Jordan was awesome. I really felt as if I had finally left Africa behind me and was back on the backpacker trail, rather than the backbreaker trial. I was in no hurry to get to Damascus, so after a fairly lazy morning, Abby and I walked to town (it was a nice day, why not?) and then we went to visit the oldest townhouse in Amman. Abby is friends with the caretaker and before I knew it we were being plied with free cups of tea, a delightful experience for a tea-loving Brit like myself and one which I hope will continue throughout the Middle-East.
Around midday, I finally prised myself free of Amman’s seductive grip and, after saying my good-bye-byes to Abby, I was in a service taxi to the border. Would I get a visa? I still didn’t know. I had had my fair share of conflicting information, but now it was do or die – I could always return to Amman if necessary.
I needn’t have worried – Brits can buy Syrian visas on the Jordanian border. As long as you have no evidence that you’ve been to Israel, you’re laughing. So I paid my $52 and soon enough I was in Damascus as in “The Road to…”
I could have pressed on to Beirut in Lebanon, it’s not very far, but the thing is that I’m waiting for these damn visas for Algeria and Central Asia and while they are no forthcoming, I have little reason to hurry. If anyone wants to repeat The Odyssey, they could probably get from Cairo to Istanbul in four days, visiting every country on the way. But I might as well take my merry time, so I checked into a backpackers and had a little mooch around the town before finding a nice little cafe with internet access to while away the evening.
I think Syria was one of the countries labelled as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ by George W Bush, which is a little unfair as Syria, while not being the most liberal state in the world, is hardly in the same league of interference in people’s personal spheres as, say North Korea or Saudi. Even though Saudi is not regarded as a member of this axis (it bought its way out of moral restraint), despite the fact that bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi and it has a terrible habit of burying rape victims up to their hips in sand and then allowing a team of psychotic teenage thugs throw sharpened stones at her face until her skull cracks open or she bleeds to death. Nice.
But I’ve been to Syria a couple of times now and it’s fine – I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any time. If it’s a police state then they keep a low profile. The only thing I don’t get about Syria is the ubiquitous pictures of el presidente which are EVERYWHERE – lamp-posts, restaurants, offices, in taxis, on buses, buildings, bill-boards, any flat surface you care to mention… The reason I don’t get it is this – iconography is forbidden by the Koran. A good Muslim is not allowed to draw a picture of another human (or even animal) lest it be regarded as an icon. That’s why Islamic calligraphy is so terrific – it’s their only outlet for fine art. They’re not really even supposed to make statues, although try telling that to Turkey – hundreds of sculptors would be out of work if there was a ban on carving Ataturks.
But then, what’s the story with President Bashar’s mug on everything (and I mean everything!) is that not iconography? If not, what the hell is it? They tell me that the pictures bring good luck – doesn’t that make it even worse? Isn’t that what an icon (if you worship it) is supposed to do?
Before you could say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, I was on the coach heading to the Lebanese border. Again, Lebanon has a bit of a bad rap when it comes to popular opinion. I’m of the age when an untidy bedroom would be described as ‘looking like Beirut’. It’s a sad (and yet achingly familiar) tale of three peaceful religions sporadically showing the world just how peaceful they are by brutally murdering each other. Lebanon’s civil war raged for over a decade, and Israel is more than happy to test out its swanky new rockets and helicopter gunships every now and again at the first sign of trouble.
Lebanon therefore finds itself between a rock and a hard place, which makes it all the more remarkable that it still manages to be an attractive and inviting place to visit. It’s like a hardened guerilla fighter who can also dance like Fred Astaire. And what makes Lebanon such a great place for me? Not the skiing, not the swanky bars or the parade of bling that passes for downtown Beirut these days… but the FOOD. My god, the food. I’m tempted to make another League Table but just in regards to food – as Mandy keeps telling me, it’s all about the food.
On the way into Lebanon, the guy sitting behind me was possibly the most annoying human being that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. As I typed up my blog, he sat with his head wedged in between my seats, inches from my ear, breathing loudly and totally invading my personal space. If that wasn’t enough to be more irritating than a shampoo made of lice, he insisted on trying to speak to me, not in a friendly let’s-discuss-the-tennis kind of way, but in a I-know-you-don’t-speak-a-word-of-Arabic-but-I’ll-continuously-ask-you-questions-in-Arabic-anyway kind of way. The kind of guy who once he had discovered an approximation of your name, would call it every five seconds, and then when you turned around, he would smile and say ‘hello’. He had the mentality of a hyperactive six-year-old but was nowhere near as entertaining. Then he took out his phone. I rolled my eyes because I knew what was coming next. Crap music, dull photos…oh god, here we go.
I’m not a photo person. I never have been, never will be. I like TV, movies, video… I like my images to mooooooooooove. Yes, I’ll politely flick through your wedding album, but don’t except me to enjoy it – I’d much rather watch the video, even if your choice of wedding song sucked more than a pinhole in a spaceship. And here was this guy tapping me on the goddamn shoulder every thirty seconds to show me another picture on his phone of his goddamn friends who I don’t know and even if I did know, I wouldn’t want to see pictures of. Then he showed me pictures of his house. HE SHOWED ME A PICTURE OF HIS TELLY. He then smiled at me for approval, like I should be excited that he owned a telly or something, I don’t know?
Assuming he had a mental health problem, which is nothing to be ashamed about but I’m not a psychologist and I can’t speak Arabic, so I could do nothing for him (if you’re physically injured, don’t expect me to sit there while you bleed all over me) so I headed to the back of the bus to chat with the gang of Poles who were also on their way to Beirut for the day. Unfortunately for them, they had a malfunctioning Syrian wally annoying the hell out of them too. I guess this kind of behaviour passes for normal around these parts.
