Syria Series: The Hours That Lead to Go Time

We woke from restless sleep as the train slowed. Dawn had broken outside. Damascus's outskirts were sliding by outside our "sleeper car" window. We'd fitfully rested for four or five hours on hard shelves protruding from the train wall, one shelf above the other, like bunk beds, except without the charm and without the padding. And maybe without the ladder. I don't remember. Shannon suffered the brunt of the discomfort -- she shared her shelf with a squirmy 7 month-old baby. I whined too much to sleep with the baby.

We had anticipated a much more peaceful night. The train conductors had explained that we'd stop for a few hours in Aleppo, a few hundred miles north of Damascus, to change trains. I imagined that we'd grab our bags, leave the old train, immediately board a new train, and sleep in the peaceful quiet until the rest of the passengers boarded around midnight. Wrong. We disembarked with our bags, but there was no new train to board. We were unceremoniously deposited on a hard bench, and our luggage sat lamely around us. I think there's a picture of this a few posts back. I vaguely recall a well-meaning man chattering endlessly to us as we sat on that bench and watched time crawl by, and we just wanted him to either die or go away. Preferably go away, but I remember feeling tired and dull and just wanting to be comfortable, so maybe I wouldn't have cried very much if he had died. A peaceful death, of course. I'm not a monster.

Abu Halen is too cool to smile. Also, he is too cool to have a decent haircut.
The new train came at midnight, and Damascus arrived outside our windows at daybreak.

I had never truly left the USA before this trip. I served an LDS mission in Canada, but, Canada, you know. They ice skate pretty well, but other than that, it's kind of the same as the US, right? When one's first foreign trip is to Syria, it's like a toddler doing her first day of Kindergarten in a Stephen Hawkings-taught astrophysics class.

As we pulled our bags off the train, I wasn't tired anymore. My distant, gray headache was forgotten. Every nerve, every brain cell stood on its tiptoes and gulped adrenaline by the gallon. The sky was blue but coated with a sheen of dust. The taxis definitely weren't Chevys. Every sound was foreign. A taxi driver haphazardly stuffed our bags into his trunk, the door of which couldn't shut for the volume of luggage it contained. The driver shrugged and threw the car into gear. Wait, what if my suitcases fall out? Isn't there some legal provision regulating driving with your trunk wide open and baby strollers hanging out? Not here. This wasn't northern Idaho.

I watched sad palm trees whiz by outside my window. Why are there palm trees in Syria? No idea. The driver ignored his blinker and gently weaved through the light, early morning traffic. I tried to small talk with the driver in fractured Arabic sentences like I'd learned back in the States in Arabic 301, surrounded by 20 white kids who thought the correct pronunciation of Karim Abduljabbar is "Cream Ab-DOOL Ja-BAR." The driver nodded at my Arabic, politely but completely confused.

He dropped us on the sidewalk at Yusef al-Azmeh Square in downtown Damascus. I think it's funny that I still remember the name of that square. It was only perhaps 7:30 a.m. The day had yet to start downtown. The drab Communist-era commercial buildings rising all around us were empty. Traffic was light. The sharply angled sunshine cast long shadows in the warm, late-summer air. I inhaled a deep breath of car exhaust and dust.

We just stood there on the sidewalk in urban Syria, unshowered, circled by black suitcases and colorful diaper bags, holding a shoeless baby in a one-sie, wearing clothes we hadn't changed in three days, staring up and down streets that led to and from places we'd never really imagined. We had no Syrian money, no idea what time banks opened, or where they might be located.

We had a scrap of paper with the scrawled name of a hostel that some Dane on the train had recommended. The address was nothing more than a street name. We looked at one another and nodded. It was go time. And we go'ed.