SWF in Syria (1): First Date & Still Smitten

Krak des Chevaliers (crusader castle)

In some ways, traveling to Syria was like going on a blind date…with someone who looks like a bad boy on the outside, but is actually a great guy on the inside.

Of course, I didn’t know that when I met him for the first time.

People Warned Me

I’d been warned that he was a cousin or nephew of the Axis of Evil brothers and so, when I met him and his family at the border, I did hesitate for a moment. First of all, it wasn’t a very romantic setting for a first date. He–the bad boy father–looked a little intimidating–especially in the family photos.

Second, he (daddy) made me pay for the date–$130 for the visa. And then the chaperone uncle, the border official, didn’t exactly give me the warm and fuzzies. In fact, he sort of snarled when he saw my passport was American. Perhaps he didn’t think I was his nephew’s type.

Still, despite all of this, I decided to give him–Syria, that is–a chance.

And I’m glad I did.

Meeting Mr.Right

As luck would have it, Syria was, frankly, the Mr. Right of the various Middle Eastern countries I visited a few months ago (although I must say I find myself fantasizing about more time with Lebanon, another alleged bad boy who’s actually quite wonderful, with whom my time was short)  in many ways.

Sure, being a female on my own presented a few challenges (tips  on how to make this work are coming later in this series), but not nearly as many as I expected. The truth is–Syria had that just-right combination of qualities that made me fall in love with it.

This occurred within my first 24 hours in Damascus, where I ended up at a cool backpacker place called Al Rabie (which I highly recommend). I found the city, with its ancient labyrinthine streets–full of barbers, shoemakers and numerous characters–to be something special. I liked it right away.

But then, shortly thereafter, I fell in love with the country as a whole. Here’s what appealed to me about him–the country, I mean:

1. Fascinating History/Architecture, etc.

Syria is part of the Cradle of Civilization–where it all began. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for 4 centuries and was under the rule of the Romans, Persians and it was conquered many times due to its natural boundaries and strategic location as a trade route. Because of that, it has a lot to offer in terms of history, heritage, culture and architecture.

You can see Roman ruins, a mind-blowing crusader castle, souks (markets) that allow you to step back into time, gorgeous mosques and so much more. Syria isn’t just a pretty boy; he’s interesting and fascinating on every level.

2) Lack of crowds

Sure there’s a high season, and certain areas can get busy and a bit crowded, like Damascus (especially the Christian Quarter, where the partying is allowed).

But it never gets as crowded as some of the tourist traps in nearby countries (like Jordan’s Petra and certain areas of Egypt.) And I never saw those umbrella-toting tour guides you see in Europe.

A couple times, outside of large cities, I was among only just a few tourists and had that one-of-a-kind feeling of really being off the beaten path.

3) Affordability

After spending a couple of weeks in Jordan, which I found to be a bit pricey, I appreciated the low prices in Syria. Buses were dirt cheap and taxis were quite inexpensive as well.

And the food, which–by the way–is fabulous, didn’t cost very  much at all. I recall getting a decent falafel for under a dollar and a smoothie for around the same price. The same price for great hummus, too. For a few dollars, you can eat really well, enjoying kebabs and other tasty dishes.

4) Hospitality and Helpfulness

People are super nice and friendly in most of Syria (occasionally, in small/conservative areas, a woman might be harrassed).

You’re often invited for tea by the people you meet, and I was offered help quite frequently. On several occasions, I was accompanied right to my destination by someone after I’d gotten lost.

The barber in this photo invited me in to his shop many times and kept saying, “Welcome…welcome.” It’s a common occurrence in this country, by the way.

One man walked with me for 20 minutes to make sure I got back to my hotel OK! Another day, a musician invited me and a friend to his house to listen to music and have some tea. This type of hospitality is quite common.

5) Soul-Searching Opportunities

Whether you’re religious, spiritual or neither, Syria can provide just what you need if you’re looking to introspect and do some soul-searching.

There are churches, mosques, monasteries and even a town (Maloula) where people still speak Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus.

And there are areas that are simply ancient and beautiful where you can find tranquility and peace of mind while walking and enjoying the scenery–in a spiritual or non-spiritual way. I went to a monastery, Mar Musa, which was a really welcoming place.

It’s free (just do some volunteer work), it’s friendly (there are Syrians, backpackers and all types of people) and it’s a liberal place to be (you  go to the ‘meditation/service’–only if you want to.

6) Awesome Place to Learn ‘Al Arabía’

Damascus has become one of the best and most popular places to learn Arabic in the world, with numerous schools and universities dedicated to the language.

