AROUND THE WORLD BY BIKE
Al Humphreys From
Syria to Amman, Jordan
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 Roman temple in the world, 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 Muslims'
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 1 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
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 (10 December 2001) 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.
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.
Next CAIRO TO CAPE TOWN
© Al Humphreys 2002
You can follow his adventures by clicking on
5 Continents, 50 Countries, Around the World. On a Bicycle
MORE TRAVEL IN HACKTREKS
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