A Travellerspoint blog

Hijabs, Castles, Dictators and Weird Local Stalkers

Of course, it's Syria again

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We finally plucked up the energy to leave the hostel and make our way back to Syria. It occurred to us as we were on the way that most people have this notion that it is so difficult to travel anywhere and requires such planning, saving, organising and the such like, when in fact it is just so easy. From England you could decide to go to France and be there that evening, and it wouldn't exactly cost you a bomb. Bored of France, head to Spain, Portugal, whatever. Ah, another reason to procrastinate mature adult life for as long as possible. So ten pounds and two passport stamps each later we were in Tartus again, heading straight to the same hotel and saying hello to Ice Cream Guy who was pretty pleased to see us. We joked that the hotel's resident waster would still be there, the guy who during our last stay was constantly watching TV sitting in the same place on the sofa in the living area - each time we came into the hotel he was there, in exactly the same place, smoking and wasting. Well, needless to say, he was. Poor guy, what a way to spend your life, though our pity rapidly turned to mirth as we discovered a strong smell of urine emanating from him.

We spent the night there and in the morning set off for Qalat al Hosn. It was a Friday of course and so falafel shops shut we were forced to breakfast on chocolate and coke. Oh what I'd give for an apple! Fresh fruit! Why is it so hard to find a bottled juice that is actually juice and not some killer mix of 30% juice, 70% sugary carcinogens? Isn't it more expensive to fill juice with colours and beta-carotene and whatever the other stuff is? Anyway, after long walk to the bus stop (we finally consented to getting the bus, on the rationale that there was minimal chance we would arrive at the turning rather than in Homs) with the bags on our back we re-analysed the argument of the last night at Talal of whether homosexuality was innate or not. We smiled fondly at al-Asad who was waving down cheekily from the billboards on every street - of the world's bastard dictators, he is probably my favourite. BJ bought an al-Asad fridge magnet, the salesman didn't get the joke. Wedged in the bus surrounded by people staring at as again as we were foreign - ah, how we'd missed Syria - we trundled down merrily for an hour or so until we arrived at the junction and squeezed out with our bags, to the disappointment and relief of the rest of the passengers. The plan was to camp on the hill after having done the castle and leave again in the morning, but the inanity of our idea soon became apparent as we realised quite why it had been built where it was - even if there weren't buildings almost all of the way up the hill, the hill itself was so steep that even walking on it, let alone sleeping on it or storming it, was an impossibility. You win Raymond, well played.

We decided instead to camp in a hotel, and dropping our stuff off we went to investigate the ruins. It's pretty difficult to call it ruins with feeling as the whole site is so well preserved, it is unbelievable. Qalat Jabar stand aside, this seriously has to be on par in terms of childhood dreams of riding a dinosaur or owning a penguin as a pet. The place is massive, completely impenetrable. Modern warfare completely takes away from the ingenuity of defense, it's all about attack nowadays. Who cares about x missile or y jet fighter when you can be sitting in a structure of such epic dimensions as that? The sad thing is that now they are so useless - attacking general: "He's sheltering in a castle, the size of which the world has never known before. It has taken 100 years to build such an indestructible fort. The walls are so tall and thick that to even think of besieging it would be utterly foolish. Send in one air strike, that'll do the trick." But anyway, photos aplenty on my new digital camera (I succumbed and admitted that in fact yes, film cameras are a) antiquated, b) rubbish, and c) I was just too embarrassed to admit that I was wrong when I was defending it so strongly before) we had been cruising around the place for a good five minutes or so before we bumped into a sole figure on the top of the gatehouse. I decided that he was weird and so left BJ to deal with the standard chat whilst admiring the views, and then as he left we took the opportunity to check out the inside of the guard tower. BAM there he was, emerging out of the shadows like a true Gothic antagonist, Ambrosio, Frankenstein's monster, dare I say even Dracula. We were cornered, obviously Raymond hadn't anticipated what would happen when the enemy finally breached the walls. He seemed to have taken a liking to BJ and so commanded that I took a photo whilst he snuggled up close, before asking if he was married. We glanced at each other knowingly (innate?) and then said our polite goodbyes, before heading into the main compound and taking a confusing series of lefts-and-rights to secure our position. He was just too good, wherever we went he was already there. His speed was amazing, we would roll through a hole from the church into the stable and up the steps into the guard tower but alas, he was already up there waiting for us! We'd go underground, emerge on the other side of the castle and he'd see us in our hiding place, wave and we'd wave back before deciding where to shift to. Less than a minute later, descending the stairs, he would already be there waiting at the bottom of the steps! He kept to the shadows in true Gothic style, and no doubt it was a cloudy day so the pathetic fallacy was added to the mixture as well. Now before this starts to sound like we were the aggressors here, we were truly slightly freaked out. Wearing black, we'd walk into a room and there he would be, silhouetted against an arrow slit with his hood up, awaiting our arrival.

