Palmyra is a puzzlebox dumped into a rocky and sandy landscape and left to sink. We had been exploring it for several days on the first leg of a circle 8 trip to the wonders of Syria and Jordan. Strolling through columned promenades, sitting in an amphitheatre, ogling temples, petting cats as they slunk through the rubble of a city so vast it would take decades to unearth it. Clamboring up a hill to a large stone fort, we looked down and imagined the ancient city as some clockwork gears a giant in the fort had smashed when it had awakened him too early one morning.
We spooked ourselves discovering a large femur bone in the middle of a road from an underground tomb, then realised it was from a long dead camel. Soon afterwards, amid the spooky tall siege-like roman tomb towers in the northwest, I climbed up one and almost stepped in someone long laid to rest. Each evening, after sitting and watching the sunset over this marvel, and after some delicious meal in the nearby town, we returned to our quaint hotel, where the young host welcomed us, and I sat and played backgammon with him or one of his friends and let them practice their english, while a pop song played on the tv:
Aalbi eih Jaralouh?
the arabic and hindi song went, and everyone sang along with it with glee.
On our last night, we packed up to take a mini-bus to Homs, our waystation to get to Krak des Chevaliers. I asked about getting some ciggies and some munchies for our trip and our host eagerly offered to drive me to a shop, although I said I was sure I could walk there. We hopped in his jeep however, and sped off. He was in his early twenties and missing his twin brother, now doing his army service (brothers never serve at the same time). We zipped into the town and screeched up in front of a hole in the wall, where i picked up my supplies. The shopkeeper almost charged me tourist prices until my host had a few words. It wasn't much of a matter however, with the exchange rate something like 7 durhams to a pound, and no tax on smokes, for example. Back in the car to head back, only my driver took a detour.
When we arrived in Palmyra it was dusty and dry. The next day it rained, with all around saying we brought the good luck of rain with us. Even in two days of sporadic showers green appeared in bits of the desert as long dormant plant life sprung up. Tonight, the roads were slick with puddles and oil and my insane and happy to be out of the confines of his family business friend did donuts on the newly asphalted road past the antiquities. A speeding out into the dark with the columns appearing in the headlights as we spun around once, then twice coming closer and closer to the often photographed entrance columns of this world heritage site. I gripped the dashboard and imagined the headlines: Stupid American Tourist Destroys Archeological Treasure, Crushed To Death. Coming to a stop not a foot away, my finally coming to his senses friend sighed, and we headed back.
Once packed and giving our fond farewells, we trudged to a square to await our ride to Homs. A businessman (well, he had a briefcase) waited with us for a good half hour, with no sign of our ride. A slim mustachioed driver of a minibus nearby insisted he wasn't going our way, and then finally offered to take us, if between us we paid the fare for a full ride. The three of us conferred and agreed, hopping in. With the same glee as my driver earlier, he drove through the town. Anytime in these small towns you booked a taxi or a mini-bus the driver would then do a circuit honking their horn and waving as if to say, well, saying, 'look, look, I've got a fare! I'm charging them out the nose and they still took the ride!'. In this case, we ended up picking up three, four and finally five soldiers on leave with their huge dufflebags, including one guy who'd been at the shop I'd bought supplies from. We'd been had. This was the bus to Homs, we shouldn't have paid the fare we had, and we were now stuffed full with his mates. We all tried to protest, but the driver wasn't having it, he had to fill it was the excuse. With the businessman also obviously screwed over, we settled grumpily in, as the journey went way into the night, the town's light receding and only the long dark road again.
When we decided on this trip, it was with a flurry of excitement, building as the time away got closer. We'd travelled on a tour bus through Morocco the year before and realised that we could just rely on local transport, and booking hotels the town before on our next trip. It was only after speaking to family and some American friends that a nugget of worry wormed into me. 'It's part of the Axis of Evil!' they exclaimed. 'It isn't safe!' they warned. 'Aren't you concerned?' was the question. I wasn't before, thanks. We'd had a terrible experience one day in Morocco, but apart from that, all was good. On this trip, there hadn't been anything to concern oneself with, really. In Damascus, when some other tourist attempted to steer the conversation into something political, everyone else looked a bit embarrassed and changed the subject. Yet... here I was, with my beloved, in a vehicle with burly young men, heading out into the middle of nowhere.
I peered at a completely useless of a squiggle of a map in the back of a guidebook to see if we were actually going in the right direction. The men shifted. The businessman held his briefcase closer. There was no radio playing, and the bus seemed to be on a dusty sidetrack. Had the soldier at the shop scoped that I had a bit of cash on me? Had our hotel host tipped us as good marks? This was the perfect situation with us being robbed and left behind. Maybe the businessman was the ringleader, having followed us from Damascus and hired all these thugs for his heist. The hand I held squeezed, and the whole rush of the worst possible things that could happen to us about to happen and I wondered if I had the guts to fight and what weapons I had besides a pile of books and some pistachios. I could see the headlines and they involved body parts strewn far across this alien countryside.
Then one of the soldiers began to sing:
Aalbi eih Jaralouh
and we all joined in, as we shared our tangerines and baklava, and later one by one were dropped off near their home until we the last passengers were left at our hotel, where we were met by an owlish eyed host who shepherded us to our room, hoping it was to our liking.