Monday 13 Apr
The Road to Damascus
At some point somewhere in Asia, I had a conversation about Syrian visas and I realised that not having one might be a problem. This was why I decided to start my Middle East journey in Amman and not Damascus. So when I had finally finished with my various side-trips to Jerusalem and Petra/Wadi Rum (and been frustrated by always having to go back to Amman, which as I have said, is not the most exciting city to visit in the first place), I was ready to start worrying about what I would do to get into Syria. In the taxi on the way back from Wadi Rum I talked to an American who had been kept at the border for five or six hours twice (having been rejected the first time) in order to get a visa on arrival. So I had some reason to be worried. This is one of those really annoying situations where there is no proper source of information so you can't actually do anything to feel prepared for the possibilities.
In the end I was talked into catching a direct bus to Damascus by a cheerful English guy, although I thought this was very ambitious and despite the fact that the grumpy bus company woman told me I couldn't get a visa. To my great surprise the border official was actually very friendly and he gave me a six month multiple-entry visa. No-one asked me whether I had been to "occupied Palestine" or whatever it's called, so I didn't have to figure out the ethics of blatantly lying about that.
The amount of relief this generated was a bit absurd, but basically I had suffered in the form of worrying about the problem rather than actually having the problem. Fortunately, Damascus turned out to be a city worth taking some effort to get to. It's much cheaper than Amman, the food is better, the old city is atmospheric, and the city has a history worth finding out about. I spent my first evening in Damascus sitting in a chicha cafe in the old city listening to an old man telling stories out of a book and waving a big sword around. The fact that this still exists, even if it is quite touristy, is really cool, and the guy is a real professional. It's absolutely worth listening to the stories even though half the people there obviously can't understand them.
I have contrived to arrive here on the day before my birthday. Although this birthday is going to be 95% irrelevant (as I don't have any good friends to celebrate it with right at the moment), I'm glad to not be spending the day in buses and border posts. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the censors in Syria so I can't communicate with anyone! I should have thought of that...
Meanwhile, now that I am here the main agenda is to take the opportunity to stop travelling for a while and settle down. It's well known that Damascus is the best place to study Arabic. That sounds like a good challenge which would make a change from travelling, and what I need more than anything is a break from travelling. Yalla!