It is probably thanks to the ghostly ethereal antagonist that we got to know the castle so well, and damn it was a great castle. We were in it for a good three hours, finding our way into hidden corridors and underground rooms, and there was obviously so much more that we hadn't seen by virtue of the grilled holes in the floor giving view to cavernous darkness. Having finished looking around and slipping out of the ever-present net we went to the restaurant connected to the hotel out of sympathy, having decided that there would be no point in staying there for the night. We caught the bus back and were back in Tartus pretty soon after a hitch-hiked ride - we'd already paid more than enough for the 'taxi' to take us down the hill to the road so bugger waiting for a bus again. After an exhausting day (carrying the bags, don't forget) getting there, escaping certain death and then getting back, especially after two weeks of literally doing nothing, we slept like logs. Classic conversation with the cleaner upon waking in my limited Arabic (I had written in the morning, but of course, it was long gone noon by then):
Her: "It's one o'clock!"
Me: "Yep"
Her: "... It's one o'clock!"
Me: "... Yep"
At which point she left. Of course, I forgot to say, BJ's camera has broken so we have decided that Syria will no doubt be the best place to get it fixed. It was Friday when we went to Hosn so of course everything was closed, including the camera shops, so today we were forced to stay as it was getting seen to, to be picked up tomorrow, hopefully fixed. Another day in Tartus ensured our visit to Arwad island which was slated by Bullshit Planet by saying something like "It would be a gem if it wasn't so filthy, even the sea smells of sewage, don't bother going". To be fair, it was pretty covered in rubbish and for the most part we only saw children - very Lord of the Flies. Went to a restaurant, got some fish, went to seaside tat shops (my favourite kind of tat) and hippie'd up our wrists with lots of bracelets, all of which will doubtlessly fall off before I get back to England, went back, came here, did blog.

Next up, on the trip: Well, we've heard about diving in Sinai which is supposed to be amazing, so we've added that to the list of things to do, coming out with a diving qualification after a week of what was described as "chilling out under the sea meditating with the fish" - can't complain. Jordan, except for Wadi Rum and Petra, is supposed to be boring and empty so we're giving ourselves about five days there which means we have several weeks to spend in Disneyland (new name for Brazil) and Egypt, excellent. In the short term, tomorrow back south into Lebanon (more stamps, thankyou) to Tripoli, then to the Beqaa valley and Baalbek before returning to Beirut in order to re-immerse ourselves in the sitcom in preparation for the South. Time for some supper!

Posted by kmaw 11:46 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Beirut, the Lazy Man's Experience

Somehow I've written pages and pages in my diary covering this section, yet nothing seems to have happened?

Having listened to Nessun Dorma, I'm ready to undertake the gargantuan task of tackling the huge gaping hole of blog activity. The keyboard is pretty stiff so that's another hurdle to overcome, but I think a few flaming arias later and it should be done in no time.

