouldn't let me pay for anything. I practiced my Arabic (pathetic) while his friends practiced their English (better than my Arabic). He then took me to his project, restoring an old mental hospital, built in the 1300's. It's incredible how much more advanced the Muslim culture of that time was. While Europe was locking up, or burning their mentally insane at the same time, here in Aleppo, patients went through a 4 level process that centred around using sunlight, fresh air, limited and increasingly earned freedoms, the sounds of water fountains outside their cells, treatment from doctors and nurses, and occasional visits from family and friends in a pleasant, controlled environment. I don't think Western psychology made it that far until about the 20th century.
Syria is a budgeteer's (like my new word?) dream. Prices are cheap, and so far, no stomach problems, though that's only a matter of time I'm sure.
I've seen more woman wearing the chador here than anywhere I've ever been. I don't know how they can stand the heat, fully robed, and head covered, sometimes even their face cover by a black veil, all in black. I'm seen Syrian men sweating, so I know it's not just my Canadian constitution - it's frigging hot. Yet, you get glances of designer jeans underneath, stylish highheels, and make up.
Syria is a bit of an oddity for a westerner like me to figure out. Everywhere, a result of the recent conflict in Lebanon no doubt, there are posters of the face of the leader of Hezbollah (usually with his plastered next to the president of Syria, whose face is EVERYWHERE). This is a country that denies the existence of Israel, and would love to it wiped from the face of the earth. Yet everyone I've interacted with have been incredibly welcoming and warm. In fact, I think I might go so far to say this is the most welcoming, least cynical (towards travellers) country I've ever been to. No hard sells, no kids asking for money. People see my camera and ask to pose, and don't demand money (unlike Morocco). But the posters and pictures everywhere, in shops and car windows, indicate that this is not only goverment rhetoric, but is, in fact, internalized by many of the common people. But in person, they are always telling me "Welcome to Syria", and of course, occasionally asking me why I have no wife or girlfriend.