Another Day, A Different Country

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Flag of Syria  ,
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Well, we're in luck! Syria (at least Aleppo) is technologically with the times! (The whole computer thing is relatively new here.) Even an English keyboard! Yahoo!

We arrived at the bus depot in Antakya just before 9 am; Phyllis and Marty were already there. They had still be unable to get tickets when Marty walked here in the pouring rain last night, but there was no problem this morning. I'm not sure why they had so much difficulty when we had none.

While we waited for the bus to depart (it was closer to 10 am before it finally left), Mohsen, a young man from Tehran, Iran who was studying at mechanical engineering at university in Aleppo made quick friends with Martin.

It was less than an hour to the Syrian border. The countryside was very rocky and we noted the barbed wire all along the side of the road indicating the division between Turkey and Syria. (When we told Turks we were going to Syria they couldn't understand us. Then, once they figured out what we were saying, they would say, "Oh, Sooria"! It's amazing how a small difference in pronunciation makes one word so difficult to understand to people who speak a different language!) We filled out our Syrian customs forms on the bumpy road; as a result, some of it was almost illegible.

The border crossing was an exercise in patience. It took over two and one-half hours to get everyone through, primarily because some people didn't have a Syrian visa. If your country has an embassy in Syria you must have a visa issued in your home country prior to entry; if, however, you don't, you are eligible to get one at the border. At least that's how it's supposed to work. We have heard of some people having difficulty (like New Zealanders who don't have a consulate in Syria). The bus driver collected everyone's passports for customs on both sides of the border and ensured they were processed. Mohsen also looked out for us. Our lunch consisted of chocolate-filled Tutku cookies, a favourite that we discovered while travelling through Turkey.

The housing changed as soon as we entered Syria; instead of the gable rooflines, roofs became flat and houses were made of stone rather than brick. All along both sides of the road were olive groves.

From the border it was probably only a half hour to Aleppo, our next destination. Mohsen showed us to the Baron Hotel where we had a look at the rooms. I left Martin there and visited couple of cheaper options with the help of Abdul, a local fellow who attached himself to me. After checking out two other places, we decided to stay at the Baron. Built in 1911, it's a hulking old hotel - kind of in the "shabby chic" category - and with its wide, dimly-lit, echoing hallways sparsely furnished with heavy dark wooden furniture, imposing marble stairwells and high, high (16'?) ceilings it looks as though it could be haunted. (Apparently the original family still owns it.) The restaurant, bar and lounge have elaborate chandeliers and lots of wood trim - faded elegance from a bygone era. (And most of the staff look like they've been there almost as long as the hotel has been standing!) Our guidebook indicates that both T.E. Lawrence and Agatha Christie have stayed here - perhaps the Baron was a setting Ms Christie used for one of her murder mysteries (which I dearly loved - I have read nearly every one of her books). Our hotel is in located amongst a strip of movie theatres. Men throng there by the dozens; many, as in Turkey, arm in arm.

Aleppo or Haleb (population 3 million), the second largest city in Syria, was hopping the night we arrived! It was the last day of the Biram for the Turks and they were here in great numbers buying supplies to take home. (The prices for some products are much cheaper here than in Turkey.) Aleppo has long been a trading centre between Asia and the Mediterranean.

When we went out for supper our first evening I noted that I was the only woman in the restaurant. It was full of men dining with other men. Where were the women? (Phyllis had wondered the same thing the first time she visited Syria.) I assumed they were probably at home with their families. About halfway through our meal, a few other tourists, including some females, entered the restaurant - so I was no longer the lone person of my gender. (We saw a lot more women during daylight hours.)

The food was a set menu: choice of meat served with a lettuce and tomato salad, French fries (for some reason, one for the food I crave - bad, I know!), hummus, baba ganoung (eggplant dip) and bread. The food is spicier here than Turkey which both of us appreciate. A bowl of fresh mint, radishes and hot peppers accompanied the meal. (There was a dish of pomegranates and some Romaine lettuce on each table which were removed the moment we sat down - not sure why.)

