There was a nice nip in the air as I headed east on old Route 66. At the town of Tijeras, I turned south along a comfortably bendy two-laner. Ah, delight - riding through old towns, some of them land grants from the days when Spain owned the area. Old churches in decaying villages as I rode on nice curvy roads along the side of the Manzano mountains.
Too soon, I came back out onto the eastern plains of New Mexico. The landscape flattened out and soon oil rigs appeared. Southeastern New Mexico is atop part of the big Permian Basin oil fields, which are being awakened from decades of decline by the advent of new technologies. Before the trip, I had wondered why motel room rates were so high - and now I knew its because the demand for rooms from the many new oilfield workers. Simple supply and demand.
I arrived in Artesia much too early to end the day, so I cancelled the motel reservations and rode on. I disliked crossing into Texas - I enjoyed the “ooo and ah” as people saw the license plate on my scooter that placed me far from home. Once back in Texas, I was just another bike.
I had a bit of a hard time finding a room in San Angelo. It seems the fracking oil boom has hit there too, and most rooms were taken by oil field workers.
I wanted to make it home the next day, so Saturday morning, I was up before the dawn and on my way. About an hour down the road, I found a bakery in Eldorado. Two things about Eldorado: first, the bakery was run by an Asian couple. When I asked the woman “You aren’t from around here, are you?”, she replied with a thick accent that she had just moved from Pennsylvania. I was to find out later that she and her husband are Cambodian. The other prominent note about Eldorado is that it is the home of the Yearning for Zion Ranch - the headquarters of the fundamentalist and polygamist break away Mormon sect which was raided for child abuse awhile back.
I cut across the southern end of the Texas Hill Country, then into the border city of Laredo. Mistake in doing that - way too much traffic. But Laredo also meant I was getting close to home, and as rain clouds threatened, I boogied alongside the Rio Grande until I saw the home fires burning.
So - was it a great trip?
Hell yes! I loved it - meeting the challenges of riding 3,600 miles on a 400 cc scooter. From the subfreezing morning in Portales to the Mojave desert, from flat plains to mountain twisties, it was a lot of fun.
Wonder where I’ll go next.
Okay - I admit it. I rode into Colorado just enough to be able to say I was in the state. My goal on this trip was to ride through seven states, and I've done it. Fourteen states down - only thirty six to go.
Last night I stayed at a motel that serves Monument Valley. Think the landscape of a Roadrunner cartoon. Spectacular. Some of the formations leaked outside the park and stayed right there waiting for me to photograph it.
On the way into New Mexico last week, somebody had stolen the welcome sign, so I had to get a shot of the New Mexico sign on the Arizona side.
I got to Bloomfield, and while gassing up, saw Blake's Lotaburger across the street. For a former New Mexican like me, who still craves green chile, a Lotaburger with cheese and green chile is heaven in the mouth. Good stuff - and the chile made my chapped lips smart a little.
At one time, US Route 550 was the most dangerous highway in the state, with the three lane road making for many head-on collisions while cars were passing. Its all four lane now.
But the spring winds of New Mexico were about. They got pretty fierce, and as I rode into Albuquerque from the north, I saw a dust storm approaching. The gusts were strong enough to make the cars and trucks slow down.
Dinner with old friends Carol and Larry, Good ol' flat enchiladas with green chile and an egg on top. Oh yum! The food was almost as good as the conversation.
Life is good.
I wasn't able to avoid riding the Interstate. I wanted to go through southern Utah to ride some twisties, but had to ride the super slab to get there. Boring! The only interesting part of the trip was coping with the very stiff cross wind just north of Las Vegas.
But the ride along Utah Route 9 made it worth it. Actually, the road is Zion National Park. Normally, one must pay a $25 entrance fee, but the smiling park ranger at the gate said "Its all free this week", and I rode in.
There is too much other traffic to do the kind of centerstand-scraping twisty ride a lot of motorcyclists might want to do, but the scenery was spectacular. There is a mile long tunnel cut through the rock and spectacular vistas. They have done a great job of providing lots of pull-over places for photos and ogling. I chatted with a couple from Manitoba on their BWM. The ride through Zion park made the day.
Then on back into Arizona, down to Page, AZ, where the Glen Canyon Dam blocks the Colorado River. Gassing up in Page, I listened to the local high schools kids talking in Navajo and realized I was on the reservation.
