Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How to Smuggle Cigarettes into Jordan

One intrepid soul in the school of yellow fish pulls over to the side of the road. The man at the hotel desk said one-fifty was a good price to the bus station, but this guy says three hundred. He won’t budge, so I step into the river of yellow, and another taxi pulls up. “Okay! Okay! One fifty,” says Taxi Guy Number One (TGN1). 
As soon as we pull away from the curb, he says, “Two hundred.” I don’t think so. When we near the bus station, he asks where we are going. Amman. He proceeds to drive right by the station, past a pack of rabid taxi drivers who all run up to the car shouting, “Beirut? Amman?” My window is open, so I say, rather innocently, I might add, Amman? The closest man turns to everyone else, and shouts, “Amman!!” and it’s like we just poked a hornet’s nest with a stick. Everyone goes bananas. 
We continue driving while a couple guys try to chase us down on foot. Okay enough. Pull over, now. Now, I say, more firmly. A taxi pulls up beside us, and the two drivers make hasty agreements, looking very anxious to get going. They want to continue doing business much further away, “…because there are police here and police there. This man will take you to Amman for one hundred U.S. dollars.” I’ll give you 2500 Syrian pounds (about $50). “Okay,” they relent. “Let’s go.” Boy, they’re jumpy. 
While we are putting our bags in the trunk, TGN1 tries to convince me that he deserves two hundred pounds for setting up the deal. And oh, look, the police have come to join our party. 
One of the policemen pockets TGN2’s registration and tells him to drive us back to the station. As we pass all the other drivers, they laugh and shout at TGN2, playfully, mockingly. At an office at the back of the station, police arrange another driver for us, we put our bags in a new car, and drive off with TGN3. Apparently, drivers need proper permits to take people across the border, so I’m a little bit curious as to where we would’ve ended up with #2.
TGN3 reminds me of the older cop from Crime Story, except with white hair.

Two miles out of town, the driver pulls over to the side of the road and gets out his cell phone. I clear my throat loudly, and off we go again. From now on, he makes his calls from the comfort of a moving vehicle.
Near the Jordanian border, we stop in at the duty free shop (or something?), and TGN3 comes out with an economy size pack of smokes. The bulk of the package goes in the trunk, while a few packs end up under my seat.
At the border, Jordanian guards invite us out of the vehicle. The car is inspected inside and out, and very thoroughly underneath. We pay our forty Jordanian dinar (JD), the guard smiles warmly, and into Jordan we go.

As we close in on Amman, roadside activity increases. Someone on the side of the road has a rack full of leather jackets for sale. Another has loaves of bread, and another a lineup of stuffed animals, arranged from smallest to largest.
Driving on the busy freeway on the outskirts of the city, we stop abruptly, and TGN3 gets out of the car and races across the street, our car still running. He talks to a guy who is waiting beside a car on the other side, and points to us a whole bunch. Then he gets in that car and takes off. Okay.
TGN4 now cautiously makes his way across to our side, rolling clumsily over the concrete median. He gets into our car and says, “Hello!” with a big smile. Do you speak English? He shakes his head. Good luck getting to the bottom of this one. He drives us into the centre of town, and tries to convince us that we should get out at a bus station that is no longer in use. Not bloody likely. He and I go into a nearby shop looking for someone who can translate for us. Turns out Syrian taxi drivers are not allowed to cart people around Amman. He could take us here, why not the real bus station? My translator shrugs his shoulders.
TGN5, the friendly and chatty Jordanian version, talks our ears off the whole way to our next stop, where we get into a funky minibus with burgundy velour and matching tassels. We sit in the very back and have a conversation with a young man who is studying tourism at school. At least I think that’s what he said. It’s hard to tell over the screeching music that seems to plague buses in the Middle East. Bad action movies, CDs, or the radio, volume is the only requirement, and all volume knobs go to eleven.
A truck goes flying by us as we walk to the Miriam Hotel. A teenager hangs precariously out of the window. “Welcome to Jordan!” he shouts and waves. 
On our way out for supper, we run into the Lowthers, and on our way back, find Bonnie and Adrian hanging out in a cafe. We have some ayran (still gross) while we compare taxi stories.
My family sleeps comfortably, while I write and organize photos.

What next? I wonder.

