Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
54Trip End Nov 04, 2011
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From the incredibly well managed and luxurious little boutique hotel in Antakia (Turkey) known as Liman Hotel, I was referred to a local driver by the hotel manager. For 65 dollars this guy could get me into Syria. During my trip through the south of Turkey, I contemplated this border crossing at a time when tension in Syria was escalating and protests were turning bloody. On my last night in Antakia I thought about this rationally and decided, "What the hell. Let's do it".
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. For one thing, the driver spoke no English. Only Turkish and Arabic. This annoyed me on the way to the border because I realised he'd be of little help to me if something went wrong. So we communicated in a mish-mash of Arabic and Turkish until we reached the border. The road on the Turkish side was atrocious with so many pot holes in the road and as it had been raining previously, we were doing about 40 kms an hour. That explains why the whole trip takes several hours, even though the map shows Aleppo as being less than 100 kms away. Then - we reached the border.
This driver had it all under control. He grabbed my passport and used it to show the Turkish officials which was fairly straight forward. Getting out of a country always is. All he had to do was point at me and say, "that's him over there". Done. Then we drove into a sort of no man's land between Turkey and Syria which seemed to go on for ages. It was quite nerve wracking because I knew this would be the hard part. The driver kept babbling on about something in Turkish and all I could think of was, "shut up - I'm trying to rehearse what I'm going to say to them".
The Syrian border looked a lot like a terminal of some sort and we were ordered out of the car by armed soldiers. The driver herded me into a building where he again took my passport and spoke with some of the officials who looked at me suspiciously. This guy knew everyone on both sides of the border and after a lot of friendly arguing and persuading, they agreed to look into my "circumstances". This meant making a few calls to Damascus just to check that I wasn't a journalist. In the meantime I was ordered over to the visa counter to pay for the visa. This didn't mean I was in. It just meant, "we don't work for free". Now, the amount of the visa depends on where you're from and the amount a Syrian has to pay to enter your country. For a Japanese passport holder it was $13, for a European Union passport holder about $35 and for an Australian - a whopping $108 because apparently, that's how much an Australian visa costs.
Oh well, who am I to argue. Although I don't know of any Australians who get a Syrian visa with the intention of settling in the country and I can only imagine that all of them, like me, will end up parting with much more than $108 while in Syria, as opposed to finding work and sending the money home, so I'm not sure if their reciprocal visa arrangement was thought out properly. Now back to the other counter. The driver was getting a bit restless although I don't know why. We'd only been waiting ten minutes and I'd read that it can sometimes take hours for a visa to be issued at the border. He went back to the office to talk to his mate. Within minutes he came back to me and said, "we're through". Apparently he paid the official a tip of five dollars and that's all it took.
The drive through Syria towards the city of Aleppo was brief and I was relieved to finally arrive. It was quite possibly the most daunting border crossing I've been through and although it took a while to find the hotel, once we found it, I paid the driver his fee and I was very pleased to discover that he hadn't inflated the price. It stood at $65 as previously arranged and OK, I might have lost an extra $5 as a tip that had nothing to do with me. The hotel in Aleppo was a palace.
Aleppo is an ancient city with a walled citadel on a hill which is absolutely spectacular and full of young couples probably getting away from the conservatism down below. You could spend a whole day up here and it's well worth coming to Aleppo just to see it. I was on a mission to buy socks. I was fast running out of underwear and I needed a laundry somewhere, otherwise I needed more underwear. I walked through the souks of Aleppo and saw everything except socks. There was one souk that sold every piece of crap made out of plastic, from beach balls to inflatable baseball bats. All the crappiest toys you could ever give a child - and there were endless stalls of this, followed by stalls selling cheap bracelets, plastic plates, glitter, plastic baskets and anything else you didn't particularly need. I spent hours getting lost in the souks passing everything I've never needed until I stumbled across a souk with stalls that sold - you guessed it - socks. The sock stalls. In other countries there are shops that specialise in selling all sorts of cheap crap but in these souks the stalls all specialised in selling one type of crap. Amazing.
While in Aleppo the political situation was deteriorating fast. The hotel staff were not unfriendly at all, but altogether quiet and reserved. I didn't see a single other hotel guest and my room was like somewhere fit for royalty. I had to decide on what to do. I had access to foreign TV channels in my room which was strange but apparently the government can't prohibit that. So I was able to see the protests unfolding from the eyes of CNN and BBC, even though their journalists were banned from entering Syria. The local TV channels showed a different side to the violence and the focus was on their heroic soldiers killed in battle against terrorists. Who to believe? After two nights in possibly the best hotel room since the Philippines, I decided to move on to Damascus despite the warnings.
On my last night in Aleppo after yet another tour around the old citadel, I was confronted by a group of angry people waving rifles alongside armed soldiers. In total, there were about fifty people. I crossed the street, fearing that this could get ugly. It wasn't until I looked back that I noticed that the soldiers were in period costume and there were other people dressed in Bedouin robes. It was a film crew! They were probably filming a TV series and they were using the citadel as a backdrop. I wondered what CNN would make of all that. Another bloody battle on the streets of Syria.
