Once again the premise is simple: Write about a trip without stopping.
You’re going to miss seeing familiar names on a roster and the 17 other monsooners willing to join you to a country that’s been on your mind for the last 12 years. Although not everyone is going to make it with a 6 months’ notice for this trip let alone know their schedule this far ahead, the fact that they’re willing to trust you this far ahead already is something to be grateful about. You therefore remind yourself it’s all gravy even before the trip has started, and so we go in with so many conflicting emotions about a country we’ve only heard negative things about in Western media, and therefore conflicting expectations renders us unsure what to expect or feel at all.
You’re going to miss being surrounded by so many veteran monsooners. These are true companions, friends more than your equal, who have joined, co-led and continue to be a part of your adventures. You’ll miss knowing you won’t have another trip like this again when you see their faces at dinner and subsequent lindy-hopping in Beirut, and despite the tremendous jet lag that renders coherent sentences nearly impossible, you show with a smile. You’ll miss the 9 hours of reset sleep later that night, the butterflies and anxiety whether this is really happening?! Yes it is, and your driver Wael says so to your so-so feeling about this, so you follow Wael. When another driver retrieves your last monsooner flying in that morning despite delayed flights, the group forges ahead across the Lebanese/Syrian border. And right on time when it seemed all too good to be true, you definitely won’t miss the single person snag when one of your compatriots has to wait another 2 hours for her visa to be approved. But this is a team, and we stick together: Leave no one behind. You’ll therefore miss being reminded how the sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour, and the celebratory hugs afterwards couldn’t feel any sweeter as all 15 of us proceeded onwards into the oldest capital city in the world where we took our first walk along the streets of its old city. You’ll miss the squeals of delight of how nice your hotel is, appropriate enough for Brangelina in happier times, and after a quick sandwich break and your first you’ll miss weaving around the narrow alleyways and covered souqs to see the grandeur of Umayyad mosque during the wisdom of dusk. You’ll miss sitting down for a chewy frozen dessert treat unlike anything you’ve had before back home, and then ambling down lightless alleyways to climb up a rooftop bar playing Nicki Minaj and Doja Cat on a wall as you tell yourself that you’re finally and still in Damascus.
You’re going to miss waking up to a dream; a beautiful breakfast spread outdoors by the pool, not knowing who knew you wanted to wake up to this, And then you’ll miss the first roadtrip out of Damascus and up the hills into Maaloula where you seared into your head the legend of Saint Thecla so you won’t let down your guide, and meeting the nun in the convent by a tree that grows from the cliff, buying bracelets from her for less than 20 cents a weave, hiking through a valley between mountains and to the ghosts of ISIS past among the rubble of Hotel Safir. You’ll miss wondering who the last guest in the logbook was, taking before and after comparison photos of the hotel, and then admiring a view of Mother Earth and Maaloula in its entirety while the convents’ own adhan fill the air above the hills. You’ll miss trying to catch up to the rest of the group and while you might not miss being admonished for finally not walking as fast as you would back home, you will miss navigating your way out of criticism with a constructive suggestion and enjoying free shots of house wine, arak, and even shisha with the bus drivers before driving onwards.
You’re going to miss being told to close your eyes until opening them anew to castles of old, farflung symbols of a war you learned from history class, then getting used to more abandoned buildings as if they were adult jungle gyms, taking photos outside glassless windows, dancing off a lunch with the most animated dog, and then tea with grapes overlooking Syrian majesty. You’ll then miss having majesty all to yourself, spending an hour witnessing a long forgotten past, climbing up and down citadel walls, always finding another thing to take a photo of, the warm light against golden stone, yelling at both wind and flag, and then spending the night within the mountains with a first dinner feast that makes you realize how truly good Syrian food can be.
You’ll miss late night snack collecting at dueling convenience stores across the street, and waking up the next morning for a long drive eastwards into the deserts of Palmyra, where you take silly group photos in an abandoned car. You’ll miss watching a shawarma cook into perfection before your very eyes, and then it shall be a whole afternoon gallivanting with eternity: Collapsed marble from buildings that once stood high scatter across the sand like jewels across the desert, enlarged silica that remind us both the fleeting nature of flesh and bone and the tenacity of the human spirit that bears witness to a city that has been tried to be destroyed countless times and yet still refuses to die.
You’re going to miss an hour with the bedouins, exchanging friends as brides and grooms, singing happy birthday in Arabic, putting on a sandswept fashion show, and kicking back for ultimate relaxation with your shisha underneath the sun. You’ll miss professing your undying love for Syrian adobo, and the pleasant surprise he might feel the same way before saying goodbye. You’ll miss showing off your favorite snack afterwards, followed by the surprise of your favorite meal with a home-cooked family dinner that went above and beyond to show you that and how you’re family with a surprise birthday cake, dance, and more dancing. You’ll miss catching Homs-henge on your way out, waving hi to ecstatic and curious children, before driving to the nearest hotel in another city, settling in quickly to have another crack at a Syrian dessert downstairs or your first crack at 10% ABV Syrian beer that gets you staying up all night.
