SYRIA

Click on images to enlarge them.

CONFESSION-DISCLOSURE: Both of us have changed our impressions of Syria in two visits.

We ended up riding the full length of it twice, four months apart; first in Nov '08 heading south, then heading north en route Egypt –> Iran in April '09. In terms of fairness, sure glad we did; we modified it, being kinder to Syria after the 2nd trip.

It confounds us why both our individual second impressions/observations were quite positively different from the first.

It upset us, how did we both see it so differently now? Perhaps because we had been in the Middle East area for a few months in between? Due to taking different routes, seeing different things? Because first time it seemed such a step down from Turkey? Because we got sick? All of the above?

Two trips through Syria are now reflected below.

Palmyra tombs in background; Bedouin woman.

In context: Two Lonely Planet maps. Look how small Syria is, smaller Jordan and then teensy Israel.



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Visas: We had no Syrian visas on either of the crossings. First time, took our chances on a Saturday, the Syrian Consulate in Gaziantep Turkey [map] being closed for the religious weekend; it was hang around for a day or two, versus risk a Kilis [map] border rejection right away. Hence we rode the 70 km from Gaziantep, and after ten hours of heel-cooling while approval was obtained from closed Damascus HQ, our risk paid off. Make sure you have a few hundred bucks cash however – they only take cash-cash of any exchangeable denomination – no T-checks nor credit cards.
(Postscript: Heading North from Jordan in April 2009 four months later, got visas at the border within an hour; far preferable to a day or two of Embassy-waiting and our recommended entry method for Syria, assuming your country is on decent terms with theirs. We didn't have quite enough cash, he blushed; a well-off Turk gentleman volunteered to donate $20 to cover our shortage and refused to give me his address so I could pay him back – embarrassing for me but extremely kind of him!)
In Nov '08, the Turkish side of the Turk-Syrian border, a mob scene lined up for an hour or two for vehicle papers, with one Vehicles Clearance guy on a slow computer issuing many permits. Elbows and aggression won. Kept my elbows at my side, making friends with Iraqis, Iranians, Turks, Syrians. The sole white guy, and sole bike, were big items of curiosity.

My 1-2 hour line-up buddies, a Turk (L) and Iraqi (R)
kindly held my place in line when I took breaks.
No line-cutters these two; we shared humor about the pushing scene.
Perhaps lacking sufficient discretion I filmed away. However a customs guy didn't like the possible bad PR, one can't blame him, so he politely made me erase the pushing, shoving, elbowing, yelling mayhem videos; too bad, it was a funny scene. Eventually Mr. Vehicles Guy called me out of line where I was on the verge of Death By Line-Up, let me go through, saving an additional hour of waiting; a nice guy in the end. The crowd cheered and waved me gula-gula = bye-bye; that felt good.

We were the first Canadians to cross the Turkey-Syria border on motorbike in any of the Guard's memories; several had never even met a Canuck. All nations combined, they get max one bike a month.

However, one Border Guard, I learned later from Thao, tried to sweet-talk her into the dark alley out back when I went for a stroll; one can only assume it was with sexual intent. What Mr. Lech Guard thought Thao or I would do about it, baffles us still. In the end, despite being rejected for his 'stroll out back' – he invited us to his home, even wrote out his address for me. He truly seemed a nice friendly guy, was still there months later when we crossed north and was most welcoming; altogether weird.

Another Border Guard cautioned me, his parting words as we took off into pitch darkness at 11 PM, “Do not stop for anyone en route, no one he looked hard into my eyes, meant it as wise advice. Uh-oh. But we subsequently encountered no justification for fear, indeed felt very safe at all times.
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Food & Sanitation: We both enjoyed Syrian food, having become a bit tired of previous countries' cuisine. I make this smallish point up front because we ate/drank carefully sanitation-wise, but both got quite digestively ill regardless; casting a shadow on this trip leg and shorting our first stay in Syria by a few days.

Street food, restaurants aplenty, some fancy. Better than parts of eastern Europe. $5 buys a meal, $15 a feast for two, rarely is booze available though. We bought $5 Syrian wine in occasional booze stores and Johnny Walker cheaper than Canada.

