The kindness of strangers (except taxi drivers)

My last day in Aleppo (it feels very strange to write about that, since it feels like AGES AGO) was pretty boring, which is why I knew it was time to head out. Basically, I spent a long time wandering around neighborhoods I’d already wandered, spent a few hours at an Internet cafe, and drank two of these 10 SYP slushies that were deliciously sour. SOUR. I missed the taste of sour! As in, sugary sour, not “fermented goat milk” sour. It was delightful.

Left for Palmyra early in the morning on Friday. Had to change buses at Homs, which is a town I’ve been through several times now to change buses but never really looked around. And don’t really have any desire to, because of my association of it with the unpleasantness of changing buses. Yuck.

The bus dropped us off within sight of the ruins, which was sort of cool, but fairly annoying since the sun was beating down and there was no hotel in sight. This Argentinian guy carried one of my bags and showed me a cheap hostel, though. The beds were clean, but the bathroom was sort of gross. Oh well, pretty good for how much I paid for it. Also, the manager (a guy named Muhammad–he becomes important later in this narrative) gave me lunch. So.

It was right after lunch when I realized that, contrary to what the Lonely Planet guidebook told me, there was NO ATM in this town. And I realized I was broke as hell. But, I had a couple dollars and dinars and even a 10 Euro note from my Paris layover, so I figured I’d exchange them and all would be good.

I visited the ruins in the late afternoon, when it was starting to get cooler. Let me just say: wow. I am usually all jaded and “well, it’s okay, but it’s nothing like PETRA” when I see ancient sites now, but wow. Palmyra is incredible.

This tout offered me a ride up to the citadel to see the sun set over the ruins for a decent price, and because again, I figured I could exchange my foreign money, I agreed. His name was Hamza. And when he asked where I was staying, he was like, “oh, my brother Muhammad works reception there!” And I was like, “small town.”

Hamza invited me to have tea in his shop, and I did. It was nice. He didn’t even try to sell me anything, because I had demonstrated to him how poor I was by emptying my wallet (didn’t take very long). In fact, he actually gave me a necklace. It was a piece of crap (despite his claims that it was amethyst), but it was a *very* nice thing to do, and my only souvenir from Palmyra, so I was happy.

Drove up to the citadel for the sunset. This other Beduin tried to invite me to tea in his shop, but I was already planning tea with Hamza so I said no. He was so insistent that I missed the actual sunset (which was taking place on the far side of the citadel). Sigh. Still, it was a nice view.

Had more tea with Hamza after the sunset, then went to use the Internet so I could, you know, find my hotel in Beirut. And then I went back to the hotel. A bunch of foreigners were getting ready to go out for dinner. And there was another American. Who was also named Jessica. And was also from New York. And who was in the same Arabic class in Damscus as a Latvian girl I had met at the monastery. Whoah. Small world.

They invited me along to dinner, but I was like, “ma fi fulus.” And they insisted on paying for me, and didn’t even stand for me ordering the cheapest thing on the menu. So, instead of water, I got fresh orange juice. THE MOST DELICIOUS THING I HAVE EVER TASTED. I think I’m officially over my hatred of pulp because of this one thing of orange juice. omg.

Also, the exchange was apparently not going to be open until after I needed to leave the next day in order to get to Beirut (which I had to do because my Syrian visa was expiring the same day). So I was like, FUCK. I can’t pay for the hotel *and* a bus ticket. But then! Jessica from New York let me exchanged what dollars I had with her, and gave me extra because she didn’t have change. She’s my hero. I take the fact that we share the same name and birth state as a sign that someday I will need to do a similar act of charity for someone someday, and I’ll never forget that act of kindness. (Seriously. I was DESPERATE.)

I got up at 4:30 (yes, AM) to watch the sun rise. It was amazing. The city was almost entirely empty, and–yeah, it was pretty much amazing. I had been planning to meet Hamza, but I couldn’t find him. This random tout, though, was like, you want to see good place for sunrise? And I was like, “I don’t have any money.” And he was like, “you had tea with my brother Hamza yesterday!” And I was like o.O Um, yes? So he took me for free. On the back of his motorbike. Watching sunrise in ancient desert city from back of Beduin’s motorbike? Easily the highlight of my trip. (He also gave me a spinach pastry, and his phone number in case I come back to Syria. His name is Abdul Qadir. If anyone reading this ever wants to go to Palmyra, let me know and I’ll hook you up with this family, they’re amazing.)

