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Published: August 6th 2009
So once we received out transit visas we had to find a new taxi since our taxi from Amman abandoned us because Americans are always kept at the boarder for ridiculous amounts of time. So we go out into the parking lot and start asking around. Almost everyone was headed back to Jordan. Most people were helpful and tried to gesture vaguely in the direction of where we could find a taxi but really I think they had as little of an idea as we did. The people we did find tried to charge us outrageous amounts of money, like $50 US, which $US are illegal in Syria, to take us on a ride that should have cost about $15. My trusty travel companion and roommate, Rebekah, was getting a little freaked out and frustrated at this point. So I suggested that we work that famous Arab hospitality and ask the man at the hotel desk to help us. There is a four star hotel at the Jordanian Syrian boarder for those Americans, like my friends who had traveled to Syria two days previously, who are turned down over night and must stay the night at the boarder. For such a prime location it is actually quite reasonably priced at about $46 US a night for a double, information relayed to me by the same unfortunate friends who had to make use of its services. I plan on buying that hotel one day and upping the price considerably. But we got into the hotel and the kind shugfa (a good looking guy, literally: a fine piece of meat) at the front desk assisted us and looked appropriately appalled when he told him the prices other taxis were quoting us. This kind gentleman got us a taxi to the bus station right across the boarder for only about $5.
I knew that the whole trip total was suppose to cost about $15 but I was not sure how much I owed the taxi and how much I owed the bus so I gave the taxi driver a 10 JD bill to see what his take on the price was. He looked a little concerned than took us and the 10 JD bill to the ticket counter where he and the man there had a discussion. It turns out I greatly over payed him and he used the change to buy my roommate and I tickets on the bus. He then escorted us onto the bus, kicked people out of our seats and only left once we we situated.
But the hospitality of Syrians does not end there. Once everyone had gotten off the bus Rebkah and I stayed on looking very confused. The control asked us where we were trying to go and we told him a bus to syria. I have to admit when he told the bus to go up the street, where I did not see anything at first, I was a little more than nervous. However within a few feet I saw the bus station and was relieved of my fear of dying for the second time that day. The man took us to the ticket counter, exchanged our money, bought us our tickets and seated us on our next bus just as our taxi driver had done on the previous bus. I will be forever grateful to the helpfulness of the Syrian people because as I headed to the third country I would be in that day, I was exhausted.
On the bus we met our new german pediatrician friend Tobias, who was doing a middle eastern tour alone during his holiday. Tobias became our constant companion (/ bodyguard although I am not sure he was aware of this duty) while we were in Beirut. Beirut was gorgeous, the ride in very much reminded me of my ride into Manali with all the trees and mountains. As we got off the bus we were ushered to a taxi that I did not realize was the control's taxi. I thought he had just called a cab for us. Then I thought nothing more of it when he got in, assuming he was just splitting the taxi. However Rebekah was very distressed by this. I have to hand it to he, he didnt seemed all that please when he learned Tobias was coming with us and when he got out at his home and invited us in, (although I still stick to it that he was benign) I at least gave her some credibility that it was a slightly sketchy situation. The first hotel we checked out was...an experience. We walked into a building where the entire ground floor was empty like it was still being completed but also like it had been abandoned because there was graffiti everywhere. We followed a woman who happened to walk in up some dark stairs but she walked into a room that did not appear to be our destination. I at this point assumed we were in the wrong location and and lead the charge out. But a man outside stopped us and asked where we were going. When we said our hotels name he said we were indeed in the right place and took us to an ancient elevator that looked like it would drop down the shaft any minute. We went to the second floor and there it was, a "hotel", that looked like a shelter that a hobo colony had formed. We were relieved to hear that all of the space was taken, apparently there was a rise in homelessness after the war with Isreal, and we gratefully left. I truly believe that I could have purchased heroine at places that were less sketchy. After a few unfruitful attempts at the budget hotels we checked out the midrange University hotel, located right across from the American University of Beirut, and gratefully took the room that was obviously clean ($50 a night).
The next day was spent exploring the national museum, which was absolutely beautiful, full of ancient roman art and statues, the American University of Beirut, the most gorgeous campus I have ever seen right on the Mediterranean ocean (I was seriously considering a transfer from Jordan), and strolling along the promenade. The beaches were really just rocks coming out of the water and were covered with people and trash, but the ocean itself was beautiful (and full of jelly fish!) We spent the night smoking argeela (hooka) over looking the Mediterranean and sipping Arak, the local drink in a trendy little cafe. I was more like gulping up only every few minutes because I hated the licorice taste. The next day after checking out the AUB museum, which was fantastic (it had a real hand in it!) and having breakfast with Tobias, we left the Paris of the middle east, very similar beautiful but ghrali jidan (very expensive), and headed back for Syria.