It's not just the food: Syria is unclean, sometimes visibly so; getting sick there has decent odds. So be careful. Many left hands touched our food, we watched and cringed. Left hands are for, uhm, sanitation; right hands for the many handshakes and eating, everywhere in Arab lands, and most of Africa.

Plus a garbage system, outside Damascus, is seemingly rare. Roadside trash is much in evidence. Finished your Coke? Toss the can on the road. Medical waste is mixed with normal waste, per on-line reports.

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Travels: We had crossed the border from Turkey to Syria at Kilis Turkey [map], spent our first night in Aleppo AKA Halab, [map] arriving late at night in absolute darkness.

Syria was actually a bit of culture shock after Turkey. Plus a challenging ride without a clue where we were going in pitch dark, let alone having a map. Nevertheless around midnight, we found downtown in the second largest city in Syria, one of the world's oldest inhabited cities – with a substantial population of 4.5 million.

Aleppo is a world heritage site [link] with evidently much to see, including an interesting mediaeval souq, but we don't have time to see everything – were more anxious to get on to the major ruins of Palmyra. So took off in the morning after eventually finding the only bank in town that cashes travelers cheques (not easy!) One needs Syrian cash there for most things, including paying the Ambassador Hotel at 6 Sharia al-Baron; we cannot find a web link, but it's a nice place and we do recommend it.

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Hama [map] was the next night, an interesting town, with famed wooden waterwheels that fed aquaducts, called 'norias,' from the 13th century, the oldest surviving waterwheels in the world.

It is also sadly the home of the famed 'Hama Massacre' in which between 10,000-30,000 Syrians died during a massive rebel suppression of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1982 [link]. The centre of town was basically leveled by Syrian artillery, hence not much is old [photos] – but somehow the waterwheels were spared.

In Hama we encountered three travelers, a Belgian, Peter Arnou, a nice guy who is a photographer/banker just back from China in his AWD Opel [Peter's excellent photos website link.] (We've subsequently stayed in touch with Peter occasionally for over two years.) Plus two girls were traveling with him – Canadian Gwen Donaldson and Australian Naida Pearson ... we had a fine dinner in an excellent resto down a narrow street behind the waterwheels, ask around you will find it when in Hama.

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Drove directly from Hama via Homs [map] about 150 km East into the desert to Palmyra. En route, this PetroCan gang was lunching mid-desert at a rest stop when we needed a break – three Syrians and an Indian – the latter is a marathon champion swimmer. The boss gave me his card "in case you need any help."

Riding to Palmyra through the desert.
video

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Palmyra [link] [map] is an absolute must-see if you get the chance. Photos [link]; videos [link]; history [link]; UNESCO [link].

Even to those who have seen the best ruins on earth, this place is stunning, with historically significance. We liked the Hotel Villa Palmyra [link] reasonably priced, good breakfast, nice view of the ruins, and of course no internet ... again.

The sole downside – Palmyra is among the world capitals of the pesky, aggressive street hustle; this does not happen in other parts of Syria. Lonely Planet comments they are starved for biz here since 9/11 – Osama got them too – so now hyper-compete for every tourist dime. It caused us to eat in our hotel with a busload of French tourists on our last night, rather than run the street gauntlet again. We departed a day early due to the swarming touts; the hustle costs them a fortune in stay-aways and refugees.

Do not let this one negative prevent a visit though, it is truly worth seeing. Palmyra is the highlight of Syria, and one of a small number of the very best historic sites on earth.

Jaw-dropping expanse of beauty and history, it's deep in the gorgeous desert and mountains, a caravan oasis dating from Jesus' days and even a couple millennia prior, amazingly restored with ongoing new finds. Emperor Hadrian [link] of UK Wall fame, in 129 AD declared it a Free City meaning no taxes, but still part of the Roman Empire. Thus they built lavishly and most artistically.

