Back seat of a worn out taxi in southern Turkey, driving towards Syrian border. Scorching afternoon sun keeps temperature in low 40´s, and the breeze from the open car windows feels like a hot hairdryer. Just with a lot of added dust. I cover my face with a scarf and stare at the brown rocky landscape passing by.
Our taxi pulls to a stop at the end of a long queue of cars parked next to the immigration office. We get out, leaving our luggage in the trunk. Air feels hot, dry and dusty. Hope the car is still there when we get back. Our driver already vanished in the mass of people queuing for immigration. I wonder if I can recognize him or the car when we get back.
I hold the hand of my seven year old daughter when we approach the crowd. Neither of us have visas to enter. My plan was to get it sorted in Turkey beforehand, but somehow we ended up at the border without one. Hoping visa on arrival is an option. Guess we´ll soon find out.
Sweating in the immigration queue I realize we´re also lacking Syrian currency to pay our driver. Hope there´s an ATM across the border.
A guy in uniform with a gun approaches asking in broken English for us to follow. My questions go unanswered. He either doesn´t understand or doesn´t care. Others in the queue look puzzled as we walk away after him vanishing through a door.
Entering the room we´re faced with a cool breeze of aircon. Feels good on skin, almost too cold. Lots of uniformed men are sitting on a couple of sofas. We´re asked to sit down with them. A guy gets our passports and vanishes out of the room. Someone brings in tea and cookies.
Where are you from, why are you here, how old is she, where are you going, do you want more tea, where is your wife?
I try to figure out what´s happening, but language barrier limits the discussion to very basics. Something about visa. I ask if we should go back to the queue outside as our driver is waiting. Apparently not – they say it´s too hot there. Not a place for a child.
Guy walks in with our passports. “Welcome to Syria!” The visas seem to be sorted for us. We shake hands and thank everyone, still a quite puzzled. Taxi driver is already sitting in the car. Wonder how they can tolerate this heat. I already got used to aircon.
We cross the border and find a cash machine. Driver drops us off at a small border town next to a busy marketplace. “Bus Aleppo!” He points towards a bumpy dirt road. We get our backpacks, she takes my hand, and we start walking.
Busy, hot, and chaotic. There are mostly men outside. My daughter with long blonde hair draws a lot of attention. Smiles, hello´s and waves. Everyone seems so kind to us. Probably because of her.
When the sun begins to set, the women come out in their full black burkas. I guess it´s too hot at daytime. With only eyes visible it´s hard to tell if they´re young or old, happy or sad. They don´t seem to make any contact, even with my daughter. Guess because she´s with me.
Crossing roads seems impossible. There are cars everywhere, a lot of honking, aggressive driving, and no traffic lights. We end up planning our days counting how many times we need to cross roads to get where we want to. It´s honestly stressful. Only way to get through a crossroad seems to be following a local and hoping for the best.
Oh yeah, it´s still hot and dry.
After Aleppo, we take a train to coastal town of Lattakia. It seems more modern and quiet. Relief after chaotic Aleppo.
When signing in our hotel, the manager tells us there´s an Egyptian guest who´s planning to come study in Finland next autumn. He´ll meet us later as he´s currently out. I wonder if this is another story to get us tourists to buy into something.
Same evening Ahmed shows up. Within minutes, he pulls out his studying permit issued by Finland. Looks legit. We end up traveling together for a week. He´s a really nice guy and his ability to translate helps immensely in getting stuff done.
I end up inviting him to my home whe he comes to Finland. Later same year I find myself picking him up from a railway station in central Finland. He stays with our family for a weekend.
The mosque in Homs starts the call for prayers. We had already got used to hearing it launch multiple times every night and day. We decide to step outside the mosque not to disturb the worshippers.
An elderly man dressed in white gown and a traditional headscarf approaches us. He´s escorted by a group of younger men. He says something in Arabic and the younger men start translating in broken English. Turns out he´s inviting us to join him to eat in his house next door after the prayers. We agree.
He asks us to follow him inside and wait in the back during the prayers. We sit quietly while the long lines of men kneel down. It looks powerful.
Two cars pull up in front of the mosque. We enter the first one with the elderly man and the driver. Rest of the men take the second one. We start driving along the busy streets of Homs, apparently towards the edge of town. My daughter´s sitting on my lap.
Buzz of the town slowly turns to suburbs. We keep driving for full 45 minutes. Guess it wasn´t right next door after all.
Abruptly, the car stops at in front of a wooden hut at the edge of town. There are large chunks of meat hanging along the street. Someone opens the trunk and I see them putting in a whole lamb. Dead one though. We continue driving.
Suburbs subside and for a while it´s just dry and rocky desert. We criss-cross small and dusty dirt roads until we finally pull up in front of a small concrete settlement. There´s a full family standing outside. Men women, children, animals. Everyone wants to shake hands. Especially with my daughter.
We enter the small concrete building. All the men go to first room and sit on the floor in a big circle. We are invited to join. Someone carries the lamb to the adjacent room and I hear chopping. Tea is brought in.
Sitting on the floor we discuss simple things with broken English. It´s only men, me and my daughter. All the women are preparing food and only occasionally bring in more tea. I show them photos from home on my phone. It looks different. They ask a lot about my wife. I show them.
Eventually, a big piece of rolled plastic is brought in and carefully unwrapped in the middle of the circle. Women start carrying in food and plates placing them on it. We eat with our hands. My daughter asks for more and the men nod approvingly. She thinks it tastes like grandma´s meat soup.
More tea and talks. When we prepare to leave, the whole family gathers outside. Women, men, children and animals. Photos are taken. A lot of well wishes go both ways.
We wave from the back seat until they vanish in the dust. They drive us to a bus station. We hug, take more photos, and we climb to a bus.
Off to Damascus.
We visited Syria for a month with my then seven year old daughter in summer 2010. It was a country of incredible hospitality, kindness and warm hearts. Hope it still is.