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Sunday, December 17, 2023

Syria: Up, Close And Personal

When it comes to traveling, my friend Eday is in a league of his own. He has traveled so much that it is no longer just for fun, but for the sake of history that he loves and the betterment of himself. Just when I thought places like Iran or Ethiopia were kind of weird for a former Chinese Indonesian to visit, I heard him saying that his next destination would be Syria via Lebanon. 

Syria is known to the world as a war-torn country. As Eday himself was to discover, the destination was not even covered by travel insurance. Those that included it in the coverage had ridiculous terms, such as you had to be kidnapped for at least for six hours before you could submit the claim for just a meagre amount of money. It was as if the terrorist would fill in the timesheet and stamp it before releasing the captive!


But Eday was determined even though his destination was deemed as extremely dangerous. Prior to his trip, we did discuss about how biased people could be these days. Feeling entitled and know-it-all, many were quick to condemn and judge. The drone attack in Homs and airport bombing in Damascus that happened right before the trip only made it worse. On the pretext of caring, Eday was bombarded with discouraging articles, advices and comments from many around him. Having so much fear projected onto him was quite a daunting experience! 

A lesser man would have given in, but not Eday, though. He knew the trip would be life changing. His previous adventures taught him that. After tasting such personal growth, he was resolute to seek the truth about Syria. The moral support from his wife was all he needed and off he went to a place none of us had ever thought of visiting before.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus.

He landed in Beirut, Lebanon. While a certain part of the city looked like Europe, the scars from civil war were very much visible, too. Many buildings were still covered with bullet holes. Presidential seat was currently empty. Cars without car plates were a normal sight to behold. Electricity was almost non-existent. 

But Beirut wasn't as bad as one would imagine. Eday told me that the atmosphere was quite relax. The Lebanese people were generally friendly and very welcoming, mostly because they rarely saw tourists from our part of Asia. Tough though their lives were, the Lebanese persevered by helping each other, a culture that occurred largely due to the absence of the government.

Latakia, Syria.

Eday's journey to Syria began the next morning. The ride to Lebanon's border took about 1.5 hours. The view was hilly, somehow reminded Eday of Puncak in Indonesia. There was a short ride between Lebanon-Syria border and Eday had to hop on an old car that had approached and waited for him in Syria as he exited from Lebanon. It was like being smuggled! He passed through more than 10 military checkpoints before reaching the chaotic immigration office. Not very far from the border, there was a duty free mall with European look and feel. It just seemed so out of place!

Damascus was about 1.5 hours ride from the border, too. It was an old city. Even Saint Paul went there before and that was like 2000 years ago. From Damascus, Eday crisscrossed the country, exploring cities and towns such as Maaloula, Tartus, Latakia, Kesab, Hama, Aleppo, Palmyra, Busra and many more.

Eday in Palmyra.

To be in Syria was as good as breathing and absorbing the history of mankind. There was Temple of Jupiter that had been converted to Umayyad Mosque now. There were tombs of religious and historical figures such as John the Baptist and Saladin. There was this monastery visited by the young Muhammad, before he became the Prophet. The whole country was brimming with culture and history.

With so many things going on since ancient times, one couldn't help sensing that Syria was different spiritually. There was this unique experience in the desert when Eday was on his way to Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian. It was almost quiet. There was nothingness as far as eyes could see, but then appeared this constant buzzing sound that was eventually replaced by humming. Coincidence?

Krak des Cheavaliers. 

Then there was the war that had ravaged Syria for more than a decade. In a city called Idlib lived the freedom fighters, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the likes of them. They were all contained there. 1 KM away from the battle zone, Russian tanks patrolled the area. Life must be so hard there that the civilians had the coldest stare, as if they'd rip you apart anytime. 

Of all the cities Eday visited, Homs was remembered as a cautionary tale of how damaging the war could be. The city was so severely destroyed. As a matter of fact, there was almost not much to see there as it was left in ruins. What Eday saw and heard there was so harrowing to the point that whatever problems he had went through in life suddenly seemed trivial and paled in comparison.

The war-torn Aleppo.

Eday used the phrase mixed feelings when he shared his story with me. Throughout his stay there, he was excited, sad and anxious. Syria's kind of normal was very unusual by our standard. He could drink beer or smoke shisha on a rooftop tonight, travel back in time and history tomorrow, then get surrounded by buildings in the state of disrepair on the following day. He heard the saddest stories directly from those who lived to tell them. He also became the beacon of hope simply by being there when most of the world had seemingly abandoned Syria. 

Eday also met seasoned travelers there were already hardened by what they saw. There was a Russian lady that had just conquered the Himalayas. There was a young man who casually talked about changing his route tomorrow because Damascus Airport was just bombed again the day before. And all this was normal in Syria. Worlds apart than ours. It was emotionally challenging. 


On a lighter note, we talked about the food. Hummus was a permanent fixture there. The taste of the food was generally sour. Rice was rarely seen and they ate pita bread instead. One unforgettable memory took place at a restaurant in Kesab. There were tiny birds kept in a caged garden and Eday was asked to choose one. Little did he know that the bird was the menu!

