Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 20 November 2000
Well, as usual there is never a dull moment and the last week seems to have had more than its fair share of epic adventures - of course, travelling in countries where the alphabet looks like nothing more than chicken scratchings, the language sounds like gobbldy gook and the people eat aubergine three times a day turns even the most mundane, everyday events into newsworthy stories. We crossed the border into Syria last Tuesday and things took a turn for the worse right from the get-go. We had heard from many travellers that the Syrian border officials were notoriously sticky. The issue overland travellers find most contentious is the fact that the Syrian government levies a tax on diesel vehicles of US$100 per week. The purpose of the tax is obviously to get at those trucks who transit through Syria and destroy its roads but unfortunately the rule applies to all diesel vehicles and no exception is made for smaller vehicles. Almost every overland traveller we have met has managed talk their way out of paying the tax by insisting that their vehicle is in fact a petrol vehicle and we had been told that when it came to smaller vehicles the officials didn't usually check the car in any great detail. Nev and I had debated the issue at length and had decided that although we felt that paying US$100 was extortionate, there was no hiding the fact that our car was a diesel model (especially since it currently has a very obvious diesel leak - not to mention the very conspicuous sticker over the fuel tank that says "diesel only"). We had decided that it was best to play it straight and pay up. As we approached the customs office, the official stopped us and Nev hopped out with our Carnet hoping to smooth the process through without too much scrutiny. The first question the official asked was whether our car was diesel or benzene and low and behold, despite our discussions, Nev glibly answered "benzene"! Of course the officials didn't believe us - the thing sounds like a tractor, stinks like diesel and billows huge plumes of smoke - which meant that they were determined to look at the engine in detail to prove us wrong (not a difficult task). To try and save face Nev entered into a very legalistic argument about the differences (there are none - are there? Nic?) between benzene and petrol. This went down like a lead balloon and we were eventually forced to confess to the fact that the beast was a diesel guzzler. Very much on the back foot, Nev tried his best to kick up a righteous fuss about what a rip-off it was and how it discriminated against small vehicles and discouraged tourism. Needless to say this argument didn't elicit much sympathy and we had to cough up the bucks. Eventually after about an hour of backwardsing and forwardsing they let us go (Phew - at least they didn't arrest us for our less than subtle attempt at deception).
We had thought that we would be able to drive the 150 kilometres from the border to Damascus before dark but given the fact that we had wasted a substantial amount of time at the border with the whole benzine/diesel debacle and the fact that the sun sets at a ridiculous four thirty in the afternoon, we only arrived in Damascus well after dark. Damascus is the longest inhabited city in the world which is all well and fine but this means that there certainly wasn't a city planner involved in its development - its a rabbit warren of narrow streets which, in darkness, turns it into a complete maze that even the GPS couldn't figure out. Certainly not the place for a massively overladen Land Rover. Things were not helped by the Syrian drivers who are just about the worst of the lot - total road hogs - they make those racing matatu drivers of Kampala and Nairobi look like law-abiding citizens. After two hours of frustration we had succeeded in circumnavigating the city twice but had yet to spot one hotel (cheap or otherwise). Working on the theory that the
hotels are most likely to be on the hills overlooking the city we headed up away from the city centre as far as we could go. Big mistake! We ended up in some sort of security complex where we were flagged down by some irate, rifle toting Syrians who demanded to see our passports. As they were not in uniform and it was well after sunset we decided not to oblige and Nev put his foot on the accelerator. Phew again! Having escaped what looked to be a sticky situation our nerves were well and truly shot but strangely enough our sense of direction had returned with vigour and we managed to find a cheap hotel on our next foray through town. We checked in after ten having arrived in Damascus just after seven - a record if I may say so myself!
Damascus is the most fascinating city. After a good nights sleep and a healthy arabic breakfast (lots of yoghurt, humus and olives - Nev pined away for his good old bacon and eggs) we headed out to explore the city. First stop was the old city and the souks for which Damascus is famous. The covered markets or souks are mind-blowing in the variety of goods for sale, each stall vying for your eye and each Damascan trying to peddle his particular brand of kitsch. Having managed to avoid most of the hagglers we headed out of the market and to the Umayyad mosque, a most ornate and fantastically beautiful place which is reputedly one of the Muslim's most holy places outside Medina and Mecca. Non-muslims are allowed to enter the mosque for a small fee provided they are properly attired and all female tourists must enter the "putting on special clothes room" (I kid you not - that is what the sign says!) to pick up a hooded robe. Never having visited a mosque before, checking out the inside of one really helped to dispel some of the mystery of what goes on inside. The Umayyad mosque is certainly one of the most beautiful specimens I might add! From the mosque we headed back to the souks via the Iranian mosque which is garishly ornate (the Lonely Planet describes it as the type of mosque they would build in Las Vegas). On our travels though the side streets we discovered a shop that sold those large round pita breads. From the front it looked just like a hole in the wall and Nev and I were peering into the darkness trying to figure out how the bread was made when the proprietor ushered us in to see the process in action. Well, it was a full on production line, complete with conveyer belts, compressors and mechanized mixers – all in the space of what looked like a tiny shop. Of course we couldn't leave until we had had tea with the manager and staff (tea is of enormous importance in the middle east), taken photos of
the gang and sampled the bread. It was an excellent experience and just another example of the hospitality and unreserved generosity of the Syrian people. Of course no visit to Damascus would be complete without the customary schwarma which we relished in the most dingy of shops.
