Friendly Syria-Backpacking the Middle-East
We entered the border to Syria from Turkey at approximately 8:30 AM, and after what seemed miles of barbed wire fences and gun towers, we entered the and for the next 8 hours, we sat on a bright red, hard-plastic bench, waiting for our visas. The official policy concerning an American's entry into Syria is that a visa MUST be obtained while in America. The unofficial poilcy, so we had heard, was that yes, after an excrutiatingly long wait, an American may obtain a visa. The all-important question it seemed, was who our parents were. After that it was our occupation, and then of course duration and exact location of stay. As bureaucratic as it may have seemed, there was an extremely lighthearted and consequentially, surreal feeling about the whole procedure. Syrian soldiers ,in full uniform, pistols tucked haphazardly into their belts, were in-so it appeared-very good moods. Rarely was the attitude of authoritarian entitlement displayed, rather an attitude of men at work, joking and laughing and enjoying their time on the clock in spite of all the drudgery.
Perhaps around 12:30, I found myself in conversation with a man named "Sammy" who had very strong opinions concerning our involvement in Iraq. Whether or not I agreed with him was inconsequential. For all intensive purposes, Sammy was right, and would continue to be so until we had obtained our visas. It just turned out that Sammy pulled a lot of strings at the border, and apparently, accepted bribes. To make a long story short, 8 hours and $95 later we were in possession of two Syrian visas. Next, Sammy found us a cab, showed us to our bus station in Aleppo, helped us get our tickets, showed us which bus to get on, and finally, helped me find an ATM. It is odd, to say the least, to enter a country like Syria. Road rules are loose. Everything seems to move at a faster pace. People are yelling and I have no idea about what, and damn, do they stare. But Sammy, and the kids at the bus station yelling, "Welcome to Syria!" as if they sensed my bewilderment, made entry into Syria a breeze. Damascus, its capital and largest city, was every bit as good.
Damascus, Capital City of Syria
I honestly can not say enough good things about Damascus. From the very beginning, to the very end, people were helpful, outgoing, and friendly. Spending the majority of our time in the Old City, we were inevitably lost for what seemed hours in its incredibly labyrinthine and almost cavernous streets. Very often did we rely on the good graces of the people of Damascus to help us find our way. One group of teenagers we asked for directions from seemed practically enthused by the notion, and quickly uttered every English phrase they knew, "Good Morning!" (it was night) and "Welcome to Syria!"(which we heard a lot). Even Andrew's attempt at baksheesh(tipping) was refused, as the boy promptly put the money back in my hand. As helpful as the people were, their instructions inevitably led to the same pattern-take a left, then a right, then a left. Besides being lost 75% of the time, there was not one negative experience in Damscus. We saw the splendor of the Umayyad Mosque, smoked a nargileh at An-Nafura cafe, and gazed upon beautiful antiques at Georges Dabdub. Despite the negative media coverage concerning Syria, I highly recommend a visit. The food is delicious, the people amazingly hospitable, and despite the falling U.S. dollar, syria is dirt cheap. A vast amount of history is on display here as well. The lovely and well-preserved Roman ruins of Palmyra, The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the Crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers, are just some of the awe-inspiring sights in Syria. Just make sure you get a visa before leaving!