Friday, April 17, 2009

Ultra-Post! Syria part I

So I'm actually writing this series of posts some days after they happened, and in fact while I'm just getting back from Palmyra, waiting in Alex's apartment. I don't know how long he'll be, but this could be a good chance to write.

*A day wasted, but friends made*

So, the night before I leave, I make a call to Alex to confirm any last minute details, and in particular iron out our plans for meeting up. As I will discover later, but frankly already suspected, his address (Bab Musalla, in Front of the Department of the Guards, Floor 3 Door 4) isn't very useful in terms of actually identifying his building. So we estimate my departure time, then set up a rendezvous
in a very public, easily recognizable place. "In front of the Ummayid mosque, between 5 and 6 pm". Figuring I left at between 9 and 10, that left 7 hours for what should only be a 4 hour service taxi ride.

In a bout of horrendous optimism, he even tells me if I get in way earlier, I should give him a call from an internet cafe. I already sense that this is too optimistic, but agree (and also let him know I'll call if I get in later than that).

I do in fact leave about when I plan to, around 9:30. That means I get into the border stop in Syria around noon (forgot to budget for the Jordanian stop, which takes maybe 20 minutes or half an hour). I stand in one of the Foreigners lines, and the officer says something to me, "durka durka one hour, two hours, three hours durka durka Copy passport durka Damascus durka durka next building".

I kind of nod along. Everything I've heard suggests that the part with the time was probably his guess about how long it would take, or more likely a refusal to guess. The copying, I think means he's going to copy my passport, and fax it to Damascus. The next building bit really doesn't make sense to me. I step outside, and the next
building in the direction he pointed isn't for maybe 75 yards, halfway between here and what I then think is the border crossing.

I kind of mill around for a bit, then my service taxi driver comes up to find out what's going on. I explain as best as I can that I don't know what's going on. So he comes and stands in line with me, again, then talks to some dudes, and then talks to me, saying in much more broken English than this, "Look, dude, if it were going to be one hour, maybe, maybe I'd stay. But 2, 3, more? No way, dude. Not in a
million years. There's 3 other people in this cab, and they need to get to Damascus too. My friend here will drive you back to Amman, and you can go to the Syrian Embassy and get your visa there, then come back tomorrow". There's no way that I'm going back to Jordan... that would mean another night, and frankly, I think my best chances at getting the visa are sticking around here. So I tell him to go on, but I'm going to wait at the border, then catch another cab if I can.

I recall that I still haven't figured out what he meant by "other building", so I first go to the "Information and Service" desk, try to explain that I've already been in line, and he said something but I don't know what, but the officer there just points me back in line. So I go to the other window, and while waiting in line, the American ahead of me is told in slightly better English that he needs to go to
the next building over to get a copy of his passport. I finally get it, turn around to go with him, but as I'm leaving, they wave me to come back. I show them my passport, they flip through it, can't find the visa, and tell me to "Go to the next building to get a copy of my passport".

So with the other American, I wander over to the next building. Well, the next open building. There's a Tourist Office between the two in a large hut, but it's locked. There's nothing that looks like a copy machine in this other building, but I go up to a window, and show him my passport, waving over it with my hand as if it were the scanner on a Xerox. He asks if I came in a bus or a taxi, and I tell him taxi, and so he tells me to go back to the building I just came from. "No
no no. I was there. I need a COPY", and again the same hand-wavy gesture. He gets it, and points me on to the next building down, this one pretty much abreast with the checkpoint. I hike over there, ask at a desk about getting my passport copied ("copy"-wave hand over passport), and get pointed to a window that says something like, "Immigration Photography". I hand them my passport, and they copy it, and give me back the copy and the passport.

Okay, so back to the original building. By now it's maybe 12:30, 12:45. I really wish I hadn't wasted that time, clock's a tickin', gotta meet Alex in 4 or 5 hours, and I'm still many miles from Damascus, but what can you do? I hand in my passport, with the copy, and they take both, then tell me to sit down. So I wait. Are
they just gonna call my name? How does this work? I guess it'll be reasonably obvious

