Heat waves rise from the sun-burnt landscape as I rest in the shade of a stone column. I am in the Syrian countryside, walking in the ruins of the Roman city of Apamea. It’s mid-June, and the temperature has topped 100 degrees.
My stomach is in a raging boil, the result of something I ate last night. Reaching the end of the colonnade, I look for my driver, Abdul, a short, pudgy man with cauliflower ears and a shaven head. All morning we cruised buckled highways in his yellow taxi, shooting across the rises and dips like water-skiers riding the waves. His rudimentary English and my rough Arabic have met halfway to form a workable union. “You want to stop, say stop,” he’d say. “You want to eat, we eat.”
But eating is now the last thing on my mind. I find Abdul praying in the shade of the entrance booth, a piece of cardboard for his prayer mat. When he is finished, I tell him about my condition. Soon we’re back on the road. At the city of Homs, site of a church that displays a piece of cloth believed to be a belt worn by the Virgin Mary, we pay our respects, then plunge into the crowded souk in search of a pharmacy. Abdul quizzes the man in the white jacket behind the counter, and moments later we emerge with a box of tablets.
“See, good—made in Germany,” he says.
An hour later, and my stomach has calmed. Abdul pops a tape into the dashboard cassette player and the car fills with the silky strains of Fairuz, the legendary Lebanese diva. We arrive at Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader castle seized by the Muslim warrior Saladin in 1188. On a restaurant terrace we have a true Syrian lunch: plates of tabbouleh, grilled chicken, hummus, baba ghanouj, and spiced lamb. I pick gingerly while Abdul grazes.
The next two hours I spend walking the castle ramparts, poking my head into its stone hallways and musty cells. When I return to the taxi, Abdul has just finished polishing its fenders and sweeping out the interior. Soon we’re off again, angling along the side of the mountain into a brilliant sunset. Grinning, Abdul pulls over onto the shoulder. Behind us, the façade of the castle is aglow in the setting sun.
“Take photo?” he asks, and I realize he has driven this road just to set up the perfect shot for me. That is typical Abdul. Driving is only part of his job description. He’s also a provisioner of comfort and securer of his guests’ needs, a rolling promotion for the Syrian Office of Tourism. Shuttling foreigners from one historic site to the next, he earns twice what he would trolling the streets of Damascus or Aleppo. But it comes at a price. He’s on the road six days a week, and doesn’t get to see his children—all seven of them—as often as he’d like to.
Looping back down the mountainside, Abdul points out Lebanon in the distance. I mention, fancifully, that it would be nice to see Beirut. “You want to go?” he asks. But we have two beds waiting for us in Palmyra, so we resist the temptation and instead spend the next two hours speeding across the western desert. Outside the air is blowing hair-drier hot. We stop at a convenience store to load up on water, and Abdul takes the 1.5-liter bottle I bought back inside and returns with one 20 degrees colder.
The ruins of Palmyra are the apex of the Syrian travel experience, the country’s answer to the Pyramids of Giza. We arrive early the next morning, shortly after sunrise—the best time to visit, before the harsh midday light bleaches the stone and the swarms of trinket sellers arrive (“Ali Babas,” Abdul calls them) astride their two-cycle Vespas and Suzukis, to spend their day chasing tourists around the complex. The Temple of Bel, the columns of the Tetrapylon, and the remains of the amphitheater gleam in the low-angled light. The air of the desert blows sweet and cool. A few visitors wander over the ruins.
That afternoon, Abdul drops me at the bus station for the trip to Damascus. Even as I tip him ten Syrian lira, and he slips the note in his pocket, I know it’s nowhere near enough. The true value of the experience of any place is the encounter with its people, and for that there is no price.