Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Aqaba, Jordan
GMT +2:00hrs


Ok so we've made it. Finally. We've escaped. We're free. We've been liberated. We are no longer in Egypt. That's good. We're in Jordan. That's even better. 

This is an extract from our guide book on travel in Jordan and on the Jordanian people -

'Veterans of travel in Egypt or Morocco will be pleased to learn that, as far as hassle from the locals goes, Jordan is a breeze: your experience of Jordanian people is likely to be that they are, almost without exception, decent, honest, respectful and friendly.'

Super. Awesome. **ck yeah! All that loveliness aside, the fact that this isn't, thank Allah, Egypt means that it has already done enough to make us fans for life, whatever may happen from here on out. In fact, we might actually have been willing, right here & right now, to publicly state our undying love for the place if it hadn't been for the unscrupulous taxi driver who, by driving us around Aqaba's dense network of downtown streets and alleys earlier this evening, unnecessarily, shamelessly and quite obviously extended our taxi ride from the ferry terminal to our chosen hotel (thus jacking up his fare). Taking the above quote into consideration, it was a slight shock to our systems once we realised what he had done (we immediately concluded there must have been Egyptian blood in him somewhere) but we were prepared to let it slide because 1) the deed had been done and he was gone, 2) it was somewhat of a relief that, his disorientating & seemingly un-Jordanian antics aside, that he didn't try to deliver us to a hotel of his choosing, and 3) well because we were just on a happy, 'let-it-slide' buzz having finally escaped Egy... well, you know where.


It's now 2am later that same evening/night & we are here in our Aqaba hotel room savouring an Amstel beer (or two), recalling how we spent the whole day - yep, 12 God damn hours - getting here from Nuweiba in Egypt, a mere 60km away. The Egyptians finally let us on the ferry at 5pm, it departed soon after and we finally got to Aqaba port, the only port in Jordan on the Gulf of Aqaba at the southern tip of the country, at 6:30pm. We then embarked on the extended taxi ride and had the 'finding-a-hotel-&-bartering-for-a-fair-price' chore out of the way by 8pm, meaning we've spent the last few hours taking a look around down town Aqaba... and buying beer for hotel room consumption. 'We' isn't just Pat and I any more. Nope, Brandon, fellow suffering traveller we met while on the long wait for the ferry departure earlier today, has joined up with us. Brandon will, whether he likes it or not, be part of 'the honeymoon' for the next few days, turning it into a threesome in the process. Brandon looks like an Arab, he just doesn't sound like one (we mistook him for an Arab when we first met & we're still not sure if that - him resembling an Arab - is a good thing or not). He's a 100% Californian boy, complete with the accent, and he seems to fit in well with us - meaning he has a sense of humour, he complains about Egypt and, most importantly, he likes a beer (or two). So you see, we've lots to be celebrating. Beer, new friends, and no more Egypt (and all that it entails). Oh, and we've Wadi Rum to look forward to tomorrow. Aggh yes. Things are on the up.


A little bit on Jordan before I get to the first of the Jordan observations. Bet you can't wait.

It's a small Biblically historical, water-starved (85% of the country is desert), attraction rich but natural resource poor country at the heart of the Middle East. It has a population of some 6 million (a country with no natural resources or water but yet it still has more people than Ireland), 98% of which are Arabs, 92% of which are Sunni Muslim and 40% of which live in its modern capital, Amman (we'll be there in a few days). 

Because of it's geographical location it's no surprise to learn that its history is one of occupation. Never the seat of an empire, the country has always been a Europe-Asia-Africa crossroads for the Middle East's great civilisations: the Nabataeans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christian Crusaders and the Ottoman Turks, to name but a few, have all left their footprints on the land. The indigenous population, largely comprising of desert dwelling Bedouin (nomadic Arabs) tribes, tended, until independence from the Brits in 1946, to live under the thumb of governors sent from Jordan's larger and more powerful neighbours. 

An outwardly progressive country, its present government is something of a rarity in the region; a stable force with leanings towards democracy under a constitutional monarchy (established in 1952). It's a fine balancing act but it somehow manages to be simultaneously pro-Western & pro-Arab, founded as it was on a bedrock of Muslim authority, and dedicated to ongoing peace with Israel, who, as any Arab worth his keffiyeh (Arab headdress) will tell you, is to blame for the unrest found in the region (although not so in Jordan itself). The present King is Abdullah II, who took over from his much loved, diplomatically adept and longtime ruling father, King Hussein, following his death in 1999 (if the scene here in Aqaba is any indication - and I'm sure it is - then huge posters of both men smiling back at you are to be seen all over the country). Abdullah II has impressed most observers with his ability to protect and advance the democratic legacy of his father, although many of the tensions between tradition & modernity and Islamisation & Westernisation that grip the rest of the region remain unresolved and, as always, are a cause for concern. 

