Thursday, June 14, 2007
Jesr ar-Rais: The Transportation Underbelly of Damascus
I have a love/hate relationship with Jesr ar-Rais (The President's Bridge). On the one hand, I've spent hours of my life in this place, waiting for, boarding, or exiting some form of public transportation. Jesr ar-Rais has always gotten me where I've needed to go. It's an "all roads lead here" kind of place - not too far from downtown, the Old City, Baramkeh, or the University of Damascus. Plus, it's conveniently located off of Autostrad. It is the very symbol of an efficient, thriving public transportation system.
On the other hand, Jesr ar-Rais is like a neverending shabaab convention. If you're going to survive a trip across it, whether over or under, you have to steel yourself against being eye candy for the masses. There are also sundry messes you have to pick your way through, and I don't mean just lane after lane of services and busses coming and going suddenly, spitting out exhaust as they do so. There are also vendors hawking their wares, and snack salesman camping out with huge vats of hot corn-on-the-cob.
There's the pile of trash that has inexplicably gathered at the bottom of the high-traffic staircase to the top.
But the scariest hazard of all is that red van that sometimes pulls up near the west end and somehow brings a cloud of bees with it. Yes, actual bees. I have never been able to figure out what this red van's purpose is - I always just make sure to stay as far away from it as possible.
To take a peek under Jesr ar-Rais is to catch a glimpse of the bustling industry of the people of Damascus. Everyone is coming or going, setting off for work or finally done with errands for the day. Services and busses line up in (mostly) orderly fashion before scattering around the city on their various routes.
It was an unfulfilled wish of ours to make a master map for the service routes. The key to the plan was to find out where services sleep at night, something we were never able to discover.
Services are a marvelous thing. They're not unique to Syria, but the service drivers of Damascus have the execution of their task down to an art. You can ride for as long (or as short) as you like for only 5 lira, and the driver even makes change without taking his eyes off the road, at least not for long. Services will pick you up and drop you off just about anywhere along their route. Sometimes, the driver or fellow passengers will even orchestrate a shuffle in seating so that women (especially veiled women, but not only veiled women) and men don't have to sit next to each other. If you have a small child with you, you can always count on help loading him/her in and out of the service.
Enhanced services feature a door that opens by a control from the driver, and sometimes creative lighting within the vehicle for interesting evening rides. There was one service in particular that ran the Vilaat Garbiye route - we called it "service of the night" because it featured a dark blue van color (instead of boring white), fluorescent lights inside, fancy headlights outside, several different deluxe horn sounds, and stickers and fringe all over. Whenever we were lucky enough to catch it, we rode with satisfaction as other service drivers hailed the driver of the "service of the night" and expressed their admiration.
From looking at the surface of the bridge, you wouldn't think so much is going on underneath.
But believe me: there is tons going on down there.