The Most Important Word In The World

Derek Interesting People, Syria 63 Comments

Syrian Friends

This article has been written as part of the “Most Important Word in the World” series, a collaborative project to inspire people to step outside their comfort zones and find adventure and friendship. Other contributors to the series are: 1 Year Sabbatical, Nomadtopia, the Dropout Diaries, Disrupting the Rabblement, Beyond Norms, Do Something Cool and A World of Inspiration.


Finally, I had found a town in Syria that was not as ridiculously super-friendly as all the rest. I had been expecting it to happen at some point, because, after all, it would be impossible for every single city, town and village in this country to maintain such a high standard of hospitality.

It’s not that the people I was now encountering were rude, but during my first two days in Palmyra, a small desert oasis surrounded by magnificent Roman ruins, the community seemed somewhat rougher than what I had become used to in other parts of Syria.

For example, my attempts at asking for directions were repeatedly either brushed away or completely ignored. Even when I went inside the “Tourist Office” in order to get a map of the ruins, I was told to leave because they were closed, even though the sign out front read “Open”, the front door was unlocked and there were two tourism staff members sitting at desks inside of the office.

And so, on my third day, while I was wandering the streets of town in search of a local place to eat lunch, I was no longer surprised by the lack of assistance I received. At one point, I simply gave up, stood on a street corner with hands on my hips and made the decision to buy some bananas from a shop near my hotel instead.

Of course, as most travelers would learn to expect, that’s also the very same moment that I heard a voice, in English, say “Hello.”

I turned around and found a middle-aged local man standing before me with a huge smile on his face and so I naturally returned his greeting, although all I could muster was a quick, mumbled “Salaam”. He then asked me if I was lost and when I explained that I was simply looking for some good local food, he didn’t hesitate for even one second before patting me on the back and stating, “Let’s go!”.  He then led me to his minivan which was parked across the street.

The next thing I knew we were speeding through the backstreets of Palmyra.

A FILLING LUNCH AND A NEW FRIEND

When we eventually pulled up to a local restaurant, my new friend, Samir, yelled out to a young guy behind the counter and two minutes later I had a large falafel sandwich in my hands. Samir even refused to let me pay. He also refused to let me pay for the local Palmyra-style sweets that he bought for me from a sweet shop down the road.

Samir then insisted on dropping me off in front of my hotel, and by this point, I was ecstatic that my opinion of Palmyra had been reversed as a result of this one experience. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was only the beginning…

Before driving away, Samir asked me to meet him outside of my hotel one hour later. That’s exactly what I did, and surprised was I to find myself inside his van once again, along with four of his friends, all of us on our way to the Camel Races, an annual event organized by the King of Qatar that takes place in the middle of the Syrian desert.

THE CAMEL RACES OF PALMYRA

The rest of the afternoon can best be described through the photos below. All I know is that I spent much of my time squished into the back of a pickup truck with about 20 others, all of whom were cheering loudly and pumping their fists in the air as we bounced along a dirt road alongside the racing camels. And I loved every single second of it.

As I tried to maintain my balance while kneeling on a sack of hay, the others around me held on to my shoulders to make sure I didn’t fall off the truck, while trying to encourage me to join in the cheering.

Samir and his friends kept a close eye on me as well, always checking in to make sure I was still enjoying myself. And of course I was enjoying myself. Considering how poorly my day began, I couldn’t be happier with the fact that I was now spending an afternoon in the mesmerizing desert, watching camel races and chatting with dozens of local villagers. Such experiences as these are exactly why I am addicted to wandering around this planet in the first place.

And it all began with a simple “hello”, a word that takes so little effort to utter, yet has the power to lead us on unimaginable adventures that can completely change the outcome of one minute, one day, one year or even an entire lifetime.


Here are a few more photos and a short video from those camel races…

Syrian Friends

 

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Comments 63

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  3. Abdo

    It is very good to hear that since I have not been there in a while. I also do remember recalling accounts of people I know inviting foreigners they just met and dining with them like what happened with you. I am also glad to have read that you do what locals do and would rather dine in average places, instead of visiting hot spot tourist locations and eating in 5 star restaurants. Which causes you to see the real country, not the tourist-made one. I hope you always have fun on your travels and adventures and meet nice people. You also made me become a fan of your blog!

