Lebanon, Syria and Jordan with Explore Worldwide

The tour was labeled “Grand Tour of the Middle East” and that it was. Offered by the British company Explore Worldwide (in the U.S., book through Adventure Center,1311 63rd St., Ste. 200, Emeryville, CA 94608; phone 800/227-8747 or visit www.adventurecenter.com), it also was offered as three separate one-week tours in each country, but I took the 3-week combined package. October 2005 turned out to be a good month in terms of weather — not too hot and not terribly cold.

This was the third Explore trip I had taken, so I knew what to expect: 3-star (give or take) hotels, interesting companions, a fair amount of walking, involvement with the local culture, and a well-planned program allowing us to see as much as possible but with free time to be on our own.

First was LEBANON, starting in Beirut, which showed the French influence. Officially half Muslim and half Christian, it is rebuilding after a civil war and the Syrian military presence. Infrastructure seemed pretty intact. We walked about the city, which is reinventing itself, the old and ancient mixed with the modern and new. I, along with many locals, visited the memorial to the deceased Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, murdered Feb. 14, 2005.

We also went to the ancient Phoenecian city of Tyre; Sidon, where I saw the first of a series of Crusader castles, and Byblos, which is reportedly the oldest continually occupied city in the world.

It turns out there are two Tripolis in the Middle East, one in Libya and the other in Lebanon. We toured Lebanon’s Tripoli, including the citadel and bazaar, then went on to Bcharre, near the Qadisha Valley. We took a 5-hour hike down into the valley — rugged, glorious countryside which in early times protected the Maronite Christians from persecution by the more mainstream Christians.

We also visited the remaining “cedars of Lebanon,” a rather small, mangy bunch of trees, all that remain from the growths that once covered Lebanon’s hills.

We continued to Baalbek, the famous ruins of temples built by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. It certainly lived up to expectations; the artistry of these people was astounding. We stayed nearby and were able to see the columns at sunset from the hotel.

Damascus, SYRIA, a busy city with businesses large and small plus picturesque souqs (markets), is full of history, from the Ommayad Mosque to the Hejaz Railway station. A Christian shopkeeper I met took me up to his second-story shop where I could see old Roman baths that have not yet been restored. He was also very proud of a photo of his much younger self with President Carter.

In Syria, as I had noticed before in Iran, people were unbelievably friendly. “Hello. Where are you from? The U.S.! Welcome!” One of our party collapsed in Damascus and a local man insisted on helping him to his car and driving him back to the hotel.

People are aware of what’s occurring in the world; satellite dishes are evident throughout. In Palmyra, one shopkeeper wondered why the U.S. had labeled him a terrorist, which led to a friendly cup of tea and a lengthy political discussion.

One moving sight was the Armenian Museum and the shrine to their martyrs in the genocide, with photos of the people so maltreated by the Turks.

We got out to Mari, 14 kilometers from the Iraqi border. Nearby was a French dig where my niece had volunteered as a photographer for four summers. Again, we traced the Crusaders’ and Saladin’s journeys across the country. It’s amazing the territory covered in these early years, by foot, horse, burro and camel.

I don’t recommend riding camels. After one pushed me down in Palmyra, I swore I wouldn’t ride one again. But in JORDAN, going into Wadi Rum we had a choice between taking a 3-hour camel ride or walking in the desert sands. After walking one segment, I tried riding Camella, a well-behaved 2-year-old. However, I am not made to comfortably ride The Ship of the Desert, so I returned to walking the last two segments of our trip to camp, blisters and all. We camped out one night. With the clear sky, the stars and heavens sparkled.

Our Bedouin drivers drove their 4-wheel-drive vehicles like others rode their camels: competitively. I bounced up and down in the back of the auto as our driver was determined to be number one!

The Bedouins, who had housed themselves for years in the caves of Petra — which is just as awesome as alleged, with carved buildings and views you can’t imagine — were moved to housing above Petra but retained rights to all the concessions there. They are the guides, they have the burros and camels should you want to ride rather than walk, and they have the souvenir stands.

At Aqaba we had a respite, with swimming at a local club. As we headed to Amman we had another break at a Dead Sea resort, where several had their pictures taken while floating in the water as they read the newspaper. Amman was our last stop.

While we had a comparatively small group, 22 people most of the time, it seemed large to me as I’m used to groups of 16 or fewer. I was the only American, though we did have an Australian or two and several couples from New Zealand. The rest were Brits, most of whom had traveled before with Explore.

The food was surprisingly good throughout, though hotel breakfasts often left something to be desired. They comprised flat bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese and tea and, if we were lucky, hard-boiled eggs. Two places had cereal and fruit — wonderful!

The basic tour cost $1,600 (other than breakfasts, meals were not included), but there were additional local charges and tips totaling $400. My British Air flight from San Francisco cost $1,419. Meals, gifts, cat care, shuttle and taxis cost an additional $1,000.