Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seriously Syria: A Telling 2001 Adventure

"You can't make war in the Middle East without Egypt 
and you can't make peace without Syria." 
~Henry Kissinger

I've been following the news of the tragedies happening in Syria and it's been breaking my heart to say the least. Since I have my journals back from the WanderLust! Exhibition I cracked open my Syrian Journal and had a good read today. I haven't actually read my books in ages and since Nick Bantock and his wife Joyce had spent some quality time with them before the exhibition went up, I also wondered what they had read! I never wrote these journals for other people to read, though I don't think there is anything too personal in them. But reading them is like having a visit with a younger version of myself. It makes me a bit sad I haven't kept journals of all the places I've been to, but at least I have these ones. 

Rene and I went to Syria pre-9/11 in 2001. I seemed to remember it being a wonderful place with beautiful architecture and friendly people, my journals tell me things long since forgotten. It still is a beautiful place and I'm praying for a quick end to this nonsense over there. I don't want this blog to be political though, But I've decided in light of my frustrations I would publish the Syrian part of my 
journal here. I don't have my pictures though. They are in a box at my parents house in slide form, waiting for a day I find a good way to switch them to digital. But I will include the pages of my book to show you instead. 

This journal was part of a three month trip from Egypt to Turkey. My first time in the Middle East. I hope you enjoy it! I'll publish a day at a time for brevity. 

Saturday, July 28th, 2001

This afternoon we arrived in Syria. We changed money by going in the back of a news stand on the street and up several flights of stairs to a little office on the fifth floor. It seemed a little weird to be going upstairs to the store room to a little office in the back; I got the idea that the other business was just a front for the real moneymaker: changing travelers cheques. What we really didn't know then but know now, is that Syria has a serious black money market, and as we strolled through the souk a few hours later, we couldn't walk 10 feet without someone offering to cash travelers cheques, change money or even  give us cash advances on Visa!

 We had taken a taxi there, and though we really had no choice but to go with this taxi driver, (we were spoken for, no one else would take us) he turned out to be a bit of a shyster, especially when we figured out he set the meter at triple of the going rate! And while we were changing money, of course he left the meter running. This was just as I suspected, especially since he kept insisting we sit and drink tea with the moneychangers. Idle, idle, idle. 

Once we arrived at the hotel, we had a big problem as he wouldn't accept a 500 pound bill for 322 pounds. He had seen us change money and knew we had nothing smaller, and no one in miles willing to change it. A small scene ensued, and in a giant huff he took our 300 pounds and forgave our outstanding 22 pounds. And so he should have! The ride should have cost us about 100. We generally are careful not to get shafted but it was our first 2 min in Syrian public, and I guess no travel story would be complete without a scam or two. 

We checked into the Al Haramain Hotel, and thank God they had a room for us because according to our guidebooks everything else was the flea pit or a brothel in Damascus, and not a lot in between or better. After we dropped off our stuff we headed out to finally eat! We went to a little hole in the wall restaurant and ate like vegetarian queens, as both of us were afraid of the meat we saw hanging rock in the window. People (all men- I guess women stay home to eat in Syria) chomped away at chicken carcasses and rice all around us. I went for the hummus and pita once again after we finished, we went for a stroll in the souk. 

The Souk is like a large covered neighborhood huge market selling anything from spices to car parts. This day was Friday, and though most of the shops were closed, there was still a lively trade of all sorts of clothing and Max Factor makeup. Nae I walked through to the old city, checked out what we were going to do the next day and then went for ice cream back in the souk.

 Apparently this place was famous and all of Damascus for quality ice cream. Nae and I ended up in the wrong line; we wanted to order, instead we got to pound the doughy looking ice cream with the really heavy wooden paddle. Of course we weren't as strong as the guy working there and our feeble attempts brought smirks from him and giggles from us and the other customers in the restaurant.

 The ice cream was a bit too slimy for my liking, but it was worth stop and the time to soak in some Syrian ambiance. The place was filled with families, all eating the same vanilla ice cream under two huge portraits of the late President Hafez Al- Assad, a gray-haired evil looking man with a comb over and his son, Bashar Al-Assad, who is the current president -an unattractive man who seems to be frowning behind sunglasses in every portrait we saw of him.

 A happier portrait next to them showed our jovial Jordanian King Abdullah receiving his luscious portion of slimy vanilla ice cream. We missed our happy King! At least in Jordan Abdullah and his babe-a-licious wife smiled, welcoming you to Jordan. The late King Hussein was good looking enough to hang on the wall without his kingly status. But these two in Syria! Sheesh! Scary!!!

-To Be Continued!-


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