Once upon a time there was a life Before Max (BM). In 2007 I escaped the military, and decided I’d travel overland between Uganda and Mongolia (hey who wouldn’t). I fell head over heels in love with Syria. With all the heartbreaking news lately of cities being shelled and citizens being murdered, I revisited a love letter email that I wrote home while I was there. I thought I’d share it here to show you the Syria I got to know – a truly magical, remarkable and amazing place. As the situation continues to escalate, I truly hope that there will be a peaceful end to all this tragedy.

Hello from beautiful and stunning Syria I have started this email many times with the
intention of filling everyone in on my adventures in Jordan and Egypt – ok, I admit, I won’t
necessarily use adoring adjectives to describe Egypt. Jordan, however, was absolutely incredible, but, I feel that
if I am going to give Syria an ounce of the justice she deserves, I better skip to the present.
Each and every second in Syria has been an absolute joy. I have been traveling through the country with a German,
Felix, whom I met in Damascus. Other than getting along famously, and having to consistently rescue each
other from a few Syrian men, we are both in agreement, that
Syria is a magical and very much misunderstood country.


In planning my trip, Syria was one of the countries many expressed worries
about – “but you’re going to Syria! That doesn’t sound safe?” I shrugged
my shoulders. “It will be fine”. In truth I wasn’t entirely sure what to
expect. I didn’t even know if I would be able to get a visa to enter the
country. Alas, things are not fine. They are amazing, incredible and as
close to perfect as possible.

Bush rants about Syria’s status as a “rogue” state, and rumours abound of an
upcoming war with Israel – either Bush is out to lunch (hmmm highly
possible) or somewhere along the way I have fallen into a deep sleep and
entered a travelers dream world. If I’m not dreaming, then reality has
become a dream and Syria is truly magical. I am the most fortunate person to
be able to travel through this amazing country.

Where do I even start? Perhaps a description of Damascus;
this is where my Syrian adventure began.

Damascus is one of the world’s oldest cities. It
is a stunning blend of antiquity and modernity. It is extremely chic,
but, with so much character
you feel as though you’ve fallen back in time. I checked into my hostel, a
gorgeous old house, with a courtyard laden with grape vines. I immediately
did what any girl does in a new city, headed for the shopping.
I escaped into the souqs and got entirely and pleasantly lost in the tastes,
touches and smells. I was greeted by a medieval maze of shopkeepers selling any and everything you could ever need, want or desire. The air was a mixture of sweet spices, flowery perfumes, and freshly baked pastries.
Narglia smoke hung heavy in the air, reminding me that I was a million miles
from home. As dusk fell, the call to prayer rang from hundreds of mosques,
as green lights marked their location. Women in chadors mingled with others
who looked like super-models dressed in the latest fashion.

With so many beautiful things attracting my attention, I felt like an
impressionable kid in a candy store. Did I mention candy store? Well on top
of the many fairytales I felt myself fallen into, I had entered the
gingerbread house of Hansel and Gretel, except, the house was made of
Baklava, and surely this was not Hansel and Gretel, but a story from 1001
Arabian Nights. Ice cream vendors roll snow white vanilla ice cream in pistachio
nuts, mounds of Turkish delight distract you from the smell of fresh baked
bread and cheese filled croissants. If you have a guilty conscience, and
feel like you need something healthy, fruit sellers abound with fresh
strawberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, and watermelon. On every
corner, “juicemen” – and I do not use that term lightly, as they are
dressed in a fez and a funny costume and wear a belt that holds 7 or 8
glasses. On their backs is an ornate metal contraption of spouts which
reach well from the man’s waist to over his head. When you want a juice, he
graciously pulls a glass from his belt, and bends forward as if conducting a
bow, and the juice flows from the spout.

When I managed to drag myself away from Damascus’ delights, I headed to
Hamas, a town known for its 20 meter norias or waterwheels. Now I can’t
even begin to tell you about Hamas before writing about how incredibly
wonderful the people of Syria are. The very thing that has made my
experience in Syria as remarkable as it has been is the small daily
interactions. Something as simple as saying hello, to entering a store to
buying a bottle of water, turns into a symbol of the kindness of the people of
Syria. It is the warmth with which we are welcomed, the smiles that seduce
us and the utter kindness and curiosity that has truly made Syria
remarkable for me.

Here are some examples: Upon arriving in Hamas (ok note to self , and any
future travelers to Syria, when you pronounce Hamas, do not emphasize the S.
Upon asking at the bus station for “utubees Hamas,” we got a curious and
shocking answer which, although mostly incomprehensible due to my inability
to speak Arabic, we realized they thought we were talking about the political party.
I digress. In Hama(s) we literally got chased down the
street by bakers giving us bread. Upon entering a store to ask for
directions, the store owner filled our hands with toffee, and sent us
merrily on our way. Walking along the pathway of the norias, we were
approached by several young men, with plastic glasses of a brownish liquid.
“Try try” they insisted. Both Felix and I thought that it was whiskey, or
some homebrew, but sure enough, it was just more of the sweet tea that is
drunk everywhere. This is just the tip of the iceberg of my interactions
with Syrians.

