What happens when you anger the travel gods: Part 1
You know what I am talking about, those trips you take where everything goes wrong. This is the story of one such trip. I should have written this down a long time ago, because I have forgotten a lot of it, but I will do my best to recall all the horrific events that transpired. Also, I think I am going to break this up into three posts, one for each day of the trip, because there is just too much for only one post.
Initial steps to take to anger the travel gods:
- Go with three people who you don’t know very well
- Make sure one of those people has no tact or common sense
- Make sure everyone speaks the language except you, thus decisions get made without you ever knowing what is happening
In the summer of 2009 I was working in Amman, Jordan. I had been there maybe a month when my roommate asked if I wanted to go to Syria for a quick 2 day trip with him and two of my coworkers. Since I had the upcoming weekend free, I jumped at the opportunity. The plan is to leave after work on Thursday, drive to Damascus, hang out for a couple of days and then drive back Saturday evening in time for work on Sunday. In case you are wondering, in the Middle East, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, as opposed to Saturday and Sunday.
Thursday evening arrives, we jump in a taxi and head for the part of town where the long distance taxis wait. My travel companions negotiate a price with the driver to take us all the way to Damascus. I guess this would be a good time to introduce you to my traveling buddies. We have Bob, Fred, and George (names have been changed to protect the guilty). Bob is my roommate, British, has lived in the Middle East for the last few years, and speaks almost fluent Arabic. Fred is my coworker, American, speaks some Arabic, and has been in Jordan for the last six months. George is Palestinian and comes along on the trip because he can help out when being white is a disadvantage and he is good friends with Bob.
Ok, off we go. We get to the Syrian border with no problems around 6pm. We pass through the Jordanian side without too much hassle. If only I could say the same for the Syrian side. I had been warned that, being none to happy with the sanctions imposed by the United States, the Syrians had chosen to take it out on Americans trying to get visas at the border and have been known to make you wait upwards of eight hours. After going around to multiple buildings to obtain the necessary documents, stamps, and pictures Fred and I submit our visa applications. We notice a few other Americans there and they said they had been there for four hours already. It doesn’t take long for the shenanigans to begin. The next 60 hours will test me to my very core.
Bob is annoyed. He wants Fred and I to pay a “fee” to the visa officer in order to “expedite” our applications (also, we cannot pay it ourselves because apparently that is illegal and we will go to jail, but if George does it, it is fine). Both Fred and I state that we are not going to do this, we all knew what we were getting into, and we are going to wait it out. An hour and a half in and the driver is getting upset that we aren’t doing anything and he is losing money by waiting (again, he knew we were American at the start and would have to endure this). George buys a six pack of beer at the duty free shop and starts downing a few of them (note to everyone: you cannot buy alcohol in Jordan and thus George has no tolerance for said liquid). Soon, the driver is full on crazy and a scuffle ensues between him and an inebriated George. I wasn’t around so I don’t know who won, all I know is that Bob came and told George and I that they were both taken to meet with the head of security.
Two hours in and Bob is quite frustrated. He is constantly pestering us to pay the “fee” and we keep telling him no. I have been praying the entire time that God would get us through quickly. At the two and half hour mark we are given our visas. Later, when telling this story, everyone says they have never heard of any American getting their visa that quickly. In the meantime the driver has been lying to the head of security, bad mouthing us and whatnot, but the head of security wants nothing of it and lets him have it. He even has the driver stick his head up to the hole in the glass (picture a row of booths with glass in front like at a movie theater, with a round hole in the middle of the glass to talk through and a hole in the bottom to pass documents through) grabs his hair and tugs it (apparently, this is shameful act). The head of security tells us to call him if the driver does anything bad from here on out. As a side note, we come to find out later that the “fee” Bob wanted us to pay was equivalent to like $5. Why he didn’t just go and give it to George and have him do it without us knowing I will never know.
We arrive in Damascus around 10pm. We catch another taxi to another part of town and sit down for a late dinner. Along the way, George apparently engages the driver in a conversation about the current pricing for “women of the night.” This will be a regular occurrence in every taxi from here on out. The restaurant we end up at is apparently too expensive for Bob and George, who complain, and we set off to find somewhere else to eat. We finally end up at some random, tiny restaurant with terrible food. Afterwards we take a taxi to a hotel that Fred heard about from some friends. We get there and find out there is only one room left. I think the price was like $10 a night for each of us (I note this only because it is important later). I am all for taking it, because it is late and a good price, however Bob is insistent that we can find a better deal somewhere else and vetoes the option (in hindsight, I should have just taken the room and told them to do what they want). Also, the owner is annoyed that George is walking around with a beer in his hand (again, not exactly legal). The next two hotels are full and we find ourselves sitting in an outdoor cafe, assessing the situation. It is now almost midnight and I fear we aren’t going to find anything. By this time the first hotel has sold its last room.
Some guy comes up and tells us that there is a hotel right down the way that has a room. There are apparently two rooms. Room one has mattresses on the beds, room two does not. A discussion ensues about getting mattresses for the other beds and a negotiation of the price. I have no idea what is going on (see #3) and fall asleep a number of times waiting to be told what is going on. Near the end, George comes into the room, sits on one of the beds, and it breaks in half. Yes, that happened. The decision is made not to stay there (for obvious reasons) and we end up back at the cafe. Some guys show up and apparently offer us a room in a house to rent for the next few days at a reasonable price. I only find out about this after Bob, Fred, and George turn down the offer and the men leave. There is a discussion about just staying up for the rest of the night (this does not make me happy).
We eventually decide to walk a few blocks down to another area, where there are a number of hotels, and see what we can find. We send George on ahead to negotiate a better rate, but after 15 minutes he hasn’t returned. I go venture off to find him and come across him talking to a group of men. I grab him and we go to meet the other two. George is sent into a couple of hotels but the price is too high. A taxi pulls up and asks what we are doing, we explain the situation, and he says that he has a friend that has a place we can rent. Having no other options at this point we decide to go and see. Along the way we come to find out the the group of men George was talking to were all homosexuals and they had invited him (and apparently us as well) to go dancing with them at a club. I swear, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
Ok, we are well into Saturday morning at this point so I will stop here.
You will have to wait until the next post to find out what happens…