Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Albertan Embassy

Damascus, Syria


Last I wrote, I had seen nothing of Syria. Now I’ve seen everything. I am replete with Syrian observations. Erin and I went on a serious high-speed sightseeing binge, interrupted only by that day and a half when I couldn’t stop pooping in Palmyra.

Above: Palmyra

I saw that awesome citadel in Aleppo that I posted those groovy photos of; we went and saw the ruins of a 1500 or so year-old cathedral built on the site where St. Simeon lived on top of a column for a few decades like a complete moron; we saw some dead cities, which were built in Roman times and then abandoned about eight hundred years ago; we saw the ruins of Apamea, the chief remains of which is a column-lined street about 2 km long; we saw Palmyra, which is just an awesome set of ruins.


Most importantly, we saw Crac des Chevaliers, a crusader castle I have been having dreams about ever since I saw a picture of it when I was about 8 years old. It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Everything you ever thought a castle should be, that thing is. I felt like a kid. What a place to let your imagination run wild. You can go spelunking in the dungeons, you can walk the walls, go into the towers, enter the enormous vaults where they kept 5 years’ worth of siege supplies, and feel your way down the long, dark corridors that lead to the arrow slits in the inner walls. I wanted to be besieged there so badly.

Below: Apamea

Syria is one of the best places I’ve ever been for old broken Roman stuff, and it is absolutely the best place you can go for looking at castles. Almost all the castles in Europe are gone, unfortunately; they were torn down by kings who didn’t want local lords to have a place to hide from them, and they were bombed to atoms in the Second World War. In Syria they’re mostly still standing and some of them are in pretty great condition.


It’s a pretty easy place to travel, too. Arabic is nearly as difficult to learn as Mandarin, and is as impossible to learn to read, but the locals are friendly enough that you’ll usually get where you’re going. There are a few difficulties you have to put up with to get to the castles, though.


The drivers all over Syria are so convinced that they have the right of way, it’s like they can’t even see pedestrians — even when they’re driving on the sidewalk. Erin and I went into the train station and found a bunch of displays in Arabic and English about the new subway system they want to build here in Damascus (first line opens in 2016 — buy your tickets now!) The displays had a bar graph showing fatality rates for various forms of transportation, with motorcycles way at the top and trains way at the bottom. In between, walking had about 20 times the fatality rate of driving. Now wait a minute — how many pedestrian-on-pedestrian collisions have you ever heard of that resulted in a fatality? Walking never killed anyone. It’s getting driven over that kills — don’t blame the pedestrians. Anyway, the point is, nobody here wears a seatbelt, and they still kill 20 times more pedestrians than other drivers.


The thing is, as nice as Syrians are when you talk to them, they’re real dicks about getting places. In Aleppo particularly, people walk down the street as though other people weren’t even there — they just walk right into each other. This evening, Erin got out of the bathroom at a restaurant and two women who were waiting for her completely blocked her way out. They just stood there looking at her, waiting for her to dematerialize and let them by; they weren’t even considering doing that politeness dance we Canadians do when we find ourselves in someone else’s way. I’m sure that new subway is going to really help clear up traffic around here, but I’d hate to try to get on it during rush hour.


But like I said, these people are nice, even when they are ripping you off. We often laugh while we’re haggling with cab drivers over whether we’re going to pay four times what locals pay, or just twice as much.


My favourite haggler was the coffee vendor in front of the Aleppo Citadel. He had a pot of Turkish coffee and some plastic cups, and he spoke a few words of English, so his main trade was in ripping off tourists. The first time Erin and I went to the Citadel, he offered us a coffee, which we enthusiastically accepted. He gave us two little plastic cups of strong, strong coffee, and before we took a sip, we asked him how much.


“One hundred,” he says. That’s about three bucks. In Lebanon, we were paying about 25 cents.


“What is this, Starbucks?” I shouted and I handed the coffees back and made a big show of walking away, and he shouted out “welcome, welcome!” and we went back and took the coffees from him and we asked how much again.


“One hundred,” he says, like nothing had happened before, and again I made a lot of noise and flailed my arms and I gave him the coffees back, but before I could walk away, he said “fifty!” Pretending to mishear him, I give him 15. He saw a five-lira coin in my hand and asked for that one, too, and I gave it to him and we smiled and said thank you, happy with our 80% discount.


Two days later, I went back to the Aleppo Citadel alone. The coffee guy was there again. I walked over to him with a 10-lira coin clearly displayed in my hand and asked for a coffee. He smiled and poured and handed me the coffee, and when I handed him the coin, he said, “No. Fifty.”