We hung around in AUB as long as possible, though it wasn't the best of set-ups as I was effectively under house arrest, with the threat of not being allowed in if I left, so it was up to BJ to get me breakfast whilst I hung around in bed on the computer. OK, it was the best of set-ups, I lied. The first couple of nights we went out to a wicked bar in Gemmayzeh called Charlie's - some story behind the name involving Charlie Chaplin and a broken television, but it was a fantastic place. It was a wild place, great music and seriously cool people, we met a Scandinavian (the dreams of Scandi's finally coming to fruition) who we chatted to for the first night before leaving quite early as we were tired from border-crossings and passport-stampings. The second night was a whole level more insane, we saw some people we met the night before and were immediately welcomed as regulars, drinks bought for us and the works. Several Almaza's later we were chatting to various people - two of whom found it hysterical that my name was 'Shit' - who introduced us to people who introduced us to the guy whose birthday it was, who greeted us by pouring tequila down our throat from bottles he'd got from the bar. Suffice to say that after a short while we were dancing on the bar with the rest of the party, left at close and stumbled home. Not up for blagging our way in we opted to just climb over the tall spiked fence into the bushy gardens of AUB after a hot dog. Excellent. The fun of the night was increased infinitely after weeks of Syrian censorship, endless hijabs and absolutely no discourse with a female - the contrast between that and Lebanon's totally glamorous and totally gorgeous girl contingent was bloody awesome.

After several hints from Mitch, BJ's now homeless room-mate, we decided that it was probably polite to move out and let him have his room back so we raided the bookstore, bought some political tomes and set off in search of a hotel. Following Bullshit Planet's advice again (we hate it, but we need it), we finally found a place which was much easier to get to than we first realised, called Talal's New Hotel. $8 for a bed on the balcony, to be woken when the sun woke and waking views of the Med. Quite the deal. That hostel was the reason why we stayed in Beirut so long - we were intending to stay for a fair while but a solid 2 weeks or so was unforeseen. It was absolutely the ideal backpacker place, the kind of digs that we dig and spent the whole of Syria searching in vain for. We spent so long there that we became part of the integral crew yet were forever saving $2 a night by not getting a dorm so we were frequently shifted from balcony to sofa bed to reception. Our reception bedroom was good fun except that as we were sleeping where the standard night-party went on, we were obliged to stay until the bitter end.

Beirut being obviously the party town of the Mid-East, we had to go out clubbing at some point. I went with a bunch of Germans as BJ wasn't down due to ankle concerns, and we started out at a club-bar thing which we decided was a little too expensive for us at $10 a beer, and so after having three beers between five of us, opted to leave. The floor manager had warned us to drink more or we'd be charged but ignoring her warnings we got the bill which came up to $125 for 3 beers! Absolutely unbelievable, the most expensive beers I'd ever seen in my life. I demanded to speak to her and so we had a yelled discussion over the music in which she explained that she'd put a $25 floor charge as we weren't drinking enough, and I explained that that was surely illegal and besides, the reason we were leaving was because she so rudely demanded us to drink more. We agreed on ordering two more beers and bringing the bill to a rounded $50 and traipsing back up, we were greeted with the beers and a rack of 5 shots with a sparkly candle making a show of it. That was all well and good until it transpired that they'd given us shots of Smirnoff Ice - very sneaky, well played, bitch. I decided to retaliate with a final move of unprecedented levels and so upon departure, went up to her to thank her and shook her hand, depositing a folded note into her expecting grasp. Her face was priceless as she realised I'd given her a 1000LL note (the equivalent of about 40p) - unbeatable. After this we decided to go to BO18 as it is one of the most famous clubs of Beirut, and one of the most surreal nights of my life ensued. I decided to speak to as many people as possible just for the sheer sake of it, and because I didn't really know the Germans that well anyway. Met the tallest black guy I've ever seen in my life, said he was here for basketball, I believed him. He said his named was "Malcolm, like Malcolm-X" and so I decided to bail in case his views were anything like X's. There was a Turkish woman who was being hit on by an ostensibly gay guy, and so curiosity prevailing I went in to investigate and discovered that the woman was in fact undoubtedly a transsexual - she had a deeper voice and sharper jaw than I do, and mine aren't exactly feminine. That was the first of three consecutive 6am nights, the second at a club opposite the hostel which was also pretty fun. A girl recognised me outside and of course I went along with it with no idea who she was until she called me 'Shit', ah, of course, now I remember. It took us a long time to get in to the club as the bouncers frankly told us that we weren't allowed in without women, so we rounded up a girl and had her take us in before leaving herself. She didn't seem to mind being used so obviously. One of the bouncers inside had taken so many steroids that his biceps were literally wider than my chest and his shoulders were about a meter wide, but his head and forearms were of normal proportions so he looked hilarious, if a little disgusting.

