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Traveling Solo as a Woman in Jordan
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Damascus: Street Called Straight
Shops on the 2,000-year-old Straight Street in Damascus.

The Street called “Straight” in Damascus has been a shopping street for more than 2,000 years. Strolling along with the crowd, my eyes were dazzled by the goods: sparkling patterned textiles, robes thick with embroidery, stacks of golden jewelry, and furniture intricately inlaid with arabesques of mother-of-pearl. Passing the coffee and spice sellers who mound their wares in colorful heaps, the scents were both sweet and pungent. The perfume seller does a brisk trade as his veiled customers line up to have their favorite fragrances blended from oils of rose, jasmine, and amber.

People would stop to introduce themselves and chat with a solitary Westerner. “Welcome! Welcome to Syria!” and “Welcome to Jordan!” were phrases, accompanied by smiles and handshakes, I heard everywhere—a pleasant surprise after the hostility I’d been warned to expect.

In addition to friendliness, I also found scrupulous honesty. When I bought produce and trinkets in the souks, I always received exactly the right change.

As a solo female, I thought it wise to prepare well, so I studied Arabic (difficult) and took self-defense lessons (unnecessary). The former was handy for asking directions, but most people spoke English. The latter was never needed since robbery and assault are virtually unheard of. Europeans seemed at ease traveling in the area; French, Spanish, and Italians were everywhere. I felt completely safe at all times.

I wished to follow in the footsteps of my heroines Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, two intrepid British lady travelers of the early 20th century who journeyed solo throughout the Middle East. Devouring their books (along with the indispensable Lonely Planet guides), I planned my itinerary.

The historical and human panorama of the Middle East is wonderfully varied. Bronze Age archaeological sites, Byzantine mosaics, Roman ruins, Crusader castles, Ottoman palaces, and souks filled with gorgeous textiles, golden jewelry, perfumes and spices are all threads of this ancient and exotic tapestry.

Travel Information

Visas: A visa is only obtainable from a Syrian embassy in your own country. Jordanian visas may be obtained at the airport or border. Both must be renewed by day 14 of your stay if you want to be in the country longer.

Travel agents: I dealt with Rouba of Adonis Travel in Syria (nancy@adonistravel.com) and Mouna of Al Jazeera Travel in Jordan (aweidah@index.com.jo).

Hotels: In Aleppo, the Diwan Rassmi Hotel (011-963-21-331-2222) is a beautiful 15th century Turkish mansion ($30 single if you book through Adonis Travel). In Damascus, the Sultan Hotel (011-963-11-222-5768) is modest but centrally located and has a very helpful staff, fluent in English ($21 single). In Amman, the Sandy Palace (011-962-6-562-1102) has large, comfortable rooms and is very close to the Al Jazeera Travel office ($30 single).

Dress: In order to avoid offending local people, women would do well to steer clear of short-sleeved blouses, shorts, and mini-skirts.

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