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November Travelogue: Disco in the Desert

Signage found on the highway to Palmyra
The high desert terrain of Syria west of Damascus is a lot like what one would find in the desert southwest region of the United States. Every now and then, unlike its American counterpart, you'll catch sight of a blast area where rock was harvested for buildings or foundation purposes, or spot the encampment of a Bedouin tribe, nomadic people who had to discontinue or adapt many of their traditions due to both weather (a mid 20th century drought forced many to abandon as herders) and Syrian government policies.

This particular November in the late 2000's was the longest and farthest away I had been from closest friends and family. It was certainly not anywhere I thought I would be, much less consider going, given the rather contentious history and shaky (at best) relationship between my birth and current host country. But a work opportunity came my way, and the region was about as peaceful as one could have hoped for the time of my visit.

On this day, a few of my co-workers and were crammed in a passenger van on a chartered trip to see the ancient Roman ruins in Palmyra. We really did not figure it out until much later in our travels, but Palmyra (a name derived from the city's Aramaic name of Tadmor, which translates to "palm tree") is indeed the proverbial oasis in the middle of the desert, acting as a vital resting spot for caravans traveling the major east-west trade routes in ancient time.

Traveling to where ancient Romans and trade caravans have passed through for centuries
On this day, the only caravans we saw were fleets of tanker trucks chugging to and from neighboring Iraq. They were a constant reminder of the presence of crude oil, one the more recent reasons that this area has seen so much added tumult over the past few decades. Another similar reminder was the several places that claimed to be the "Bagdad Cafe." Apparently, the one with the "66" on it is the one to visit from the limited information I have been able to read from web-based sources.

If you believe the reviews, this is the correct "Bagdad Cafe" to visit for some good eats
At the time of our trip, our group was still getting used to the sights of Damascus, Syria's capital city. Considered by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus had its fair share of Western influence (I learned a building with a big Sony logo was a great way to orient yourself in that part of town, and the Four Seasons was about the best place in town to get a $9 can of Diet Coke) mixed in with its more ancient aspects. On our first trip away from city limits, we figured we wouldn't get much if anything Western-culture related, especially in the middle of the desert.

Our group had been chatting at a good level as we traveled from the center of Damascus and through the suburb areas, but we quieted down as we reached the more desolate parts away from the metro. The driver, who I am certain has done this trip for folks like us hundreds of times and, if nothing else, wanted to stay awake, asked us if it was okay to turn on the radio. No one objected.

This was my first experience with Syrian radio, and it was apparent we had tuned in to a station from Aleppo, the largest city in the northern reaches of the country. However, the strains of the first song we heard woke everyone out of their semi-stupor that had overtaken us.

The 4/4 beat, orchestral strains, sultry swaying sound of a song that typified a brief and, some say, regrettable era in American pop music...we stared at each other, as if to confirm we weren't individually hallucinating from dehydration and desert heat.

The Bee Gees? "More Than a Woman"? We were all sucked in to that beat and those familiar lyrics..

Oh say you'll always be my baby
We can make it shine
We can take forever just a minute at a time

And then it happened, as a group. In imperfect harmony, we sung out:

More than a woman
More than a woman to me
More than a woman
More than a woman to me

In the middle of the Syrian desert, the Gibb Brothers were leading us on to Palmyra...

Thanks for reading, and may you all have the safest of travels and the best of Thanksgiving holidays.

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