Travelled by bus today to Latakia, on the Mediterranean, and Syria's largest port. The clerk at the hotel told me to take a taxi to Bilal Square, and catch the bus that runs every half hour, at a cost of about 40 Syrian Pounts (about 87 cents). As usual, the taxi driver didn't understand my attempts to pronounce my destination, but when he understood I wanted to go to Latakia, he took me to a bus station that I think is nowhere near the one I was initially directed to. I was completely lost when he dropped me off, but was pointed toward a building where I had to go through security. I placed my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the scanner, setting it off. But the police were lounging around, and I wasn't the only one setting off the scanner, so apparently they're not really worried about terrorists on their intercity buses.
Through security, I found myself on a lane with food shops and, for lack of a better word, travel agencies, each calling out for business. Again, someone directed me to a place selling tickets to Latakia. After I had bought my ticket, I heard the hawkers of other agencies yelling, "Latakia." My general impression is that I was initially directed toward the government bus line, but instead was taken to a place with competing bus companies--presumably one of the developments of the last decade's economic liberalization. It cost 250, rather than 40, pounds, but the bus was a very new motorcoach, and on the ride they give you coffee, water, a taffy-like candy, and a newspaper, all served by an attendant who keeps checking to see if you want refills. So for 5 1/2 bucks American, I call it a good deal. This was no third world bus ride, with people clinging to the top and holding chickens in their lap while the bus constantly threatens to go off the edge of the mountain. In fact the driver was the most cautious I've seen yet in Syria--I think he was actually maintaining the speed limit, and I can only attribute that to the market at work.
My seat companion, who exhibited the usual Syrian hospitality by directing me to the loading zone, which I never would have found by myself, is a teacher in Latakia. He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him in two days. He had actually invited me to his house instead of a hotel, before remembering he had to go out of town tomorrow.
This is a great place, and looks to me as though it is in the beginning stages of tremendous economic development. Now if I can just put in effort to learn the language, I'll be in great shape here.