9.20am, 15 March 2011
Charles Helou station, Beirut.
I’m standing in line at the bus ticket office. My mission is to purchase a ticket to Damascus for around $5-10US. The ticket Touts are stuck on repeat – Aleppo ALLepo ALLEPO. I turn and interrupt the dulcet tones of a fifty year old chain nagila smoker and inform him that I’m actually going to Damascus. Before I can blink an eye he has disappeared and returned with another gentleman who professes to be driving to Damascus in his cab. Not wanting the expense of travelling to Damascus in a cab I decline and inform the gentleman that I’ll be taking a bus. He informs me through his friend that there are no buses to Damascus. So ensues five minutes of ‘yes there is’, ‘no there isn’t’. At this point I notice another traveller lurking behind me, he is also going to Damascus and we decide to tackle this problem together. Round two of ‘yes there is’, ‘no there isn’t’ gets underway. The taxi driver KO’d us by getting the official ticket office seller to confirm that there was no bus to Damascus. Defeated, my new travelling companion Russell and I set about bargaining for our taxi ride to Damascus. The final price, $15US each. Not cheap by Lebanese standards, but still good. Plus we were going to get our own cab – so we thought. And yes, there are buses to Damascus, but sometimes it’s just easier to capitulate rather than argue over a few bucks.
As we frog marched across the crazy highway we beheld our chariot for the first time. What a thing of beauty! A beat-up old American Chevrolet. Suddenly this border crossing became way more cool. Russell and I threw our luggage in the boot and then jumped in the spacious back seat. While we were congratulating ourselves on a good score the driver turned back up with another passenger and put him in with us. Ok, three people was fine, we could handle that. Our driver disappeared again as we were rearranging ourselves. Just as we got comfortable he turned back up with another two people and requested that Russell and I move into the front seat. What the? The Chevrolet had a roomy front, but it was more of a one and a half kinda roomy front. Once we had all squeezed in we set off – seatbelts weren’t optional as, well, there were none. Russell was stuck sitting half on a seat, quarter on a gear stick and the rest on pure faith. In our now cramped enclosure, with a three to four hour trip ahead of us, Russell and I were bound to get to know each other quickly.
The trip turned out to be a blast, with Russell and I luckily getting along famously. We drove up through the snowy mountain pass and across a beautiful and increasingly desolate landscape. Once we crossed the border into Syria the roads widened and straitened, the potholes disappeared and the traffic decreased. It was a relief as much as a disappointment. We were dropped at a junction in Damascus. Russell spent ten minutes arguing with the driver as he had overpaid him around $10 expecting change at the end of the journey. The drivers slim grasp of English slipped completely at this point and Russell gave up.
Next, a taxi into the old town, followed by a long and confusing search for our separate accommodation. My accommodation turned out to be similar to a converted roof terrace with some rickety stairs and random rooms off open-air concrete sections of roof. It was unique to say the least and had a certain welcoming charm about it. The back entrance faces over the old city wall and has a dodgy rope ladder that extends the ten metres down to the ground. It’s a fun if precarious climb. Five small tortoises inhabit the hostel and all regularly dance with death from above as clumsy feet come crashing down. These were rare desert tortoises, purely because their owners didn’t seem to think water was required for their concrete habitat and rare because I can’t see them surviving long.
Russell and I spent the next two days wandering around the city together, eating copious amounts of baklava, souk’ing it up to the max, checking out the amazing mosque and palace and generally looking as god awfully tourist like as possible. We even took photos of each other smoking a Nagila… Oh, did I mention baklava?
The Damascus old city is ancient. It’s ancient and it’s beautiful. They strangely have eucalyptus trees everywhere! I’m not sure how many of the buildings are still standing, nor how the hell they built them, but they all add to the feel of the place. A lot of the streets remind me of Venice, well, if you squint your eyes a little bit at least. The people are generally fantastic and will often take time to chat with you, most of the time not wanting money for the privilege.
After two days of sightseeing we decided to check out a Hammam. For those that don’t know, a Hammam is basically a Turkish spa. They are mainly restricted to men, with women being allowed in some during daytime hours. We turned up at an ancient Hammam wide-eyed and unsure of what to do. Like kids in a candy store we wanted everything on offer and subsequently asked for the full royal treatment. We were ushered into the grand entrance/relaxation area where you strip down and then wrap your neekid body in a waist to knee length sheet – this process is all visible from the street. Next stop insanely hot sauna, followed by insanely hot steam room. The steam room has knee high basins set around the entire large room where life saving cold water can be thrown on your body with a provided dish. Within the steam room groups of grown men were running around through the thick haze and throwing dishes of cold water on each other. For brief moments they were children again and their exclamations of surprise and laughter in response was contagious. I threw a dish of cold water on Russell, he didn’t laugh.
Our Hammam finished with two full body scrub downs, a quick massage, cold shower, being wrapped in different sets of towels twice more and then finally a nice cup of tea. It was exhausting! We got kicked out at around 11pm at which point we made our way to a restaurant for dinner. The restaurant kicked us out at 1am when we didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.
Russell left the next morning back to Beirut and I headed out to Bosra for the day. Randomly we both ran into each other at the main bus station on the outskirts of town. He’d paid WAY more than me for his taxi ☺