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What happens when you anger the travel gods: Part 3

September 23, 2011
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I woke up early. Yes, I know for many of you out there reading this that statement is shocking (and by many, I really just mean my parents). I decided to take some much needed me time. As an introvert I was desperately in need of this. I walked back over to the market, taking pictures and chatting with the few store owners who were around and spoke English.

I came back and met up with everyone else. We grabbed all our stuff, paid our bill (which only reminded me of all that could have been avoided) and took a taxi to a part of town where you could rent cars. Again George was sent ahead to negotiate a good deal. What led Bob and Fred to believe this was a good idea and that he could actually do this in spite of everything pointing to the contrary I will never know. It took FOR-EV-ER, but eventually George found a company that would rent us a car. It was more than Bob and George wanted to pay. At this point I could have cared less. We were renting this car and they were just going to suck it up. The owner wanted to go make a copy of my passport, since I was going to be the one driving, and I sent George with him to keep his eyes on my passport. My apprehension came from the fact that on my trip to China the past fall I had had my passport stolen. The owner comes back and I have to sign all of these documents pertaining to renting the car. Sounds legit right? It was until I was told to sign a blank piece of paper and put my thumbprint on it. Excuse me? The first thought that flashed through my mind was an image of me being thrown in jail and the authorities holding up the sheet of blank paper with my signature and thumbprint on it, although now the sheet was full of writing in which I had apparently confessed to being a spy or something. Nothing good could come from this. However, I didn’t really have a choice and so I did it (famous last words). The owner also wanted to keep my passport as collateral until we brought the car back. Yeah, that wasn’t going to be happen. We convinced him to hold my drivers license.

Off we went on our way to find Krak De Chevaliers, a crusader castle originally built in 1031 and located atop a 650 meter high hill. The drive was basically drama free, except for the fact that George was in a bad mood and it did not help that everyone else was annoyed with him and was doing their best just to ignore him. I will say that the areas we drove through were quite beautiful and the strawberries we stopped to buy on the road were quite delicious. Also, driving is calming and therapeutic for me, so that helped. Along the way we also learned that last night, while we were sleeping, George had met with the group of guys from the night before and they all went and partied at a club. This did not surprise me and in fact actually just tied off the story with a great ending.

We saw the castle before we ever got near it. It was impressive even from a distance and had an imposing feel, being as high up as it was, commanding a view of the region. The castle was still very much intact and we spent a long time exploring as much of it as we could. Fred had hyped this place up and I had feared that it would not live up to the expectations, however, it not only lived up to them, it surpassed them. The few hours that we spent there were the only hours in the entire trip that were drama and shenanigan free.

We decided we had time to drive to the coast and eat dinner before needing to be back in Damascus to catch a ride back to Amman. Nothing was simple on this trip and soon we were stopped on the side of the road in a heated debate about which town to go to. Our choices were Tartus or Latakia. Bob was dead set of Latakia because it supposedly a much prettier town and whatnot. Fred and I were all for Tartus because it was closer and we really didn’t have that much time. Tartus finally won and off we went.

It was a beautiful seaside town made all the better by getting to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean. Stunning. Dinner would prove to be the breaking point for George. We wanted fish. Mediterranean fish. Bob made George go in to a number of restaurants and negotiate the price of said fish (because apparently that is what you do with fish, who knew?). George didn’t do so well. Fred and I found a place and got a good price, which was more than Bob wanted to pay, but he gave in. George bought shawarma from another place and tried to bring it into the place where we were. Not cool. We told him no, he got upset, and stormed off towards the beach, but not before asking for the keys to get stuff out of the car. I’ll be honest, with everything that had happened up this point the first image to flash into my head was him driving away in the car, leaving us behind. I decided to keep the keys and walk with him to the car. Dinner was great. So was the sunset.

It was after 7 when we left and it was past 11 when we got back to Damascus. Along the way we realized we had forgotten to get a key piece of information from the owner of the car company. His phone number. Sigh. A discussion ensued and it was not looking good. It was at this point that George breaks in and says that he got the number. Stunned silence. A little redemption for George. By the time the car owners get to us and everything is sorted out, it is close to midnight. The buses back to Jordan stop at midnight. Decisions. A taxi pulled up and offered a really good rate (15JD each I believe) back to Amman. I told Fred that we should take it (Fred and I were going back tonight, Bob and George were staying a few more days). Fred said if got a bus it would be really cheap and although the possibility of catching one this late was slim to none, I had no choice but to go with him to the bus station.

What would you know, there were no more buses when we got there. At this point, who should approach us? That’s right, the driver that brought us to Damascus that first day. He offers to take us back for 20JD each and Fred accepts. What part of any of this made Fred think that this would turn out well? Supposedly he was going to take us back right then, but it turned out he wasn’t going to leave until he got two more people in the car. We sat there for forever. He drove around the bus station and even drove through the entrance without stopping (past the guards with guns). Finally, he secured another passenger, an American (I will call him Adam), who wanted out of Syria more than I did, and then picked up a Jordanian (his name shall be Tony) and off we went. Adam’s story is crazy and I tell only because it adds to the drama. Adam had arrived in Syria the day before with his friends and that morning they had gone walking around the city. Adam had stopped to take a picture of a building and was promptly swarmed by a group of plain-clothed secret police officers. By mistake he had taken a picture of a government building, which is of course illegal in Syria. They threw him in jail and interrogated him (nothing physical) a number of times throughout the day to determine if he was a spy. Eventually, realizing he was just a dumb tourist, they gave him his passport back and put him on a bus to the bus station to leave Syria immediately. He was more than happy to oblige. So, there we were, three Americans who had barely survived Syria, trying to get back to Amman in a car with a driver that was definitely sketchy.

We didn’t encounter much hassle at the departing side of the Syrian visa/customs office, but it did get a bit testy at the border. Apparently the driver didn’t have the right documentation, paperwork, or the border guard just didn’t like him. Who knows. I just know the guard didn’t want to let him through and there were discussions among the three of us as to whether or not we should just get out and walk to the Jordanian side, because there was no way we were going back. Not gonna happen. It took some time but eventually the guard, for whatever reason, let us go. But the drama was not yet over. See, back on the Syrian side, Tony had bought some alcohol at the duty free shop. On the way to the Jordanian border both him and the driver tried to convince us, well Fred really, to say that the alcohol was ours so that they wouldn’t get in trouble and fined. Fred said he wouldn’t lie, but if he wasn’t asked anything he wouldn’t say anything. Yeah, with our luck, we should be fine. At the Jordanian border they made us take everything out of the car and they promptly starting asking about the alcohol. The driver and Tony said it was ours and then the guard (obviously suspecting) looked right and Fred and said “is that true?” to which Fred replied “no.” Tony was fined and quite angry to which we were not very sympathetic.

The drive to Amman was quiet for the most part as the driver and tony stewed in their anger and the three of us in the back were too exhausted to do much more than sit there. We arrived back in Amman as the sun was coming up and I made it home by 7am and slept until noon before going into work. I had survived. My traveling companions had survived as well (although it was touch and go a few times).

Overall, I thought Syria was a beautiful country, full of history, and lots to see and do. I would highly recommend it as a travel destination (although, with the protests, now might not be the best time to go there).

Also, from now on, I am giving any potential travel companions a series of tests and interviews before I go anywhere with them.

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