Meaningful Engagement International

Development, Arts and Cultural Policy Consulting


Yalla, On y va!

Posted on July 18, 2010 at 2:50 PM

"Yalla, on y va!" Dr. Gene, I and our Syrian cab drive were feeling optomistic and festive yelling "yalla" followed by the French "let's go! as we prepared to cross by taxi the Lebanese-Syrian border on the road to Damascus. 


For Dr. Gene (legendary doctor of jazz in case you were wondering) and myself, it was our second try to cross the border in 36 hours.  When we first arrived at the border after carefully selecting our then Lebanese cab driver under a very sketchy highway bridge based on the perceived quality of his car and his willingness to take our rate of no more than $100, we were denied. Well--Dr. Gene's multi-entry visa obtained via mail via the consul in Houston was denied due to a technicality (no end date).  My beautiful spanking-new, obtained in 20 minutes by an old-school gentleman in Washington, DC, visa had been approved in about 2 minutes which left us with a dilemma.  After several calls to our Arabic-fluent project managers in both Syria and Lebanon at about 4 am, and some kindly negotiating by our taxi man, it was determined that I would have to cross the border alone to get my exit stamp and pay the required 500 exit fee in Syrian currency and then pick up Dr. Gene again on the way back.


If my mother was alive, there was no way she could have slept well for at least a week ever thinking her daughter, who according to the natives doesn't look a day over 25, (although they are still worried that I might be in danger of missing the marriage bus-I told my Kurdish assistant I was still waiting for the limo) could  ever be entering a nation infamously described as part of the axis of terror alone in the middle of the night with a strange taxi driver. But on we went over the border.  Dr. Gene had done his best to coax pig latin from my tired brain to comment on how the driver was so lowsay compared to the dare deviled driving we were expecting as we left Beirut.  But at this moment, my slow -driving, heavy-smoking driver held my safe passage in his hands and he was looking mighty wonderful. 


I made it back to Lebanon only to have to run back and forth between the two administrative offices on that side of the border and here our driver proved invaluable. He pushed and prodded to get us the entry stamps we needed without another visa.  When you arrive via air you don't need a visa but at the border with car you do-go figure.  After an hour of navigating the now very busy border bureaucracy with everyone now knowing our bidness, we were back in Beirut in time to get a teeny bit of sleep and some important applications out the door and try again.


After stopping at the little cafe on the way where our new driver made us try some of the local specialities including an olive with the hottest, spiciest garlic I have ever tasted (no vampires in Syria clearly) we were on our way again. We shot the no man's land between Lebanon and Syria this time with the windows open and it felt like we were flying through the rugged beauty.  With some attention to the saxophone and printer at customs, we made it into Syria in time for the sunset.


The road to Damascus in the 21st Century can be a bit tricky but overall beautiful.  We were greated with real welcome both times and our drivers could not have been more thoughtful or trustworthy-with a proven willingness to go to bat for perfect strangers.  Even at the most difficult part of our crossing we were never yelled at or treatly unkindly in any way.  I am ashamed to say it probably would have been much much different back in the States.  And in fact, it was hinted that part of the wait to get visas for some of our team was due to some retaliation for similar treatment.


All in all, a nice adventure and one I would not have wanted to share with anyone else from our team.  So my recommendation.....if you plan to shoot the Lebanese border on the road to Damascus, get your visa in person in DC, find a groovy jazz man as your traveling companion and get a good driver and cross your fingers that the border crossing back home goes smoothly (with Iraq, Syria and Lebanese stamps on my passport, bets are now open for how long the entry interview back in the States will take.) Dr. Gene and I happy to be eating good food in Damascus and talking about jazz with Amr our project manager after our successful border crossing!

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