Of all the countries I have visited so far, Syria is the country I knew the less before I entered its territory.
Most of what I had heard before was quite negative and it was the country that people were singling out as a place I should not visit when I started planning my trip.
So, my expectations were quite low and I had a bit of a bad feeling when I arrived at the border having heard (read) all the stories about how they would go through my passport page by page looking for a clue I had visited Israel.
Well… they did and when they found my Jordan entry stamp I got in Aqaba (coming from Egypt), the officer kind of got a bit suspicious and told me: “Where did you enter Jordan?” showing me the stamp whose bottom part was missing. And as it turns out, the bottom part is where the port of entry name is located! hum hum. “Aqaba” I replied. And the officer asked me 2 more times before taking my passport behind to some office (A superior I guess). After 5 minutes of slight stress, the officer came back and decided to process my entry. “Welcome to Syria” were his last words to me. Ouf! For the story, I checked the stamp again, and it appears another part of the stamp is saying Aqaba. This might have saved me :). So, my advice, make sure the stamp is complete when you cross the Jordanian border.
As it often happens, I was not the worst case of the bunch and one of the other passenger of my service taxi was refused entry and had to go back to Jordan. I think he was Iraqi.
After the immigration officers, the second impression you get of a country is usually through their taxi drivers and as it turned out, it was not that good. The service taxi I got in in Amman was actually Syrian and I (and the Australian couple that was ridding with me for that matter) had agreed on paying 8JD with the hotel reception. Arrived in Damascus, the guy is requesting 10JD and we get into a very long yet simple discussion that could be resumed as:
- Taxi driver: 10JD each
- Me: No, 8.
- Taxi driver: No, 10.
- Me: No, 8. Tamanya. It was the deal.
- Taxi driver: No, no no. 3 people, 30JD, not 24JD.
- Me: No, we agreed on 8JD each.
- Taxi driver: OK, 1 more per person.
- Me: No, 8JD was the deal. Khalass. Bye
As soon as we got out of the car, we already had 2 or 3 guys around asking us if we needed a taxi to the city center. That is the usual scheme: cheat the tourists as soon as possible before they get a chance to learn the real price of things. And as usual, we got cheated ending up paying 5 times too much even after I got his first price sliced in 2! Yeah, well, the guidebook says that even Syrian get cheated by their taxi drivers. I feel better now :).
To be fair, I should say that it has been a recurring aspect of my traveling in Middle East so far and that except for Amman where taxis are equipped with meters, I had to haggle with a taxi driver way too many times ;). So this did not really put me off with respect to Syria and its people.
And it is good because the rest has been quite good. People in the street are very friendly and helpful. They might well be the most hospitable people and I have been offered tea on many occasions without any hidden agenda (as it was always the case in Cairo).
I have been asked the fair (local) price every time I bought something in a grocery store while it was not really always the case in Jordan or Egypt.
I also spent yesterday evening walking around the new Damascus center with Firas, Syrian living in Lebanon, that I had met at the hotel the night before. He is a very friendly guy and we had very open discussions about life in Syria and Lebanon. It was quite interesting talking about the wedding ceremonies, how liberal were different part of Damascus, romance and sex out of marriage for young Syrians and other things related to religion and politics.
Surprisingly, the center of Damascus is as liberal as was the Zamalek district in Cairo. A lot of hip restaurants and bars with women that are having a drink and are smoking shisha and a lot of expensive shops were the young and beautiful (and wealthy) can be seen. I was expecting something very different and it has been quite refreshing.
All in all, Syria has been good so far.