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Syria 2011: stay away or visit?


The song says, “Here I am, waiting for a sign, where do I stand. I just don’t know.”

My friends told me I was crazy. The original idea came from V, to go together on a tour to Syria and Jordan, starting April 2. After major political ferment in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the democratic fervor was spreading to Syria, and V was getting cold feet. I’m a prudent traveler myself, but I told her that if the tour company didn’t cancel out, neither would I. If you were running a tour company, you wouldn’t want eighteen foreign clients stuck in political turmoil with you responsible for rescuing them safely, would you? Still, I kept a close eye on developments in the region. Each of my e-mails to our British tour company was promptly answered, assuring me that they had other tour groups on the ground with no problem. The one change they were making in the itinerary was for us to cross into Jordan at Nasser/Jerab rather than Der’aa, where the very first demonstrations had erupted on a Friday a couple of weeks earlier.

The very day before we were to start this journey from the US, V finally decided to cancel out, probably forfeiting her tour cost as well as her airfare. She had called me almost daily, skittish about the whole trip but not ready to decide. If she would be worried all the time, I kept advising her, she should stay home, although we’ve had some great adventures together and I would surely miss her company. But she sat on the fence till the last possible moment.

Rather surprisingly, none of the other tour members, mostly British, cancelled. On my first day in Damascus, before the others had arrived, I was chatting with a young hotel clerk who was surprisingly candid in support of the dissenters. I worried that he might get into trouble being so outspoken, but maybe he wanted an outsider to hear his concerns. During our two week trip there was almost no overt sign of political unrest. It was in Aleppo that we saw a potentially dangerous crowd filling the square in front of our hotel, with speeches coming through a loudspeaker and police cars everywhere one looked. But we were assured by hotel staff that this was a pro-Presidential assembly, therefore not threatening.

Fortunately, our tour was designed so that our first week was in Syria, the second in Jordan. What if the trip had been in the reverse direction? That was when things began to heat up in Syria. More demonstrations by protestors were held every Friday afternoon after religious services, in Latakia and Der’aa again, also in Homs (with the first deaths) and in Damascus. Wasn’t it lucky that we were safely viewing Petra and sleeping a night in Bedouin desert tents by then? I did expect to encounter police checkpoints during our long days of driving from one place to another. But there were none in Syria, and only two in Jordan, quite perfunctory. So different from my experience in Egypt just five years ago. After returning home April 17, I heard that Exodus Tours cancelled all its scheduled trips to Syria for the present, and American residents were being advised to evacuate.

One needs to be wary when traveling overseas, true, but so does one need to be wary walking the streets of LA or Brooklyn or other American cities. I recommend not over-reacting to news which may be only headline-seeking, but rather to check out State Department (or British Foreign Office) advisories. Even with those, bear in mind that they tend to be overly cautious; try to take them with a grain of salt. If you are by nature a worrier, steer clear of possible trouble spots. If you are by nature more pragmatic—as am I—don’t react to every possible scary situation. Go ahead as planned, and you’ll enjoy tourist destinations with fewer tourists than normal. That is the up-side of visiting high-profile zones of possible danger. Tourism is drastically down in both Syria and Jordan.

A niece wrote me earlier that she wasn’t at all surprised I was still going in spite of everything, and “just think of the stories you’ll have to tell.” Sorry, Margaret, I have plenty of stories, but none of them scary or terrifying, from those two weeks. We had a fine time with no sense of danger anywhere along the way.

Dorothy Conlon, an octogenarian, loves to explore destinations that are well off the beaten track. Combining personal travel with volunteer/service learning experiences, she has traveled from the far reaches of the Amazon to Africa, Asia, India and many other locations. She is the author of “At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman.” Learn more at www.dorothyconlon.com

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