Visa on Arrival for Americans in Jordan, Damascus to Amman by Bus
After two relaxing nights chilling with the same family that I stayed with in Damascus before my jaunt over to Lebanon, it was time to move onto Jordan. I'd planned to spend three nights with the only CouchSurfing host in the city who wrote me back with an invitation (most in capital city of Amman didn't even bother replying to my inquiry) before moving onto Tel Aviv (in preparation to meet up with Tatiana and Aidric's incoming flight on the 10th).
When I'd arrived at the Al-Samariyeh terminal (Mezzeh West) from Lebanon, I had the foresight to find out the prices and departure times of the only bus company (Challenge, phone #6121940) moving people onward to Amman.
Challenge buses depart daily for Amman at 08:30, 14:30 and 16:30, and charge 500 Syrian pounds (US$10.50) for the allegedly three- to four-hour journey. Shared taxis also collect people from around the same bus terminal, supposedly charging the same rate (perhaps better or worse, depending on your bargaining, of course) for the capital-to-capital trip.
If traveling in a party of two or greater, I strongly suggest the taxi over the bus (as you'll need fewer people to corral into the car before leaving, as well as significantly lessening the travel time).
Yet Another Painful Middle Eastern Border Crossing
The (mostly empty) bus departed fairly promptly at 2:30, but by the time 3:30 rolled around we were still in Damascus. The surprise Challenge revealed on this side of the border is that they make a another pickup from some other southern bus station or satellite office in the Syrian capital city before moving on—completely packing every seat in the bus full (and then some) with some rather loud, smelly characters (accompanied by their miniature loud, smelly infants).
As mentioned previously (Lebanon Visa on Arrival for Americans, Damascus to Beirut by Bus), another 500 Syrian pounds is necessary to buy your way out of the country (in the form of a departure card purchase). Even though I was traveling on a transit visa, the fee still applied.
I watched as a pair of baffled teenage European boys (the only other non-Arabs on the bus) tried to fight off the perceived scam with the bus driver, who was doing his best to explain the protocol in broken English.
Silently watching the painful exchange, I finally stepped in after the driver had all but given up.
"But the guidebook says there's no departure tax for an overland exit," one remarked to me. "We just used the last of our Syrian money," said the other.
"Your Lonely Planet is about six years out of date," I responded, without even needing ask the specifics of their book. "Everyone pays 500 pounds to leave, even the Syrians. You can probably find someone that'll take your euros."
The driver's helper came around collecting passports as the crowded bus finally neared the border. It's common for these guys to go up and dump an exceptionally large stack of travel documents on the immigration clerks all at once, instead of having the entire bus disembark to do their own individually. He collected the Europeans' passports, but didn't even bother asking me for mine—I wouldn't have given it to him anyway.
I rarely relinquish control of my passport, preferring to go out of my way to ensure that the document stays in my keep. The driver could care less if my passport happened to 'magically' disappear, should he receive a pocket full of cash from someone interested in poaching it. Nothing could be done—never to be seen from again.
Risk mitigation is the phrase of the day here, folks.
It was 5:00, and we were only half way through our trip.
For one Middle Eastern reason or another it took these guys an hour and a half for all the passports to get processed and to move the vehicle a few hundred meters down the road to the Jordanian side of the crossing.
I jumped inside the new immigration hall, figured out the protocol from the friendly staffers (you'll need to exchange currency into Jordanian Dinars—get at least 10 of them ($14)—register your passport with one officer, pay and get a visa at the window from another, then return to the first guy for final processing and stamps).
It took me only a few minutes because of the whole visa thing (which the Europeans eventually had to jump though as well, but no other passenger), and was stamped into Jordan and ready to go by 6:30.
Unfortunately, it took another hour for everyone's passports to get processed by the Jordanian soldiers.
Some of the longest checkpoint processing I've seen to date has been at this crossing. Maybe it's a standard ploy to ensure the bus company ushers people into the overly elaborate Jordanian duty free shop nearby—which they most certainly did.
It was nearly 9:00 p.m. when the 2:30 bus reached Amman. But here's the real kicker, and the Challenge bus company's final surprise when you reach the Jordanian side of things: there's no bus terminal. The bus terminates operation and dumps everyone out on a seemingly anonymous street somewhere in Amman, next to their offices.
With no orientation to the city, and hungry taxi and minibus drivers crawling at passengers, it's important for future travelers on this transport to remember two things: 1) exchange more money than you'll need at the border for the visa, because there are zero ATMs in sight from the place where you'll be dumped; and 2) only a take a metered taxi that you hail yourself.