Broken Bones, Lingerie and the Syrian Desert
A true story from when I traveled through the middle-east in 2002. Everyone has a story from when they were young and stupid that they probably shouldn't have survived - this is my one.
As the cab hit yet another pothole, the suspension bottomed out with a metallic clunk that made my teeth ache. I glanced downward and grimaced at a blur of gravel scooting past, visible through rust-lined holes in the floor beneath my feet. The car was ancient, panels pockmarked and dinted, and by the sound of the engine, destined for the junkyard any day. Aside from the driver and me, the decrepit cab was piled from floor to roof with cases of Albatros beer, thirty odd slabs of it with a few bottles of spirits thrown in for something different. Enough to keep our overland truck group hydrated (or hungover) as we made our way through the next country on our tour, Syria.
Brakes squealed as the driver geared down and pulled into our campground. Located in a small town on the Turkish border, it had been our last opportunity to buy some grog for the coming week. With the benefit of hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest move, considering that alcohol is illegal in Syria, jail would have been on the cards if we were caught. It was 2002, and although the region had yet to descend into war, it still wasn’t a place any sensible person would want to see the inside of a police cell. But I was young, dumb and… Well. We’ll leave that Point Break quote unfinished. My priorities were to have an adventure, gain a better understanding of the world, and have a great time doing it.
The cab ground to a halt, and a Kiwi bloke with short sandy hair ripped open the passenger door. As his eyes roamed past me to the slabs of beer filling the cabin, a grin spread across his face.
“You did well, Hodgey,” he said, taking a slab of beer off my lap so I could climb out. “Let’s get this shit in the truck.”
Steve was the driver and guide on our trip. In his thirties, he’d spent the last decade travelling Europe, Africa, and the middle-east. He was fond of a beer and loved a fat joint. As such he’d also installed smuggling compartments throughout his truck to supply various camp sites on his route with marijuana and alcohol. For the next part of the trip though, those compartments would be filled with our own stock.
If you’ve never seen an overlander, I’ll try and paint a picture for you. Think of a large furniture removalist truck. On the back, the top half of the sides are covered by tarps that can be rolled up to the roof. A line of seats facing inwards line either side of the tray, able to sit around thirty adults. If you lifted the seat cushions, you would find a cavity where our packs were stored on the road, however, the floor beneath the packs was fake. If you lifted that panel, you would find yet another compartment, a compartment that would soon be stuffed with multiple slabs of beer. It was sheer brilliance. Or stupidity. Or a little of both.
My only wish at the time was for the compartment to be refrigerated, but it’s surprising just how quickly you can get used to warm beer when it’s the only drink on offer. And it also makes the next ice-cold lager taste like heaven. After drinking nothing but blood-warm beer for a week, you’ll be gazing lovingly at the bottle like an actor on a VB commercial. Anyway, I digress. I was due to turn twenty-three in a few days, and we planned to have a massive party under the stars in the desert somewhere outside Palmyra to celebrate. And what’s a party without beer?
As it turns out, probably a party you leave with your bones intact.
Inside the back of the truck, everything was covered in a thin layer of dust. After half an hour driving cross-country on GPS straight into the desert with the tarpaulin sides of the cabin rolled up, everyone had fine layer of grit in their hair and covering their clothes.
“For fuck’s sake. Those bloody roosters are doing my head in,” muttered one of the group. “I still don’t understand why we took them with us. We could boil my shoe and it’d taste better than one of those old cocks.”
A few other eyes also now flicked with irritation toward where twelve roosters were enclosed in a crate. In Aleppo, a few of the blokes had been sent on a task to buy twelve live chickens for a desert feast. They’d returned extremely pleased with themselves. For only two thirds the price of hens, they had instead bought roosters. Yep, to put it bluntly, they’d been conned into buying a bunch of stringy old roosters. So not only did we have bit of tough old cock to get our teeth around later that night, we’d had hours of listening to the bastards crow displeasure at their imprisonment every few seconds.
