Book a taxi to Jordan; check. Reserve one night’s stay in advance at the International Youth Hostel in Amman; check. Inform British Embassy and close friends of travel plans; check. Withdraw enough dollars to pay for car, visas and a little extra to oil the wheels of officialdom (if required); check. Register with the Foreign Office’s LOCATE service and consult latest travel advice; check. Discount official travel advice and get the latest perspective from a range of trusted local sources; check. Stock up on enough food and water to keep the taxi driver watered and fed for the journey; check. Purchase some Lebanese Cafe Najjar (with ground cardamom) for a celebratory roadside brew once safely on Jordanian soil; check. Purge website of all oblique references to uprisings and remove recent posts; check. Delete any ‘incriminating’ images of demonstrations (Athens) from camera; check. Pick up serviced bike from the workshop; check. Settle the account with the friendly manager of the hostel-by-day-knocking-shop-by-night; and check out.
I cycled the short distance from the hostel to the taxi rank with butterflies in my stomach. The mantra ‘I have to try’ that had spurred me on to plan and prepare for this moment over the previous 48 hours rang in my ears like the peeling of a church bell at the eleventh hour. Now I had passed the point of no return. The question was… did I have the testicular fortitude? I arrived at the Charles Helou Station feeling nervous, resolute and empowered at the thought of leaving Lebanon for the Arabian hinterland. I had been in Lebanese limbo for far too long and – fully aware of the risks - had to make a last-ditch bid for the border. Over a medium-sweet Turkish Coffee, I sat down with the only taxi driver who would agree to take me and haggled over the price. It soon emerged that the suspiciously cheap quote of $42 to spirit me and the bike overland to Jordan was actually for a shared cab with five other passengers. The remaining question as to where my bike was going to go was shortly answered when the driver pulled out a length of rope (of the kind that you would use to hang your washing on) with the intention of strapping the Sherpa to the roof – without a bike rack in sight. This was clearly not in the plan. Another Turkish Coffee later, we shook hands on the promise of safe passage to Jordan via Syria with just me and the bike (inside the car) at a vastly inflated price.
All set to go, my driver for the next six hours donned his shades, lit up a Marlboro Red and stepped on the gas as we roared off into the traffic of downtown Beirut leaving behind a cloud of fumes, and a scene of bemused-looking taxi drivers waiting for a more conventional fare. It didn’t take long to strike up conversation and I soon warmed to the man. A Lebanese father of five, Ali had decided to move with his mother and sisters to Jordan more than two decades ago after witnessing the senseless shooting of his father in the family home during the Civil War. Directly or indirectly, it seems that armed conflict has touched the lives of everybody in Lebanon at some point. How you deal with the emotional aftermath of a tragic incident like this I cannot fathom, but Ali had a real verve for life and fire in his belly that could not be extinguished. And of course, I needed a driver who was headstrong if I was going to reach the relative calm and tranquility of Jordan safely.
We soon hit the claustrophobic traffic of the Beirut to Damascus highway and our progress inevitably ground to halt. It transpired that the Lebanese Army were celebrating their 66th anniversary by turning the city’s arteries into virtual gridlock. Fortunately, Ali knew the city like the back of his hand and took us on a detour through the spaghetti back roads of the Shiite dominated suburbs of southern Beirut. The relaxed ‘laissez faire’ approach to fashion in the city centre had now given way to a much more conservative Muslim code of dress. ‘This area is Hezbollah,’ said Ali proudly as images of revered imams and clerics shot passed in a blur. The bright green flags of Islam fluttered on the humid air to mark the first day of the Holy month of Ramadan. ‘We are safe here. Hezbollah make us strong again,’ he said. ‘Yes, safe for whom?’ I thought to myself as I chartered the route that we were taking on the map. In that moment, the sectarian and religious polarisation of the region could not be more acute as we passed bloc upon bloc of run-down buildings that were home to Palestinian refugees. It was becoming patently clear that rather than taking an easterly course for the mountains, we were heading due south towards the Palestinian/Israeli border. ‘Are you afraid?’ said Ali. ‘Afraid? No. Nervous? Yes. I’ll do the worrying my friend, you do the driving,’ I hoarsely replied with a dry mouth. To huge relief, we eventually veered east and sure enough rejoined the twists and turns of the Beirut-Damascus road to begin the steep climb into the fresh, cool mountain air. The clouds that had condensed over the pine-clad slopes gave the landscape a dreamlike quality as the haze of Beirut below us faded away. The outline of mosques and churches shifted in and out of focus as trails of vapour extended their long wispy fingers and then swirled into nothingness.