After checking out of the hotel I took a taxi to the train station and boarded the train for Damascus. This train, despite being in a country far poorer than Italy or France, would have to be one of the most comfortable trains I'd been on in a while. And it cost a grand total of five dollars (first class)! However, the windows all had holes in them and the glass was quite shattered. I spent most of the five hours trying to work out if the holes were from stones or gunshots. Meanwhile, the train rolled through towns that were supposedly under siege, but who would know. Nothing is exposed in this country. That evening the train arrived in Damascus.
My hotel in Damascus had the address of Via Recta and while on the train I already envisaged the problems I would have trying to explain this address to a taxi driver. And I was right. The taxi driver had no idea, even with my ever so inaccurate Google Maps displayed in front of him, showing the location which was five blocks away from where it should have been. While in the taxi and trying to explain the address to him, it occurred to me. Via Recta? OK - so that's not Arabic. It's Latin. No help to me in a country that doesn't speak Latin. It's supposed to mean "Straight Street" or as Google Maps and other maps call it, "Street Called Straight" which would be real fun explaining to a taxi driver who only speaks an Arabic dialect. But isn't recta also the plural of rectum? So there I was, with a confused taxi driver, on my way to the "Street of Arseholes".
The hotel was also called Via Recta and when I finally arrived, I wanted to strangle someone for giving the hotel (and street) a name so unfamiliar to locals. The Street of Arseholes was in the very tidy Christian quarter of the old town of Damascus and walking distance from some of the best souks on the planet. Unlike the souks of Marrakech, here people go about their business without hassling tourists. Remember, this is Syria in the midst of a political crisis so the only tourists were the hardcore types. I had the whole city to myself. And as for the protests? I only saw those on TV. Walking around the old part of Damascus was pleasant and although the people were strangely reserved and a bit timid, they weren't hostile. Maybe it was the current mood.
I spent a whole morning trying to find a school that specialised in teaching Arabic in conjunction with activities like cooking and this was a concept I wanted to write about in the Middle East. After two hours of walking around the area and asking people for directions I gave up. I could have called them but I wanted to try to find the school without having to call them. After all, my mobile phone is inoperative here (Syrian sanctions) and I shouldn't have to call them if they're professional enough to have an office somewhere. They didn't. It wasn't a very professional arrangement, as I found out, and a week later I received an email from the director who explained that he was "in France" and he's now back. Too late. I also had to interview a rather crazy private tutor whose teaching methodology I quite liked but when he started talking quite openly about the government (in my hotel courtyard) I had to remind him that the hotel staff all spoke fluent English. I could be arrested for that sort of behaviour. It was very awkward. His words about the current government echoed around the hotel while seven staff members listened in.
I stopped for some lunch in one of the souks in a snack bar that had no atmosphere and no smiles, like many places here. The girl who eventually served me (I was their only customer) went back into the kitchen and after the sound of a microwave for a few minutes, came back with my meal. Oh great! Let's put the microwave where the customers can hear it. The meal of rice and chicken was average but at the end of the meal I bit into something that I thought was a chicken bone until I took it out of my mouth and noticed it was a large piece of glass. I showed her the piece of glass but she just sheepishly took my plate away and disappeared. No apology. Too embarrassed to admit any fault, even if it was the chef's fault. I noticed this sort of melancholy behaviour quite a lot in Syria and I can't work out why tourists rave about the openness of the people. Openness? No. Their hospitality is obedient, to say the least, but what's desperately missing in this country is a smile.
I'm not talking about the average local here because I wasn't in Syria long enough to meet many. I'm talking about the service sector in a country that is state run and not too bothered about profits. My comfort as a customer is not too high on the priority list, it seems. However, they're very helpful, I must stay. By all means, don't take my advice as I'm now into my third month on this trip so I've become a bit jaded. If you want the real Middle Eastern experience, this is it. Make your own mind up about the current political situation before coming here though. Just don't expect a smile.
The trip out of Syria was just as hard as the one coming in. This time I went with a serviced taxi which means they take other passengers. One of the other passengers was an English guy and everything negative happened to him on the very short trip to Beirut. I know what that's like. Sometimes it's as if nothing is going right and it clearly wasn't his lucky day. He was ripped off by one of the guards and he got into an argument with another one. I helped him out as he spoke no Arabic so I was able to smooth out the process and he was eventually allowed out of Syria. There was another reason for me wanting to help out. It was Friday. We were minutes away from the morning prayer ending and the bloodiest protests to begin. It was very tense and by the presence of tanks on the streets out of Damascus, I could see the military was prepared for trouble. If we could just get across the border before the violence spilt onto the streets, we would be safe. An hour later, with the military distracted by demonstrations, there was a very real threat that the border could close and we would be stuck in Syria. Worse still. I would be stuck at the border with a whinging English guy, complaining about everything that is wrong with this part of the world without for one second realising that part of the problem is his insensitivity towards this region and his total disinterest in the language. If you don't even know how to say thank you in the local language - really, don't travel.
Passing through Lebanese immigration was like a warm welcome. No more suspicion. No more tension. When I asked how much a visa would be if I stayed for a few weeks, the officer said, "I have an uncle in Sydney. For you? Free. You can stay for three months. Oh - and welcome to Lebanon". Within minutes our taxi continued over the mountains of Lebanon and then, there it was. Beirut - wedged between mountains and the sea - the water glistening in the sun and the city below. A Middle Eastern oasis. That's it! I'm staying here!