The truck’s brakes squealed as it eased to a halt. Everyone squeezed their eyes tight shut as a cloud of dust thrown up by the tyres billowed through the back. In a few moments though, a light breeze cleared the cabin. I stood up and stretched, trying to ease the aching muscles of my lower back.
“I think this is us done for the day,” called out an Irish voice from above.
At the front of the cabin was a section of roof that could be flipped backward to create a large sunroof of sorts. From this gap, a pair of legs from the knee down hung in space, belonging to an Irishman named Callum who’d been sitting on the roof while we drove.
You see, a number of us had got into the habit of sitting on top of the truck while in transit. Nothing better than cruising at 100kmph down the highway, wind blasting your hair and ripping tears from your eyes as the desert streaks by. And yes, I know, it wasn’t particularly safe or smart. But usually, the only problem was the odd low-strung powerline crossing the road. Self-installed by local farmers, if you missed one of those and didn’t duck in time, you’d be garrotted at high speed.
We disembarked and started to make camp for the night. Although there were tents, I didn’t use one a single time on that trip. Our usual set up, was to construct a fire, then lay out a series of big square mats around the circumference, sleeping bags on top. We slept under the clear night skies, an awesome cathedral of stars filling the space from one horizon to the other above our heads.
After the mats were out, Steve wandered over to me and a few of the other blokes, a hatchet dangling from his right hand. “Better get on with dinner. Who’s wants to do the honours?”
It was time for one of the roosters to meet its maker.
The other guys around me looked uneasy, not willing to meet Steve’s eye. When it comes to meat, if you’re willing to consume it, then I think you should be willing to face the reality of what happens for it to end up on your plate. And after spending my early childhood on a farm, I’d seen my dad do his duties on the chopping block more than a few times.
“Yeah, I’ll do it.” I took the small axe off Steve, and grimaced as I ran one thumb over the blade. Nicked, rusty and blunt. I didn’t envy the poor chook. I sighed, and climbed into the back of the truck to pick my victim.
The roosters had been unusually quiet since we’d stopped for the evening, probably instinctively knowing dinner would be soon. And when your species tends to be on the menu, that’s probably not something to get excited about. I swung open the top of their box, and twelve sets of eyes looked up at me. A mate from home who’d joined me on the trip leaned over my shoulder to gawk.
“Time to get some revenge on all their bloody noise today. Which one are you going to take?” asked Joel.
“First one that crows I guess.” I stared down at the roosters until one in the centre slowly lifted the comb on its head, opened its beak, and…
I snatched out my hand, caught the bird that had made the fatal mistake of speaking first, and climbed down from the truck. I kept the wings and body tight under one arm as I looked about for a spot to get the deed done.
“Oh, gross! You’re not going to kill it in front of us, are you?” said one of the girls next to the fire, already sitting with beer in hand.
“All right, all right,” I muttered, and walked around to the other side of the truck out of sight of the majority of the group. With things like this though, there’s always people that do want to watch, so I ended up being tailed by a few of the party with a morbid curiosity for seeing a chicken run without its head. Wanting to get it over and done with, I knelt, held the rooster on the dirt, and took a swing.
With a blunt axe, and nothing firm to cut against, the blade only made it about half way through its neck as the ground deformed underneath the strike. Shit. It was too late to go searching for a wooden block. All I could do was put the bird out of its misery as quickly as possible. I took another two swings, and finally the axe bit into the dirt below.
I released the carcass, and the headless rooster took off in an uncoordinated run, before hitting the deck a metre or two away. Wiry legs gave a few more kicks before falling still. Steve leant down, picked up the chook’s bloody head, and threw it over the top of the truck in the direction of the campfire, girls, and all our sleeping bags.
“Wait for it…” he said, a look of anticipation on his face.
A split second later, a scream sounded as the bird head landed on someone. Steve pissed himself laughing as he picked up the rooster and walked back around to the fire to begin plucking and gutting. By the end of the job, he looked more serial killer than driver, white shirt streaked with blood where he’d wiped his hands.
