8th – 14th November (Fran’s Travels in USA, Lebanon and Syria)

The Travel Week That Was.

Fran’s travels in USA, Lebanon and Syria. Featuring Los Angeles and Greyhound bus to Denver in the US. Baalbek, Qadisha Valley, Batroun and Byblos in Lebanon, and Damascus in Syria.

8th November (1992)  Los Angeles, USA

For $12 a night, you cannot expect luxury. The hostel beds were pieces of plywood stapled together with a couple of thin foam mattresses, complete with lumps thrown on top. There were no blankets supplied. Having not packed a blanket or sleeping bag, I had trouble sleeping because cold. Combined with jet lag, a sleepless night resulted.

I stayed in bed until 11:30 am. After waiting in line for a shower, I didn’t leave until 1:00 pm.

I sum up the day in my diary:
So I saw downtown LA. WOW! (Sarcastic.) I’m not impressed at all. It also took so long to get there. Tried catching the metro but couldn’t work out where it actually went or how much it cost. There was no one there, only ticket machines. So frustrating.

Bought fries at McDonald’s. Said, “Take away,” but I should have said, “To go”.

Just about got buses worked out. Transfers are a little confusing. I don’t think you have to pay unless you use it again, but I think it may depend on the driver. Some take the transfer off you, or you pay 25 cents, or tonight I kept the transfer and didn’t pay anything. If I was staying till the end of the week, I’d have it all worked out. I’m not sure that I want to, though.

Got off at the wrong stop going to Beverly Hills. Thought driver said Rodeo Drive when it was actually Gale Drive. A lady on the bus was trying to talk to me, but she couldn’t understand my accent. Didn’t find the Beverly Hills sign or anything. It was dark, only about three shops open. Very disappointed. Have to do it properly (tour) later.

Went to a 50s diner like Peach Pit. Absolutely great. Food not the best but still okay. Apple pie and milk. Great atmosphere. Would like a place like that. Good if had friends. Not sure what/how to tip.

Passed a couple of high schools. They look so wonderful. They are just so big. I’ll have to go to one while in Denver.

I’m not in the right frame of mind, so I think I’ll have to go straight to Denver, see Wendy, and then start again.

Not even the cats are friendly. They won’t give me the time of day.

I don’t sound like I was enjoying myself. I remember walking through downtown and feeling scared. It was important to look like I belonged. I did not know where I was going, but I only unfolded the giant map when out of sight.

The motivation behind coming to America was my obsession with the Beverly Hills 90210 television show. I wanted to experience everything an American high school offered. Seeing real high schools, going to Beverly Hills and eating at a diner like the Peach Pit in the show, were dreams come true, but reality and expectations were miles apart.

Wendy was an American exchange-student who lived with my family in Australia when I was fourteen. She lived with me as a sister, so I often referred to her as my sister. I missed her after she left and wanted to re-connect with her. Denver, Colorado, was her hometown.

9th November (1992)  Greyhound Bus to Denver, USA

From my diary:

Today I realised something. I am totally unorganised. I have no idea what I am doing, where I am going, or anything. The guys in my room really showed me that. It took me nearly the whole day to decide I was going straight to Denver–not via San Fran[cisco] or anything else.

That was the easy part. Then I had to use the phone for the first time and what an experience that was. Ringing Greyhound Bus–a local call–was fairly straightforward, but trying to ring Wendy in Denver was a nightmare. I had to put in about $2.60 for one minute. The operator tells you if you haven’t put enough in, but it’s all a recording, I think. Then I rang Wendy, and of course, the answering machine was on. Being stupid, I hung up as quickly as I could, but the phone took all the money. I was so annoyed. I had to go get more change–$2 worth of dimes. While I was leaving a message, I was told to put more in. Now I don’t know if I was cut off or what. I panicked and I think I stuffed the message up totally. Now I am not even sure if I said bus. I said 8:30 pm tomorrow but don’t know if said I would be getting off the bus.

Had to go through operator to try to get my money back, but all she could do was send it to me. I rang about three numbers until one said, “I’ll put you through to a live operator.” They all sounded live to me. It’s a funny system. I’m telling you that now. But I’m going to master it.

Coinage and one-dollar bills were constantly required in America. Exact change only on buses and you had to continually feed quarters into payphones while calling long distance. Everyone wants change, and no one gives you change. Eventually I learnt to get rolls of quarters from banks and hide one-dollar bills in a separate part of my wallet. This became the norm, so when I ordered US dollars via my bank before a trip a few years ago, I specified twenty, one- dollar bills so I would have them on hand whenever necessary. Times have changed, and this is no longer required. Credit cards have almost made cash obsolete. In 1992, without a credit card or even an ATM card, cash was everything–as well as traveller’s cheques.

