London in early July was bathed in sunshine, it was warm, and it smelt like summer. Very different to the cold grey city I’d left in early January when I’d hopped on the ‘Miracle Bus’ for Athens. An apt name considering the bus broke down in Switzerland – it was mid-winter. After six months in the Middle East and 16 months away from Australia, it was time to head home. My plan involved a flight to Thailand and overland south as far as possible to keep costs down. The travel agent’s office in central London had plastic chairs and no aircon. The agent showed me the two cheapest flights to Bangkok. The first was Tarom Airlines, the flagship carrier for Romania, a country that was still behind the Iron Curtain, with one horse-cart wheel stuck firmly in the previous century. Their airline didn’t fill me with confidence. The second was Royal Jordanian, the more reputable, more reliable and clearly the safest option. Both involved transit through the main airports of their respective capital cities: Bucharest and Amman. I laid down my £20 deposit and said to the agent: “I’ll take Romanian Airlines please”.
The borders that crisscross the Middle East dividing its many countries are as arbitrary and confusing as the broken promises and mistakes of the western powers that punctuate the region’s history. One border crossing is the Allenby Bridge, named after British Field Marshall Allenby who led the British forces against the Ottomans during the First World War. He had commanded the legendary T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).
Allenby rebuilt an older bridge in 1918 to act as a crossing between Palestine and Transjordan. The bridge, subsequently named after him, has been rebuilt many times since, usually after one of the many wars between neighbours. Today it is the border between the Palestinian West Bank (controlled by Israel) and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Occasionally the politics of a border crossing will catch the unwary traveller out.
In 1985 getting from Jordan to Israel via the West Bank was possible with a West Bank Permit issued by Jordan. The West Bank was viewed by Jordan as a territory that had been illegally commandeered by Israel after the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. Jordan permitted travellers to visit the West Bank ‘temporarily’ and return. The converse was not true unless you were Palestinian. I had spent a few months in Israel and I’d been told that getting into Jordan from the West Bank “wasn’t a problem”, as Jordan issued visas at the border. However, you were forbidden to return across the border as no West Bank permit would be issued. It didn’t make sense and I decided to ignore the advice: “I’ll work it out when I cross that bridge”. Literally. That bridge was the Allenby Bridge and that cavalier attitude would be my undoing.
My plans had been to explore the Kingdom for two weeks and then travel back across the West Bank, to Israel, and on to the port of Haifa, where I could use a return ticket to Greece on the Piraeus-Haifa ferry. And I was determined to use that return.
After almost two weeks of exploring Jordan, hitchhiking from one end of the country to the other, I arrived back in Amman. Luck had been on my side in historic Petra – a city famously carved from the rosy red rock, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and made more famous in 1989 by the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. I’d managed to grab a lift back to the capital Amman with an empty Exodus Expeditions truck – the drivers had driven the 330km north from Aqaba on the Red Sea, to renew their visas.
I’d hatched a plan to get back across the West Bank after a discussion with another traveller. It involved ‘losing’ my passport and all evidence of my route into Jordan, via Israel, basically creating a ‘clean slate’. I’d obtain a replacement passport and obtain a ‘West Bank Permit’. That all seemed simple enough.
I stepped out of Amman’s afternoon heat and dust, walking beneath shady Eucalypt trees into the air-conditioned comfort of the Australian Embassy. After a quick explanation, I handed over a large wad of cash and a passport photo. Forty minutes later I was handed my new passport and the cancelled one. I thought, ‘This had better bloody work’, and stepped back out into the heat.
The next morning, I headed across Amman to the Ministry of Interior seeking the permit that would allow me to cross into the West Bank, then into Israel, so I could use my ferry ticket to get back to Europe. “Salaam”, I said to the clean-shaven man in a smartly pressed uniform. Beneath my t-shirt and pressed against my skin I could feel my money belt which contained cash, traveller’s cheques, and my cancelled passport. He studied my application form and crisp new passport and then asked a question that stopped me in my tracks: ‘Where is your visa’? I overcame my shock and spluttered a reply, ‘It’s a new passport’, “I lost the other one”. I then quickly asked, ‘Can‘t I just leave the country’? He looks up, ‘No, you need a visa to exit country’. He continued: ‘You must go to Foreign Affairs and get new visa. It is simple, just tell them when you arrived, and where you arrived. They will give you new visa. Then you come back here’. He smiled. He mistook the look of confusion on my face, for a look of ‘how do get there?’ It was, in fact, an “Oh, shit” moment.
He drew out a map for me and I trudged out of the building to head across Amman. I wrote out my ‘arrival story’ in a notebook, slowly, so it was legible, where I explained in simple detail, how I’d caught the ferry from the port of Suez in Egypt, arrived in Jordan’s southern port, Aqaba, several weeks ago. The arrival date was unclear, then I’d lost my passport. It wasn’t entirely convincing, but I thought: ‘How thorough could these guys be?’. Bureaucracy in Egypt had been laughable, so this couldn’t be that different.
Outside the Ministry, I found one of the many traders who charge a small fee to translate letters and forms to Arabic and then photocopy them. As he translated my notes, I watched a man decorated with red containers and silver jugs selling water, while doing my best to ignore the growing tightness in my stomach.