It's been almost two months now since Eday returned from Syria, but looking back, there is still a lot to unpack and process. He learnt now how people could be unknowingly biased. Those that know only the surface of the matter, but yet talking about it as if they are the source of truth. But Syria taught him to identify the naysayers and ignore them. And that's just a glimpse of what he had gotten from his life changing trip.

In his quest of investigating the fear of the unknown, he now understands it better than before. But was he really fearless during his time in Syria? To paraphrase his words, he was never worried of being bombed or shot, but he did imagine how troublesome it would be if he was kidnapped, so quick death was preferred, haha...

The other side of Aleppo.

Suriah Di Mata Teman

Kalau kita berbicara tentang liburan ke negara lain, teman saya Eday ini ada di kelas tersendiri. Begitu seringnya dia berjalan-jalan sehingga dia tidak lagi sekedar melakukannya untuk bersenang-senang, tapi juga demi sejarah yang menarik perhatiannya dan juga demi menambah wawasan serta pengalaman pribadi. Saya dulu berpikir bahwa negara-negara seperti Iran dan Etiopia itu tidak lazim dikunjungi oleh mantan Tionghoa Indonesia, jadi bayangkan betapa terkejutnya kita saat mendengar bahwa dia mau ke Suriah melalui Libanon. 

Suriah dikenal sebagai negara yang sedang berperang. Eday sendiri juga tertegun saat menyadari bahwa tempat tujuan ini tidak termasuk cakupan asuransi perjalanan. Kalau pun ada yang memasukkan Suriah, asuransi tersebut memiliki klausul yang tidak masuk akal seperti pemegang polis harus diculik dulu, minimal enam jam, baru bisa klaim asuransi senilai 60 dolar. Ini ironis sekaligus kocak, seakan-akan teroris dengan senang hati membantu mengisikan formulir sebelum membebaskan korban. 


Eday tetap bersemangat meski tujuannya tergolong sangat berbahaya. Sebelum dia berangkat, kita sempat berdiskusi tentang bahaya biasnya pendapat orang awam. Banyak yang merasa tahu tanpa menelaah lebih jauh apa yang dipahaminya, lalu dengan cepat menghakimi. Penyerangan dengan drone dan pemboman bandara Damaskus yang terjadi sebelum hari keberangkatan membuat suasana tambah buruk bagi Eday. Banyak yang "peduli" dan membombardirnya dengan berita, nasehat dan komentar supaya dia membatalkan niatnya. Alhasil Eday dibebani dengan kecemasan yang berlebihan dan bertubi-tubi. 

Orang biasa mungkin sudah menyerah, namun Eday tetap teguh. Dia tahu perjalanan ini akan membuahkan pengalaman yang mengubah hidupnya. Liburan-liburan sebelumnya telah mengajarinya akan hal tersebut. Eday bersikukuh untuk melihat Suriah. Dukungan moral dari sang istri sudah cukup baginya dan dia pun berangkat ke negara yang tidak pernah masuk dalam daftar impian orang awam. 

Mesjid Umayyad, Damaskus.

Eday mendarat di Beirut, ibukota Libanon. Ada bagian dari Beirut yang mirip Eropa, namun bekas perang saudara masih terlihat pula. Banyak gedung yang masih memiliki lubang peluru di dinding. Kursi kepresidenan sedang kosong. Mobil tanpa plat terlihat lumrah di jalan. Listrik pun sering padam. 

Akan tetapi Beirut tidaklah seburuk yang dibayangkan. Eday menjelaskan bahwa suasananya cukup santai. Penduduk Libanon cenderung bersahabat dan ramah, terutama karena mereka jarang melihat turis dari belahan Asia tempat kita tinggal. Meski hidup mereka susah, warga Libanon bertahan dengan hidup gotong-royong, budaya yang terbentuk karena mereka harus hidup mandiri di tengah absennya pemerintah. 

Latakia, Suriah.

Perjalanan Eday ke Suriah dimulai keesokan paginya. Jarak tempuh dari Beirut ke perbatasan adalah 1,5 jam. Pemandangan di sepanjang jalan terlihat berbukit, mengingatkan Eday pada kawasan Puncak di Indonesia. Perbatasan dari Libanon ke Suriah kira-kira 100 meter jauhnya, namun Eday harus naik-turun dan berganti mobil saat keluar-masuk perbatasan. Rasanya seperti diselundupkan. Ada lebih dari 10 pos militer sebelum dia mencapai imigrasi Suriah yang kacau. Tak jauh dari situ, tiba-tiba ada satu mal dengan suasana Eropa. Keberadaannya sangat menyolok!  

Damaskus juga berjarak tempuh 1,5 jam dari perbatasan Suriah. Kota ini berdiri dari sejak lama. Bahkan Santo Paulus pun pernah ke sana dan peristiwa itu sudah berlalu 2000 tahun lamanya. Dari Damaskus, Eday menjelajahi Suriah, melihat kota-kota Maaloula, Tartus, Latakia, Kesab, Hama, Aleppo, Palmyra dan Busra.

Eday di Palmyra.