I lugged my substantial and inappropriate luggage to the bus station on public transport. I cannot remember how much luggage I began my trip with, but I have a vivid memory of dragging two duffle bags, without wheels, across a train station floor and being pained by their weight. There was no backpack as yet.

Prior to leaving Australia, I bought a four day Greyhound Bus Pass for US$75. This was cheaper than buying a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Denver. I bought the pass for that single purpose. However, the ticket seller forgot to mark the “void after” date. Thanks to this, I used the pass again later on the trip. It proved to be excellent value for money .

Long-distance buses, run by Greyhound, are a world of their own. The bus stations are often in seedy parts of town. You never know what is going to happen or who you are going to meet. Best not to linger outside. Stay inside where there are people around. Experiencing the bus stations made me grateful for my money belt, a going away present, that went around my neck and under my clothes. This held my cash, passport, traveller’s cheques, and plane ticket. You could not re-print a plane ticket or rock up at the airport with ID back then. You had to protect your plane ticket like it was cash. I made sure I could feel the pouch throughout the overnight bus ride.

The girl in line behind me was the first person I met. She asked me where I was going and when I said Denver, she could not understand my accent. I had to repeat myself multiple times and then added Colorado to the end, and that is when she understood. Australians pronounce Denver more like Den-‘va’ and Americans pronounce the “ver” more drawn out like “verrrr”. To this day, I pronounce Denver as Denverrrrr after being teased about it so much on this trip.

After that was sorted, we talked through the first leg about high school, college, travelling. It was great to pass the time even if I talked too fast for her to understand.

On the next leg, the man boarding after me recognised my Country Road bag and enquired if I was from Australia. This conversation was not as pleasant. He praised America the Great and commented on my ignorance because I was not American. In his belief, everyone outside America was dumb, his word, and did not know how to do anything. The world relied on America for help and would not survive without them. I avoided sitting next to him.

My seat companion from here till Denver was a more pleasant man named Steve. He was thirty-one with long blonde hair, which he flicked from side to side constantly. Annoyingly. Tattoos covered both arms. He was born in England, but his father “pulled some strings” and got him a Green Card so could live and work in America. According to him, he worked for three months salmon fishing in Alaska, earning $47,000 and then nine months travelling around America and the world. Interesting. He was on his way to Fort Collins, Colorado, to meet friends.

10th November (1992) Greyhound Bus to Denver, Colorado (CO), USA

We had a three-hour layover in Las Vegas overnight. I can still picture the lights in the distance as we crossed the border from California into Nevada. Three brilliant glows of the border town casino lights, the Las Vegas lights, and lights from another town in the middle of nowhere to the left. In the pitch black, it looked magical.

The bus station was in downtown Las Vegas, which is not on the “Strip”. It has casinos with neon lights, though. Steve and I walked around together. Being underage by American standards, I was nervous, but Steve said if I was not gambling, it was legal to wander through. We made it as far as the top of the Strip and went inside a casino called Vegas World. The atmosphere was electric. It had a space theme with astronauts, spaceships, planets, and stars hanging from the ceiling. Right up my alley. They pulled this casino down in 1995. The Stratosphere is in its place.

Steve tried to explain the different games to me. We watched roulette, blackjack, poker, and craps. I loved every minute understanding how people were drawn in by the atmosphere. Good thing I was underage.

We walked some distance from the bus station, so took a taxi back to save time. Steve kindly paid for the taxi, bought me a soft drink, and paid for the locker we stored our bags in while exploring. I felt guilty, but he insisted.

My message to Wendy did not convey my arrival by bus, so there was no one waiting for me at the bus station. A quick local phone call sorted that.

My diary describes our meeting up:
I saw this girl who seemed to be looking in my direction and smiling and waving. I looked at them but didn’t think it was Wendy, but I felt really agitated. It turned out to be Wendy. I could tell as she got closer, but her hair was straight, whereas it was curly when she left Australia.

I stood up, walked towards her a little and we gave each other a hug and it was wonderful to finally be with her again, but I was so nervous and didn’t know what to say. She took my suitcase, which was quite heavy, but insisted on taking it while I carried my travel bag, pillow, etc.

I will assume my travel bag was the Country Road bag, and the second duffle bag I remember will appear in the future.

It was late in the evening but we stayed awake chatting, catching up.

11th November (2019)  Qadisha Valley and Batroun, Lebanon

I partook in a short, eight-day tour of Lebanon at the end of 2019. This was day six. We had spent the night at the twelfth century St. Anthony Monastery. After breakfast, and a quick peek at the Monk’s morning prayers and bell ringing, we hiked in the valley. We had spectacular views looking back at the monastery, which is built into the cliff face. Some frightening moments for some, with fears of heights and bridges, but a pleasant walk.

