Saturday, 2 April 2011

A month in the Middle East

After a month in the Middle East, that Monday morning Eurostar seems life a lifetime ago.  The journeys seemed to provide many of the talking points, but the destinations were also impressive.

I fell in love with Syria very quickly.  With Jordan it took a little longer, but by the end I was mentally plotting future trips.  In both countries the common phrases to be heard were simply "You are welcome", "Welcome", "Welcome to Syria/Jordan".  Unlike Marrakech or Istanbul, there was no hard sell to follow up the welcome.  Whilst visiting the sites is important, it is your interactions with people (both local and fellow travellers) which make or break the trip and encourage you to come back for more.

So, which country would I recommend and why?  Both for different reasons.  Syria still feels as though it is many years away from mass tourism and so you can enjoy a less organised experience and luxuriate in having entire sites to yourself (just avoid Fridays!).  There is no sense in ticking off boxes and you can travel around by the efficient local transport or by hiring reasonably priced drivers (they know the best places to eat!).  When wandering the souk you will get more kudos for being an individual traveller than as part of a group.  I'm not really sure why exactly but a couple of theories would be a) money is more widely distributed when people control their own spending, or b) you must feel that you are safe and can trust the people if you are willing to travel there alone.  You can eat wonderfully well either from stalls in the road (shwarma, felafel, baklava filled croissants...) or by enjoying delicious mezze and meat in the exceptionally cheap restaurants.  The fresh mint and lemon drink is incredibly refreshing and "shai" to be enjoyed as often as possible.  Obviously the political situation in Syria has changed since I left so maybe this is a trip best saved for next year :-)

Jordan, with no major natural resources, has staked a lot on tourism and is suffering greatly due to the troubles in the region.  Organisations such as the RSCN are working hard to build sustainable tourism in Jordan and protect their nature and history for generations to come.  Their endeavours are well worth supporting.  Petra, whilst very busy, lives up to the hype and there are trails you can do to get away from the big tour groups.  The 4 day hike arriving into Petra from behind the monastery (see Dana post) would be how I would wish to arrive in any future visit.  For a different type of trip, focussing on the national reserves will provide a unique holiday - a paradise for hikers, photographers and nature enthusiasts!

Jordan is a small country to navigate and whilst most people I met travelling in Syria were using the local transport network, everyone in Jordan had hired cars.  Providing you drive during daytime hours and are not too attached to lane markings, then this seemed like a very practical way to travel around.  I wouldn't have swapped my bus journey for a car though :-)

As a solo female traveller, I was baffling to many but welcomed nevertheless.  Only one marriage invitation and sadly no camels offered.  Maybe I should have explored the offer further and I could have written "Married off on the bus" to compete with "Married to a Bedouin".

If you need help with an itinerary for either country, just let me know :-)

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