Stephen

The Middle East

After three weeks of pedaling, talking, sleeping, eating, breathing, and doing some other things, I covered the distance from Marmaris, Turkey to Jerusalem, Israel.  For my standards, this was a fast move.  Days in Turkey became increasingly long as I began to make bigger and bigger moves.  I rode through Syria even more quickly than I did through Turkey.  I made my way through Jordan at about the same pace.  I have not had a computer on my bicycle to measure speed or distance since I was in Italy, but I know that there were three or four 100+ mile days in a row to get through Syria.  I had not ridden a century since being in New Mexico.  Coincidentally, Syria is very similar to New Mexico in most respects.  Or at least many respects.  Perhaps this is why I booked it.  But I know that there is much more behind my reasoning than basic similarity to the landscape of New Mexico.  I will describe it in a few paragraphs.

This update will be a bit travel log style, beginning in Adana, Turkey, and finishing at my current location of Jerusalem.

It was in Adana that my last segment got under way.  I had the amazing good fortune to have crossed paths with three Turkish bicycle tourists during my ride along Turkey’s southern coast.  They were quick to invite me to visit them when I reached Adana, and I was quick to accept.  A week later, I paid them a visit – Mustafa, Zekeriya, and Mustafa (although sadly I did not get the chance to meet “the other Mustafa” (as he came to be known) again.  Mustafa and Zekeriya are both University professors at Cukurova University in Adana.  Cukurova is a school of 50,000 students located in a forest above a huge lake just outside of Adana.  Adana itself is a city of about 1.5 million people.  It is bustling, loud, and hot at this time of year, but also very beautiful in parts, with huge green parks with great walking paths,  the most gigantic mosque that I have ever seen, as well as bicycle and pedestrian paths that run for miles in certain places around the outskirts.  A bit of a far cry from the rural experience that I had passed through in order to get there.  I have the idea that this is the nature of Turkey: large developed cities with everything you could want or need, and very rugged, beautiful – sometimes difficult – landscapes separating them.

Two days in Adana were spent at a relaxed pace, and I was able to take a sort of tour of Cukurova University as well as to spend time meeting Mustafa and Zekeriya’s families.  While at home we spent time watching TV – CNN Turk and Mongol – and while at school, time was split between walking around campus, using the internet, and doing an interview about Seize The World.  Also, I was very lucky to have gotten the chance to have spoken at length with fellow faculty member at Cukurova from Antakya (Hatay), a Turkish city right next to Syria.  He speaks fluent Arabic, and spent an hour with me to teach me a number of phrases that were, and will continue to be useful.  Phrases such as, “Do you have water,” “Do you have a place to sleep,” “Good,” etc.  I was able to ask him all kinds of questions about Syria, Arab culture, and travel in the Middle East.

The following morning, at Mustafa’s apartment, everyone awoke early.  His mother Sefika had prepared an incredible meal consisting of minced meat, onions, spices, bulgur, and bread.  I ate a good deal of it, and have not needed to eat anything since then actually because it gave me so much energy.  As we wheeled the bikes out of the apartment that morning, Mustafa’s niece, named Nisa incidentally, bid us farewell, and we were joined by Zekeriya and another professor named Aduan who is also a cyclist and a die hard commuter, refusing to use a car even on bad weather days.  Aduan, Zekeriya, and Mustafa accompanied – or rather led – me during the first 20Km out of Adana, and then said goodbye once we had reached Incirlik Air Base outside Adana.  Incirlik is an air base that is a jointly run by Turkey and the United States, so it seemed an appropriate place to part ways.  They went back to Adana, and I set off for Syria and beyond, feeling well rested, energized and well prepared for the road ahead.  Adana had been a great experience.  And satisfying as well because I was able to speak with a number of people there about epilepsy including Zekeriya, Mustafa, Aduan, and a journalist from Sabah, who will hopefully be publishing a story to be distributed throughout Turkey about the efforts of Seize The World.

I continued riding, and found myself on the Syrian border a couple of days later.

My crossing into Syria took eight hours, things being a bit difficult in the sense that I had happened to arrive on a Saturday together with dozens of tour buses carrying Turkish tourists down into Syria.  The crossing was jammed, and I was at the bottom of their list of priorities.  But after eight hours of waiting in a smoke filled room with a faded picture of Hafez al-Assad, the former president of Syria, and watching TV – it was July 4 so there was a short feature on the U.S.A. – I got a few stamps on my passport and rolled across the border.  The area near Sarmata, which is where I crossed from Turkey to Syria, is a gorgeous place.  I crossed at 8p.m. and there was orange light on the pale rocks and minarets.  I was descending into an open rocky valley toward Sarmata as I searched for a place to sleep.

I asked a group of people sitting at an abandoned gas station 100M to my left if things might work out.  They said yes, we began drinking prodigious quantities of tea, coffee and water, and they offered me a shower, which I accepted.  I ate dinner two hours later.  Then I put my bike inside, was given a place to sleep on a bed inside, and left at noon the next day after being given a hearty breakfast.  Meals in Turkey and Syria often occur on the ground on mats that are rolled out it seems – or at least this was the case at Mustafa’s apartment as well as at Mohammed and Riyadh’s gas station in Sarmata.  Several dishes of food were put out from which everyone could choose the food they wanted.  Olives, cheese, oil, spices, etc.  Pita bread for everyone, watermelon for desert.  Simple goodness.  I got on the bike at noon and began rolling toward Damascus.  Damascus: 430Km away.  Jordan, 100Km further.  (or something similar – I no longer remember, and I did not know for sure to begin with).

