October 8th: Leaving Damascus - Last memories of Syria
It's time to leave the trappings of Damascus - its consuming old quarters, intriguing tangle of backstreets, and perhaps hardest of all, its moorish pistachio ice cream. At the risk of sounding obsessive, it's an ice cream experience that must be shared. Picture a small doorway opening into a vast hall with high ceilings, where posters of a Caribbean sunset and wooden panels deck the walls, and a network of backrooms fill customer overflow. It's a conveyor belt scene. A man appears with a huge tub of vanilla ice cream balanced on his head, unloading it into a barrel. Pounding shakes the walls. 'Thud, thud, thud ...' A huge burly Syrian, sweat across his brow, grasps a giant one metre wooden pestle, pounding pistachio nuts into this arabic ice cream, folded again and again, like beaten steel. Two others, professional looking in white gloves, work hard at supplying the insurmountable demand, dolloping generous servings of this ice cream with their hands, liberally sprinkled with yet more pistachio flakes, into glass bowls placed on big steel trays. And lastly, a small army of waiters, pristine white jackets bearing the 'Bekdach' logo, rush around tables of families, couples, loners, young and old, to satisfy a stream of customers that pass through the doors. And the ice cream itself? Unusually gooey, almost stringy, yet implausibly delicious.
Back at the Al Rabai hotel, set in a ramshackle old Damascene home, the rooftop dorm remains packed like a sardine can with backpacker bodies. Nick's home in London, and I miss his company. But as is the way of travelling, there are always others to share the new culture around. I say goodbye to my ice cream companions; Patrick, with whom I wandered the old city's back alleys in search of a second hand watch, 'token yank' Rob, and 'Aus' Bronwyn.
After a final juice medley at the 'local' juice stall - banana milk, then carrot - I take once more to the highway, heading south towards the Jordanian border. I'm travelling with Dutchman Leo, the first cyclist I have encountered in these parts. On a pyramid tour from the Hague, he too has a schedule to keep to be home for work, and perhaps more importantly, a Deep Purple concert. Unlike a conventional bicycle, Leo's steed is a recumbent that draws incredulous stares, frantic waves and all round hooting of horns. To an already welcoming Syrian people, just a glimpse of this strange cycling machine is too much, as fellow road users struggle to contain their enthusiasm upon encountering 'Recumbent Man.'
We follow the main highway, heading south to Amman, Jordan. The road is smooth, cutting across an empty, dry expanse. Chatting as we ride, sharing stories, the kilometres count down quickly. This is Leo's second visit to Syria, after motorbiking around these parts some ten years ago. That particular road trip came to an abrupt end in Kuwait when he was caught up in Baghdad for months, during what was to become the Gulf War. And a decade on, unrest remains in the Middle East, as feelings in Israel, Lebanon and Syria simmer in this latest crisis that has seen almost a hundred killed and scores more wounded in occupied Palestine.
Just when we're feeling a little thirsty, a van pulls over, and a man emerges with two plastic cups and a bottle of neon orange local Fanta. 'Welcome!' he announces, a favourite word that must surely have entered into Syrian dictionaries by now. He plies us with drink, another typical gesture of the hospitable Syrians, and then trundles off once more. Close to lunchtime, we scour the horizon for signs of life. At the next turnoff, we sight a three wheeled scooter which passed us earlier, its two riders waving enthusiastically, music blasting from its sound system. Riding over to say hello, the driver hoists himself off his scooter, and it's only then that I realise he has no legs, 'walking' on his thighs. He smiles broadly, full of warm energy, a real character in his dark glasses, Harley Davidson waistcoat and 'Champion' skullcap. We make our introductions, and before we know it, we're following Ahmed and Mohammed in the pursuit of lunch, stopping at various random village houses, loud music announcing our arrival. Finally, we pause at one particular home for long enough to suspect that the vast family that greets us to be relatives of some kind. We tuck into a banquet of flat bread, salad, omelette, humous and yoghurt. Its one of the most relaxed family atmospheres I've encountered in these Muslim parts, as the women of the house join us as we eat, joking with one another, plying us with more food and tea, watched curiously by a small gang of beautiful children.
So aware that this is my last day in Syria, I bid them a warm 'Shukran' - thank you - and 'Ma'a Salam' - farewell. It's been a feast to remember. Stereo set to a maximum, we cruise through the village with Ahmed and Muhammed, back to the highway to continue our journey. Their friendship and open hospitality, inviting two strangers into their home, has once again inspired me for the road ahead. Always on the quest to jettison possessions, it seems the perfect time to pass on one of my favourite tapes. Watched by the usual eclectic knot of materialising bystanders, we leave them in this dry expanse, to a soundtrack of 'Moby' blasting from the scooter's speakers. Riding into the emptiness ahead, it feels like a scene from a surreal arthouse movie.
However the West may portray this Middle Eastern country, whatever dubious police government may preside over it, Syria is without doubt one of the most welcoming countries I have encountered. It's always hard to say goodbye to a new land after so brief a visit. The moment you begin to understand a people and their mentality, it's time to leave. These few weeks of unrelenting Syrian hospitality have shown me an open and inviting way of life. So often missing nowadays in the hectic European lifestyle, it's a hospitality that's seen us lunch in local homes, consume countless cups of tea, discuss Islam, the government and visas(!), and be endowed with gifts ranging from felafels to watermelons to haircuts.