The old saying “be careful what you wish for” was never so apt. It was just a couple days ago that we were feeling slightly vulnerable and nervous after our experiences in the desert and perhaps the Syrian police force heard about our plight because today they gave us two minders of our very own. Well, that’s a little over the top.
We first noticed our men just outside of Deir-ez-Zor, dawdling behind us in a white stationwagon. We’ve had a few police tails in the last few weeks. Do we look that scary? Okay, we don’t always shower regularly but even still… apparently we cycle tourists are a terribly suspicious bunch. If only we spoke enough Arabic to make them understand that the king of espionage James Bond never travelled by bicycle so really, they don’t need to watch our every move.
Usually our chaperones drop off once we leave the town limits but when we were still being followed after a good hour we decided a chat was in order. We stopped our bikes, had a snack break and then wandered over. We were amazed to find out that they planned to escort us all the way to Raqqa, over 100km down the road. “You know this is going to take two days, right?” we said (or something to that effect using broken Arabic and miming). They looked at each other and then grinned nervously back at us, nodding enthusiastically. To their credit, our personal policemen didn’t crowd our space. They tended to drive ahead to an intersection, await our arrival half an hour later and then rush off again to the next junction. We stopped for lunch between crossroads, savouring our salad while chatting with some local shepherds, and the police looked a bit fed up when we finally reached them.
“Where have you been?” they asked, throwing their arms up in the air. “Lunch,” we said, rhyming off all we’d eaten. They looked hungry. We doubt if they’d planned such a long excursion when they left the office this morning. Well, that’s what you get when you decide to tail two cyclists. In the afternoon we rolled towards the Euphrates and the fantastic ruins of a castle at Halabiayh. Conveniently for our minders, a military checkpoint is nearby on the banks of the river and they were very happy when we asked to camp next to the water. No need to worry about us rolling off into the night. They didn’t rush off too quickly though. They oversaw our look round the castle, only toddling back home near dusk with promises to return tomorrow and survey the rest of our journey.
We don’t mind the company so much. We can camp by the Euphrates in total security, watching the dozens of birds from our tent door, with as much water as we need from the military taps and our new friends keep their distance during the day. We do wonder though just why the police force has put so much effort into watching us. Surely they have better things to do than follow bicycles around?