Saturday, February 27, 2010

Syria-- The Friendliest Country in the World!

Of the over 60 countries I have visited so far, Syria ranks as one of my favorites. The stereotypical images of Arab terrorists bombing places are far-fetched and simply do not apply in Syria. In fact, I found Syria to be one of the safest countries to walk around by myself during the day and at night. Furthermore, Syrians exude warmth to foreigners--their Arab hospitality is among the finest in the world.

My favorite aspect of my visit to Syria was its people. I have never been in a country before where strangers (and even children) would say “welcome” to me! Strangers would be ever so helpful in guiding me to my intended destination and even walk me there. People would stop me in the streets and ask to take a picture with me! (I felt like a Hollywood star, for once.) People on long-distance buses would chat with me and offer me candy.

I am ever so grateful to the CouchSurfers in Syria who hosted and/or showed me around. I am especially thankful to Darwish, who made my stay in Aleppo memorable. I enjoyed sipping tea and eating mezze with his family, and the visit to his Kurdish village. That was definitely a unique experience that would not have occurred if it were not for Darwish. Lastly, Darwish even went with me to the bus station and helped me compare prices and obtain information for buses to Lebanon (which I did not end up going).

The ultimate highlight of my stay in Syria was a visit to my friend Maher’s village, near Der’a in southwest Syria. I met Maher on a minibus going from the long-distance bus station in Damascus to the city center. We had just arrived in Damascus from Aleppo. Maher noticed that I was one of the few foreigners and began chatting with me, asking the basic questions of my origins and travels and of course, what I thought about Syria. Towards the end of the minibus ride, he invited me to his cousin’s place in Damascus and then to his village. Having a place to stay in Damascus, I refused his first offer, but noted his cell phone number as I was interested in the latter. I did not think twice about safety as I had read about other similar travelers’ stories in Syria, all positive. Also, this was Arab hospitality at its best, part of Syrian culture, and I was eager to experience life in a Syrian home and in a village.

I kept in touch with Maher and came to his village two days after we first met. The village is in a rustic area full of wheat fields, Bedouin tents, valleys and a stream. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Maher’s brother, his children, nephews and neighbors’ children (all male). Together, we went on a walk/tour of the village. The children were very adorable. Afterwards, I was invited to the elaborate sitting room of Maher’s brother. All the male family members and friends joined me for a scrumptious feast of chicken, fish, rice, pita, hummus, salad and yogurt. The only females I met were young children. After dinner, some of the men smoked sheesha, some played cards, while others drank tea and chatted away. The male children also appeared at times to meet me.

I was touched at how Maher’s family and friends welcomed me with open arms and treated me like an old friend. They joked with me and inquired about Hong Kong, curious to interact with the first foreigner to visit their village. They invited me to stay as long as I could and to return to Syria and to their village. Unfortunately, I had a flight to catch the next day!

Because of Maher’s village and all the nice people I have met, I will definitely visit Syria again. It is perhaps the most welcoming country in the world.

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