October 9th: Crossing the border - a strange introduction to Jordan
It's sunset by the time we leave De'ra, the last town on the Syrian-Jordanian border. We've spent our last few pounds on the staple 'chicken shwarma' kebab dinner. Normally, I'd spend the night here and cross the border in the morning, but we decide to venture further on and camp on the Jordanian side to clear formalities while it's quiet.
Exit stamp in the passports, we've now officially left the country. Pondering our next move, a Jordanian driver approaches us, offering us a ride across the seven kilometres of no man's land to Jordanian immigration. 'You can't cycle at night, there are army to shoot you,' he insists. We're not convinced, and none of the police have mentioned anything. But he's very insistent and it's a free ride, so we hop in to his old American car, hurtling along a dark and winding road past gun turrets silhouetted on the horizon. Our curious driver seems friendly enough, and has apparently cycled and walked all over the world. When we question him in a little depth about the countries he's visited, he's vague. Very odd.
We reach immigration without any hitches, and join a line of cars awaiting to be checked before taking to the Jordanian road. On a bike, I generally sail through formalities, but our driver asks us stay with him - just twenty minutes, he insists. A few beads of sweat trickle down his brow. 'I have helped you, know you can help me.' It's getting odder by the minute, and a throng of other drivers gather to watch our next move. Sensing something afoot, we decline despite his persistent pleas and unload our bikes.
Clearing formalities after filling in the standard ream of forms, we pass a dozen cars, bonnets gaping open, bags unpacked, undergoing as thorough a search as I've seen in a while. Certainly more than twenty minutes worth. We can only wonder at what our driver was after. Perhaps he was smuggling goods across and foreigners help speed this methodical and tedious process. Or perhaps, more darkly, we might have been ideal scapegoats had anything been found. In any event, it's a strange way to arrive in a new country, under the veil of night-time and shrouded by mystery.
Stopping for water in Ramtha, the first town on the Jordanian side, we fall into conversation with the owners of a general store, a family of academic Palestinians who have studied various ancient languages and lived all over the world. We talk a little about the current Middle Eastern crisis that shows on the news, literally just kilometres away, and then they head home, surprising us in their 5 series BMW. Onwards, we collect a gang of kids who cycle by our side for a while, peeling off eventually when we reach the town's outskirts.
It's been a long day, and I'm pretty exhausted. Darkness comes early now, and already it feels like we're creeping around in the dead of night. Our camping spot overlooks a distant valley, a sea of lights glimmering like jewels in the emptiness around. Perhaps that's Isreal, we muse, wondering if we might hear any evidence of the tension that is building on the Golan Heights. Leo pitches his tent, but I'm happy to roll out the mat under the stars and nestle in the sleeping bag. Supper is a few almonds and raisins, before an easy drift to sleep beside an olive grove. After our slightly surreal but memorable lunch with Syrian Ahmed, our host with no legs and a scooter blasting music, it's been a bizarre way to arrive in a country.
The strange encounters that travelling inevitably conjures... I look forward to the sunrise and what lies ahead.