    1. Earl

      Thanks so much Abdo and I appreciate you becoming a fan of the blog 🙂 And as I say often on this site, I’d much rather spend an evening chatting with a local over a cup of tea than visit a popular tourist attraction. I find that there are much greater rewards with human interactions and that is always my main goal when traveling!

  4. Abdo

    Incredible story Earl! As a Syrian, it saddens me that some people neglect foreigners and tourists over there like the people who told you they were closed when they were open. However, it also makes me delighted and very happy to know that there are still those who have the hospitality to invite tourists and dine with them. I am very happy that your trip to Syria was a blast!

    1. Earl

      Hey Abdo – My trip to Syria really was such a good time and believe me, the majority of people were very hospitable and could not have been any nicer!

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  6. Santiago

    a lovely story dude, i am happy that you finally changed your opinnion about a syrian spot and it got better adnd better, we all miss you over there man!
    take care

    1. Earl

      Thanks Santiago! In the end, there wasn’t a single place in Syria in that I didn’t like, which is why I ended up spending 7 weeks there!

      I hope to see you guys sometime again soon. I could use a little time in Aleppo every year 🙂

  7. Ana

    Wow, stories like these are what make me want to travel! It seems like the best adventures happen when you least expect it. Your travels sounds incredible, and reading your blog has convinced me that I should try to make it to the middle east sometime in the future.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ana – You should definitely try and visit the Middle East at some point. It’s not at all what most people think and especially in Syria, even solo female travelers experience no problems at all. You’re bound to have plenty of unexpected experiences in that part of the world. Thanks so much for the comment!

  8. Giulia

    Middle East. That’s why I love it. So many things happen and it all starts with a simple smile and a “hello” in the streets! People are so friendly and they want to show their culture, and this is how we get the best experiences and nicest surprises 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Giulia – Thank you for the comment! This is exactly how the most memorable experience begin and I think that if we use the word ‘hello’ as often as possible, we’ll discover that every country we visit is friendly and welcoming.

  9. Ozzy

    I love it. I recently saw an article somewhere (didn’t bother reading past the headline) about the dangers of taking a ride from a stranger. I have never had a problem with it and have always enjoyed the experience. It seems like you had a fantastic adventure out of the blue. The only time I would be even slightly hesitant of taking off with a random person to God alone knows where is if I had a girl with me. See I’m always willing to gamble with my own life any day of the week for just about any reason as long as there is a possibility of fun to be had. But, I try not to gamble with other peoples lives. Most people just don’t know what they are getting into and screw things up. And it might be chauvinist but I don’t care, but when I’m out with girls (the majority of my friends are of the female gender) I usually feel at least slightly protective, like an older brother (even if they are older).

    Ozzy

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – I think there’s definitely a difference between getting in a car with a stranger and getting in a car with a sketchy stranger! I didn’t even hesitate at all with this guy and I never considered it a gamble. I’ve traveled with plenty of females as well and most of them would have also wanted to get in that car. Every situation is different of course but in some countries, the idea that a stranger may cause you some harm is simply not something to worry about as much as we do back home!

  10. Jeanie Davison

    Great post – and so wonderful to read a positive story coming out of Syria when there is so much negative stuff on the international news right now. Happy travels – and keep saying “hello”!

    1. Earl

      Hey Jeanie – It’s terrible to read about the situation in parts of Syria right now, especially knowing how rewarding a trip to that country can be. I certainly hope the situation improves soon so that more foreigners will consider traveling there!

  11. Erica

    I have definitely been trying the smile and a hello to people as we are making our way through our current travels. It hasn’t done me wrong yet!

    1. Earl

      Hey Erica – Considering that you’re in friendly Sayulita, I’m sure you’re receiving plenty of ‘holas’ back! And watching your surfing video made me miss that town quite a lot, especially seeing those big blue surf boards that are perfect for learning 🙂

  12. Gray

    OMG, that is so cool, Earl! As a woman and solo traveler, I would not have walked off and gotten into a car with that guy. So I’m sitting here wondering if guys get to have more fun when they travel solo because they don’t have to worry about the same dangers women do, or if I might have had the same experience had I taken the chance. I’ll never know; I’m too safety conscious to go off with a stranger. But damn, I’d love to have had that experience you had.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gray – It’s a tough call. I can honestly say that if you were standing on a street corner looking lost in Syria, this man (or someone else) would have offered his assistance. I think a lot of it comes down to instincts as I met plenty of solo female travelers in Syria who had similar experiences as I did with complete strangers. But at the same time I can see how a solo female traveler might hesitate a lot more than a solo male traveler. In the end, choosing safety is never a bad option of course!

