Sunday, 30 May 2010

Moving on… the moments that make it

Having finally left Damascus, I headed south in Jordan to continue my journey, then across the Red Sea and after a tour of the Sinai, into Africa… at long last. I’d felt a little out of sorts leaving life and my friends in Syria but my wanderlust soon returned.

As ever there too many memories to include; I’ve done my best to edit it down.

Kings Highway

Cycling the Kings Highway in Jordan quickly washed away the cobwebs. It is probably the most spectacular road I’ve ridden yet. This ancient biblical road follows the ridges of the Jordanian mountain range, falling almost 2km down spectacular wadis into the Dead Sea Valley.

Cycling with Nadia, a good friend from Damascus we spent several days oscillating along the rise and fall of the road; including the full descent to the Dead Sea. (Note: yes you do float; you can just about get entirely submerged; don’t open your eyes it hurts like hell)

Visiting the Dana nature reserve was particularly memorable for the sights as well as the hospitality of Khalid and the Dana People’s Cooperative. Nadia and I scoped out a potential project in the area for Bidna Capoeira. Despite falling ass-first into a stream during an earlier demonstration, the enquiring elders were soon eager for to arrange a programme. Not bad as my first effort as Bidna Capoeira’s ‘Cycling Emissary’ – I’ll double check for streams next time.

Petra

No site I’ve visited has wowed me as much as Petra. On a local tip we trekked for 1½ hour through a wadi north of the site, following a secret path marked by stone piles, to sneak into the site for free. This uncertain leap of faith proved to be one highlights of the day, as we found ourselves entering the sprawling site through a cascade of unmarked tombs, far from the beaten path. We could barely believe our luck.

We entered the site near the Monastery, a further hour’s hike up a narrow mountain path. Winding up the long succession of smoothed stairs you round another corner and suddenly the towering Monastery hits you with sheer impressiveness and size. Its amusing to watch as almost everyone is stopped in their tracks, gawking at the first sight. Immaculately preserved and over 1500 years old it deserves that startling moment.

Eyes opened by our morning’s trek, greeting the opportunity to beat your own path around the site, Nadia and I managed to avoid the thickening crowds, and wander curiously alone through remote tombs, up old eroded stairways to the hidden treasures Petra has in abundance. It bought out a childish sense of adventure, I was only too happy to indulge.

The final glory of our day is most people’s first; the Treasury, of Indiana Jones fame. Walking the sheer sided Siq through which less intrepid or perhaps more honest, paying customers enter the site, the Treasury appears; a marvel of human creation framed by staggering natural beauty. No exaggeration, this is a truly a wonder of the world.

Homesick

After a sad farewell with Nadia in Aqaba and boarding the ferry to Egypt, I was truly alone for the first time in months. Despite the company of a friendly Spanish couple cycling home from Australia just in time for their wedding, my mind was elsewhere. My body may have left Damascus but my mind was still there. Being with Nadia had simply prolonged the reaction.

It took me a while to realise I was feeling homesick, not for London, for Sham (as Damascus is known locally). The simple truth was that I had found a life I was very happy with there and had it not been for the calling of the cause in Africa, I would have gladly stayed.

I had been so welcomed by my new friends, cared for, fed (very important), and loved I felt a deep sadness to be separated from them. I had found a purpose in working on Bidna Capoeira I felt passionate about and felt part of a community. More than any other place I have known, I was fulfilled there, surrounded by them. For all the joyfulness and love I received, with my whole being, thank you my friends.

Sharming with the Fam

After a whistle-stop visit to Dahab, where Lisa and Jamie, friends from home, treated me to a fun and insanely luxurious two nights in the 5* Le Meridien – I made it to Sharm-El-Sheikh to meet my Sis and nephews. They are probably the only catalyst that would have sparked the departure from my Damascene dream.

Like many beach resorts, Sharm seems a charmless monstrosity, 40km of little but 5* resorts, devoid of any sense of local culture. There is little reason to leave your resort, and there was a strange sense of almost being locked in, it felt very alien. However with three young boys to entertain, we needed little more, whiling away the days by the pool and sea, messing about, as I gladly got to play uncle and catch up with my Sis for the first time in a long time – one of the very few things I miss from home, where it feels like increasingly longer before I return.

