Bedouin and T.E. Lawrence country...
28.01.2010 - 01.02.2010 20 °C
We arrived at the Nuweiba port in Egypt at midday, purchased our 'fast' ferry tickets (as opposed to the 'slow' ferry option) for the 2pm Red Sea crossing, which about an hour later, would see us berthed at the Aqaba port in Jordan. Sounded easy enough, right? Fast forward five hours later and we were still in the crowded terminal that is more like a warehouse and smells like wee. No amount of sign language and wristwatch-tapping could ellicit any show of interest from the officials, other than a 'yes, you again' smiles and a finger held up each time to indicate how many more hours we must wait. Only one more, whatev!
One must be patient when catching an 'Egyptian' timed ferry
Our cramped 'transfer' bus from the terminal to the ferry
Our transport across the Red Sea
However one mustn't be too ungrateful when the time comes, and we surged forward with the crowd of mainly men towards the officials at the hull entrance and smiled in hope of being 'allowed' onto the ferry. From there we were bossed around further into a line on the side of the hull while huge forklifts and our luggage were loaded into the hull. Once above however, the 'Princess' ferry was surprisingly nice inside and we were treated to B-grade Arab action movies on the TVs above the seats. Steven Seagal, eat your heart out.
Finally, at about 7pm, we arrived into Aqaba and were pleased to discover that the port is part of a special zone that for some reason gives visas out for free. We tried to catch a cab into town, but were quickly annoyed by the taxi-driver's obscene prices - JD10 (NZ$20) for the six-kilometer ride in! Jac did her best Asian negotiation skills and got two young Aussie backpackers to join us in order to split the fare. Thankfully there were also kind Jordanian locals who approached us and affirmed our beliefs that the taxi drivers were blatantly ripping us off.
The next day we explored the seaside town, and found our daily breakfast venue - a small stand that sold soft white pastries filled with spinach, mashed potato or mince for about NZ25c each. The town is cute, the locals all sit on the beach having mezze picnics, there are makeshift tents on the sand, and little kids swim despite the huge oil tankers anchored not far away. Locals earn a crust by selling cheap goggles and blow up rings along the water. We also wandered past bakeries that had huge, steaming round flat-breads hurtling down metal slides from the ceiling and bagged immediately for sale. The food market was an eye-opener too - hooks and hooks of hanging goat carcasses, with their furry heads still attached and (ahem) appendages hanging on display as if to attest the virility of the creature you would be buying. We tried roasted 'farooj' (chicken) for dinner, which are roasted in a big glass oven outside, twenty of them rotating horizontally on skewers. The food was fresh and the local "Petra" beers had an alcohol content of 10% - shivers!
Boys hard at work making crumpets at a bakery
Piping hot pitas literally falling out of the oven
We spent about four days in the small sleepy town, mainly because we wanted to extend our visa past the 14-days we were initally granted, but we happened to arrive at the Arabic weekend (Fri/Sat) so decided to wait for the office to open and also take an overnight trip out to Wadi Rum, some two hours north-east in the desert.
Wadi Rum is one of the many vast deserts in Jordan, which the nomadic Bedouin inhabit. T.E. Lawrence lived with the Bedouin in Wadi Rum and eventually sympathised and joined the Arab cause against the British in 18-eightytwentyfortyseventhreenineish. We hopped on the back of an open 4WD truck with a lovely Danish couple and a hilarious Spaniard who spent the whole day bopping to music on his headphones (he told us it was Michael Jackson). Our Sudanese driver had been described as somewhat of a human desert compass and he deftly sped us through the desert. We struck it unlucky (or lucky?) and got blasted by a sandstorm, which whipped our faces and taught us why the Bedouin swathe their heads and faces in their red-and-white checked scarves.
We climbed soft red sand dunes, ambled along craggy rocks and admired the desert from above. The desert is impressive - magnificient, ginormous rich red and brown mountains sit in the flat sand, with little foliage. The mountains don't look spectacular in the distance until you realise a little moving white dot at the base is actually another 4WD, speeding across the desolate terrain.
We visited one of the Siqs - a narrow gorge cut into one of the 'Jebels' (mountains), reaching from the rock floor all the way up about 100m to the top of the rock. Inside, it was noticeably chilly and contained ancient Nabatean carvings on the rocks, everything from feet, ostritches to even a woman giving birth. We were disappointed to discover we couldn't go in very far (the siq stretches about 150m) due to huge water pools from recent rains. Outside we said hello to two old Bedouin men who were proffering 'Roman coins' among other 'antiques' for sale, and joined another for tea inside his tent. Other sights we saw are 'Lawrence's spring' (sadly now a concreted hole in the ground) and a natural 'bridge' formation amongst the rocks.
