The tightly packed mini-bus swerved more erratically than normal through the dusty dry Damascus streets, the driver seemed irate or ‘nervous’ as they say here, maybe it was his Ramadan thirst I thought.
I’d stopped at a Christian place for breakfast fearing a complete closure of food and drink stalls, my last Ramadan was 2 long years ago when ‘McAllister of Arabia’ set out on his mission to find a film in the hell hole that is Dubai. My arrival there was during Ramadan and the place was dry and foodless during the daylight hours, I’d expected the same here but as we pulled into the central bus garage I could see an array of food stalls with plenty of locals eating and drinking tea out in the open, business as usual in secular Syria it seems, what a relief.
I join a boy selling a wonderful berry drink that he fills with fresh shavings of ice, around him are a bunch of guys drinking, I quench my thirst before surveying the food stalls where I find kebabs pizzas and falafel. A man smiles, sipping on his tea, “From Holland?” “No, England”, I reply, “What happened to Ramadan” I ask? He starts to laugh and says “No Ramadan here!”
I was still in the garage toilets having a piss when my bus set off. I’d heard it sound its horn as the sign that it was about to leave… but one advantage of being the only westerner on the bus is that they never forget you, a man came running to the toilets to get me with such great timing that I was able to catch the bus and avoid paying the annoying toilet keeper the 10 cent fee for a pee.
Back on the dingy bus, we stop from time-to-time to pick up army recruits, the isle down the middle of the bus is slowly disappearing as fold-down seats are used to seat the new passengers.
I recall my first bus journey in Syria; a wonderful VIP bus with flat bed seats plenty of space and air conditioning. Then I would look out of the window at the ‘locals’ buses and wondered what it must be like to be packed into a creaky metal box on wheels in the soaring sun. Now I am here, the journey starts out ok but the more passengers we pick-up the more squeezed it becomes, it is like travelling for hours in a tightly packed Japanese metro train – except they’re mostly standing all the way! Come to think of it maybe this bus is not too bad after all, yes I may be squeezed-in but at least I have a seat. A fan blows warm air on me and an awful Arabic singer wails in the background.
I am on my way to visit Michael in Safita, he told me to always take a seat at the back of the bus. “Why?” I asked him, slightly puzzled. “What difference does it make?” “It is always safer in the back when it crashes” he says casually.