We had the most garlicky potatoes ever in a town called Batroun. I swear I can still smell and taste them now. Batroun is famous for their lemonade, but alas, the potatoes divineness has made any other memories of lunch evaporate. So I cannot comment on the lemonade.

We walked along an ancient sea wall before lunch and visited a small ancient theatre in a lucky resident’s backyard. They left their gate open so everyone could admire it.

We ended our day in Byblos with a beautiful view from my hotel balcony overlooking the ocean at sunset. We visited the ruins on arrival, but was difficult to appreciate them after such a long day.

12th November (2019)  Byblos, Lebanon

This morning we had free time in Byblos. I decided to re-visit the ruins from yesterday. They did not disappoint. There was a 12th century Crusader Fort with views of the sea. It made for excellent exploring. But the site contains ruins from various points in history back to the Bronze Age.

At breakfast I caught up with one of the girls on the tour, and we returned to the ruins together. I remember the exact location we were scrambling. Somehow we were talking about writing. I said, “That’s my dream job to be a writer. I was good when I was younger.”

“If you had the talent once, then it will still be there.” I did not know that sentence had planted a seed.

I enjoyed staying in touch with her after the tour, allowing the seed to grow and result in my writing. Without this travel moment, I would not have started writing, and you would not be reading this.

We had to rush back to check out and join the group. In my haste, I overlooked my sunglasses case. I loved my blue and yellow case covered in owls. I haven’t been able to replace it.

The tour continued to the incredible sight of Jeita Caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites. It went from cavernous to closer quarters. We walked through and then drifted on waterways whilst remaining as quiet as the sights would allow. Spectacular. A shame no photos allowed. They locked all cameras and phones away. It was a beautiful way to finish the tour of a beautiful country. So glad I got to experience Lebanon before it, and the world changed. It is devastating everything that has happened in Lebanon since my visit.

We enjoyed a scrumptious final night dinner. The food, delicious and plentiful, the company delightful. I was sorry to say goodbye. I would miss my travelling companions and the beautiful country.

13th November (1992)  Denver, USA

I ventured out after getting directions from the 7-Eleven, followed by getting change at the pizza shop. While waiting at the bus stop, a girl called out to hold the bus for her. She caught the bus without issue, and we spent the day together at the mall. Originally from Texas, accent and all, she had moved to Denver after working in Boston. We wandered around from shop to shop while she asked, “Y’all hiring?” I filled out an application myself when the Disney Store had five full-time positions available. I thought if I practised speaking with an American accent, they would not ask for a Green Card or such. So naive in 1992. I did not attend the interview the next day.

On leaving we missed a bus so had to wait. We filled in time at what we expected to be a candle store, but we’d misread the sign saying candies. They had a taster plate with chocolate-covered potato chips. I noted: “I had to try them and they were beautiful.” That sounds so disgusting now.

I had no concept of money, or how little money I had, spending $22 on T-shirts and stationary. It was mostly a reconnaissance trip, noting the smaller shops were cheaper than the department stores.

When Wendy came home, we moved to her parents’ house to pet sit their rabbits for the weekend while they had a weekend away. We had a quiet night in hiring videos to watch.

It was a fantastic experience going to the video shop. The movies currently out in the cinema, or still not out in Australia, were here before me on video. There were so many that I wanted to see. We ended up getting Sister Act–Whoopi Goldberg–which was really good/funny, and Sleepwalkers, a Steven King, which was okay but not one of his best.

In the 1990s, movies would take up to a year to come to Australia post their American cinema release. After the cinema run, videos were available to purchase first and later to hire in video stores. American video stores were gold mines for Australian movie buffs in 1992.

14th November (2010)  Damascus, Syria

On arrival in Damascus, I had a well-appreciated transfer waiting for me. Such a treat arriving and finding a sign with your name on it. However, some confusion followed. The driver took me to a hotel different from that in my trip notes. He told me this was where I should be, but fear crept in. After much discussion, he agreed to take me to the hotel on my information from the tour company. Once inside, the hotel receptionist informed me the tour wasn’t staying there. A fellow Australian came through reception. She was travelling on her own and wanted to help. I put my backpack on my back and walked to the original hotel. The driver was correct. Frustrating. After a quick freshen up, I returned to the wrong hotel, as the fellow Aussie had offered to show me around Damascus. A mistake turned into something positive.

Having a potato snack on my first day in Damascus with a new friend

2 thoughts on “8th – 14th November (Fran’s Travels in USA, Lebanon and Syria)”

  1. Paula Pryor (Galloway)

    Enjoyed the ‘dumb’ comment from the delightful fellow on your bus ride. We had a similar experience back in 2000 in San Diego. Thankfully people like that are few and far between over there and most people can’t do enough for you!

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