It’s super affordable, too, with one of the most popular courses at the University of Damascus costing approximately $400 for a one-month intensive program (as of last summer).

The second 12 letters from the 'Arabic Alphabet'photo © 2009 Debby Bosman | more info (via: Wylio)

There are other longer-term courses that cost more, but they’re still considered affordable. Housing is inexpensive, too, so you can stick around for a while.

More importantly, there are many opportunities in Damascus and Syria in general to practice the language since not everyone speaks English.

In Jordan, one of the neighboring countries, so many people speak English that it’s very difficut to learn Arabic (unless you’re in a small town, of course.)

7. Cool Travelers/Interesting Expats

Normally, I wouldn’t list this because I usually focus my time mostly on the locals and less on other travelers. But in Syria, I simply adored the backpackers I met and found myself chatting with them for hours and hours.

They were a friendly, bright and intrepid bunch of people with whom I immediately connected. People of all different ages with a wide range of interests. Some were there to learn Arabic…others wanted to see the Middle East firsthand, to understand its conflicts before forming an opinion. And others just wanted to see the country and learn more about its history, etc.

If you look past the externals (and ignore some of the media’s distortions), you see that he–I mean, Syria–is worth getting to know and a place you’d like to see again. If you’re still on the fence about whether Syria is a worthwhile (travel) date, then consider this….

8. A Soft/Romantic Side

Syria may look like a bad boy (and sure, he has his moments like everyone), but he can be sweet and even romantic. Check out this poem by Nizar Qabbani, one of the greatest Arab poets of all time.

Love Compared (by Nizar Qabbani)

I do not resemble your other lovers, my lady
should another give you a cloud
I give you rain
Should he give you a lantern,
I will give you the moon
Should he give you a branch
I will give you the trees
And if another gives you a ship
I shall give you the journey.

How about you?

Would you visit or have you ever traveled to Syria or other ‘bad boy countries’–aka, ‘rogue nations’? What was it like? What are you thoughts re: traveling to the Middle East in general?

Click here to read the next part of this series: SWF in Syria (2): Two Husbands in One Day or check out my 2nd date (which has a video with cool music) here. No time? Then just go right to the tips, found here!

49 Responses to SWF in Syria (1): First Date & Still Smitten
  1. Sally
    November 12, 2010 | 5:12 pm

    I would have never thought to go to Syria until some friends of mine who were on a RTW trip went there & loved it… In fact, before they went there I didn’t even know where Syria was (I’m still not entirely sure… but my geography knowledge is spotty to begin with). After hearing such great things about it, I think I might be up for it.
    It seems it’s always the countries that I say “Oh god, no!” to at first turn out to be the same ones I hear the best things about. Weird, huh?

    • CB Driver
      November 12, 2010 | 6:27 pm

      Funny that you say that….I remember when a friend and I went to Central America for the 2nd time and decided to include El Salvador and Nicaragua, we were slightly hesitant. We had that–“Hmmm….I don’t know” sort of vibe about going. Turns out some of the best moments of the trip were there! We visited some gorgeous areas, including towns where there were no tourists or just a few, and I don’t know about you, but I love that. People were friendly–and especially the children.

      Thanks for your visit and comment…and I hope you make to Syria. I think you’ll really enjoy it!

  2. Uli
    November 12, 2010 | 5:28 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    great article! I’ve been wanting to go to Syria since I saw a calendar on Syria’s landscape and cultural sights and think that I just got the right push into that direction 😉

    • CB Driver
      November 12, 2010 | 6:24 pm

      Thanks, Uli. Glad you liked it and glad that this has given you a push. I know your taste and so, I know you’ll love it!

  3. Emily @travelated
    November 12, 2010 | 6:52 pm

    I love how you characterize Syria as ‘Mr. Right.’ :) I’m glad you had such a fantastic experience!
    Emily @travelated recently posted..Five Excuses We Make to Avoid TravelingMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 1:46 am

      Thanks, Emily. Yeah, he was a great (travel) date! :)

  4. Sprite
    November 12, 2010 | 10:22 pm

    sigh, I am in love and we have never formally met 😉

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 1:47 am

      No prob–I’l fix you up with him–or maybe his brother (Lebanon). He’s also an exciting date–believe me! Of course, they don’t along that well, so I’m not sure if we can double date. :)

  5. Neal
    November 12, 2010 | 11:08 pm

    Your description of Syria being a bad boy seems perfect for your ongoing description of your travels. It’s not even close to being on my list but maybe a rethink is in order. I am drawn to the cradle of civilization but equally frightened of the possibilities of things suddenly going sideways.

    Look forward to Part Deux….