Read up on Zenobia [link], a Palmyra warrior Queen who may have helped kill her kid, the former King. She evidently beat Cleopatra in looks, beat Rome in serious wars all the way to Egypt. Finally she ended up defeated by Rome in war but, somehow was freed and married a Senator – living happily ever after in Tivoli near Rome. Not bad for an ancient Queen of the Desert. She must have been some looker, and some warrior.

Driving to Palmyra. Too bad about the health hazard of bullets. So close.
Iraq was formerly a cheap visitor's paradise we heard.
Syria is mostly desert. Flat barren, clean and sooo quiet.
Just aim the bike and go to sleep. Almost no traffic going east/west.
Turn off the engine and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Palmyra at sunset, viewed from the castle hill.
Palmyra theatre seating area & stage.
Acoustics are amazing.
Sitting at top, you can hear a man talk in normal voice at centre stage.

The new and old, transport as well. One can drive through the ancient Roman streets. Below one of many camel rides offered. He also offered to trade me a camel for the bike, ha-ha. Twice a day was offered a 125 CC swap too.

One local told me a basic dromedary costs $4,000. A good racing camel can be allegedly $50,000. Here's a [link] to camel classifieds – in case you ever need one.

2000 year old stone-carved décor. Amazing fine work.
Looking up at a column head, the fine details still preserved.

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Our third (!) day in Syria we finally found a map.
A shop had only one copy.
Notice the country at the bottom is Palestine; no such thing as Israel.

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Damascus [map] is a great old city, claiming 'oldest continuously occupied city on earth' - 4,000-ish years and the old stuff still is in daily use. Outlying districts are ugly and random. But the old city is really worth exploring.



Suq Al Hamidiyya is the best part. Ancient, huge and packed. We saw zero tourists there, no one bugged us. To the contrary a candy shop guy refused to take money from Thao when she collected a little bag of goodies. Welcome to Syria he said, so nice ... Can we take your picture? No way. Some Muslims believe photos steal your soul, others can't wait for photo ops; he was in the former group.

This Souq is for the real people to buy their real stuff and is very well organized.

Except ... the old roof is still riddled with bullet holes eighty years later, making the obvious political point: French planes strafed it while putting down an early 20th Century rebellion. Hence when it rains, the souq, people, goods get wet. OK guys, the point has been made, so fix the damn roof already.

And two power failures while we were there. When its dark, it's very dark.

Souq is just packed, with people and goods, a first class shopping & cultural experience. Beats the tourist trap one in Istanbul hands down. In the Damascus one, they sell about anything a local can carry or cart away: Rolex to coffee beans. And lingerie (below) for maybe $5 on a street cart – skimpy pink frilly nylon, grrrr.

Blingy bag on un-blingy shmatas, cell phones extremely everywhere.
The citadel on edge of Souq. Huge, ancient, in superb shape.
Kids in Damascus Souq deliver lunch.
Tea seller in Souq

The big Damascus Umayyad Mosque [photos] is allegedly 3rd most important in the world, after Mecca and Medina. Some VIPs are entombed there, not the least of which is the great Saladin [link] who apparently had a respectful albeit adversarial relationship with King Richard the Lion Hearted, captured Jerusalem, and ruled much of the known world. He was interestingly, in current contexts, a Kurd (see Turkey #2 blog.)

The Mosque is massive, ten thousand could pray here under one roof is my guess. Relatively spartan, no fancy-artisanship nor architectural contest for the Catholic majors from the same era, but it has great significance to the Muslim world.

Fine Damascus crafts shop: Make sure you visit ANAT Design and Marketing Center [link] in the old city, right next to the Armenian Orthodox Church. It commissions and sells Syrian handicrafts of high quality products with artistic value – all made by women in Syrian villages, where education and work is very limited. 'Many villages have only primary schools. Soon after leaving school, pupils often forget how to read and write. Except seasonal peasant work there are no other work possibilities for them.' The stuff they have on display is lovely and we bought a few things for ourselves and as gifts. Great shop and products, good cause.