We made arrangements with Abdul to meet us the next day to guide us around Aleppo. He is an electrician who is also a tour guide on the side. His wish is to someday move to Canada with his wife and four children.

Although we could have found our own way around, Abdul made it much easier for us. He found a laundry for us at about half the cost that the hotel quoted us. (To facilitate my clothes getting cleaned, I dressed for the day in a rather strange get-up: Capri pants with high socks to try to be somewhat modest. I must have looked like an idiot.) The hotel staff were none too happy with Abdul for finding a cheaper place to have our clothes washed! (Although there was a sign at reception indicating that exchanging money was strictly forbidden, the same woman who chewed out Abdul offered, on the sly, to change our US cash to Syrian pounds.) Abdul also helped us change our money and let us through the souqs, miles and miles of crowded and hectic covered bazaars in the old city. Apparently there are over seven miles of souqs in Aleppo. (I teased Abdul that when he said "yeah" he sounded just like an Aussie.) While walking the streets we met Pouneh, a student from NYU who was currently taking Arabic studies at university in Cairo. Her parents had immigrated from Tehran to Long Island, so she spoke Farsi and well as New York English! (The language in Syria, of course, is Arabic - and the script is impossible for Westerners to decipher!)

Haggling in the souqs was an interesting experience. We had lots of vendors pursuing our business and they were very persistent; there was a lot of commotion all around us. I found it quite amusing that when you did buy something, the person who sold the item would say "Congratulations". Pouneh explained that this is this is a common saying in Arabic as well as Farsi when a transaction is completed.

Although Biram was officially over (though it is called a different name here), many of the shops remained closed. Abdul thought that people were probably extending their holidays because it had rained the first two days. Now that the weather was better they were taking the time to visit friends and family, a common activity for families during holidays.

Our travelguide said that there are no ATMs here yet, so we are carrying US cash. Cashing travellers' cheques can be difficult - it is usually only banks that will have anything to do with them and then they'll charge a hefty commission - and will ask to see the receipts for your cheques (to ensure they haven't been stolen I guess). I think travellers' cheques will soon go the way of the dodo bird. (Actually, we found ATMs in Aleppo, Hama and Damascus - our guidebook was written in 2003 so is a little behind the times.)

Another point of interest here is the Citadel located high on a hill near the centre of the city. It dates back to 10,000 BC; several civilizations have built over the original temple. The current ruins are from the 13th century AD when the citadel was a Muslim stronghold against the Crusaders. We also walked the narrow streets of the Christian Quarter with its charming old stone buildings, many of which are now choice restaurants. About 14% of Syrians are Christian.

Oh, oh, we are back in "why do you got no children, you no like children?" country (similar to Cambodia and Vietnam). Arrgh . . . . I dislike immensely having to justify my choices in life (and have yet to find a polite way to say "none of your business"). There. That's my rant.

The public toilets here are interesting. The women's always has some sort of curtain in front of it, often a beaded curtain or one made of out ribbons of plastic - I guess to provide more privacy from prying eyes.

The bar at our hotel was quite an interesting place to have a drink, sitting in the huge easy chairs, surrounded by old memorabilia and the spirits of yesteryear. Even the music - classics from Frank Sinatra, Elvis and Paul Anka - seemed fitting.

We cheaped out on our second evening in Aleppo and visited a nearby falafel stand for supper for falafel sandwiches. Falafel is a deep-fried ball made from chick pea flour and spices (though ours were shaped more like little doughnuts). You eat it with pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and yogurt; hot sauce and fresh mint were provided on the side. For four falafel sandwiches we paid less than $3 CDN. (Even though we wanted only two, we somehow got four and, of course, couldn't eat them all.) It was a very popular place that was crowded with locals (well, men, at least) with barely enough room for you to stand and eat your sandwich. We ended up munching away on the sidewalk across the street.

Martin found a TV channel with English-speaking movies, so he was quite happy. I think we are both a bit tired of reading books.

We have decided to move through Syria quite quickly and expect to spend only eight days here so that we have enough time for Jordan.

(Whether or not it makes any difference, I did break down and buy a silver ring that kind of looks like a wedding band. Martin didn't bother.)
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