So many characters have come and gone in the time we stayed at Talal's. Even the free internet was less tempting than just watching all the developments. There was a pretty American girl from Kentucky who we named Kentucky and her 3 wingmen - they were more stereotypically high school than I've ever seen on television, and just did not get Max's games and so were so cold, it was fantastically awkward. "I don't tell people my name twice" and "Like, oh my god" were memorable phrases, with the sidekicks nodding along, chipping in now and again. A Spanish girl that Max seduced and had been talking about quite a lot came back for a few days to the amazement of all parties, and that culminated in her hitting him several times, crying and then leaving again to the lesser amazement of all parties. So many people have come and gone, there was a party of 20 Swedish political scientists (we finally found the Scandi's!) on a great trip, who met some big names from Hezbollah, the Prime Minister, some people from the UN and so on.

Our visas were soon to run out anyway so we decided to crack on at the crack of dawn to Krak des Chevaliers!

Posted by kmaw 10:53 Archived in Lebanon Comments (0)

Chilling in the Desert Heat

Who even knows where next?

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Still riling from our pricy ride (to put it in context, if we'd wanted we could have got the bus for about a quarter of what we paid, and we'd have been in relative comfort. Of course we didn't want to do that, as comfort can't equate to wind-through-your-hair idealistic hippie dreams, but just worthy of note) we dumped our stuff in the hotel. It was a good place though so that was ok, our cheapest bed yet and right opposite the ruins. You could see them all from our balcony, I'd have taken a photo if it wasn't for the flurry of wires and pylons that you could see in the foreground.

We went out for some food and realised quite how not central our hotel was (Me: "We want a hotel in the centre" Lying Driver: "This is the centre!") but that suited us just fine as it was nearer to the ruins, way less touristic and probably quite a lot cheaper. We headed into the real centre after going a long way around back streets and asking people where anything is, and suddenly stumbled across a beehive of middle aged middle class tourists. We must have been the youngest people there by a decade, but I thought that was pretty cool. Representin' the demographic, for life. Every shop was selling this tat or that, camel bone necklaces, keffiyehs, leather this and leather that, your standard stuff that every Eastern tourist shop thinks that every Western tourist wants. Walking through this mismatched partnership we looked for restaurants, of which there were plenty. Of course going by a cheapest = best policy, we found our way into a place called Venus which had floppy leather menus. Optimistic dreams of an OR2K-alike gripped me as I persuasively suggested we came here. Prices weren't on the menus but he assured us we got student discount, and we kept it simple and cheap and ordered 'Spaghetti (Macaroni)". Excited to see what type of pasta we would get we waited, and it was spaghetti, but also overcooked and flooded in water. Travellers we may be but if we're paying good money for Spag-Mac we expect better than that! Too tired for an argument, we went for a more passive aggressive approach, vowing never to go back to that place.