A flyby visit of Cairo salvaged some cultural respectability; a little present to my nephs. (I’ll save the descriptions of the Pyramids et al. for a time when I’ve had longer to savour them).

Red Sea

The morning after my Sister and the boys flew out, Kenny G flew in, to join me for the ride through Africa. The first day’s cycling up to Dahab was hot, hilly and into a hellish headwind; bad timing G!

It had been the plan to take some time to acclimatise. In no time at all, two weeks had rolled by. (I think I may have always been on Africa time!) We were joined midway by Tarek and Ummul, two good friends from Damascus. After another beastly cycle our happy quartet settled in Ras Sheitan, a place of beach huts, good food and friendly, laid-back, left-leaning Israelis.

In between morning capoeira and music lessons, we had several fascinating conversations about experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and life in Israel. Dana, a very kind-hearted lady, epitomised the voice of understanding and need for collaboration.

Dana works for Combatants for Peace (please check out their website). After hearing many polarised views in my time in the Middle East, hers seemed like the voice of reason to me; bringing people on both sides together to forge solutions to bring an end to the inhumanity and make a better life for all whom suffer.

Crossing the Sinai

Our trip across the Sinai was at times starkly monotonous, others serene; good training for the Sahara, which has now been put into somewhat worrying context. Cycling between 12 – 4 was impermissibly hot; with the likelihood being that we’ll suffer 10oC+ more in southern Egypt & Sudan at the hottest time of the year. However through the times that are endured, joyous moments shine.

Having woken before dawn and sent Kenny on ahead, a comedy of errors unfolded, as I spent two hours diagnosing and fixing a mysterious ‘eek’ from my bike. Back on the road, cycling uphill into the strengthening headwind, I was having to grit my teeth to play catch up. Reaching the top of a climb the wind turned and the road gently rolled into the distance. It was stunning; mountains mixed with dunes; a desert wilderness, silent but for the whistling wind as I glided with exhilarating speed. I smiled constantly for over an hour. With cycling, as with anything, the sour times only make the sweet ones sweeter.

Good Omen Africa

Kenny & I umm-ed and ahh-ed about whether the extra 350km round trip to enter Africa on it’s only overland point would be worth it. But we went with our positive whim headlong into the southerly winds.

Two days later we crested the Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal, to finally enter Africa. At the mid-point of the bridge I stopped the video from rolling to avoid the attention of the approaching guard. I needn’t have worried. With an effusive two handed wave, (one seemingly waving an Asia farewell, the other welcoming us to Africa), he beamed a touching smile, cried his blessings and with a flourish blew us a kiss. It was a magic moment.

We stopped to catch our breath after the bridge, grinning at our achievement. ‘Africa; it even smells different’ remarked the olfactorily excited Ken. As bought a few supplies we sparked up a conversation with the first ‘African’ person we’d met. Without any sense of ceremony he removed his head scarf and tied it on Kenny’s recently shaven head, telling him he need it. He wanted nothing, other than for us to have a good impression of his home. He succeeded. What a welcome!

The Suez Canal

NE to SW

We’re in Port Said, the north-eastern most point of Africa, primed to traverse the continent in full. Kenny’s first comment on the continent was ‘Africa; it even smells different’. It’s true that it does seem different, although my nose hadn’t sensed it. It has been instantly livelier, with more people and bustle, and the locals have been friendlier that those presumably weary of westerners on the Sinai. Long may it continue – Insha’Allah!

I can’t wait to have my camera fixed in Cairo; I’ve made do with other peoples ‘point and shoot’ cameras since Damascus; it’s just not quite the same - hopefully better photos to come. That and a number of life and charity admin tasks should soon be resolved, leaving my mind free to enjoy what’s in front of me.

The adventure so far has taught me a great deal, not least to make the most of the journey. It is an exciting time. I still haven’t a clue how long it will take to reach Cape Town; how could I? There is a whole continent of opportunity ahead of us. Bring it on!