Once Upon a Time, (fall of1955) I drove across the map with my husband Tom Fraser on our way to Java so he could do his field work in anthropology (Grad student at Columbia - Margaret Mead head of his committee). Got that? We shared the driving.
So we drove from London in our brand new Land Rover and headed across the map. We slowed down for nothing in Europe, anxious to set foot in Asia, but first In northern Greece we stayed in some little inn and Tommy got bed bugs bites. (They don't care for moi). So after that, in Turkey & after Istanbul, we started throwing our own sleeping bags down on the desert and slept well. We made our way south from Antioch (scorpions) to Beirut Lebanon.
In those days Beirut was called "The Little Paris of the East" - sophisticated; multi-nationals and religions lived in peace there. We went to the very best hotel, The St. George, and had martinis and steaks, had the Rover serviced, and the next morning we headed to Damascus. Not very far. We had decided to cross the Syrian desert on a route that had no road but was very direct and due east (not that we had a compass) to Baghdad. Baghdad was 500 miles away from Damascus but a straight shot. The last humans we saw were Arabs in striped robes when we stopped to eat something. They watched us and we all nodded. I got out a cigarette and one of the guys whipped a Ronson lighter out of somewhere in his robe and lit my cig.
Of all my experiences, our one night in the Syrian desert was tops. There was nothing there but packed hard sand and gravel. No road or signs BUT there were black oil drums every kilometer.... when we got to one drum we looked until we saw the next one, seriously! We found we could drive at 55 mph and be fine. So on and on we went amazed at the immensity and space out there. (No dead tanks or war equipment. Not rock, a plant, a sign, nothing.) Eventually we stopped for the night. It was dusk. We saw a huge curved llght on the horizon stretching over a vast area of the eastern sky. No idea what it was... Tommy thought it was the top of a mushroom cloud. I thought maybe a phantom jellyfish -but that's me. It turned out to be the most enormous full moon I have ever seen. SURPRISE! no words for it. It was moon-colored.
When we wakened the next morning, there were some gigantic vultures waiting to see if we were alive. Late in the day we spotted a tent. ! Wow a tent! We pulled up to discover the Iraqi immigration Border station. The officials beckoned us inside where we showed our passports and visas, & we all sat around in a circle on the floor while they prepared and served tea. No hurry there. They saw we smoked so they rolled cigs in paper and licked them to seal them for us. So happy to have some guests! Sweet.
There we were on the outskirts of Baghdad. It had some amazing blue and gold mosaics on mosques.....a long tunnel of a busy market. No one ever did anything but be welcoming & help us with directions. We learned that it is easy to get into a city (all roads lead to Rome idea) but it is another story to find your way out in the right direction. If you asked anyone (and this goes for Iran, Pakistan and India too) they GET IN your car and go with you to show the way. It is as if they had nothing else to do!
Yep, that was a long time ago.
Now - what a mess.
[Photo credit: New York Times]