Lessons From The Road To Damascus

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lessons From The Road To Damascus

Feel like the world’s getting smaller? A trip to the Middle East will help convince you otherwise. Here’s seven easy lessons to help make sure you’re prepared.

By Laura Bridgestock

Spending ten days traveling from Istanbul to Damascus promised to be the most exciting trip I’d ever taken — and it was. I’ve never been anywhere so completely different from my own country and culture. It was kind of a surprise, in a reassuring way, to realize that the relentless march of globalization hasn’t yet turned the world into one homogeneous mass. (Damascus must be one of the last places on Earth holding out against the big yellow “M” and the big green “S.” You know who you are.)

And while the locals were all very friendly and helpful, it was also pretty overwhelming at times. Looking back, there were plenty of things that would’ve been useful to know before getting there. So if you’re planning a trip to Syria, or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter, take a cue from my hard-learned lessons and save yourself some unneeded hassle.

Lesson 1: Use The Buses

A full day on a bus in a hot region sounds like a nightmare, but with all the trains canceled we had no other options for the 24-hour trip from Istanbul to Aleppo. A series of canceled trams and other minor disasters meant that we had missed our bus by mere minutes.

As a result, we found ourselves in the hands of a very large, denim-suited Syrian man who was laughing jovially in our faces as we desperately tried to explain our situation. After we finished our story, he happily accepted some additional money from us and loaded us onto another bus leaving a half-hour later. (Another lesson here: Syrians may have a slightly sadistic sense of humor, but they’ll look after you in the end.)

In fact, our panic was completely unfounded — it turns out there are buses leaving every half-hour to pretty much everywhere. Despite their frequency, they’re all full, and it’s easy to see why. With western sitcoms on the TV at the front, a steward bringing round refreshments, and (most importantly) air conditioning filling the cabin, Syrian buses are actually one of the most comfortable places to spend the hottest part of the day. And once you’re in the country, it doesn’t take more than a few hours to get between any of the main towns.

Lesson 2: Enjoy The Food (With Care)

syria2Aleppo’s reputation for some of the country’s best and most distinctive food is well deserved. After a few mad hours racing around the crowded souqs, narrow streets, and impressive citadel with two young Syrian guys (who had adopted us so that they could could practice their English), a nice, relaxing meal in a pleasant restaurant was just what I needed. Beit Sissi, in the old Christian quarter, delivered on all fronts: tasty food, memorable atmosphere, and (while it may be expensive by local standards) great value, with more than enough delicious mezze for the two of us.

Less than 24 hours after our arrival in the city we were back on the road. But before we jumped on the next bus, there was time for a last taste of Aleppan cuisine. Outside the station we tucked into an amazing-looking falafel wrap bought from a nearby stand. It was as long as my arm; a meal I’d never forget . . .

. . . which turned out to be only too true a few days later when it came back to haunt me in the form of “the Sultan’s Revenge” (Syria’s answer to India’s “Delhi Belly”). To be fair, I’m not sure that this specific meal was the one to be blamed, but it made me think twice before buying food from a street vendor again for the rest of the trip.

Lesson 3: Do Day Trips

Following Aleppo, food in Hama was disappointing: corn with the color and flavor boiled out (unlike the succulent salted cobs sold on the streets of Istanbul), ice cream that, for some odd reason, tasted distinctly like cigarettes, and the kind of kebabs that give the kebab a bad name.

So food isn’t Hama’s strong point. And — due to the fact that the once beautiful Old Town was wiped out in the massacre of 1982 when the army put down a rebellion — there’s not much to see either, except perhaps for the ancient wooden norias (waterwheels).

Hama’s real strength is its proximity to other sights. In one day we fitted in Krak des Chevaliers, a huge fortress from the Crusades; Masyaf, a smaller castle from the Byzantine era; and Apamea, a city founded in 300BC where you can walk what seems like miles along an awe-inspiring Roman high-street lined by columns. It’s possible to get close to most of these places on local buses, but hiring a driver is amazingly cheap, plus you got the added benefit of a friendly guide who knows the area, makes sure you get to see all the best views, and in our case, even stopped to buy us lunch.

If you haven’t had enough of ruins when you get to Damascus, a trip to Bosra — two hours away from Al-Samiriyeh bus station — is a must. Like so many of Syria’s historic sites, the old Roman town is incredibly well preserved, despite not even being enclosed — it merges into the modern town, and people (plus an ancient camel and several colorfully-decorated horses) are still half living in it. The centerpiece is the almost perfectly intact and very atmospheric second-century Roman amphitheater, now enclosed by a citadel that was added years later.

For a different kind of trip, we took a microbus from Damascus to Maalula. It’s just an hour away, and as we bounced around inside the minivan alongside local travelers and a few boxes of fragrant vegetables and herbs, I got a good view of the barren, sandstone hills that make up the landscape.

At Maalula itself, a pretty village of blue and yellow houses built into the hillside, the surrounding hills are full of gaping holes and interesting formations. At one, you can walk through “St. Thecla’s gap,” a narrow, winding cutting through the rock that, according to Biblical legend, was created by God in a flash of lightning so Thecla could escape her enemies.

Lesson 4: Slow Down And Have A Tea

Despite the energy that fills the cities — especially the souqs — Syrians generally take life at a pretty relaxed pace (unless they’re behind the wheel of a car). Syrians always seem to have time to show you where to go or to chat over a cup of tea. In fact, you get the impression that pretty much all decisions — as mundane as how many bananas to buy to such important ones as a marriage arrangement — are made like this.

Having made it to Damascus, we decided it was time to get into the Syrian spirit. Al-Nawfara Coffee House, by the eastern gate of the beautiful Umayyad Mosque, is a relaxing place to spend an hour or so sipping strong Turkish coffee and inhaling sweetly flavored sheesha. Also by the mosque, Leila’s Restaurant has some of the best views across the city from its roof terrace.

Lesson 5: Leave Space For Souvenirs.

syria3Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar — a soulless mass of cheap crap and rip-off goods that exists purely for the purpose of bleeding tourists dry — left us disenchanted to say the least when we were there. Syria’s souqs, on the other hand, feel like the real deal, full of locals picking up daily supplies amidst piles of colorful materials, huge sacks of spices, giant tea urns, stacks of olive soap, and every part of an animal you can imagine.

In Damascus, the Old Town is populated with interesting artisan and antique shops, full of beautiful mother of pearl inlaid furniture, jewellery boxes, backgammon boards, vibrant carpets, and oddities from around the world. One of the most bizarre things I came across while shopping there was a watch featuring Saddam Hussein’s face. You can browse for hours, and the owners seem genuinely happy for you to do so.

Lesson 6: Be Ready For Questions

Since our traveling duo was made up of one western female and one British-Indian Sikh, I’m not sure whether it was me or my boyfriend that attracted more attention, and Syrians have no qualms about expressing their curiosity. Questions we got included: “Where did you get your hat?” (this happened a lot, referring to my boyfriend’s turban), and: “Is she your sister?” (bizarre, especially since we look nothing alike). The most common, though, was simply: “Where are you from?” almost always followed by: “Welcome,” the one word everyone in the country seems to know.

Lesson 7: Don’t Take Anything For Granted

. . . including that what is listed on the menu is actually what is available, that a “No Smoking” sign (even a fancy revolving one) means that people won’t go ahead and light up anyways, or even that your flight will actually ever take off — but that’s an entirely separate story . . .


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