by Richard Birecki
I woke up early in the morning in my extravagant $10 a night hotel room, easily the highest price I paid for Syrian accommodations. Upon venturing outside, I was accosted by a red-head, let’s call him Rooster, who insisted that I take his cab.
“I want breakfast,” I told him, “Maybe later. Talk to me in an hour.”
Twenty minutes went by when he approached me again. “I’m not ready dude, back off.”
Rooster waited for me to finish eating and followed me to my hotel, anxious for my fare. Honestly, this is one of the rare times in all my travels that I have felt concerned for my safety. While money is scarce in Syria, and everybody is eager to serve a tourist flush with cash, he was trying waaayyyyyy too hard to get me into his cab. It was just one of those moments you have to use your intuition, and back away from the situation as coolly as possible.
I walked into my hotel, explained to the owner that Rooster was making me very uncomfortable, and would he be so kind to inform him that I won’t be using his services. This served the dual purpose of ridding myself of The Rooster, and also letting him know that the locals know who he is.
A friend of the owner’s showed up to drive me to the bus station. We stopped at Palmyra’s only currency exchange, which made your local DMV look like it operated with the efficiency of a Japanese assembly line. With only three people ahead of me, it took over a half hour to exchange $100.
Now, the exchange rate for Syrian pounds to US dollars is 45-1. Add to the mix that each bill is a different color from the other, AND, that the government is in the process of replacing all their old money with newly colored bills, with the ensuing rainbow of cash you get, a rocket scientist would have a hard time figuring out what he’s actually holding. As I traded most of my US dollars for 50 Jordanian Dinars ($70 US) I decided it would be prudent to tuck that quite valuable bill away into a special fold of my fanny pack, out of reach of possible contamination by the lowly Syrian Pound.
An uneventful four and a half hour bus ride landed me back in Damascus, where I had to transfer to bus terminal on the other side of town to continue my journey into Jordan.
The cabbies see me, and their eyes go wide, as I have far more “rip-off equity” than the locals, and everyone’s fighting over my fare (not ‘fair’). Some went as far as to grab my suitcase from me without me so much as asking to insure my patronage.
“Put it down!” I order in a tone understood in any language.
A green-eyed cabbie is the only one who speaks any English, thus I choose to ride with him. He looks 50, which means he’s probably mid thirties. People age much more quickly in the Middle East.
A pleasant ride, we get to the bus station. He asks me for 200 pounds more than what we agreed upon, telling me that we had to go out of the way for the extra stop we made to get some food. It’s par for the course. I’m running out of Syrian pounds, but I have enough for the bus, and odds are I won’t ever be back here. I give him the big tip.
I go into the terminal and somehow communicate that I need a ticket to Amman. Syrians grab my suitcase and tell me in very broken English that they will make sure to get me on my bus. “Please putdown my suitcase.” They don’t understand. I lack the energy to argue any more. Upon getting to the bus they naturally demand money.I don’t have enough cash or patience left for this shakedown. “No,” I state, “go away.”
“We make sure you get on bus!” they argue.
“I didn’t ask you for help.”
“We help you! We don’t understand!”
At that point a diminutive young Syrian, Badr, stepped forward to help translate. I ended up giving away sixty cents, which by Syrian standards, is a decent tip, but they were expecting far more and clearly let me know just how discontented they were. I dragged my belongings onto the bus, tired of the continual haggling.
Badr sits down beside me. The bus is relatively empty, and normally I’d have moved to an empty seat without a word, but as he had helped me, and it was obvious he wanted to converse, I stayed put.
Badr shyly practices his English, completely unsure of himself, getting frustrated when he doesn’t know a word.
Turns out he is part Russian, and is of the Catholic faith. I ask him whether it is ever a problem in a country that is over 90% Islamic.
“Yes,” he replies, “sometimes people get violent with me because I am.”
It was around 10:30 PM that we finally hit the Jordanian border. Badr and I get out of the bus and walk into immigration. Having traveled for the last 11 hours just get to this point. I prayed that immigration would go smoothly. That of course was a joke.
You’re more likely to win the mega-millions than to have an uneventful border crossing in the Middle East. The Syrian/Jordanian border was a mess. Long lines of Arabs moving slower than glaciers, people waving their passports near the front of the line, trying to get their ticket out of Syria stamped by the disgruntled government worker whose sandwich break coincides perfectly with your arrival to the front of the line, giving you the option of waiting for his return (estimated at between two and twenty days,) or starting over at the back of a new line where they have an amusement park ride style sign stating, “from this point: two weeks to the front.”
Two weeks later, my passport finally stamped, I am told to get into another line to pay a 500 pound exit tax. Oh no, do I even have that much left? I check. 400, 450 … fuck, I am 50 pounds short. Badr offers to give me the money. I don’t want his money, but I’m not sure I have an option. Let me see, I might have it somewhere, I look in my fanny pack. Success, a fifty! YES! Everything always works out for me! I pay them with my rainbow of cash, happy to Finally be done with the Syrian side at least.
We walk back to the bus, where we wait for the Jordanian guard to search our bags. “You had better hope they don’t search you,” warns Badr, “If they find your computer we will be here all night while they pour through the data and make a copy of the hard drive.”
We get lucky. We walk to Jordanian immigration. They have separate lines for foreign and Arab passports. Out of a thousand people there, I am the only Caucasian. I am done in five minutes. They stamp my passport and give me what I was a told was a 15 day visa. Great. I wait for Badr. Half an hour, forty-five minutes, an hour … Lord … He finally finishes , we get back to our bus. Our driver is upset with the time it has taken. Three hours to cross the border.
At that moment it dons on me: That extra 50 bill I so “luckily” found in my fanny-pack to pay the exit-tax out of Syria, was in fact the 50 Jordanian Dinars ($70 US) versus the $1 in Syrian Pounds it should have been. Everything always works out for me. I have to laugh- at least that border guard will be eating well tonight. Maybe he’ll even offer up a toast in honor. Hopefully he doesn’t use a word worse than “moron.”
Richard Birecki is constantly on the go, righting about whatever he comes across that feels is worth the time. He's got over 100 blog posts spanning dozens of countries and he doesn't have any plans to slow down. Currently in Berlin, you can catch up with his travels on his site RichTrek.com or follow him on Facebook or Twitter @RichBirecki.