Some people sit down next to me, talking among themselves in English. They also clearly don't have their passports copied, so I tell them where to go. One of them stays, so I sit and chat with her while her friends are away. Turns out they're a bunch of American University in Cairo students on Spring Break. Her friends come back, and we sit around some more. And more. She decides to go outside, enjoy looking at the Terrain, which is sorely lacking in Egypt (unless you count
desert). I chat with one of the guys, then we all exchange names. Let's call them Mike-the-Half-Asian, Daniel-from-Venezuela, and Dave-who's-been-here-before. One of Mike's first questions to me was, "Are you half asian?" "No" "Oh. I am, and so I guess I kind of see it in other people even if they're not". Daniel is, as my moniker suggests, from Venezuela. He's lucky (almost), since he can just get
a visa without the several-hour wait from Damascus. Except he doesn't want to leave his friends, so hah, he's gotta wait anyways. And Dave (I've forgotten what his name actually was), spent last summer in Damascus, so he's sortof like the group's guide. They call the girl I was talking with earlier Kasha (Kaja? Kashi?), but I'll later steal a glance at her passport and see that her name is Katherine.

By around 3, we decide we're all hungry, so we go over to the Duty Free/Hotel/Cafeteria that's been set up between the two borders (There's a HOTEL at the border? How long is this going to take?) and grab some lunch. Then, at about 4, I wait for a lull in people coming through then meekly go up to the window to see if there's any news yet. One of the topics of conversation among the five of us (although there are other Americans who have come in and
settled elsewhere) has been what they do to people who ask. We guess that if they don't reject them outright, they probably get delayed. They see me before I get there, and shake their heads morosely. So I sit back down.

Finally, around 5 or 5:30, we sense some movement. One of the two officers who's been on duty all day walks around with a big stack of passports that he's collected from hapless travelers like us. After a few minutes of standing around, I conclude that my time would be better spent sitting. And lo and behold, I am perhaps the second person they call up to give me my passport, point me to the "Banking
Window", and write down $16 on my immigration card. So I go over, pay my $16, get handed a receipt, then walk back to the main window to hand over the receipt and my passport, again. Some stamps (really quite anti-climactic), and I now have a visa in my passport, and can go into Syria.

I should, for a moment, speculate on what I think has happened in this 4-5 hour process. I think they just take all of the passport information and fax it over to some office in Damascus. There, the faxes sit until some bored civil servant gets done with his seventh tea of the day, decides he's about ready to go home, but doesn't want his boss to come in the next morning and see a stack of faxes sitting
there. So he puts his "Approve" stamp on everything, and faxes it back to the border, then goes home for the day. That's when the fun happens at our end.

So as I see the stack of passports coming down the pike, I start asking around to see if there's anybody who is in a group of 3 or less. My friends Mike, Kasha, Daniel, and Dave are 4, so they're a full taxi. I find another girl who says that there's room in their taxi. It turns out she's mistaken, that they too are 4. So I find another group of guys from AUC, and they're only 3. But they decide
that we can probably hitchhike to Damascus. So we start to walk. Through what I thought was the checkpoint. Where nobody asked me for any documentation. In fact, nobody even stopped me. A couple hundred yards down the road, the first car starts to pass us. At this point, I realize that hitchhiking probably won't work---there just aren't enough people coming by to play the odds.

Fortunately, this one is a taxi, and agrees to take the 4 of us to Damascus. The rub is, though, that there's already someone in the taxi, and none of the three of the guys I met up with are particularly small. But it gets even better: The trunk is full, almost to the top, with boxes of Crest toothpaste. So my bag doesn't fit. So not only would we have to cram into the backseat, which as time goes on, seems
to be more and more impossible, we'd have to put my bag on top of us. All the way to Damascus, at least a couple hours from here. I say screw it, let the three guys go on their way, and hope to hail another taxi. I do, tell him where I'm going, and he gives me a price that is actually fairly reasonable. Then some more something, about more people. So he drives, in reverse, back to the border

Where, lo and behold, there are Kasha, Mike, Dave, and Daniel waiting, trying to hail their own cab. They've negotiated with this guy before, apparently unsuccessfully, but finally they decide to get in too. I take shotgun, somewhat selfishly, hoping that the four of them will cram into the back. Nope, instead, Dave, the largest of them at maybe 6'3, gets ushered into the front seat with me. So this makes sense... put the two largest people in the front. Sure.
Anyways, we negotiate to go to Dara'a, a small town near the border, from where we can catch a bus to Damascus. Along the way, we do get our passports checked at the real border crossing, maybe a mile from the border station, which I guess has the different lanes and hutches to look impressive.

