Crossing Jordan

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Friday, July 13, 2007

From the time we leave Luxor, the next two nights are both spent rather sleeplessly, firstly on the overnight train from Luxor back to Cairo and then the overnight bus from Cairo across the Sinai desert o Nuweiba on the Red Sea coast. When the sun comes up we peer through the bus curtains, revealing the bleak rocky coast. For some reason I had imagined golden sands, palm tree-lined boulevards, expensive hotels and throngs of sun-seeking tourists. Instead we see the barren stony beach and these ramshackle little resorts of tiny round huts, completely isolated from any other infrastructure, sprinkled along the side of the road. They don't seem to have any tourist appeal whatsoever, as no effort has been put into their appearance and they hardly have any signage. They are actually diving resorts, the Red Sea is famous for its diving, and must be reasonably popular.

The small town of Nuweiba is a port town and, for us, significant as the site of the only passenger ferry to Jordan. It too is quite desolate, an outcrop of dull brown buildings surrounded by rocks and hills where it is too hot and dry for anything meaningful to grow. It is only 7.30am when the bus sets us down. The ferry leaves once a day but no one seems to know what time. We stop for a cup of coffee and some pita bread for breakfast then join the already lengthy line-up for tickets.

As with everything Egyptian, it is a complete shambles. The "foreign passenger" line is actually for Egyptians only and the "truck and vehicle passenger" line is where all of the passengers, mainly Egyptians, are lining up. Actually, lining up isn't the right term, as the Egyptian men all feel that barging right to the front is a much better way of getting served than waiting for your turn. Some sidle quietly towards the queue then merge in, believing no one can see them. Others pretend they are with someone already in the line, wave to no one in particular then march in. Most, though, shamelessly walk right up to the ticket window and start waving their money through the little hole. This seems to be culturally acceptable here and most of the people in line don't mind at all, or are too shy to say anything. Jane and I, Jane in particular, are not so tolerant, even though there is no rush at all to get on the boat. It starts off with shouts of "hey, get to the back!" and the like. When that doesn't have much success, she counts out the people in front of us - 1, 2, 3, up to 12. "There are 12 people in front of us. No one else."

In Arabic culture it is unusual for a woman to even politely disagree with a man, let alone brazenly order two dozen of them around. Many of them look quite sour about it but Jane is very persuasive and I join in when required. Even some of the Arabic guys find it amusing and lend us moral support. Anyone attempting to sidle, act or barge their way into the queue ahead of us gets nabbed immediately by Jane. They always have some story about their pregnant wife waiting in the car or how long they have travelled to get here or a rare medical condition that prevents them from standing up too long.

"We've all got a story, sir" Jane shouts back, "the back of the line is that way."

It still takes an hour to work our way from 12 down to 1. The tickets are comically overpriced for a country where you can stay in a posh hotel for $8 a night. The slow ferry is not really an option because it never leaves anywhere near its scheduled time departure time and quite often doesn't even leave at all. The fast ferry, which theoretically takes one hour, cost US$50 for second and $75 for first class. Armed with our second class tickets we shuffle around to the terminal entry gate. The word on the street is that the departure time, always a moveable feast, is looking like midday. We ask the guard at the entry gate what time the boat will leave.

"Is leaving now - hurry!" It's leaving now, we repeat to each other and hurry through the security check.

There is no signage so we ask a member of the 'Tourist Police' where to go and what time the boat goes. "Maybe twelve. Maybe three. Maybe five."

There is another long and disorganised line for Customs but we turn a blind eye to all the pushing in. In fact, as whites, we are hurried through to the front of the line. We hope that none of the people from the ticket line this morning notice. In the line we meet Fadi, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who is travelling the Middle East for a couple of months. Despite speaking Arabic, Fadi is struggling with all the chaos and disorder and welcomes the chance to hang out with a couple of westerners. From there we enter a cavernous room, optimistically named "Departure Hall", jammed with about three hundred people and a few wooden benches.

While waiting we also meet Tim, a somewhat odd young Englishman. At first he seems quite normal but then the odd little things begin to surface. The back of his hands have raised star-shaped markings that feel fuzzy and are a dark brown colour. Jane asks him what they are and he explains that he is getting some tattoos removed. Instead of using laser treatment ("too expensive"), he used a traditional Middle Eastern method, which involves pouring acid over the tattoo. The furry raised mark is the scab formed by the acid.

Later he pulls out two shopping bags full of little white cardboard boxes. "Egyptian steroids", he says matter-of-factly. "Much cheaper than back home."

"Steroids? What do you want those for?"

"I thought I might get into weight training when I get back home."

"Are there any side effects?"

"No idea. All the writing's in Arabic."

