The Smell of the Sea

Ah yes, I made it to the Mediterranean Sea. I love the smell of the sea. For some reason I feel relieved to be here. In Syria I feel like I am now really in the Middle East. Here is my route and current location.

My introduction to Syria, though, was not a pleasant one. Within two days I had three flat tires and a bad case of diarrhea.

I also had a bit of trouble with immigration, but that was my own fault. Syria requires US citizens to acquire their visa in advance. But the only consulate nearby was in Ankara, Turkey, which was not on my route and therefore inconvenient to get to. Searching the internet, however, it appeared I could “probably” get a visa at the border (other travellers have done this). So I took my chances.

Sure enough, when I got to the border the immigration officer asked me, “where is your visa?” I played dumb and said I thought I could get one at the border. Eventually I was taken to the head honcho officer, looking smart in his military uniform and sitting behind an enormous desk  in his dark panelled office. He told me I should have gotten the visa in advance.

He said, “We will have to send a fax to Damascus. If they approve it you can get your visa. If not you must go to Ankara. This will take 2-3 hours. Do you want to wait?”

“Do I have a choice?”

He smiled and said, “so, Obama president? Bush no. Obama good.”

That seems to be the reaction wherever I go. Bush is universally despised, but everyone loves Obama. I always shrug and say “we will see.” I don’t particularly trust the aggregate American vote. After all, they elected Bush for eight years. Next time you happen to flick past Jerry Springer or Cops on TV remind yourself, these people can vote. Worse, their vote carries as much value as yours. That’s not right. As I’ve said in previous posts, this one person one vote system is flawed. Smart people like Warren Buffet, Colin Powell, or me should have more voting power than unemployed trailer trash, don’t you think? Boy if I were president I would change a few things that’s for sure. Democracy may not be the best political system devised. A few years of Kevinocracy would straighten out this country.

Anyway, I sat at he immigration office for three hours and the visa was eventually approved so I was on my way.

I had to pedal hard to get to the town of Aleppo, 50 km away. I only had three hours of daylight left and the traffic is chaotic in Syria so I did not relish the thought of riding in darkness. Of course as I was furiously pedalling at dusk when I got two flat tires within 20 km.

Some photos of Aleppo. This shop is for serious cigarette smokers. They don’t sell naught but smokes.

I visited the great mosque there. This one they actually let me go in.

The prayer board. This tells you what time to pray each day. But why should it matter what time you pray? Does Allah keep office hours or something and he will only listen at the designated times?

This casket supposedly contains the head of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist. Women on the left of the partition, men on the right.

The prayer hall of the mosque.

The courtyard.

There were several blind men there. They give blessings for a small donation.

A shop stuffed full. It was crazy. The guy said, c’est une melange.

My first glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea.

The best business to have in Syria must be printing and distributing photos of president Assad. There are millions of them. I think there is a law in Syria that says no matter where you stand in the country you must be able to see a photo of Assad. It’s worse than Starbucks. I think he looks a little squirrely.

A restaurant in the seaside town of Latakia. Of all the names they could have chosen they picked this one?

Near the town of Tartus I visited the medieval castle of Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader fortress and one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world.

Crac des Chevaliers was the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades. It was expanded between 1150 and 1250 and eventually housed a garrison of 2,000. The inner curtain wall is up to 100 feet thick at the base on the south side, with seven guard towers 30 feet in diameter.

King Edward I of England, while on the Ninth Crusade in 1272, saw the fortress and used it as an example for his own castles in England and Wales. The fortress was described as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world” by T. E. Lawrence.

The castle was never breached. The knights just gave it up. Long story.

Here are a few pix.


As I continued south toward the Lebanese border I had a slightly strange encounter. A car with three men in it flagged down and indicated I should stop. Normally I ignore these requests but they were persistent.

They identified themselves as policemen and asked to see my passport. The problem was they were in plainclothes and driving a beat up old clunker, not a police car. Naturally I was suspicious. They did not speak much English but I didn’t care. I said, “you don’t look like policemen. Do you have identification?” They did not. So now I am really suspicious. One of them seemed to understand this and he dailed a number on his cell phone.

Meanwhile I was chatting with the other two (well, on a basic level). I tried to explain I was cautious about handing my passport over to strangers, even policemen, if they could not prove who they were.

Then a silly thought struck me. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to quote one of the great lines in cinema. I thought of Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I said,

“So if you’re the police where are your badges?”

Then I cracked up.

Now if the guy had been quicker, spoke English, and was a movie buff he would have picked up on the line and provided the appropriate response:

“Badges? We don’t have to show you any stinkin’  badges!”

If he had said that it would have been the highlight of my trip. But alas, he just started at me, a look of incomprehension on his face.

In the end they made me follow them down the street to an old building where three more dudes in street clothes were hanging out. They motioned for me to come in. I refused, saying the building did not look like a police station and I still have not seen any ID. Finally one guy approached and held out his card. It read: SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICER.

Ah. OK, that explains it. I capitulated, gave them my passport and accepted their offer of coffee while they checked me out.

Satisfied I was not a Hezbollah spy, they apologized and let me go.

Next stop: Beirut