  13. Cherszy

    It’s funny how 1 hello can change everything. 🙂 Glad to hear you had a wonderful time. Usually when people get bad vibes from a foreign country, they let it affect them such that they don’t enjoy the trip anymore. I’m happy to know that you got through that. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Chreszy – That’s a great point. It is quite easy to let a bad experience turn into a bad day and then a bad week and then a bad trip overall. That’s why it’s important to remember that everything can change in an instant. And if all it takes to turn a bad day around is a simple ‘hello’, well, it doesn’t get any easier than that!

  14. Jeannie

    This was a mix of dismal (no help) to absolutely fantastic. What an experience! And you are right, it only takes that small invitation to talk, then the world opens.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jeannie – Sometimes I think about all the days that I’ve walked around some place without talking to many people. And then I think of this day in Syria and wonder what I might have missed out on all those other days! But enough of that, good find with that guesthouse in Udaipur…that is still one of my all-time favorite destination on the planet 🙂

  15. Abi

    Last week, friends of mine came to visit with their young children. I watched as the four year old ran straight into the playground and made friends immediately, holding hands with another girl and joining in their games, despite the fact that they couldn’t speak the same language. The only word my friend’s daughter had learned up until this point was “hello.”

    1. Earl

      Hey Abi – That’s such a wonderful example! And it’s a better example than any traveler could come up with in regards to the value of the word ‘hello’. That one word is all you need to turn strangers into friends. Thank you for sharing that story!

    1. Earl

      Hey Natalie – Right you are. I’d even say the majority of memorable times are those that we never expected to happen!

  16. Michael

    To those that are worried about jumping in the van, all I can say is… is it the Middle East. I’ve never felt safer in any part of the world from the mundane concern of worrying about crime. I regularly get invited to stay in stranger’s homes, eat with them, get rides from them, etc… and unlike many parts of the world, I wouldn’t think twice about saying yes here. And while on this exact moment Syria is going through a tragic bout of violence — if you get a chance, it is a magical country to visit.

    1. Earl

      Hey Michael – Thank you for confirming my thoughts on Syria! I also felt safer in that part of the world than in any other region I’ve ever visited. There seems to be some type of innate human connection, which even extends to complete strangers, that I don’t think is as present elsewhere. As a result, one’s first instinct is to trust others instead of wonder what kind of evil they may be up to, and rarely does such trust lead to something negative.

      1. G / Operation Backpack Asia

        Ah thanks Michael, you make a good point. I was wondering why I was feeling like I’d be hesitant if I were in the same situation, even though I know I’ve done much “worse” things (trusting strangers, aaagh!) and been fine. I guess it is exactly what you and Earl were saying – a blend of intuition and also of region. Probably more on target to be able to trust the likelihood of someone having good intention when such hospitality is the norm and not an anomaly. I probably wouldn’t worry about it in Mongolia or the Philippines, but would be much (much!) more wary in Phoenix (my hometown!). Thanks for helping me put my finger on that…thought I’d gone soft – or worse, scared. 🙂

          1. Earl

            Hey G – Haha…no problem! And what you said to Michael is very true. I think I’d be more hesitant to get in a van with strangers anywhere back in the US!

  17. Justin | Mazzastick

    Totally awesome story and the little man that was so hospitable made me feel good.

    It’s awesome that you’ve been to Syria. I would have never thought of even going there. Sounds real cool though.

    1. Earl

      Hey Justin – Syria was such a great country to visit! Few people think about going there but for anyone traveling to that part of the world, I can highly recommend crossing into Syria. After all, I ended up staying for 2 months!

    1. Earl

      Hey Sanny – Bizarre is exactly what it’s like, although I’m quite certain that donkey racing would be even more odd. Any ideas where I can catch such a race?

      1. Sanny

        A donkey race? Um…not specifically, unfortunately. I’m pretty sure that they have them somewhere. (You’ll probably be racing against “The Brooke” to find them though)

    1. Earl

      @Globetrottergirls: I agree that camel races aren’t exactly the most common sporting event out there 🙂 And surely you can squeeze in a ‘vacation’ to Syria at some point, right???

