The Imperfect Traveler

Part 3: My First Night

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On August 4th, 1995, I left Newark Airport for a new life in Syria with a brief layover in Amman, Jordan.

Before I left, I faxed my flight information to the Damascus Community School, so that an American embassy representative could meet me at the gate and escort me through customs, as suggested in their Welcoming Kit.

We know what you’re thinking, and you are correct:
It’s a miracle that we ever got anything done.

Also suggested in the Kit were a series of flights most teachers would arrive on. My flight from Jordan was not on that list.

I arrived at Damascus International Airport at 10:30 pm local time. 

It was international in name only; as it had a very local feel. The interior was a cold, gray color – all of it. Walls, ceiling and floor all looked as if they’d been coated with coal; lighting came from flickering fluorescent bulbs. The terminal was vacant, except for the passengers who arrived with me.  

So vacant, in fact, that there was no American embassy representative in the airport.

I didn’t want to go through customs without assistance, so I waited at the gate in case the person was late.

But after an hour or so I had to make a decision. Custodians had arrived, and were mopping up the area and turning out the lights.  

I began to second-guess myself. 

Maybe they were waiting at customs” I thought, so I walked towards immigration. There, I filled out a small, yellow immigration form while other passengers submitted their paperwork to various Syrian army troops armed with heavy passport ink stamps.  

WHOMP !

I got to “address”, and froze.  I had no idea where I was living, where I was staying, or what I should put down.

WHOMP !

I left it blank, and walked towards the nearest Syrian guard.

He looked at me, looked at my passport and immigration card, and asked me in Arabic why I had left the address section blank…only I didn’t know what he was asking, because I didn’t speak Arabic.

Another WHOMP ! from the army teller behind me. I jumped.

I attempted to explain in English that I was meeting an American official, and thought they might be waiting for me past customs. He didn’t speak English, so he asked another question in Arabic. We went back and forth, not understanding one another, before finally he gave up…and stamped my passport.  

I was free to enter the country.

I laugh now as I think about this transpiring in the States. “Oh, a blank section on your immigration card, and you don’t understand English? Sure, we’ll let you RIGHT into the United States! Welcome!”

Remember how a little somethin’ from the terminal’s food court would seal the deal?
It was a simpler time.

Over time, I learned from other expatriates that it didn’t matter what was written on the immigration card, as long as it was filled out. These were privates in the Syrian army, and they did not want to get yelled at by a superior for not having all the paperwork completed. 

Over time, other female teachers wrote down “exotic dancer” for occupation, “your mom’s house” for address, and other humorous answers, and all received the same response:

WHOMP !

I walked over to baggage claim, grabbed my backpack and walked through Baggage Check with a lot less hassle, then stepped into the comparatively lively lobby of the Damascus International Airport.  

It was after midnight. A few kiosks were still open, taxi drivers mingled with kiosk owners, while Syrian army troops milled around…but no American embassy representative.

I was on my own; in a foreign country, unable to speak the local language, with no idea on what to do next. 

I sat down and actually laughed.

“I’ve seen this behavior.”
“I believe that in America, the term they use is: ‘The boy ain’t right.

A taxi driver approached, and offered me a ride. “Taxi?” I said no, still holding out hope someone would arrive to sweep me off my feet. Soon, another approached. Then another. And another.

After about 30 minutes, I finally caved into the latest offer. “Adesh?” (how much?)

In halted English, he requested a thousand Syrian lira. I pulled out some American dollars and asked, “How much in American dollars?”

He waived his hand “no” and ran away.

I went up to another taxi driver, who ran away before I could even ask. Before, I’d been the most attractive girl at the dance, but now I was a leper.  

Finally, a taxi driver grabbed the wrist without the money, and in halting English explained, “Illegal.  Go to jail…”

There were no currency exchanges open in the airport at midnight…in fact, there weren’t any currency exchanges at all. I was essentially broke.

I sat down, opened that Welcome Package and found a map of Damascus. Could I walk to the city?

A man quietly approached, looked side to side for anyone paying close attention, then leaned in.  

You need…ride?”  

“Yes.”

To where?”

“I don’t know…I was supposed to meet someone from the American Embassy, but no one came…”  I started rambling again, then tailed off.

You need…place to stay?”

“Yes.”

Can you get Syrian lira tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

I take you…twenty dollars.” I agreed.

