Monday, November 29, 2010

Meet The Terrorists- Deep in the Syrian Desert

Haji picked us from our campground in the early morning, driving an old, enclosed, red pick-up truck. He had equipped the rear with blankets and pillows to make comfortable seating for Annie and Lars, who willingly agreed to sit in the back as I was taller. We climbed in and quickly departed, drawing closer each mile to the Iraqi border.
An hour later we rolled up to the last outpost of civilization, the last chance to fill up on gas, water up, or purchase a snack. The paved road ceased its existence. It was like we were explorers from the days when the earth was flat, and had arrived at the edge of the world. We took the plunge, falling into the abyss of the Syrian desert, 4 x 4ing over the sands.
There are a few shrubs, these aren’t dunes of Merzugga in Morocco where any form of vegetation has to overcome insurmountable odds to exist, but you surely won't find a mango tree here.

Mid East Environmentalism
Haji quenches his thirst with our most valuable commodity, rolls down his window and tosses out the plastic bottle, a gift for the desert. Instantly he has three environmentalists yammering in his ear, voicing our displeasure over his actions, Annie leading the prosecution.
Haji chuckles, and offers the following contrite apology: “Annie, I am truly sorry, I promise that next time, you won’t see me do it.”
That’s one thing about Arabia, environmentally, it is a disaster zone. Trash is strewn everywhere, recycling is a foreign word, and pollution, especially in the bigger cities, makes breathing the most difficult of chores. Environmental consciousness is nearly non-existent here.
camels in desert

We pass a heard of camels, which used to transport the nomadic Bedouin people across the desert, now having been replaced for those purposes by trucks. There are few, if any, wild camels left, all are owned by the Bedouins, and are actually highly valuable, with the cheapest camel selling for $1,500, the most expensive have sold for millions of dollars to Arab sheiks. I guess all that oil money has to be spent on something.

The Bedouins
We haven’t seen another car or person in the 80 miles we are into the desert, when we happen upon a Bedouin tent. Haji takes us inside.
Bedouin mother and her children

These nomadic people live their entire lives in the desert. Their tents stand erect with the support of only wooden poles stuck deep into the ground. They don't have enough carpets to cover the entire desert floor they sleep on. The tent covers were made of hand spun, woven goat hair and wool, at least partially protecting its occupants from the super heated desert sun in the summer, the harsh winds and the daily sandstorms it brings, and the often chilly winters.
Their income is entirely almost based on their sheep, and the milk, wool, and meat they provide. Each head of sheep is worth about $300. The sheep graze on what little vegetation the desert offers, once they have consumed one area, they must move on. It hasn’t rained all year, and the vegetation is now extremely sparse. It is a harsh life for our hosts.
Bedouin children

We are actually the first white people they have ever laid eyes upon. It is exceedingly rare to receive visitors this far into the desert, let alone tourists. They eye us with curiosity as Haji attempts translations, enabling some communications between the West and this deep desert Arab culture.
The children eye me warily, used to seeing maybe one or two outsiders per year, much less an alien with white skin. In the end, fear is swept away by the energy of fun.

(Watch as I ingratiate myself to the Bedouin children in this video by playing Monster with them.)

Culture Clash- The High five

(Watch Rich introduce the high-five to his Beduoin friends as they teach me various games they played to pass the long days in the desert.)

You want to prejudge people? Any of the men look exactly like an Al Queda terrorist in any video I have seen, but I found had nothing to fear here, though we three, rich white people were the only ones without guns. These people are just trying to make living, scraping by on the meager possessions they owned out in the middle of nowhere, in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Their minds hadn’t been poisoned with radical, "us versus the West, kill anyone who disagrees with us Islam," but rather they were gracious hosts, even slaughtering one of their valuable sheep, and cooking it over an open fire to fill our stomachs.
The more I travel, the more I realize just how alike people are in all corners of the globe, everyone wants to make a living, feed their families, be loved, and have fun. What more in life do you really need?

Next: Near death, caught in a Syrian sandstorm

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