Friday, April 24, 2009

Flashback Friday: Biking in Syria

I was going through some old photos from Syria and I came across this gem:

Why yes, that is me with three friends on a four-person bike posing next to a stork on the road from Shaati al-Azraq to Ras Shamra, birthplace of the modern alphabet, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. How ever did you know?

Here's the story. It involves Jeremy, me, and various friends and family members getting burned by some bike vendors in Lattakia not once but twice.

The first time, it was mid-March, 2005. The Mediterranean coast of Syria is refreshing any time of year, but in the spring, the orange groves that spread across the countryside are just beginning to bloom and so the air, cooled by sea breezes, smells heavily of orange blossoms. Heavenly. Jeremy and I, along with three friends (two Italians and an American) were enjoying the off-season rates of a nice hotel on Shaati al-Azraq, the "blue beach" of the Mediterranean Sea.

One day, we decided it would be fun to rent a bike from the vendors at the main traffic circle and ride our bikes to Ras Shamra a few miles down a flat country road. Back in 1500 BC, Ras Shamra was known as Ugarit, and it is the site of some great ruins. For reasons which I don't exactly recall, the five of us chose to rent ourselves a four-person bike for a few dollars and set off on our excursion.

At first, everything was going great. The weather was cool, birds were chirping in the trees, the countryside was gorgeous, and we were on our way to explore some ruins. Life was good. We were all a little giddy from the novelty of pedalling along in our bike contraption, and there was lots of chatting and laughing going on. I had the best deal of all - since there were five of us but only four seats with pedals, I just scrunched in the back seat and did my best to weigh as little as possible (no small feat when you're pregnant).

After a few miles, however, our jovial mood began to wear off and reality set in: the bike was a piece of junk. The tires were low on air and the gears did not turn smoothly. What's more, whatever kind of metal it was made out of was really, really heavy, which made it difficult to propel by pedaling, even with four of us working at it.

We took a breather by the stork, as you see above, and then made the decision to scrap our plans for an idyllic bike ride and hitch a more practical ride on a service (microbus) instead. A little ways down the road from the stork, we saw an abandoned concrete building. We pedaled over, hid the bike inside, and walked back out to the road to catch a ride to the ruins.

They were great, as usual. In its prime, Ras Shamra/Ugarit was located right on the coast of the Mediterranean, but the coastline has since receded.

We were not the only ones enjoying the ruins that day. This cow was just hanging out, feasting on the grass growing over centuries of civilization.

When we were done, we hopped on another service to the abandoned concrete building, and then pedaled back to the bike vendors, who were none the wiser.

You'd think we would have learned our lesson from this little experience, but a month later, we were back in Lattakia and got burned for the second time.

We were with my parents and little brother this time, and perhaps we had learned something after all, because this time we decided to rent single bikes for everyone to ride to Ugarit. Surely we'd be successful this time, right?

Well, almost. At the time of renting the bikes, Jeremy had expressed his concern to the vendor that the tires on his bike looked bald and cracked. They waved away his worries and said he wouldn't have any trouble.

And he didn't, until he had made it all the way to Ugarit and was pedaling into the entrance of the ruins. There was a loud CRACK! and one of his tires popped completely open. So on the way back, he had to flag down a passing motorist driving a truck to give him and his busted bike a ride back to Lattakia. He even got some money back from the bike vendors.

Riding a bike from Shaati al-Azraq to Ugarit may have worked out better in theory than it did in real life - both times - but it was still a lot of fun. I think I'd do it again...or maybe not.


Liz Johnson said...

As always, I am way impressed. And I am SUPER impressed that you got a picture by a real-life stork. REALLY!? A STORK!? I have never seen one in real life! Very cool.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

That day is on my list of all-time favorite days--the fragrant orange blossoms, the sparkly Mediterranean, the obscure ruins, the mid-eastern style villas on the surrounding hills. Imagine! Walking around the place where the alphabet was created by the ancient Phoenecians! And my bike behaved itself both ways, thank goodness.

Scotty P said...

There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again.

Steven said...

Those cows were there when I went, too! And I believe I took a taxi or something with someone because we were too lazy.

Susanne said...

It's great to see this part of Syria and read your adventure there. Thanks for sharing. :-)

Spencer said...

What is it about bikes in the Middle East? All of my worst experiences in the Middle East involve renting bicycles. In fact--the first time we were in Egypt we rented bikes in Luxor and the string of events that followed led me to exclaim with disgust, "I'm never going back to Egypt again."

(Egypt is now one of my very favorite places in the world. We've lived there a few different times, and loved it. I even get homesick for Cairo sometimes. Just goes to show--don't judge a country by its shady bike rental facilities.)

Nancy said...

I've never been tempted to rent bikes. Except in Spain where they have these bike racks all over with bicycles. You pay at a machine and it releases a bicycle and you can return it at any of the bike racks around the city (I don't remember where we were--Grenada?). Anyway that was cool. We didn't use them, though, because walking was cheaper.

We do want to have bikes when we're back in the States and go for family bike rides.

Your post reaffirmed to me the wisdom in not renting bikes, however.


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