Location: Syrian Border Immigration Authority Station - September 23, 2009
Reading: The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Listening: The Police and the Private, Metric
Ex-pat and traveler clichés met so far:
The Luggage Sob Story
The Taxi Driver Who Ripped You Off
Photographing "Exotic" Food
The Bedbugs/Ants/Critters Paranoia
And now the latest: The Overland Border Crossing.
5.30 AM: Wake up to scratch a mosquito bite on my face. Find something crawling on me. Promptly think it is bedbugs. It is, of course, not.
6.30 AM: Arrive at Beirut bus station to catch a bus to Syria only to be told that there is a change in the schedule and no bus to Damascus will leave today. Completely forget/ignore the fact that Lonely Planet and just about everyone tells me that this is a scam along the lines of "the restaurant at which you wanted to eat has sadly burned down, but lucky for you, I have a restaurant and you can eat there." Board shared taxi to Damascus. Monumentally Questionable Decision Numero Uno.
6.45 AM – 8 AM: Recurrent flashes of realization: Need to learn Arabic.
Surrounded by rapid-fire exchanges between the Really Aggressive Taxi-driver (RAT) and Nadine, my godsend of an Egyptian-American roommate, which essentially boil down to "How are we getting ripped off? Oh let me count the ways."
8.10 AM: RAT stops to buy himself 200 duty free cigarettes. Approaching Lebanese exit border. There is a Dunkin' Donuts on it [!] Lebanon runs on Dunkin too?
8.15 AM: Stop to buy coffee at local chain. Also buy a tray full of basbousas (syrupy sugary goodness). Momentously Bad Decision Numero Dos.
8.20 AM: Arrive at the Lebanese exit border. Attempt to put basbousas down to search for passport, only to get stuck by a bee on my rear end.
8.25 AM: Dash into the bathroom of the Lebanese exit border to remove bee stinger from my behind. Angry Little Old Lady starts screaming at me because she wants a tip. While I am used to tipping for the privilege of relieving myself in public bathrooms, it usually happens after the fact – and certainly not while I still have an insect part stuck in myself. Angry Little Old Lady proceeds to call me a little slut at least three times in a minute. It is time to get out of Lebanon.
8.40 AM: Driving above the clouds in the zone between the Lebanese exit border and Syrian entrance border. Eerily and ominously calm and content. Still rubbing sore behind.
8.50 AM: Arrive at Syrian border to find that Venezuela and Greece are significantly more loved than the two U.S. passports of friends traveling with us. My Venezuelan roommate Geraldine and I make our way to the counter, where we somehow manage to buy the right visa through a combination of smiling, gesturing and repeating "Venezuela, Venezuela!" emphatically.
9.30 AM: Venezuelan and Greek passports are stamped. The wait for the U.S. passports begins. We are repeatedly told that Syrians wait 20 hours to enter the U.S., so we will also have to wait.
9.40 AM: Begin to realize differences between U.S. border protocol and Syrian border rituals. Cameras, laptops and cell phones are all welcome at the latter. People smoke freely. Beer is sold (but no food). Playing peekaboo with leftover basbousas while still blaming their honey for the bee sting. Searching for ways to scratch one's rear end elegantly at an international border.
10 AM: Five-year-old chubby boy approaches me and starts garbling in Arabic. While ordinarily squeamish around children, I smile. Boy gets closer to me and his talking gets louder. Starts pounding chest to the sound of "King! Kong! King! Kong!," which we decipher to mean he thinks he is King Kong. Fast forward ten minutes and the boy is screaming his lungs out in my face, hitting my legs and has cornered me into a wall, while his grandmother looks on and laughs. No idea why I was the lucky stranger he chose to assault or where his mother was or what one is supposed to do with Little Terrors. Resolve not to have children.
10.40 AM: RAT begins to get very impatient at the wait for the American passports. Asks Nadine what she studies in university. She decides "communication sciences/anthropology/pre-med" is a mouthful and opts for "Medicine." RAT promptly begins to narrate his medical condition to her while gesturing towards his foot. Proceeds to remove shoe and sock to reveal a giant horn on his toe. Nadine looks on horrified and helpless. RAT asks Nadine if he should attempt to chop off toe horn on his own. Nadine attempts to dissuade him. The rest of us hope he at least waits until he drives us across the border.
11 AM: Following the RAT's suggestion, Nadine and I sashay into the office of the Head of Immigration. Realize he has piercing blue eyes and fully prepare myself to fall in love with him. He speaks English and promises to help us. He is drinking tea, which we desperately need to stay awake. Begin looking at the tea intently, as if we have Matilda powers and can will it to come to us.
11.20 AM: Walk back into the Immigration Main Lobby only to spot Little Terror. Proceed to wait by the car to avoid him. Realize we are getting bullied by a five-year-old. Eat more basbousas to allay hunger. Take photos because when is this ever going to happen again?
11.25 AM: Little Terror spots us outside. Want to crawl into the trunk of the car.
Hiding from Little Terror by the taxi at the Syrian border, eating basbousas
11.30 AM: Little Terror marches toward us, picks up glass bottle and attempts to throw it at us. Grandma stops him at the last minute. Remind self not to have children.
12.30 PM: Nadine and I walk back into the office of the Head of Immigration, who suggests that we wait in his office, as opposed to outside in the crowded lobby. We perch ourselves on armchairs as he and his vice-captain go about their day, read the paper, watch TV and drink tea. Unsure of what we are supposed to be doing, but they seem happy to just have us there. Hm.
12.45 PM: RAT begins to complain to Head of Immigration that we are not paying him enough (ha!) and that the wait is too long. RAT speaks as if we do not understand Arabic – true enough of me, considering the only phrases I can master are "strawberry juice, please", "straight and then to the left" and "good morning, Sunshine" (still an improvement over just "thank you"). Head of Immigration points out that Nadine is Egyptian, that we understand everything and that he should honor the agreement he made. Faith in humanity further reinforced.
1 PM: Head of Immigration begins to tell us his love sob story, involving a Syrian girl who moved to America. He has not seen her in four years. Begin entertaining the possibility of becoming a Syrian bride.
1.15 PM: Nadine realizes Tyler and her passports are at the very bottom of the American passport pile given that they were the first to get to the border. Mild despair. Head of Immigration makes a call to ask them to "speed things up, they have been waiting since 9 AM!" Informs us there is only one (!) person processing all American passport requests into Syria today because it is a holiday. We make ourselves comfortable on his armchairs, realizing we may just have to live there.
1.30 PM: Head of Immigration hands us scrap of paper with his phone number. "If anybody bothers you, call me, I will throw them in prison."
Absurdities: Syrian visa overlapping with U.S. Homeland Security stamp - and the scrap of paper with the Head of Immigration's phone number
2 PM: Nadine and Tyler finally have visas and are waiting in line to get them stamped. Geraldine and I wait in front of a glass door, making faces and terrible puns on Syria. Syriasly. Start rowing my boat from sanity towards insanity and singing related tune. Realize the glass door in front of which we are standing is, in fact, a window and there are three men in uniform watching us sing and make faces. Want to crawl back into the car trunk with mortification.