Please don't ask me why, but for some stupid arse reason I decided that my next holiday would be a cycling and camping trip around the Middle East's finest. Namely; Syria, the Lebanon and the Golan Heights. I didn't know if it was allowed, or even physically possible due to whatever terrain or political boundaries there may be, but mere technicalities had never stopped me from doing whatever in the past so I was gonna do it.
My previous travels had taken me to thirty-six countries so nothing seemed new anymore. Maybe by that time I'd already been to so many places that I felt the need to visit destinations a little off the beaten tourist track. Places like Bucharest and Viet-Nam had recently played host to my somewhat strange sense of adventure. Was the Middle East fiasco to be another attempt at going further than I'd ever been before (and I'm not talking land miles), or a genuine search for more of the worlds hidden treasures? Of course there's always a third alternative which was the possibility that I was just sheer f*cking crazy.
Luckily for me, on my very first night I met up with Stina and Peter from Bergen in Norway and true to the ways of all Scandinavians I've met on my travels they were nutters to the nth. degree. That is in no way an insult to the natives of Scandinavia though. I love them all. They have an outlook on life that is so like my own. Take whatever you can today because tomorrow may never come. With this inbred appetite for whatever life had to offer Peter volunteered his services as my companion for the duration of the upcoming adventure before I'd even finished telling him what was afoot.
We went out there and then, bought a bicycle and sat down in a cafe cum whatever the hell it was supposed to be and planned our next move. Now I've never been a great one for planning but I really excelled myself that night. From the hand drawn map made by one of the locals for us we decided that we'd take the one and only cross desert highway the next morning from Damascus to Beirut which was forty eight miles west. We opted for an early start to beat the heat of the mid-day sun. We'd take some food in case there were no stops on the way, and we'd travel lightly, leaving the rest of our stuff with Stina. Yes. And that to me is a lot of planning. We had no idea whether we'd be gone for a few days or few weeks, only that we'd be back when we got back.
By all accounts Beirut has more than a little to offer if you can ignore the fact that it incarcerated several Western hostages like John McCarthy and Terry Waite for years at a time. It's your typical bright lights big city in a big big way and Peter and I couldn't get there fast enough. We set of the next morning at about six, taking it in turns on the crossbar. After twenty miles or so we hit a big traffic jam and on the horizon, in the distance we could see what turned out to be an American television truck, complete with interviewers, cameramen and the works. What with me being the man I am I just had to think of some stupid dumb arse thing to say should I asked anything and as sure as six eggs make half a dozen, as we got closer, while I was taxiing Peter on the crossbar a newsman stuffed his Microphone in my face while the cameraman filmed it all.
"You've gotta turn back. The borders closed" he stated, but we were having none of it, responding "don't stop me. I'm Southern area pogo champion and we're breaking through for the finals. Someone stole my stick though". Peter repeating from his horizontal perch, "yeh pogo champion, someone stole his stick" Peter like all Scandinavians spoke perfect English, but being only twenty he was too young to know what a pogo stick was. Consequently his remark had been etched with more than a taint of sarcasm as his arse was in pieces from being pillion rider for too long and he just felt the need to air an opinion about something, even if he didn't know what it was.
We didn't actually stop so it wasn't until we got to the border that we realised the seriousness of the situation in hand. We had guns pulled on us while the border guards threw our bikes, cameras, bags and passports in the air, and the guards in general went crazy. After much ado we retrieved the majority of our possessions, but not the bike, so we started walking back the twenty miles or so to Damascus. The one thing that I hadn't taken into consideration when setting out was that I had new shoes on. Now new shoes at the best of times aren't too clever, but new shoes in forty degree heat when your stuck in the middle of the desert and you've twenty miles to walk are f*cking murderous.
An hour or so later we came to a kind of service station in the middle of nowhere but it didn't sell gas. To this day I haven't got a clue what it was there for but that didn't matter as all I wanted was to hit the can. After a two way exchange of hand signals between the proprietor and myself I was ushered in the general direction of two cubicles. It wasn't until I took my seat in what to my mind was the best option of the traditional western toilet and two foot pads to squat on though, that I realised I must have been in the ladies. The give away was when, in deep relieved concentration, I looked down and spotted the box of sanitary towels in the corner. Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth though I whipped my shoes off, carefully ripped a pad into pieces sized as such to give maximum ease of pain to my weeping blisters, and smugly put my shoes back on. Just in case of emergencies, I put the remaining cut off into my pocket and carried on contemplating nothing in general until I was a clear two kilo's lighter.
A few moments later whilst scratching a small pimple on my face a gush of blood came out of it like I couldn't believe. It was so small yet wouldn't stop. With the remaining piece of cloth in my pocket being the only form of swab at hand I dabbed my forehead with it until it ceased and put the cloth back in my pocket. Outside I told Peter of the events and he had a good laugh about it as we made our way back onto the highway.
Not five minutes later we were arrested, presumably for hitch-hiking and as a consequence were dragged off to the side of the road. For the second time in as many hours we had guns pulled on us and the first thing the cops did was search us. The shorter of the two cops held the small piece of blood stained rag in the palm of his hand, staring at it as if it was about to give him all the answers he'd searched for since childhood. Suddenly, after what seemed to be an eternity, as if he's just realised he was holding a poisonous insect, he threw it into the air with a screech of "aargh". It was all too much. Peter erupted in screams of laughter followed a split second later by the sound of him hitting the floor like a sack of potatoes, the result of him being cracked over the back of the head with the butt of the other cops rifle.
The only good thing to be said about the whole episode was that we had a lift back to Damascus. As for my holiday in that part of the world it was over though. Whilst not officially being deported, we were advised that in Syria and neighbouring countries religion was a very serious matter and infidels were not taken kindly to. We had never at any time insulted their or any other religion but when your in a foreign country where you don't fully understand anything, sometimes it's as well to say "o.k." and leave which is exactly what we did. For the next two weeks the three of us basked in the Greek sunshine before going our separate ways. And it was only when I got back home that I learnt that a terrorist attack had killed twenty people in Beirut. Still nothing in the Middle East made any sense to me.