I entered a teahouse. Fluorescent lights flickered overhead, and framed posters of President Bashar al-Assad hung on the green walls. After finding a table, I sat down on a plastic chair to order a narghile. I drew a long breath through the mouthpiece on the water pipe, filling my lungs with cool, white smoke and exhaling the taste of apples. At least I’ve finally arrived in the Middle East, I thought. Although I had entered the region when I crossed the black water of the Bosporus River in Istanbul, the complex aromas of Europe carried on the wind for hundreds of miles. Out here though, in Ar-Raqqa, it was simple – sweet smoke and sweet tea. And then there was the dust. You could always smell the dust.
In the morning, a dull orange glow had settled on the city. Rolling my motorcycle out of the hotel lobby and into the street, I clipped my plastic luggage in place before taking a good look around. Concrete buildings blocked my view of the horizon, but overhead I could see a patch of blue like faded denim on an otherwise burlap sky.
I glanced down at the map folded into the clear plastic pocket of my tank bag. There, the Euphrates River showed up as a clean blue line, but as I rode back over the water toward the highway it appeared ugly and grey. Everything looked grey, in fact, as a hectoring wind lifted dust from the desert into the atmosphere where it blocked out the sun. Maybe I should have turned back at that point, but here in the valley alongside the river things didn’t seem so bad. After considering my options for a moment, I clicked on my left signal light and turned onto the highway riding east.