Round the World by Bike: Syria to Amman, Jordan (10 December 2001)

Syria to Amman, Jordan

“We are not demanders of War and Terror, but we will defend ourselves
against War and Terror” read the sign at the frontier. It was lunchtime and
the road was hectic with children laughing and shouting their way home from
school. Their school uniform was a dark green military uniform complete with
shoulder epaulettes. The British Consulate in Istanbul had ‘strongly
advised’ me not to enter the country.

Welcome to Syria.

I met my first scary Syrians – a family of orange pickers who housed me, fed
me, thrashed me at chess and waved me on my way the next morning laden with
about 40 oranges.

Welcome to Syria.

I spent the next evening in Lebanon in
the company of Monsieur Diemoz, an octogenarian Frenchman who worked as the
concierge at an old people’s home. Roquefort for breakfast fuelled me into
Beirut where I watched possibly the worst ever (and hence funniest)
performance of Macbeth. My journey is getting surreal.

Post-war Beirut now boasts a stunningly renovated downtown area, classy
restaurants and coffee bars, open-top BMW’s, mobile phones and fat cigars.
My muddy shoes, ripped trousers and non-coiffured hair did not seem very
appropriate. It is true that large areas of the city are still laced with
bullet holes and hardship, but the city and its people are looking forward
to better times now.

I stayed with Raymond Khoury, a Sierra Leone born
restaurateur who had been forced by war to flee the country overnight. Now
in the land of his fathers he has turned his hand to teaching Physics. I
stayed too with Sandy and Art Charles – in his mid-50′s Art had pedaled
across the USA without a single day off, putting me to shame! He could
afford gallons of chocolate milk though – I put it down to that! And him
thrashing me at table tennis? I was just being a polite guest!

Bursting from almost incessant eating and Middle Eastern hospitality I was ready to
tackle the biggest mountains of my journey as I turned inland.

Baalbek is an archaeological phenomenon for which the superlative could have
been invented. The biggest and the best preserved
Roman temple in the world and, my favourite, the biggest building block ever
cut. It measures 20m x 5m x 4m, weighs 2000 tonnes and would need 40,000 men
to shift it! The stones at Stonehenge are a mere 50 tonnes. The place is
stunning and I had it all to myself! My jubilation at pitching my tent at
the foot of a temple was tempered by discovering I had left my sleeping bag
and mat in Beirut. Idiot! The temperature hovered around zero, I didn’t
sleep much and dawn was a very real relief.

It is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting during daylight. As I entered
Damascus a student I met on the street invited me home for iftar, the
evening breaking of the fast and a HUGE feast. The food was delightful, the
father’s high volume anti-Semitic ranting a little less so. Cycling through
Damascus at 4pm amongst several million hungry Muslims driving home at high
speed is my new number one most dangerous cycling experience.

I nearly quit. Being alone means that there is nobody to tell you to stop
being ridiculous when you are feeling down. The sheer scale of what I was
attempting, the feeling of being trapped like a hamster in a wheel, the
loneliness and the anonymity hit me in a wave of terror. I plumbed new
depths of sadness. Only my stupid pride stopped me heading for the airport.

But then I discovered Damascus. Dark winding souks, atmosphere and surprises
around every tight corner. Kebabs better even than Istanbul convinced me
that I could not possibly go home yet. So I pedalled on and gradually began
to cheer up. But I do not wish to endure (nor will I be able to) too many
times like I went through in Damascus.

Bosra is a Roman theatre in Southern Syria capable of seating 15,000 people.
It is almost as pristine today as when it was built 2000 years ago. The
place oozes atmosphere and the acoustics are unbelievable. And again I had
the place to myself. I sang Happy Birthday to myself on the stage to a vast
audience of zero. Amazingly, two Belgian cyclists showed up. We brewed tea on
the stage and spent the night in the theatre (imagine trying to do that in
Rome!). My high-volume rendition of Jerusalem beneath a full moon was
spectacular.

We pedalled together to Amman. Jordan is my 15th country and I now have
6500km under my wheels. It is time to recuperate for a while, to do battle
with the Sudanese embassy and to enjoy the unexpected pleasure of a huge
Christmas dinner courtesy of my new host – headmaster Phillip Brisley.

Arabian kindness and hospitality has been universal, trusting and humbling.
The cuisine is fabulous. The history is jaw dropping. I know I can safely
leave my bike unattended in the street. The only bad thing has been one day
of torrential rain as I left Syria. That must have been the reason why the
British Consulate warned me so strongly against travel here!

My Life Really is a Roller Coaster

Surely this cannot go on. I left home to cycle around the world. I was
expecting a physical grilling, to be frozen and burnt, tired and sick,
lonely and afraid. But the reality is so different. The cycling is,
relatively, not a problem. I can handle it. But my emotions are driving me
crazy – it’s a bloody roller coaster!

I am having unforgettable experiences,
meeting fascinating people, seeing extraordinary things. But the depths of
sadness I keep plummeting to are frightening. And it is not just once or
twice this has happened to me – it hits me every few days. There is no way I
can continue for long in this frame of mind.

I miss those I love at home. I miss ‘comfort-zone’ living – Starbucks,
armchairs, 9-to-5, music, friends, routine, familiarity. I feel terrified at
what I have got myself into – how did I have the audacity to think I could
possibly pedal through Africa alone, how could I have committed myself to
three years of this madness, of being the odd one out, of knowing no-one or
nowhere, a world where nobody knows your name? I feel I have bitten off more
than I can chew and surely this cannot go on.

It all came to a head in Damascus. I had reached the end of the road. It was
too much. It was too hard. I was too alone. I was in too deep. I had failed.
I was the nearest I have ever been to quitting. I was so close to heading
for the airport and escape. It was over.

But I am trapped between a rock and something painfully hard. Frying pan or
fire? An impossible situation. For there is no way I can go home either. The
very comfort-zone I crave now is exactly what led me to all this in the
first place. I cannot go back to that. And on top of all that is my stupid
pride – I have told so many people of my grand schemes that I cannot possibly
show my face in England before Christmas!

So I stayed. I didn’t quit. I pedalled on down the road. I cheered up. I’ve
made it now to Jordan, country number 15 and 6500km under my wheels. But the
journey is just beginning, there are countless adventures ahead and a fair
few horrors too. I must gather my rain-clouds while I can, for these dark
depths of sadness make the high points even purer. It’s not a bike ride,
it’s a roller coaster. I just don’t want too many freefalls like in
Damascus.

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