The next day we spent in the ruins. There was again a typically Syrian attitude regarding the ruins, namely that you can go where you want but we're not going to tell you about anything that you're going on, so if you fall off then you fall off ignorant. It was blisteringly hot, one local said it was about 32, and we stumbled around drinking small amounts of water and admiring the well preserved and stacked up pillars, carvings, arches and so on. After the best part of a couple of hours there, we decided to scale a tall hill with a C17 castle perched on the top called Qa'alat Ibn Maan. We nicknamed it Qa'alat Little and ran up the hill for about 20 yards until, exhausted, we sat on rocks and looked back up. Still pretty far, with an increasingly steep scree towards the top. Should be a breeze! About an hours scrambled climb later we vaulted the metal fence at the top to look cool in front of the middle aged tourists who'd arrived on a bus, and went to check out the castle. Attacked by touts, a similar conversation to this followed:

Tout: "You want this? Camel bone"
Me: "No thanks, I don't have any money"
T: "It's camel bone"
K: "No thanks"
T: "Only 100 Syrian"
K: "I don't have any money"
T: "Pay in dollars?"
K: "No money"
T: "Ok, only 80"
K: "Look, I don't have a wallet on me, I have NO money"
T: "Fine, $1"
K: "No thanks"
T: "... It's camel bone"

We scaled back down after realising that you had to pay money to get in and it was an error after all not bringing our wallets, and did a bit of relaxing after what was a pretty tiring day of hiking. Snacks, supper, more snacks, bed.

Waking, we decided to go to Homs, stay the night there (even though it wasn't any good) and then go to Qua'alat al Hosn the next day where we'd stay for a couple of days before advancing upon Lebanon from the north. We went out quite early to start hitching, ie. about 11, just as the sun was getting strong. Walking across the desert plain towards the highway we came across a good few bones, jaws, small unidentifiable things, even a full skeleton which we assumed to be of a donkey judging by two donkeys who were tied up nearby. Poor old guys. Sitting on the road we waited, and this was definitely a more empty road than the one on the way. No vegetation, no cars, just bona fide desert and rocks, with the occasional dead tufty plant (doesn't count as vegetation, they were dead). A few cars went by in the space of about half an hour and then we pulled over a white truck. It stopped for us and persuading ourselves that we weren't seeing a mirage we went over to it, and out stepped three camo-clad guys, who said they were from Customs. We believed them, as it said so on the side of their truck. The leader of the three came up to greet us and we explained to him what we were doing. He wore an intricately patterned gold pistol on his belt, serious bling. He was clearly pretty well off, most likely on the take or something like that. But he was very helpful and said that where we were we wouldn't get any lifts but that there was a gas station nearby up ahead and he'd give us a lift. We climbed in and I sat on something - oops, just an AK - which he took and stuffed with the other several in the front. Shell casings lining the door pockets, we pocketed a few ourselves surreptitiously. We arrived and he began to flag down passing vehicles - now we had the weight of the military helping us! He seemed to be able to stop more people than we did though, not sure why. Anyway, he flagged down a lorry headed for Homs, we thanked him kindly and in we climbed and off we went.

Heading towards the junction, Homs right, Damascus (and Iraq) left, so we turned left. Oh well, we thought, Damascus here we come, let's amend plans accordingly. So we decided that we'd stay the night in Damascus then the next day head to Beirut. That way, we'll get more stamps anyway as we'll have to return to Syria to do al Hosn which is near to the border anyway, and stamps is what it's all about. Suddenly, we find ourselves back on the road to Homs and our glorious plan B is floating away from our eyes, as is passport stash and Beirut tomorrow. The driver lets us out in Homs and we think, hell let's go with plan B anyway. We keep hitch hiking, in the rain now, and no one stops for us except a pickup who kindly gives us a lift off the road we want and back into Homs. Ok then, maybe it's time to cut our losses and actually get the bus, which we do, and arrive in Damascus a few hours later. Thus ensues literally about an hour and a half trekking around the centre of the town trying to find a hotel that doesn't charge obscene amounts, or is not full. We finally found a place which seemed great, cheap and grimy, no flush on the loo, classic. Or not, as our room began to reek like a public loo but at least in the morning after a long battle we got 200 off. That pays for the ride then anyway.