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Our last few days of the first Syrian trip, I was weak from the tummy bug, could not keep riding in Damascus traffic, so we just grabbed the first available room in the crummy Al Boustan on Victoria St, AKA The Dump – right opposite the huge un-crummy Four Seasons. The only thing I can say for the Al Boustan is no white tourists, we prefer that. But in case you were already packing to go there, it has one French TV channel that barely works if you play with the cable connection; no internet; carpets in our room were truly gross; rooms very basic; breakfast the now-usual Nescafé instant packs with pita/jam (whatever happened to great Arabic coffee tradition?) US$55; don't go there.

Some kids love posing ...
Our second visit in Damascus however, we got the last room in Afamia Hotel for €40 [link] . Very good location, clean, wi-fi in-room, nice staff and popular with tourists. Much better, but is often booked by groups, so call ahead.

In the hotel lobby we met a very friendly Syrian-French gent Ayman Nour [link] who arranges Syrian tours from France, and a French couple M/Mme Jacky Trebuil he was escorting; were invited to dinner at Al Kamal restaurant a few blocks away on 29th May Street. It's a large modern white-tablecloth place which is, judging by faces, very popular with whites and upscale Syrians. Since we didn't see the bill or menu, do not know prices. It is fine, and so was our charming French and Syrian company.

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On our way north during the second trip through, we stayed in the attractive, clean and very welcoming-friendly city of Homs [map] at the Lord Suites Hotel [link]. It's not just a name, these are big and attractive suites in a fairly grand hotel, about C$100, which is high for Syria but we recommend it.

Lord Suites Hotel, locally costumed gent greets one in the dining area.
In the morning we detoured 60 km West from Homs [map] towards the apparently very developed seaside, right next to the Jordan border. High up a very steep, switchback, but drivable 650 meter tall hill road, is the astounding Krak des Chevaliers, [link] a Crusader fortress that is perhaps the most important one still standing in the world; spectacular, huge and in amazing shape.

It is easy to visualize life there, back when. How anyone could have even tried to assault this fortress is beyond imagination, and how they built it way up there 800-1000 years ago ... T. E. Lawrence apparently called it "the finest castle in the world", it certainly is the finest we have seen. If in Syria, it's a no-miss.

It is too bad we missed Lebanon, it is evidently gorgeous and mostly well-off, we drove so close on a few occasions. Routing and time did not permit.

We rode north, crossed into Turkey on smooth 4-lane, late in the same afternoon as touring the Krak. (A logical route, if you have time, might be to tour the coast of the Med as well, then go to Palmyra, then Damascus. Having seen enough Med coastal paradises, we were trying to make miles and get to the Orient now.)

Wikipedia photo.
View over a gorgeous valley.
Me Sir? Scale the wall while they fire arrows down at me?
Can I carry water instead?
The wall is 100' thick in places ...
Enormous horse stable, one of several.

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Bigger picture.

Axis of Evil. Ironically, hotels most often quote in US$. Even visas at the border are quoted in US$. On TV, it's mostly American shows with Arab voice dubs. American jeans/sneaker fashions are in. Etc. The irony being:
- USA has a Travel Advisory against its citizens going to Syria;
- USA bombed a corner of Syria recently nailing some baddies;
- With minimal press, bombs were dropped a year back on a North Korean nuclear installation in the making, Israel bombed, USA blessed it and even the UN inspectors found nuclear weapon evidence;
- USA has an embargo on most trade with Syria, basically it's black-listed;
- War by USA and others continues next door in Iraq against former sister Ba'ath regime;
- USA supports the 'non-existent' neighbor Israel (see map below);
- Syria was booted out of Lebanon where it had military hegemony, after allegedly assassinating the ex-Prez there;
- It's a socialist Muslim military regime, highly corrupt dictatorship, even though Prez was 'elected' unopposed, with 97% of votes;
- It's an active ally of the Hizballah, which is Iran-backed, nasty and very armed.
- That's just recent years ...
Not many Americans go there, indeed we encountered few tourists of any nation outside Palmyra, which was a nice bonus.

