A story of hospitality
20.08.2009 - 22.08.2009
So, I left off last time with us in the middle of the desert, sun setting, arms out into the air in a prayer to the many gods this region has had over the millennia. Our prayers were swiftly answered by a minibus full of Syrians who looked shocked to see foreigners, and welcomed us with open arms.
As usual, the level of English was pretty low inside the bus, and we were expecting to get by with the basic hand gestures and simple conversations about where we were from (not always so simple in my case) as well as listing english football teams. But in a strange quirk of fate one of the passengers, Sayid, a pharmacist, spoke Russian, and had spent 8 years all over Russia learning the pharmacists trade. As he had had such a good time in Russia and had been treated so well during his time there, he invited us to stay at his house in the village of Al Mansoura. This was perfect for us as we had no idea where we would stay tonight, and there were no towns with hotels (no towns at all actually) within at least an hour of where we were. This was also a great as it allowed us to communicate properly with the people, so far we'd had pretty basic conversations as our Arabic isn't exactly up to scratch.
Arriving to his home, we were introduced to the men in his family, and the women quickly made themselves scarce. He lived with his brother, Mohamed, and his cousin Sultan stopped by to meet the foreigners. As usual, we were served large amounts of tea, and again as usual the conversation turned onto money. Arab culture is pretty materialistic, they all dream about getting rich, and it seems to pain them that Syria is in such a poor economic position, something they are acutely aware of.
Sayid promptly went to bed, leaving us in the company of Sultan, who seemed happy reeling off common memes, a rather tiring conversation form that Syrian seem to love doing with us when there is no common language. It generally goes like this: "Chelsea... hmm.. yeah... Charles Dickens... hmm, yeah.. Liverpool... yeah... Sherlock Holmes... yeah... Michael Ballack.. hmm... Shakespeare (or Sheik Sebeir, apparently he was an Arab)... hmm.. yeah..." etc. ad infinitum. Eventually after a few games of chess with Mohamed we got to sleep in his courtyard, under the stars, as it was very hot.
Next morning, they opened up their pharmacy and gave us breakfast inside, I think we brought in a few extra customers. Soon enough, they sent us on our way and we were on a bus heading to Lake Al-Assad, a lake created by damming up the Euphrates. We saw a castle on an peninsula on the lake, and we spent most of day frolicking around under a fig tree on the beach by the cooling waters eating melons and generally having an excidingly good time. After a few hitches back, including one on top of an awesome Arab rasta-colour scheme pimped out pick up, racing over the dam, we got back to Al Mansoura, where we planned to hitch across the desert to the other side, against the advice of pretty much everyone we had come across. They were right. An hour of waiting around on a disty road drilled home that no one would be driving through the desert late on a thursday night (friday is the main weekend day), and so we gave up and got on a minibus to Ar-Raqqa, the capital of the region.
Raqqa's main claim to fame is that it houses many Iraqi refugees, and consequently, its a pretty gritty place, at least from what we saw of the bus station. After hours of waiting and waiting and somehow not getting onto buses that seemed to be going even after we had registered our passports, we chanced upon another weary traveler going our way, Amir. He happened to be trainee pharmacist, and consequently, spoke excellent Russian after having spent 6 years there studying. Syria doesn't seem to have any facilities for pharmacy study, and sends its students to Russia. Again this turned out amazingly, as he put us on a bus, even paid for us, and invited us to his home in the small village of Bokros, near the town of Dier Ezzour where we happened to be going.
Weary and amazed at our luck, we accepted....