So I exploded into loud noises and arm waving and gave him the coffee back and said, “We went through all of this two days ago! The price is ten!” I walked away. He called me back and I handed him the ten-lira coin and took the coffee and he said, “No. Fifty.” So I gave him the coffee back, forgot to take back the money, and stormed off.


He called me back and handed me my coffee. I realized that I’d already paid. I smiled and said thanks.


I spent a couple of hours in the Citadel and when I came out, I went back to the coffee man with a ten-lira coin in my hand. He took the coin and poured me a coffee. Then he offered me a cigarette.


Another difficulty you’ll encounter in Syria is getting a drink. I mean, sure, alcohol is forbidden by their religion, but do they have to make it so hard for me to find a decent bar? It’s impossible!


There are Christians in Syria. There are even Christian quarters in both Aleppo and Damascus, but either the Christians don’t drink out of their homes, or they very cleverly hide the places they drink in. Almost every place we’ve found where you can even get a beer with dinner has been an expensive joint that caters mainly to tourists. But if you really want a drink, you can always count on expensive hotels to have expensive bars.


Last night, Erin and I decided to go out and have a couple of drinks to celebrate my recently recovered ability to choose the timing of my bowel movements. We roamed Damascus for a while, finding absolutely nowhere that looked like it would serve us a drink. Then we started hitting the expensive hotels. Sure, it’s hard to find a martini in Syria, but once you do, you’ll get the best martini olive you ever tasted!


We visited a few bars. They were all dissatisfying to us, mainly because they were ridiculously expensive. The last place we went to was completely dead. There was almost nobody in the joint. As we sat over our Lebanese beers upstairs, we could hear someone downstairs talking loudly about the tar sands. I went downstairs and asked the man if he was from Alberta. He was. His name was Doug and he worked for Petro Canada. He bought Erin and I a beer and invited us to come to his office for a coffee the next day.


I remember the first time I visited a Canadian consulate overseas. I was in Bangkok. I’d used up all the pages in my passport and I needed a new one. I had been away from home for six months or more, and I was getting a little homesick for Canada. In the taxi on the way to the consulate, I thought about what the place would be like. I dreamed that there would be hockey on TV, a consulate bar that served caesars, and that everyone in the place would be a smiling Canadian with an accent straight out of Moose Jaw or Mississauga, who’d be thrilled to see a fellow Canadian so far from home.


Of course the consulate was nothing like that. All the employees I spoke to were Thais, and most of them spoke worse English than an average Khao San Road bartender. All of the other people there for consular services were Thais, too, probably applying for Canadian visas. I did see one back-bacon fed Canadian, but he just walked through the room and went down a hallway without even looking at me.


Petro Canada’s office was just like a trip to Canada. It was a tiny piece of home. They didn’t have any hockey or caesars, but the place was just like downtown Calgary. I’ve spent years being glad I escaped downtown Calgary, but for a few minutes today, I was happy to be back.


We were issued security passes by the elevator guard, who gave them to us because we spoke better English than him, and we knew the name of a Petro Canada employee. Upstairs, we talked to the receptionist, who turned out to not really be the receptionist, just someone subbing in. He had no idea where Doug’s office was, but he pointed us in the general direction and told us to go wander around.


The office reminded me strongly of visiting my dad at work when I was a kid. They looked like any slightly shabby oilpatch office in Calgary. They even had the same art on the wall. All around us were pudgy, back-bacon fed, pasty-faced Canadians, smiling and offering to help. One guy who had no idea who we were talking about admitted that he’d just arrived four days ago, which meant he was probably still getting over being freaked out about being in Syria; he probably thought of that office and the hotel the office is lodged in as a safe zone, protecting him from the murderer-faced men outside who kept bumping into him on the street and trying to overcharge him for coffee.


We never found Doug. He was out of the office. We didn’t spend more than fifteen minutes visiting Petro Canada, but I enjoyed every moment of it. I was reminded of the country full of friendly, pale, pudgy people we left behind us, who smile at you even when they’re not being nice, instead of scowling at you while telling a joke, the way Syrians do.


Erin and I have been away for three months and two days. This isn’t such a long time compared to some of the monster trips I’ve taken in the past, but three days ago when I was struggling not to crap myself while struggling not to get ripped off too badly by a cab driver, believe me, I was homesick.


On the other hand, in a couple of weeks we’re going to be in Egypt. Fucking pyramids, man! [Editor's note: Fuck you, Ben.]

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