Throwback Thursday: the old man and his cigarettes

Before the present conflict kicked off, I visited Syria, spending a few enjoyable days exploring Damascus, Hama and Aleppo before crossing the border into Jordan. It saddens me to see what has happened to this once beautiful country, but I have fond memories of this trip, and especially when I think back to my journey to Jordan’s capital city, Amman…

Straight Street, Damascus

Straight Street, Damascus

The taxi driver and his assistant scratched their heads as they unpacked the contents of the boot for the third time. My guidebook had said that service taxis only left when full but this was really stretching the concept. My small suitcase was not the problem. My three travelling companions, a Jordanian man and his two daughters, had with them ten or so large bags of assorted shapes, with most of their purchases loosely tied in black plastic sacks. The souks of Damascus were considerably cheaper than those of Amman and the family had taken full advantage.

At 6am the bus station had been almost deserted and my driver and his hustler had decided to try their luck on the main highway. And so it was that we found ourselves by the side of the road surrounded by packages. As the family’s taxi reversed towards us down the main road and popped open its boot, it was clear this was not going to be a fast transfer. Finally, the sixth, or so, attempt at loading the boot was successful – only a handful of bags on laps – and we were on our way. I considered myself lucky to have the front seat and only a small backpack; I had more space than anyone. The hustler balanced precariously the front driver’s seat as we careered along the road, leaning out of the door so as not to interfere with driver’s control of the pedals and trying to keep the door as close to its frame as was possible. Somehow, he was still in one piece when we dropped him off and set off for the border.

Our driver was in a tremendous hurry. It seemed a matter of personal pride to overtake every vehicle on the road, creating a third lane if need be to ensure that the brake wasn’t required. At breakneck speed, we hurtled through the Damascene suburbs and out onto the main road, scattering trucks, vans and cars by the wayside as we passed. No horn was necessary, such was his unwavering determination to push his way through. Each successful manoeuvre spurred him on more. And then, cornering on two wheels (or so it felt), we pulled in to a bunch of roadside shops and parked up with a jolt out front. For twenty minutes negotiations continued and finally our driver emerged with a box of perfumed tissues, large size and pink, and a two litre bottle of water. The almost full box of similarly fragranced yet blue tissues, and an untouched bottle of water in the passenger footwell were clearly insufficient for his needs.

As abruptly as we had pulled in, we were back on the road and, with the impatience of youth, soon accelerated back up to full speed. Fidgeting between lanes, and often straddling them as was the custom, he continued with his quest to overtake every other vehicle in Syria. Reaching a small town twenty kilometres from the border, we parked up with a small group of other service taxis and loaded the three Jordanians and their considerable luggage into one of them. Several hundred Syrian pound notes were handed over to their new driver. Even without me, it was a squeeze, and the back seat was still covered in black sacks next to the two young women. Taking the pink tissues, but neither bottle of water, the racing driver got out. I was introduced to his “father” who was to take me across the border. A leathery, slim fellow with brown jacket and a worried frown permanently on his face, he was a more considerate road user than his predecessor, though no less fast. After stopping briefly to collect the car’s paperwork, we were on our way.

Some reports had suggested that the border formalities could take up to five hours, but at 8.30am the Nasib border was quiet. The Syrian border officials were courteous and thorough, and, aside from a surprise 500 SYP departure tax not mentioned in my guidebook, I crossed into no man’s land without incident. When I emerged from the immigration building, however, my driver was nowhere in sight. I waited for some time in the sunshine until finally he emerged from the direction of the duty free shop clutching a large bag of cigarettes. Leaving one pack of 200 smokes in the bag, he stripped off the cellophane wrapping of the other two and threw it, together with the cardboard cases onto the floor. Every compartment of the taxi was used to store the now loose packets, two in the ashtray, six so perfectly in the armrest it could have been designed for the purpose and three more under the passenger sun visor. What wouldn’t fit were carefully placed, slowly and very deliberately, in his many pockets. Finally, we were ready to set off. Around the corner, a couple of dollars were palmed to an official, a friend, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, we entered the Jordanian zone.

Each car arriving at the Jabir crossing is searched meticulously, first passing over the top of an official in a pit and then, boot and bonnet open, undergoing a thorough investigation of the rest of the car. My suitcase was opened and questions asked about a small packet of paracetamol tablets. Inexplicably, the driver’s cache of cigarettes remained intact. I didn’t see a packet exchange hands. Money changed and visa purchased, we entered Jordan.

Before dropping me in the Abdali district, we had one last stop to make. Calling in on his customer by a parade of shops, the cigarettes were painstakingly retrieved from each of their hiding places and the carrier bag eventually handed over in exchange for 24 JD. One very happy old man turned his taxi around and headed back to the border.

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