Are You Syrious?!

Julia and her generous taxi companionLike many a wayward Middle East backpacker before me, I came to Syria overland by way of Amman, Jordan. Unlike most other flip-flop-footed travelers in the region however, my journey was made at a rather precarious time, smack in the middle of the so-called “Arab spring” in June 2011. Mere weeks after my own home nest of Canada issued a warning against all travel to the country, I decided to take the plunge and make good use of the $78 tourist visa obtained one snowy, spring morning months earlier, after having mailed my passport all the way from Calgary to the Syrian embassy in Ottawa. It was a world away from the hot morning months later, where I waited anxiously in the Abbasi Palace hotel in downtown Amman - a friendly budget establishment which, despite their protests that Syria was unsafe for me to visit at the time, had arranged for me a ride to Damascus in a shared taxi across the border.

After breakfast, I paced about the common room, my backpack propped against the wall, shoes on and guide book in hand. I made those awkward prolonged goodbyes you have with people you've spent only a few days with, but through the intense chaos of travel feel like you’ve somehow known your whole life, and then my taxi arrived. Maria, my good humoured Aussie friend and travel companion, who had spent the last few weeks traipsing with me through the dust and sand of Jordan, helped carry my clumsy bag into the little elevator. She kissed me on both cheeks, said “stay in touch” and looked like she was going to cry - or perhaps it was the unforgiving glare of the Jordanian sun.

The scene changed quickly, though, and there was little time for sentiment or sadness. My taxi driver beckoned; a large, loud, grumpy, chain-smoking man who spoke very little English and looked considerably stressed out about the drive. The Jabir-Nasib border crossing having been completely closed only days before, and the recent shelling of the nearby Syrian town of Daraa, might have had something to do with this. Nonetheless, I quickly dove into the backseat next to a rather miserable looking Jordanian man, until some intense shouting in Arabic resulted in me being shuffled into the front seat - the custom of not seating women next to men in most Mideast countries winning out. We drove a few blocks to a busy intersection where many other cabs were congregated, proceeded to continue the shouting with further confusion and drama and switching of passengers and seats. I got the impression that some other man had been promised my place in the taxi, but as I was certainly the only foreigner around - not to mention the only female - somehow I thankfully took priority. 

 Even though he spoke next to no English, I could tell he was trying to ease my nerves; that I was a girl, alone, going into Syria in the middle of a revolution

After all this chaos and switching of places - and me silently screaming in the back of my head “Oh GOD what AM I getting myself into!?” - we were off, me riding shotgun with two very curious and perplexed looking Syrian men squished in the backseat behind me. One of them, a burly blue-eyed man with a keffiyeh scarf on his head, who looked unlike any Arab man I had met in the region, kept handing me cigarettes, drinks of his water, cookies and obscenely strong Arabic coffee. I was quite taken aback by this extreme hospitality, but then I remembered everything I’d read in my guidebook about Syrians being some of the nicest, friendliest people ever, and I smiled to myself at how this man was so perfectly living up to his reputation. I obliged him in all his offerings much to the chagrin of my bursting bladder. As well, the lack of available ashtray resulted in me hanging my arm out the window as we sped down the highway, to which the testy driver shrilly scolded me in abrupt Arabic for, forcing me to roll up the windows creating a lovely hotbox of a ride - all smoke, coffee fumes and illegal speeds. I’ll never forget that man in the backseat though, his genuine kindness and protectiveness. Even though he spoke next to no English, I could tell he was trying to ease my nerves; that I was a girl, alone, going into Syria in the middle of a revolution.

The drive continued Northward and every time we passed a road sign showing distances to the border (80 km…50 km…20km) I remember getting this huge shot of adrenaline, one that almost made me literally bounce with glee, spilling my little paper cup of coffee over my shaky mosquito-bitten knees. Here I was, going to a country that my own government had issued an “avoid all travel” warning to, one for which every other person I met in Egypt and Jordan who had planned to visit Syria had aborted their plans. Me and me ALONE -a punky looking, rather scruffy, sunbaked and dirty Canadian girl, in a worn out green hemp miniskirt, black bandanna and Mary-Jane shoes - going where I had been begged not to go by an army of naysayers (God bless my friends and family). 

When we came to the border, my excitement turned to anxiety as the guards searched the trunk of the taxi, gave me quizzical looks and all the while talked briskly in an Arabic that I couldn’t even pretend to understand. All three of us passengers handed our passports to the driver with him subtly placing mine on the bottom - as though he hoped he could somehow hide the glaringly obvious CANADA, written in fancy gold-stamped text, and just float on through. I still remember the way guards looked at me through the dusty cab window, cocking their heads, with their crisp military gear and AK47s casually dangling over their shoulders, as though I was some strange exotic bird that had accidentally flown into a strange area. I smiled demurely, a polite parrot if there ever was one, while the whole time the little invisible djinn of adventure on my shoulder giggled and shrieked and prodded me, “Holy s%$t Julia...YOU ARE IN SYRIA!”. We were waved through and then had to get out of the car to hand our customs forms to the officers and be officially let in the country. I don’t remember too much about this part, as I think the adrenaline rush had shattered the few cells in my brain responsible for memory retention. I do know that on the area of the form that asks for an occupation, I'd written 'artist", forgetting that in Syria, "artist" is a polite term for the desperate Russian girls who work as escorts throughout the region. The men at the booth had a good laugh at and smiled. Welcome to Syria.

A man and some pigeons - DamascusMy taxi journey ended about an hour later, as abruptly as it had started, with me being dumped on the side of the road in an outskirt of Damascus. A variety of motley looking local taxi drivers all squawked and cawed “Welcome, Welcome!” in varying degrees of English, and tried to throw my bags into their trunks as I stood somewhat shell-shocked and confused. I eventually settled on one who seemed to rudimentarily understand my requests of “May I borrow your mobile phone?”, and he drove me a few blocks to where my Syrian Couchsurfer friend was waiting. (I shockingly have recently learned that this friend was released - thank God - after spending two brutal weeks in a Damascus prison for being at a mosque at the wrong time during the last days of Ramadan.)

It is at this point that my perilous journey into Syria ended, and my willing free-fall tumble down the rabbit hole of true-travel-love (infactuation? love? L-O-V-E?) began, with my two-week stay. Love for a country unlike any other, a country with people so spirited and resilient that words cannot describe without resorting to tired clichés. A country that continues to horrify me with its sickening internal political policy and simultaneously astound me with its inherent natural and man-made beauty. A country of a-thousand-and-one stories and myths, both good and bad, true and false. A country where even an exotic western bird such as myself can feel as at home and welcomed as though she were in her local habitat, an excitable red cardinal in a flock of nargileh-tobacco-scented carefree Syrian pigeons.

But the rest of that story will have to be told another time.

About the Author

Julia Totino has spent the better part of her 20s wandering the globe, feeling more at home living out of a backpack on foreign soils than cooped up in the dusty Canadian prairies. Most recently, she spent four months in the Middle East - adventuring in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, and becoming a bona fide waterpipe addict along the way. Julia is currently making plans to head to Morocco, and still daydreams of the remote hills in Iran and Turkmenistan. Read more Julia at

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 Full name: Syrian Arab Republic

 Population: 22.53 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Damascus

 Largest city: Aleppo

 Area: 185,780 (71,498 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Spanish and various  indigenous languages

 Major religions: Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian,  Other

 Monetary unit: Syrian Pounds

 GDP per capita: US $5,100

 Internet domain: .sy

 International dialling code: +963

 Source: CIA World Factbook