Disaster: I lost my backpack

Thu, 12 Jun 2008 11:40:24 +0000

Damascus Index Palmyra Day 1

And I also had a cappucino with a public relations officer from the Ministry of Interior. But mainly I lost my backpack.

The day started according to plan. Around seven I went down to find the front door locked, presumably because the bloke at the front desk was sleeping. There were four Japanese guys floating around also wanting to check out, and eventually they worked up the resolve to knock and wake the guy up. So we all checked out.

I went down to the road to catch a taxi, and found one no problems. Friendly guy, not much English, but knew who Mark Viduka is. I probably should learn more about football in order to do better in these conversations. It took some explaining and diagrams of buses to get him to understand where I wanted to go, but he did take me to the right place.

And then I got out of the taxi and walked up to the bus station. Forgetting my bag. It's as simple as that. I just closed the door, walked away, and he drove off with it still on the back seat. About thirty seconds later I realised my mistake. Too late.

It really was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I always put my bag on the back seat and sit in the front. On reflection, I should keep it in my field of view. But that's a little bit like saying that when walking over a bridge, you should keep one hand on the rail to guard against accidentally flinging yourself over the side. You should be able to take a certain amount of common sense for granted. I think I was a little distracted because I had my pen, paper, wallet and GPS all out and had to hurriedly put them away as I was getting out of the taxi. But really, c'mon.

So what to do? The first thing I did was wait to see if he would come back. My reasoning was that he might discover it (perhaps when he picks up his next fare), think there might be a reward for returning it (there would have been), and see if he could find me. I stood in a prominent spot outside the station looking recognisable, which is very easy for me, especially in Syria. But after an hour of waiting, desperately trying to recognise a face in the taxis that drove by, I had no luck. I miserably slunk into a taxi for the ride back to the hotel.

The hotel were happy to check me back in. I explained the situation. "Big problem", the guy said. Too right. If I had taken a taxi from the hotel, or somehow told the driver where I was staying, there might be a hope, but he has no way of knowing that.

So what have I lost? Worst is my British passport. It has my Mozambique visa in, and having only one passport is going to severely cramp my ability to get any other visas. I had USD200 in cash, which is probably going to represent the biggest fare my taxi driver has had in a while. But I can live with that loss. My hard disk is gone, but due to technical troubles I won't go into here, it was looking less and less likely that I'd be able to use it anyway. The batteries and chargers are a pain to replace: I really loved my elegant USB-based system, and the parts are a little obscure to replace. I lost my anti-malaria medication, which is going to be pretty hard to replace. I lost my expensive Jack Wolfskin coat, but I'm not really going anywhere cold any more and I never liked the colour anyway. My mobile phone is gone, along with my German SIM card - the phone was cheap, and I can replace the card without losing my number. Apart from that, clothes, sleeping bag, mosquito net, and a few other bits and bobs.

What isn't lost, is my Australian passport with my Syrian visa in, my Syrian entry card, my PDA with all the information about plane tickets and stuff, and all my credit and debit cards. I also have British and Australian SIM cards, useful if I want a replacement phone. My plan of keeping everything truly irreplaceable in my handbag paid off here. Sorta.

So there was nothing for it but to go shopping for replacements for everything. First I bought a cheap backpack, which I can guarantee won't last more than two months. I then had breakfast, where I got to chatting with an Aussie and Kiwi, and got a moderate level of commiseration for my plight. "Your insurance will cover it though, right?" "Uh, what insurance?" It's a good question actually: would travel insurance have been much use here? I'm inclined to think not.

So then off to do more shopping. I built a list of the essentials I needed to keep travelling. I got four pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, a towel, and most of my toiletries for less than 20 USD in one trip. I got a couple of chargers for under 10 USD. Two t-shirts and a pair of shorts for about 12 USD. It all adds up, and I'm far from done yet, but it's not a crippling amount of money.

I asked at a pharmacy for anti-malaria medication, but he said I'd have to go to some place that sounded like "Bamsala Square". When I asked at the front desk, it seemed that this is a long way outside the centre, and I just don't have the energy for that. I decided to wait until I get to Jerusalem.

And then there's the British passport. I phoned the embassy to report the loss, but she said that I needed a statement from the police confirming that I'd lost it. They certainly couldn't see me in person to fill out the necessary form until Monday. I didn't much like the sound of trying to extract a statement from the Syrian police, and I asked her what I'd have to do if I was leaving the country. She said that I could do everything in the next country, and say I didn't have time before. I may well have to do that. But then I thought that I should show willing and at least have a go at the police.