We ended up boiling the chook as an easy option for cooking, and the resulting meat was bloody awful. Truck’s tyres would’ve been easier to cut and less rubbery. The rest of the night was spent around the fire drinking warm beer, laughing and joking. Sensing their momentary reprieve, the rest of the roosters restarted their intermittent crowing from the truck.
As night fell, a few random Bedouin men rocked up to the fire from the darkness. None of them could speak English, but were happy to share a coffee and cigarette. Whenever I see faces on the news about the devastation wrought in modern day Syria, I can’t help but think of the people we met in the deserts. Despite not having a single word of understanding between us, we were shown friendliness, as both parties communicated with sign language and smiles. It’s more than a little shit to think that many of the people I met on that trip will have suffered horribly. As the evening wore on, our visitors left, retreating again into the night.
Eventually we crashed out as the fire burnt down to coals. I was happy to get some sleep, as the next day (my birthday) was hopefully going to be a big one. I was soon to learn that sometimes it pays to be careful what you wish for.
The sun cracked over the horizon in a blaze of gold, causing shadows to spring from the scattered rock and low bushes of the desert. Some pulled their sleeping bag over sore heads, trying to block out the new day, while others slowly emerged, stretching stiff muscles in the brisk coolness of dawn.
The fire had burnt back to a few glowing embers overnight, but I managed to coax them back to life with the help of a few small branches, and before long there was a pot of coffee ready to warm hands and bellies. With mug in hand, I wandered off a few steps to take in the quiet desert morning, pausing to blow steam from the surface and take a sip. Where we’d camped, the ground was a mixture of reddish sand and gravel, interspersed by tufts of yellow grass and desiccated brush. It was barren, but strangely beautiful. In my mind, it’s moments like that which make travel worthwhile as a young adult. At twenty-two years of age, I had not a care in the world. Single, no mortgage, no stress about career advancement. I was getting to explore cultures and foreign lands, while making new friends and having fun. As I drank that coffee, I’m pretty sure I had a contented half-smile on my face to be having my birthday in such an awesome location.
Callum’s voice, still a little rough at the early hour, pulled me back to the present. I turned to find both him and Steve standing with stupid grins on their faces, each holding a plastic bag.
“Happy Birthday, mate. When we were in Aleppo, the group kicked in a few bucks each to buy you a birthday outfit.”
Quietly chuffed that they’d made the effort, I thanked them and took the offered gift. I fumbled open the bag to find something I definitely hadn’t been expecting. A pink, hard-cupped bra bordered with frilly lace and matching knickers. It looked some sort of cross between lingerie and a belly-dancer’s outfit.
I glanced back up at them. “This is a joke, right?”
“Nope. But we thought it’d be mean to make you wear it on your own, so we got a set each as well,” said Steve.
From the other bag, he pulled out another set of Arabic lingerie and threw it to Callum who promptly shrugged off his t-shirt and started putting on the bra. On his six-foot-plus frame and hairy chest, he made quite the Amazon.
As the two blokes came good on their word and continued to kit themselves out, I realised there would be no backing out for me. Leaving my boxer shorts on (because no-one needed to catch an unwanted glimpse of hairy balls), I pulled the pink bra and knickers on over the top, and joined the other two back at the camp. Wolf whistles and good-natured laughter greeted our arrival as the first warm birthday beer was shoved in my hand.
After rolling up the mats and packing the truck, the group climbed back aboard to continue our off-grid exploration of the Syrian desert. The next couple of hours became a blur of beer, sand, laughs and vodka laybacks straight from the bottle.
I reckon we gave old Pricilla a run for her money. Driving through the desert with a bunch of blokes in pink lingerie sitting on the roof getting smashed. With hindsight, not the most culturally sensitive thing to do in a deeply conservative country, but seeing as we were literally in the middle of nowhere, we figured the only things being harmed were our livers.
Eventually, the truck pulled over a for a toilet break, blokes to one side, chicks to the other. After we’d finished, we found Steve pulling out one of the trucks old punctured tyres along with a length of chain.