From Damascus we headed up to the Crak de Chevaliers, one of the last remaining Crusader castles that is still in decent shape. Its perched on a hill overlooking the village of Hosn and is really a most awesome place. T E Lawrence (aka Larry of Arabia) described it as "the finest castle in the world" and I must say, he wasn't far wrong! The castle was never breached. Instead it was simply given up by the Crusaders after a month of being besieged by the illustrious Muslim warrior, Beybars, despite the fact that they had over five years of supplies on tap. Next stop was the ancient city of Palmyra, an amazingly well preserved Roman city in the Syrian desert. Those Romans were certainly an industrious lot, wherever they went they left hundreds of paved roads, colonnaded streets, temples and bath houses. It leads one to think that their motto must have been "come, see, conquer and build colonnaded streets"! Unfortunately, much of the city is no longer standing and has been reduced to what Nev terms "roman stones". The ancient city is pretty impressive nonetheless and well worth a visit if you are headed this way.
From Palmyra our trip took a turn for the dramatic (or melodramatic depending on your perspective). As we left Palmyra Nev commented that he was not feeling very well - he had flu symptoms and was feeling feverish. Thinking that it was just a cold we continued. About an hour into the journey, Nev was feeling too feverish to drive and was beginning to think that he was showing the classic symptoms of malaria. We screeched to a halt on the side of the road and hauled out our malaria test kits. The on the spot test showed up negative but we were far from convinced. For safety sake Nev swallowed a couple of Fansidar pills (malaria treatment) and while I had my back turned he had guzzled a handful of immodiums, buscupans and some vitamins for good measure. I took over the wheel. Big mistake! The very first town we got to I managed to navigate us into the market area and was forced to play dodgems with fruit sellers, donkey carts and pedestrians (all of whom had to turn and stare at this women driver - driving SO badly). Eventually Nev ordered me to stop and despite his fever (or overdose) took over the driving until we were out of town. I continued on until we got to Aleppo by which time Nev was looking very very bad. We checked into the first hotel we could find and got Nev into bed. By now his temperature was over 40 degrees and still the malaria test kits were showing up negative. Of course, at this critical moment, we could not find our travel insurance policy (which is just typical) so we called Nev's Mom who came to the rescue and got onto the Johannesburg branch of Europ Assist and they called us at the hotel promising to arrange for a doctor. Its quite evident that the people who man the help line at Europ Assist have less than no idea of what the map looks like. Elton, our call guy managed to send a fax to a doctor in Damascus - a massive 300 kilometres away - he may as well have called a doctor from Paris! Eventually the hotel called a doctor and within minutes we were visited by a very dapper Syrian called Dr Anastas. Poor old Dr Anastas was horrified at the prospect of a malaria case and was trying his damnedest to find something else wrong with Nev - and he had quite a lot to work with as Nev was looking far from a picture of health. When he discovered that Nev had an enlarged spleen (which is apparently a symptom of malaria) he hit panic mode and called a taxi on the double to wisk Nev off to a pathologist for a blood exam.
While we waited anxiously for the results of the tests, Dr Anastas paged through his medical books with increased fervour to read up as much as possible about malaria. Nev and I sat out in the waiting room being appraised and discussed in loud terms by the receptionist and the couple of other ladies sitting around. One doesn't have to understand arabic to understand that they were having a good giggle at these two foreigners who had the good doctor in such a flurry. Eventually the pathologists report arrived - thankfully no malaria! I don't know who was happier - us or Dr Anastas. Turns out Nev just had a rather nasty case of amoebic dysentery. In other words travellers diahorea of the worst kind. So much for all those dingy schwarma joints and all that local food that we have been relishing. Dr Anastas prescribed a whole host of ghastly medicines and bundled us off in a taxi back to our hotel. Of course it never rains but it pours and no sooner had we got Nev back to the hotel and tucked up in bed when I started having the same symptoms. Needless to say we spent a rather unpleasant two days in Aleppo alternating wretching our guts out and phoning reception for more toilet paper. Not funny! To make matters worse, the only English TV channel that the hotel had was CNN so we spent a torturous 48 hours watching the mind numbing American presidential election and the blow-by-blow account of the blasted Florida recount. All I can say is "enough already!"
As you can imagine, by this stage morale was at an all time low but feeling strong enough to continue, we headed to Turkey today. Thankfully the border crossing proceeded smoothly and without incident. Not long after crossing the border we found ourselves on the most fantastic highway and Nev spent the next three hours waxing lyrical about the benefits of things like road signs and cat-eyes. It really is the small things..... Hope you are all well, lots of love, p & n