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Some Differences Between Syria and England

February 5, 2010

“People from all over the world have passed through this village…..They come in search of new things, but when they leave they are basically the same people they were when they arrived. They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking the past was better than what we have now. They have blond hair, or dark skin, but basically they’re the same as the people who live right here.” (The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho)

Throughout my journey I have been struck by similarities between people in different countries. However alien things seem when I first arrive in a new place, I soon find that people change very little, even as Christianity turns to Islam and pale skin turns to dark. The similarities are just as striking in Syria.

But there are plenty of differences from home too. I’m feeling tired and lethargic as I write this – a symptom of 10 days off the bike – and it’s much easier to think of the differences. So here are some that I’ve noticed during my 2 weeks in Syria.

1.  Cricket

In England you play cricket on cricket pitches. Normally there are no Iraqis in your team.

In Syria you don’t play cricket….normally. It would be pushing it to say cricket has taken off in Damascus, but at least it’s been represented. An Englishman, two Australians, an American, a Turk, 3 Syrians, a Palestinian, an Iraqi, a Kurd and the only Canadian member of the Canadian Cricket Association had a game in a rubbish dump on the outskirts of the Old City of Damascus last week. Ten minutes into the epic encounter, the Kurd began teaching the Iraqi how to bowl and one of the Syrians became very confused when an Englishman and an Aussie tried to teach him how to bat.

2. Ruins 

In England you have Stone Henge. You are unlikely to be the only visitor, more likely to share the experience with bus loads of tourists.

In Syria you have hundreds of historical sites dating back as far as the 3rd millenium BC and at most of them, you will be the only visitor. It will cost you anything from nothing to £1 for an entry fee and you will rarely be hassled by touts.

3. Health and Safety

In England chicken gets delivered to a restaurant via the back door, wrapped in celophane.

In Syria a man stands on the back of a truck and hurls whole, unwrapped chickens onto the unbelievably dusty street. His friend picks up the chickens and hurls them into the restaurant, narrowly missing the heads of paying customers who are sat enjoying their chicken sheesh kebabs. The paying customers do not bat their eyelids. What could be more normal?

4. The Horn

In England, if you are driving along the M25 and someone cuts you up, you might hoot on your way past to tell the guilty driver of your mild displeasure, but you might not.

In Syria, if you (ever) take your car to be serviced, you tell the mechanic that you dont care if the lights / brakes / engine work – all you care about is the horn. If the horn doesn’t work, you will sell the car. When you are sure that the horn is working, you take to the road, excited. You hoot every time you breath out, and every time you breath in. When you pass another car, you hoot. If a pedestrian has the gall to attempt to cross the road within half a mile of your car, you smile, accelerate and hoot simultaneously. Together, these actions mean “If you don’t get out of my way, I WILL kill you.”

5. Hospitality

In England if you turn up at a restaurant and it is closed then you have no chance of being fed. If you plead with the owner for food, you are likely to be reported to a nearby security guard and escorted from the premises.

In Syria if you turn up at a restaurant and it is closed, you will be welcomed with long, confused stares by the owner and the male members of his family. You will then be ushered to a table where they are gorging on a feast of hummous, sheesh kebab, bread and salad. They will stop eating, let you finish all the food, order more food for you, insist you drink a glass or two of whisky and not let you leave until you have cleared the table. They will refuse payment, insisting only that you mark the occasion with a photograph. None of them will crack a smile as the Syrian dental system is not effective.

Oh, and in England if you see a solo cyclist pedalling up a hill in the pouring rain just before sunset, you ignore him. He might be an axe murderer.

In Syria if you see a solo cyclist pedalling up a hill in the pouring rain just before sunset, you pull over and offer him a meal and a bed for the night. You tell the cyclist how much you like English people, despite your loathing of Tony Blair. During the evening the entire male side of your family come over to say hello and take a photo of the strange blonde man. Each one saves his favourite photo as the screensaver on his phone.

There you go, there are a few delightful diferences I’ve noticed in the past couple of weeks….

As an aside, here is what else I’ve been up to – the last two weeks have seen me pedal from Turkey across the border into Syria and down through the fascinating cities of Hama and Homs to the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus. I spent 5 days there waiting for an important package to arrive from the UK. It didn’t arrive so I hitched out to the Euphrates for a few days with an Aussie backpacker. We got to the desert town of Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border before deciding to turn back. The desert was a pleasant 25 degrees. When we got back to Damascus it was snowing. I’m now in Damascus, the package still hasn’t arrived and so I’m leaving Damascus in a couple of hours, set for Jordan and onwards to Egypt.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Read permalink
    February 5, 2010 9:08 am

    Fascinating insights in your blog, feel I should be there…..What a trip!….All power to your legs.

  2. February 5, 2010 9:30 am

    Excellent Post! Loved it but then that’s possibly obvious by my enthusiastic posting forward 😉

    Take care and travel safe.

  3. February 5, 2010 9:34 am

    Well batted, well bowled…V entertaining read! Keep up the good work.

  4. Annie permalink
    February 5, 2010 9:47 am

    hehe, smelly camel! Pedal hard the next few days pops – it would be so cool if you could meet Lindsey and cycle with them for a few days.
    Very annoying about the packages but keep your spirits up and keep smiling.
    I love the thought of everyone being so friendly and welcoming to you no matter how far away from home you are. xxxxxx

  5. Ray Higginbottom permalink
    February 5, 2010 9:54 am

    We have so much to learn from others…. your journey is a long one but you will have learnt so much along the way…. I hope you continue to have an open mind and an open road. Cheers Ray

  6. February 5, 2010 10:03 am

    I love your blogs! They really brighten up my day – especially a Friday 🙂 Am off to tweet and facebook now as per your instructions… Mxxx

  7. February 5, 2010 11:09 am

    Awesome post. The photo of the Syrian chap eating the fruit is pure gold, what a genius shot!!

    Sounds like its all going well anyway…enjoy


  8. Ruthers permalink
    February 5, 2010 5:43 pm

    Best blog yet Ols… loving it all! xx

  9. deniz tapkan permalink
    February 6, 2010 10:44 am

    wow you are a good writer man 🙂 and observer.
    i really like your blog ! 🙂
    and i want to add, i started to work in cafe del mundo where we sit there first time in eskisehir. i am really tired . and your song is in the playlist , ‘ i dont like cricket …’ when i am working , it starts , and make me smile 🙂

    see ya .

  10. Paul permalink
    February 6, 2010 9:32 pm

    sounds amazing, but you don’t need me to tell you this… keep up the good work, hope your mystery package arrives soon… 🙂

  11. February 7, 2010 8:09 am

    Would love to go to Syria. Think visas might be a problem for a pair of Brits living in Turkey though. Looks amazing.

  12. Abbie permalink
    February 7, 2010 10:40 am

    Hi Oli, Love reading your blogs. It is so comforting to hear that people are being so friendly and welcoming to you. Keep it up. So proud…. Abbie x

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