He wasn’t a taxi driver. I’m not even sure he had a drivers’ license, since the vehicle he owned was smaller than anything allowed on the road in the States. It was a “pickup truck” in name only:  half as wide as a typical car, and a two-cycle engine commonly found in lawnmowers.  

I put the luggage in the bed and hopped in, where he accepted payment. 

Within five minutes we were on the highway to Damascus, engine screaming as we topped out around fifty miles an hour.  

But:

Where was he taking me?

…to be continued…


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LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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January 10, 2023 7:19 am

Sheesh. At least we know that since you are writing this, you weren’t killed on the first night!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2023 8:13 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Unless…  🤔 

mt58
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mt58
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January 10, 2023 9:04 am

Hmm…

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Virgindog
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Virgindog
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January 10, 2023 9:47 am
Reply to  mt58

Are you suggesting thegue was replaced by Billy Campbell?

mt58
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January 10, 2023 10:44 am
Reply to  Virgindog

The resemblance is phenomenal.

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dutchg8r
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dutchg8r
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January 11, 2023 8:42 pm
Reply to  mt58

JLo has had Enough of Billy Campbell.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 10, 2023 11:28 am

Loving this series while wondering where its gonna take you next. Quite the contrast with the unsmiling death star stare that I’ve experienced when entering the US – first time I flew to the US was via a connecting flight in Dublin. To save time we cleared immigration in Dublin, I had no idea I needed to provide an address for where I was staying. The connection time was tight, I was in a rush to make the plane and the goon in front of me refused to interact once he’d told me that without an address I wasn’t getting on that plane. Just stared past me into the distance, no doubt contemplating stamping on his grandmothers cat. Having turned my carry on bag inside out I found the printout, scribbled down the address and was last onto the plane.

Made me laugh that the unsmiling automatons had been posted to Dublin party city, imagining them out on the town resolutely refusing to enjoy themselves while all around them drunken bacchanalia broke out.

I like the contradiction that Syrian immigration were so worried about doing their job properly to actually do their job properly.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 10, 2023 12:42 pm

I’m an American and even I get the unsmiling death star stare when I re-enter my home country. Whereas every other country I’ve been to has been quite friendly.

dutchg8r
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dutchg8r
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January 11, 2023 8:52 pm

That reminded me of pre EU days on my first visit to the UK in ’96. Took a ferry from Dover to Calais for the day. Came back after sundown, terminal was a ghost town in Dover, no other passengers traveling that late apparently. I expected customs on the French side, but for some reason it never entered my mind I’d have to show my passport to get back in to England as an American.

So with no one else around, I’m suddenly getting the third degree from this guy who obviously was excited to get to do something other than wave Brits through. And he asks for an address of where I’m staying.

I literally shouted across the terminal to my British friend – “HEY, what’s your address again? Customs dude needs it”

I think I made his week.

cappiethedog
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January 10, 2023 2:52 pm

Where I live, if you miss the onramp en route to the airport, you end up at the Army base. Pre-2001, you could make a U-turn signal with an index finger to the guy commanding his post, and he’d let you through without any histrionics. Now, you have to step out of the car, show your I.D., and for some people, I imagine, would be then subjected to a pat down, especially at night. If I’m remembering this correctly, the guy took a picture of my license plate. I realize this is so minor compared to other people’s experiences with people in charge, but it left me a little shaken.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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January 10, 2023 6:45 pm

I was gonna say the suspense is killing me. Of course I know you SURVIVED. Unless you are a class 4 full torsal apparition. You aren’t, are you?

dutchg8r
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dutchg8r
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January 11, 2023 6:47 pm

Like I said before, thegue, it makes for a hugely entertaining story now, but I can only imagine how unfunny it was at the time.

Like the time my friend and I flew to Pisa, got the rental car shuttle bus after waiting an hour in the airport’s miniscule baggage claim area, only to have them drive us to this sketchy area nearby, past all these fenced lots of totaled cars. We’re looking at each other like, wtf car are they giving us?!

TLeo
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TLeo
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January 12, 2023 8:17 pm

Is it wrong to admit that I read the story for mt’s amusing pictures?

OK, I read it because it’s good and entertaining, too. And I will say, I definitely didn’t have this trouble when I went to Israel in 1995. On the other hand, I was far from the only American, and they speak English.

Now, you should ask my wife about her trip to Jordan …

mt58
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January 12, 2023 9:06 pm
Reply to  TLeo

 🙏 

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