Syria Day 1 – Trip to Damascus

The room was cold, drab and I was glad to be out of it and having a breakfast of bread, jam and tea, in the much more pleasant common area. I decided on a short stroll, and walked my way up to the Citadel in the drizzle that was saturating Amman. I was glad I’d made the effort, as the vista was quite spectacular in a sort of one-coloured, tightly-packed, typical Middle Eastern city kind of way. From here I could also see the remains of a Roman Theatre. Before getting into the Citadel grounds itself, I foolishly went over some railings through an area where you clearly shouldn’t go, in the hope of getting a good photo. There was ankle-deep mud like clay all the way, even wellingtons would have struggled to navigate this farmer’s field. By the time I got out, my hiking boots and trousers were coated. Upon entering the Citadel, I spent the next 20 minutes in the disabled toilet, which had a private sink, scrubbing the icy-cold mud off with my numb hands. What a great start to the day.

Boots cleaned, I was ready to go. Particularly noticeable up here were the Roman arches overlooking the city. After half and hour, hypothermia was setting in, so I headed back to the hotel via a money changer, where I changed most of my remaining Jordanian diners into Syrian pounds. The service taxi came to pick me up at 12, and I joined a Frenchman, Nicole, an Algerian, Bernard, and a South Korean, Lee, in the taxi, driven by a big-faced big-bellied Jordanian, called Moody Cunt.

It was an interesting journey, fraught with conflict. The first was when we stopped for a short break en route to the Syrian border. We’d all paid upfront, except Lee, who lived in Damascus, and was clued up about things related to service taxis and the tricks and scams associated with them. We found out that Nicole and I had paid 4JD too much. The Algerian had only paid 11JD, we’d paid 15JD each to get to Damascus. Moody Cunt was very upset – he wanted Lee’s money upfront too or he wouldn’t go any further. A silly stand-off ensued between the stubborn Jordanian and the stubborn Korean. The Korean was trying to reason with Moody Cunt, and much gesticulating, storming off, pointing, shouting and flailing ensued, as well as occasional smiles as though both were enjoying the game. Neither could afford to lose face, especially the Jordanian in front of other drivers. After 20 minutes, Lee gave in, and handed over 11JD. Moody Cunt wanted 1JD more. Lee refused. Moody Cunt threw Lee’s money on the floor, and it suddenly started to turn nasty. Moody Cunt opened the boot and began unloading Lee’s bags. Bernard offered to pay the 1JD himself, but, of course, Moody Cunt would only accept it from Lee. The shouting, pointing and arguing heated up, and eventually Lee gave in a second time, giving Moody Cunt his 1JD. Happy to have saved face, he put the bags back and retrieved the thrown down money. We all got back in and drove off, in silence, the mood soured and the banter ceased.

At the Syrian border, we went through 3 passport checks before even getting to immigration. We had to pay departure tax too, which I hadn’t counted on, so had to borrow some from Nicole, paying him back in US dollars. Next was immigration. Being British, it was hit and miss whether or not I’d get a visa at the border. Some had succeeded, others had been turned back. It all seemed to depend on the mood of the official. I filled in a form, and the grumpy-looking immigration officer (they must be the most depressed-looking and unfriendly people in the world…I don’t think I’ve ever seen one smile or say ‘welcome’) asked me a lot of questions – job, country of birth, where I worked, where I wanted to stay in Syria, how long I would be there. He checked my passport very thoroughly for any sign of an Israeli stamp – this would guarantee my being turned back. After 20 minutes, and a few phone calls, presumably to make sure I wasn’t a journalist or working for the government, he gave me my passport and a card with a number on it – ’52’. This, he said with undisguised pleasure – was the cost of my Syrian visa. $52! The Frenchman only had to pay $36. I didn’t complain, I was happy to be allowed through, but the Frenchman had to bail me out again by lending me $4 to top up my existing $48. Thank God he was with me. I then took my passport back to the immigration official, who again asked me where I would stay. After 10 more minutes, he gave me the magic stamp that would permit me to enter Syrian soil for a maximum of 15 days, if I so wished.