“Time for a tyre drag!”
Now, this wasn’t something we’d done so far on the trip, but being a bunch of young idiots we were up to the task of giving it a red hot go. A woman named Janine volunteered for first go and sat herself down onto top of the tyre while Steve secured a long length of chain from the tyre to the back of the truck. While this was happening, I along with four others, was on the roof of the truck with beers in hand. Not at the sunroof section where your legs dangled through to maintain a hold, but sitting at the very back of the roof where we could watch everything get prepared. On this section of the roof there was nothing but smooth metal and a sharp drop off.
As tends to happen with a few too many beers under your belt, we failed to notice a few key details as we talked between us. Like that Steve had finished securing the tyre, and had climbed back into the drivers cabin ready to go. The first inkling we had was when the engine turned on and truck lurched in to motion.
The five of us were stuck with a choice. Stay where we were and hope for the best, or try and walk back across the expanse of the roof while the truck was in motion to get back in the sunroof. I don’t know about you, but I’m no action hero. We elected to stay where we were, watch Janine eat dust on the tyre and drink our beers in the sun. After all, we’d sat on the roof while the truck was in motion plenty of times (well, maybe not on the flat section with no handholds) so what could go wrong?
Steve accelerated to fifty kilometres per hour, dust pluming up behind the truck, and spurting in all directions from around the tyre as it skidded through the gravel with Janine hanging on for dear life. All was going well, until Steve went over a large bump, making the whole truck rock violently. I was thrown back from the other four, out of arms reach and into the middle of the roof, flat on my back. There was nothing but smooth metal around me and nothing to hold on to. Suddenly, the truck turned sharply. My heart lurched as I began to slide, gathering speed as I headed feet first for the edge, beer still in hand.
Four metres up in the air.
Fifty kilometres per hour.
Wearing nothing but boxer shorts, and pink lingerie.
To this day, I can recall the moment with crystal clarity. As soon as I started sliding, I knew there was no way out of the fall. And when something becomes inevitable, it’s funny how quickly you can accept reality. The only thing I thought, were six simple words.
Let’s see how you land it.
No swearing. No scream. There wasn’t time to think about it, because, within a split second I was airborne.
All I recall about the impact was an all mighty crunch. I landed on an area of gravel over hard-caked dirt. I know I must have hit feet first, because they swelled to the size of footballs within minutes. Then the pain hit. I rolled onto my side and just lay there for a few moments. Eyes closed and teeth clenched against the agony of my right heel. And like a true young idiot, my beer was still in hand. The can a little dinted maybe, but it had survived the fall in better shape than me.
In the distance, I could hear the truck still driving, the passengers on board screaming for Steve’s attention. Seeing me lying still, they had initially thought I was dead. Eventually Steve heard them, stopped the truck and cut the engine. For a moment there was just the low sound of wind amongst the scrub, and then the thundering of many feet as they ran to my location.
With help, I sat up and gingerly moved my neck. Nothing hurt in my head, spine, chest or pelvis. Aside from my feet, I appeared to have gotten away with it. I looked down at my feet, and saw a pulsating mass grow on the top of my right foot where a burst artery pulsed under the skin in a growing haematoma.
“Jesus, dude. You only just missed going down a well.”
I followed Joel’s line of site and saw he wasn’t lying. Less than a metre to my right was a square lip of concrete, thirty centimetres high. At its centre, a sheer drop into darkness of God knows what depth. If I’d hit the edge, my body would have been mashed, or if I’d improved my aim and gone down the middle, it would have been lights out for sure.
A couple of the group brought a cooking table, and used it as a stretcher to carry me over to the truck. Once I was beside the entrance, I went to pull myself on board, and it was only then that I realised I’d also broken my elbow. Nothing serious, just a radial head fracture, but enough that it didn’t want to take my weight.
