Hama, Syria, was wonderful.
We had a very comfortable suite at an even more comfortable price, and then celebrated Edward's birthday by going to a real fantasy castle.
We started off in a thick, cold, damp fog, but by the time we got to the castle, we were driving in clear, sharp sunlight with a dusting of fresh snow. The cedars were a deep dark green, the freshly plowed fields a bright orangy red, and both met a sky as blue as any I'd ever seen. We drove up and up and up through twisty roads and villages towards the castle, visible in the distance. And what a castle, complete with a moat (with water!), secret passages, stables, giant kitchens, a chapel-turned-mosque, throne room, inner and outer battlements, towers, window seats, and more! The air was cold (there was hard ice in the shade all day) but it was warm in the sun. We sat on the battlements and enjoyed views for miles and miles.
For Edward, it recalled all the Crusader history he hadn't read, but for me, it recalled every novel I'd ever read with a castle. I hope I can bring Alice here someday.
We got back to Hama in mid-afternoon, hungry and tired and happy. We wanted a good meal to celebrate Edward's birthday, so we asked at the hotel desk for a recommendation. An older man, sitting at the desk with the desk clerk, said, "If you can wait five minutes, I'll take you to my restaurant. If you don't like it, you don't have to pay for it." What a deal.
It turned out he owned our hotel and two others, as well as the restaurant. There were only a few other very well dressed large groups in the restaurant. The decor was spectacular: beautiful wood and tile and linens, fountains, comfortable furniture. We shrugged. It was Edward's birthday, and if we didn't like it, we didn't have to pay for it. We put ourselves in the waiter's hands. We ate spectacularly good food, in quantity. We worried about the bill. When it came, it was about thirteen dollars. We paid, happily, and went off into the night.
The next day, we caught the noon bus to Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. I fell asleep, and woke up only as we arrived. The bus let us off at the luxury bus terminal in Aleppo, which turned out to be a street corner with not even a bus shelter, let alone left-luggage or a WC. We were the only foriegners on the bus. Have you ever seen a video of hyenas with fresh meat?
A horde of taxi drivers fell on us. They all wanted us. They grabbed at our bags. They grabbed at our arms. They yelled at each other. We didn't even know where we wanted to go. That didn't seem to slow them down. They knew where we should go. We finally got them out of our faces for a second, decided where we wanted to go, and turned to the eagerly waiting men. And it started again. They all pulled at us, but they all wanted double what we knew was likely to be an already high foriegners' price, khamseen (50) lira, about a dollar. One came down to our price, and we started to get in his cab, but then the yelling, the grabbing, the threatening started again.
I cracked. I wasn't getting in any of their cabs. We left them yelling at each other, and walked a hundred meters away and around a corner. Now what? We were a long walk from where we wanted to go. We started hailing cabs. One stopped. He didn't know the hotel we wanted. Another stopped. He didn't either. Another stopped. He knew the hotel, but wanted 100 lira. We waved him on. Someone offered to help. He knew the hotel, and explained where to go to the next taxi driver. The guy wanted 100, our samaritan thought we should pay 25, we settled on khamseen. It annoyed our samaritan, but we were okay with it, until the taxi driver dropped us off without the hotel in sight, lying to us about where we were.
I cracked again. I wasn't getting in a taxi in Aleppo ever again! We were walking! We went into a shop to ask where we were. We went into the only visible hotel. It looked lovely, but they wanted $75 and didn't have a double bed. We started walking. Some helpful people walked us partway, and pointed us on our way. It was okay at first, but it was a long walk, Aleppo has extremely high curbs, and we had our luggage with us. We were nearer our second choice than our first choice, so we tried our second choice. It didn't have a good value for money ratio, so we went on. Ditto the next, and the next. I wanted to find a place to hole up and drink tea while Edward looked for a hotel room (something it's easier for a man to do here in Syria) but we couldn't find a teahouse with even one woman in it. We finally checked into a too expensive but comfortable island of could-be-anywhere, and hid from the world for a bit.
Now we're in our first choice, a restored house in the heart of the souk, a short walk inside the walls of the old city, the Dar Halabia Hotel. Guidebooks complain about the location, a roll-up-the-sidewalks neighborhood. We love the night-time peace, the day-time bustle, the rugs, the lending library, the chorus of muzzeins, and the helpful staff, and put up with the quirky bathroom design.
