68km Damascus to Abu Shamat
Perhaps the first clue that things weren’t going to plan was from our hotel manager who was snoring on a mattress in the reception area when we went in search of breakfast. Nothing new there really. We’ve found this is to be expected in most hotels in Syria and Turkey; no one seems to be a morning person and breakfast suffers accordingly. With the chef deep in dreamland we returned to the courtyard and struck up a lively conversation with the other guests until food finally arrived an hour later. Next we went to check our email one last time before setting off for the desert town of Palmyra but the owner of the internet cafe was also running behind schedule. The doors were firmly shut more than two hours after it should have opened.
Oh well. These are not major disasters but it was now late in the morning and we were keen to get going. We headed out into the traffic of Damascus, putting ourselves into city driving mode. We worked together to hold our lane, forcing traffic to take a wide berth around us. It’s an exhausting process, which includes constantly checking our mirrors and watching vehicles parked by the side of the road to make sure they don’t pull out in front of us. In the middle of this someone threw a glass bottle from a passing car directly towards us. Intentional or not we’ll never know but it did give us a shock as the bottle flew in front of our noses. There was a real sense of relief when we reached the turnoff for Palmyra and eased onto a quieter road. We passed through the dusty town of Dmeir, the last one of any size for about 100 kilometers, and then soaked in the desert scenery unfolding in front of us. Houses and land took on the same beige colour and the road ran straight ahead as far as we could see.
We’d just started to relax when something happened that really shook us. It began innocently enough. A passing truck stopped in front of us and the driver motioned for us to stop. This happens often enough and usually it’s to offer us a ride or give us something like oranges but this time something felt different. There was no smile from this man, just a cold look on his face as he emerged from the cab and said hello. He started to talk intensely to us and we couldn’t understand a thing so we just thanked him for stopping and carried on.
Not thirty seconds later the same truck passed us and again stopped in our path. The conversation was repeated but the body language and tone of his voice made us very wary. Still not understanding a thing, we got back on our bikes. A third time the truck blocked our path and now the man started talking directly to Andrew and trying to grab his goatee; a step too far and we forcefully used our voices and hands to tell him this behaviour was not acceptable. Twice more we pedalled on and twice more the truck got in our way.
By the fifth time we were really starting to feel harassed and threatened so we stopped our bikes some distance behind the truck and flagged down a passing car, intending to ask them to call the police. The actions of the truck driver said it all. As soon as we waved down another motorist (the first person we signalled to stopped, a lovely young man who spoke some English) the truck sped off into the distance and we never saw him again.
We still aren’t sure what he wanted but we are sure it wasn’t good and it made us very uneasy about pitching our tent in the wilderness tonight. Even in the desert there is always someone around so we found a small military base where a guard is stationed throughout the night and asked to place our tent nearby. It wasn’t a problem and gave us some security after a very unusual day. We still feel a bit funny about the whole thing but also realise that this odd incident was only one episode among thousands of wonderful encounters we’ve had. Here’s to a better day tomorrow.