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Most Welcome

Sun Oct 25, 1992
Aleppo, Syria
      Syria. I am an American in Syria. Wild morning. A real mess. I had thought that this was an easy border to do the ol' Watusi of taking a bus to the border, walk across, get a bus on the other side, and you're there. There turned out to be great gaps at every point and lots of potential pitfalls, but it all turned out OK at the end.
      I am at an even worse dive of a hotel tonight and either I'm psychosomatic or I feel like something's biting me in bed again. My mother might cry if she saw my room, or maybe it would be just some sobbing until she saw the toilets, then the gush would commence. I'd tell her that I'm only paying a dollar, but then she could say, "But at what cost?!"
      I got a ride for the 7km between the two borders today, and the scene was surreal: a flat, dry rocky wasteland of overturned, gutted cars, all carbon-black and crushed from accidents. Laying against a sign saying "Wellcome to Syria" is a guy sleeping close to a smoldering fire while a black man, the first I've seen in a long time and looking very confused, was trying to make some sort of contact with passing truckers.
      Went to a museum full of old stuff. I felt like a teen on a boring field trip. A bunch of old artifacts. Whether it's 200 or 2000 years old, it's old and it's hard for me to appreciate the difference EXCEPT for the caption to one particular pot with a dent on top. I had to write it down: "This pot was left too long in the kiln. We found it 7000 years after the potter started to fire it and then hurried away because of some emergency."
      I'm buying bottled water in Aleppo only because if the tap water does slow me down, I'd rather be bed-ridden in the reputedly nice hotel in Hama, the next town I am visiting than this depressing soup bowl of a bed here. The bed has a big depression in the middle that is hell to sleep on. If I'm on my back reading, it's like a hammock. If I'm on my stomach trying to write it's like a horrible yoga stretch.
     Sticker on a car today: PASS QUIETLY, DRIVER ASLEEP

Tues Oct 27, 1992
Hama, Syria
      I am warming up to Syria. People greet me all the time. The first question is always my nationality, and my reply is never a problem. In fact, the two most common responses are "Very welcome" or my favorite, "Most welcome."
      I think for overland travelers the greatest attractions of Hama are the giant wooden waterwheels on the river and the Cairo Hotel. The Cairo is renowned for its good owner, value, and location. The mattresses are hard, but after the taco of the last two nights, this is heaven. Nice, hot showers, everything's clean, and just down the road is a hummus/felafel/flat bread deal for 12 cents.
      When I arrived at the hotel an Aussie couple were just leaving, but the guy was pausing to contemplate which mode of transport to get to Aleppo. The fact that he had diarrhea didn't influence his decision and he went for the local bus. If I had diarrhea there's no way I'd take a local bus. If I have diarrhea I don't want to go anywhere, much less be on a crowded, bumpy slow bus for hours. And, he being an Aussie, he went on ad infinitum about his diarrhea. Bring up the subject of diarrhea to a group of Aussies and you've got a real conversation starter. They love swapping diarrhea stories. This guy just wouldn't stop, graphically describing to us in the office what it felt like, what it looked like, the sound it made, the color, the speed at which it ran down his leg one time, more sounds, etc. etc.
      As he spoke I kept telling the girl, "You make a lovely couple" and "I see the great attraction between you two." Even she became a little red by her mate's incessant description. His squatting technique was the capper, and she proceeded to escort him out of the room.

Tues Oct 28, 1992
Hama, Syria
      That felafel deal cost more than I thought in terms of my health. Wretched night last night as I threw up 3 times and felt like my stomach was going to explode. A British-educated doctor came by this morning on a house call ($6!) and pronounced it gastrointestinitis(?) I have a temp of 100.4 degrees. Those were prophetic words about it being better to be sick here rather than Aleppo. The hotel owner is a good man; I don't feel so alone.
      The President of Syria, Hafez Assad, has his ugly mug everywhere. His crooked smile and bulging forehead are plastered in every shop everywhere and there's even a spray paint cutout of his likeness on walls. Talk about your cult of personality.

Thurs Oct 29, 1992
Palmyra, Syria
      I think it is common practice at discos in Syria to only admit couples or else there would only be men. One Syrian lamented to me, "In America you go to the disco to get the girl, but in Syria you must get the girl first!"
      Palmyra is in the eastern part of the country in the scrubby desert. It's something of an oasis village with ruins from billions of years ago. The Lonely Planet guidebook pleads for you to go to visit these untouristed ruins if it is the only thing you do in Syria. I'm not much of a ruin man--though you should see my wife (rim shot!) Anyway, this whole oasis notion, well, the same could be said for Barstow, California. You're driving in the desert for hours until you come to an ugly settlement and it has the tag of an oasis. As for the ruins, I saw most of them, but it's hard for me to get too worked up about it.
      Whenever I hear the call to prayer, I am surprised that I never see any reaction from anyone. I thought it was literally a call to prayer, as if they are wailing, "You've got 10 minutes to get your Arab butt in the mosque…"
      The first question from everybody is my nationality. Often the second is my job. This is a difficult one to explain so I usually cop out and say construction. I suppose an argument could be made that it's my job. It's kind of sad to tell people this because if they press me on it, I'm the lowest rung of laborer there is, the mindless nail whacker or hole driller. The equivalent worker in the third world has absolutely zero chance to earn money to approach the point of traveling. Tonight I met an educated engineer on big construction projects, a relatively wealthy man in Syria, and I knew he was a long, long way off from being able to travel, too.

Fri Oct 30, 1992
Damascus, Syria
      Damascus. Pretty radical name for a city. Sounds hard, gritty, blue collar. You don't go to a city named Damascus looking for ferns or pillows or quiche. Damascus sounds like a place to buy power tools and explosives and Arnold Schwarzenegger videos.
      This morning in Palmyra I woke early to see more ruins, particularly the amphitheatre. This was really interesting. Maybe I am more of a softy on ruins than I claimed yesterday. In the amphitheatre one could really feel how it was zillions of years ago.
      Being Friday, the Muslim day of rest, Damascus had an eerie silence for such a swarm of a city. It was hot, dusty, unattractive and strange people are gesturing frantically for me to come over to them. There are lots of cinemas. I could catch up on a Bruce Lee movie or any of Lou Ferrigno's work as well as some early 1970's sexploitation flicks. I haven't decided if Syrians are simply depraved or if they merely take what's given to them. Would Syrians go to a sober Woody Allen film? We'll never know.
      British people wear the most uncomfortable looking shoes.

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