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Caution to women: Not to over-state it, but single white women do occasionally 'disappear' in Syria. Thao was stuck in The Dump with me for a couple sick days, against her protests, because I wouldn't let her out alone; too many disappearances of foreign chicks. My sister personally knows a Canadian female who suddenly vanished in Syria in October 2008. Another Canadian woman vanished there in 2007 [CBC link]. A Swedish girl also in 2007 [Link.] Syrian women vanish too [link]. Syria has a very poor human rights record, rapists can be treated leniently even in 2008 [UNHCR link.] They have this thing about 'good' women vs 'the others'; hotel clerks occasionally gave Thao suggestive looks, one feels it walking down the street; the odds are worse here for a sans-male woman.

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Assassinations by motorbike: A couple Syrians did candidly admit to us, there are issues with bad boys. How government deals with them, it bans their tools. For example almost all motor bikes in Syria are around 125cc, mostly Chinese single piston about $1000; the absence of big ones is due to assassinations – no one could catch them post-hit, hence big bikes were banned. In Jordan as well – very few bikes were seen our whole time there, except little Vespa types. "Why?" Assassinations, was the candid answer.

Yet they both have geography, traffic, economies perfect for bikes; the region could afford a million new ones; instead of assembling and exporting them, they import Chinese ones. One example of many opportunities missed. Asian Tigers do it, why not these potential Arab ones? Shrug.

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Censorship: Little web access in hotels, even ones that have the web for their own use, they just need a $30 wireless modem. No: YouTube, FaceBook, etc. or web sites ending in ".il" = Israel, I tried to find tires there on line, in vain. Also no phone calls are permitted via Internet, so we had no phone in Syria. Big Brother is indeed watching: It’s hard to avoid the image of President Bashar al-Assad hanging prominently in shop windows, on billboards, in car's rear windows.

Prez al-Assad, a couple Muslim heavies, a sword, often seen in car widows.
Discussion of politics in Syria is not recommended; Syria’s security force, the Mukhabarat, has plainclothes officers that far outnumber their uniformed counterparts [source link]. Anyone who comments too loudly about President Assad or Israel may find himself under surveillance or abducted into custody. The perception of omnipresent plain-clothes 'ears' creates a culture of self-censorship that polices itself.
This may explain one thought-provoking incident: A kind gentleman in business attire stopped his newish Kia SUV to offer us directions at a roundabout, went 5 km out of his way to generously lead us to the right road. His English was excellent, he offered us lunch but we agreed to sharing fresh juice with him at the restaurant we were in front of, only to make his acquaintance. So in we went together. He discretely paid for two (delicious) blender-made juices, and shook hands and apologized he had to work ... we were disappointed not to chat with him, gave him my business card. But our strong suspicion was and remains, he was playing it safe: Be hospitable and kind, and he surely was, but risking it with a couple Canadians may raise eyebrows, there might be ears nearby, and who knows what we might say too loudly ...
Here's a very good 2008, unpolitical well-researched short article about this "Axis of Evil" nation [link] from The Witherspoon Institute.

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Economy: GDP per Capita (PPP = purchasing power adjusted) is $4300 (just $1800 in actual cash terms); that's under half of neighbor Turkey's $9400. Israel, another neighbor at $28,800 per capita, is 670% more productive per person than Syria, and it doesn't have oil. [Source link].

Syria has third lowest GDP per Capita in the entire Middle East out of 15 countries [source link.] Look at this last link even if not into economics, it's an interesting ranking.

30%+ of Syrians are classified as in poverty. Unemployment officially is 20%, but based solely on observation, a lot more than 1/5 of able-bodied men appear to be just hanging out.

It is a visibly poor country, even though they export oil. I had a couple candid conversations. How do you make money here? Be part of the greased palms system, no secret. Start a decent sized business? Odds are miniscule unless you pay off big & high, or are related to someone. Too bad, because opportunities are abundant.

Arabs are entrepreneurs and traders by nature/tradition. And they sure can work; the 12-16 hour days of most shop-keepers and their families in Syria, would put most westerners to shame. Fine crafts galore, some artistic. Clothes-making skills in ample evidence. Some nice construction work. They keep their old crappy cars running, hence mechanical skills evidently exist. Labour pool is large. Land is abundant and mostly empty.