We got in the car and passed 2 more pointless checkpoints, then had to change cars. From here on in, we were with a thin, disheveled, weasel-like Syrian who immediately asked me for more money. The Korean, Lee, stood his ground, and the next hour was taken up by the weasel moaning about money, gesticulating wildly, and shouting at Lee and the Algerian in Arabic.

Some 30 minutes outside the city, Lee told us that this was where they usually drop off unsuspecting tourists who have to continue their journey to central Damascus in a dodgy taxi charging exorbitant rates, of which the service taxi drivers at both ends no doubt get a cut of. It’s a lucrative racket, but, with 2 Arabic speakers in the car, one of whom lived in Damascus, the weasel knew he couldn’t swing it this time. It was dark when we reached Central Damascus. Lee asked to be dropped off at the Mergee – the central part of the city, from where a hotel I and Nicole had decided to look for – Al Arabe – could be found. Still demanding more money, the Syrian jumped out and remonstrated with us all, refusing to open the boot until he got paid. Lee, the stubborn Korean, stood his ground, and I was glad he was with us. He took a photo of the number plate of the taxi, and of the guy, and pretended to walk off to find the police. Syrian police are strict, and the driver knew the consequences should they be involved. He opened the boot, yelling obscenities at all of us, face lost and surrounded by other Syrians who had gathered and were clearly disapproving of his disgusting, predatory, sneaky, shameful behavior. I grabbed my bag and headed off with Nicole, giving thanks to Lee and Bernard. I felt sorry for Bernard. He was a psychology professor and had written a book which he had shown us in the car, yet he couldn’t get a visa for Britain. How could be be rejected, yet thousands of unqualified Somalis, Pakistanis, Iraqis and God knows how many Eastern Europeans are let in, creating impenetrable foreign communities where birthright Britons fear to tread. Something was clearly amiss, but then, it has been for a long time. Bernard had asked me to write a letter on his behalf to the immigration authorities, as being a teacher he felt I could have some influence. Not in Britain you can’t. I couldn’t help him.

Nicole and I walked up a small alley to Al-Rabe hotel. It was full, only one double room available, and for a pricey 1,600 Syrian Pounds. We went next door. 2 rooms available, right at the bottom, horrible rooms for 1500SYP. Disillusioned, we wandered further afield, and I grew instantly weary of the sudden burden I had in the form of the budget-minded Frenchman. I wasn’t in the mood for traipsing. I wanted to be alone, go my own way, but I had to stick this one out. Eventually, Nicole caught sight of the French Palace Hotel. He took an instant like to the name. It looked expensive from outside, but he got a single room, the last available, for only 1,000SYP – 10 quid. I got a double for 1,500SYP. It was a nice, clean hotel, with heating in the rooms. Sorted. We agreed to meet 20 minutes later, and set out in search of food. Another infuriating traipse followed, as Nicole turned his French nose up at the ‘high’ prices in various restaurants. We ended up all the way back at French Palace, opposite which was a greasy kebab stall and small restaurant, where we had a shwarma kebab and hummus for 350SYP each. It was light, but good enough. We then wandered back to the cobbled street by the Al Rabe, where a number of sheesha houses were, with a bohemian, studenty atmosphere. We chose a tiny place, and we sat down in the cramped cave and ordered a strawberry sheesha with tea. Opposite us were a couple of Syrian blokes who worked in creative design industries, one a goggle-eyed flamenco-guitar player, and the other an amateur photographer. We all had a long chat about the pros and cons of facebook, travel, music, Syria, photography, the recent snow in Damascus, movies and other such topics those who meet for the first time tend to skim through trying to find topics both parties can contribute ideas too. They spoke English well, and it was great to chat to some really nice, friendly Syrians, especially after our somewhat false introduction to the Syrian people courtesy of the service taxi driver.

After the sheesha, or ‘arguila’ as they call it here had sent us all high, we left. Nicole went back to the hotel, I went for a walk trying to find a bar or disco. I popped into a few dodgy discos, full of pole-dancers from Eastern Europe, but it was all pretty tame compared to the shenanigans that go on in South East Asia, so I crashed too. A stressful day finished, and a nice evening done. Welcome to Damascus.

Author: Neil

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