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Published: June 15th 2008
My entire trip to Palmyra cost me 26 USD.
- 2.5 hr bus, Homs to Palmyra, 150 SP
- taxi from Palmyra bus station to hostel, 50 SP
- one night in Citadel Hotel, double bed private ensuite, 400 SP
- breakfast, 100 SP
- entry to Palmyra ruins, free
- entry to Temple of Bel, 150 SP
- laundry, 175 SP
- taxi from hotel to bus station, 75 SP
- 3 hr bus, Palmyra to Damascus, 200 SP
Total = 1,300 SP = 26 USD. And I wasn’t even trying to do it on the cheap.
Palmyra is in the middle of nowhere, desert land. Rocky, sandy, camel and yellow toned desert speckled with small shrubs. In the distance reddish-brown mountains tower above it all. Most travelers to Syria will only see the west side near the borders of Turkey and Lebanon, the usual stops of Aleppo, Dead Cities, Crac de Chevaliers, Damascus; the only reason you come out to central Syria is Palmyra. En route to Homs bus station from Crac, I still had not decided if I would go west to Baalbek, Lebanon, or further east to Palmyra. I’ve seen a lot of ruins in the
past week and so I thought perhaps I would give this one a miss, but in the end I couldn’t justify passing on Syria’s biggest tourist draw. First an Assyrian caravan town for a thousand years, then followed by two centuries under Greek rule. Palmyra was annexed by Rome in 217 AD and apparently became a center for major bling and moolah. A claimed descendant of Cleopatra, the city’s most intriguing ruler was Zenobia, a half Greek, half Arab queen. She seemed to be a real go-getter, dominant and wiley probably just like Cleopatra and sought to take Rome but eventually her army fell to Aurelian in 271. An earthquake finished her rose-gold sandstone city off in 1087 AD.
The ruins themselves are, whaddya know, amazing and way too big to comprehend. Seriously unlike anything I have seen before, I mean you can’t imagine how big this city must have been in its peak. Its periphery is dominated by large hills and dunes of sand, palm trees, and oases, and then nothing. Another unparalleled must-see, another fabulous site (Unesco World Heritage), another big point for Syria. I will let the pictures do the talking, my words can’t do it
justice, and actually neither can the pictures but they try harder. Instead I am going to spend my words narrating the creepiest encounter I have had with a man yet in the Middle East.
Last night after I arrived I set about looking for some fruit. There is not much in the town of Palmyra, and the buildings are markedly different from what I have seen so far in Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. Sandstone houses and storefronts, streets are not paved, everything is a shade of desert sand. Eventually I give up on finding fresh fruit (how fresh could their produce be living where they are?) and I make it almost back to my hotel when a man sitting outside his store starts talking to me. I think I am making a new friend which I never have problems with, and we hang out in his store as he shows me all his stones (which are the only merchandise I am interested in here) and he gives me a bright-green turquoise bracelet as a gift. He invites me for some flower tea, which at first I try to decline because I want to get an early start to the
next day, but eventually I figure I can spare another 20 minutes. He tells me repeatedly that I am a very nice and sweet looking girl, nice shape, so pretty blah blah. This is not so uncommon, but it was just the repetitiveness that got to me. I start to feel a bit uncomfortable, but then again I know that people here are a bit more eager to make contact with foreigners and especially female ones at that due to their own restrictive culture - they never even see their own women. It is all harmless. He says he wants to dress me up like a desert Bedouin bride and while I thought it was a bit creepy, I was curious to see what that entailed so I let him while keeping a firm eye on the doorway. And yeah actually it was interesting and something else, but I drew the line at him drawing on my face with charcoal.
At this, I try to say goodbye and I give a distanced hug and we do a European kiss-kiss on the cheeks, and he lingers for a bit longer than I would have preferred. Then he wants to do
another set of that and I am very aware of his hands on my ribcage and a little further down my back than I would have preferred. Then, he closes his eyes and comes in swift for a kiss - on the mouth! I jerk my head back and say “HEY NO! We don’t do this in America with strangers, and not even between friends.” He looks embarrassed and says that he wants to show his feelings, and he doesn’t try to hide when he likes somebody and wants to make love. I mentally freak out a little bit but try to have a bit of sympathy, so for 10 minutes I explain to him that he cannot do things like that, especially to tourists because he will scare them off and it will hurt his business. I try to tell him what is acceptable and what is not, and I remind him again that we are only friends, but he scared me a bit so he cannot try that again. I’m now trying to get out of there ASAP and I tell him I really must leave, thank you for the tea, etc. He wants me to come back
the next day to show me more of his shop, I say maybe and that I will come back to say bye. I realized that he knew what hotel I was at, and I double locked all my doors and windows and was a little nervous all night. I didn’t go back today to say bye.
