Salaam wa alaykum
Wa alayka wa’salam
(A common Arabic greeting and response)
The Lonely Planet says it is impossible to enter Syria without obtaining a visa beforehand from within your home country. But I had heard so many great things about Damascus and the rest of Syria that I decided I was going to try and get in overland sans visa. I put my chances of success at about 10% given that I had met one American traveler who had managed to get a visa at the border that included a four hour wait.
I left my hotel in Amman early in the morning and found a shared taxi that was going all the way to Damascus. The catch is that they only will wait one hour at the border and if I hadn’t gotten my visa by then he would continue without me. That was the least of my worries. I just wanted to get into the country. The transportation I could figure out after.
I exit Jordan with no problem, especially since they demand $7 USD to leave the country. By the way, what is it with these exit fees? It is like paying admission to see a football game but before you can leave you have to pay. And if you don’t pay, then you have to stay. If you overextend your stay then you have to pay. WTF? Why not just include it in the visa because you know I am going to leave anyway? At least it’s not as bad as Israel where it is $50 USD to leave. Ouch.
As we approach the Syrian border, I see the Syrian flag and a smiling picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad welcoming us. My heart starts racing. Even though I imagine that the worst that could happen is I get turned around and head back to Jordan, I can’t help but feel that I need to be cautious. It is not unlike the feeling you get when you see a police car in your rear view mirror.
My driver assures me that he knows people in customs and can get me in super quick but I need to slip him $10 so he can grease the right hands. I approach the counter and hand my passport and visa form to the official sitting on the other side of the window who looks like he hasn’t smiled since OPEC rocked the world almost 30 years ago. My driver walks up to the window and asks if he can speed things up. The official stands up and gives him a tongue lashing and tells him to take a seat. So much for knowing the right people. The official asks me how many days I want to stay in Syria. I ask how many days visa I can get.
He growls back at me “You tell me! How many days you want in Syria??”
I meekly reply “Can I go for 30 days?”
He says nothing, writes something down, and then tells me to go sit.
Twenty minutes later I am sitting, waiting and my driver tells me he is leaving because my process is going to take a while. I am furious because I realize I have been had for the extra $10. I’m not sure he even gave it to someone, or if he did it was only to speed up his process. In either case, my driver is now gone and I’m at the border wondering when or if I will ever get through.
Half an hour later a different official, this one with a permanent half smile, maybe a smirk, on his face asks me to approach the counter. I am excited. I may be getting in super quick. But it is not to be. I had listed my occupation as “Engineer” on the form and he asks me what type of engineer I am.
“Okay. Please go wait.”
I decided to press my luck a bit with this new, nicer guy. “How long do you think I will wait?”
He half-chuckles. “I don’t know. One hour, two hours, maybe ten hours. Please wait.”
There is a big notice near the entrance of the customs office that kindly tells you that if you have any complaints to please put your complaint in the Complaints Box. Humorously there is no Complaints Box in sight.
One American guy is denied entry because there are remnants (remnants!) of a sticker on the back of his passport, which is where Israel places a sticker upon entry. It is completely forbidden to enter Syria and Lebanon if you have been to Israel before. No questions asked. You have a better chance of starring in the next James Bond movie than you do of entering Syria or Lebanon with an Israel stamp in your passport.
But things would get much better. I met a Jordanian-American family who were also waiting for visas and they invited me to the café with them. There we were joined by three American college students, Margaret, Katie and Aftan who are studying a semester in Jordan and are hoping to go to Damascus for the weekend. All of us in the same boat, just waiting and hoping. Everyone orders some coffee, tea or a snack. I see hookah is on the menu and of course I order one. I can’t imagine there are many border crossings in the world where you can order a hookah while you are waiting and I’m not about to pass up this opportunity. Tammy, the American wife, has brought enough bread, mustard and luncheon meat to feed the Syrian army and she graciously makes all of us sandwiches.
It begins pouring outside and then all of a sudden all the power goes out. Great. This certainly can’t speed things up. I envision all the computers shutting down, smoking and the visa office not being able to process anything the rest of the day. Two minutes the later the lights flicker back on. This power-off-then-back-on would continue the rest of the time we were there.
After a couple of hours we head back to the customs office and the smirking official tells us to follow him to another building. This is progress. We walk into a building and are greeted with a familiar sign telling us that if we have any complaints to please put them into the Complaints Box. Again, there is no Complaints Box in sight. I can imagine anyone asking about where the Complaints Box is would be swiftly turned back to Jordan with a big REJECTED stamped onto their passport.
I am motioned to a window where I hand over my passport and my entry form, and the guy asks me to pay $16 USD. I can’t believe it. I am getting the visa! Yeah! We all pay and get our passports stamped. When we are out of ear shot of the officials we have a quiet celebration with subdued trillings while Ahmad, Tammy’s husband, calls out “Can I get a hell yeah?!” He just learned that a few days earlier at a concert he had been to.
Tammy, Ahmad and their children drive off on their own while Margaret, Katie, Aftan and I find a taxi to take us to Damascus. We drove for ten minutes before I felt comfortable breathing a sigh of relief. We were in. Four hours and $16 later we were in Syria. Take that Lonely Planet!