The cool air was only a momentary respite. As we reached the high Lebanese mountain ridge that runs down the length of the country like a backbone, the intense rays of the midday sun soon burnt their way through the ghostly mist. My ears popped as we made a fast descent back into the heat and towards the rich agricultural plains that stretch far into the wine-producing region of the Bekaa Valley. ‘You want to go?!’ joked Ali, as we chipped along at a white-knuckle speed, overtaking everything in our path. We soon arrived at the fly infested immigration office on the Lebanese side where there was the standard protocol of form filling, waiting and more waiting. I joined the line of queues consisting of Lebanese, French, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi nationality but was clearly the only Brit and stood out like a sore thumb as I waited patiently, wearing my brown tweed Turkish flat cap.
With dogged persistence, I finally managed to convince the official that I was not a sailor (my Lebanese visa stipulated that I entered the country by sea, which I had) but a cyclist on my way to Africa. This brought the formalities at immigration to a swift close, and I stepped back into the relentless sun. Ali’s car however was nowhere to be seen. As each second passed, my anxiety turned into one of utter desperation. I had memorised the number plate of his Toyota before we had set off and was now starting to question my own memory as I searched for the numbers 405458 on every people carrier that I could spot. The thought of being stranded at the Lebanese border sans bike, bags – everything except my passport – started to permeate my already paranoid state of mind. Just I was thinking; ‘shit, the games over’, Ali emerged from behind the checkpoint and casually beckoned me to walk through customs. It was the longest five minutes of my life. Ali had obviously taken the car through whilst I was trying to disown my apparent naval credentials with immigration. Evidently, the car had not been searched and the ‘law of flummoxing border guards with a heavily laden touring bike’ had yet again won the day. Triumphantly, we hopped into his Toyota and sped off through the 4kms of ‘no-man’s land’ towards the Syrian border.
The piercing, stern gaze of President Bashar al-Assad looked down from bus-sized posters with increasing frequency, as Ali and I corroborated our story in case of an interrogation. As far as the Syrian authorities were concerned, I was a postgraduate student researching the history of coffee and was on a tour to Ethiopia on my bike to finish my thesis; Back to the Coffee House Future; A Caffeinated Journey through Time and Culture. Then the surreal became even stranger as a colossal neon Dunkin’ Donuts sign rose out of the parched earth like some capitalist mirage as we neared duty-free. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. As to how an American high street fast food chain has obtained a license to sell tax exempt donuts and lactated coffee in the zone of control between the Syrian and Lebanese border I will never know. But I can confirm that it does exist – against all the odds.
My stomach twisted into a bundle of nerves as we reached Syrian immigration. At first, everything was par the course; more form filling and waiting for something to happen. Ali’s $10 ‘tip’ seemed to speed things up and the rotund official changed his attention from rearranging his pens to faxing Damascus. With surprising efficiency, a quick response gave the ‘All Clear.’ The official chose the tool of his trade carefully from a tray of differing sized and shaped stamps, and with a loud ‘thud,’ gave my passport a forceful ink-blotting blow and handed it back to me – complete with Syrian visa. Behind him was an illustrated poster of an Islamic dove of peace holding an olive branch. It was being fired upon from the gun barrels of ‘Zionist’ news agencies (BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24 etc). The image made Hezbollah’s propaganda that I had seen a few hours earlier seem positively normal.
Successfully completing the first critical stage of the journey in reaching Jordan was almost within my grasp. So far, so good, I thought to myself prematurely. Then everything took a turn for the worse as were asked to pull over at the final checkpoint. Unconcerned with the contents of the boot, the customs official asked to see my passport and studied each page studiously for the ink mark of his country’s neighbour. After a pause that felt like an eternity, he asked me to get out of the car and I was quickly escorted back towards immigration. After some confusion and hushed exchanges, my visa was revoked with no explanation. Asking to speak to the man in charge, my pleas for a rethink on the matter fell on deaf ears. I explained that I had travelled by land and sea for three months with the aid of a bike to reach this point and had no intention of stopping in Syria. All that I required was a transit visa to Jordan so that I could continue my journey to the birthplace of coffee on two wheels. With a shrug of the shoulders, the Colonel replied empathetically that he could not help me and suggested that I return to London to apply for a visa at the Embassy there.
And that was that.
I was given my marching orders and directed back towards No Man’s Land to wait for Ali to return from Syria to collect me. All the while, the realisation dawned on me that I now had neither a visa for Syria nor Lebanon. Had I technically been deported? Somehow, the question seemed irrelevant as I pondered on the fact that I had just become a persona non-grata with only a bicycle to speak of caught betwixt two countries and not a visa for either. Standing in the stifling heat, I noticed that there were more cars leaving Syria than entering. The exodus was gathering momentum. After a long wait, Ali finally picked me up to make the drive of defeat back into Lebanon; only to go through the whole time-consuming process at immigration in reverse order. I can’t say for sure but I must have been on Syrian soil for all of sixty seconds.
I’ll probably look back at the whole experience philosophically in the fullness of time. For now, the best thing that I can say about the entire surreal, costly saga is that I tried to get to Jordan to continue my journey on two wheels, and failed. Of course, it goes without saying that my story is a matter of trivial inconvenience compared to the unprecedented and shocking events that are unfolding across the border.
And for that reason, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.