“But my guidebook says here that it doesn’t leave for another hour!?” was my spontaneous response – coming to grips with the fact that I may have put a little too much faith in my two-year-old guide book.
My rookie outburst resulted in a mental slow clap, whilst asking myself “did you really just blurt that out?”, and was the result of being told that I had just missed the last coach to my next point of call on my trip, the desert oasis city of Palmyra. My attention was now divided between weighing up if it was really worth making my mini-bus driver turn around so I could get that token landscape photo of Crac des Chevaliers earlier that afternoon, and strategizing how I was going to tackle the unwelcome but now impending task of having to arrange staying a night in the City of Homs, a city whose main claim to fame was for being a transport hub to other parts of the country…
The circular, retro, concrete structure that housed the various bus company ticket offices at the Homs bus terminal was abuzz with the movement and sounds of orchestrated chaos that is customary to transport centers in this part of the world. Almost like he was enjoying letting me squirm in my disappointment for a few minutes, the attendant behind the counter suddenly made a suggestion. “If you get taxi to service terminal across town, you might make service bus. Let me check…” A somewhat lengthy bark across the floor in Arabic brought an equal response from a colleague, which then resulted in the attendant looking back at me, and with a calm smile he said, “Yes. You leave now, you make to Palmyra.”
“Shukran!” I ran for the taxi stand.
It’s safe to say Syria hasn’t been a hot destination spot for mass tourism for some time, as the main bus terminal of Homs clearly indicates, but the terminal across town for the not-so-express ‘service’ buses was a whole new level of getting local – and it came complete with the ghetto buses to match.
The red, patchy, grandfather of a bus that would take me to Palmyra may have been lacking in the most basic comforts associated with public transport, but it definitely made up for it in character. It started up and I was directed to a seat at the rear, allowing me to amusedly watch the bus literally pile up with people and possessions of all sorts of random.
Packed to capacity and almost ready to leave. The ‘almost’ part being the time taken to lay out a row of plastic chairs down the aisle to ensure we were now truly at capacity.
The awkward, blank stares around me had me feeling like my centre-back seat was centre-front and facing rear, ready for some punchline to be cracked like in a witty beer commercial. I looked blankly at the middle-aged man next to me wearing a dish-dash and red and white shemargh on his head. With my guide book in hand, I pointed to the picture of the well-aged Arab man on the front cover who, despite being significantly older in age, was dressed very similarly to the man I was sitting next to. “Is this you?” I asked.
The man’s hardened, textured face (I’m guessing a result from years of exposure to the Middle-Eastern sun) stared right through me with no response.
I don’t know how they got there, but the crickets definitely started to chirp.
The man broke the stare to look at another man sitting on the other side of me and, in its aggressive-sounding cadence, a few words were exchanged between the two men in Arabic. I was certain it was something about how my end was just about to befall me. Was I going to be thrown from the bus while it was moving? Or would they just end me with one fell swoop of a Janbiya blade?
The silent stare towards me returned. To my relief, the awkward silence was broken by the belly-deep laugh of both the men either side of me. I had gone from what I thought was dead man… sitting… to what now felt like being the funniest man to ever grace Syria with his presence.
The uncomfortable bumps, heat and constant smell of funk were made bearable by the incredible few hours of interaction I shared with my fellow bus occupants that random afternoon. The specifics of what was spoken about are now long forgotten (aside from the constant comment by those around me that I did in fact share my homeland with the Kangaroo). It was one of those moments where humanity got broken down into a simple real-life metaphor. My background and upbringing were literally worlds away from those whose routine bus trip I had just gate-crashed, but still I was welcomed as a guest and we were all able to share those unifying arts of story-telling, learning, and taking-the-piss out of each other (and being able to laugh through it).
Looking at what is unfolding in Syria right now is hard for me to grasp, because I was constantly blown away by the generosity, humour and hospitality of the incredible people that call Syria home. Trust me – this post aims to be purely objective. I have no solutions to the conflict there. Though I can’t help but wonder, whether in a land that is home to so many diverse peoples, cultures and religions, if certain parts of that society will suffer or be jeopardized if foreign intervention sides with one particular group. I guess that’s one of the painful consequences of applying borders and the concept of nation/states to an area that was such a dynamic region of flowing, inter-wound cultures for so many millennia?
A random bus trip I didn’t plan to take not only ended up schooling me on life, but it somehow managed to give me one of my richest memories on the road, a hot tip on why it’s important to apply a Bruce-Lee-ism to your travel schedules and “be like water.”
Palmyra? I’ll leave it to the photos to convince you why it should be on your to-do list…