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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhea's Travel to Syria .
PART I - The delusion is shattered
by Rhea of Athens

I had been looking forward to visiting Syria and particularly Damascus for some time.  I almost took the 3 hour bus ride from Beirut to Damascus when I visited Beirut last year, but I was so disappointed with Beirut that I decided not to go.  Billed as the Paris of the Middle East (since fallen after the war), I saw every reason why a backwater Middle-Easterner might find it attractive, but nothing that a person long-acquainted with modernity would find of interest.  I stayed in the old section of Hamra, the Muslim area - no traditional dancing, no belly dancing at the hotels, no traditional music except at one restaurant-café in a wealthy area populated by chic boutiques and expensive restaurants.  One could, however, as in Cairo, find places that were not 5 star hotels to buy a glass of wine or beer. 

In Damascus, one can buy alcohol only in the duty free airport, the hotels (3 of them - Meridien, Sheraton, and Cham Palace) and probably some black market venues which would have required a longer stay to ferret out,

and Junieh, the Christian section of Beirut was worse.  It looked like a Middle Eastern attempt at Las Vegas and Disneyland, upscale discotheques where attractive Moldavian that aforementioned familiar tributary, than go on to another one.  I was not aware of any difficulties with my visa.

So intrepid Rhea buys her ticket from Mina tours, my trusted go-between for Egypt and Lebanon, and was not informed that there is no way that I can enter Damascus without said visa.  Syrian Airways in Athens airport blithely checks me through without asking me for evidence of this visa or they assume I have it, or they assume that a lifelong dream of mine is to remain in limbo in the Damascus airport for 34 hours while becoming better accustomed to the folkways and mores of the Syrian people at close hand. 

Upon entering, I go to passport control.  "Where is your visa?" "Yes, yes.  Where can I buy a visa?"   Imagining, silly me, that it is a formality easily dealt with.  After all, Greece and Syria have just further cemented their economic and cultural relations with a state visit to Athens by Bashar Assad, and Greece is on the side of the Palestinians.  How much more persona grata can I be? 

After 15 minutes of diva-ish huffing and puffing that usually works in Middle Eastern countries, I am told I must go to transit and await

the emigration officials at such time that they deem appropriate, which will be sometime tomorrow.  I am told that I can stay at the airport hotel for a mere $127.00 a night.  By this time it is 3:00 in the morning and sleep is the last thing from my fuming mind.  I resolve to spend the night on the airport cushioned benches (Thank god they weren't those molded plastic, one-person-one-seat chairs!), determined to rise early and resolve this problem.  Maybe the night staff is not so knowledgeable as the day staff.  Ha ha!  They are the same, they sleep in the airport just like me.

I attempt to solve the problem by telephoning Greece.  One of my students is in the Ministry of Education, another works at the airport, and another is married to a Syrian.  Surely someone of all these people can help me or know someone who can help me.  I buy a phone card, only $10.00 for 6 minutes.  Of course, I have Euros which are looked at suspiciously but finally accepted at the worth of the dollar.  They are actually worth more.  This fact cannot be conveyed and I fork over my 10 euro note and get my card.  Can I get through to GreeceGreece, which shares with Syria so many shared values, economic ties, etc. cannot be accessed.  I have an inspiration, I'll call my daughter in Boston.  She has moxie.  She can help me.  A message greets me.  I leave a short message.  Now what?  My sister.  She's sleeping so I tell my relatives to wake her up, it's an emergency and I'll call back.  I want to speak with my sister because, if I speak to anyone else in my family it will be

"Syria?  You're in Damascus, Syria?  What are you doing there? And why did you go there?"

The implication being that anyone crazy enough to go to Syria in these troubled times deserves everything they encounter.  By the time they say all this, my 6 minutes will be up and I only have 50 euro notes.  Yes, I am in trouble but with the hotel at $127.00 and the euro now equated with the dollar, I can envision them taking my 50 euros and giving me back 5 cards at 6 minutes each.  I wait until I imagine my sister has woken up and can halfway think and I call back. 

Strange, but that friendly country, Greece, cannot be accessed but that hated country, America, is still available. 

In a heartbeat, it is like I called next door.  "Please call Maria at the Ministry of Education.  She'll know what to do."  "How can I reach you in Syria?" asks my sister.  My inquiries as to what the telephone number at the telephone office is are met with bemused wonder and a little intolerance.  The man in charge of the phone office wants to sleep so I hang up, holding onto those precious remaining minutes and go in search of someone who can speak English and who is awake.  My quest is successful and I have the telephone number in hand.  I call back, give my sister the telephone number, and wait, and wait, and wait.

While waiting, I spy a family with a sick little girl in the airport transit.  It turns out they have been stuck in the airport for days, unable to afford the airport hotel and not allowed to leave the airport, although the very kind airport personnel have provided them with food, but no blankets and now, with the illness of their child, a stomach medicine.

I give her some of my amoeba destroying capsules on the off chance it is a simple food reaction and listen to her mother pour out her tale

while her husband and child sleep fitfully in the harsh glare (but warmth) of the airport lights.  My heart begins to sink as her story unfolds and Damascus looms ever more distant and my holiday in Syria seems doomed. 
To be continued... with Part 2

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