The best way to travel between Syria and its neighbors in the Near East (Lebanon and Jordan) is in a service taxi. These taxis are specially labeled vehicles licensed to cross the border on such commonly traveled routes as Latakia – Beirut, Beirut – Damascus, and Damascus – Amman. Sometimes the taxis are well maintained, newish KIAs with room for four passengers. More often than not, however, you’re stuck with a huge, unwieldy “land yacht” that reeks of diesel inside and out but whose cavernous interior can fit five passengers. All you have to do is buy a single seat in the taxi (usually about $10) and then wait for other travelers to do the same and fill up the car. Or, you can pay for all the seats and have the taxi to yourself.
The taxi drivers are an ambitious bunch, always looking for ways to make extra money without doing much extra work. The easiest way for them to do so is to fill up on certain goods on one side of the border at a cheap price and then unload them on the other side for a profit. From Lebanon to Syria, it’s usually western snack foods. From Syria to Jordan, it’s cigarettes. They usually stash the goods in the trunk, but some of the drivers are audacious enough to ask if they can put them inside your luggage to ease their passage through customs. When Jeremy was in Syria four years ago, his taxi driver from Damascus to Irbid, Jordan asked him and his fellow travelers (also BYU students) to hide large quantities of cigarettes in their luggage, explaining that the customs officials never checked foreigners. When they refused, the driver strapped the cigarette cartons to his body and put on a jacket over them, even in the warm spring weather. On our more recent trips, the preferred method seems to be to casually scatter the cartons around the vehicle, as if it’s normal to have two dozen packages of cigarettes on the dashboard, in the glove compartment, and by the rear windshield.
This small-scale smuggling never really bothered me, to be honest. It usually doesn’t take up any of our time, except at the designated purchase point before the border (which can be used as a bathroom break, anyway). The only way in which it starts to infringe on our convenience is when they ask to be paid their $10 per seat ahead of time. This means that they don’t have ready cash on hand to purchase the goods and want to use your money to do so. We always refuse to pay the whole amount before the requisite service has been rendered – it’s just common sense – and most taxi drivers don’t press the issue.
On Monday night, we returned home from Amman to Damascus. The various taxi drivers at the depot in Amman fought over us like vultures to get us to go in their car. When we finally got settled in a taxi, everything seemed like it was going well. Then, just before the border, the driver pulled off into the parking lot of a convenience store. As expected, he asked for his money up front. Jeremy refused, again and again, as the driver tried in all the usual ways to make his case – they usually try to claim it’s for the payment of taxes at the border, which is a total lie. Eventually, Jeremy struck a deal with the driver that if he would drop us off at a certain place in Damascus, instead of just at the central depot, we would pay him his money ahead of time. Of course he agreed immediately, and we handed over the cash. In he rushed to the convenience store to make his purchases. In the meantime, he asked Jeremy to fill out the taxi passenger register for him in Arabic – something that is really his job. I was beginning to wonder just who was rendering a service to whom.
At last, at last, we were on our way again. This smuggling run was taking longer than usual and we were anxious to get home at the end of a long period of traveling. It was already at night, with a tedious border crossing and many kilometers still ahead of us. As we finally finished passport control on the Syrian side and prepared to get back in the taxi for the last time, Jeremy reiterated our agreement to be dropped off at a specific place in Damascus, not the general depot. To our surprise (or perhaps not so much), the driver now disavowed any such agreement, firmly stating that as part of his contract with the taxi company, he was strictly forbidden from taking the taxi off the main route from Amman to Damascus. If he were seen off the main route, he insisted, he could be fined. Arguing didn’t help at all, despite Jeremy’s best efforts. Seeing it was fruitless, we gave up and resigned ourselves to having been taken in.
Notwithstanding this setback, once we were on our way again I was sure we were on the home stretch. There were less than 100 kilometers of good highway remaining between us and Damascus. But suddenly, the driver turned off the highway onto a narrow village road. This was definitely not the usual route. Jeremy immediately confronted him – where were we going? The taxi driver at first tried to pass this off as the normal road between Amman and Damascus. We didn’t buy that for a moment, having traveled the right way before. Of course, Jeremy then brought up the driver’s own words about not being allowed to go off the main route, lest he be fined. These words, so recently spoken by his own mouth, somehow didn’t seem to ring a bell with him anymore. Then, Jeremy flat out told him that we knew he was dropping off his smuggled goods somewhere (this was obvious to us from the frequent cell phone calls he was suddenly making, talking about meeting with someone at a certain place). The driver took great offense at this allegation and began spewing angry, illogical arguments in response to Jeremy’s accusations, his attention to the road drastically decreasing even as the vehicle’s speed drastically increased. It took Jeremy yelling at him in Arabic to get him to slow down. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with his inability to admit – or at least recognize – his dishonesty, especially since it was delaying our return home.
Jeremy kept insisting that he return to the main highway. In the end, he called his contact back and canceled whatever drop-off had been arranged. He did, however, pull over and switch drivers with some random guy who turned out to be his brother. I’m sure that’s not part of company policy, either. And as it turned out, we didn’t even get dropped off at the main depot – the driver stopped a kilometer or two short and said it was the end of the line. When we pointed out that we weren’t even close to the depot yet, he just shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing to do but get out of the car.
To be honest, I think this small-scale smuggling is starting to bother me.