I love being in the desert. We once lived in the high desert of Albuquerque, NM, where the humidity was extremely low. But my body has become accustomed to high humidity while living in the Rio Grande Valley of Deep South Texas, and protested the dryness a little in Wickenburg, AZ, where it was drier than a popcorn fart. I set out on the last leg of the trip with cracked lips, dry nose and dry skin - and the humidity was 9%.
I had lots of time to think and reflect as the miles rolled under my wheels. I have often derided the boredom of driving through The Big Empty of West Texas and eastern New Mexico, yet I enjoyed riding through the Mojave Desert. I suppose local riders see nothing to like about the rides through the desert, but would be intrigued by West Texas, seeing the crop circles created by the irrigation systems, the oil pump jacks and the (newish) wind farms. I guess it is what you are used to seeing. I was intrigued by the desert.
There are a lot more riders out here in the west than there are in south Texas. Leaving Wickenburg, I was passed by a rider on a BMW R1200R. I spotted him filling up, and pulled over to talk to him - a man about my age. Funny thing, we kept seeing each other the rest of the day, including while stopped for lunch in Needles, CA.
I traveled to Las Vegas for a military reunion, and I won't bore you with tales of old men. The older we are, the better we were. But, it was so great to see Bill Paquette, my radio operator way back then. I never expected to see Bill again after he was grievously wounded in 1967. It was also great to see Ken Buchert, my commanding officer who taught me what it meant to be a good and honorable officer.
After the reunion, I'll be back on the road and going through a bit of southern Utah.
The high mountain town of Eagar, AZ, was gorgeous in the early morning light. When I went to breakfast, it was 39 degrees, yet when I returned to my room, it was already 45. The sun was warming the world quickly, so I eschewed the long johns, yet still wore the other stuff. I filled the tank at a convenience store that wasn't open yet (but the pumps were on), then down the road towards Show Low.
This was the kind of morning that keeps me coming back to riding. Bright sun, gorgeous high mountain scenery, no traffic. I came upon high mountain ponds as well as elk crossing signs, I had bugs in my teeth.
Phoenix must have a lot of motorcyclists. I waved at lots of them as they rode up into the mountains - I suppose to get out of the heat and to ride some twisties. Lots of chrome - clean chrome - not dirty bikes like mine. I may ride a scooter, but at least its not a garage queen. Stopping for gas in Payson, I struck up a conversation with a three Harley riders, and I fielded the usual "You rode from Texas on THAT?" One of them had owned his bike for seven years and had 5,000 miles on it. I've owned my scoot for two years and just turned 27,000 miles.
I made a mistake in my trip planning - I routed myself through Phoenix. Yuck! Saturday traffic - people out shopping, retirees poking along, and lots of stop-and-go. Once out of the city, I was out on the desert - very different from the mountains. The town of Wickenburg is a small artsy cowboy kinda town.
Next stop - Las Vegas after a ride through the desert.
(Note: I am posting this and subsequent road stories late. For reasons known only to the computer gods, I could not post during the trip. I started this trip on April 17.)
It was beyond humid. As I was packing the scooter this morning, I looked at the sky expecting rain, but the weatherman said no - just low clouds. I was still inside my subdivision when the humidity became liquid. No, not rain - just enough moisture to crap up the windshield.
And I was off on a ten day ride - five days to get to Las Vegas, three days at the reunion of the men of B 3/7 Infantry I served with in 1967, then five days back. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The weather stayed cloudy with a hint of mist all during the day - and it was windy. Fortunately, it was behind me most of the time.
Riding the back roads, I came across the Eagle Ford shale area south of San Antonio. This is brush country, and until recently was good only for ranching. But the development of the technology known as fracking has turned places like Cotulla and Tilden into boomtowns. The two-lane road is traveled by lots of heavy trucks - and had some signs I had never seen before.
I refueled at Tilden, then put some more miles behind me before enjoying a plate of huevos rancheros at a cracked vinyl seat Mexican restaurant in Jourdanton. Back on the road, I was happy to finally roll into the Texas hill country. South Texas is boringly flat - not much excitement riding through endless miles of flat brushy terrain. As I neared Bandera, the rocky hills began and nicer vistas opened up. The road was not exactly the twisties, but it was a lot more interesting than the first hours of the ride.
In my room in Kerrville - tomorrow will be a much longer day.
Home is behind them and they have no way of knowing when they will return. War continues in Syria – to go back is to put oneself in danger again. Life may be hard in the Domiz Camp, but at least the refugees feel safe.
