It is 8:30 Thursday evening. We pack our gear into three cabs for the drive to Erbil airport. Time to leave Iraq. It is hard to leave old friends, but we eagerly anticipate the new ones awaiting us in Syria.
We pass through the first checkpoint…a dozen concrete barriers that we must navigate like one finding their way through a maze. Soon, we pass the second, and the guard lets us pass with a wave. We exit the taxis, and move our gear 100 yards towards the first metal detectors and baggage checks. Only Mark has his baggage examined, and we load onto a bus for a short trip to the main airport terminal. As we enter the terminal, we must again pass through metal detectors, and have our baggage searched. Straight ahead, the ticket counters.
At the counter, we plan to check in all six of us as a group in order to avoid baggage weight issues. As I check my first (and only) bag, I hear the group moaning to the baggage manager as he declares that we cannot check in as a group. Carol yells that I must check her third bag as my “second”, and I place her bag on the scale to attempt to do so. The clerk grabs my carry on and yells that I cannot check it as a carry on. It is too heavy. He strips the bag from my hand and places it on the conveyor belt. I grab it in protest, and explain that there is no way I am checking the valuable electronics as baggage. The group then begins taking what we can from my carry on – which was well under its weight upon arrival in Erbil – and redistributing items into other luggages. As we continue to attempt to check Carol’s bag, we are told that we cannot do so, because it is also overweight. It isn’t, but the group struggles to explain to the baggage manager that I am allowed two bags, and that Carol’s is my second. In the confusion, Mark sneaks his carry on by the airport staff. His is much heavier than any bags among us. The line at the counter, which was non-existent when the process started, is now quite long. An Arab man loses his cool, to the extent that security is called to escort him away screaming. We are apprehensive enough considering what is in store for us this evening, so we are off to a bad start.
Somehow, Carol gets her third bag checked with an extra baggage charge. In the confusion, they forget to charge her. We sit down for a rest, have some ice cream, and then pass through the third and last baggage check before boarding. I lose some hair gel during the inspection, but otherwise we are clear.
The plane is scheduled for a 10:55 pm departure. We board at 11:30. We take off at 12:10.
It is a two hour flight to Beirut.
We arrive around 2 am. We deplane and head towards passport checks. Another 30 minutes pass as we gather luggage, and head towards the exit where John awaits. (He is supposed to be in Syria, but he has not secured a Visa. Gene was turned away at the boarder only 24 hours earlier. His visa has also expired)
It is a challenge packing all of the luggage, John, the six in our group, and two local helpers into three small cars. Security is pressuring us to hurry. We manage, and with a short drive, we find ourselves under a highway bridge at 3 am in the morning. There are more than a dozen men here with cars of all makes, Mercedes to 1974 Chevy Impala… Syrian “taxis”, who make a living making several runs across the border each day for clients brave enough to hire them. First, a price must be negotiated. John stands by with a satchel full of cash. American Voices helper Mahmoud (whom we affectionately call MahMoody) does the talking. The scene looks like a late night drug deal about to go wrong.
We agree on a price. Bruce and I get the 74 Impala. Bruce is in the back with his cello and a rather large bag in his lap.
Every bolt in the Impala rattles. The wheels are unbalanced. We drive, often over 100 miles per hour, in the dark, swerving through traffic and mountain curves, which mostly consist of large trucks struggling to ascent the mountain pass for entry into Syria. Another coat of paint and we will hit them. I am too tired to care. Bruce somehow sleeps in the back seat. The windows are down, and the chilled air of our ascent is welcome respite from the 125 degree Iraqi heat.
We reach the Lebanon border. Thankfully, the taxi driver leads us through the process of filling out our pink cards. We are off again and shortly reach the Syrian border. Time to fill out the blue cards. Again the taxi drivers help, tough it is clear that they are now fatigued as well.
Finally, there it is…Damascus…as the sun rises above the mountains. The scene is beautiful. But, we know we will enjoy it more once we sleep.
Such was the “Night Crossing”.
Our 6 am arrival at the Fardoss (Paradise) Tower Hotel was a pleasant surprise. We feel like we found a quaint French Hotel in Paris. Fine food, clean rooms, and staff that treat us like kings. This IS paradise after Iraq.
A few of us found some time to venture to the “old city” yesterday. We explored the Umayyad Mosque. The history of the site is rich, including an ancient temple to the “Storm God”, a Roman temple to Jupiter, a Christian church, and a Mosque. The complex is said to include the remains of Mohamed’s grandson, and the head of John the Baptist. By my favorite part of the venture was people watching in the square courtyard.
Women mourn at the the place where all the other heads of those who fell in Karbalā are kept within the Mosque
Today we began the institute. Since John and the veterans were not able to be here two days ago, they were not able to do planned preparations and we are starting well behind. However, the facilities are amazing. Apparently, the president of the country is quite a supporter of the arts, and is a friend of the conservatory founder.
The conservatory was told to spare no expense, and to “purchase what you need.” The results are rooms full of Hamburg Steinways, and Yamaha concert grands. My teaching area includes two harpsichords, a forte piano, a Hamburg Steinway B, and a 9 foot Yamaha. They all seem well maintained, so I assume that there must be a decent piano tech here as well.
On average, the students are very well taught – mostly within the Russian tradition –with many ready for graduate study or a Bachelors in piano performance. The next few days look to be very enjoyable.
Paganini welcomes visitors to the Conservatory