Shops are teensy, but neatly organized, packed with goods in demand and open l-o-n-g hours. Stiff identical competition, they market well in their league, aim at a their target.

Guys who push/drive the carts thru street bust their butts being human cargo trucks, they earn their pittance.

Syria as a huge untapped opportunity surrounded by ready/willing money. It's not the religion per se that prevents greater economic development; witness the considerable success of Turkey next door and Indonesia half a world away. It's about other things – economic leadership, corruption and unfriendly foreign relations would be top contenders.

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On the Road: Cars are in higher percentage than we're accustomed to, old rattle boxes, many two-strokes and three-wheelers. I have never heard of some brands ('Chana' brand is big). Saw quite a few nice cars, even high-end ones, plenty small-to-mid-level European and Asian cars, even some small Chev's, so some people have money. Lots of those Chinese 125 cc bikes!

Gas is surprisingly cheap at $1/litre, half or less than elsewhere since UK, but it's max 82 octane. You can prevent engine knock if necessary, by using octane-booster available in Syrian gas stations.

Roads, enough North-South and a couple going East-West are good or very good, the major ones being four-lane. Even the two-lanes we found to be very good.

Traffic is horn-honking, fairly aggressive lane-squeezing, but not nearly as bad as we had read in advance. Damascus is wild at times, but quite manageable. In short, no big worries of driving in Syria, just expect the unexpected – they will share your lane!

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Housing: People are not living high, just by way of observation way below neighbors Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Housing is generally in rough shape and often dirty. Much unfinished construction all over. Few nice upscale districts, although I'm sure there are rich guys, we did not seen their digs – unlike in other places where we saw many houses to admire. We saw one Syrian roadside urban area that was a 'tent city' and did not look temporary, and plenty of very rudimentary dwellings.

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Friendliness: Syrians are wide reputed as openly friendly, indeed are mostly that. Very friendly, welcoming to strangers, hospitably inviting one for a meal or coffee, smiling, hankering for conversation in most places even when language is a problem – conversation largely about the bike and of course mostly with men, but a few women approached Thao for chat too. They seem genuinely interested and welcoming. 'Welcome to Syria' is enthused sincerely in almost all conversations.

But friendly-wise, not so much the guys with the heavy-duty religious robes; with few exceptions, this group actively ignored my/our existence, in spite of nods/smiles at them in the breakfast room or on the street. It's an intended insult, a snub; religion-shmeligion, it's simply contrary to normal Arab friendliness and hospitality. From their standpoint, they are aloofly superior, hence no best buds for infidel Sever.

Women? Little conversation, but in the bank or occasional cleaning staff, they seem just fine. This is a man's world. Head-to-toe womens' robes vary from 10% to 30% depending where you are. In serious Muslim areas, all women are covered to varying degrees. Surprising numbers don't even have eye holes, just thinner fabric to see through.

We were mostly treated as honored guests everywhere: We hit a town, everyone knew about us quickly, crowds (of men/boys) come by for a peek. The Canadian license plate and flag were big local chat items. They seem to like us as "America Lite," lots of smiles and thumbs-up. Even a Canadian business presence here: Not just Four Seasons (via an Arab large shareholder) but also PetroCan is doing a big natural gas pipeline, even though Syria has nationalized most big business.

All along the way, many Syrians climbed aboard Black Bike and even presumed to don our helmets (!) right from border entry. Being a tolerant guy, I killed not one of them, honest. I usually allowed them aboard for cell phone photo ops.

Thao was in internet café in Aleppo for an hour, I made literally 100-200 new friends while waiting, was mobbed. Everyone wants to see/touch the bike. Maybe 50 people had photos taken? Cell phones with cameras are suprisingly ubiquitous. They have some money, somehow.


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It's only about 100 km to the Jordan border from Damascus. On our first trip south, we were sick of The Damascus Dump hotel, plus quite sick physically ('digestively challenged'.) So we made a run for it.

An easy border crossing, no problems with the Syrian or Jordanian sides. Just lots of 'pit stops' en route.





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