  18. Tijmen

    Great story, shows how quickly things can turn around when you are travelling 🙂 One moment you think the place sucks, but before you know it you are having a great time.

    1. Earl

      Hey Tijmen – I don’t even know why I’m surprised any more when such things happen while traveling! Travelers always have stories of such unexpected interactions and experiences….I guess that’s what happens when we throw ourselves out there into a new environment.

  19. Jason

    You just never know what around the corner in life, and it’s amazing how a simple word and smile changed the corse of your day (and into the proceeding days). The camels races looked like a blast mate, and I’m enjoying your new video input to your blog. Take it easy mate, safe travels.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Jason. Those camel races were a highlight of my time in the Middle East, probably because it was such a random activity, one that I had never heard about before actually arriving there. Of course, such randomness often produces the highlights of our trips.

      And more videos to come soon!

  20. Robert

    Fantastic travel story, man! I love it 🙂

    Did you ever get to ride a camel? If not, whack it straight onto your bucket list… words just can’t describe the…weirdness…

    1. Earl

      Hey Robert – I rode a camel once while in India and that was more than enough for me. While it certainly was well worth the experience, it could not be described as anything remotely close to ‘comfortable’! “Weird” is the perfect way to describe it!

  21. Steve

    It’s amazing how one person can make all the difference. Those are great photos too of what looks like a great experience. And it all started with meeting a new friend.

    I know that I’d be hesitant to jump into a van like that unless I had good vibes that the person was just being friendly. You just show that not everyone is out to get you. Great story.

    1. Earl

      Hey Steve – That’s the thing, if this was back home, I’m quite sure that I would never have gotten in that van! And I know it seems crazier that I would get into a strange man’s van in the middle of Syria, but that’s how travel works. We form connections every single day and trusting our instincts is the only way to make sure that we don’t stay holed up in our hotel room throughout the entire trip!

    1. Earl

      Hey Phil – You and your camels 🙂 I wrote about this experience just to see if you’d notice, so I guess it’s now quite clear that not a single mention of camels gets by you!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – I’m glad you’ve experienced the power of ‘hello’ as well. There’s no better way to fill our days with unique adventures than by talking to the people that cross our paths!

    1. Earl

      Thanks Matt! I love the fact that ‘hello’ is all we need to form a connection with other people. Just think of the opportunities that might come our way if we say hello to everyone we see!

  22. LaVonne

    Great post, looks like you had a fabulous time. And if I felt sure that I would have received the same Hello and welcome to the races as a woman, I’d feel a lot better about it. Not trying to start a debate, just noticing the elephant.

    1. Earl

      Hey LaVonne – Actually, without a doubt you would have received the exact same welcome and invitation. In fact, almost all of the single female travelers that I met in Syria (and there were many) said that they felt more comfortable in Syria than in any other country in the Middle East. The fact that I met single female travelers in every town and city I visited shows just how welcoming this country really is and that the idea that you would be treated much differently is not as true as people believe.

      Here’s a link to some posts written by a single female traveler who loved Syria. http://www.chickybus.com/tag/syria/

      In her own words, she wrote, “it’s easy to fall in love with alleged ‘bad boy’ country Syria and have the time of your life there—whether you’re a man or a woman.”

  23. Matt Bailey

    hahaha….This is perfect…. Looks like so much fun man! I cant wait to visit this part of the world. Amazing how friendly some people can be and how willing they are to show a foreigner a good time. I don’t know many people, if any, who would do that to a foreigner in Canada, though I’m sure it happens in smaller places. Most people would be scared to jump into a van in Syria but you have shown that it can lead to an amazing time. I actually road a camel very shortly in Australia (they have them in the desert there to oddly enough) and its kind of scary. They are huge and pretty fast.

    Thanks Earl!

    1. Earl

      Hey Matt – I thought about that as well, but when I’m traveling I feel that I get a pretty good idea of who I can trust. And this guy seemed very trustworthy which is why I decided to jump in his car with him! (Luckily I was right.) And I often think about what I would do if I found a traveler lost and looking for a place to eat in my hometown. I’d probably help them out but I’m not sure if I would take them around all day. Of course, maybe I would after my Syria experience.

      Thanks for hosting a great series by the way 🙂 A lot of inspiration can be found in all of the posts so far!

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