After quite a lot of exploring, I tracked down a local police station. They were thrilled to have me there, spending the whole time smiling and laughing with each other and trying to communicate with me in extremely limited English. I tried to smile along with them. They had me wait quite a long time, because they had to consult with a superior who was busy. I waited along with a couple of pickpockets - the policeman mimed and pointed and used the word "bad" a lot with lots of mock frowns, which must have been fun for the pickpockets. I surreptitiously moved my wallet to the safety of my handbag, just in case.

When I eventually got in to see the superior, he told the policeman to direct me to the police station near the bus station in Harasta, where I lost the bag. This required a taxi ride. Ah well. At least he wrote out the place in Arabic for me, to show to the taxi driver.

I caught a taxi, whose meter turned out to be broken. That turned out to be unfortunate. It was a long ride, but certainly no more than 150 Syrian pounds worth. I was panicking for a bit because he took me way past the bus station, but he did in fact take me to the right place. But then he demanded 500 pounds for the journey, which is about USD 10. I argued a lot, but in the end I'm feeling a little delicate and I ended up giving him 450. That's an appalling ripoff, and I regret not arguing the case harder.

As I had pretty much expected, I didn't have much joy at Harasta police station either. I got in to see the superior officer quicker this time, and stated my case. But he then directed me to the police station at the bus station itself. Clearly there was a slight miscommunication with the first lot of police. This time he wrote out my entire sob story on the piece of paper to hand to the next lot.

So I caught another taxi, this time taking care to look for one with a good meter. I found a new-looking taxi being washed by the driver, so clearly he had some pride in his work. The taxi was clean, new, and didn't rip me off, which is nice. He even pointed out some of the subtleties of the bus station as we went through it. It turns out that "bus station" means local buses, whereas intercity buses are called "pullman". This will be important if I'm ever to get myself to Palmyra.

I showed my story in Arabic to a policeman at a table and of course he directed me to his superior. This guy was entertaining a suave-looking guest in a suit. They both listened to my story, and thanks to the guy in the suit, who had reasonable English, I managed to explain that I had two passports, and I needed a piece of paper to say that I had lost one of them. The consensus was that I should go to the department of immigration to get my piece of paper. But tomorrow. For now, I had to have cappucinos with them.

So we chatted for half an hour over just-add-hot-water cappucinos. The uniformed officer was the first lieutenant of the station, and his suited guest turned out to be a public relations officer with the Ministry of Interior. They had graduated together and liked to hang out in the lieutenant's office, which has six comfy chairs and a TV. They were very friendly, in the way that people who don't interact with foreigners much often are. We chatted about tourism in Syria, how many Syrians there are in Australia, and also quite a lot about their girlfriends. Photos of the lieutenant playing the guitar were passed around (or rather pretending to play - he confessed he doesn't know one end from the other really). It was a weird experience. The public relations guy gave me his phone number, and told me to get in touch if I had any problems at all. I may well. But it wasn't the most comfortable social experience of my life, I have to say. I waited until a lull in the conversation and made my excuses, to handshakes and smiles all round. I think I was a hit.

Then yet another taxi back to the hotel, once again without any ripoffs. The meter was mounted on its side in the footwell next to my feet, but it still worked. I went to have a meal, which although described as a "sandwich" was more like a chicken hummus wrap thing, with potatoes and salad. Not bad really.

So now I'm back in the hotel tallying up my position. It certainly hasn't been what I would call a "fun day". It's had a few ups as well as all the downs. This kind of disaster is exactly what I signed up for when I planned this trip, and I've come through it relatively smoothly, all things considered. I've lost a fair bit of cash, and I was already starting to worry that I'm going to wind up with slightly less money at the end of the trip than I had hoped. So bad, but not hopeless.

And what does this mean for the itinerary? I've certainly lost a day. I think I'll still go to Palmyra, but I won't go to Krak des Chevaliers, which I think would be pushing things slightly too far. Instead, I should return to Damascus and try to get my piece of paper from the immigration department. If that doesn't go smoothly, I'll just go to Jordan and then Israel, and try to convince the British embassy in Jerusalem that I've lost my passport when I get there. I think overall I've used up whatever slack I gained from not going to Iran. Oh well.

More drastically, I'm weighing up discarding the whole trans-Mongolian railway journey part. The killer there is the visa: Russian visas are a real pain in the arse to get, and given that I need to get a Chinese visa too, along with a Mongolian visa at some point halfway along, it is going to be practically impossible to do it with only my Australian passport left. I really shouldn't try to push my luck. Letting this part go also saves a pile of cash, and means I have some time back in civilisation, either Germany or the UK, to pause and relax and get myself ready for China. Maybe I could do the trans-Mongolian in reverse, after my Chinese course, if I feel rich enough.

Well, first thing's first, let's see if I can get myself to Palmyra tomorrow. Hopefully I can see some ruins, and then do some more planning in my hotel room.

Damascus Index Palmyra Day 1