When you’re travelling on a budget there comes this rather tiring and testing time when you’ve looked around at all the hotels and none of them match your budget or the basic acceptable standard you’ve set for yourself. We rarely tend to book the hostels or hotels in advance and have almost never faced a problem with this. (Lonely Planet to the rescue!). However towards the end of our stay in Syria, we found ourselves back in Damascus for the last few days and since this was familiar territory we felt booking a place in advance was for amateurs.
Little did we know! After checking out the rooms of the 8th hotel in a row and not finding anything suitable, things were starting to look grim. And though normally by now our estimate of the budget starts to get more and more flexible, this time that wasn’t the issue. All the hotels that seemed to have rooms available were way too dingy for my taste and let’s not even get to the bathrooms.
Hungry, and exhausted with the weight of our backpacks, we stood by the side of the road discussing what our next plan could be and whether we should move away from the old city and look elsewhere etc. Overhearing our conversation, a rather shabbily dressed man whose breath reeked of alcohol approached us speaking (surprisingly) perfect English asked we needed help to find a hotel.
Of course my first instinct was to politely refuse him and move away from there. But somehow before we knew it we were engaged in a conversation with him. I don’t know if it was out of extreme fatigue, surprise at his language skills, being out of options or that somehow we had an inkling of certainty that this man here was actually going to help us out.
Typical of most men in Syria, he addressed almost all of the conversation to Pawel (the man), informing us that he knew of a hotel well within our budget and much cleaner than the ones around here.
Of course going by all the travel safety norms, we should’ve known better than to believe a guy approaching us on the street and who was barely able to steady himself while talking to us. I have no clear idea how the next few minutes went by, but before we knew it, he had summoned another man from nearby who he claimed knew the exact address of the place and the 4 of us squeezed into a taxi were off to this ‘mysterious’ hotel!
Let me warn you in advance that by no means should this be practiced or tried in a foreign country!
In the taxi, I kept pinching Pawel to speak up and ask them where this place exactly was, and that we wouldn’t want to go too far from the old city. Although looking back what I should’ve said was: “What the hell are we doing getting into a taxi with strangers? One of whom is clearly not even in his senses, we need to leave now!” But I didn’t.
There were few more questions exchanged between the guys asking if we were married and where we were from etc. And the usual ‘Welcome to Syria! You like it?’ Since no one was really talking to me, I occupied myself in trying to remember the route from the old city to wherever the driver was taking us. You know- in case we were mugged and had to get back to the old city by foot.
I think the reason why we went ahead with these guys even though it isn’t the best decision to make in a foreign country, was that throughout our stay in Syria (with the sole exception of Palmyra) we were not once bothered by touts, souvenir sellers, generally any people looking to fleece off a tourist. Almost all the people we met were genuinely friendly and were eager to help us out when we wanted even if they didn’t speak English.
I would never advise anyone to do what we did here and all the safety tips from all guidebooks will tell you the same too. But here even though what was happening sounds like a tricky situation, my instincts weren’t screaming out to me to stop. In fact somehow I even thought it would be okay. The plain facts of the situation: drunk man, getting into a cab with strangers, not knowing the area where you’re being taken and so on would tell you this is a disaster in the making. And yet my instincts told me there was nothing to worry about. And I’m sure it was the same with Pawel too.
There have also been many times when the situation seemed perfectly fine and yet I didn’t go forward with what was there just cause ‘I didn’t feel right’, and over time especially while travelling I’ve learned to trust my instinct. I’m not going to dole out any advice here about ‘safe situations’ or even safe countries. But for sure, always trust your instincts. But if you’re instincts suck. just stay away from strangers’ cars!
And yeah about the apartment? It was great! – A fully furnished one bedroom apartment in a very pleasant, non-touristy neighbourhood. It was owned by a Syrian family who lived next door, and they rented out this spare apartment to other families during holiday season on short term basis. The apartment was simple yet clean and furnished in a typical Arab style complete with prayer mats in each room and even a Koran in the desk drawer. The man who took us there served as an agent and made a commission from the owner. For under 20$ a day, this was a steal! We took it instantly and stayed there for the next 4 days until we left Syria.