Between 4am and 6.45am I'm the bloke who'd like to be an explorer. In my sleep I'm a friendly, well-adjusted fellow you'd entrust your life to

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Alexe Sayle

This week Alexei Sayle - dateline Damascus, Syria. No, I'm not here at the heart of the Arab world because the Independent is so hard up that I have to double as Middle East correspondent, but because I'm filming one of the new series of Great Railway Journeys of the World for BBC Television. Have you noticed that increasingly travel documentaries are not presented by journalists or anthropologists but by comedians who travel the world sneering at foreigners and their institutions? Well, I'm not one to buck a trend so I'm currently attempting to make a rail trip on part of the old Ottoman-built Hejaz line from Aleppo in northern Syria to Amman in Jordan and then branching off to Aqaba on the Red Sea. En route we'll be visiting such wonders of the world as the Roman city of Bosra, the great Crusader fort of Crac des Chevaliers, and Petra, the rose-red city half as old as time.

I really shouldn't have come on this trip. Before I left, I thought: "It'll be great, I'll take lots of interesting primitive trains. I'll chat to lots of interesting foreigners, I'll have to be independent, thrown back on my inner resources." As soon as I landed at Damascus airport, I realised that 1) I don't like primitive trains; 2) I hate talking to foreigners; and 3) I have no inner resources. I'm always doing this. I must think I'm someone else. I don't know who this bloke is, the one who wants to be a rufty-tufty explorer type. I wonder if he's the same bloke who thought it'd be a good idea to appear in the film Carry On Columbus. Both of them certainly aren't me.

Actually, I think I may have just found the other bloke who's always getting me into trouble. I'm writing this piece in the departure hall of Damascus airport. Me and the BBC film crew had to get up at 3am. My first reaction when I heard our call-time was, "You mean there's a three o'clock in the morning as well?" It's now an hour later and we still haven't got to Customs with our tons of silver boxes, plus nobody has any idea when our plane to Jordan will take off. Now, as far as I can recall, I've never been up and about at 4am in my life before, but at this time of the morning I seem to be a totally different person. I've just been to get everybody coffee from a little snackbar I've found open, I've helped to carry some of the lighter gear on and off the X-ray machines and I'm now keeping everybody's spirits up by reciting comic Victorian music hall monologues. The film crew are gobsmacked. They're wondering where the surly, miserable, unhelpful, whiny git that they usually have to put up with has got to. So that must be it. Between, say, 4am and 6.45am I'm the bloke who'd like to be an explorer. In my sleep I'm a friendly, open, well-adjusted fellow you'd be happy to entrust your life to. If I was video-taped in my sleep, it'd probably show me smiling, nodding, muttering witty aphorisms and translating Plutarch from the original Latin. Unless you come round to my house in the middle of the night, you'll never meet this chap.

As I'm not having a very good time on this shoot I spend the evenings in the hotel bar sitting with the women on the unit boring them with my emotional difficulties. They don't mind too much because they get equal airtime to talk about their emotional difficulties, too. I'd like to bore the men on the film with my mental state but the cameraman and the soundman only ever talk about mobile phones or power showers. While women seem happy, in fact eager, to discuss emotional matters, men are uncomfortable with anything that's not a technical detail of some kind. Perhaps if we could give mental and spiritual states technical descriptions or serial numbers, then men would be happy to discuss them. Feelings of inadequacy could be 356GLX, panic attacks with hyperventilation could be a 200 series V8 MVQ. Men could then say to each other, "I'm thinking of getting a Nakomichi Phase 500" (severe paranoia), to which another could reply, "Oh, yeah, I've already got the 600 series but with the twist grip attachment" (paranoid delusions with added inclination to climb a tall tower carrying a sniper's rifle). Useful therapy might result.

Well, it's 7am now and we're still in the airport and my jolly persona has gone away again. None of the flight departure indicators is working, so above my head a large departure board says "Flight AAG. Destination: ABBAGHAHB. Via: AAGH." I think I've already landed in AAGH. I hope I don't have to stay there long.