One of the Polish girls, Anna, had the misfortune to be utterly gorgeous. While the western way to deal with someone with this problem is to get them drunk and take advantage, the middle-eastern way is to stand over them so they cower like a cat in a corner and tell them in broken English that you love them and that they should kiss you. Over and over and over again. For TWO HOURS. There was no stopping him – he was like Pepe-Le-Pew.
Even when I got his mate to explain to him that Anna was married to the guy she was sitting next to (for all he knew, she might have been), that his behaviour was completely out of order and that she wasn’t a fellow skunk, she was a cat who had accidentally had a white stripe painted down her back, he still refused to bugger off. What I found particularly infuriating was the way these Arabic men seem to think that this behaviour was somehow appropriate, whereas if I pulled 1% of this stuff on an Arabic woman, I’d be lucky to escape the situation with my head still attached.
Eventually he disappeared and since the Poles were up for a mooch around Beirut, when we got there, we decided to join forces. We were still all smarting from the border guard refusing to give us our free transit visas and charging us $15 for a month visa (of which we were all planning to use one day).
Crossing the mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria, we passed through a full-on blizzard and I found myself thanking my mum and Lorna Brookes profusely in my head for my new coat. We descended on the capital around 3pm.
After travelling on my own for so long, it was amusing for me to now be hanging around with eight people, all of whom had to be consulted if any group decision was to be made. It was raining out, so I (characteristically) suggested that we go to the pub, but they wanted to go on a walking tour of the city, so that’s what we did. In the rain.
We walked from their backpackers in the east of town, all the way over to the Ras Beirut side in the west. If you can just ignore the refugee camps on the outskirts, Beirut is just like any other European city – give or take the few buildings with big blast holes in them – it’s got a central business district with shiny new buildings, it’s got an old bit which houses the nice bars and it’s got pavements, traffic lights, underpasses, business as usual. If it had been a sunny day, it would have been a nice walk, but the fact it was raining cats and dogs put a bit of a dampener on things.
The Poles were a top bunch – Bart and Matthew kept me entertained as we wandered the city streets, running under verandas whenever the rain went from drizzle to monsoon. Eventually (after a kebab or two), we settled down in a bar for a couple of drinks. Very expensive drinks. If you want to guarantee your position in my overall League of Nations to be high, please don’t overcharge me for my alcohol. I haven’t the heart to tell Mandy that’s the real reason Australia is not in my top 5. But worse things happen at sea, and with the excellent food on offer, there is nothing stopping me coming back here, or recommending it to others (bring your own drinks, though).
My bus back to Syria was leaving at midnight, and later I returned to the backpackers with the Poles to pick up my bag. I was hoping to sit with them in reception until their friends arrived (separate taxis) but the cow at the PENSION AL-NAZIH wouldn’t let me, even though it was dark and lashing down with raining outside. Yeah, I guess I should have expected that from a place called the Nazi Hotel.
So I made my way through the storm to the bus station (eating yet another kebab on the way) and at around 2.30am, I found myself at the Syrian border. I had a day-pass slip in my passport, which I assumed meant that I didn’t have to buy a new visa. FOOL!
God I HATE border guards. So after taking out my re-entry slip (and it disappearing into the ether) the border people demanded another $52 out of me. I almost burst into tears. The swines. I argued the toss, but after half-an-hour they had completely stonewalled me – no visa, no entry. I would be leaving first thing in the morning for Turkey, but there was nothing that I could do. Syria has now dropped a LONG way in my world rankings. Don’t pull this kind of stuff on a tourist in the middle of the night, it’s just not cricket.
I paid up, getting a $2 discount by telling them I was Irish.
Drat and double drat.
I would later discover that as my bus was fighting through the torrential rain, an Ethiopian Airliner crashed into the sea just off the coast of Beirut. What a waste.
It was the wee small hours when we pulled into Aleppo in the top left corner of Syria. Not one to stand on ceremony and after last night’s jiggery-pokery I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough and soon I was over the border and doing a little victory dance in my 140th country of this damn fool idealistic crusade. Although I hear ‘crusade’ isn’t too much of a buzz word around these parts.
So I found myself in Antakya, Turkey. In times long past, it was known as Antioch, which observant members of my congregation will remember from the 1st epistle of St. Graham (Chapman). Talking of Holy Grails, Antakya is not far from Iskenderun, which used to be known as Alexandretta. Those who have been studying the history of archaeology (well, watched the Indiana Jones movies) will know that Alexandretta is where the Valley of the Crescent Moon resides.
But my grail-hunting days are long behind me, and Antakya is a bit of a nowhere town so I found out what time the bus for the Iraqi border was leaving, put my feet up and waited as the hours ticked by. At quarter to seven, I arrived at the coach station only to discover that when the bloke wrote “1900” on my ticket, he meant I had to be there at “1700”. The bus doesn’t come into town, you have to meet it out at the main bus station on the outskirts. Now he tells me! Luckily enough though, there was just time for me to be whisked away in a taxi, get to the station and run like hell… the bus was pulling out of the station when I clambered on board.
Content with a decent day’s Odysseying, but cold as HELL (my socks were still wet from yesterday) I curled up into a ball and fell asleep.
Just before I go, is Christmas a public holiday in Turkey? It should be – after all, good St. Nick was Turkish (as was St. George and St. Paul). Maybe they should have a referendum, I can see the headlines now – “Turkey Votes For Christmas”.