18 August 2009 - Latakkia, Syria
So do you want to hear about the human-size roach in our basement hotel room in Palmyra? Or the stomach bug that bit Alyssa days ago and his finally stung me today? Maybe a little bit of both? The couch-surfing only resulted in free accommodation in Damascus - which was really great and the couch-surf host will be a friend for life. We crashed in an office he no longer uses - over a textile factory in a no frills neighborhood in the south of Damascus. On day two, we hung out in the big mosque with Hemingway Mohammed and his 22 year old Uncle Ali (I had no problem remembering his name). Then Couch Surf Host took us to his home for dinner with his wife and sisters...the food was amazing - fried aubergine and zucchini with garlic in flat bread -and I vow to find this in Beirut (Osama, this is your assignment until I return) or I'm going back to Damascus with the one remaining entry permitted by my visa. The reason I tell you this is because that was the last meal not on the suspect list. There was breakfast in the workmen's food stalls near the factory, where no one spoke English but a young cute guy rolling dough lifted two flour covered fingers for 'peace', smiled big and yelled "Obama!!!" The guys there insisted we have sweet tea in their stall and surely they were surprised when we stayed for a second cup. Alyssa and I love hanging out...no matter the language barrier. So let's assume that lovely experience did not give us the bug. Or the fruit we bought in the nearby market and possibly washed with unfiltered tap water? We both brushed our teeth with unfiltered water but we've been doing that for months.
Okay, so then there was Palmyra where the food seemed dodgy and my new American Friend said the Pancake House made him sick. Alyssa was down for the count by sunrise our first day in Palmyra. She is a major good sport about such things, I'll probably be a whiney baby upgrading to a decadent hotel in Latakkia if my condition worsens. Banker scum, I know. After the dodgy dinner in Damascus, we went to our dungeon room in the basement of the Sun Hotel, where it never gets cooler than 90 degrees F (I still haven't converted to Celsius, but it was effing hot.) There was no ventilation and an enormous roach dancing around in the sink basin. I did all my teeth brushing and face washing while the roach scurried in circles around the water flow. Pretty impressive. I wondered if that roach might be the previous guest, possibly overcome by a Kafka beetle-like Metamorphoses...so I almost wanted to feed him, pity him and ask the clerk if the previous guy ever checked out. We were there two nights, while Alyssa slept and I hung out with the American Friend, the French Guys and had dinner with the Aussie Dude, who accompanied us to Hama, which was great except he's a rugged "real" backpacker and didn't even consider getting a taxi from the bus station to the hotel, which we could not find and absolutely no one spoke English. I am sorry to say it, but the food was entirely dodgy in Hama. It's a lovely city, bustling with men while women weave around in groups wearing massively hot looking trench coats and hijab. There's a river running through the city with those wooden wheels I think I mentioned last time. The Cairo Hotel wasn't bad for a backpacker hostel, but let's face it: I'm really old and my budget of banker bonuses does not require things like five flights of stairs with a fifty pound backpack to a room with no a/c and a bathroom down the hall. Still, I'm having fun and it's always impressive to watch Alyssa plow through these difficult experiences. And the modest budget will add a few weeks to my hiatus, so that's definitely the half-full portion of the cup full of [filtered] water.
After two days of castles and ruins in the sweltering Syrian heat, we shared a taxi with a Spanish couple through the mountains to Latakkia - a Syrian version of Beirut and very interesting. We slept in, wandered the city, sipped sodas under an umbrella at a modest "cafe" on the rocks with the Med crashing at our feet. Did I mention we upgraded to a decent hotel after wandering into a massively horrible dive on recommendation of a couch surfer? There was no power so no lift and six flights of stairs to a dingy room with a shared bathroom. When we reneged based on the shared bathroom, the abrasive old man in a white gown scraped together enough English to say "but it's only one other room and they're from Holland."
We're at the Al-Cozino blowing our budget at $60 a night, but well worth it and we're not sharing a bathroom with anyone, Kafka-esque or otherwise. If we're better, tomorrow is beach day. If I'm not better, Assie will go without me. The one thing I want to do in Latakkia is get a driver to take me to the mausoleum that holds the remains of Hafez al-Asaad and his son who died in an auto accident. Doubt I can pull it off, but meanwhile I'm photographing the ubiquitous posters of Bashar, Hafez's son who took over in 2000. I met a Tall Guy in Houston who will likely be the only one interested in seeing my OCD album (I'm still working on the Lebanon album, Tall Guy).
We're trying to figure out the best way back to Lebanon - the plan is to hit Baalbeck on our way back to Beirut, but turns out there's no bus from Tripoli through Bcharre (the Cedars!) to Baalback. We're here in Latakkia one more night. As John C, the captain on Millennium would say, "we'll see how we go!"
I posted pics of Palmyra on Picasa, which should be accessible through my public albums if you can figure out how to get there from here.
If you've made it this far down the page, thanks for helping me get through the stomach bug. Can you see how not-cut-out-for-it I am?
I got chills, they're multiplying...