No doubt we whirled through Syria too quickly to do it justice, stopping just long enough to get a small taste of each place we visited. But Syria, more than any other country we've been to yet, seemed to offer a more candid glimpse of itself, even in a short amount of time, to the casual observer. Unlike places overrun by tourists where a brief visit can be unsatisfying or even frustrating, Syria's little-developed tourism infrastructure allowed for less affected experiences.
Our initial plan was to travel by boat from Haifa, Israel, to the Greek Islands and then on to Turkey, making Jordan only a short side trip and bypassing Syria altogether. Over dinner with some friends living in Cairo, we were urged to go overland to Turkey and assured that travel to Syria was both interesting and safe. So we reconsidered our route and got our Syrian visas. Having overstayed a bit in Jordan, we were then feeling anxious to get to Turkey. And frankly, neither of us knew much about Syria to plan for a longer visit. I once said to Gregg I thought all travellers to a country should have to pass a basic facts-about-the-country exam. We would have failed entry into Syria.
We crossed the Jordan-Syria border in a cushy Samsung sedanthe Amman-Damascus taxi service run by Jordanians. In our spacious air-con, leather-upholstered vehicle, we watched the landscape whizz silently by. The other two passengers looked like they made this run regularly, as they had virtually no luggage. Upon reaching the border, our driver passed out immigration cards for Syria and rushed us to the row of counters to pay our Jordanian departure tax. "Quickly! Quickly!" he gestured for us to turn in our Jordanian exit cards and meet back at the car. With our remaining 3 dinars (US $5) we ran to the snack shop and pulled a few packs of junk food off the shelves as our driver sounded his horn.
Any trace of having been to Israel jeopardizes your chances of going to Syria. We were careful not to get stamps in our passports that would give us away. In our room the night before, we had gone through our stuff removing any evidence of a visit to Israel. We cut out the imprint of a Tel Aviv bookstore stamp from a used book we bought; I snipped off the Hebrew labels from my newly purchased underwear. Our journals were in a box on their way home and we sold our brand new Lonely Planet. By the time we were done, we would have a hard time proving we'd ever been to Israel! But all this turned out to be unnecessary on the Syrian side. Seeing that my job was in computers, the Syrian customs official had only one question for mehad I ever made a CD of Fairuz's (the 'Barbara Streisand' of the Arab world) music?
Back in the car for the rest of the ride to Damascus, I wondered how different Syria could be from its neighbor, Jordan. Excluding the desert, neither country is very big and historically what is now Jordan was once a part of ancient Syria. The landscape out our window was marginally different, but probably only because I saw it that way.
We pulled in front of a bus lot in Damascus and the differences from Jordan became quickly apparent. Architecturally appealing buildings were worn while the newer structures were bland and utilitarian looking. Still, the once glorious ancient capital city had a decayed charm about itquite apart from the uniformity of polished cream-colored stone buildings in Amman. As we hiked our packs to the hostel, I could feel a sense of the place's historyas many layers as the permanent dust that had settled on its monuments.