You’re going to miss waking up to military warplanes buzzing above you, the new background soundtrack to your morning stroll along engineering marvels. Although you may not miss the sound of diesel rubber, you’ll miss getting to hop a wall behind a restaurant to get a closer look at history, and being rewarded with freshly squeezed juice afterwards. You’ll then miss the drive up past ruins to end up on a hotel rooftop overlooking a city you only heard of in the news 7 years ago and impressing upon yourself that things are just so different when you see places with your own eyes once instead of hearing about it a thousand times over. You’ll miss feeling as if the markets were only opening up for you, as you are probably their only foreign customers for the day, and then the mouths agape at the immensity of the citadel overlooking the city that has survived so much despite the ruin around it. You’ll miss the feast of a lunch while a flutist plays “Ode to Joy” in the background and a parrot makes cat sounds, asking for more water to quench the Aleppo sun, and then endless almond pudding and ice cream. You’ll miss shopping with abandon at a famous soap factory, the thrill of crossing the street to look at a historic clock tower, and then that thrill over the nape of your neck when you watch the reverberating sunset adhan over the city of Aleppo from your hotel rooftop. You might not miss feeling the traveler’s belly afterwards but you may miss wellness hour in your bathing suits in the hotel basement trying to sweat out all the toxins, sweat, and all that creamy Syrian cuisine, followed by magic hour of a dinner back on the rooftop complete with good company, good food, good shisha, good service, good views, and good music. You’ll miss the moon obliging. Followed by a surprise dessert afterwards, you’ll miss thinking how this possibly can’t get any better.
You’re going to miss the underground breakfast, a late morning start to take the long drive back south to Damascus with your maté companion who’s never made maté on a bus ride before until she met you, picking up pistachios along the highway, the beauty of a rebuilt and renovated mosque, and preparing yourself for whether you would be ready to walk through more ruined neighborhoods when you suddenly realize you’re not here to see destruction, but rather reconstruction inherent within the never-ending cycles of death and rebirth, the everlasting hallmarks of nature and human history.
You’re going to miss returning to a city that already seems like a second home, the confidence of walking through the maze of old city on the second time around, shopping at various storied markets and learning how to haggle, returning to dress up for salsa night, being taken in right at the entrance as if you were already a friend and member of the studio, swallowing your pride and awkward fear in favor of butterflies in your stomach as you say fuck it and dance the best you know how with whatever you know of salsa and bachata. While you may not miss the sudden medical emergency that almost put an end to the festivities, you will miss being called to action with your fellow medical colleagues. And after helping a stranger wake up and taking him to an ambulance, you’ll definitely miss hearing the music suddenly change as if they wanted us to stay longer, hearing hits that would make even a red-blooded westerner blush, and especially when challenged to a dance battle in where else but Damascus, Syria?
You’re going to miss running back for one more dance, this time to bhangra of all routines, before scrambling to find taxis as if you were leaving a nightclub back home. You’ll miss feeling like a local with late night falafel munchies as if you were on the streets of downtown Manhattan on a warm September weekend evening, before turning in late, sleep be damned.
You’re going to miss the road trip south for another opportunity to think about The Roman Empire, retelling history by telephone, learning about princesses and scorpions, strutting your stuff down straight street like a catwalk, not needing another postcard, the first sight at one of if not the best preserved Roman theater that once again invites you to have the stage all to yourself. So onstage or backstage, this the closest you’ll get to having the ancient world be your stage. You’ll then miss the drool coming out of your mouth when watching how Fatayer gets cooked and being invited to sample some before the full meal of unlimited fatayers, as well as freshly squeezed pomegranate juice outside before leaving back to Damascus for one final night together. You’ll miss having more time to go shopping among the markets, as well as yours truly having the opportunity to walk around the souqs totally on your own and continuing to wonder what dreams would be like if they were no longer dreams. You’ll miss the last dinner together as if one of us would be getting married, and then bringing the proverbial karaoke house down with final night drinks, WAP and all its cameos, belting out 90s hits, finding out how long some Arabic pop songs can be, becoming impressed at the vocal talents of local titanium-built Syrians, and even feeling at home when they take you home, country road.
You’re going to miss breakfast now hitting a little different knowing it may be your last here in Damascus. And you’ll miss getting to have your own security detail in the heights, the last bathroom break, the last day trip, exploring a museum that turned into a different kind of museum, and stepping over scattered glass and metal from a recent conflict as if one day our own cities of present-day will become Palmyra for another civilization to sift through. You’re going to miss climbing up the ruins of a minaret that gives you views over borders into another country, meandering through abandoned houses of worships of any religion, and then heading back for one final goodbye underneath the bridge. You’ll miss the unexpected signed photographs, unexpected hugs, unexpected gratitude, the music that knows no shame, the gasp and sigh to show you this one will mean a little more than the rest, and the last lingering look behind at a country and people that have deeply affected you more than you had realized. You’ll miss the quiet drive crossing the border, and the sassy officer that stamps you back in before the final sunset goodbye, waving to the end until the last bus disappears below the event horizon, now knowing that you’ll miss each other most of all, having shared an indelible experience for, in, with and within a country that specifically brought us together to consummate a dream more than a decade old.
You will therefore miss Syria. You will miss each other. And you will miss Syria.