Middle East & Africa 2009

Across The Desert To Palmyra

I’ve spent several days struggling southwards through Syria on the highway near the coast. I had picked up a cold and fever, and the constant headwind and persistent rain were making riding a real chore. Add to that the fact that my legs are still getting used to their new exercise regime, and it is easy to understand why I chose to turn off the main road and head inland.

I soon left the dark clouds, rolling hills, red soils and olive groves behind me, and the skies began to clear. A mild tailwind and the thankful diminishing of my annoying illness helped me to yesterday cycle the 130 or so kilometres to Palmyra, out east in the Syrian desert and about a day’s ride from the Iraqi border.

Bel temple, Palymra

Palmyra is famous for its extensive Roman ruins. Despite being one of the main tourist destinations in the country, I had the site of the former temple to myself for several hours this morning. I wandered amongst the giant chunks of golden stone, taking photographs and enjoying my day off. The pace of life is much slower out here, the sky is blue and it is warm enough to dispense with (and finally wash) my warm clothes for the first time in weeks.

Cycling in Syria had been a rather monotonous affair until now. What makes up for it is the down-to-earth hospitality of the laid-back Arabs. Coffee? Tea? Breakfast? Motorbike tour of the area? Talk, or just sit if you want. I’ve barely had to worry about food and drink. In fact, I’ve had to sometimes forcefully decline invitations by shouting “Hello” repeatedly and pedalling madly past with a big grin on my face. If I accepted every offer of a drink, meal or place to sleep, I would barely have made it past the border!

At 3pm one day I was beckoned to follow a large man on a motorbike to his home. There were a few steep hills, which he insisted on dragging me up by grabbing my arm and revving his engine hard as I clung onto my handlebars for dear life.

On arrival, the women of the house made a sharp exit (as usual) and I was surrounded by hordes of young men (laughing and pointing) and old men (laughing and smoking). I felt rather uncomfortable. Then I decided that it isn’t every day one is dragged into a rural Syrian home and decided to make the best of it, taking a walk around the small village with one of the brothers who spoke some English and enjoying a tasty dinner on the floor of the men’s room (for want of a better term — I don’t mean the bathroom).

Dinner in Syria

In the morning, I asked if I could wash my bike before I left.

“No. My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”
“Thank you for offering, but it’s better if I clean it myself, thank you.”
“My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”
“No, really, I usually clean it myself. It would be better.”
“My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”
“Seriously, I should clean it. I do not let anyone else work on it. It is not a very simple process.”
“My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”
“I cannot relax if someone else is cleaning it. I don’t want it to cause a problem. It is really better for both of us if I do it…”
“My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”
“…no… if your brother cleans it and does something wrong, I will have to spend several hours cleaning it again and fixing the problem. It would be better if nobody cleaned it at all. But thank you for offering, I really appreciate it.”
“My brother will clean your bike. You relax.”

(You get the idea.)

Not a sign your mother wants to see

A similar diplomatic exchange occurred when I attempted to leave shortly after. I had to fight my way out of staying a second night. I only had a short visa, I explained, and my fiance was waiting for me, and the weather was good for cycling, and on and on and on. I realised that I would have to be grateful yet assertive without being offensive, otherwise I would never escape from Arabia!

Another bilateral miscomprehension of culture happened last night. I had met a helpful man who helped me to locate a cheap hotel in Palmyra, and who had invited me to his house for coffee. He presented me with a gift of a traditional Arab headscarf, which I had seen worn commonly as protection from the elements for the heads of motorcyclists (of which there are many).

We each understood none of the other’s language, but after an elongated miming session I understood that he expected a reciprocal gift from me to him. This was an uncomfortable situation. He clearly had no concept of the priorities of a bicycle tourist’s packing regime, and I clearly had no concept of Arab gift-giving tradition. Eventually I parted company with one of my new Buffs, having no way of explaining the difficulties of giving a gift when I needed everything I owned.

Tomorrow I will begin cycling towards the Jordanian border. I have struggled to remain motivated and find focus for what I am doing these last few days, but the promise of a change of landscape and society is giving me renewed energy to continue.

View more of my photos from Syria.

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