Stuck in Latakia, or starting to agree with the line from “In Xanadu”


A pot-bellied Syrian in a brown shirt is calling out tickets for Damascus, but we’ve already lost ours with the company.

“Sham! Ash-Sham! Ash-Sham!”

He has a teenager’s wisp for a moustache, slicked hair and fake leather shoes that curve so much at the toe, ending in a square tip, that they look like witch boots.

We had bought four tickets for a bus scheduled to leave at two-thirty, then proceeded on a servees to Qardaha to see the former president’s tomb with two hours to kill. The lion’s mausoleum beckoned.

By the time we got back to town at two, the bus was filling up. Our tickets were presented and promptly refused. They were for the one-thirty bus, another pot-bellied but stubble-bearded man told us. The transvestite behind the ticket counter had told us two-thirty but sold us one-thirty tickets. We hadn’t taken the time to notice, to decipher that hand-written ticket.

The ensuing hour of arguing, in which we tried and failed to get our money back.

Mustafa, our host in Latakia, was darting purposefully from the untended police station across the cement lot – the bus station – which smelled powerfully of urine, in the hallway outside the office where two men smoked under a portrait of the president, checking foreigners passports, saying hello, and smoking more cigarettes, in rhythm with glasses of tea.

New tickets were finally secured and we sat on a metal bench under a brick roof which was the bus station.  Mustafa told raunchy jokes and some one else chimed with his own, obscene Balkan jokes. Nothing nice about Montenegro.

Peddlers at the rival bus companies barked destinations.

“Homs! Homs! Homs!’

“Haleb! Haleb! Haleb!”

“Ash-Sham! Ash-Sham! Ash-Shaaam!”

Hours earlier, as we tried to buy our bogus tickets, we had tried every single of these companies, standing in little offices that lined the brick overhang, creating the closed space of the station, mostly a parking lot. All tickets to Damascus were sold out, we were told one by one, until buying the doomed set from the office abutting a decaying bust.

Now, hours later, tickets were for sale.

We were treated to a Steven Segal movie on the night ride back to Sham, and stopped at a rest stop long enough to meet a sole French tourist, Arab, who was couch-surfing around Syria. We wished him luck as we returned to our bus and Segal, who was looking badly out of shape in his old and B-movie age.

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