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 1:49 am

      Hi, Neal….yeah, you’re right! I hear you re: that sort of concern. It’s definitely worth it. In your case, the photo opps would be endless!

      Thanks for visiting…I’ll be delivering Part Deux in a few days! :)

  6. Gillian
    November 13, 2010 | 2:31 am

    Syria is definitely on my list! After visiting Jordan and meeting other travelers heading that way I felt like I was going to be missing out. Thanks for the overview!!

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 6:02 am

      You’re welcome–my pleasure. Glad it’s on your list–it’s really cool. I may go back in a couple years and check out the places I missed. Enjoy!

  7. Andrea
    November 13, 2010 | 4:37 am

    I’m really glad you wrote this post, and love your style! Syria does suffer from unfounded gossip, but is gentle and fun in reality. Looking forward to part two.

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 6:05 am

      Cool that you like the style–I wanted to lighten things up a bit, you know? Sounds like you’ve been to Syria–and if so, then you get what it is that makes it a wonderful place to see!

  8. Earl
    November 13, 2010 | 11:19 am

    Awesome write up and as you know, I have also been fascinated by Syria. Everything you mentioned above is exactly what I have encountered here as well. I really don’t think I’ve ever been to such a hospitable and welcoming country in all my years of traveling.

    Glad you decided to go on that date!
    Earl recently posted..How Much It Costs To Travel In SyriaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 4:45 pm

      Syria is fascinating, isn’t it? And I’m so glad that you experienced that same sort of hospitality, etc. Are you American or Canadian, btw? Just wondering…

      Anyway, thank you for your comment/feedback. To anyone reading this who’s interested in traveling to Syria, check out the link under Earl’s comment. It will take you right to his latest post about this unique country!

  9. Earl
    November 13, 2010 | 11:26 am

    And by the way, I had a shave from that same barber in Damascus! And every time I walked by his shop he called me in for tea. Such a nice guy.
    Earl recently posted..How Much It Costs To Travel In SyriaMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 4:46 pm

      Meanwhile, I am so happy to hear that you met and got a shave from Adnan. Wasn’t he the sweetest man? My one regret as far as Damascus was that I didn’t know quite enough Arabic to tell him that my dad is a hairdresser. I really wanted to say that!

  10. ayngelina
    November 13, 2010 | 3:08 pm

    Really interesting, I once watched a show on Syria talking about how nice it really was. So happy to hear it’s really that great.
    ayngelina recently posted..Why I broke my backpacking ruleMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 3:32 pm

      Hi…yes, it was really nice. Hope you make it there someday! And I know you’ve been to Colombia, a place I’d also like to visit. If/when the time comes, I may have some questions. Thanks!

  11. Professor Sam F
    November 13, 2010 | 3:09 pm

    While it is nice to hear good comments about my country, I cannot feel the same as a citizen. Sure they welcome foreigners and treat them well but you should wait longer and see how things turn out. I have American friends who were robbed either literally or when making purchases for some antiques or even by taxi drivers. It is okay for you to spend quality time touring but when you live here and have to find your way through bribery and censored websites and common hatred for America and the west because Syrian gov. in all its public speeches accuses the west of trying to steal its identity while the gov. steals Syrians limited income. When I was in the U.S., I enjoyed my short visits to Syria but now that I live here I advice you to stick around a bit longer and see what I mean!

    Prof. Sam F.

    • CB Driver
      November 13, 2010 | 4:22 pm

      I hear you….I understand the difference between visiting somewhere short-term, maybe sticking around for a few months and living somewhere for an extended period of time. Sort of like dating vs. marriage perhaps? When I visited Barcelona for a week, I thought it was wonderful. When I lived there, I felt the opposite. I won’t get into why, but let’s just say that it didn’t work for me on many levels–none of which had to do with politics.

      As for Syria….I’m a low-budget traveler and ESL professor who teaches English to Syrian (and Jordanian and Palestinian) students. I’ve developed a strong connection to them over the years–and started to learn Arabic–so I felt it was important to visit their country. And I’m happy to say that the individual people of the country–my “date” so to speak–did not disappoint.

      Having said this, I was not unaware of certain…um….parental controls that are in place via Daddy (the gov’t), which I’ve already hinted at. Soon, if you read more posts in this series, you will meet my date’s “possessive/overprotective mother-in-law” (Daddy’s ‘other half’) who didn’t like her son to be connecting with others via social networks or even talking about other nearby countries, etc. I did find her to be a little bit on the controlling side . Fortunately, though, I learned about the various ‘workarounds.’ Despite all of this, I did find her son (the individual citizen) to be a pretty OK guy… :)

      Anyway, thank you for your contribution to this post. It was interesting and led to further discussion and that tends to be a good thing!