Also, a camel tout who I had talked to a little yesterday offered me a free ride. I think he also implied that he wanted to marry me. He expressed surprised that I had not found a husband in Jordan. I was like, “well, I was only there a few weeks.” And he said, “Yes, but an Arab man knows the woman he will marry in the first hour he meets her.” And I was like, okay. He invited me to have tea with him, but I really did not want to marry him, so I said no. He was inordinately sad, which is how I knew I made the right decision.

Took an hour-long nap at the hotel after the sun had really risen and it was starting to get hot, then packed up my stuff and got ready to head out.

Of course, when I tried to get a bus to Damascus I found out they were all full. Crap. So instead I got a bus to Homs (AGAIN. I HATE THAT PLACE). Okay, every time I took a bus in Syria, there were a few 10-12 year old girls who spent the whole time STARING AT ME. And it’s not because I’m foreign, because there were other foreign women that they didn’t stare at. Who were all much more scandalously dressed than me! I dunno, maybe they stared at the others while I went to sleep. I hope so. Anyway, got to Homs and found out that there were no buses to Lebanon running because it was Saturday. Again, CRAP. So I got this taxi driver to take me to an ATM and then he convinced me that he would take me. I asked him, over and over again, if he would take me ALL THE WAY to Beirut, himself. I asked him in English and in Arabic (at least three different ways to make sure he understood) and he kept saying, “yes, yes!” And then he took me to the border and left me there because he didn’t have his passport. I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO ANGRY AT A TAXI DRIVER, IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Anyway. It was also this crazy random border crossing in the North that no tourists ever go to (they usually go on the Damascus-Beirut highway), so nobody spoke English and, in spite of the efforts of one Ustaadh Aziz and one Sayyid Joseph, my border crossing vocabulary in Arabic is pitiful. But I managed to get a service taxi to Tripoli (everyone else in the taxi was a man, OF COURSE, because that’s just how my life goes). The border crossing itself was relatively painless, in retrospect, but extremely painful while I was going through it because I had been awake since 4 AM, hadn’t eaten anything, was sweating like a pig, and didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. BUT. I was allowed into the country (the visa was even free, which I didn’t realize), and it was all good. Took a bus from Tripoli to Beirut. The highway ran right along the Mediterranean, which was quite a change of scenery from my morning in the desert. LEBANON IS SO BEAUTIFUL. I lovelovelove it.

Got to my hotel late, after much getting lost on the way. It’s probably the dirtiest room I have ever seen in my life. The sheets were brand new, but that is the only good thing I can say about the room. There was writing all over the walls, the floors were filthy, and the fan barely worked. Also, there may have been blood stains on the wall. Since it looks like the walls haven’t been painted since at least the end of the Lebanese civil war, that really freaked me out. Especially because the landmark I used to find the hotel was the shelled-out remains of the Holiday Inn which was used as a sniper point during the war. (Not that it’s a bad area–there are a bunch of reallllly nice hotels nearby, just mocking me–but it’s a creepy landmark.)

Got lost trying to find somewhere to eat last night, then gave up and just started trying to find my hotel… and found the place I was trying to find along the way. Hurrah. It was an Italian restaurant, because I was like, I never want to see felafel again. Which is still pretty much true.

This morning, I planned on trying to find another hotel. I did! There was a place that would let me sleep on the roof for $8, but it was recommended in the guidebook, so I was like, SURE. So I took a service taxi back to my current hotel to get my stuff.

And that’s probably the last time I’ll ever see my wallet.

I realized it was missing after I had packed all my stuff and was getting ready to check out of the hotel (and had written a nasty message on the wall in pencil). I completely broke down. It had my bank cards in it and about $120 cash. And my driver’s permit (good in case anyone ever tries to return it… but I’m doubtful).

And then I felt bad about the nasty message I had written on the wall, because the guys who work there were SO NICE. One guy let me call my dad on his cell phone, then gave me 100 USD to get me through until I got some money wired. Then they told me how to get to the tourist police office.

Which was closed, because it’s Sunday. Of course.

So I went into the lobby of a nice hotel and asked where I could find an Internet cafe so I could email my dad. And he was like, they’re mostly closed because it’s Sunday. And then I started sobbing again. The guy called the embassy for me, except it was closed, because it’s Sunday. (WHY DOES LEBANON HAVE A CHRISTIAN WEEK. WHY WHY WHY.) So I was like, okay, so basically I’m FUCKED. But then he let me use the hotel’s internet for an hour for free, and directed me to the Western Union, so he’s basically my other hero of the week.

Which brings me to now. I’m sitting in the Western Union waiting for the money my dad sent to come through. Actually he just emailed me! So it should be here. Next issue is to try to get a flight home. Lebanon seems amazing, but I’m ready to come home.

~ by putthisinyourrecord on 8 August 2010.

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