At the service taxi station the next day we haggled a guy down to a cheap price and rode in his huge Chevy Camaro all the way down to the border. Damn, we forgot to change money and we forgot that you have to pay for land border crossings. Relying heavily on the driver he subs us a load of money and we get our stamps and cruise on through, 550 Syrian and 25000 LL poorer each. Syria charges you to leave, Lebanon charges you to get in. You can't win. There is certainly an immediate change from Syria to Lebanon though. The increased wealth is obvious from the start, with every second car a Mercedes and American adverts and corps everywhere, Dunkin' Donuts, Dominos etc. Not quite sure where the money came from at the beginning but now it's here and it's certainly self-prevailing. Getting into Beirut there is so much wealth everywhere, Astons and Lambos, Porsche shops and designers lining the streets of downtown with all the women more glamorous than I've ever seen in my life. Apparently they have all the Lebanese men wrapped around their fingers, and it's easy to see why.

We arrive at AUB and hide in full view, sneaking past the guard, and up to BJ's old dorm where we're crashing for as long as possible. Free accomodation is hard to come by in a city this rich!

Posted by kmaw 04:11 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Iraq border, Baghdad, subsequent imprisonment and escape

Only joking, Hama and Palmyra

The annoying thing about leaving writing about things is that more things then rack up which you then have to write about. Ponder this whilst I flick through my diary to remind me of what things have racked up which need writing about..

We left Tartus smelling wonderful and feeling similar as our clothes were cleaner than I've ever known them - the grey-white became dazzling white again, and I was nearly blinded with joy. Hafez even insisted on paying for the washing to be done - he was certainly one of the elite of Syria, with a lot of money to throw around to us so that we are convinced that Syria is a great place! Well, he did pretty well and we've told him sternly that if he's ever back in England then he is to call us straight away, which I do hope he does. I was ill at this point, reminded by the diary, but after following a tried-and-tested-on-the-dogs method I starved myself for a couple of days in an effort to starve out the illness. That was pretty unpleasant: being ill is one thing but not being able to eat whilst still physically able to on top of that was mindbreaking. It worked though, my lack of scientific knowledge disallowing me from knowing why, but arriving in Hama I was right as rain.

We had a lot of short lifts to Hama, standard back-of-pickup, with a Syrian-American classic case of marrying for visa but was doing pretty well as his SUV was so new it still had the stickers on, a big lorry whose floor I spilled my biscuits on (energy food, lived off biscuits for 2 days. I couldn't not eat anything, back in '68, it was damn hell boy) and a family who stopped without us flagging them down right on the road into Hama, about 2km from the centre. They had two daughters who both spoke English and took it upon themselves to show us around the town, quick glances at the norias for photo ops and then drove us straight to the hotel after having given our number to their brother, whose name we never quite got so just simply named "Brutha". The hotel was much more expensive than we were told, Bullshit Planet lied to us again, but we gave them a quick ultimatum of "give us 200 off or we're leaving" and they were forced into appeasement. Little did we know that we could have slept on the roof on mattresses for about a quarter of the price of the room we got. Never mind, the shower was definitely worth it - my fib of "nah the shower's shit" after having been in the bathroom for 20 minutes and emerging amongst billows of steam didn't fool BJ one bit. The TV though, not quite so worth it. Undecided about televisions, keeping up with the news is great but keeping ourselves in line is slightly difficult. So of course, with the combination of TV and tiring day travelling we had a good night in with bags of snacks - Ruby, La Vita, Ugarit cola, top stuff - and about 3 films back to back - after having watched a good installation of the Doha debates. Hurrah for Fox Movies! Brutha had phoned us asking us out for a meal but too wiped that we were, we said we'd see him the next day for a walk around the town or something. Just one full day in Hama, two nights, then down to Palmyra was the plan.

