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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhea's Travel to Syria .
PART 2 - The Airport Nightmare
by Rhea of Athens

Continued from Part 1
They were residents of
England and the wife worked in a Montessori school in London.  They had gone home for the Christmas holidays to their native Bhutan and somehow ran afoul of the Syrian airport authority who were unable to decipher their travel papers as the mother's and the child's were back to back and not separate.  All attempts to reach England were futile and the Internet access could only play computer games.  Too bad they didn't have any friends in America.

Finally the phone rings.  The number I was given was the wrong one and all attempts to reach me had been futile. 

My sister had reached Maria and Vasso who works in the Athens airport.  Vasso had contacted Syrian airways whose personnel had remembered me as I had asked where it was better to fly to, Aleppo or Damascus and where to stay.  They contacted the airport in Damascus, where the real number was located.  As it was still the middle of the night, early morning, Vasso advised calling the Syrian embassy in Athens in the morning to do the paperwork.  Nicoletta, another student married to a Syrian, had worked for the Syrian embassy in Athens and would do the legwork.  I went back to the family from Bhutan and listened to more of their story.  Morning came and I went downstairs to try the visa authorities.  "He come in 1, 2, 3 hours, maybe.  You wait."  I went to every office but received the same response. 

More telephone calls from America and Athens and, shock and horror, I learn that a visa cannot operate from Athens as they haven't my passport or a photocopy of my passport. 

I make a mental note to leave a copy of my passport with the grocers next door.  Vasso tries now to pressure the Syrian airways authorities in Athens.  I run across 13 Swedish musicians and dancers bound for Abu Dhabi to do a Brazilian show for new years at a big hotel.  All their papers had been cleared by the Syrian authorities in Sweden and no one could explain why they were being held up.  It was determined that one of them, their manager, had visited Palestine in a peace endeavor some years before, and we mean years before.  Finally the 12 were allowed to go to a hotel in Damascus and the one remained waiting for his papers to be cleared up.  They, like the Bhutan family, were transit passengers, not desirous of entering Syria, only to pass though it. 

What would happen to me, who actually wanted to enter Syria? 

The next plane back to Athens was January 2 and I had left the night of the 29th.  Now it was the 30th.  Well, I thought, perhaps the people will bring me food as well, although the hotel, with private bath and shower, was beginning to look more attractive.  Maybe I could bargain them down for a stay of more nights. 

More phone calls from Athens.  Nicolettas husband's godfather, Maher Baracat, has a travel agency in Damascus and they gave me the number.  The phone calls to Damascus were free from the airport and, to my great relief, I found him and he spoke English.  We hit on a strategy.  Both Egypt Air and Syrian Air had flights to Cairo - only $350.00 round trip.  I could go there, fax him a copy of my passport, he could fix the visa and have someone hand-carry it to the airport and hand-carry me to Damascus for only $100.00. 

Actually, despite the cost, much better than staying in the airport. but. I had just returned from 5 days in Cairo with Education Minister Maria, airport Vasso, Belina my only English student, and Maria, my official photographer with her consort, Seraphim. 

We had a great time, saw the best dancer I've seen in years at the Semiremis in Cairo, ate at the Mepidien Hotel, more like a museum or a small Topkapi, shopped until we dropped, all of us acquiring some, or many, dance purchases. 

I wanted to go back at the pre-Lenten 3 day holiday in March.  Now was a little anti-climatic.  I was paralyzed.  I could have gone to Aman, Jordon, Beirut, Lebanon, or even Turkey, but I know Cairo like Athens and I felt safe there and had friends.  Oh, well.  O.K.  "Do it.  Book the flight for tomorrow morning.  If the visa hasn't come through by then, it must be a sign from God.  I'll (gulp!) go."

By this time the airport personnel know the intimate details of my plight and know of my intimate whereabouts.  "Telephone for you."  "Okay."  (Flush.)  They sympathize with me but lack the authority to do anything but offer me cigarettes, cardamom coffee, and sweets, and such conversation as we can creatively construct. 

I go to the hotel and ask the rate in euros after having been told by immigration authorities that the authorized visa person would be there in 1, 2, 3 hours which was by now 1, 2, 3 hours after the first 1, 2, 3 hours of the morning.  "$127.00"  "No dollars.  Younan.  (Arabic for Greece.)  Euros worth more."  "No. Same."  "No. More."  "No. Same."  "No. More."  "How much?"  "E110-115."  "O.K.  115E."  "No, 110E."  "No, 115E."  "No, 110E."  "No, 115E."  "O.K. You win. 115E. But I only have 110E."  And, I take it our and show him, that being my spare change stash.  He took it and gave me back the 10E.

The airport personnel had followed me into the hotel and were wringing their hands and moaning like a Cassandra chorus.  

"No, please.  It's too much money.  Just wait 1, 2, 3 hours."  By then I hadn't slept since I woke up Monday morning and it was Tuesday afternoon.  Forget about eating.  They all agree that it was a shame.  It was too much for me and I retreated to the hotel room to bathe, eat at the restaurant, and slip into grateful sleep in a room so overheated that my cold dried up in self-defense.

I awoke, of course, to telephone calls; by this time I was treated like a visiting dignitary.  Wherever I was, instead of being called to the telephone office, my call was switched to a phone close to me so everyone had a chance to hear me speak English and Greek.  It gets pretty boring at the Damascus airport.  It was obvious from the non-existent tray tables at more than half the seats and broken toilet seats and the half empty plane that Syria wasn't regularly visited.  No wonder no one knew what to do.

People would keep coming by to enquire on my progress and encourage me to keep after the emigration officials downstairs.  I went so regularly that I was given an update on the whereabouts of every official I had talked to.  But it was a very different atmosphere downstairs. 

Downstairs they were all military, all men, no English and no attention unless you pushed yourself on them in a supplicating but complaining and demanding manner, like a Middle-Eastern grandmother. 

I used my Jewish grandmother's image in my mind to lend me the power of grinding the opposition to powder, but slowly.  Someone very handsome, obviously delegated by the others to handle this devilish woman (she needs a real man to calm her down), took me to customs, opened my suitcase in front of the inspectors (verboten, but I lied and said I had contact lens stuff and allergy medicine inside), allowed me to retrieve my toiletries, weighed them, weighed the suitcase without them, and gave me a slip of paper with all this information to present to the officials when I left the airport, either with a visa for Damascus or on a plane to Cairo.

Now I have my special desk in the lobby of the hotel, my feet are up on the desk, unshod, and I have enough coffee and sweets to stock a cafeteria.

I give it one last shot downstairs and see that there has been a changing of the guards.  Instead of the village-like out-of-high-school boys, or the dull gray lifers, is a handsome man, older than the first, very debonair and affable.  He acts as though this is the first anyone has said anything about this, although it is now 20 hours in the airport for me.  His English is limited, but he seems eager to help.

I go up to the room to sleep for the night.  I ask one of the airport girls who will sleep there all night to wake me at seven and resign myself to the 10:00 am flight to Cairo

At 2:00 am there is a loud knocking at my door. It's the handsome affable guy.

To be continued... with Part 3

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