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7/1/2011 – Qastal Maaf to somewhere near Lattakia – Lots of rain and one of the best nights

March 1, 2011

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And so our worldwind tour of Syria starts in a soggy rainforest-esque campspot. Late night visa sessions render us foodless and so first stop we make is at the first open cafe. We huddle around the filament heater at the end of the shop with tinny Syrian pop music emananting from the TV set – we’re all glued, TV has a strange draw to it, even if you don’t want to be watching it i find my eyes drawn back to the screen again and again. We’re treated to a toasted sandwich some tea and a free round of bread and hommous.

Back on the road and the rain becomes more intense. Deciding whether or not to put on your waterproofs and which level of waterproofs (just the jacket, trousers as well? The whole hog and put the waterproof socks (Or so the manufacturer claims… ahembullshit.. excuse me) is a tricky business. If your climbing hills you get sweaty so its a fine line between protecting yourself from rain whilst minimising your own precipitation inside your proofs… the dilemmas. Today calls for the whole lot, the sky is practically black with no evidence that its getting any better for a loong time.

The road to Lattakia is soo wet, i spend most the time watching the water on the road part at my front wheel rise up on the tyre and sunsequently fill my shoes with water, it feels like im cycling in two full baths. I can now understand the true benefit of fitting mud guards to your bike and i aim to do it at the next possible chance.

Drenched like rats we arrive in a relatively quiet Lattakia, it’s friday so alot of the shops and restaurants are closed. WE do however find a tiny pizza place with just enough space to sit 3 soaked cyclists eager to stuff our faces with round after round of Lamachun (thin pizza with mince meat on top). We’re joined by a chicken who periodically dashes across the floor from

the kitchen towards the warmth of the oven. “He’s going in there next” we joke but it seems this chickens struck lucky, for the time being anyway, and can happily reside in the restaurant.

The sun shows its face briefly before it tips down again, right on the coast of the Mediteraean lots of rain is a normal occurance i imagine, especially at this time of year. We move to a tea house just down the road and convince the guy in charge of replacing the hot coals on the shisha pipes being smoked
to put a box of hot coals in the middle of our three chairs. SOcks, gloves and hands which look like prunes are dried out and warmed up, much to the amusement of the other patrons.

It’s very tempting to stay in the warm surroundings filled with sweet fruit tabacco flavours and tea on tap but we’ve got to get on and rack up some kms. At a veg shop we take refuge from yet another deluge and get talking to a local Syrian who tells us this is the first rainfall in a long time and is a very welcome sight as farming had been badly affected by the lack of rainfall. he tells us that the president (Bashir Assad) told people to pray for rain last friday seems to have wokred nicely and that the price of vegetables in shops will be lower in the coming days. Shows how localised the food system is here and its good to know your eating Syrain produce isntead of something which is flown in from Spain. Unfortunately on the road out of Lattakia there is a mass vegetable suicide, the hand picked produce which was soon to become
a tasty dinner decides its had enough of sashas bike and jumps off into the main road.

We’ve only been in Syria for less than 24hours but already the sight of President Assad and his father are becoming firmly ingrained into my conscious, they are plastered absolutely everywhere – Bilboards, bus stops,
shops, lamp posts, road signs, even on the windscreens of most of the cars ( i wonder if you get a reduction on your road tax if you put one on?). One particularly captures my eye – its a silver sillouette of the mans face, in the vein of the infamous che guevara and looks pretty slick.

We get off the motorway looking for somewhere to grab some more veg and find a quieter place to put our tents. Still soaked we’ve resided to the fact that the tent will become a drying room for the evening – at least its not too cold. Stop off at a small roadside shop/shack and get a lesson on how eat sunflower seeds from the guy who owns the shop and lives next door, its pretty tricky negotiationing the shell of the seed away from the centre and getting rid of the husk without spitting the whole lot on the floor – will take practice.
A few beers to reward ourselves, not entirely what for, oh ye i remember its because we had heard that beer in Syria was v. cheap and wanted
to test this claim – its not true. Arak (annaise) liquor is the way to go for a cheap tipple, this is ‘the’ syrian liquor mixed with ice and water it turns a milky white and is perfection in a glass – tonight though doesnt feel like an Arak night.

Whilst Sash and I search for somewhere to camp in the dark, Harry is approached by a guy on a motorbike and gets chatting.
He tells us we can camp in the garden at his house so we leave the sodden field and follow Mohammed who leads us through the dark to his house.
We dump our stuff and go and meet his brother Hassan and his friends all dressed in military garb sitting in the coffee shack they own around a small wood burner. We dont speak a word of Arabic and they didnt speak any English but what unfolded that evening was a very special night of interaction without language. We joked and drank, sang and ate together. Making simple conversations using a notepad, hand signals and facial expressions. What i found great about the evening was that we cooked the meal and so didnt feel like we were receiving all the hospitality, it was a group of young lads having a bit of a dinner party. We drank homemade liquor and called each other ‘donkey’ – a very Syrain mild insult, one of the highlights was an English-Arabic translation book Mohammed bought out it gave a insight into how we are viewed, here are some of the top ones:

“I reserved a room by telegraph”
“I need to buy a single breasted light grey summer suit”

and the best:
“I should like to buy the complete works of Shakespeare”

The night culminated in promises of going hunting coming to fruition. Throughout the night we’d heard that we would be going rabbit hunting, as the booze (not so much mind) flowed this looked increasingly unlikley. Then at 11pm Sash and I set off on a motorbike with one of the guys to his house to pick up his gun. Sitting on the back of a motorcycle screaming through the Syrain countryside was pretty exctiting (sorry parents). We slowly make our way through the huge puddles down a mud track and stop at a grass opening with the lights of full beam lighting up the space. He revs the engine and slowly drives back and forth in order to scare any rabbits from their hiding and then to shoot them. We do this for 15minutes with not even the slightest glimpse of a fluffy bunny tail. We return empty handed but keen to show
off, the guy we go with unleashes a few rounds into the air once we return to the coffee shack scaring the living daylights out of us.

Sleepy eyes on show from everyone we clear up and make our beds on some very torture-esque looking beds. It started wet and misrable and ended warm in a coffee shack somewhere near Lattakia, Syrain hospitality second to none what a great night with a great bunch of people. Go to sleep with a big smile.

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