Ramadhan, my young guide and translator, is just one of the many people who belong to sundered families. While he and two sisters are in Kurdistan, his mother and father, along with a younger sister and brother, remain in Syria where the parents are professionals working for the government. Whether they support the Assad regime or are just afraid to leave, I don’t know. Ramadhan the teenage boy must learn the new normal – a world without parents in a camp radically different from the middle class home he grew up in.
Though the camp is officially a refugee camp, the United Nations has seen situations like this before. They know that the longer people live in the camp, the more they will want to make it home-like. To keep living in small tents with poor sanitation, muddy streets and no jobs, refugees can become restive. People need a sense of permanence and security. They want to be surrounded by familiar things. As I watched new arrivals walk through the gate, I also saw veteran refugees adapting to a new world. One family planted something green in front of their shelter trying to make things more normal.
The German hospital does a great job caring for new arrivals, but they will be packing up to go home in December. Doctors Without Borders will be here a lot longer, but sooner or later, there will have to be local medical facilities with local practitioners. Health care must be a part of the new normal – a normal where common childhood runny noses are treated before they develop into worse diseases.
The only dental care in the camp is provided by a rolling clinic donated by the Korean government, funded by the United Nations and staffed by volunteer dentists from Germany, supported by local Kurdish technicians and translators. As expected, the dentists do extractions, but they will do fillings and other necessary care on a case-by-case basis.
All cultures have a spiritual component to their view of normal. For most Kurds, that means practicing their Muslim faith. (There are some Christian Kurds. There is a large church in Dohuk.) An imam – himself a refugee – set up a temporary mosque in a tent. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer and I was very welcome and I could take all the photos I desired. The men gathered to say their prayers (women have a separate time) as per the norm back home. The new normal may dictate a tent, but at least it is a form of normal. The crowd overflowed the improvised mosque, but another prayer rug was laid outside and the late comers could add their devotions.
The new normal also means passing on beloved Islamic rituals to sons, just as they would have done back in Syria. The few boys in the mosque seemed a bit confused, but they will be the first to get accustomed to the new normal.
What is more normal than kids going to school? Harikar, a Japanese non-government organization, donated the funds to have UNICEF erect modular buildings. The refugees themselves provided the teachers and the Kurdistan government provided some funds for books, pencils and other study material. Only in operation for three weeks, the place is still chaotic. One teacher explained that not a few kids were having mental problems adjusting to their new surroundings and feeling insecure. For now, only the first eight grades are in session. A high school is planned for some time in the future. In the meantime, teenage boys wander the camp, bored, restless and a potential problem. The girls stay home, closely watched by their families.
In an earlier post, I mentioned that “shopping” in the usual sense of picking over the food you buy and comparing one product against another is not something done in the camp – you take the bag of rice or flour given you, and carry it back to your tent. But the new normal can mean shopping the old way as entrepreneurs open little stores in their tents and shacks. Fresh fruit and vegetables can now be a part of the family diet – provided you have the dinar (Iraqi currency) to buy them.
Normal means kids playing together and parents playing with their children. Family love trumps hardship. All the hatred of the civil war cannot destroy the love parents have for their children. If this post had audio, you would hear the child squeal with delight as Dad tossed her in the air.
A kid flying a kite as he runs down the street is normal, even if the street is a dirt track between refugee tents. Normal is kids laughing. Normal is dad peeking over my shoulder to see a picture of his son. Normal is a kid showing off as he repeats his run over and over until he is panting.
Day ends in the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Sunset is the normal thing to happen at the end of the day, even if it sets on uprooted people trying to figure out how to reshape their lives.
As we approached the border, we went through more and more military checkpoints. The usual smiling welcome disappeared and was replaced by careful examination of my passport and the letter of passage I received from the provincial media relations minister. Finally, we hit a checkpoint where the AK-toting pesh merga (Kurdish fighters) didn’t care about the letter of passage. They eyed my cameras suspiciously and sent me off to see the general.
The general was so gracious, he offered me the national drink – strong Kurdish tea served in a small gracefully curved glass with a thick layer of sugar in the bottom. After some discussion with his staff, permission was granted and off we went.
It’s hard to say Behar is a village. Half the town is in ruins from some other war and the other half has few residents. From the appearance of the herd dog roaming the area, I suspect most of the people are goat herders. There was a cluster of taxis at the foot of a hill, and then I looked up and saw them.
Lots of refugees, clutching the few possessions they had, holding babies and dragging suitcases. They crested the hill and for the first time, looked on Iraqi Kurdistan. They had spent the night across the border with no harassment from Syrian troops, and then walked the four kilometers from a small Syrian village to the equally small Iraqi village.
