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Maalula, Syria... meeting Chavez on the road here

Lea Stogdale of Winnipeg writes of an encounter in Syria with the president, his wife and Hugo Chavez on the road to Damascus.

I'm travelling in Syria now. After visiting the impressive and magical Roman ruins of Palmyra and Apamea, Friday was probably going to be an anti-climax: a Crusader citadel followed by ... the churches in the town of Maalula which clings to the side of a steep mountain about an hour's drive from Damascus. The Church of St Sergius was built in AD 325... It is also where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is spoken...

On the road into this predominantly Christian village we passed numerous motorcycle policemen. This meant a visit by important people. Us? Well, maybe not. We were just sitting down to a late lunch when excitement ruffled the air. Two black Audis arrived. It was President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, driving, accompanied by his attractive and modern wife, and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (having just left Iran).

There were security men around -- tall, suited, coiled wires into ears and dark glasses -- but they invited us, tourists, to join the villagers, school children and media to meet these icons of western controversy. No metal detectors, no cordon, no guns in evidence. I was able to slip between large men to approach President Chavez and speak with him. He beamed at my complements, gave me a bear hug and kissed me on both cheeks. What a thrill.

Following the departure of the Audis, we were able to go inside the Church of St. Sergius, as were the children. Following the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic by the priest, who is charming, patient, multi-lingual (six languages) and a linguistic expert, the children  recited their creed in Arabic. Again, the austere lines of this ancient, unadorned church were softened by music.

Later in Damascus, I was walking through the old city to a restaurant that has WiFi. The main square by the Umayyad Mosque was filled with a crowd. Always follow a crowd. The centre of attention was a choral group performing wonderful Syrian music that had rhythm, melody and recognition by the large audience. Two young men, students of law, invited me to stand in front of them, and then they, and two older head-scarf-wearing women, a geography teacher and a grandmother, explained to me, in excellent  English, about each song and the concert -- free monthly concerts in many of the squares of the old city by 'Echo-Music on the Road.' It took me hours to reach the restaurant, my 99 emails and a beer, or two.

My impressions of Syria are of diversity and genuine kindness flavoured by excellent coffee, haunting music and a surprise around every corner.

Lea Stogdale, Winnipeg

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