Thailand to Cambodia - The Hard Way

Out on the streets of Bangkok at eight in the morning, and guess what? The sun is shining, and the warmth is already making us look for the shade. It’s kind of funny, from an anthropological standpoint only, that the heat forces you to revert back to your primal self, a hunter-gatherer, except that what we hunt for, we cannot gather. We cannot trade or barter. We can only hunt, and stand guard. Shade is the new commodity. Please, make this an air-conditioned bus.
The bus arrives promptly, everyone piles on, and everyone is smiling (Thank you, Universe). Another new adventure. Once we are seated, the bus steward walks down the aisle, and puts a little patch of duct tape on everyone’s shirts. “So we all stay together,” he says.
I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but this appears to be the country bus. You know, the one that goes to all the little towns in between Point A and Point B. We are clearly in no hurry to get anywhere, however we are not stopping anywhere. We’re just sort of meandering, so it’s 12:30 by the time we get to the border. Well, no, this is not the border. It’s actually a little restaurant a couple kilometres from the border. Mr. Steward asks for all of our passports, so they can take them to the border (why aren’t we at the border?) and arrange our visas. How much? we ask. “1200 baht.” Buzz. We’ll get ours at the border, I tell him calmly. “Oh, sir, how much do you think you will pay at the border?” Twenty dollars (like it says in everything I’ve read about Cambodian visas, except for on the Scam Bus, where you will be asked to pay a fair bit more). Mr. Steward laughs uncomfortably because he knows we are right, but says, “No, it’s 1000 baht.” No, I don’t think so, I say, working hard to keep my tone even as I am now coming to understand what is going on. Everyone except us and Adam, the young English bloke sitting next to me, seems content to have these jokers to do the visa for them. Twenty dollars is about 620 baht, so the markup here is almost one hundred per cent.*
We hang out for almost two hours in this dusty outback that could pass for the scene of any old-fashioned shoot-out (one of which is playing in my mind over and over, and I am the protagonist), then finally get back on the bus. New Mr. Steward confers with old Mr. Steward, who then comes up and tells us that if we didn’t want them to do our visa for us, or didn’t want to stay at their hotel (what?), we should have taken a different bus. We calmly explain that we had no expectation of getting dropped off at our hotel, nor did anyone say anything about their visa process. I’m ready to strangle this guy, but I figure that with him being Cambodian, that might not go over well at the border…if we make it that far. He stands up straight and announces to the rest of the bus, in a louder, and brilliantly condescending voice, “Because some people haven’t yet got their visas, it will take some time for them to cross the border. There is no need to wait for them as that is their problem.” Sweat drips from Adam’s brow. I’m thinking, we just sat on our hands for two flippin’ hours, and you’re going to complain about the wait?
We leap off the bus, ready for anything, and race over to the Thai office to get our stamp, then make a beeline for the Cambodian visa office. I have no idea where it is, so I ask some officers who are sitting under a canopy playing cards. “In here,” says one of them, pushing his cards to the side, and pulling over a little plastic chair. “1000 baht,” he says. No, it’s $20. “1000 baht.” He seems pretty convinced. I don’t have any baht, I tell him. He sighs discontentedly, and points further down the road. “Then you will have to do it yourself with the visa people over there.” But that’s what I was asking you for, you…
At the visa desk, which seems to bear about as much authority as a Kissing Booth, the sign on top says, “Tourist Visa $20.” The man in front of us, who had been arguing a little bit, turns away, and looks as though someone just ran over his dog. I step forward, and the clerk says, “1000 baht.” There is another turkey standing here, on my side of the counter, telling me the same thing, as though his confirmation is all that I am waiting for. No way, the sign says twenty dollars. “Old sign,” he says, in a way that suggests this is a conversation that he has about a thousand times a day. I don’t think so, I tell him.
We go back and forth a bit, then he says, “Because you have taken this bus,” he presses his finger into the duct tape on my chest, “you pay 1000 baht.” I look at his finger, then into his face, and I see him opening the door for me, like a simple child who doesn’t understand what the cages at the zoo are for. I don’t think that shows on my face, or maybe it does, but then he writes on a piece of paper in a not-so-neatly bulleted list: 1000 baht; $20 and 200 baht; or $25, final price. What, are we haggling over the price of an entry visa? As the veins in my forearms get larger, Laura goes from a gentle squeeze to a full-on grappling of my upper arm, despite the fact that she is looking nonchalantly in the other direction. Jonas and Matthew, meanwhile, are doing what they always do when things get bogged down. They play knuckles, try to steal each other’s hats, chase one another, all with backpacks firmly strapped on their backs. Sigh.
In the interests of bringing this to a close, I relent and hand over a hundred dollars. Twenty dollars more than we should have paid, but still sixty dollars less than what the bus jokers were charging. Hey Cambodia, is this how everyone is introduced to your fine country?
The lineup to get our entry stamp is a long one, and we’re stuck under a corrugated tin roof for an hour and a half. Hot (ha, hot tin roof). Most people are just sitting along the edges, sweating, avoiding burning calories. When we get to the front of the line, our passports are stamped several times, including our border crossing, the date we arrive, and the day our visa expires. As we watch him do this in our four passports, it’s clear that he gets into a rhythm, stamp, stamp, and it almost looks like he’s having fun. Now we just have to sit and wait for the rest of our bus-mates who are still in line. Hey, Mr. Steward, maybe we should just get going (I don’t say that out loud, just to Laura. She gives me one of her soon-to-be patented, “Don’t you dare!” looks).
After a lovely one-minute drive over the border, we stop in for a visit with a money-changer, where we defer, given the nature of Mr. Steward’s business model. We are herded onto another bus, and now it looks like we are finally on the go again. It’s 4:45 p.m.
Although we only have a hundred and fifty kilometres to go, we are doing it on the worst highway ever. Every kilometre or so, the bus driver actually takes us off the highway, I mean right over the shoulder and down into the ditch, around an enormous hole, then back up to the highway again. One hundred and fifty kilometres, a hole every kilometre or so. Don’t bother doing the math. It’s not pretty. By the way, I use the term ‘highway’ in a very general sense here. Rumour has it that a certain airline is offering incentives (to an unnamed party) to keep the road in this state of disrepair, to encourage those of us who actually take the bus to encourage everyone we meet in the future to take a flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap.
With about twenty kilometres to go, after yet another ditch detour, where this time the underside of the bus made significant contact with a foreign object, I made the mistake of saying sort of out loud, What next? Well, now the bus is making the worst grinding sound I’ve ever heard. Like someone took a BFI bin, turned it upside down and attached it to the back of the bus for us to drag along. This cannot possibly last.
I am happy to report that there are occasions where I can be proven wrong. Unfortunately, we had to endure metal nails on a concrete chalkboard for forty-five minutes in order for that to happen. We arrive in Siem Reap at 9:40. Yes, five hours to go a hundred and fifty kilometres.
While our hotel did tell us to call them when we arrived in the city, the number they provided does not seem to be working, so we walk to the Jasmine Lodge (which we drove by ten minutes earlier) and find a double room waiting for us. But there are four...Never mind. 

I think I’m going to make some kind of t-shirt about today.