After a cursory and very polite check-over by the pesh merga , they walked the last few meters into Behar. There they met relatives who had already escaped or hired a taxi to take them to the Domiz refugee camp. The border crossing is only open from 9am to 2pm –I don’t know why – but in one 30 minute period, Ramadhan counted ninety four people passing by us. Round it down to ninety people and that equates to 180 per hour or 900 people per day. That explains why the Domiz camp has grown from approximately 28,000 people when I arrived to the 32,585 people counted on November 12th – and that was six days ago. I assume the faster pace of evacuation is because of Turkey’s reluctance to take any more Kurds in as refugees. Contrary to the Domiz camp where refugees come and go at will, once a refugee enters a Turkish camp, they are not allowed to leave. Word gets around and the Kurds head to where they are welcome – and that means Iraqi Kurdistan.
It’s a long walk, especially if you have to carry a small child as well as your luggage. People have truly had to decide what is precious to them because they cannot carry everything. The Syrian village is at the end of the road in this photo, way up on the ridge top in the upper right. As I stood there watching the exodus, I wondered what it would be like to leave your home wondering if you would ever see it again, along with the pictures of Grandma, the silverware given to you at your wedding or the dog who has been a member of the family for nine years. Neither did refugees know what camp living would be like. The danger and the fear must be sticky to the touch to cause a family to leave home and go towards the unknown.
Why do they leave home?
This woman and her husband Faisal have seven children. There had been more shooting in their home city of Hasici, but when two school children were killed by stray gunfire, the couple decided to leave. They will go home when Bashar Assad is dead.
Abdullah is a young man from Dargecit. He used to be a university student in Damascus, but the school closed. He has no job, but even if he had money he would have no food because almost all the shops are closed in his home city. He is also afraid the army will draft him and he does not want to fight his own people. He too will return when the civil war is over. Some few swim against the tide and return to Syria.
During the time we counted ninety four people coming into Kurdistan, we also counted twelve going the other way. One family of five was going back temporarily. The wife’s father had died and they wanted to get back for the funeral, but then they would return to Kurdistan. They didn’t want their picture taken either. But the other five were young men. They were restless and bored and could not find work in Dohuk. When we were held up at the checkpoint waiting for the general’s clearance, I’d seen about ten young men on the way back. There is some suspicion that young men may have been trained in secret by the pesh merga and were returning to Syria to fight the Assad regime, but that is all it is now – a suspicion.
And still they keep on coming. The last United Nations report on the situation indicated there were over 346,000 refugees from Syria – and that doesn’t count those who are internally displaced. The misery and the pain continues.
I’ve been here a week now. A week that overwhelms. A week that sears the heart. A week that begs to be thought about and prayed about and done something about.
(Readers - be sure to click on the photos so you can see a larger version of the picture.)
Ramadan is the young man I found here who has become my guide and interpreter. The Blackstar Group has also put him to work teaching families how to use the water filters. At the age of sixteen, he has leadership qualities and a work ethic that belie his tender age. He (like most people here) is a nominal Muslim. He believes, yet he is no fanatic. In a recent conversation, he explained that the maseha (Christians) were not so different from the Muslims. There is only one God, but there are many people – some bad (or very bad such as Bashar Assad), some good. He knows I am Christian and he said my being here must mean that Christians have a good heart.
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” St. Francis of Assisi.
The human suffering around me is immense. I watch new arrivals come into the camp with apprehension on their faces. They don’t know what lies ahead – they just know they left death and destruction behind. This man’s luggage is nice – it probably means he was once comfortably middle-class, but now he will live in a tent. His neighbor may be an illiterate laborer – a man who would not have been his neighbor back in Syria. Here in the camp, all are now poor. What holds them together is that they are all poor, all want to go home, all are Kurdish and all rely on the friendship of others.
But it would seem it doesn’t take long for the human spirit to soar again. This lady doesn’t complain about the film left on her goblets by the malfunctioning dishwasher – she now is content to wash her dishes in a plastic tub – and she smiles.
As I sat down on the ground to talk to the head of a family (and refusing the immediate offer of tea), he was all smiles. His wife beamed at me and I watched their little boy eating some sort of mushy soup with relish. The child was obviously just one of many in family. I got down to his level to take the picture and as one of the nearby men helped me to my feet, I noticed the boy’s right leg seemed to be at an awkward angle. The father explained in fractured English that his son has a birth defect in the leg, preventing him from walking properly. The family is displaced, their son is a semi-invalid and they eat sitting on bare earth.
And they smile.
And I am humbled.