In Damascus, we take a taxi downtown, a short walk to the Umayyad Mosque. By now, it's maybe 9:30. So I head over, thinking maybe Alex has had nothing better to do for the last 4 hours than sit around. Maybe he's brought a book... But no such luck. So I ask some random passers-by to point me to an internet cafe, where I Skype Alex, and he tells me to come to Bab Musalla, and there's a Mosque there that he'll meet me in front of. So I wander around through the old city some more, asking people for a place I can catch a cab. I eventually make it there, then to Alex's, where he leads me up to his apartment. I sit down, drink some tea, chat with him and his roommate Cole, another Princetonian with whom I had taken Arabic (though clearly he's stuck with it a bit better). Then I go to bed for some well-earned sleep.

*2 Churches and a Mosque*
The original plan with Alex had been to go out to a Monastery he knew about, go to their midnight Easter service, then stay the night. Unfortunately, this relied upon my arriving by 8 PM at the latest, rather than the 10:30 that it ended up being before I even saw his smiling face. So that plan got scrapped, and we decided we'd get up early and go to the Easter service in Ezra'a, which has the oldest Orthodox and the oldest Catholic churches still functioning in Syria, from the 6th century or so.

So get up we do, and catch a minibus out. It's a bit of a walk from town to the churches themselves, but we figure it's the Christ-like thing to do to walk, rather than take a taxi. Also, cheaper. So we get there, and there's a lot of noise, a band playing, people cheering, what have you. We've been asking for directions to the Catholic church, so at first we think this is what we've found. But then I notice people at the gate pinning crosses of (olive?) leaves to peoples' shirts. I think, wait a minnit... that sounds more like a Palm Sunday thing. "Is this the Orthodox or the Catholic Church?" I ask Alex, and we examine the sign to determine that it is, in fact, the Orthodox (which is a week behind on the liturgical calendar). So we ask a few other people, and finally get to the Catholic church.
Which is completely dead. There's bits of crepe paper, broken egg-shells on the ground. But no sign of people. It's as if they have all ascended into heaven or something. The Orthodox church hasn't even started their service proper, but could the Catholics be done? Did they go to their midnight service then leave? We conclude
that they must start at 11, and since it's only 10, we'll go to the Palm Sunday service down the street for a bit, then head out and go to Easter down the street. Sort of a ultra-compressed Holy Week. So we do, indeed go to the Orthodox church, peace out just before the Cannibalism bit, and try the Catholic church, which is still empty, so we go back to Damascus.

Once there, we go out to lunch in Old Damascus, which is this cramped quarter inside the old city walls. Alex has a meeting with a professor, but gives me his guide book and suggests I just wander around. So I do wander around, getting myself lost in various alleyways, looking at the moat around the walls, and going into the
Ummayid Mosque.

Then, back to Alex's. Except, well, there were a few turns to get from his place to the Old City, and I wasn't paying that much attention because I thought he was gonna be with me when we were coming. So I get lost a couple of times, but eventually manage to make it back there. Except now, I don't remember what his building
looks like. So I show his address to some people ("In front of the Department of the Guards", remember?), and they say, "well, it could be that building, or that building". Neither of which look quite right. Then, some other people have a cell phone, which they very generously loan me to call Alex's number. I tell him that I'm close, but don't remember which building exactly. He leans his head out the
window, then tells me to turn around, where I see him. I head up, rest for a bit, then we go to an Internet Cafe, eat a light dinner, then go to bed.

*Ruins and Busses*

The next day, I head out on my own. Bosra's an old Roman city, south and east of Damascus. The theater there, over the course of the Arab occupation of the Area, gradually got turned into a fortress. And, of course, there are the obligatory ruins just outside of town.

What I found most remarkable about Bosra is the fact that people are living, in many cases, among and atop the ruins. While I was exploring, a local school got out, and so people were walking home from school along a 2 thousand year old colonnaded street.

I also confirmed what I have begun to suspect on this trip: I see things much faster if I'm alone. I don't know that that's a good thing, but it's largely true. On my own, I think I just get bored more easily, or lonely, and eventually head back, whereas if there's other people, we can talk about things, either what we're seeing or totally unrelated things, and thus extend stays, and see things in more

Back in Damascus, I pack up my things. I've decided to head out to Palmyra, where I'll stay the night, try and see the ruins at sunrise, and then come back for one more night in Damascus.

