I had decided to start early, but the Syrian hospitality and friendliness of Omar’s neighbours keeps me drinking one last cup, and again, one more cup of coffee before leaving.
The neigbour’s boy, Ali, and I are making pictures for the photo album as a good bye to “our” mother, who - as I experienced for the first time in this country - has no reservations in talking to me openly. It felt like she adopted me from the first day. Picture a Syrian woman bringing coffee early in the morning without a question or second thought about it. Some hours later, she’ll return with big plates of salad, just for the traveler being hosted by the neigbours’ son. She makes it seem like the most normal thing in the world.
After an emotional good-bye, I wait just seconds to get a ride out of Damascus. A couple going somewhere, me on the back of the pickup, Syria’s overwhelming countryside passing by, and some rides later I’m back on the road, making my way to the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
It’s a bit more difficult to hitchhike on Fridays because most people are in the mosque praying. There are only a few taxis driving around, and minibuses are scarce.
Several rides follow: One guy offers me a coffee and lets me out at a police station where he talks to the officers. They want to stop a minibus for me, but after explaining my intention to hitchhike, they stop a truck for me. Everyone seems to know everyone else, or is it really just plain friendliness? I’m overwhelmed.
This reminds me about a ride I got some days earlier by a Syrian army officer just outside of Damascus in the direction of Daraa. After the usual round of phrases - “Welcome to Syria”, “Yes, Germany; No, not married” - we began talking about the army and the dudes from Disneyland. Sure, Micky Mouse is bad, but he’s also sick of the conflict and just wants to live in peace. I asked him if he would be going to fight, if there were to be another senseless conflict. “Definitely”, was his response.
Seconds later, he offered me bonbons and an unanticipated shower with his awful-smelling deodorant. Of course, before he had to get off at his ramp, he forced a truck to stop along the highway, spoke some Arabic to the driver, and managed to get me a ride some kilometers further. Like that, I was off again with a handshake and a quick goodbye! And, anyone might assume that hitching a lift is a completely normal thing in Syria, except that it isn’t, at all.
A lot of drivers did not really understand the idea of hitchhiking, or as I always tried to say, “autostop”. Most of them thought that I wanted to stop a minibus. Why would a (in their eyes) rich Westerner stand on the side of the road waiting? Forty-degrees Celcius with a blazing sun overhead and a loaded backpack looks like suicide to most Syrians. To avoid my imminent death, they picked me up, naturally. It was a way of trying to help me; to bring that poor, ignorant guy to the next minibus station. However, this guy doesn’t even want to go there. He simply smiles and thanks his driver as he gets at the next crossing in the middle of nowhere. This is, essentially, the dilemma of hitchhiking in Syria.
People often ask me why I hitchhike. Why accept so much danger just to get from one place to another for free? What I’ve discovered, in talking to many different hitchers, is that everyone seems to have a slightly different reasoning and point of view. For my part, I hitchhike because it allows me to see the world from a completely new perspective. The potential coincidental drivers I encounter share their knowledge, their ideologies, and their lives. It’s the best school of education one can have.
I also think that the most important thing is that drivers pick me up out of their own free will, not because they think that I’m in danger or need help. Getting lifts because of some people’s good deed of helping someone that is in need feels like cheating to me. Of course, when waiting at some village in the rain, or at the on-ramp on my way to my University, I strongly feel the need to get a ride quickly. It isn’t the same case in Syria.
Many people in Syria help others in need because they love to; because they are raised to do so; because they believe their god is watching them all the time. Because of a lot of reasons, but not always because they just want to have some company, to talk someone with, to give someone ‘just a ride’ as it might be usual in the Western world I’m coming from. Most times, it’s because they think you need help, because, as stated previously, they think you just might die sooner or later if you’re left out standing in the heat.
So, what to do then? Should we stop hitchhiking in the Middle East? Is it better to take a bus, which really costs nothing for a Westerner?
I would hitchhike in Syria again anytime. Surely, according to the stories above, one could also advise against this, but how else could I have met such a diverse spectrum of the country’s people so immediately? I hitchhiked with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, tribal leaders, army officers, Kurds, Sunnis, Alawis, Druze, Christians, and so on; listened to the hottest Arabic pop music as well as to the latest stuff by religious preachers. I’ve met so many friendly police officers that managed me to find rides for me. I’ve eaten grapes together with Syrian soldiers at the controversial border Golan Heights that is still occupied by another nation. I’ve had lifts from rich Syrians as well as poor citizens, heard funny anecdotes about the country and its history, as well as horrible accounts of what happens to those who go against the government…
At last, I guess that nearly all drivers who took me for just some kilometers up through the whole desert haven’t been disappointed by me, either. Who knows when those friendly guys will ever get the chance again to cruise around with some German guy who’s interested in their country?