Saturday, March 20, 2010
Don’t believe what they tell you about Syria. It’s much easier to drive there than people say it is. My boyfriend and I had heard a lot of things about driving from Amman to Damascus before we attempted the trip ourselves. But from buses to shared taxis, private cars to rental cars, there didn’t seem to be any one option that satisfied us on both price and efficiency.
Buses were cheap, but took hours to cross the border if there was anyone aboard that didn’t have a visa. Shared taxis were quicker, but often involved old cars and cramped conditions. Private cars were the quickest way to get from Jordan to Syria, but also frustratingly expensive. It seemed like there was no good alternative.
After our hotel quoted us 100 dinars (roughly 100 pounds) for a private car, we headed to the Abdali Bus Station in Amman to see if we could get three seats in a shared taxi. We heard it would cost around 30 dinars and would help ease the cramped conditions.
En route to the station, our taxi driver asked us if we were interested in taking a private car. Yes. But not for 100 dinars. How about 50? We were listening. The driver told us that near the bus station there were plenty of private agencies that had high-quality private cars that would drive people from Amman to Damascus for 50 dinars. All we had to do was look for a car on the street with its trunk open and a driver standing beside it.
After a few minutes we came across just such a sight. The taxi driver pulled up, spoke to the driver, assured him we had Syrian visas, and got him to agree to drive us to Damascus for 50 dinars. It sounded a little too good to be true.
Always the skeptic, I held back a bit when we got out of the car and several men emerged from what looked like a very empty store front demanding that I hand over my passport. The taxi driver assured me it was just for purposes of filling out a form that would be used at the border. I imagined it was the first step in selling my ID to the highest bidder.
The men in the shop did the paperwork while the driver loaded our bags into what looked to be an official taxi, complete with several registration certificates and signs painted on the sides. As my boyfriend took the precaution of photographing the license plates with his camera phone, I noticed that the car itself was quite new and nice inside.
Shortly thereafter we left Amman and started the three-hour drive to Damascus. My boyfriend and I followed our progress with the GPS on his Blackberry, making sure we weren’t heading towards Iraq or anywhere else we didn’t want to go. But there was nothing to worry about; we were headed for the border. On the way we even got some air conditioning.
When we reached the border, we passed through two security checkpoints that featured lots of pictures of the king. Then we pulled up to passport control, where we got out of the car to get our passports stamped and got back in the car to get them checked at another checkpoint.
Then came the highlight of the border crossing. We drove over a bump and down into a trough that looked like it was wet on the bottom. Before I knew what was happening, small nozzles were spraying water all over the sides of the car. It could only be described as a miniature border crossing car wash. Bizarre.
Next we came to the first Syrian border checkpoint, after which we pulled up to the Syrian passport control office. We got out of the car and walked into a box-like building with a glassed-in booth.
The process was a bit confusing for me. To the far right was a sign that said “Women Visitors”. To the far left was a sign that said “Foreign Visitors.” What about those of us that land smack in the middle of that Venn diagram?
I chose “Foreign Visitors” and headed to the desk. A burly man in a military uniform took my passport, found the visa, stamped it, and handed it back.
I walked back out into the parking lot only to discover that our driver was gone. I was a little worried. After ten minutes, I started to fear that I would be stranded on the Jordan-Syria border, stuck in “Female Visitor”-“Foreign Visitor” limbo forever.
It turned out that our driver was just availing himself of the duty free shopping in the building next door. He came back to the car, apologizing for the delay and whisking us through the two final checkpoints and into Syria.
At last we arrived at the Sheraton Damascus, our home for the next two days. We were glad that everything had worked out well with the driver, and happy to have found a way to get from Amman to Damascus without it taking seven hours or costing 100 dinars. Finally there, we couldn’t wait to spend some of the time and money we had saved on transport buying important things like pistachio-covered ice cream and apricot-flavored sweets.
This post appeared in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Carnival hosted by Ginger Beirut.