Unfortunately what we thought would have been easier because of our come back for free cards, turned into quite the event. We thought since we had already been through Syria it would be easy getting in the second time. Wrong! We were told it was going to take a very long time so our taxi driver wanted to leave us. We tried to haggle some of our money back since he would not take us the full way, which created some fuss in which a Syrian family came to our rescue. We wound up having to pay him all the money but the family was so sweet. They thought we were scared about him leaving us and offered to stay and wait and even offered to give us money since we had tried to pull the faqeera (someone who is poor) excuse to get some of our money back. I love Syrians! However once all the fuss died down the usual bureaucratic nightmare of the boarder began. We had to go get out passports photocopied again (I will now always travel with 18 passport photocopies so I never ever have to do this again!). They told us to go to duty free. We went to duty free. Duty free said they did not have a photo copier. We went to the Dunkin doughnuts next to duty free, which was not in fact a Dunkin Doughnuts to my great disappointment, they were devoid of both doughnuts and copiers. So we go back to the boarder office. There we asked men in white coats supposedly doing screens for H1N1 but were largly being ignored. One of them tried to get us to get tested and we politely declined by ignoring him as well while the other lab coat took our passports and went in search of a copier. He however eventually directed us back to the original person who told us we needed a photo copy. He told us again and we told him there wasnt one. He looked puzzled, wrote down our information and suddenly we didnt need a photocopy any longer. Then the wait began. About five hours into the wait a guard came up to us and asked if we were American (was it the fact that we had been there for 5 hours that tipped him off?) and then told us that the chief of the station wanted to practice his English with us. We worked in the difference between the words impressed and embarrassed until he got bored with us and we became office decorations. He also gave us turkish coffee and apricots, the only thing we ate all day. I hate coffee and when he left the office momentarily I jumped up to toss it out the window but Rebekah denied me. Looking for alternatives, drinking it like a trooper was not a option, we poured it into an old water bottle. Back in the office sitting silently we resolved to go check on the passports as soon as he was engaged with something. He got a phone call and I jumped up. He however was off the phone before I was out of the office and told us that our passports were ready, (yeah I bet their ready, I also be they were ready 3 hours ago).
Again the attempt to get a taxi and contact Max, the friend we were going to stay with in Syria. We did not get in touch with Max and had to look for a hotel. Again some random guy shared a taxi with us, did not pay anything and eventually I just demanded that the taxi stop, let us out and we would search on foot. I get stressed when I ask taxis to stop and they dont. Anyway every crummy little run down hotel we found basically told us the same price which was like $23, way too much for these crappy rooms. We finally selected on run by a very religious Hafiz (someone who can recite the whole Quran). It was pretty gross. I slept over the covers with all my clothes on but it was a place for the night. The bathroom had a mysterious brown splash on the wall eye level when seated on the toilet. I think I will try to never consider its chemical make up after this moment. The next day we awoke and were happy to get out of the room and try to contact Max again. First call, unsuccessful. Second Call, HE PICKS UP! We were ecstatic. He, Maura who was from our CIEE group, and his new roommate Jeff, had plans for a few hours but Max told us where we could look around. This lead us to a fabulous old souq where we had a great traditional brunch. However this also unfortunately led to the experience of an authentic Turkish Hammam (bathhouse). This bathhouse was 800 years old and as real as it gets. We were told to take off our clothes, all except our underwear and were given small sheets of cloth to wrap around ourselves. However most people were going all natural, letting it all hang out all, all over the place. First we were put in the hottest sauna I have ever been in. I thought our little assistant, who I did not know at the time was going to bathe me, was going to leave us in there forever, maybe she forgot about us and we were going to die. However she did eventually come save us only to take us to a much more awkward hell. We go into a small room with a bowl. I was told to keep splashing myself with the water and Rebekah was told to get on the floor where her little modesty cloth was ripped off of her and this woman proceeded to scrub every part of her and spin her around on the floor. I was horrified, it was like watching a train wreck. Then it was my turn. I think for most of it I tried to close my eyes as Rebekah tried to avert hers, giving me as much privacy as one can have when getting shampoo, yes the kind we normally put in our hair, poured all over your body by a woman you dont know who is touching you in all the no no zones while your friend pours water all over herself in this tiny room. Next it was time for my hair. Half a bottle of conditioner had to give itself up to the cause. This part was actually kind of nice because I was allowed to have my comfort blanket back. Then it was back to the sauna and I think she really was leaving us to die because this time we had to escape before it was too late. This is when we were poured all over with cold water and then lead back to put our clothes on. This is when I got the terrible idea to get my leg hair pulled out by honey that looked like silly puddy. Bad choice. It hurt incredibly, left bruises on my thighs, and the lady kept making super disgusted faces about how hairy my legs were (I lost my razor ok!). Also may I point out that she was also naked and would gently rest her exposed breasts against Rebekah's leg if she were in the way. The escape was sweet.
Finally we met up with Max, Maura and Jeff and went to the told city for dinner and ice cream. The next day they had planned to go to Aleppo, which I was all about but Rebekah had an agenda for sights in Damascus. This meant an early morning. The next day we trotted off to the old city to see its wonders. This was also where I became aquainted with the putting on special clothes room. For each of the mosques we entered we had to put on robes so that we were dressed appropriately. They were kind of awesome. We went to the Al Ummayad mosque which was an old Byzantine church converted into a mosque that supposidly held the head of Hussein. Then we went to A shiite shrine that was beautiful and covered in crystals that held the body of husseins daughter who dropped dead when she saw his head. Then it was next ticket on the VIP train to Aleppo. Aleppo has one of the most interesting old cities I have seen so far. All tunnels and tiny shops. I bought two awesome scarves there. We also visited the citadel and in good formed, climbed ALL over the ruins. New CIEE slogan should be leave no stair unclimbed. We were fortunate the next day to get a bus that went all the way from Aleppo to Amman, only 10 hours O.o.
Since I have been back in Amman I got a job at a publishing house that produces Nox Magazine for Men, Torque Car Magazine, Aviator in flight magazine for private jets, and i3 a bilingual arabic and english technology magazine. I copy edit, which anyone who has ever read this blog knows is not my strong suit, but I have also been upgraded to writing small articles on classy items for the rich like the 18kt Gold Diamond Deluxe edition iPhone or a $40,000 hammock (have to admit the hammock is actually pretty cool) Inshallah there will be scuba diving in my future (if I ever get the bank sorted out).
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