After that, the birthday festivities kind of fizzled. We needed to find a hospital. It took half an hour bumping through the desert, cross-country on GPS before we got to the nearest road, then another two hours until we reached Palmyra. I got my mate to cut off the bra and knickers before we got to the hospital – there are some things you don’t want to have to explain in a country like Syria.
The doctors and nurses at the tiny hospital we found were awesome. Not one of them asked for cash for the treatment, and I wish that I’d had the forethought to leave some sort of monetary donation or gift to them as thanks for the resources that should have been used on locals, rather than a stupid tourist. When asked how the injury occurred, I bent the truth a little. Not wanting to explain a morning spent on the turps and truck surfing in the desert, I said I’d fallen off the top of the truck at our campsite. By the doctor’s expression, he didn’t appear to believe me. But then again, I probably stunk of booze, so I wouldn’t have believed me either in his shoes.
After a bunch of x-rays, I learnt I’d fractured my right heel and elbow. Otherwise it was just torn ligaments in both ankles. My feet were so swollen and bruised that the skin looked like a sausage ready to burst on the BBQ. The doctor applied thick, below-knee plaster casts to each leg, and a long-arm cast to my elbow fracture, then I was shown the door. That’s right. I had to walk out of there on my plaster casts. They must breed them tougher over there, because there wasn’t a crutch in sight.
Not the most comfortable time of my life, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse. I found out later, that Steve had turned the truck sharply to swing the tyre into the view of his side mirror to see if Janine was still on it. If he’d decided to turn the wheel the other way, it would have sent me sliding head first, and that wouldn’t have been a survivable landing. Still makes my gut squirm thinking about it.
After the hospital, I joined the rest of the group at the local campground. I was only there was around thirty minutes when the police turned up in a local ute. None of them spoke English and I was pulled into the back along with Steve. Someone at the hospital had notified the police of my accident, and we were now being pulled in for questioning on a charge of ‘bringing the tourism industry into disrepute’.
As the truck driver, Steve was taken to the police station and thrown into a cell, while I was taken across town on my own to a random concrete building. We skidded to a halt, then the driver came and let down the back of the ute tray, indicating for me to follow. Squinting against the sun of late afternoon, I hobbled after him into the building’s shadowed recesses.
Turns out it was some sort of court. I was brought before a woman in a black Burqa, face completely obscured, sitting behind a formal desk. Not a word of English was spoken, so I hadn’t a clue what was being said, or what punishment might be imposed if found guilty. All I could do was stand quietly and try not to fall over my clunky plaster casts. The trial (if that’s what it was) lasted about ten minutes before the woman made a pronouncement, hit her gavel on the table top, and pointed me back out the door I’d entered in the first place.
I was somewhat stunned to be transported back to the campsite and let go. As my ute pulled up, Steve was being dropped off by a different car after his time in the police cells. Luckily none of the cops hung around to inspect the truck. It wouldn’t have taken much to find the grog still stashed aboard.
So, that was my story of how I managed to fit in a few firsts in one day. My first unassisted flight (albeit short one with a hard landing), first and only time in women’s underwear, first broken bones, first time being arrested and first time in court.
And did I learn anything? Considering there was no grog left on the truck when we passed over the border into Jordan, probably not. But on second thoughts, if there’s some advice I’d give to other travellers, it’d be this: If your birthday happens to fall when you’re on an overland trip like this one – keep it to yourself.
*Names have been changed
About the author:
Alister Hodge is a Sydney based author, writing within the genres of horror, science fiction and young adult. He is also an Emergency Nurse Practitioner and a Clinical Lecturer at the University of Sydney. As a mental break from providing healthcare in a busy Emergency Department, Alister leaves behind the everyday traumas and horror of the real world, by creating new ones for post-apocalyptic and dystopian landscapes.
Alister’s debut Plague War series, including ‘Plague War: Outbreak’, ‘Plague War 2: Pandemic’, and ‘Plague War 3: Retaliation’, are published by Severed Press. His upcoming release, ‘The Viperob Files’, will be published by Crossroad Press in 2019.