      • Professor Sam F
        November 15, 2010 | 12:49 am

        Thanks for your response, very precise and to the point. Having lived in both Syria and North America, I tend to compare no matter what. So much work to be done here but whenever we try we are faced with state security red tapes and nothing happens without their permission, from Falafel restaurant to a trade company and everything in between!

        • CB Driver
          November 15, 2010 | 4:41 am

          You’re welcome, Sam! Interesting re: the red tape….I can imagine that would be frustrating.

          Just wondering–where are you from originally?

  12. Andrew
    November 14, 2010 | 3:30 pm

    Neat view of the country. I like your point of view as a blind-date.
    I have spent almost all of my travel-time in European countries, so it is interesting to see the visions of the Middle East.
    I hope you get to writing about Lebanon. I have see you mention it a few times, and want to see your vision.

    Did you fly in? Or Drive? From where?
    Andrew recently posted..Trying to Do Too MuchMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 14, 2010 | 10:02 pm

      Hi, Andrew and thanks–glad you liked my approach! I will definitely be writing about Lebanon–maybe in December. I went to Becharre, the birthplace of Khahil Gibran and did some other offbeat stuff. Will let you know when that’s posted.

      I entered the country from Jordan, by bus (and did the same when I went to Lebanon). The border crossing went fine, thanks to the visa. For once, I’m glad I played it safe. Right around that time (June), something was going on and the border folks had become very strict. I met other Americans who had hoped to buy the visa at the border and for 1/4 of the amount I paid (the Internet said that worked out OK most of the time). Well, many of them were not allowed in and got sent back to Amman or Beirut; they then had to fly over Syria to get to the other country. My $130 was money well-spent!

  13. Rachel
    November 14, 2010 | 3:34 pm

    You did say I looked like I could be Syrian! My question to you is, in a country like the U.S. where we are taught to trust no one because we might get harmed, taken advantage of, or worse, how do you know when to trust and not trust the random people who invite you into their homes? The fact is, of course, that the citizens of other countries are not like some Americans and their idea of hospitality! But I am curious…

    • CB Driver
      November 14, 2010 | 10:05 pm

      Yes, you do! :)

      I would say the best things to do are:

      a) Get to know other travelers who are there and see what they have to say
      b) Do the same with the locals.
      c) Accept invitations from couples, families, etc., but not from single men. In most of the Middle Eastern countries, it is said to be safe (and it felt that way to me), but it’s not worth putting yourself in a situation you might regret later.
      d) Follow your gut.

  14. Laura
    November 14, 2010 | 9:31 pm

    I was in Jordan back in April and after meeting people there who had been in Damascus I really wanted to go! It’s on my list. Great write-up!

    • CB Driver
      November 14, 2010 | 10:07 pm

      That’s great to hear–so cool that more and more people are becoming interested in Syria! As for Damascus, it is a really interesting city…I liked it so much that I almost didn’t want to leave and see other places. I think I was there for almost a week (at Al Rabie, which I enjoyed). I also went to Aleppo, but only for a few nights. If you decide to go, let me know and I’ll share what I know re: some cool places.

      Thanks for the visit and comment!

  15. Ali
    November 15, 2010 | 5:11 am

    I really enjoyed this post, loved how you made it into a date! Syria has always sort of interested me but pretty far down on my list. I love reading stuff like this that tell me more about being in the country and make me want to go more than I wanted to before.
    Ali recently posted..Ode To My PassportMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 15, 2010 | 2:28 pm

      So…he (Syria) wasn’t your type before…and now you’re giving him a second look? V cool. That’s how I felt, too, btw–until I started teaching students from there and meeting Europeans who’d been there who raved about him (it). :)

  16. Tran
    November 15, 2010 | 10:24 am

    You and wanderingearl have now convinced me that Syria should not be missed. Enjoyed the article. Dating a bad boy comparison was awesome!
    Tran recently posted..Traveling Pole to Pole- 2 Guys- 1 Goal You DecideMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 15, 2010 | 2:31 pm

      I’m so glad that you see what’s cool about this alleged ‘bad boy’ country….sounds like you might check him out now, and that’s great. It might be good for his self-esteem!
      Thanks for your feedback re: the comparison, by the way. I appreciate it!

      PS: The next segment may be: “Juicy Highlights of the 2nd Date” or something like that! :)

      • Tran
        November 16, 2010 | 5:38 pm

        haha. looking forward to the next piece!
        Tran recently posted..Venezuela- Crappy But Worth the VisitMy Profile

  17. Felisha Wild
    November 15, 2010 | 3:21 pm

    I have traveled around the world including Russia and Malaysia. I have always wanted to get into this part of the world. Often while traveling I would avoid the tourists if possible because you’re so right about the locals being way more interesting.

