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Christine Drinan - Travel Diaries Note

I’m not one to live life with regrets, but I did have one. Back in 2009, I was in Lebanon, within a hundred miles of Damascus. The city was in a renaissance with trendy restaurants and shops, and there was even a Four Seasons hotel. I lost my nerve though and didn’t travel to Syria. It took me almost 14 years, but I’m officially regret-free.

Christine 7/12 note
Pistachio trees along the highway to Aleppo

That One Regret

Damascus is a 2,000+ year-old city which makes it, by most accounts, the second oldest continually inhabited city in the world (the first is Jericho). My fascination with Syria began with a 2009 article in Conde Nast about the Renaissance of Damascus. At the time, young Syrians who moved abroad were returning to their home country to build their futures. Syrians have a deep pride and love for their country, so while many lived in the U.S. and Europe, their dream was to be “home.” The photos showed a beautiful Damascus filled with trendy shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants in historic stone buildings along cobblestone streets. The Street of Damascus dates back to Roman times, and today is still filled with restaurants and shops.

In 2009, I was in Lebanon for the first time before a wedding in Jordan. I grew up with a Lebanese family, who I mostly lived with in high school. Frieda was a Mom to me. We had so many conversations about the beauty of Lebanon while she fed me the most incredible food. These times are still some of my best childhood memories, so naturally, Lebanon was high on my travel wish list.

Christine - in Syria
Inside an old Damascene Home

 

In planning the trip I thought long and hard about travel to Syria. I was not nearly as confident a traveler back then, and I decided it was too dangerous, especially traveling with a then-husband who was as all-American as can be. I didn’t think it was a big deal though because there would always be another opportunity. However, as we know today, war broke out shortly thereafter. This decision is the single regret I had in my life, that is until I made it right with my recent journey to Damascus.

The Road to Damascus

I began the adventure by flying into Beirut and driving the 3.5 hours to Damascus. Alternatively, you can travel to Syria from Abu Dhabi straight into Damascus, but 1) flights are limited and 2) Beirut is unmissable. More on that thought in next month’s letter.

Road in Syria
Trees that grow sideways along the route to Aleppo

Is Syria Safe?

The first question I’m asked about my travel to Syria, including from those in neighboring countries near Syria, is whether it was safe. After all, the country had just come out of a civil war. Up until two months ago, Syria was not even issuing visas to Americans. To frame it further, even my colleagues who I work with at the American University of Afghanistan thought it was pretty ballsy for me to go on this adventure.

Well, now that I’ve come home, my answer to whether it was safe to travel to Syria, is absolutely yes. Even in the situations that could be perceived as intimidating, like the land border crossing from Lebanon into Syria, and the countless checkpoints within the country. You should however take this with a grain of salt though from me because I’ve been to Afghanistan at a time where all the foreign journalists were pulled out, so I have a unique threshold. There’s also the important qualifier that travel to Syria is as safe as it can be in this region. I was fortunately very well looked after by my ground team. The key was low-profile and to follow the rules.

Christine in Syria
The Damascus Old Bazaar

Maybe I Pushed Some Limits

I felt so safe in Damascus that at night that I even ventured out with no mobile service, which meant no map. This speaks volumes as I tend to get turned around. At one point I ended up on a long stretch of completely deserted street with no light. There are periodic power outages around the country which darkens much of Old Damascus and Aleppo. The only fear I felt though was of the dark, and not that anything would necessarily happen to me. However as anyone knows in this region, the situation can change quickly. I luckily was in a beautiful window of relatively calm and peace.

A Country Rebuilding

I will say that it was a special time to be in Syria to see the country emerging from war. It was also a sobering time to see first-hand the destruction of modern-day war. In Aleppo, which had the largest souk in the world, the devastation was most jarring. I walked through rubble not from thousands of years ago, but rather from less than 10. There was a heaviness in my heart.

Aleppo Ruins
Aleppo Ruins

 

As I made my way out of the Old Aleppo souk to the Citadel, I saw a small light, which turned out to be a shop. Out of what used to be thousands of old shops, this man was the only one to reopen his store amongst the ruins. I purchased a small brass turtle from him which I plan to put in my office. It will remind me always of the perseverance that exists in this world, and to push me to continue to fight for what’s important to me.

Christine - Syria note
Aleppo Souk, with the only shop owner to reopen in the original market

A Last Thought on Life

I’m going to write more about my trip to Syria, so look out for the article on Galavante. There are just not enough words in my letter to express the beauty of the Syrian people and country.

But for now, I’d like to end with my travel to Syria gave me a chance to reset my perspective. Life can change on a dime. I saw so much destruction in the countryside of beautiful villas, towns totally bombed out, and bullet holes in buildings. I walked through the ruins of an exquisite old restaurant to view a Crusader fort, broken glass everywhere, and anything of value long gone. All of this made me think about the fragility of situations, where fortunes, homes, and all belongings can be lost. You don’t need to travel to Syria to see that; it’s in our own backyards. What then are we left with? The only thing that matters; those who we love. It’s with them that we rebuild and fight another day.

All the best, no matter where the road takes you.

Christine Drinan, Founder

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