I wanted to get a handle on the Middle East by going to see it. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Damascus were names charged with meaning – as, through the news, were the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert.
Syria was a mystery, with a frisson-inducing border with Iraq; Lebanon, Israel, Palestine – small neighbouring areas fraught with tension. Yet these places curl round the Mediterranean, within spitting distance from Cyprus package resorts.
I wrote the above in March 2010 before Syria also started appearing in the newsreels. I was planning a journey that was to take me from Europe, through Asia to Africa, crossing six countries, in five weeks, by bicycle and bus.
My bicycle had spent most of its life propped against my Dublin home, with the occasional jaunt to the supermarket if the sun broke through. For this trip, I had to take off the front wheel and detach the brakes, saddle and handlebars – a fraught process completed with the help of the local bike shop, who provided the cardboard box it travelled in.
A little uncertain, I wheeled the box out at Gaziantep airport. Six airport police immediately flocked around it and reassembled the bicycle in seconds, as if they'd been waiting to all day. I then had to fend off invitations of a bus lift into Gaziantep. Part of me wanted to accept. But I cycled the 20km to my hotel easily enough and, on reaching Kilis, had 82km notched up on the speedometer.
Cycling is a good way to travel. It is easy to engage with the countryside and its inhabitants, easy to stop and stay hello, yet possible to cover reasonable distances. Even in the early summer heat of the Middle East, once you're pedalling there's always a cooling current. Up hills, I slowed down to 7kph, then sped up to 50kph on the other side. Few sensations are more thrilling.
Maxine Jones emerges from the Dead Sea
Along the road to Kilis, cows tied by the side of the road eyed me warily and one gave a quiet, interrogatory moo. On the outskirts of the town I bought water at a service station and sat to eat a sandwich. The owner brought me out a cup of tea, the first of many unasked-for offerings I was to receive.
I breezed into Kilis, to find the hotels full. In the last, I got the only remaining room. A toilet and sink were shared with the other rooms, where a woman and her son were laying out their prayer mats. I wondered where they came from. They are Turkish, the hotel manager told me – pilgrims doing Hajj.
A large coach awaited them in the morning as they gathered together their plastic bags and finished breakfasts of salad, hummus and pitta bread. The coach driver was eager to help me lift my bike over their luggage on the pavement. As he did so, my helmet, which had been balanced on the saddle, rolled off and under the tyres of a passing van. I became convinced of the value of helmets just when I no longer had one.
It was a straight road to the border, which came earlier than expected, after only 6km. Cars queued up and I cycled past them. "Licence plate number?" asked an official. "It's a bicycle," I told him. Obviously cyclists aren't the norm. My passport was stamped and I crossed into no-man's land. On the left was an abandoned mosque. The road was bordered by loops of barbed wire and signs in three languages warning of mines. There were empty lookout posts. I passed young shepherds who waved, and a few sparse houses. Cars were old American ones like you'd see in Cuba.
I'm surprised, then, as I reach the outskirts of Aleppo to see new car showrooms. The traffic intensifies, there are grand parks and elegant buildings – a Paris vibe.
I spot the stately old lady of the Baron Hotel. I dismiss it but after trying two dives and a sterile new place that wanted US$50 a night, I decide to check it out. "We only have a suite, which you can have at the reduced rate of US$110," the receptionist tells me. I turn to go. "There'll be a single room available tomorrow at US$65." Then she notices my bicycle and her tone softens. "Or there's one of the older rooms you could have for US$50."
Maxine Jones's bicycle as she enters Lebanon
I'm fascinated by the black-veiled women. Faces completely covered and wearing gloves, they are jaunty, flirty and fashionable. They sit in groups round cafe tables, smoking nargilehs, water pipes, which I find faintly shocking. They carry extravagant handbags and wear fashion-victim shoes. The women hold on to the arms of boyfriends or husbands. I spot what I take to be a mother and daughter, the younger woman elegantly veiled, the older one not.
Leaving the Baron Hotel, I decamp to one with an Arab clientele at a quarter of the price. Here, I'm forced to get to grips with my phrase book and the Arabic script. The non-alcoholic beer is fizzy apple juice. Non-drunken revelry goes on until late.