Sunday, 11 April 2010

End of the Damascene Dream

After an unexpected four month break from the saddle in Damascus, it is now time to repack my panniers. In two weeks I will meet my sister and nephews in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt and shortly after Kenny G will fly out to start the ride through Africa. My time here has been changed my outlook on the ride considerably; one of the many reasons I found it so hard to leave.

Why Damascus?

I’m not the only one to get ‘stuck in Damascus’; here’s some of the reasons this city keeps you from leaving:

  • Food is cheap; a bagful of falafel, nuts and fruit, & a fresh juice for under £2. (All contributing to the 10 or so kilos I’ve packed on since I arrived)
  • It’s a small city: 4 million people live here but it feels more like 4000, the amount of times you bump into friendly faces and are greeted by people in the street
  • Cool ex-pats: people who come to Syria have chosen to reject the propaganda an opt to embrace an entirely different culture; a good starting point
  • The weather: I like the sun; we sunbathed on Christmas day; ‘nuff said
  • Getting around is easy; you can walk most places & (although I probably shouldn’t be admitting this) taxis are super cheap; what would cost £10 in London is more like 50p here
  • Damascus is safe. I mean safe in a way that I can walk around at any time of night in ill-lit backstreets without the slightest concern
  • It is beautifully random; the Lambada is the reverse warning sound on 50% of the vehicles, the kinkiest panties you’ve ever can be seen sold next hijabs, and young cool dudes drive down the street proudly blaring out Celine Dion!

Quick tips: if you’re looking for a place to stay, start with Yalla House; always get the taxi drivers to put the meter (adat) on, learn the Arabic numbers (you’ll end up paying less); get a bus from the airport 50p, not the taxi $50; and if you’re flying here, I’d advise getting an open-ended return, it can be hard to leave.

The people

The Syrians, Iraqis, and Palestinians who make up the majority of the population here, have a warmth of hospitality I’ve never previously experienced. This is no hyperbole; here’s a story that happened recently:

In a kidnapping attempt to stop a beautiful Italian friend from flying home, I stuffed her into a nearby taxi. This mock attempt failed and after a doe eyed farewell, she jumped in her ride to the airport. (Public signs of affection; even a simple kiss are a bit of a no-no (heram) here).

I slumped into the taxi. The taxi driver looked at me empathetically. ‘Girlfriend?’ he said… ‘yani’ I replied which is to say, kind of. With a jolt, completely uninstructed, he began pursuing her car through the traffic. ‘Wein? Matar?’ – ‘Aiwa’ I replied - she’s off to the airport. So steaming down the highway, in spite of oncoming traffic, I flagged down her car for a proper goodbye – heram or not!

Riding home Shinou, my driver and new emotional support offered to take me out: drinking, for a nargileh… in fact he even offered to take me to a comforting lady; I opted for just a ride home. When the time came to pay for the ride, I reached to my pocket, only for him to insist I take money from him. Instead I took his number and I’ll shared a nargileh with him the next day.

This is one a handful of acts of random kindness I’ve received. Like anywhere there are exceptions and foreigners can be the object of endless fascination and unwanted attention – but the overwhelming majority put any welcome I’ve shown people visiting my country to shame. Something I intend to change.

More than the random encounters, the circle of friends I’ve made here have made my stay so special. There are too many people to name; people who have cooked for me, let me stay in their houses, taken me out, and shown me around. They have made Damascus feel like a second home and made me feel part of a community in a way I haven’t experience before; the main reason I’ve found it so hard to leave. Words are beyond my gratitude to them all, lest to say I have a tear in my eye as I write this. Thank you all.

Somar, who’s been like a brother to me here, made me a hand carving of my new capoeira name in wood: ‘Vagabundo’; vagabond - for the foreseeable future I will just that. On the back is inscribed ‘Don’t foget to cycle home; Damascus’ – one day, for sure, I will. Insha’allah akeed!

Getting involved

Many of the people I’ve met were through capoeira. I used to play back in London but reignited my love for it here in a big way. Seeing the work the CapoeirArab group had done in the Al-Tanf Refugee Camp was inspiration enough to work as hard as I was at home in setting up a new NGO; Bidna Capoeira. We will teach capoeira; bringing its dance, music, and joyful energy to under served communities around the world.

I’ve seen the capoeira effect first hand, at free classes we’ve given throughout Damascus; with inmates at the girls prison, over 100 Palestinian youths, and children from the poorest neighbourhoods. They all left smiling, excited and happy.

I’ve never felt as proud about a cause I’m working on as this. I will continue to help on my way south; as a cycling emissary, visiting UNICEF offices and teaching capoeira to kids at the orphanages on the way. There is so much to look forward to.

Going with the flow

I arrived in Damascus thinking I’d spend a week; I left London thinking I’d take a year to get to Cape Town; time estimation was never my forte. So for now, while I don’t need to, I won’t. This ride make take one more year, it may take two. What is most important to me is making the most of the opportunities on the way; helping out where I can on my way to completing the ride.

I feel as good as I ever have and glad I made those first steps towards this almost two years ago. I recently wrote a guest blog: ‘Take the long and winding road’, about it for Al Humphries excellent website; read my story and many inspirational thoughts there.

My original tagline for the Better Life Cycle was: One man, one bike, one year, one great idea. That will have to change…

Kenny G is cycling Africa

Kenny G

Kenny G (Ken McCallum), one of my best friends from home is joining me in Egypt, to join the ride potentially all the way to Cape Town. After six years at Bird & Bird solicitors he’s decided to fly the nest. I’m so excited about him joining me; he gave so much of his time to helping me fundraise and get on the way; I can’t think of a better or more worthy companion.

First big test will be the Sahara, it will be excruciatingly hot. Pack your sun-cream G.

A fond farewell

I had a little preparation for continuing my adventure with a weekend away in Latakkia with friends. The ‘secret’ beach we found and subsequent skinny dipping has given me a welcome reminder of the fun I have when on the road.

Cycling with Nadia, one of my Bidna Capoeira colleagues I met here, the first stop is Jordan; the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum… then at long last Africa.

So it’s maa salami (goodbye) to Sham and all the great times I’ve had here. I will have to play a non-stop game of capoeira against 25+ regulars at the capoeira class tomorrow, until I collapse of exhaustion. Haha - a good way to go; when your flat on your back the only way is upwards and onwards.