I quickly discovered that travel in Syria is challenging because the people are so hospitable and curious that it can sometimes be overwhelming for foreign visitors.  At the right time, this hospitality is pure magic, but at certain moments, my reactions to it may have been a bit rough, to use an expression that a friend passed along.  It is difficult to put on a kind face 100% of the time, although it is very important to me to make an effort to do so because I learned quickly in Syria that I was one of only a few travelers to roll down the M45 highway.  When you make a side trip into a small city of 20,000 people to ask for directions and find yourself quickly surrounded by 15 people, you know that it is not because you are a remarkable sight, but that it is because you are something different.  In Syria you see a lot of the same things:

Dusty villages, beat up motorcycles with two or three people, trucks with precariously high stacks of grain, trucks with amazing lighting systems rolling around at night (neon undercarriage, flashing carriage lights), minarets, minarets with neon lighting, coolers full of water, coke, pepsi, fanta, shave ice stands, fruit stands.  You also see a lot of these 20 year old rickety green and black jeep type vehicles with Bashar al-Assad’s face emblazoned onto the black windshield with a white decal, similar to the way in which I have emblazoned the SeizeTheWorld.com url onto the down tube of my bicycle with a white decal.  So, it seemed to me that an American on a bike was a different if not necessarily remarkable sight, that is all.

Syria is, at its heart, a poor country as well.  I realized quickly in Syria how much I had come to depend on grocery stores, coffee shops, and nice gas stations for my daily comfort and sanity.  Syria does not have many of these things and this lack makes daily travel faster and a bit more spartan from a bicycle touring point of view.  Bicycle touring is, in one sense, all about finding lots of comfortable places to loiter.  It is certainly more enjoyable if you can find such places.  Syria has very few comfortable places to loiter.  So I did not loiter there.  I pedaled.

Very quickly, I reached Jordan.  By the time I got to Jordan, I had actually gotten into pretty good physical shape.  I had been riding 60 and 70 mile days in Turkey, and 100+ mile days in Syria.  By the time I got to Jordan I saw no reason to dither before getting to Israel where I had a friend in Jerusalem and where I had this sense that I would, essentially, be back in Europe (i.e. coffee shops, movie theaters, WiFi, bicycle shops, smooth pavement, etc.)  As it turns out, Jordan turns out to basically be Europe as well, with police officers on every street corner who speak fluent English, wear reflective jackets, carry pistols (notM-16s as is the case in Israel) and drive new white SUVs.  Still, I did not stick around to talk to the police officers for anything more than to get directions about how to get out of Amman – these directions sound very profound way because of Amman’s system of circles (round abouts):

“Ride to the seventh circle sir.  Then continue straight.  Then you will find the path away from Amman.”

Unfortunately, an American woman in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo came to a screeching halt in the first circle to confirm these directions, which stripped them of much of their initial profundity, but I will still remember the weight of the police officer’s first declaration about the seventh circle.

I did find the path away from Amman.  I continued along that path for several hours until I reached the King Hussein Bridge after what was the best descent of my life.  I remember a question that a man asked in Santa Fe on day five of the trip: “What’s the best descent of your life?” New answer: “The descent from As Shone, Jordan, toward the Dead Sea.”

I arrived too late to cross, so I camped that evening a couple of miles from the bridge, then purchased a bus ticket to cross the bridge into Israel.  A six hour process with security, lines, etc.  A serious bus ride.  But I was in Israel eventually with the much-discussed Israeli stamp on my passport.

I rolled my bike out of the Allenby Station (as it is called in Israel) which has a staff of 80% women (I think) as opposed to the Syrian border, 100% men, and the Jordanian border, 95% men, from my quick estimation.  After I escaped, I began the five hour, forty Km climb toward Jerusalem from the Dead Sea.  It was hot in a sense of the word that I had never experienced before.  The Dead Sea is about 300meters (feet?) below sea level.  I took it very slowly, but my climb began at 1p.m., me being too impatient to wait out the heat at the gas station at the base of the hill.  So I would ride for short bursts, wait in the shade for short periods, spray water on myself, etc.  It was a brain melting climb.  But I arrived in Jerusalem at long last and reunited with my friend James who had arrived in the city a few weeks ago, and who had ridden with me on this tour in eastern Europe for a week about 10 weeks ago (or so).  It is great to have arrived here.

Enjoy the pictures of travels through the Middle East.  Coming up in a couple of days is the ride to the Pyramids in Cairo, and from there (most likely) a flight to India where the journey east resumes toward China and then Japan.  This was a large move that occurred during the past three weeks, and a great one.  A very new part of the world for me.  Thanks for your continued interest and support for Seize The World.  Please make a donation if you are interested in doing so.  We are about to kick off a summer fund-raising drive to support the ride across Asia, details will come soon about that!  And say hello anytime by replying to these postings.

Stephen

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