So I head out, catching a bus. The bus stops for about 10 minutes along the road somewhere, pretty middle of nowhere-ish. I get concerned, and even more than that when people begin filing off the bus. I ask the guy sitting in the seat in front of me, in Arabic, "Is there a problem with the bus?" He responds, in Arabic, "Yes. Durka durka Mohammed Jihad". The problem with my Arabic is I can ask questions, but it's far more rare that I'll understand the answer. But he doesn't seem to be moving, and a few minutes later everyone comes back on, and we're back on our way.

Along the way, the attendant comes up to me, and asks to see my ticket. Now, back at the station, a different attendant had pointed me from my seat into an empty seat a little farther up. But now this guy wants me to go back to my assigned seat. Despite the fact that it doesn't look like anyone's getting on or off. So I do, then a few minutes later when it seems like he's done, I go back to my old seat,
the one not assigned to me.

We stop along the way at a small cafe in the middle of nowhere. This is fairly typical, as far as I can tell for these middle eastern buses (and possibly buses everywhere, I haven't ridden enough to say). So I get out, stretch my legs for a while, and start talking with another guy from the bus. "Where are you going?" he asks. I reply that I'm going to Palmyra, at which point he tells me this is Palmyra. My guidebook said the bus stops a bit north of town, so I grab my stuff, and start walking. On a mostly deserted highway. At 11 at night. In thick fog. When a car does pass me, slows down, and asks where I'm going, I'm happy enough to jump in. He takes me to my hotel, where I get a room, set my alarm for sunrise, and go to bed.

I wake up with my alarm, see that it's cloudy, so I go back to sleep. I get up several hours later, and head out to walk to the ruins (maybe 10 minutes from the hotel). Just as I'm about to step out, the proprietor warns me that the weather is bad, and I should take a taxi. I figure he's just trying to get his brother/cousin/friend a tourist to ride in his taxi, since I can see out the window, and it's bright and sunny. I step outside, and a giant wall of wind hits me. It's enough to be mostly unpleasant (and make one understand how a city like this gets buried in sand after it's abandoned). On the other hand, it also makes it comfortably cool, so I take my hat off, and go explore the ruins. I think I can't properly describe it (but unlike Petra, the pictures capture it reasonably well).

I then go back to my hotel, grab my stuff, and go to the bus "station" back to Damascus. I get there just a little bit after the 2 PM bus leaves, but they're supposed to go every hour, so no big deal. I get a ticket for the 3 PM bus, grab a tea, and wait. 3 PM passes. And I Wait. 3:30 passes, along with a bus going the opposite direction. And I WAIT. Finally, at 4:15 the bus to Damascus pulls up with nary an apology. Fortunately, this time there's no hassle about being in the wrong seat.

Back in Damascus I head back to Alex's apartment, where I set up the bed, talk for a while, then go to sleep. One of the things we had talked about was my rain jacket, and in particular how I had felt it wasn't a good investment of space in my bag, given that I've been in mostly desert countries and had only just the hint of rain in Wadi Rum. Since Alex'll be at Berkeley next year, I try to foist it off on him, but he doesn't really have room for it either, so I hold on to it.

The next day, I head back to one of Damascus's 3 or so major bus stations (that I know of), and catch a service taxi to Beirut. It's a little cold when I leave, and mostly cloudy. By time I get to the bus station, it's pretty much all cloudy. And by time the service taxi leaves, there are rain drops starting to come down. By time we hit the Lebanese border, it's pouring. And I am so glad I didn't leave my raincoat in Damascus.

I spent most of yesterday just wandering around downtown Beirut, getting rained on at various intervals (but thankfully I had my coat). At dinner, I met some Lebanese people who took me clubbing. The same people have said they're going on a road trip to northern Lebanon this weekend, and were supposed to send me an email, but I haven't heard anything yet. All the same, I think this trip has been good for my faith in humanity. It's good to know that I can just randomly travel around and meet friendly people. Like today, where I tagged along with two Swiss girls from my hotel, wandering around, getting breakfast, and going to the National Museum.


  1. I am amazed by the way you blunder from one place to the next. Seriously, truly amazed.

    Also, I had to chuckle when I found out the two biggest people got stuffed into the front seat. That makes SO much sense.

  2. I wouldn't call it blundering, really. I have various guidebooks to the places I'm going, and generally check with reliable websites and the other people that I meet. Yeah, it is a bit haphazard, but that's part of the fun!