The closer that I came to the Syrian border the harder it became to find. The Turkish language is these days written with the Western alphabet but the sign posts told me nothing. I didn´t know the words for ´Syria´ or ´border´.
The skies grew dark and ominous, dense grey clouds sucking all colour out of the barren landscape. I joined a ragtaggle bunch of locals standing by a turning to the South. The winds swept cruelly about us and each time that I tried to ask where they were going I entered a coughing fit that lasted five minutes. They all moved a little further away from me.
A taxi van turned up and the dirver confirmed that he was taking us to the border. For the next ten kilometres we sped through a featureless wasteland with not a sign of life outside. The skies drew closer on each side, the horizons shrinking in upon us. Just when I thought they were going to crush us out of existence we arrived at the border. A dusty concrete building in the middle of nowhere.
Upon discovering that I was English each immigration offical insisted on studying my passport and visa for several minutes, asking me trick questions to see if I was genuine. Two men half-clad in military uniform came out with big guns and made me empty my bags.
They looked down each piece of my clarinet, ensured that nothing was hidden in my guitar, tested my toothpaste and stared in incomprehension at my 70 self-published books.
I never saw anyone so disappointed as these three guys when they didn´t find anything. I didn´t know if they were looking for drugs or perhaps miniature espionage devices. At any rate I was happy that I´d ditched my “Teach-Yourself-Hebrew” books.
The customs offical took me to the side and suggested that unless i changed my turkish lire for syrian dirhams with him, then perhaps I might not be allowed through today. I handed him what I had and could only hope that he didn´t cheat me too much. Anyway his manner changed at once and he helped me get into a series of shared taxis to Aleppo.
“Stay on the main streets,” he advised me, “There are many bad men in Syria!” But even with a fever rising again I could appreciate the irony of a corrupt customs offical warning me against the ill intentions of his countrymen. The next two hours were a blur and the locals led me through the hand between each communal taxi service and found me a cheap hotel in Aleppo.
I stayed there for the next three nights, strong enough only to leave me bed in search of falafel on the street, the cheapest food available. The rain and mist were incessant and each time I tried to explore a little a coughing fit sent me back to the warmth of my hotel room.
I had almost completely run out of money and had just enough wits to catch the bus to Damascus. I had flown over this stark, featureless territory of rocks and sand before and couldn´t understand how a city could support itself in the middle of nowhere. Outside the windows I watched the dust dance in the wind.
I checked into a dormitory room in a popular backapcker hostel and headed down to the market in search of a hamam. This is the equivalent of a Hamams vary immensely in their style and splendour, ranging from a cubicle with a bucket of hot water and a candle for illumination to elaborate establishments evoking images of 1001 Nights. I was in search of the latter.
The entry price was so low as to be accessible to anyone whose accomodation was too basic to include a bathroom. Like most of the rest of Asia, the Arabs have always had a regard for health and hygiene that puts the West to shame.
“I take a bath once a year – if i need to or not!” is the old Belgian boast.
This hamam had dry rooms like miniature deserts, chambers filled with steam that carried the scent of aromatic herbs and a huge hall filled with basins supplying hot and cold water. I spent the afternoon filling up hundreds of buckets of hot and cold water alternately to splash over myself and flush out the toxins of my fever.
I headed over to the massage room but the masseur was a large, chubby man with knotty fingers that would better have fitted a career as a butcher. I passed.
Staying in the same dormitory room as me were two young Americans who were on a quest to find somewhere in Damascus that sold beer. I joined them out of sheer relief to be speaking English again after so many day of strained gestures and about 100 words of Arabic. One of the guys even bought a copy of my book and my funds swelled to an impressive $40.
We followed the suggestions of their guidebook on a wild goose chase up and down the hills of that ancient city, getting more and more thirsty for a bottle of beer. But though our dream of finding a bar veered towards the impossible, the evening was asaved by a Syrian who came running of a bakery to give us cakes. He wanted the three foreign guests in his country to taste the national delicacies.
The Arabs are always like this. It seems as though they´re as ready to burst into a murderous rage as they are to be overwhelmed with the desire to help in any way they can. Volatile as the flame of a kerosene stove they make unsuitable company for people of a delicate temperament.
They´re a people with fire in the blood. They can be generous to the point of stupidity or vengeful with grudges that can last generations. Tell a Syrian that you like his shirt and he might just take it off and give it to you. But make him your enemy and even his grandson may end up hating you.
It was time for me to get on the road and the Americans couldn´t agree more. Their friendliness had soured a little after a sleepless night of listening to me cough.
But before I left I took one last walk around the market of the old city, thronging with glittering stalls and raucous customers haggling for all they were worth. I met a portrait artist by a side gate and he invited me to come and sit down. Curious to hear his story I paid for him to paint my likeness while he told me of his travels through Europe, paying his way with his brush and canvas.
“But there´s nowhere like Damascus!” He assured me.
I put the picture in the post to my mother and caught a taxi to Amman, the capital of Jordan. I had only $20 left and decided that there was no point in hanging around.