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09/02/11 – Free open road and a tea break that turns out to be dinner, a night on the town, bed, breakfast and packed lunch

March 5, 2011
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At last, the desert beckons. I am more than ready for the open road, and I leave the monastery fully refreshed, energized, excited and eager to get some kms on the clock. The sun is shining, I’m in a t-shirt. The road starts off great –a single line disappearing into the vastness of nothing. I swing left to right, singing a tuneless lyric less song (something along the lines of ‘this is great, this is great, I love Syria, blah blah, thank god no one was around to hear me) downhill with a tailwind. Can it get any better?

No, it can’t, it fact it gets worse quite quickly, but not that much worse. I’m stopped at a military checkpoint and they want to see my passport. This unsettles me a little (the last time I was asked for my passport by a plain clothed guy we were questioned for four hours in a basement) but I carry on trying to keep my good mood up. It is turned from a mood of excitement to breathless exhilaration and nervousness though as I pass several shepherds, tending to their sheep on the road sides, each with a pack of very feral looking wild dogs. These dogs of course give chase, and are petrifying. I try and outrun them but they are faster than me. They come right up close, teeth gnashing and barking fiercely. Luckily they haven’t got the stamina to keep up and give up the chase, but I have to push hard now against a headwind to get clear of them. This happens several times and I’m exhausted plus the weather is closing in. my mood drops somewhat.

I get to the outskirts of Al Qaratayn and take comfort in the fact that there are few wild dogs in built up areas and slow down a bit. I plod through the town and a guy comes up behind me on a motorbike and beckons me over for some tea. Sounds like a plan.

We pull over to his mates shack and the dog in residence greets me with some hostility, much to the amusement of my hosts. They don’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Arabic but I explain my story using drawings and lots of gesticulation. I even tell of my plight with the dogs, again to their amusement. The tea ends with an offer from Tarek for me to stay at his house, which sounds like a great idea as it’s about t rain with darkness approaching. I follow him on the bike to the mechanics shop where he works and chill in there for a bit drinking mate and being quizzed by his English speaking mate as to why I don’t have GPS ‘maps are no good! You need Google’ I found this quite amusing, particularly when he showed off the GPS on his phone. We took time to look up my house and where he works – an oil refinery in Iraq – to kill an hour or two. Eventually they shut up shop and I’m led back to Tarek’s house.

His house is beautiful and I sit in the show room living room space on the floor and make gesticulatory conversation with his dad and brothers, until a huge plate of food is brought in much to my surprise (and relief, I was starving!) the plate contains a huge selection of Syria’s finest cuisine, including macdoose, a sort of pickled vegetable in a vegetable type concoction that I couldn’t quite understand but was so good I ate the lot, much to Tareks’ amusement. After eating (I was so full – it seems the Arab custom is to stuff your guests until they literally can’t walk) Tarek suggests we go out on the town on his motorbike. Its only 6pm and I’m getting quite tired, but I can’t refuse my host so off we go.

What I think is a night on the town seems more like Tarek parading me like a trophy of some sort, but I don’t mind. First stop is the hair dressers, where we sit and watch a kid get his hair cut. Some more guys come and offer me cigarettes which I can’t refuse even if I try – they insist to the point that voices are raised – all in good humour though – and Tarek tells of how much I love macdoose. Then we get back on the bike and the next stop is his mate’s house where they’re all sitting around smoking cigarettes and eating nuts. It’s a Friday night; this is what guys do round here. They put on Celine Dion on the stereo for my benefit. I’m forced more cigarettes and eventually we leave, to go and hang out in the shop, where Tarek buys me a chocolate and I get given tea and more cigarettes – by this time I can barely breathe. Then it’s back to the hair dressers again and this time it’s packed with about 10 guys just sitting around smoking, play fighting with each other and even burning each other with the hairdryer – they leave me out of it. We sit there for about an hour at which point I’m practically falling asleep, much I think to Tareks’ disappointment. We head back to his place and I gesture to go to bed after having a grilling from his English speaking brother who is in the military – ‘why does your country hate me? What do you think of Syria?’ I do my best to avoid the questions. He ends the conversation by telling me I’m very beautiful (more of a polite gesture than a loaded compliment) and leaves for me to sleep. Tarek gets me a blanket and I gesture to go to bed, but he insists on sitting by my head and watching me as I sleep, until I get up and suggest turning off the light.

As odd as the evening was, I didn’t take offence to any of the oddities. I appreciate that for Tarek, his family and the people of Al Qaratayan it must be a very strange thing to see a bearded guy from London pass through on a bike. All the strange behavior was down to sheer curiosity on their part and I feel no discomfort from it. I drift off to sleep warm and comfortable and looking forward to the road ahead.

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