That said, and its turbulent past aside, Jordan is widely regarded as a peace advocating beacon in a sea of instability (it is the safest country in the region by a long way) and its people, who have an unmatched reputation for hospitality, are only one of the reasons the people who do visit Jordan rarely come away with anything but fond memories.

Day 255 Observations Continued (April 24th 2008)

1st Impressions
Jordan may be, for now at least, our new best-est friend but the relationship didn't get off on the sturdiest of footing. Our first look at anything Jordanian (apart from the straight-from-Estonia ferry itself, complete with posters of Tallinn's gorgeous Old Town) was the shoddy arrivals hall in Aqaba ferry terminal (come on guys... you don't have to try too hard to top the Egyptians but still, make an effort at least). The customs guys, once they eventually decided to man their posts, seemed totally indifferent to their chores, standing as they did to one side while having a good chat amongst themselves & smoking cigarettes as we all filed past. We were, as westerners, allowed to file past first, but only once we'd been reunited with our passports. We had to give them up upon boarding the ferry in Egypt and they reappeared, some 3 hours later in Aqaba terminal, in the hand of some awfully nice official who informed us that our visas were in our passports and that there would be no charge for them (all thanks to the port being part of a designated Special Economic Zone). Sweet. 1st impressions (the terminal) were not great but things got better after that, apart from the taxi driver antics & the fact that no ATM in the town wanted to dispense money to us.

I know we've only been here a few hours and thus it might be a bit soon to do this but what the hell. Here are a few stark differences that we've noticed between Aqaba (and thus, we assume, Jordan) and Egypt, differences you'd have to be Ray Charles not to notice having arrived in the former after coming from the latter.  

It's more western
This may not be an accurate reflection on the rest of the country (or indeed it may turn out to be exactly that) but Aqaba in particular is very western, or at least more so than dusty, infrastructure challenged Egypt. As I mentioned Aqaba is the country's only seaport and in 2000, as part of a hugely popular and successful economic experiment, it was designated a Special Economic Zone with tax breaks of all kinds attracting business & investment. It has had a dramatic effect on what we hear was for years a rather dowdy and uninspiring town. According to The Rough Guide to Jordan,

'business is booming, major construction projects are under way, the city is looking good, its population is growing, and there's a fresh, new buzz in the air.'

Believe me, it's a far cry from Egypt, even if it is only a few km's away.
ey use freshwater

Noun: freshwater 'fresh'wotu(r)
1. Water that is not salty

Hear that Egypt? Yes, they actually have fresh water coming out of the taps here. I swear to Allah, the water spewing from our hotel room shower faucet this evening was pure heaven-sent. It was the first time in a week that we washed with fresh water and it felt good... and we ended up feeling clean, again for the 1st time in a week. Okay, so the drain drained with the speed of an egg timer - meaning the place flooded like the Titanic - but we didn't care. Jordan on a whole suffers with severe water shortages but Aqaba bucks the trend; it sits on a series of fresh water springs, springs that allowed all three of us (individually of course) to wallow in the freshwater with a guilt-free conscious (don't judge... you would have too).

It's safer
We're probably not going to die here, especially if we managed to avoid that fate in Egypt. You see, Jordanians seem a more passive, relaxed, more laid-back race and no one, unlike the pinball Egyptians on the streets of Egypt, seems to be in much of a hurry to go anywhere (granted it was late in the evening when we made this observation but still, regardless of the time, it was observed and commented on nonetheless). Also, the Jordanians seem to respect human life & they even tolerate sharing their roads with same; they don't drive like maniacs, they don't sit on the horn, and they actually use their headlights in the dark (and their cars don't look like they are one severe corner away from falling apart either). But the biggest and most obvious contrast is that the Jordanians, get this, actually stop for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings. I shit you not. We couldn't believe it this evening when cars came to a halt as we were getting ready for an Egyptian style 'take-your-life-in-your-own-hands-and-may-the-best-man/vehicle-win' dash across the road. The drivers even took time to return our stunned 'thank you Mr. Local' wave with one of their own and an accompanying smile that clearly said 'Welcome to Jordan, Johnny foreigner.' One more safety advocating difference - there's not a gun wielding guard to be seen anywhere. According, once again, to The Rough Guide,

'no violent group exists within Jordan that holds any grievances against the country, its people, government or tourism policy and the political & religious make-up of Jordanian society makes domestic terrorism exceptionally unlikely.'

Exceptionally unlikely. Now that's a lot more comforting than just a plain old 'unlikely.' So not only are you less likely, compared to Egypt, to die here as a result of getting run over by a maniac motorist, but you're also less likely to die as a result of any sort of terrorism or civil disorder. All of which is great because we, all three of us, have the rest of this country to see... and we now like our chances of survival.
ps: Okay okay... no more Egypt bashing. I promise, and I'm a man of my word. It seems, upon reflection of this entry, that I couldn't highlight a positive about Jordan without mentioning a corresponding negative in Egypt. I'm sorry, it is because of the just-recently-removed-from-Egypt mind frame I find myself in right now. But enough. Go Egypt! You rock.
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