Staying up until after 11pm last night meant getting through the border this morning shoulda been a snap and there’d be no problem making Damascus before sunset. So with my official stamp in both my passport and carnet, I rode my motorcycle to the checkpoint at the border. Asked to pull Doc aside so other cars could get through, I was given instructions that included a brief inspection and verification of my VIN/Chassis number. The inspection was lax and not detailed. THey did look to see if I’d been in Israel. The officials had lots of questions. All were warm and approachable. I was ready to hop on the bike and head to the oldest continuously inhabited city of the world when the head official asked if I’d like to sit down and have “chai” — or tea.
I’d been here for nearly 20 hours. Borders are not places you’d choose to spend any extra time. But the sincerity and genuine interest of the Syrian officials was hard to take notice. “Sure, Chai it is!” We drank one glass, then another. At this point I thought it would be great to grab a photo. But in many of these Arab countries taking pictures of any official or government building is usually forbidden. So I asked.
“Sure,” the grey haired men agreed. And his boss too. “But we must get the general.” The head of the entire customs unit at this border crossing had to be invited for the photo. We waited and soon a man in plain clothes and ruffled dark flop of hair shows up. He speaks no English but we shake, smile and exchange pleasantries and all site down for yet another glass of tea.
Where are the bad guys? I thought to myself. This is Syria. Evil doers, harbingers of the axis of evil. I imagined the power brokers and the political players to be in some building in Damascus — maybe even running my passport info through their data banks. Could I be CIA? A spy? I’m being held here under the guise of sharing tea? Hardly. To be sure, the Syrian government’s policies in some key areas are ghastly at odds with human rights. Whether or not they’re currently pursuing manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, they do turn a deaf ear to terrorists activities in the region and are known to provide safe haven and political cover to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
But any sign of these activities or thinking is clearly absent as I sip tea and discuss traveling, food and interesting places I’ve traveled throughout the world.
After an hour of hanging with these Syrian legends, I made my way into Damascus setting sights for the city center from where I could more easily navigate to a guest house or hotel with reasonable lodging. I locked onto a destination of a large hotel where I knew the staff would help me find cheaper accommodation. After a few hiccups and mildly getting lost, I rounded the last turn before the main entrance of the Omayad hotel. With a slight lean into that last turn the rear of my motorcycle soon became wobbly and slowing the rear of the bike weaved making the bike immediately unstable.
Damascus: The Modern City.
It didn’t take a MotoGP mechanic to realize what had happened. It had to happen. After more than 55,000 miles, 3 years and 34 countries I had yet to have a flat tire. So there in downtown Damascus in front of a Five Star Hotel, I got my first flat. The sun was beating strong and hot. I’d been sweating in the Damascus traffic for more than half an hour. Thirsty and baking in my riding suit, all I wanted was to find a cheap hotel and change into “civilian” clothes and wander the ancient city. I guess this would have t wait.
The staff in the hotel were friendly and eager to help. The nearest garage was a mile away. I couldn’t ride that mile like this. The assistant manager quickly ran down a powerful air-pump after my tiny 12-volt model failed to inflate the tire after a few minutes. The bigger pump failed too. I didn’t want to pull the tire off here in the heat of the midday sun, but I had no other option. I knew I had an extra tube that I bought from M. Anwar in Cairo. So I figured the fastest and best option would be to replace the tube.
With the bike on the center stand I removed the axel and pulled the tire off. But with the weight of the panniers, the rear of the bike was severely unbalanced and would not stay upright. Someone ran out of the hotel with a large FedEX tube. I stuck it under and supported, albeit precariously, the rear of the bike.
Pulling out my tire irons and tools the burly assistant manager in his pristine white shirt tie, dress pants and freshly polished shoes pushed me aside. “No,” he said. “I do this. I know how.” He did the hard work and sweat under the sun. The hotel manager came outside and handed me a liter of water and can of Coke. “We are happy you are in Damascus and sorry for the trouble. But you must be thirsty and hot. Please have these with our compliments.” The assistant manager had the tube out.
Replacing the tub means taking the tire off the rim… and of course, as in this photo removing that sprocket hanging there!
I rummaged through my Aerostich tank pannier and pulled out the tube from Cairo
, still wrapped in plastic and rubber bands. When we matched it to the tire something was odd. Wait! It seems the wrong size. I looked at the tube more closely as my demeanor and enthusiasm waned. I wanted to throw it into the street. It was 18″. The rear tire of my bike is 17″. I looked at the old tube more closely. Doesn’t seem like it was punctured. In fact, the tube looked find save a thumbnail sized slit. It appeared that the tube was pinched and the force of the tire when rounding the corner was once too many times and the pinch gave way and the tube deflated instantly. In other words, when M. Anwar’s tire guy installed the old tube in the new tire, he didn’t check for pinching. I’m just glad it happened at low speed and a half block from a hotel with a friendly and service oriented staff.
Meanwhile, the front desk had called a few nearby budget hotels and ran the options by me, while I searched for my adhesive and patch kit. Then back in the recess of mind I remembered something. Nairobi. That’s right. Before leaving Jungle Junction Chris the legendary German ex-pat set me up with a spare tube. When I asked M. Anwar for one, I’d forgot that I already had a backup. This was stuffed in my Ortlieb bag with my camping gear. And it was the right size.
Within 30 minutes we had the tube back in the tire and on the bike. Not that patching the tube wasn’t an option. I knew that old tube, a cheap Thai manufactured spare I’d bought in South Africa wasn’t the best quality. A heavier duty tube might have handled the pressure, even if pinched. But that’s not the point.
Success. Ready to ride and roll.
I reviewed the options when the manager of the hotel made me a proposal. They had a tiny cubby hole with barely a window that they’d like me to stay in, if I so desired. Plus, they’d give it to me at the rate of a nearby budget hotel. How could I say no thanks? They’d been great.
I unloaded the bike and a bell hop took the bags to my cubby hole. Tired, hot and ready for a shower. I was in Damascus and it was a shaky landing.