Here is a definite highlight. We were walking along a path, and it was
dark. A middle-aged carpenter beckoned for us to approach. He ran a shop
that used the water from the ancient wheels to produce electricity. The shop
was at particularly beautiful bend in the river, with three Norias. The
carpenter unlocked a series of gates. Taking us by the hand, he proudly took
us to see the waterwheels up close. We climbed over the Roman walls to see
the water flowing below, and dodged the creaking wheel, as mist soaked our
clothes. Upon saying Ma Salaama, we weren’t quite sure how to repay the man
for his kindness and generosity. “Tomorrow Chai?” (Tea) the man asked
excitedly, indicating that we would be able to see the shop, and the wheels
in the light of day, and that this was an invitation we could not turn down.

We arranged a time for when we returned from Crac Des Chevaliiers, a
castle, which T.E. Lawrence described as the most perfect in the world.

Here is another situation. This morning we took off to explore Aleppo.
Transport yourself back 300 years, and enter the ally of the blacksmiths.
Men of all shapes flex their muscles as sweat drips from their brow and
they bend iron and other metals in ovens that haven’t changed for hundreds
of years. A 1000 year old stone walls surround you, and if it wasn’t for the
ringing of cell-phones you would not know if it was 2007 or 1777. A group
of men are drinking thick and strong Turkish coffee. Come, come they
beckon, indicating to their coffee, and an invitation for us to have a seat,
and enjoy their hospitality. We joined them, and talk with hand gestures and
smiles, when they indicate that they think it would be quite funny for me to
take a try at their work. They hand me a massive hammer, and think it is
hilarious as I attempt to strike the metal. They have their laugh. I know I
look ridiculous. We finish our coffee, and walk away giddy from the
generosity that meets us at every twist and turn of the narrow cobblestone
streets.

Another highlight was Palmyra, an ancient Roman city built by Queen Zenobia.
I hadn’t particularly planned on visiting Palmyra, but I had heard several
raving reviews, and learning that Queen Zenobia, a descendent of Cleopatra,
had been a queen who during Roman times led her men into battle. I was
excited to see the pink granite that had once been her kingdom. The ruins
were of course amazing, and like almost every other tourist site in Syria,
(especially this one not being far from the Iraqi border) we had the site
almost entirely to ourselves. After a wander through the temples and
arches, we made our way to a stunning crusader castle, and watched the
sunset over the desert. Oh life is rough.

The next morning, the adventure really began. We had missed some hillside
tombs the day before, and decided to have a look. Huge blocks formed
massive towers into the desert hill. Many had their doors boarded and
locked. Now, you have a climbable rock face, a mediocre Canadian
rock-climber, and a strong German one. Both of us had visited Petra the week
earlier, and had grown up with fantasies of Indiana Jones type adventures.
One particular temple had an opening that seemed approachable. I looked at
Felix and said “I know you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you go first.” He
scurried up the rock face, and traversed across to the door. “There are
stairs going up and down” he yelled down. I needed no further motivation,
and with a deep breath, climbed up the wall. Upon entering the tomb, it was
as I had expected – not much different than the rocks on the outside. The
stairs going up led to nothing. The stairs going down led to a black abyss.

We had forgotten to bring a torch. As our eyes got accustomed to the
darkness, Felix pointed out that the stairs kept going down. “Watch out for
snakes and scorpions” I offered supportively, still deciding how much
farther I would go. I followed Felix down, our only light the flash from
our cameras. One cave opened to another, and we could see that a series of
tunnels were dug into the hillside. We made a few turns, going deeper into
the mountain, the tunnel was now the blackest black. The camera flash caught a
bone on the ground. It looked like a camel bone. Then we entered into
another cavern. We were within a tomb surrounded by two-thousand year
skeletons. Bones and skulls filled shallow graves. It was a little creepy,
and a little insane, and much more Indiana Jones than we could have
imagined. We felt as if we were discovering a long-lost treasure, or
embarking on the discovery of a long lost mystery. Not wanting to overstay
our welcome, and without a torch, we decided that the time had come to make
our exit.

Now, I am not going to say Syria is void of problems. The Presidents face
is plastered on every wall and window. Many Syrians are to enthusiastic ”
upon learning that Felix is German, and immediate begin singing praises of
the fuher. He tries desperately to correct them, insisting that this was not
a strong man, nor one they should look up to. Oh and one other thing, the
beer…well if you can find it, stick to anything imported.

Now I am in Aleppo, getting ready to leave Syria with a heavy heart, but not
before I do some serious shopping . This country has been remarkable in
every way, and totally shattered every expectation or idea about the
middle-east. This is a place I will rave about and tell stories of for
years to come. Every minute in Syria has been an absolute joy. (and as an
aside, it is drastically cheap for travel!), A full dinner, including soda
for 2 costs less than $1.40. Transportation is cheap, on the best roads
I’ve yet seen. I don’ t think I have paid more than 3$ a night for
accommodation, and this has included the cleanest hotels, and greatest
showers I’ve had yet.

I am going to get pictures up soon. There has been so little time, with so
much to do! The day after tomorrow I will head into Turkey, just for a day
or two, and then into Georgia. I have heard remarkable things about Georgia
and can’t wait!

Love to you all!!!

Nicole

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