    I loved your bad boy theme as well. Well written and the pictures were great as well.

    Keep up the great work. :-)

    Chef Felisha
    Felisha Wild recently posted..Fast Food Slam PoemMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 15, 2010 | 10:46 pm

      Hi, Felisha. Russia and Malaysia? Nice. I haven’t been to either….hope to get there at some point, though! Thank you for the positive feedback on the post and photos; I appreciate it! Meanwhile, your latest link (visible under your name) has gotten my attention. I’m going to check it out…now! :)

  18. Steve
    November 19, 2010 | 11:02 pm

    I haven’t been to Syria before, but I might be going to Israel/Jordan next year. My plans keep changing because of a friend of mine so we’ll see if that’s where I end up going. But Syria looks like a cool, friendly place. I can see why you might have hesitated at first, but it’s places like this that are often the best places to see.
    Steve recently posted..The Ultimate Motivation to Live Life to the FullestMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      November 19, 2010 | 11:32 pm

      How cool that you might be traveling to the Middle East next year….awesome! You’re so right–those places that we hesitate to visit are often the best ones. If you do end up taking the trip, let me know and maybe I can share some useful info. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by!

  19. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World
    January 10, 2011 | 3:58 pm

    Uh oh — another great post about Syria. I might actually be able to change Jack’s mind about visiting this country on our RTW trip after all. (My husband is not falling for the bad-boy look that this country has :p, not yet)
    Jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..Ujung Genteng– Discover Java Island’s Hidden TreasureMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 10, 2011 | 11:20 pm

      Hi, Jill. Glad you liked it and hope you guys do get to check out the ‘bad boy’–LOL. PS: If you do, you might want read part 4 in the series, which offers tips (such as how to deal with Mommy’s issues with the other boys (Lebby and Izzy) and Facebook. Might be useful. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  20. Michael Hodson
    January 27, 2011 | 11:55 pm

    Sooooo damn cool we ran into the same barber!! Thanks for noticing on my post. http://www.goseewrite.com/2009/08/haircut-shave-damascus/
    Michael Hodson recently posted..Photo Journal- Bogota- Colombia Graffiti Art Part IIMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      January 28, 2011 | 12:01 am

      Yes, it is cool….I love that! Wild that Earl also met Adnan. He’s a sweetheart and I hope to see him again if I ever return to that city, which I truly enjoyed for many reasons (including meeting people like him)!

  21. GoingPlaces.sg
    March 14, 2011 | 11:10 pm

    I like the ‘bad boy” theme and enjoyed reading the post. But it still hasn’t convinced me to visit such an exotic place like Syria… at least not the near future :)
    GoingPlaces.sg recently posted..Travel Insurance SingaporeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 15, 2011 | 11:58 am

      Glad you enjoyed the post–even if Syria’s not your cup of tea. :)

  22. Alan Horton (@TravelFlag)
    December 26, 2011 | 1:58 pm

    Syria is an interesting destination for sure. It’s obviously very disturbed at the moment with lots of civil unrest, but it should get better.

    I liked the “blind date” analogy, I am sure you don’t know exactly what you’re getting from a destination like this. It’s a part of your “Chickybus” experience though to go to these far flung places, you don’t seem the Paris, Sydney, Prague type – more going for the “far flung” venues.

    I look forward to more articles on the Chickybus.

    • CB Driver
      December 27, 2011 | 9:14 am

      Hi, Alan. Yes, Syria was absolutely fascinating and it really took me by surprise. I had no idea that it would be my favorite country to visit on that particular trip (I also went to Jordan and Lebanon). Once things calm down, I hope to go back! Re: Europe…well, yeah, you’re right. I’ve been to Prague and some other cities and enjoyed myself, but I didn’t get the ‘travel tingle’ I seem to get from these other places. Europe tends to be sort of easy. :) Having said this, I do love Turkey (half Europe) and really want to go to Romania. I’d love to follow the trail of Dracula! LOL

      • Alan Horton (@TravelFlag)
        December 27, 2011 | 9:50 am

        Romania’s pretty nice actually. I’ve nver been but lots of my friends have, they all come back with stories of the incredible value for money. I have contacts who live in Mangalia, well worth a visit – http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&t=h&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=104764951433294336638.000450802aa52f227ef17 – they would make good guides!

        • CB Driver
          December 28, 2011 | 12:16 pm

          I like the idea of value for money! Also, the history is fascinating and the landscape, just beautiful. Good to know about your contact there. Thank you!

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