He goes on to tell us about the time he wandered into the Sinai desert to look for UFOs before the police found him and nearly threw him in jail for espionage. Unperturbed, he is planning to walk to Baghdad. "Things should have settled down by the time I get there."
We have plenty of time to talk about this sort of thing because the boat is nowhere near leaving. The only official-looking people around are two policemen who just shake their heads when we ask what time the boat goes and go back to slouching on a bench. One guy tells us that the boat is always late crossing to here from Jordan but we reckon that's just an excuse.

Six hours after we entered the departure hall, everyone starts running for the gate. This must be it, we figure, and join in the scrum. We stand there for 45 minutes while nothing happens. Then, just as suddenly, everyone piles through the gate and into some waiting buses. It's another fifteen minutes of standing in this crammed bus in the sweltering heat before we even start moving. The bus drives about fifty metres around the corner to the boat where we all pile out again. The massed crowd charges towards the boat, a large ocean liner-type vessel. Not knowing what the seating situation is and not wishing to stand, we continue to push and and shove to ensure we are near the front.

On board the boat it's like a different world to the mayhem and incompetence we saw down below. We have cushy seats, waiters with bow ties serving drinks and colour television screens showing Arabic MTV. All the white westerners seem to have congregated together in one section. There's Hamish and Georgina, a couple from the South Island of New Zealand, Mark and René, two Dutch boys on a two week holiday, and Sophia, an English girl travelling alone. We are all heading in roughly the same direction so we begin travelling together.

The contrast between Jordan and Egypt is noticeable straight away. The customs officer greets us with a smile and good English and explains the procedure for waiting for our Jordanian visas. He even recommends some of the nice places to visit in Jordan. Outside, all the taxis are Mercedes and our would-be drivers are enthusiastic but polite. The roads are smooth, the shops are clean and stylish and everything just looks more organised. Cars stop to allow pedestrians to cross the street with a big smile from the driver. 
None of us sleep very well because of the heat. Our rooms have fans but all they seem to do is swish the hot air around the room. In the morning we all pile into a minibus that drives us the two and a half hours to Wadi Mousa, the town that surrounds the ancient city of Petra. Recently, and justifiably named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World (see, Petra is Jordan's must-see spot. To most people, especially those of our generation, it is equally famous for being one of the key locations in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It's a bit late to check it out by the time we arrive so we concentrate on finding a hotel. The Lonely Planet guidebook that we are all travelling with says about Wadi Mousa: "Allegations of sexual harrassment have been made against some of the budget hotels . . . in particular, we do not recommend the Valentine Inn." For some strange reason, despite the presence of three women in our group, where do we end up staying but the Valentine Inn. It seems nice enough and the owner is a woman but I decide to delicately broach the subject.

"So, uh, why does your hotel have a bad reputation?" The lady explains, at length, that other hotels are jealous and they spread rumours about them.

Jane is not quite so diplomatic. "Yeah, well what about the sexual harassment?" she demands. We don't get a completely straight answer but the hotel looks okay and we give it a go.

Petra itself is, unlike most ancient sights, everything it is cracked up to be (so to speak). You
walk through this narrow rock gorge, only two metres wide in places, and emerge at the famous Treasury, almost fifty metres high and wide, intricately carved into a rock. From there opens up this wonderful ancient city, well preserved against time and nature. Almost all the buildings, temples, theatres, tombs and houses are carved out of the mountains that line the narrow valley. I confess to knowing stuff-all about Petra, so there's a chance that anyone reading might not know a lot either. It was built by a group of people known as the Nabataeans who made a fortune in trading spices, silk and slaves back in the third century BC. They hid Petra away out here behind the mountains and lived happily until AD 555 when a big earthquake forced them out. Petra disappeared into folklore until a Swiss explorer rediscovered it in 1812. I can imagine what a thrill he got when he turned the final corner in the gorge and saw the Treasury hiding there. Even now, archaeologists reckon that only five percent.of the city has been fully excavated. Various guidebooks and especially the local brochures recommend spending two, three or even four days exploring Petra but we saw everything worth seeing in about six hours.

Exhausted from trudging around in the heat, we all pop out for a meal and while away the evening playing Trivial Pursuit and cards.

Sitting under the Bedouin-style tent of the hotel's outdoor restaurant, we are sipping on a cup of tea when who should come marching up the path but old mate Tim. When the boat had docked in Aqaba, all of us had piled into a couple of taxis to find the nearest hotel while Tim had sneaked off by himself somewhere.

"Where the hell have you been?" we inquire.

"Went to Wadi Rum, didn't I. Brilliant it was. Slept in the desert all by meself. No bloody Bedouins around or nuffin."

Good old Tim.
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