Slept in late. More TV. So we got up at about 12 and out by 1, wasting half our only day in Hama already (sorry Maddy!) and chiding ourselves once again for being such damn slobs. We spent our little time wisely, walking around the city and admiring its age, checking out the norias which weren't on the go as the water was too low and getting cheap ice cream. 6p for a standard ice cream is probably the best deal stumbled across yet. The sun was getting low so we climbed the citadel hill - the ruins were ruined in an earthquake so now there's just a park - and sat and argued until sundown about morality, ethics, meta-ethics, moral relativism, absolutism and the apparent lack of a legitimate middle ground, again stripping down the argument to its fundamentals, agreeing that we disagree on the free will / determinism issue. A sign of both a) immense philosophical strength and b) immense stubbornness all round (note to self - same thing?).

"Oh damn! What about Brutha?" is the concerned question I'm sure is on most people's minds at this point. Of course it wasn't on ours until the next morning when we realised that we totally blew him off. Ah, never mind.

The day after, we resolved to try and get to Palmyra rather than stay in Homs as upon passing through to Hama it didn't seem quite worth stopping for. From Hama it was about 200km there so a long old hitch it would be. We were stocked up with falafel and ready to go though, and in no time we were on a pickup which was going all the way to Homs! That is, of course, until he pulled over about 10 minutes later saying that Homs was this way, he on the other hand was going that way. Our sheer euphoria that the first lift we tried stopped and was taking us straight to Homs dissolved, but even if the lift wasn't real the feeling was real so we were still happy and raring to go. We got there in no time and again employed the 'yup, we're walking to Palmyra' policy which got us some really crazy looks ("it's 180km! Bus!") but we ended up at the right road, even if we did have to take a taxi. No-one seemed to notice, or at least if they did then they didn't point out, the massive contradiction this made to our walking story. We hiked a long way after we were dropped off and started trying, realising each time that our position wasn't good enough and walking for another half an hour or thereabouts. We finally stopped someone who told us he was going to a village about 100km towards there so we siezed upon the chance and rode with him - he gave us bananas - for a short while until the 100km was about 20 minutes and we were on the road again. Deposited outside a restaurant, the young owner tried his hardest to tell us about the buses and to go back to Homs to get a bus, whilst flagging down everything that was going the wrong way. He was totally confusing: he surely understood the concept of hitch hiking if he was flagging things down going the wrong way, and moreover we got out of a car which was going the opposite direction which then drove off. We didn't even begin trying to explain what we were intending and just walked off amidst his last minute calls to come and sit down in his restaurant, sitting down on the site of the road round the corner. This was real emptiness, one road with about one car every twenty minutes, most of whom barrelled past. We pondered the likelihood of staying the night there and decided it was moderate to good.

But then! A pickup slowed, stopped, gave us tea, stuffed us in the back and we were on the long long way to Palmyra, sitting crosslegged on boxes of Saudi tiles and sipping tea. What a fantastic ride, we were heading east so we could see the sun setting on the road behind us as we sat down, several increasingly cold hours of panoramic desolation as the desert really took hold of the land and the trees became only as infrequent as the huge rocky cliffs becane common. Passing signs to Iraq, not another person in sight for hours, days, getting dark and lying down to keep warm away from the billowing air. Arriving, the guy dropped us off at a hotel which he said was in the centre and then demanded 400 SYP. Amidst a culture of intense hospitality, when some gypsy does a thing like that it's completely unexpected and you're taken aback. You didn't tell us, we say, he didn't listen or understand or care. We ended up paying him 200 and he cackled greedily as he snatched it.

Posted by kmaw 03:01 Archived in Syria Comments (1)

Tartus

And an equally unimaginative subtitle

So, we're in Tartus now. Leaving tomorrow, to Hama (just confirmed with BJ: "Are we going to Hama tomorrow?" "[shrug] ... yeah") which is meant to be the most picturesque of all the big Syrian cities. Hitching again, so hopefully we can actually bring ourselves to get up early this time.

