“Don’t look at the sign, look into my eyes”, the man barked at us as we crossed the border from Israel into Jordan and reviewed the government posted taxi prices. His demeanor screamed “Alpha Male” as his confident tone let us know we’d be following his instructions. My previous research prepared us for our encounter with the “taxi mafia”, but it was much more tense in real life.
The border crossing from Eilat, Israel to Aqaba, Jordan is one of the most heavily traveled by tourists who make the trek to see the incredible monolithic ruins of Petra. However, its popularity as a tourist entrance doesn’t make it easier for tourists because the crossing on the Jordan side is “owned” by one taxi company in Aqaba. Rumors posted online refer to a “mafia man” whose close connections to the military and local government prevent him from getting shut down and keeps other taxi companies out. If you threaten to walk to town, he says you’ll be shot by the military who monitors the “dead zone” a few kilometers between the town and the border. It’s his way or the highway.
There are two ways to get to Petra from the border town: take the taxi directly from the border for $80 US or take the $15 US taxi ride into the small border town where you can catch a bus for $2 US each. For us the obvious answer was the cheaper option, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“We don’t want to take the taxi”, I told the mafia man as he insisted it was the only option. “We want to take the taxi into town and then take the bus”. “Oh no, there is no bus from town,” he retorted as the script I previously read on Lonely Planet unfolded before me. “You must take taxi”.
His abrupt nature and sureness didn’t cast any doubt in my belief we could take the taxi into town, but it did confirm it wouldn’t be easy. So after going back and forth a few more times, I moved to plan B.
“You told us the exact same thing when we were here three months ago, and I had to get the tourist police – don’t make me do it again!” I shouted as I couldn’t hide my anger. At this point, I threw all of the cards on the table along with a few punches. He looked at me a little surprised, and before he could even respond, I turned around to walk back to the border to a guard’s shed we walked by earlier. I dreamed up plan B earlier in the day as we approached the border and hoped my bluff of the “previous visit” would be convincing enough.
As I walked inside the border gate where two guards stood in the shed, the mafia man surprisingly asked Jocelyn, “Where is he going?”. At this point, she was fully bought in on the bluff and reaffirmed we were there three months ago when he said the same thing!
After I knocked on the window of the booth, a confused guard opened the door and I explained to him my situation. “There are no buses to Petra”, he explained in a bluff that was less convincing than my own. I thought my plan would fail as the taxi mafia man approached. However, the site of me talking to the guard apparently introduced enough doubt in his head that he told me he’d give us a taxi into town.
As we walked back to the taxis, he shouted angrily at one of the drivers who sped up and whisked us away towards what we hoped was the bus station. We passed the “dead zone” and I tracked our progress on my phone’s Google Map. To our relief, he dropped us off at the bus station in the center town. After a few minutes talking to locals, we figured out which public bus to jump onto and we were off towards Petra!