Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Pilgrimage from El Manara to Dummar 17/08/08

The orchard workers have been at it a while by the time I fully wake, checking my watch I'm surprised it's still only 7am. My hosts from last night reappear to wish me luck and I get straight into it.

My spirits are high knowing I will be back in Syria by lunchtime. Lebanon has been amazing to walk through, the people couldn't be more friendly or the nature more beautiful but there's always a slight unease in the air meaning I'm never fully relaxed. The heavily controlled environment in Syria is suddenly feeling very appealing ;)

A young guy stops and invites me for coffee. Even though his house is a little out of my way I can't resist, he is just too friendly :) The whole family is in his backyard when we arrive and they couldn't be more welcoming to this strange young man that's just been dragged in off the street. Getting a quick tour of the farm they let me know I'm welcome to stay anytime I'm back in the area. Cheers guys :)

The border is closer than I thought and before long I'm in no-mans land between the two countries. A huge line of trucks is banked up on the side of the road waiting to pass the Lebanese border and I don't even need to make Syria before I get my first invite for tea :) The truck drivers are well prepared with little picnics set up and it doesn't look like they are in any hurry...

"So, how long will you guys stay here?"

"One day, maybe two"

"One or two days!!!" I couldn't understand the reason why they wait so long but it's a bit bizarre, no wonder they look so well set up :)

Winding my way upwards the Syrian border finally comes into sight with a big "Welcome to Syria" sign perched on the ridge. Even though the immigration offices still aren't in sight a soldier walks out of the hills and stops me a meter into Syrian territory...

"What are you doing?"

"Walking to Damascus?"

He doesn't look happy and keeps asking a question I can't understand, I finally I realize he just wants to check that I receive a stamp from the Lebanese immigration. Finding the correct page in my passport leaves him with a big smile and he waves me through.

Another kilometer down the road I pass a military base. A young guy about eighteen spots me from the gate and rushes out to see what's going on. He's another one of these kid soldiers who gets incredibly freaked out by my presence, but I have to say I'm glad the Syrian's haven't seen fit to give this one a gun... :)

"Forbidden! Forbidden! What are you doing?"

"Walking to Damascus"

"No!!! It's forbidden! You can't! It's forbidden! Where is you passport?"

I get the feeling I'm going to be driven the last kilometer and start wishing I met this guy before walking up the hill ;) An older soldier comes out to see what the fuss is about and feeling uneasy about the look in the kids eye I give my passport to the him instead. He starts flicking through and both of us can't help laughing as the young guy continuously attempts to snatch it out of his hands. It is very comical but finally he succeeds and with his prize in his hands turns to me...

"Follow me!"

I have a moment of panic realizing the kid might be the officer, not good! Following him toward the entrance another officer appears causing my escort to snap to attention so fast the air cracks...

"This man is walking!!! He is from Australia!"

The officer takes my passport, gives my a quick look up and down, hands the document back to me without even glancing at it and dismisses me with a wave and a big smile. I do feel a bit sorry for the kid, who's still acting like a flagpole, that his prize catch is so easily released, giving him a friendly smile I turn and continue on...

Now that I've past the gate the soldiers in the hills must realize I'm not a threat to anyone and it's a bit surreal listening to them call out from around their posts...

"Welcome to Syria" "Hello" "Hello" "Welcome" "How are you" "Hello" "Welcome"

A small group leaves their positions and comes running down for a chat. They are intrigued with my story and wish me well. Before long I'm standing in front of the immigration officer waiting to be interrogated as he flicks through my passport...

"So, you are studying in Damascus are you?"



A minute later I have a new visa and can't believe how fast he was. But this is a pattern I've noticed while traveling. If I come in and out of a country two or three times within a short period the questions become more and more serious, then suddenly after the fourth or fifth they don't care at all. I suppose they figure if I'm doing something wrong it was someone else's job to pick up on it ;)

The first thing I notice walking down the highway is a change in the hills, going from steep and rocky to...a different steep and rocky. Hard to explain in words but definitely a change ;) And the best news is it's almost all downhill to Damascus.

I wouldn't mind a hotel tonight so when a turnoff to Al Dimas appears I go to investigate. I get many strange looks walking through town but the people who do stop couldn't be more friendly. The first restaurant I pass sells mini pizza things so sitting on the footpath a have a snack. Some locals drop by bearing drinks and small snacks and when I go to leave they don't let me pay :)

Continuing on through town I decide to get a proper meal before leaving, I don't know what I'm likely to find elsewhere. I have the choice of roast chicken, chicken kebab, or roast chicken. I try to find someone to sell me half a chicken but no luck. A whole chicken or nothing...

"If you don't want a whole chicken wait ten minutes and the kebab will be ready"

The kebab hasn't even started cooking yet so I don't quite trust Hani's estimate...

"No, trust me! I know, I'm the shop owner. Ten hundred percent"

Laughing "Okay, can I have a Pepsi while I wait?"

Finishing my drink fifteen minutes has past and the kebab still hasn't started cooking...

"Five minutes! Five minutes! It will be ready in five minutes I promise"

"Sorry mate, I'll keep going but thanks anyway..."

One thing that takes a lot of getting use to as a Western man in an Arab country is the colorful way friends greet and talk to each other. The amount of "My baby", "My sweetheart", "I miss you", "I love you" that is thrown around between friends is quite disturbing to the uninitiated. But sometimes I still get completely thrown...

"Ben, I love you. I love you"


"Ben, you me friends, yes?"

"Yes, friends"

"I will miss you. I will miss you. Do you have a telephone number?"

"Yes, of" We swap numbers...

"Okay, you will call me, yes? Call me just to say "Hani I love you"

"Okay, I will call..."

To this point the conversation may sound a bit extreme but I have to say from my experience it is "reasonably" normal. His next action completely stumps me though...

Grinning like a cheshire cat he traces a heart in the air "Hani Ben Looooooovvvvvve"

I'm speechless. Opening and closing my mouth a couple of times he's left me with absolutely nothing to say. With his grin still plastered from ear to ear I just smile, wave and disappear :) The problem is that this is not meant in any way other than friendship. Whenever I've pointed out to my Arabic friends that to a Westerner they sound extremely gay they are shocked, it doesn't even come into their reality. In Australia this same conversation would go something like...

"Hey mate, your alright. Here's my number, if your ever in the area again let me know, we'll go for a beer or something..."

Stopping for tea and a chat with a few fruit sellers along the way I'm pleasantly surprised when rounding a corner Damascus comes into view. It's still 20kms away but still, I must have covered good kilometers today.

Feeling pleased with myself I find a plantation of small trees to set my camp up for the night. It's been a while since I set camp in daylight...

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