Berada di Suriah itu bagaikan menyerap sejarah peradaban manusia. Ada Kuil Jupiter yang kini telah berubah menjadi Mesjid Umayyad. Ada pula kuburan-kuburan tokoh agama dan bersejarah seperti Yohanes Pembaptis dan Sultan Saladin. Ada lagi biara yang pernah dikunjungi oleh Muhammad di masa mudanya, sebelum dia menjadi Nabi. Negara ini sungguh diwarnai oleh peradaban dan sejarah di setiap sudutnya. 

Begitu banyak yang terjadi dari sejak zaman dahulu di Suriah, sampai-sampai terasa nuansa mistisnya. Ada sebuah pengalaman menarik di padang gurun saat Eday menuju ke Biara Santo Musa dari Abyssinia (sekarang dikenal sebagai Etiopia). Awalnya perjalanan itu terasa sunyi dan tidak terlihat apa pun sejauh mata memandang. Setelah itu terdengar suara berdengung yang lantas berubah menjadi semacam suara senandung. Sebuah kebetulan belaka?

Krak des Cheavaliers. 

Dan tentu saja ada perang yang telah mengguncang Suriah lebih dari 10 tahun lamanya. Di kota bernama Idlib hiduplah para pejuang revolusi, ISIS, Al-Qaeda dan lain-lain. Semuanya berkumpul di situ. Tank-tank Rusia juga terlihat berpatroli. Kehidupan di sekitar kawasan perang ini sangatlah keras sehingga tatapan penduduknya terlihat begitu dingin dan tak lagi manusiawi. 

Dari semua kota yang Eday kunjungi, Homs akan selalu ia kenang sebagai bukti nyata betapa dahsyatnya kehancuran yang bisa ditimbulkan oleh peperangan. Kota itu nyaris luluh lantak. Tak banyak lagi yang bisa dilihat di sana karena sebagian besar kotanya kini berwujud puing-puing reruntuhan. Apa yang Eday lihat dan dengar selama di sana membuatnya berpikir bahwa masalah kehidupan yang sudah dilewatinya hingga hari itu hanyalah hal kecil dan tidak sebanding dengan apa yang terjadi di Homs.

The war-torn Aleppo.

Eday menggunakan istilah perasaan bercampur-aduk untuk mendeskripsikan apa yang ia rasakan saat berada di Suriah. Dia bersemangat, sedih dan bersimpati pula selama di sana. Apa yang dianggap normal di Suriah itu berbeda dengan standar kita di belahan dunia ini. Eday bisa minum bir dan menghisap shisha di puncak gedung di satu malam, lalu bagaikan kembali ke masa silam pada keesokan harinya saat menyaksikan peninggalan bersejarah, kemudian dikelilingi oleh bangunan-bangunan yang hancur dan hampir roboh di hari berikutnya. Dia mendengar cerita-cerita sedih dari para korban perang. Di saat yang sama, keberadaannya pun menjadi sumber harapan bagi penduduk lokal karena dia berani mengunjungi Suriah di kala sebagian besar dunia sudah mengabaikan Suriah. 

Dan Eday bertemu dengan para petualang yang sudah banyak makan asam garam di Suriah. Ada seorang wanita Rusia setengah baya yang baru saja menaklukkan Himalaya. Ada pula pelancong lain yang dengan santai bercerita bahwa rute perjalanannya berubah karena Bandara Damaskus baru saja dibom lagi kemarin. Inilah kondisi normal di Suriah. Jauh berbeda dengan apa yang kita anggap normal, jadi memang sangat menantang secara emosional. 


Beralih ke topik yang lebih ringan, kita membahas tentang makanan. Humus adalah makanan yang paling sering muncul di Libanon dan Suriah. Rasa makanan di sana cenderung asam. Nasi jarang terlihat dan sebagai gantinya, orang-orang di sana memakan roti pita. Satu pengalaman yang mencengangkan terjadi di Kota Kesab. Ada sebuah restoran yang memiliki kandang burung di sampingnya dan Eday pun disuruh memilih burung yang paling disukainya. Ternyata burung-burung ini adalah menu yang kemudian dimasak dan disajikan di hadapannya! 

Sekarang sudah hampir dua bulan lamanya sejak kepulangan Eday dari Suriah, namun pengalaman selama di sana sangat membekas dan masih dicerna perlahan-lahan. Satu hal yang pasti, sudah terbukti bahwa memang banyak yang memiliki tendensi untuk beropini secara bias. Hanya tahu sedikit dari apa yang sekilas didengar atau dibacanya, namun berbicara seakan-akan memang ahlinya. Suriah membuatnya lebih kritis dalam menyikapi orang-orang seperti ini. 

Berkaitan dengan minatnya dalam mengamati rasa takut terhadap ketidaktahuan, apa yang dialaminya selama di Suriah kian membekalinya untuk memahami fenomena ini. Namun apakah ini berarti dia tidak memiliki rasa takut selama di Suriah? Mengutip perkataannya, dia tidak cemas dengan bom dan peluru nyasar, tapi dia sempat membayangkan kalau sampai diculik, pasti repot dan berbelit-belit nantinya, jadi kematian yang berlangsung dengan cepat merupakan opsi yang lebih baik, haha... 

Sisi lain Aleppo.

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