The taxi from Amman to Damascus

Coming from Australia, people always joke about catching a taxi from Melbourne to Sydney (some 900 kilometres) let alone to another country. Well in Jordan and Syria, things are different. They will take you anywhere.

One night we’re driving around in a yellow taxi when we mention we’re heading to Damascus the next day. Necessity is the mother of all enterprise in the Middle East. People are genuinely friendly, but they need to earn the extra Dinar any way they can. No sooner than we had mentioned it and our taxi driver is hooking us up with a ride to Damascus. No dirty Greyhound busses or backpacker coaches. No sir! How about a nice clean Camry, or an E Class Mercedes to schlep across the border in style?! Why not we thought.

So he drives us to his depot, which actually wasn’t bad for a taxi place anywhere. Mind you there were military cargo nets, the obligatory hookah pipe and cigarette smoke. Plus the full-wall sized print of the King of Jordan in full Khakis, beret, Ray Bans posing with his assault rifle. You know as our negro friends would say ‘gettin’ his military on’. Strangely though it wasn’t out of place. I swear there’s someone from the government comes around and checks you have posters of the relevant dictators in full view, on pane of death. Because they’re everywhere. But thankfully we were here to do business and not wax lyrical about the king.

Yes the yellow taxis do the normal grind, the white ones will take you to Israel (with the right documents of course), Damascus, Beirut, you name it! It’s all part of that Middle Eastern, scare the shit out of you on one hand and loveable on the other charm. We hooked up a driver to take us to Damascus the next day. Basically door to door service. So we left wondering what tomorrow had in store for us.

The next day there’s our taxi driver in the hotel foyer, smoking and chatting. Don’t ever ask a Middle Eastern taxi driver to stop smoking, you may not like where he leaves you in the desert. Just a heads up. But our driver was jovial and in good spirits and I wasn’t about to start badly.

Driving out of Amman was mostly uneventful. Jordan must be like the Sweden or Singapore of the Middle East. They get along with their neighbours and pretty much everything is uneventful, well frankly boring. I was glad for my time in Amman but as a city it doesn’t do much for me. As our taxi driver opened up, he reminded me of a Terry Savales or young Omar Sharif. He was a charming bloke who seemed to know everyone wherever he went as the five hour journey unfolded.

Small town life in Jordan is really ramshackle villages and grafting a living day by day. You can see it in the potholes on the road, the perpetually unfinished buildings and the lines on peoples’ faces. There’s a lot going on but not a lot of material wealth to show for it. Oh except for the cops and their shiny Audi sedan police cars. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan looks after them very well.

Before a lengthy border crossing, we stopped in a cafe for a Turkish coffee. Lo and behold of course he knew these guys well too. Then it was back in the Merc for our final descent on Syria. We stopped in a car queue about 150 metres from the gate. At that point a local bloke who looked like a bit of an Arabic hobo approached the car. I forgot, in these interstate taxis you pay for a seat, not the whole car and we had two vacant seats. Stupidly I was in the front and my wife in the back. It was a bit strange that he got in so close to the border. Even stranger he reminded me of Aussie backpacker murderer Ivan Milat. But when in Arabia, you smile and keep your cool.

When we got to the customs point, there’s miles of semi trailers parked waiting for clearance. Lax Jordanian soldiers wearing half a uniform and half track suit pants are laughing and joking with our driver. Some of them almost leaning on their rifles for comfort whilst having a smoke. Guess what our driver knew those guys too. I was actually kind of thankful for it as it subdued the situation.

As we went into customs, we lost our new mysterious passenger and the mood gets a bit more serious. Women wearing full head to toe black burkas are everywhere and it’s a typical airport scene. Some moody customers clerk looked at each page in my passport, between glaring at me to ensure I hadn’t been to Israel. Thankfully Australian tourists aren’t high on their shit list and within twenty minutes or so, we’re back in the Merc heading into Syria.

Driving into Syria is a strange experience. Our mystery passenger got out at the first highway exit past the border. Perhaps the customs guys don’t like people literally walking across the border. Either way we stopped in the middle of nowhere and he started the long schlep home on foot and that was the last we saw of him.

It’s strange how a political border changes everything within about 20 minutes. Syria is much poorer than its neighbours. An impression indelibly left when the first Syrian patrol car we say was a 1986 Toyota Camry (I was there in 2011). The roads are in worse shape and you don’t see much of anything for the first hour or so. I just remember it being like wasteland until an hour before Damascus.

Fortunately Damascus was an instant hive of activity. Our cabby dropped us off at his favourite cafe outside of town, leaving us to get a yellow cab into the old city. Instantly he’s hugging the owner of the cafe and having another smoke. It was the strangest damn taxi ride I ever took in my life.

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