Speeding towards Wadi Rum village on the back of our 4WD
Bedouin goats headed towards the village
Sandstorm whips across the plains
Jac covers up against the sandy blast
Chalky working his gluts and quads at full pace
Race you to the top!
Spot the poser
The view from above
Entering the Siq
Ancient Nabatean carvings
Us in the Siq
Us on the 'Big Bridge'
Our 4WD driver
Found on the sand
Warning - grouchy, spitting transport
Unfortunately the rain set in, which cut down the sights we were meant to see, and makes the ride at the back of the truck bitterly cold (and well, wet). We headed to another part of the desert about an hour away, and we parked up and had some warming sweet tea, shared around the chocolate and nuts that we had on us, and had Spanish pop playing in the background thanks to our our friend.
Afterwards it was to the Bedouin camp for some dinner - mutton, chicken in rice, with salad and flat bread. We then bade farewell to our desert trip companions, and settled in by the fire for the night. It appears we are the only people staying at the large camp, that has some 30 tents. We share an algeel (Jordanian Arabic for water pipe) and talk to one of the camp workers, who is Jordanian. His family lives in Israel but for some reason (not disclosed due to either the language barrier or the true unsavoury reason) is barred from visiting even though his wife is there. The camp is surprisingly warm despite the cold, and we quickly fall into a deep sleep under a pile of about five fleecy blankets in our tent.
Our Bedouin dinner
Sitting in the camp
We had the whole place to ourselves
Back in Aqaba the next morning we discovered we'd been kindly 'upgraded' - from a tiny room to a small room (but one that had a balcony), but as it was being cleaned we walked again to the 'Aqaba Special Economic Zone Administration' (Immigration Office). Turned out our visa was actually for a month, so no extension was needed. Hooray. Back near our hotel, we sat like sore thumbs at Al Firdous café. "Cafés" in the Middle East are strictly the preserve of men only, and they sit for hours, smoking and playing cards or backgammon. However lucky for me, Al Firdous was women-friendly and plus I was accompanied by my 'husband', which helped my cause. Actually, further on in our travels in the Middle East we realised that most of the outside world was 'men only', as we saw hardly any women out and about, except shopping at markets. Hardly any of the shops, offices, hotels or restaurants had women working, especially so in the small towns.
We hung out with an algeel, some coffee and 'shai ma'nana' (sweet tea with fresh mint) and watched the local men huddled around small industrial-metal tables, playing cards and greeting every second man that walked by, and also the busy cafe owner, a big guy who controlled the remote to the flat screen TV encased in a specially-made metal casing. Playing on TV was Arabic music videos, many of which featured seductively dancing women in low-cut floaty dresses. While they weren't as flagrant as, say the Pussycat Dolls, they were a stark contradiction to the conservative modesty that is so respected in the Middle East. The influence of the West, perhaps?
We discovered that the final of the African Football Cup was being played at Al Firdous, so we returned an hour before the game to find two flat screens set up, and a projector, the entire small courtyard was crammed with plastic chairs, and filling fast. Egypt, ('Masr') was playing Ghana, and was clearly the favourite. We joined in, yelling at the players and hoping that Egypt would score. Some of the fans roused the crowd with drumming and chanting and the cafe was packed, men even sitting in the tree in the courtyard. The score was an anguishing 0-0 until 3 minutes before full time, when a newly-subbed Gado (apparently the Egyptian team's wonderboy) sunk one in from outside the box. The cheering from the cafe was deafening and glitter bombs were popped, and the whole cafe jumped to their feet and and danced. After the game the streets of Aqaba were filled with the roar of men parading the streets and waving Egyptian flags. We joined the masses in the street then watched the celebration from our hotel balcony (that upgrade really made the difference), awed at the level of passion and elation, and a little glad that there were no rifles being waved in the air also.
Local men wiling away the hours at Al Firdous cafe
The favourite to win, Masr
Tension as it remains nil-all at half time
Elation (and drumming!) as Masr clinches victory
Crowds gather, celebrating in the streets
Cheering hordes, waving Egyptian flags