We heart Damascus - and the rest of Syria!
Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo, Syria, 2008-05-03 12:00 by Lærke
We arrived in Syria in the middle of the night, but the next morning we went exploring in the streets of Damascus. I was quite excited like – “Omg can you believe we are actually in Syria!?!?” but also a little anxious, this country has been labeled as being a part of the axis of evil by the US.
Much of my background knowledge about this country (and the whole region) had come from the media, awful pictures in the news about the burning of the Danish embassy in Damascus during the height of the cartoon crisis, burning of Danish flags and just general talk about terrorist and police states and so on. With all that in mind suddenly it seemed kinda crazy to be holidaying in Syria…
We carefully ventured into the souq, still a bit apprehensive – better safe than sorry and so on, warnings from friends and family still in the back of my head. Everybody looked so exotic, men wearing keffiyeh (the traditional Arabic headdress) and women in varying degrees of covered-up-ness, from full bhurka with not even the eyes visible to t-shits and ponytails. I found a little shop selling patches and spotted on with the Syrian flag – I wanted one for my backpack (yes, I do that lame thing with sticking flags from the countries visited on to my backpack…) The shopkeeper finally emerged from the neighboring shop and I asked about the price of the little flag (I remember being quoted absolutely crazy prices in Morocco for flag patches) so again I was a bit on guard, this man was not gonna cheat me :-) The shopkeeper went to the back of his little hole-in-the-wall shop and came out with two flag patches, handed us one each and said with a big smile “we give for free to tourists”. My hearts melted a little bit and suddenly I could fully appreciate where I was – in this amazing, exotic souq, with all the lovely smells of spices, parfume and sweets, I accepted the many offers to taste dried apricots, figs, dates and nuts of all kinds, we asked for directions to an old damascene house we couldn’t find and were gracefully followed all the way to the house by an old man. These small acts of kindness continued throughout our trip, with an old man sitting on a beach handing us sweets, to the many people shouting “Welcome” after us, a few meaning “welcome to my shop” but most people just meant “Welcome to Syria” – it was heartwarming and so liberating to be able to break free from the stereotypes in my head, the people of Syria turned out to be nothing but friendly – not scary at all.

We decided to rent a car and explore the whole country, driving in Syria was pretty intense and definitely not for the fainthearted! I covered my eyes countless times while Martin maneuvered the car through impossible narrow streets, crazy roundabouts that in no way functioned as they do at home, intersections where I was sure we were gonna get killed, all the time zig-zagging around hordes of people walking in the streets, donkeys, goats and sheep crossing the street at random and one kid who suddenly cycled out in front of the car – my heart stopped, as Martin wringed the car to the left to avoid the kid who suddenly realized what was going on and tried to turn to the right. He fell of his bike but was fine and didn’t look as shocked as us. Imagine if we had hit him, then it would all have been for nothing, all these wonderful experiences, all the great moments, all our travels – everything, just wouldn’t had been worth it. In our minds – and on our consciousness, we would forever carry his surprised eyes around with us. Somberly we drove on. Thankful that nothing had happened, but very much aware of what could have happened, we proceeded extra carefully. We know this might as well could have happened at home, however I’m sure it is just as shocking and scary and also makes you reevaluate life just a little, if it happens in your hometown.

At one point we drove in search of a monastery located on a hilltop, but we could just not find the turn-off. We followed a sign (that must have been misplaced) cause it lead us to the edge of this little town, with nothing but dry, barren land ahead. A woman looked out of a nearby house, we stopped and asked her for directions. She clearly didn’t speak any English, and as we unfortunately didn’t speak any Arabic, she called for her husband – who didn’t speak English either! Together they decided to invite us in for tea, it turned out the house they lived in consisted of 3 homes each housing a small family, and one of the other women spoke a teensy bit of English. They were all so lovely and insisted we stayed for lunch, lunch turned out to be a larger set-up with a huge barbeque that produced piles of chicken wings – yum! Somehow lunch turned into dinner – and dinner turned into us spending the night, in their big bed. They would not hear of us sleeping in the living room, so instead they camped out on the floor with mattresses in the living room. We felt kinda bad to put them out like that, but that feeling was overcome by their genuine hospitality that just made us feeling truly welcome. We ended up spending two days and two nights with the family, playing with the kids and helping them with their English homework, chatting with the adults (as well as we could), a day-trip to that monastery we couldn’t find led by of the men, drinking copious amounts of sweet tea and coffee as well as many hearty meals Mmmm – hummus, falafel, tasty salads plus lots of dishes we didn’t know. We had a great time! When it was time to leave it was with many kisses and sad faces, the grandpa of the family had a single tear rolling from his eye. I was so close to tears myself. Such act of kindness from complete strangers, it was a priceless experience that we will never forget.

The rest of the trip went by with a visit to an old crusader castle, it was an amazing construction, us strolling down many old streets admiring architecture and just enjoying the ambiance, shopping and enjoying the bustle in the souqs, a 2-day stop at Syria best (and only?) beach, seeing ancient ruins turning red in the early sunlight, walks in the green countryside, sweating in the desert-like landscape that covers most of Syria and eating! Oh, the meals – it was to die for! In Damascus and Aleppo (the two largest cities) you can dine in the most exquisite restaurants, old town houses converted into restaurants. Most of them in the traditional layout with a huge courtyard with a fountain in the middle, leafy surrounding, beautifully decorated with chandeliers etc. we sat in many of these, happily puffing on a nargileh (and coughing a little… only me), enjoying the sound of the fountain, the smell of nargileh in the air, ordering a ton of mezze (most of the time having no idea what we were ordering, most of the time we were pleasantly surprised) after dinner there was tea, coffee, Arabic sweets, backgammon – ahh life is good! :-)

All good things come to an end, and before we knew it we were on a plane towards Copenhagen… But in the airport my Mom, my two brothers and our dog stood waiting for us – what a lovely surprise! And the weather in Denmark now is so lovely, the sun is shining – everybody is in their summer outfits :-) Sometimes it is fine to come home again too.