Foreign Affairs was slightly dusty and run down, but it was bustling. Uniforms, like patchwork quilts decorated with badges, medals and pins. The atmosphere was less stiff than the Ministry of Interior, but I was nervous. I was ushered to the 1st floor, where I handed over my form and passport and waited. There was a babble of Arabic all around me. It was stuffy and the wooden benches were hard. After reviewing my form and letter, the official returned and said: ‘You must wait 5 days’. I plead with him that I need to meet my brother in Jerusalem – a new addition to my story – in two days, so I need this sorted today. He tells me: ‘Wait’.
After several conversations, reiterating that I couldn’t recall dates or the name of the ship that brought me to Aqaba, the official ushered me in to see his boss. Before me was an officer, judging by the cut of the uniform and copious decorations. Whether he was honoured for a real war or just battles with bureaucracy I’ll never know. He looked down his nose at me, then turned away, picked up the phone on his desk and tries to call Aqaba to request immigration records. My stomach sunk as I realised, this was not the bulletproof plan of 24 hours earlier. Rubber stamps and expediency weren’t in this government’s manual. I felt beads of sweat on my brow and running down my arms. If I sat there too long, there would be a huge pool of fear beneath my chair.
What happens if I’m caught lying here, I wondered? I’d seen ‘Midnight Express’ a few years back and squirmed at the thought of the 5 years of hell Bill Hayes endured in a Turkish prison for smuggling drugs. I was not smuggling anything, other than myself, across a border. But I’d falsified official documents. Despite a good Catholic education, I was not religious. Yet I actually started praying: “Hello God, remember me? I’ve been good. Can you help me out here?”. Deep breath, “Please.”
After several attempted calls and broken conversations, I realised that the Brits annoyingly left behind an administrative legacy. Fortunately, they also left behind a telephone system the Jordanians hadn’t quite mastered or found spare parts for. The subordinate, whose English was better than that of his boss, explained: ‘Phone no good. We keep trying but maybe telex tonight if phone not work. We need ship records for dates you give.’ I saw a glimmer of hope. An out.
It was near lunchtime, the room was now hot and I felt claustrophobic. I’d had enough and said: “I’m sorry but I must meet a friend. Can I come back tomorrow? I will check my travel journal and find the date and ship name!’
The officer, glared at me, but waved me away. I was handed my passport, and I walked out the door, into the midday heat. But to me, the air felt fresh. I was free. For the moment at least. Half walking, half running, I headed to the nearby Intercontinental Hotel as much to put distance between me and the Ministry, as to find neutral ground. Inside was cool and relaxed. I picked up a phone and I dialled a number on a slip of paper: ‘Hello Alex, it’s Walter here, I need help’.
Two weeks earlier I’d met Alex, a Kiwi in her 20s with fair hair, at a taxi office in Jerusalem. She’d been working at the Queen Noor Children’s Hospital in Amman for several months and loved the work, and loved Jordan. Alex was returning with work colleagues after a few days in Israel. As we crossed the border my passport was processed with theirs and I missed an entry stamp. Before I got dropped off at a cheap hotel, she handed me a slip of paper with her number on it in case I needed any help while in Amman.
I left the Intercontinental and headed back to the camping area where the Exodus truck was parked. It was late and a bush shower hanging from a tree helped wash away the day’s dramas. There was a strong scent of pine in the air, I felt the cold desert air begin to crawl around us despite a roaring fire. Someone knocked up a dinner of beans, tuna and veg – ‘This is crap’, I’m sure someone said under their breath. ‘A bit like my day’, I thought. I explained to my companions the shit I’d got myself into. I was exhausted, stressed and ready for bed, but I had a coffee while we finished chatting. Sleep would not come easily.
Mohammad, who worked with Alex, lent me clothes for a return trip to the Ministry of Interior. With fresh clothes and with my ‘lost’ passport (which contained my entry visa) in hand I presented myself to the same official. I was told I could leave via any border I wanted, just not via the West Bank. Mohammad then drove me to the nearby Valencia University where I was given a student discount for a flight to Larnaca in Cyprus. The 29 Dinar, around £60, was a princely sum when I had a perfectly good return ferry ticket, albeit from Haifa on the other side of the West Bank. But I could at least pick up the ferry at Limassol, on the southern coast of Cyprus. The flight left early evening, and I’d had time to think about the Foreign Affairs department. Had they finally got their telex, without my name on it, and now wanted to speak to me? My stomach turned.
I couldn’t thank Alex or Mohammad enough for their help and hospitality. We said our goodbyes and I was driven to the airport a few hours later. I slid through emigration uncomfortably with both passports. The guards checked my visa was valid, but were more concerned about the missing stamped entry permit than my two passports. But after 10 minutes of shrugged shoulders and my apologies in bad Arabic, they gave up and stamped me through with a mild rebuke. As the plane climbed skywards for the short 30-minute flight to Larnaca I breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into the soft airline seat. The lights of Amman slipped away. I was safe. Cyprus was a new country to explore and I could continue my journey back to Athens from there.
Two months later, after travels through Cyprus and Turkey, a 6-day and 3000 km hitchhike brought me back to London. By the time I’d arrived in a London lit with summer colours, I’d decided to head home via Thailand, but not until September. I had just enough money to survive for two months in SE Asia, so I needed a very cheap flight to Bangkok. Despite my reservations about the safety and reliability of Romania’s Tarom Airlines (they did lose my bag for 48 hours), I didn’t fancy flying with Royal Jordanian or stopping over in Amman. Even for a transit stop, even for a few hours. Someone, I was certain, was still looking for me.