Aqaba Jordan Not Disgusting For Long
Arriving in Aqaba by 6 dinar minibus from Wadi Musa my first reaction was to say, “Ick.” Perhaps it is folly for a traveler to dish out value judgments on places at first sight, but this is a folly that I must admit is difficult to uncultivate.
I have heard of Aqaba as being a Red Sea resort city of international renown. I found it to be a bulldozable pile of rubbish. Or, more appropriately, a pile of rubbish that is in the process of being bulldozed to make way for development.
There were tourists all over the place, but I could not think of any reason why they were here. It was as if they were lured by the fancy pictures in tourist brochures like a Northern Pike to a spinning Meeps fishing lure.
No, Aqaba is no sea side juicy worm, but a sharp barbed hook.
Finding a hotel in Aqaba
We found a super crappy, super expensive hotel room and unwittenly made it our home for the evening. The walls of the room had grote all over them and cigarette ashes were spread liberally all over the beds, the lock on the door was loosely kept in tact by multiple ply board patch-up jobs that came at the end of people kicking the door in. I did not dare peer in at the bed sheets. The bathrooms had permanent deposits of poop in the toilets and gross sludge on the shower floors.
I could not believe that I was paying $22 for this, but it was the cheapest place in town.
The greasy faced proprietor showed us the room and did a quick cleaning up from the night before’s guests as we looked it over. A quick flopping back down of the bed covers and a kick directed at some trash on the floor and the room was cleaned.
Jordan Beach Holiday
“Today and tomorrow are Jordan holidays,” I was told repeatedly as I inquired at more than two dozen hotels for a cheap room. “Holiday” is the worst word in any language for a traveler to hear. Holiday means that hotel proprietors can charge whatever they want for a room, and they do. I was lucky that I could get a double room in the Hotel Jerusalem for $22.
In the morning we planned to go straight to the ferry port and make a quick get away to Egypt. I could suffer the grit and grime and the high price of this hotel for a single night. No problem. I would walk around Aqaba and make something of my time there.
Maybe I would walk across the ten foot wide beach and dip my toes in the water next to an old rusted out 50 gallon oil drum?
Beach at Aqaba on the Red Sea coast of Jordan.
Tents on the beach of Aqaba
A wanna be resort city on the northeastern bank of the Red Sea, which sits at the confluence of three other nation states: Israel sits 10 km to the north, Saudi Arabia a short distance to the south, and Egypt sits across the sea, just 1 hr by fast ferry away. Aqaba sits in a great international duty free zone in the west of the Middle East where thousands of people travel to just to buy junk to cart back over the border to their homes. Aqaba is the intake/ outtake valve of commerce for this region. There is a major port, and it sucks in and coughs out goods and leaves the shit behind to rust and rot in the sea.
Or perhaps it was only my mood that was rusting and rotting. The sun was hot, pregnant Chaya was worn out and did not want to walk, our hotel was so disgusting that hanging out in it was not an option, and it looked as if we were going to piddle away the day sitting on a concrete slab watching Arabs sunbath on a beach that was really a parking lot.
I repeated my initial impression of Aqaba, “Ick”, and somehow talked Chaya into getting up to find out what the beach looked like outside of the city. The last thing that I wanted was to sit on some pre-developed mocked up urban “beach” listening to reverberating Arab pop music blasting out of speakers to the three people silly enough to be within earshot of this grunge-muffin city.
But a quick walk down to the seaside is all a traveler needs to realize that they should get moving inland to the rest of Jordan or out of the country all together: the charm of Aqaba is perhaps that it makes you really want to go elsewhere.
We began walking south. We figured that this was the prime direction to travel in, as we heard it mentioned that “South Beach” was the place to go. We assumed that South Beach should rightfully be south of the city. We walked passed empty, abandon, half construct lot after empty, abandon, half constructed lot which dotted a pedestrians walk way along the sea shore. Palm leaf thatched huts provided shade for the few sporadic local tourists who – for some unknown reason – wished to travel here to sit on the ten foot wide beach and swim with metal junk and other garbage in the sea urchin riddled port-side sea.
Jordanians on family vacations simply park their cars on the side of the highway and lay their beach blankets down on the sidewalk to enjoy the “beach.” It was almost a surreal experience to watch.
No-sleeping-next-to-your-car-on-the-sidewalk sign to prohibit the main way that people visit the beach in Aqaba
People sitting on the beach (or parking lot) in Aqaba
I looked around me and could not help the gag reaction that was ever threatening to overtake my composure. We walked down the coastline further and further in hopes of it getting better. It only got worse. I found a couple of old foreign tourists in khaki shorts and flying saucer hats who were following their travel guide as if it were a great divining rod to some unfathomable destination. We followed them following their guiding light. It only lead to more empty, abandon, half constructed lots. I grew to realized that going anywhere in this city was futile, and sat on a curb and just waited for the day to pass.
