Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Amman to Damascus * Or, "How i learned to stop stressing and borrow available wings"

Like many a wayward Middle East backpacker before me, I came to Syria overland by way of Amman, Jordan. Unlike most other flip-flop-footed travelers in the region however, this journey was made at a rather precarious time, smack in the middle of the so-called “arab spring” this past June. Mere weeks after my own home nest of Canada issued a warning against all travel to the country, I decided to take the plunge and make good use of my $78 tourist visa obtained one snowy, spring morning months earlier via Canada post -after having mailed my passport all the way from Calgary to the Syrian embassy in Ottawa. It was a far cry from the hot morning months later, where I sat in the Abbasi Palace hotel in downtown Amman, a friendly budget establishment who -despite their protests that Syria was unsafe for me to visit at the time- had arranged for me a ride to Damascus in a shared taxi across the border.

Breakfast having just past, I paced about the common room, my backpack propped against the wall, shoes on and Lonely Planet in hand, having those ackward prolonged goodbyes with people whom you have spent only a few days with, but through the intense chaos of travel feel like you’ve somehow known your whole life. The phone rang at the front desk and I was told my taxi had just arrived downstairs. Maria, my Aussie friend and travel companion who had spent the last few weeks traipsing with me through the dust and sand and chaos of Jordan, helped to carry my clumsy bag into the little elevator and we made our farewells outside. She kissed me on both cheeks , said “stay in touch” and surely echoing my own appearance, looked somewhat like she was going to cry (or perhaps it was the unforgiving glare of the Jordanian sun).

In a sudden solar flash the scene changed quickly however, and there was little time for sentiment or sadness. My taxi driver beckoned; a large, loud, grumpy, chain-smoking man who spoke very little English and looked considerably stressed out about the drive (the Jabir-Nassib border crossing having been completely closed only days before, and the recent shelling of the nearby Syrian town of Daraa might have had something to do with this). None-the-less, I quickly piled in the backseat next to a rather miserable looking Jordanian man, until there was some intense shouting in Arabic amongst the parked car and I was shuffled into the front seat (as it is customary to not seat women next to men in most Mid-East countries). We drove a few blocks to a busy intersection where many other cabs were congregated, proceeded to continue the shouting with further confusion and drama and switching of passengers and seats -I got the impression that some other man had been promised my place in the taxi, but as I was certainly the only foreigner (not to mention the only female) around, somehow I thankfully took priority.

After all this kerfuffle and switching of places (and me silently repeating “oh GOD what am I getting myself into??”, in the back of my head), we were off, me riding shotgun with two very curious and perplexed looking Syrian men squished in the backseat behind me. One of them, a burly blue-eyed man with a kefiyyeh scarf on his head -who looked unlike any Arab man I had met thus far in the region (and admittedly got me rather excited about the attractive and exotic eye candy yet to come, lets be honest here), kept handing me cigarettes and drinks of his water and cookies and obscenely strong Arabic coffee. I was quite taken aback by this extreme hospitality, but then I remembered everything i'd read in my the guidebook about Syrians being some of the nicest friendliest people ever, and I smiled to myself at how this man was so perfectly living up to his reputation. I obliged him in all his offerings much to the chagrin of my bursting bladder. As well, the lack of available ashtray resulted in me hanging my arm out the window as we sped down the highway, to which the testy driver shrilly scolded me for in abrupt Arabic, forcing me to roll up the windows and creating a lovely hotbox of a ride- all smoke and coffee fumes and illegal speeds. I'll never forget that man in the backseat though, his genuine kindness and protectiveness; even though he spoke next to no English I could tell he was trying to ease my nerves- that I was a girl, alone, going into Syria in the middle of a revolution.

The Drive continued Northward and every time we passed a roadsign showing distances to the border (80 km…50 km…20km) I remember getting this huge shot of adrenaline, one that almost made me literally bounce with glee, spilling my little paper cup of coffee over my shaky mosquito-bitten knees. Here I was, going to a country that my own government had issued an “avoid all travel” warning to, that every other person I met in Egypt and Jordan who had planned to visit Syria had aborted their plans for. Me and me ALONE -a punky looking , rather scruffy, sunbaked and dirty Canadian female, in a worn out green hemp miniskirt, ripped t-shirt, black bandanna and maryjane ballet flats- going where I had been pleaded with by nearly an army of naysayers (God bless my friends and family) NOT to go to. I haven’t felt that sort of excitement and thrill, since.

When we came to the border, my excitement turned to actual nervousness as the guards searched the trunk of the taxi, gave me quizzical looks and all the while talked briskly in an Arabic that I couldn’t even pretend to understand. All three of us passengers handed our passports to the driver with him subtly placing mine on the bottom -as though he hoped he could somehow hide the glaringly obvious “CANADA” written in fancy gold-stamped text and just float on through. Ill never forget the way the guards looked at me through the dusty cab window, cocking their heads, with their crisp military gear and AK47’s casually dangling over their shoulders, as though I was some strange lost bird that had accidentally flown into an area outside its normal migratory route. I smiled demurely, a polite parrot if there ever was one, while the whole time the little invisible djinn of adventure travel on my shoulder giggled and shrieked and prodded me, “holy shit JULIA, YOU ARE IN SYRIA!”. We were waved through and then had to get out of the car to hand our customs forms to the officers and be officially let in the country. I don’t remember too much about this part, as I think the adrenaline rush had shattered the few cells in my brain responsible for memory retention. I do know that on the area of the form that asks “Occupation” I had written “Artist” forgetting that in Syria, “Artist” is a polite term for the desperate Russian girls who work as escorts throughout the region), to which the men at the booth had a good laugh at and winked and smiled. Welcome to Syria.

My taxi journey ended about an hour later, as abruptly as it had started, by being dumped on the side of the road in an outskirt of Damascus. A variety of motley looking local taxi drivers all squawked and cawed “Welcome, Welcome!” in varying degrees of English, and tried to throw my bags into their trunks as I stood somewhat shellshocked and confused. I eventually settled on one who seemed to rudimentarily understand my requests of “May I borrow your mobile phone”, and he drove me a few blocks to where my Syrian Couchsurfer friend was waiting.

It is at this point that my perilous journey into Syria ended, and my willing free-fall tumble down the rabbit hole of travel true love (infatuation? love?) began, with my 2 week stay. Love for a country unlike any other; a country with people so spirited and resilient that words cannot describe without resorting to tired cliches. A country that continues to both horrify me with its sickeningly brutal internal political policy, and astound me with its inherent natural and man-made beauty. A country of a thousand-and-one stories and myths, both good and bad, true and false. A country where even an exotic western bird such as myself can feel as at home and welcomed as though she were in her local habitat, an excitable red cardinal in a flock of nargileh-tobacco-scented carefree Syrian pigeons.

But that complicated love story, is another story for another time.
'Till next time.
(With feathers ruffled),

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