Syria to Jordan

Tue, 17 Jun 2008 13:06:54 +0000

Palmyra Day 2 Index Amman

The task for today was reporting the loss of my passport to the immigration department. Since I doubted they'd be open before 9:00, I could give the guy at the front desk a break and let him sleep until quarter to eight, when I went to get my breakfast. Except that he was still asleep, and even more pissed off than usual. I really think these people need to revisit their strategy for keeping the front desk open.

Anyway, after the usual breakfast of flatbread and condiments, I tootled over the road to the immigration department. As I expected, it was a grubby office with queues of impatient foreigners from around the region, with not an English-speaker in sight and no orderly queues to speak of. I picked a random place where people were waiting and joined for my turn at the desk. He seemed to be stamping letters and passports for something, so I was certainly not in the right place, but I was hoping he'd direct me to the right office. When I got to him, I handed over the piece of paper from the police explaining my situation. He studied it carefully, and then pronounced his one-word solution: "tomorrow". I'd have to wait another day.

Screw that. I know this game: I could be bouncing from bureaucrat to bureaucrat for weeks at this rate. The bottom line is that I've lost my passport, and I don't have a magic piece of paper from the Syrians stating that fact. If the British refuse to issue me with a replacement, then I can live with that. My guess is that when I eventually get around to sorting this out properly, I'll have to pay a higher rate to get my replacement passport. I'd rather do that than waste time hanging around in Damascus for a week.

So light of heart with the knowledge that I really did try, I returned to the hotel to pack and head out to the station, to catch a taxi to Jordan.

Almost immediately I stepped out of the taxi, I was offered a ride to Amman. But I wanted to shop around a bit. There was a big sign pointing up a side street to where the tourist taxis were supposed to be, but when I headed in that direction I was stopped by a policeman and told to go back to the bus station.

So I guess I didn't have much choice. I followed the guy who offered to get me to Amman, trying to be aloof and skeptical and reel in the best offer I could. I even tried to switch to a different hawker offering to go to Amman, but he just led me back to the same driver. I couldn't be bothered arguing, and just accepted the offer, for 700 pounds.

I was taken to a bus stop where my fellow passengers were waiting, a Canadian couple. They'd agreed to 600 pounds for the journey, but the difference is only a couple of US dollars, so I'm not too fussed. While we waited for the driver to rustle up a fourth passenger, we chatted about travel. The Canadians turned out to be a lot more intrepid than me, having previously travelled for three years solid. No wonder they got the better deal. Eventually the guy came back and offered to take just the three of us for 900 each. The Canadian guy, Alex, bargained him down to 800 each. It was really great to be part of a group all of a sudden, it allowed me to rest so much easier.

Shortly after setting out we stopped at a petrol station for a five minute break. When we all piled back into the taxi, there was a bit of a drama. The taxi driver wanted us to pay for petrol, 500 pounds. Naturally we took this as being not part of the agreement: the taxi driver should pay. It took a lot of arguing, and eventually a page of arithmetic on my notepad passed back and forth, before we reached the consensus that the driver merely didn't have the necessary change, and that the 500 would be deducted from the total fare. It's quite possible that the driver would have tried to claim the extra 500 as well if we'd let him, but this was a face-saving agreement all round. Again, it was marvellous to be in a group of English-speaking allies for this.

The border was a very complicated sequence of stops. One of the first was at a duty free shop, where the driver bought cartons of cigarettes. He opened the boot, pointed at our bags, and asked "OK?" He wanted to put a carton in each of our bags to use up our duty-free allowance. I had already read that these drivers like to smuggle over cigarettes from Syria, so I wasn't surprised by this. We agreed to let him do that, in the interests of keeping the driver happy. It sounded like it was probably legal anyway. I know you shouldn't let people play with your bag, but a little grease keeps things moving smoothly sometimes.

Then came the border proper. They actually had a guy in a hole in the ground checking the bottom of cars for contraband. Pretty thorough stuff. We also had to open our bags to be inspected, but the border guard didn't do more than glance at the top. I soon found out why: as we were driving through, the driver slipped a pack of cigarettes to the guard. Obviously that's to prevent the search being too thorough. It seems like a pretty small bribe if you ask me, but I guess a lot of cigarettes pass through here.

We had to then get our exit stamps and our visas. No big drama. I had read that keeping the Syrian entry card is crucial when leaving the country, and luckily I had kept it extra safe in my handbag instead of in my backpack. My Canadian friends seemed to have lost theirs, however. Somehow they managed to get away with it.

The rest of the journey to Amman was pretty uneventful. He stopped at some home base of his far from the centre, where he gathered together the cigarettes. To our surprise, not only did he take the cartons from our bags, but loose packs of cigarettes turned up everywhere: in the glove compartment, under the seats, in the cup holder by the driver. He even had a pack stuffed down each sock.

Given the profit he'd made from that lot, I was a bit disappointed that he refused to drive us into town, but he hailed a taxi for us and gave us a price of one dinar. The dinar is worth almost exactly one Euro, by the way, which makes calculations rather nice for me. The Canadians were planning to go to the "Palace Hotel", which was also suggested by Wikitravel, so I decided just to go with them. The taxi driver didn't know where it was, and just dumped us on the right street. Between their lonely planet and my compass we navigated to the right place, and there were plenty of rooms free.

It was about mid-afternoon by this stage, and I decided to go out into the street to see if I could do some shopping. First I tried to find some lunch, since I hadn't eaten since breakfast, but the only food I could find was a hamburger and fries. It was pretty dreadful. I got some shaving stuff from a pharmacy, which I won't use until I'm out of Arabia and people stop mistaking me for a woman. I also asked about anti-malaria medicine, but they didn't have any. I bought one t-shirt, which for five dinar was slightly expensive, and is a little tight for my expanding waistline. No doubt more fashionable than any of my others, though.

One thing I was missing was maps of Amman. To correct that I needed wifi access, not just an Internet cafe. I read that there was free wifi at a cafe called "Books@Cafe", so I took a taxi there. He drove me round in a big loop, and then when we got there it turned out to be only a few hundred metres from where I'd started. But up a hill, so quite possibly that really was the only way to get there. The cafe itself looks very unpromising when you first go in, like a dingy little bookstore. But then you go through a door, down a corridor, up some steps, round a corner, into a courtyard, up some more steps, and it blossoms into a vast, extremely funky cafe full of foreigners and rich young arabs drinking beer and smoking hookahs. After the privations of Syria, it felt like paradise.

I ordered a coffee and settled in to use the Internet for an hour or so. When I'd filled my map cache I left, where it turned out that two coffees had cost two dinar fifty. Pretty steep. But reasonable value if the Internet connection is factored in. I was glad that it was a short walk back, and with my new maps it was easy to find my way.

I did some reading in the hotel, before heading out for some dinner. This time at least I managed to get a kebab. Maybe not the most exotic dish in the world, but it was delicious. All in all, I'm very happy with today.

Palmyra Day 2 Index Amman