If you ever wondered what it’s like to be a celebrity, just try cycling in Syria. It was a surprise for us to discover the days of being able to stop a whole street in its tracks just for looking different are far from over. Our first chaos-causing moment was at Aleppo’s market. We pulled up in front of a few fruit stands and immediately a crowd gathered around the bikes. As Friedel was off buying bananas, Andrew entertained thirty local men. Where had we come from? How many kilometers? How did we cross the oceans since bicycles don’t fly? Oh dear. Not that one again. We’ve grown a bit sick of the ocean question lately and were dismayed to discover we were going to have to face it in Syria as well. After everyone had a chance to ring our bells and feel our tyres we started to leave but not before one man pushed his way to the front of the group and extended his hand. “Thank you for coming to visit my country,” he said.
Everywhere we’ve been so far we have been impressed by the kindness of local people but, in Syria especially, hospitality and a sense of duty towards the foreigner seems to be taken to whole new levels.
We pushed out onto the streets of Aleppo, getting our pictures taken at more than a few traffic lights as car passengers leaned out and snapped photos of us with their mobile phones. After navigating several roundabouts we were finally on our way towards the city of Idlib, from where we planned to turn south towards Apamea, a famous archaeological site, and Hama, known for its water wheels.
All along the way cars honked, truck drivers waved and children ran alongside us as we pedalled. It was with some relief that we turned onto a quieter road near midday and cycled in relative peace through farming fields. A bridge seemed the perfect place for lunch so we propped our bikes up against the railings and stopped to prepare a little salad but before we could eat it a car pulled up and two men got out.
Both turned out to be locals for a nearby village, one the coach of Aleppo’s football team. As we found out later, they saw us by the side of the road and stopped to invite us home because they were curious but also because they felt it was their duty to make sure we had a good impression of their country.
We chatted a little by the bridge, then they gave us directions to their home and after lunch we set off for the village of Taftanaz. It was less than 15km from the bridge to our destination but in that distance we were invited for tea at least five times and to stay at another man’s house once. We may need a “reserved” sign on the back of our bicycles for Syria!
As we arrived in Taftanaz, Mohammed was waiting to lead us to his home and what a welcoming place it was with his wife, five daughters and one son. Ammar, a lawyer as well as football coach, was also there and with the help of an interpreter we chatted long into the night, feasting on so much wonderful food. Chicken and potatoes, hummous, tabbouli, bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, stuffed zucchini and aubergines – not to mention several rounds of coffee and tea, chocolates, fruit and nuts.
Nothing was too much for this family, who also insisted on washing our clothes and took us round to the neighbours for coffee there as well.
The usual questions ensued, ones we have become used to in Arabic countries. Do you have children? Why not? Are there fertility problems? Not having a family by choice is inconceivable in places like this, where children represent hope for the future as well as security for the parents in their old age. We talked as well about religion, life in Canada and their hopes to come and visit one day. A dream we would love to see realised, but we wonder if the chances of Syrians getting a visa to visit Canada aren’t slim at best. We feel lucky with our widely-accepted passports and ability to earn enough money to see the world. This dream of travel is shared by many but accessible to few.
Late in the night, after far too much wonderful food and conversation, we laid down to sleep. But our adventure in Taftanaz was not yet over.
The next morning we set off to go and, after taking several dozen photos with all the family, we got on our bikes to continue our journey towards Idlib. Mohammed and Ammar waved us off at the crossroads and we were on our way. Our departure was short-lived, however, as just one kilometer down the road Friedel’s back rim cracked. The wheel now had a large bulge and was unstable. We could not carry on.
Our only real choice was to turn around and head back to our family. There they kindly kept most of our things while we returned to Aleppo by bus with the wheel to have it rebuilt by the bike mechanic there we knew well by now.
Two days later – a longer stay in Aleppo than we’d planned since Friedel became quite sick on the first night – we returned to Taftanaz to continue our journey. We repeated the goodbye ritual with food and drinks and then packed up our bikes to go. Just as we were ready to set off, school children were set free for lunch and we once again had the feeling of being famous as kids in their hundreds cheered in the streets and ran behind us as we left Taftanaz. It might be a small village, missed by most passers-by, but it is one we will never forget.