Nothing quite compares to sitting at the top of a second century Greco-Roman amphitheatre in the middle of the Syrian desert with only the hot wind and red sands for company.
It was in this moment that I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my travel experiences. At times I still find myself a little surprised to realise I am in the Middle East!
My experience of Syria over the past few days has been shrouded in a haze of dehydration. Struggling with the typical traveller’s ailment (dual evacuation), I still managed to see most of St Simeon’s, the dead city of Sergilla, the twelfth century water wheels (Norias) of Hama and the entrance hall (near the bathrooms) of the Crac de Chavaliers (former Crusader castle) before collapsing into a miserable mess at Palmyra.
But after a some medicine, rehydration salts, half a bowl of lentil soup (first food in three days) and a lot of lemonade, I have made an impressive recovery in time to experience the splendour of Palmyra.
Today has been one of the best days of the trip so far. With some dry cereal in my belly and a bottle of water under my arm, I set off this morning to explore the ruins of Palmyra. Along the dusty road I must have waved to twenty locals and told ten people that I was from Brisbane, Australia in response to, “Welcome. You are welcome. Where you from?”
Sprawled across waves of red sand, the well preserved Palmyrian ruins inspire all the romantic images you would expect of an Arabian oasis on the former Silk Road. As I wandered through the column-lined roads, Bedouins seemed to flock from all directions to sell me scarfs and necklaces and camel rides. I even received a marriage proposal from a pudgy, sweaty middle-aged Bedouin taxi driver: “You forget your boyfriend. Marry me. I have two wives and enough money. You would be very lucky”. (Sorry Dave, but how can I refuse an offer like that?)
Ruins explored, I then took myself on a pick-me-up shopping spree (in Palmyra’s one main ‘tourist’ street); talked James Joyce, Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad and Emily Bronte with a local tour guide (oh the joy of English literature in the desert); and retired for my new favourite habit, the twenty minute nap (yes, I nap these days).
In the afternoon, I took a local ‘bus’ with the rest of the tour group to see the desert tombs and Palmyra Citadel. The ‘bus’ was a charming 1950’s rust bucket with leather seats inside and a very breezy luggage rack-come-passenger-deck on top. Riding on the bus roof through the desert, scarf wrapped tightly around my face, with elegant sand hills sweeping to the horizon on either side, I was again struck with the magnificence of this experience. The freedom of travel, and the excitement of not knowing whether you will be on top of a bus or inside a tomb or hugging a toilet in a medieval castle, is truly wonderful.