“Do you want to just go back to the hotel?” I asked Chaya.
No way. The hotel was full of gross dudes smoking cigarettes. I knew that Chaya would rather dine on a turd than be anywhere near that hotel, my asking was simply a device to make out predicament seem a little better by contrast.
Beach on the Red Sea in Aqaba- notice the rusted out 50 gallon drums in the water
We resumed walking.
We found a young foreign couple standing on the side of a road waiting for a bus. They looked to be the sort of people who read guidebooks and searched out good places to go. They were obviously not going to spend a full day of their vacation sitting in the sludge of a bottom of the barrel city just waiting to leave.
“Where are you going?” I asked them.
They were going to the beach. They were Frenchy Canadians and said that it only costs a half dinar for a bus to the beach.
We jumped on the next bus. We smile through the breeze that swam through the open windows of the minibus and grew excited as we watched Aqaba fade away behind us.
After 15 minutes of riding, the driver pulled the bus over on the side of the highway.
“Beach?” he asked, pointing to a wide open soft sanded beach that gave way to a glistening sea.
“Yes, beach,” we answered and jumped out and ran into the sand.
This was good. The beach was not crowded, the weather warm, and the water invited us in for a swim. I knew that there must have been some redeeming value to Aqaba, and this beach was it. We sat in the beauty of the day, ate crackers, and drank a big bottle of 7up that was still cold. Life was good.
Women Swimming in Burkas
Women swimming in burkas in the Red Sea
Women who wear burkas also swim in burkas. I watched women in full on, heavy black burkas with face masks swimming waterlogged in the surf of the Red Sea. It seemed to be a severe swimming hazard to go into the water with such heavy clothing, but this is just the way that women swim in this land.
Sometimes cultural relativism should be stuffed into a rucksack and humor allowed to breathe. It is simply a funny thing when culture usurps human sense. I laugh when I see fat women in tight corsets, I laugh when I see business women in New York hobbling around in foot binding high heels, and I laugh when I see Arab women swimming in burkas. Humor is for the nonsense of life, and swimming in the sea in a heavy black robe with a face mask seems properly nonsensical to me.
Perhaps you, too, should laugh at my nonsensical ignorance.
Fishing Boys in Camp
Fisherman on the Red Sea beach
Down by the end of the beach, Chaya and I left the tourist swimming area and found ourselves in a place where fishermen fish. I stared at a couple of shirtless young men who were working out of a full-fledged fishing camp. I wanted them to stare back at me so that I could be offered the “in” to befriend them.
I stared, and they stared back.
“You want to make friends with these kids?” I asked Chaya.
“If you want to,” she replied.
I did want to.
We walked up to the camp and offered a big waved at the proper waving point. The boys waved back. We approached their tent and shook hands and introduced ourselves. The tent was full of fishing and, most importantly, living gear: a cooler sat next to a bed, which was positioned next to a little gas camp stove. This tent was a semi-permanent fixture on this beach.
The boys cooked up some water for tea, and we were invited to sit down on a floor mat that they pulled out of the tent just for us. We sat on the beach and talked.
The young men worked as interior decorators during the day and then came to the beach to fish in the evening. These jaunts to the sea seemed to be part of their daily routine. Neither man was married.
“I have no money for marriage,” one boy said with a laugh. “Here you need to have money to buy a wife,” he continued only half joking.
He spoke good English, which he said he learned from chatting on the internet. He said that he learned Russian and Dutch in this way as well. His English was nearly perfect though he did not speak it with full confidence.
I eyed their fishing traps. They were constructed of wire and looked to be some sort of lobster trap. The young men explained that they just put some bait in the cage and then tossed it out to sea. When they pulled it back again there would be fish inside.
I was getting the impression that these kids were just using fishing as the justifiable impetus for hanging out on the beach and watching the sunset every day after work. Does fishing serve any other purpose anywhere in the world?
Our hosts soon served us tea and we sat on the beach watching the sun come down and meet the western horizon. They offered us some dinner, but we declined.
My impression of Aqaba was beginning to change: this place was not so bad after all. This beach was good, these people were good. The tea that I was drinking was also good. The sunset was good, too.
We all sat in comfortable silence and watched the day pass us by.
I said something to the effect of Aqaba being a good place. One of the boys countered me.
“It will soon be better,” he said. “It is being developed very fast, it will be better.”
He knew his city well.
I then remembered the development map of the city that I looked at earlier in the day. The color brown was used to designate the area of the city that are currently being develope:
The entire map was the color of dirt.
I am sure that Aqaba will not look so desolate for long: the city is undergoing a massive revitalization program. In 10 years, this travelogue entry about Aqaba will be obsolete. I have strong suspicions that Aqaba will soon be worthy of the all the travelers who pass through its gates.
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Aqaba Jordan Not Disgusting For Long