Sunday, May 04, 2008

Syria, three years on


Rose petals, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

How has Syria changed in the three years since we went away?

Well, not so much, really, although we do have the feeling that as a holiday experience, in the manner that we take our holidays can only get worse rather than better. Worse, because the country will modernise and will, no doubt, soon enough, embrace American-style way of life, with Starbucks and McDonalds. Now it is only Coca-Cola and Pepsi and then in competition with other local made colas as well as local drinks such a tea and fresh fruit juices.

Some improvements will be the addition of boutique-type hotels and restaurant in restored old houses, with beautiful courtyards with a fountain in the middle, a bit like the riads of Morocco. They are now not too pricey, by Western standards, but will no doubt become more expensive.

In fact, although Syria is still very cheap it IS more expensive than three years ago and not just for tourists. There is worldwide pressure on petrol prices and food prices and it seems that the Syrian government is trying to protect the well-being of its people by subsidising the price of bread and diesel, amongst other things. Also, the Syrian Pound has risen by almost 20% against the US Dollar, so kept its value against the Euro. Still, we only managed to spend about 30 euros a day each, albeit staying in the cheaper types of hotel, but going out to better restaurants in the evenings, as well as drinking a few glasses of beer (at about one euro fifty for a half litre of Heineken or Almaza, slightly less for locally brewed beer). We did not taste any wine this trip.

Otherwise, every thing is very easy for travellers in Syria, a good system of public transport, with very cheap buses, our four hour trip down from Aleppo to Damascus cost less than two euro's each, in a comfortable clean bus with plenty of legroom and reclinable seats. Of course, it becomes more difficult when on reaching the out-of-town bus station to find transport into the right place in town without being ripped off by a taxi driver. And, even without using public transport, a day out with an English speaking driver will only cost about 50 euro's a day... and that for a long day out, where quite a few sights can be visited without wasting time or getting lost.

Further, one rarely has the idea that one is being ripped off or taken advantage of as a tourist, unlike many other places, Amsterdam included. It is a very safe country. No sign of aggression. Maybe Mohammed/God had the right idea when proscribing alcohol. No drunken idiots on the streets and no aggression. Quite the opposite, friendliness and courteousness everywhere, always being greeted by 'Welcome", even if that is the only English they know.

Still to much rubbish everywhere. Syrians don't so much throw litter away on the streets and in the countryside as let it fall from their hands. No idea that they might take the paper or plastic bag and put it in a rubbish bin. A pity as quite a few beauty spots are ruined by the presence of cans and plastic bags.

Still the authorities restrict one to 15 days tourist visas, which are quite difficult and expensive to get hold of, although we understand that it is relatively easy to obtain extensions. Getting through Syria in two weeks makes for a bit of a rushed visit, three weeks is better and would allow people to spend more money in the country.

I would say that street food was more exciting and delicious than restaurant food, as well as being a darn sight cheaper. The problem is that you cannot really get a cold beer on a street corner, in the way you can in a restaurant, once you ahve found one which does serve beer. As a compensation for Fred allowing me to stop all day long to take photos, I would allow him to drag us right across town (in Damascus and Hama) to eat at a place which does serve beer. One unfortunate experience we had in Aleppo, the one time we did not do this, was that they served us what was quite acceptable alcohol-free beer in a ' Mexican-style'. Well, I seem to have some aversion to ' Mexican' and so it proved again, as what they did was to pour some fresh lemon juice into the glass and put salt around the top of the glass, making it taste doubly disgusting...

Anyway, despite all that, it is not really the quality of the meals or the hardness of the bed or the rubbish one sees around the place, which ticks in your mind at the end of the day, but the wonderful hospitality shown by the people one comes across. In this respect nothing has changed in the last three years and I can't see it changing too quickly either, even if the country does start to embrace western values of consumerism and individualism in the years to come. A peep across the border shows that in Turkey, 'modernisation' does not necessarily mean that traditional values are that easily forgotten. Let's hope not.

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