The day of the big surprise

15 August - I get up a bit before 7.45 and get ready for the intense day that will start with a visit to the archaeological museum. But before that I buy a sesame bun that I eat with that famous cream I'd bought in Tokal, which turns out to be nauseatingly sweet. In the museum fine mosaics and an interesting Roman sarcophagus are displayed. I stop a while in the mosque yard, where the warden offers me tea, then collect my luggage and walk to the dolmus station to go to the Syrian border.

A guy approaches me in the street, says he's a Christian, and wants to take me to the stop. This is unnecessary, since I have already spotted the place on the city map. Instead of taking me to the dolmus station as I wanted, he shows me the taxi rank, where they ask a higher fare. I don't accept, partly because I prefer not to change more Turkish liras, but at heart because it looks as if it's a much easier way than the adventure of edging on toward the frontier in steps. I will need at least 3 different vehicles because there is no direct line to cross, and moreover one stretch is not covered by any public service, so I will resort to hitch-hiking.

Meanwhile I leave the taxis, go to the dolmus with that guy always at my heels, now starting to ask for coins for his service. What a service, I think! I start getting nervous and tell him I won't give him anything. When I understand he awkwardly tries to arrange for the drivers to charge me 5 TL instead of 3, I burst out with irritation. The bar owner comes and tells me to cool down in a friendly way, and soothes my tension by some nice talking and a glass of tea. After about half an hour, we reach the number of passengers requested to leave. I'm happy, but my joy is to last a very short time, about an hour only, because I'm in for a nasty surprise.

I get to the village before the border and start walking to the frontier that is 7 km away. A taxi soon takes me; I ask him how much he wants to take me to Kassab. He doesn't make it a question of money, because he's going to Lattakia in any case and can drop me there for whatever I'd like to give him. I get on.

At the frontier I open my day bag to take my passport out. I fumble over and over again, but can't find it. I think it could be in the big backpack, although this seems so improbable. While I'm searching in it, I remember in a flash and with absolute certainty: I handed it over to the hotel receptionist in Amasya three days ago and left it there. A rapid calculation lets me grasp the dimensions of the problem: it's at about 1200 km away from here, two full days' journey…

The driver asks me for the hotel telephone number and immediately calls it from his mobile phone. They confirm my passport is still there. I'm disappointed and would like to punch the frontier post door if a guard were not present. I thought I'd visit Saladin's fortress as from this afternoon, but… Allah ghalib!

The driver refuses any money for his help, leaves me at the Turkish frontier, where presently another yellow car takes me back. I explain my problem to the driver, a Turkish Arab, who again calls the hotel and has my passport sent over to his agency. In Antakya I meet all the surprised drivers that had offered me a car to Lattakya this morning. I cross the market and go back to the church. I sit for a while in the shadow of the trees, then decide to go out. I wander around the lively market as if in a state of intoxication, I walk slowly, observing, casually taking some pictures, but my mind is fixed on that writing that I saw from a few tens of meters without getting up to it: "Aljumhuriyya alaarabiya assuriyya turahhibu bikum".

I go back to the church where today's Mass is about to end. The exuberant lady I had met last night comes out; she's the mother of that child who was operated on in Italy for complete deafness since birth. She reiterates a literally overpowering invitation to dinner at her house, saying I must meet her husband.

Preparations for dinner are soon under way: of course it'll be grilled meats. Another lady joins our party, a Christian Orthodox widowed at a young age and my host's future mother-in-law. Tomorrow a son of hers, who works in Kuwait as a barber, will get married here in Antakya and I'm invited to his wedding, although I hope in secret to receive my passport, as they promised me, and to make my way into Syria.

Part of the conversation is about religion or related topics: apparitions, dreams, Virgins that ooze mysterious oils. The bridegroom insists on talking to me in broken English that is hardly comprehensible about faith, afterlife, the meaning of life, but I grasp his thoughts in the few moments when he gives up and lets out some words in Arabic.

It's now 11 pm and think it's time I went to bed, but… I remember I went out without my keys, dragged by this lady. They promptly invite me to stay, but I try at any rate walking to the church and ringing the bell. Nobody opens, so I have nothing left to do than accept the sincere invitation to stay for the night. The couple gives up their double bed in the room where their son Aissa sleeps too, while the husband uses another single bed in the same room. They show me the bathroom at the end of the yard, where I wash with a basin and scoop. The bed sheets are fresh clean, they give me clean clothes for the night, while my garments are machine washed to be ready tomorrow morning.