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Syria -- Day 1

Ancient Theater in Palmyra. .

Victoria Korosi

In all the years and obscure countries I've travelled, I've finally reached the limits of T-mobile cell coverage. I landed late yesterday in Syria and promptly discovered that the T-mobile rep I'd spoken to previously about this topic clearly must wear a helmet...with her name on it. Aside from the initial realisation that I've been travelling with hand-held Internet for the past several years, which only intensifies my arguments for not planning anything prior to touch-down, it does feel rather wonderful to be back off the grid again (sort of) in another country.

That said, given my compulsive propensity toward being a free spirit (or as my manager likes to call it, ridiculous) my current status of Internet disability should bode for an interesting test of my travel skills as I take another romp through the Middle East.

And so... Day 1 (because it's only fun if there is a winner)

Damascus: 1

Tmobile: 0

Riots and Souqs
I'd say my sense or orientation is challenged at best. Over the years I've learned how to efficiently deal with this (more smile politely and be engaging than acquire any true map skills -- though I've taken an honest stab at the latter, really) but roaming the labyrinths of the Old City today this had a bit of an interesting outcome.

To preface, Damascus has proven to be by far the friendliest city I've ever visited. Travelling on my own it is not uncommon that I've been met with a less than warm reception in some (notably patriarchal) parts of the world (though if they only knew that I now conjugate my surname as I am "part of my husband's" family alla the Greeks, I wonder if it would score me any backlogged points?). But here, you have the distinct feeling of not only being welcome, but that at every corner someone is more than happy to help and likely (i.e. definitely) feed you in the process.

Exploring (read: lost entirely) in the maze of Souqs today I deferred to my aforementioned skill of charming my way into a private escort to my destination -- and inevitably (and ultimately the point -- as I really don't care much about where I am heading) a great conversation. Today this resulted in rounds of tea with a few different families…and also a riot of school children that I may or may not have started. Reports are mixed.

To expand on the former, and take a lesson I learned in Bangladesh, in a country typified by hospitality in the form of eating as much as you can -- pace yourself. You may think breakfast is a good idea, but it's not. Ever. After the first of a few rounds of tea, accompanied by a light snack of a 14 lb block of cheese (think Kelari Mel -- but there is no one else at the bar to share it) and stacks of pita you'll wish you saved the room. As to the latter -- children in most cultures will be unabashedly enamoured with the instant gratification of digital cameras. Be wary, this could turn into a mob scene with amazing swiftness if you engage their teacher for more than a minute as school is letting out. Here, blond hair (albeit covered) = please take our picture. And the chaos then ensues.

The fullness of cheese still lingering, I am a bit nervous as I head to have dinner with one of the families I met earlier. I wonder if my oesophagus can hold the overflow of jibne khadra.

Top: Damascus: In the serene outer lounge
of the Hammam. Bottom: Pita and Labneh in Amman.

Day 1 or possibly 2 -- I've not yet slept

V: 0

Cheese: 48

On the Road to Iraq
I'd prefer not to call it hitchhiking. But rather weighing the situation as a seasoned traveller and graciously accepting a seat should it be in the direction I am heading (or rather decided I was heading at that moment based on the sudden prospect of a ride). Nine times out of ten, my judge of character is exceptionally good. But on that tenth try, when I get it wrong, it's enough to shake even me to the core. Fortunately this was one of the 9 (the tenth came later).

I crossed paths with Jamsed this morning in my "hotel" (and I use the term loosely) just as he was about to leave Damascus for Iraq. And no, I did not attempt to go to Iraq (tempting as it was). On the road to Baghdad is an ancient town called Palmyra. Awe-inspiring, historic, significant, etc etc. But as I suspected, the car ride was by far the highlight of the day.

We talked about his three sons, and his two wives. I got a refresher course on biblical characters as told through the Qur'an; as well as a run down on the rules of dating, sex, courtship, and adultery in modern day Syria. We discussed the difference between heaven, hell, and the VIP lounge (the translation we ultimately settled on for "Paradise"). It was several hours of non-stop conversation difficult to top.

There are a thousand ways to get close to a culture -- and to assume the adventure you ultimately find your own. For me, it will always be people -- and food. Give me real, sometimes difficult, conversation with someone who lives a life entirely different than mine, with a perspective shaped by a myriad of things I've never experienced, all over excessive local fare (and no silverware apparently) and I'll consider it a small success as a traveller.

As for the tenth -- I shudder, but of course am fine.

Hamams Please
I feel fairly certain that those black gloves were meant to exfoliate -- not draw blood. But with the (not insubstantial) weight of a jovial singing Arab woman behind them, whose bosom easily doubled the size of my torso -- they took on a persona closer to Brillo pads.

In a hamam (bathhouse) dating back to 940ish AD, and still as opulent and awe inspiring as I suspect it was then, I spent the better part of yesterday getting a whole new view -- literally -- of the local customs in Syria.

To summarise the experience, there was a lot of public nakedness and being given obscure instructions in Arabic, (many of which I suspect were related to my lack of toughness) an exfoliating rub down, massage, sauna, jacuzzi, and getting about as close to being violated as possible without caring. Joking aside, ne'er have I felt more welcome or absolutely captivated with a culture as I did in that hamam. There is something undeniably intriguing about these Arab women. To sit completely revealed together singing old chants that echo in the intimate interior cave of the hamam, and then later leave, all covered head to toe, ankle to wrist, mild in manner, back into the rush of the souq; the dichotomy of their lives is captivating. And while, as a woman, I struggle to accept this, to experience their warmth and hear their stories first hand I know my view is at least broader than when I started -- and my skin excessively softer.

In a bit of a haze after an irresponsibly late night out in Damascus, I rolled through passport control in Jordan this morning generally unscathed (which for me is always an accomplishment) and ready for a rapid fire round two.

Currently sitting (at the time of writing this) with my pack on the side of the highway, I am fairly confident that the bus driver and I have had a bit of miscommunication as to where I was headed. And for once it is an actual destination. Petra.



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