Fortified in our new base, moved into a warmer room, and invigorated by a cold shower after the hot-water pipe froze last night, we set off this morning to renew our visa.
We picked up our Syrian visas the morning we left the US, July 16, but the visa was only good for six months. At Damascus International Airport, they stamped our passport 15 days. The immigration officer told us we had 45 days, but he wouldn't write 45 days in our passport. We went to the immigration office in Damascus. They told us we had 30 days, ("The stamps haven't been changed yet.") but wouldn't write 30 days in our passports. We know what happens to Syrians who overstay their visa in the US. If they're lucky, they're only banned from the US for life. We might want to come back some day. We wanted visa extensions.
We had three passport photos each, our itinerary, proof of solvency. What more could we need? We headed off (in a taxi) for the passport and immigration office.
We found the right line. We found someone who spoke a little English. We explained what we wanted. He said we needed a form from our hotel. We should go back and get it, and come back with four photos.
We got in a taxi, and went back to the hotel. At first, the owner didn't know what form we needed, but then remembered, got the form, and helpfully filled it out for us in Arabic. We were ready. We got our fourth photo, and got back in a taxi to go to the passport office.
It had gotten busier. The man who spoke English was busy, but his superior turned to us after a relatively short wait, only 15 minutes or so. He told us we didn't have the right form. We needed to go back to our hotel and get the right form. "But this is the form he had." "Go back to your hotel and get the right form." "Can you give us the form?" "Go back to your hotel and get the right form." "Can you give us the right form to give to the hotel" "Go back to your hotel and get the right form."
This was not getting us anywhere. The man wrote what we needed in Arabic on Edward's entry card, gave us the four copies of an additional form we would need, and sent us away. He was done.
We looked at the piles and piles and piles of forms in bookcases, shopping bags of forms on the floor, loose forms in the corners, between and behind the bookcases. We looked at each other, shrugged, and took a taxi back to the hotel. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. It was time for noon prayers, and it took six tries and walking a kilometer before we found a taxi willing to take us back to the hotel.
The owner wasn't there, but we showed his son what we needed. He didn't recognize it. We explained we'd have to leave tomorrow if we didn't get the extension. This is the slow season. There was one other party in the hotel last night. They want us to stay. He called his father, and they figured out what we needed, and that they had it. He got the form, and filled it out for us. He made four copies. We filled out our forms in quadruplicate.
We took a taxi back to the immigration office. We had everything. I put it all on the counter in front of the man who had sent us away. The four forms we filled out. The form the hotel filled out and four copies. The four photos. Big smiles and thanks. I held out a handful of change, to pay for the extension. I wasn't sure whether we had to pay 50 cents or a dollar. Uh oh. Frowns. He thought I was trying to bribe him, which just isn't done here, at least not on a small scale like that. I apologised over and over. I was trying to pay the fee. Ok. Not here. We had to pay downstairs, get a form, and come back. What form? He wrote it down and sent us away. He kept our passports and forms, though. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
We went downstairs, paid our 50 cents, and came back. We filled out this new form, and gave it to him. He told us to go to the man at the end of the counter.
We went to the man at the end of the counter, some sort of supervisor, who took one look at us, and gave our forms to the man at the computer. We waited and waited and waited. Other people kept coming up to the man at the end of the counter. He'd take one look at their forms, scribble something, and send them away. Not us. We waited.
Finally, the man at the end of the counter got our passports and forms back. He waved at us to come with him. We walked down a long corridor to a big office of The Department Head. The man at the end of the counter bowed on his way in. He handed our passports to The Department Head, who scribbled something in them, and waved us away. We all three bowed on our way out. We had our visa extension. We can stay for three months, if we want to.
We took a taxi back to the hotel, and a long, relaxing lunch.
(I imagine that a Syrian who wanted to renew their US visa would have to go through a great deal more red tape than we did. I imagine a Syrian who wanted to renew their US visa, and who spoke and read only Arabic, would find it impossible without professional help. I am not complaining about the amount of bureaucracy, merely noting it.)
Oh. For your information, the drop on a taxi in Aleppo, if you can find someone with a meter willing to use it, is 6 cents.