Friday, 8 January 2010

Trapped in Damascus

Almost six weeks have passed since my last update but it feels like much longer. So much has happened, yet I’ve not cycled an inch closer to Cape Town. I’m ‘trapped in Damascus’ and with good cause.

Hola Mumma

After entering Syria, I spent a few days exploring Latakia, Saladin’s Castle and the coast. I was enjoying my first taste of the Arabic world. Hospitality and intrigue in my bike seemed to follow me around, although my mind distracted; a day or so down the road I was due to meet my Mum. I’d often thought how much I’d have liked to have shared some of the experiences I’ve had with her.

We were due to rendezvous in a plush hotel near the fabled castle of Crac des Chevaliers. The prospect of being reunited with my proud Mumma was like a high-performance super-fuel in my tank as I pounded the pedals up into the mountains. After a hefty 130km cycle we arrived within minutes of each other.

Saladin's sunken stables Saladin's Valley View Beaming Biker Boy Hama Norias Crac des Chevaliers

I was beaming; so happy to her, as well as my Aunt Cynth, Claudette and their very friendly Syrian travelling companions. After the hugs and photos we had a chance for a good catch up, or perhaps for me a download; my mind has been wondering a lot while my legs are pedaling.

I spent the next day with my Mum and Claudette moseying around the city of Hama, with its famous norias (water wheels) and exceptionally beautiful Azem palace. More conversation and good food followed before I joined their tour for the visit to ‘Crac’ - a castle I’ve wanted to visit since childhood. It is immaculately preserved, a masterpiece of Crusader design.

As Mum’s tour rolled on, we waved goodbye and I sped down the mountain toward Lebanon, reaching my top speed on the trip so far 72kmph – speeds like that on a bike feel awesome.

Twist of fate

After a chaotic border crossing I arrived in Tripoli, feeling a little out of sorts. I’ll spare you the details but I spent the next few days sharing a room with a similarly crooked Spanish chap called Reuben, recovering from flu and di-hor-re-ally more than you need to know! I felt low, hugged the pillow and waited for it to pass.

I spent a few days in the Qadisha Valley to get my strength back. It was stunning; with a tranquillity and beauty that was quite a relief after the noise and pollution of Tripoli. The highlight however turned out to be meeting Fran and Oli a wonderful couple living in Damascus; within 5 mins of meeting they’d invited me to stay with them – in hindsight an incredible twist of fate.

After the Qadisha I cycled down to Beirut. The famed party town seemed to lacked real soul – fancy new buildings, ignored bullet-ridden ones and an air of superficiality I didn’t really dig. Maybe I didn’t visit the right places, meet the right people, or have the right perspective – nevertheless I left after 48 hours. One for different time.

Rock Arch & Waterfall Solitary space We are all one Scripty scenery Hark the herald angels sing

Fortuitously I was joined on the ride Damascus by Gael, a French chap cycling to China. After a killer 1600m ascent, we decided to spend the night in the stunning Bekaa Valley. We visited yet another UNESCO World Heritage site at Aanjar – the ruins were far less impressive than many others I’ve seen but without anyone else there, amid the peace and tranquillity, it was one of my best experiences at an archaeological site to date.

I have to admit to being a little ‘ruined out’; there are only so many Greco-Roman colonnades my eyes could handle before becoming a little blasé. The irony is that it is people just like me who diminish the majesty of these sites; wielding cameras, mouths agog, too captivated to realise they’re standing on your foot.

Gael and I shared cycling stories while camping in an Armenian Church, the next day pedalling the last 70km to Damascus, our progress only briefly halted by some gun-toting border guards. We were marched farcically to a military facility and had our photos of the border territory deleted ceremoniously. These kinds of events no longer seem to register even a slight concern; it’s a game of sorts, one I will no doubt become increasingly accustomed to.


Entering Damascus felt quite momentous, one of the oldest cities in the world; steeped in history. The name conjures images of oriental antiquity and with great fascination I soaked up the sights and sounds as I made my way to Fran & Oli’s house, which turned out to be ideally situated, right in the middle of the Old City.

The first few days were a dream; unusual experiences, surrounded by intriguing people. I ate well, drank heartily and felt indulgent for the first time since leaving London; Syira as it turns out, is remarkably cheap. I’d planned to stay a week or maybe two, to get through my ‘list of things to do’, so I had some time let my hair down.

Two weeks later I’d barely touched my list. I’d been to parties, movie nights, climbed mountains, played with Shaolin monks, and snuck into an event with the first lady, but most importantly met the local capoeira group; CapoeriArab. This is the inspirational group with whom now I am now involved with in setting up a new NGO.

Capoeira NGO

I’d played a bit of capoeira at CDO in London and loved it; great exercise, freedom of expression, music, dance and rhythm. People were down-to-earth, humble and friendly; Syria was no different.

The CapoeriArab group are an equal mix of girls and boys, locals and foreigners. They teach classes in Damascus, in addition to a series of social initiatives: teaching local kids for free, classes at prisons, and most recently at the Al-Tanf refugee camp. The results they’ve achieved in engaging people and relieving some serious psychological issues has been extraordinary – reported here by UNICEF: In Syria, capoeira helps Palestinian-Iraqi children heal psycho-social wounds

With the Al-Tanf camp about to close, three of the team Tarek, Nadia and camp psychologist Patti, began thinking about what to do next. One brainstorm later the wheels for the new NGO were in motion. Luckily, knowing of my background and enthusiasm for capoeira, they soon asked me to help.

This opportunity couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Free from any obligations to meet anyone at a given time, I now have the chance to ‘go with the flow’. My plans to cycle Africa and visit the orphanages remain the same although timing is taking a back seat to being open to the opportunities that present themselves.

Capoeira rocks; the effect it has had on the refugees has been incredible; and the thought we may be able to take this energy and spirit to thousands of children and communities worldwide is ... off the scale.

Needless to say I’m very excited about this, I’ll write more on my blog about it and hopefully have a website to share with you soon.