From the Syrian oasis settlement of Palmyra (known locally as Tadmur) I faced 260km of empty desert to Damascus. Resisting the temptation to turn left for Baghdad, I pedalled furiously for two days, with only a couple of French motorbike tourists breaking the monotony, and arrived in the outskirts of Damascus early in the morning on the third day.
I didn’t really feel like getting lost and stressed in a big city so soon after leaving Istanbul. There was nothing of particular interest to me there; I knew I would find another cosmopolitan environment to contrast the simple, conservative living I’d encountered in the countryside, and I am not in the habit of sightseeing for the sake of it, in fact I generally avoid tourist areas like the plague. Maybe when I’m older and my knees have disintegrated I’ll have more reason to follow the well-worn trails, but not right now!
So instead I weaved through a few outlying suburbs, wrote to my family and had lunch with a Toyota/Lexus mechanic in his workshop, before circling the surprisingly-quiet ring road and stopping for the night at a petrol station on the road south to the Jordanian border. I was invited to sleep in the small mosque that often accompanies stopping-points frequented by buses and travellers, in order that they may catch up with their prayer schedule.
In the morning I was on the road as the sun rose at 6:30am. I pedalled hard down the empty highway to warm myself up, and stopped to perch on a rock and eat one of the felafel wraps I’d hoarded the previous day. These fresh and tasty sandwiches, combined with locally-grown bananas and plenty of sugary tea, have kept me going on a minimal budget since I entered the Middle East. By lunchtime I had ridden 105km and was searching for the best place to change my Syrian pounds for Jordanian dinars to pay for my new visa. 10 dinars later I was in posession of a 1-month residency and was on my way into Jordan.
Shortly I had to make a decision to follow the main road to Amman, the capital, or take a detour round it. Again, I opted for the road less travelled, and followed the rolling hills and olive groves west towards the Jordan Rift Valley. Swooping down into the depression, I could feel the air getting warmer as I freewheeled deeper and deeper below sea level.
The reception from the locals was less warm, however, and for the first time I had to face gangs of children who shouted and chased as I rolled by. I didn’t know how to react, and I didn’t understand why this was happening. One boy of 13 or 14 slapped my arm as I rode past at high speed. Later, a larger group or so reacted viciously to my refusal to give them money by throwing rocks, tomatoes and a 3-foot-long piece of aluminium window frame at me until the driver of a passing truck leapt out to give them an earful.
The pattern continued. I would be welcomed for a cup of tea or coffee, lunch, dinner, a place to sleep, and 30 seconds later I would be dodging flying rocks, middle fingers and shouts of “f*** you!”. What taught them to say that, I wonder? TV? Doubtless they had no idea what it meant, but the effect on me was demoralizing nonetheless. I swung back and forth between anger and relief, my loneliness accentuating my emotions. I was alone and I missed Tenny greatly. I couldn’t believe it was a year since we had met. Every time I camped, it brought back memories of our 3 weeks on the road together last summer.
None of the acts of aggression I encountered were dangerous, and I got the feeling that it boiled down to boredom, neglect and miseducation, but it was repeated with startling frequency and wore away at my nerves, distracting me from the intensely dramatic environment that gradually unfolded before me.
I camped on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea and in the morning I climbed from 422 metres below sea level to a fraction under 1000m above, to the small town of Karak. The road from here, I was told by a local welder, was known as the King’s Road or the Holy Road. It was an impressive, steep and rewarding day’s ride through more vast canyons to Shobak, a small village where I am taking a day off at the pleasure of Ryan, an American Peace Corps volunteer who is teaching English in a local school.
Jordan has given me mixed feelings. I know that the problems I’ve experienced here have been nothing compared to what awaits me in Ethiopia in a few months’ time. Ethiopia is notorious for its demanding, aggressive and relentless packs of children. I don’t know what happened in Jordan to cause this kind of behaviour, but the atmosphere here is noticeably more bitter (regarding Israel) and tempers are shorter then in Syria, which lacked the gorgeous environment but made up for it in spades with the kindness and generosity of its people.
I resolved to seek out good people and positive meetings to counteract each negative encounter, and I discovered that the majority of Jordanians are just as hospitable as other Middle Eastern people, given the chance to express it. Hospitality towards foreign travellers is a fundamental part of Arabian culture, and this tradition is still upheld today, as I have begun to discover. May it continue this way!
Shortly I will have Egypt and Sudan to look forward to, but in the meantime enjoy the photos that I’ve taken of Syria and Jordan, and let me know your thoughts or just say hello by writing a comment below!