Fun times crossing from Syria into Jordan

Trip Start Mar 21, 2009
Trip End Apr 29, 2009

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Monday, April 20, 2009

Thought I'd share a funny experience crossing the border from Syria into Jordan.   The fastest way to go is to share a taxi with a bunch of people and split the cost, rather than taking the bus since it takes a lot longer for immigration to clear the entire busload of passengers.    You can either take a private taxi, go with friends, or if you're traveling solo like me you just show up at the place where the long-distance taxis leave from and hop in.   No set schedule, as soon as the car is full they take off for Amman, Beirut, etc., both of which are about a 3-hour drive from Damascus.

So, I show up and it didn't take me long to find a car going to Amman that already had one passenger in the front, a computer consultant who was from Jordan.   I get in the back, and within 15 minutes two more people join me.   A Bedouin, with full-on "Lawrence of Arabia" attire, and an orthopedic surgery med student from Yemen.   Our driver was from Syria, so we were quite the United Nations crew.   Now, normally speaking I would not get into a car with 4 men I don't know, but when you're flying solo sometimes you have to make those decisions that are a choice between personal safety and opportunity of a lifetime.   In all my years of travelling my gut instinct has never steered me wrong, so I went with the latter and hoped for the best.

All goes well for the first few hours, and I'm chatting up the Bedouin via the Yemeni who is translating for me much to the amusement of the Syrian and the Jordanian.    We had to stop no less than 3 times at various checkpoints where they verify your passport and record the license plate # of the car to make sure all is on the up & up.   Finally we get to the border, and at that point the immigration & customs guys make everyone get out of the car, take out all the luggage, and they proceed to do a full cavity search of the car.   I've never seen such an extensive search performed on a vehicle.   I'm not sure exactly what they're looking for but thankfully all went well.

Then they start going through our luggage and everyone had to open up their suitcases, briefcases, etc. to be inspected.   Boy, were they thorough, opening my various lotions & potions to test them, spraying my perfumes to make sure they were legit, etc.   I was mortified but my driving companions were getting quite a kick out of it.   When they got to my prized Iranian carpet that really raised eyebrows and they called a few other officers over to take a look.    They tore off the plastic that was wrapped around the carpet and started pawing it to see what it was made of.    Needless to say I had a big knot in my stomach - all this time I was worried about getting it through US customs safely but it never occured to me that I'd have a problem getting it into Jordan since I'd had no problems in Syria.

At that point my UN buddies, who have now become my self-appointed bodyguards, all came over to keep an eye on things.  Although the Bedouin decided he was out and went to sit on a bench to have a cigarette.   After much discussion in Arabic, the customs guys asked me where I got the carpet and how much I paid for it.   Oh boy, was the right answer Syria or Iran?    Another one of those situations where you have to make a split decision and have a 50/50 chance of getting it right.  I thought Syria and Iran were on good terms, but I wasn't sure about Jordan and Iran.    I went for Syria and lowballed the price I paid figuring these guys weren't the type to know much about carpet prices.     A few more words were then exchanged between my driver and the officers, they wrote it up on some kind of official document, and after that waved us to put everything back in the car.   Crisis averted.

We no sooner got back into the car and crossed safely into Jordan then my carmates unleashed a torrent of very animated Arabic and asked me how much I had really paid and where I really got the carpet.    They were absolutely beside themselves that I had the wherewithal to tell the customs guys I got the carpet in Syria and everyone started high-fiving me.   The Yemeni explained that the customs guys often will try to confiscate things illegally and you have to bribe them to get them back.    The driver basically had told them to back off and leave me alone because I was a tourist and a woman and they should be ashamed of themselves which clearly did the job.   Had told them I got it in Iran though they would have kept it because they know Iraniain carpets are valuable and they would have sold it and kept the money.  

The Yemeni was an absolute doll and when we finally got to Amman he got a taxi to take me to my hotel and came with me to make sure that me and my carpet arrived safely, and wouldn't let me pay the cab fare.   Just one of many experiences I've had over the past few weeks that have shown just how incredible Arab hospitality and manners can be.   I was very happy that once again my gut instinct turned out to be correct, and that rather than being a threat to my safety the four male strangers turned out to be the best chaperones I could have asked for.

First thing the next morning, I sent my carpet safely on its way to San Francisco via DHL to avoid any more close calls.    Then I floated around in the Dead Sea later that afternoon (very cool - all the salt in the water make you very, very buoyant!) and the stress from the day before magically disappeared.
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