Despite the massive possibility of dramatic irony following my statement hitching to Tartus "should be pretty easy", it turned out just fine. Alarm set for 9, we ignored it wholeheartedly and were just about leaving the hotel by 1.30. With only few hours of sunlight and short tethers for more arguments about the bloody bus, we set off in search of food. It may well be because Latakia is more wealthy, but there was certainly a chronic shortage of falafel in the whole town - the people clearly too rich to pay 20 for breakfast. We finally decided upon getting a certain heart attack inducing burger, forced into the corner through lack of any alternative. Walking along the coastline we set off towards the road to Tartus, despite a complete lack of signs - once again, compass directed. Out of this, however, came a glorious breakthrough: we told the locals that we wanted the road to Tartus rather than the bus stop as we intended to walk there. Whilst we got a lot of people literally laughing in our faces and calling us crazy (which it would be, much like wanting to walk to Oxford from London whilst standing next to the bus stop) but it got the job done and we were there in no time. Either people think we're nuts or we get amicably directed away from where we wanted to go - the choice practically makes itself.

The age old battle of flagging down pickups whilst avoiding buses and taxis began once again. We thought a couple of times we'd got someone but it turned out they were just turning off or stopping at a garage, but after not too long we rode in the back of a truck to the beginning of the highway to Tartus. Good, we thought, we'll be there in no time, even though by now it was already 4ish and the sun was looking ominously low. Definitely won't arrive before dark, but no matter. At the start of the road our game was majorly salted by a couple of guys in a shack selling water who not only told us that it would be impossible for us to hitch a ride and didn't believe us when we said that we'd hitched all over already, but anyone who stopped they told to carry on and instead insisted on getting us taxi after taxi. Getting increasingly annoyed we opened up from just pickups and starting flagging down everything - with these shack douches laughing at us each time someone drove by - but after a bit a huge dumper truck driven by an old guy smoking weed stopped for us and told us he could give us a lift about a third of the way. We cackled our thankyou's and ploughed away slowly, leaving the metaphorical dust of retribution in our wake.

Another ride later, in a giant lorry cab with a couple of guys and a shoes-off rule, we arrived at the turnoff to Tartus. By now the crepuscular light was becoming more dim by the second and so we immediately regretted shooing away another taxi - it is a habit by now - as no one seemed to want to stop for us at all. It must have been about 20 minutes before a guy stopped for us and took us directly into town, right outside a hotel. On first impression the town was pretty cool, not "scruffy" and "unlikely to set hearts racing" as the vitriolic authors of Lonely Planet assured us it would be. Having found a falafel bar we dined and got some ice cream in an overpriced cafe, where all the girls were tactically positioned in the window to hide the rows of guys. We left and went back to the falafel bar, still being hungry, and then decided that more ice cream would fill the hole nicely. There was a place literally below our hotel and the guy at the bar was massively friendly. His twinkling eyes and huge crow foot smile lines could only be had by a man whose job it is to sell ice cream. We had a few scoops and got chatting - bloody good ice cream it was too, and cheap! - and he clearly took a liking to us as he loaded us up with about 8 more scoops of different flavours and a massive slice of cake, at no extra cost.

The next day, which was yesterday, after tanning ourselves on the balcony from which we could see the see, in the blazing heat, we met a guy called Hafez. He invited us to tea and we got chatting - he was clearly one of the richer people in the town and worked for a company that is overseeing some huge hotel developments on the waterfront. We talked to him as he drove us around showing us the town, and heard his views on al Asad ("fucking bullshit!"), Hezbollah ("fucking assholes!") and Hamas ("Islam means peace!"), which developed into a good discussion of politics. He could speak English well as he'd been in Birmingham studying for a fair while, so there wasn't any language barrier there. He invited us to supper, and took us to a fantastic restaurant where BJ and I both had great steaks (chateaubriand on a gap year, why not) and a couple of bottles of local wine, over which we kept discussing politics and wars, Saudi and UAE, religion, and the cultures of the East and West. He of course insisted on paying the bill despite our (albeit weak) protests, and bought us a beer each on the way back to the hotel. We asked him about washing our clothes and he told us about a laundrette to which he drove us this morning - such luxury. I can barely imagine having clean clothes, it is such a thing of the past. Ironed as well! Crazy.

Posted by kmaw 08:48 Archived in Syria Comments (1)

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