When I first got to Syria I have to admit that my initial comparisons between Syrian and Turkish men need a bit more work. So far my experience here has seen an interesting pattern. Let’s face it, I would be lying to say that men befriend women without the initial thought that they wouldn’t mind seeing her naked. This is no different in the Middle East, Europe, America, Asia. And somewhere along the way, either friendship or something sexual develops, in the friendship case some sort of mutual respect comes around and you can then trust a man to not try to have sex with you at every turn. In Turkey, they are very used to seeing women, foreign women, and scantily clad women. They hit on you but in a very shallow way, for fun, for a score, and they can hit
on everybody. If they touch or grab at you, they do it in a very overt manner and if you look back at them they just laugh or give you a smile or wave, it's like a fun game to them. In Syria, they don’t see women so much and in their culture a girlfriend isn’t very common before marriage. Their women are much more conservatively dressed, and in fact men don’t even sit next to women in buses. They also don’t see as many tourists. So the man in Turkey will try to talk, flirt and be smooth, make jokes and get to know you even as a friend (because he can lay the next one,) if you tell him you aren’t interested, he will lay off and stop being creepy. The man in Syria once you speak to him and seem open to communicate, will stare a lot, try to touch a lot, and openly tell you that he needs/wants sex (maybe in a more lyrical phrasing) and would like it with you. He does not know how to flirt effectively and he certainly isn’t smooth. If you tell him you aren’t interested, he will keep hinting at
things and try to sound romantic while at it, and it remains a bit creepy or at best uncomfortable. If they touch or grab at you, they pull back fast and pretend it wasn't them and they don't even know what happened.
Of course I apologize if my opinions off my personal experiences have offended anybody. Of course this isn’t uniform over all men in the discussed universe, but I have spoken to tons of men in Turkey and a handful in Syria, and this is what my experience alone seems to yield. I also think me traveling alone as a female plays a huge part in this, I am fairly certain that if you were with a man in Syria nobody would approach you and some may even look away. I do get asked by every single man if I am traveling alone, if I am married, and how old I am. And most of the time I tell the truth because I don’t feel threatened. And I should add that a lot of this may even be more specific to me, because I am a very open and friendly person and will converse with basically any shop
owner if I don’t have anywhere to be. I know other girls traveling alone will specifically steer clear of long conversations with men here and even the LP gives pointers on how to avoid problems by wearing a wedding ring etc. So I suppose it is a little my fault, but I want to make friends when I travel and learn about somebody else’s side of life, and I can’t help it if most of the locals on the ground are men, particularly true of the Middle East where most women don’t work, don’t show themselves, don’t speak English or work in tourism. I also don’t spook easily, a man following you or staring at you, or wanting to hold your hand is understandable if you just sit back and see things from their eyes, I mean they never get to do this. In most cases the biggest offense committed is curiosity. So until somebody really gives me the heebie-jeebies, I am going to keep smiling and shaking hands. So far at least my bullshitting skills have been enough to maneuver out of most situations.
Don’t let my previous thoughts on men scare anybody off of
me and man
before i knew he was creepy
Syria though. Other women traveling with males or even with another girl won’t have any problems. Because Syria rocks. Most importantly, if you ever come to Syria, I beg you to not let yourself get tired of seeing “ruins.” I don’t know what the deal is, but Syria has got some of the best, most well maintained, un-touristed, greatest and most varied historical sites in the world. Actually you can easily get the deal with this, it does lie in a very strategic position along the old Silk Road and Phoenician trading posts, and has been a pivotal land for Egyptian, Roman, Persian and other empires. The souks, markets, streets are not built to be tourist traps, the locals actually shop in the exact same markets and buy falafels from the same holes in the walls, and they worship at all the mosques you are so busy taking pictures of. Crac de Chevaliers sites overlooking groups of small Syrian countryside towns, kids play on the soccer on the streets in its shadows. Palmyra sits in the middle of the desert surrounded by a local village whose citizens motorbike through the columns through to the oases. There is no clear-cut “touristy”
areas of the cities, hell I can’t even find an ATM for four days that takes my HSBC card, and my phone hasn’t had reception at all. I don’t think a trip to the Middle East would be complete without a dip into Syria. Do it.
My dear Lana in an email:
"Americans in Syria should exercise caution and take prudent measures to maintain their security. These measures include being aware of their surroundings, avoiding crowds and demonstrations, KEEPING A LOW PROFILE, varying times and routes for all travel, and ensuring travel documents are current.
"ha. don't think keeping a low profile is amy's thing!!"
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