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Aqaba

Aqaba, and a hungry traveller

The sunrays gallantly shine into my room and wake me up from sleep. ‘Wadi Rum!’ is the first thought in my head as soon as I open my eyes. It’s the crux of my trip in Jordan and I am dedicating whole third of my time for this place.  ‘Breakfast!’ is the next thing that pops up in my head. My stomach has been hollow for so long and I think I can feel the entire casket of my body reverberate as it rumbles with hunger.

I get dressed with a speed of lightning and run downstairs that leads to the reception, then follow the arrow sign labelled ‘Kitchen’.  But the area leading from the reception is not the dining room, but a kitchen. Where do I go and eat? Just at this time of confusion comes out the Smiling Man from the kitchen and gestures me to sit on the sofa at the reception. Soon he brings out the Bedouin tea, some cheese and pitta bread stacked high on a small plate. That’s all I get for breakfast-  10 pieces of bread and cheese. I try to eat as much as I can crouching over the lounge table, but there’s only so much bread I can take.

Hotel Reception
Hotel Reception
Breakfast at Aqaba
Breakfast at Aqaba

At the check out, the Smiling Man asks me when I would be back in Aqaba. ‘I love you. I phone my friend, he give you free scuba diving. All for free. Stay here longer, please’. If Wadi Rum was not on my next itinerary, it would have been a tempting offer.

I only have an hour and half to look around Aqaba before catching a bus to Wadi Rum, so I decide not to venture out too far in case I get lost in the city. The locals are obviously used to tourists coming here for scuba diving at the Red Sea as there’s no obsessive staring I received elsewhere in Jordan. Only the taxi drivers who wish to strike up a business say a friendly good-morning, offering a bargain ride. I walk along the sea hoping to get a good look at the Red Sea, but a closer access to the beach is only reserved to those who are using the resort for diving. I walk further on in the squelching heat to get to an ancient ruin, only to find it’s nothing but a small pile of rubbles.

Red Sea...from afar

I get to the bus station an hour and half earlier than the departure time, as advised by the Bedouin camp manager at Wadi Rum. It is to ensure a seat as the bus gets full very quick. It is much cooler to be waiting outside, but I decide to stay put in the bus as I don’t want to lose my seat. The ‘excursion’ in Aqaba done and the mini bus to my destination found, now I can relax and have my lunch.

I open up the blue plastic bag that contains the food I had just bought. I have actually asked for a sandwich so it would be simpler and easier to eat but it turns out to be an open top kebab, and there is no plastic fork with it. The heat of the foil container on my lap makes me sweat even more, and the pungent smell of lamb fills up the air of the bus which is already getting crowded with people. But heck, I’m starving and I delve into the cooked meal that I had been deprived of since yesterday afternoon. I can live with my fingers smelling of meat and chillies.

Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Rum
Bus to Wadi Ru
Bus to Wadi Rum

The people in the bus must be Bedouins living in the desert visiting Aqaba for supplies. By the time the bus departs, every remaining floor is occupied with the box full of goods they are taking to Wadi Rum. All women and kids are sitting at the back, and the men at the front. The thick, carpet like curtain loosely hangs from all windows, shielding everyone from the fierce sunrays, but it’s not enough to cool down the hot air.

The journey remains sweaty, claustrophobic, and bumpy throughout. The view outside continues to be monotonous – plain sky, barren land, and sand dust.  The small child whines next to me, and I try to open the window for her and my sake but it remains obstinately closed.

Would I be able to get off where I am supposed to? Does the driver remember I am heading to Wadi Rum? In the tediousness of the bus ride surfaces up the petty worries of a solo traveller, but they soon sink back under carefree, come-what-may spirit. The bus continues on its long winding road, its tyres grating themselves against the rugged Jordanian terrain.

The sudden change in the landscape wakes me up from my half-sleep. Those majestic rock mountains grandly announcing the gateway of the Wadi Rum desert. I can no longer remember my disappointments in Aqaba nor the stale air of the bus, but my heart beats faster and faster at this long awaited sight. This is Wadi Rum.

On the road to the desert
On the road to the desert

Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Entrance of Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village
Wadi Rum Village

DAY 5: 22 September 2013, Aqaba to Wadi Rum

 

 

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The man with the moustache greets me in front of the hotel with his smile as broad as his arms wide open. ‘Welcome to Aqaba. Welcome, welcome’ – pronouncing ‘c’ like how the Spanish would pronounce a ‘c’, like all Arabs do here. He takes my luggage from the taxi and leads me into the hotel. It’s 2 am and all the lights are out in the building apart from the reception area. We are careful not to make a loud noise, but our whispers still echo against the stone walls, slicing the the cool early morning air.

‘Oh.. so beautiful, so beautiful’. He keeps repeating as he helps me check in and carries my luggage upstairs, smile never leaving his face. He opens the door for me and places the luggage on the floor. It is a small plain room, with thick furry colourful blankets being the most decorated furniture in the place.  In the middle of the room is a chunky, old fashioned TV on a stand with it’s legs at an angle that makes it look unstable. It takes up so much room that I need to twist my body sideways whenever I walk past it, so I don’t knock my arm on it’s protruding wooden panel. In the corner of the room is an equally clunky fridge. Despite the online advert promising a mini-bar, the fridge is totally empty.

The smiling man turns on the light in the bathroom – a clean modern one to my surprise – and shows me the switch that operates the electric shower. Then he goes towards the other end of the room and turns on the air conditioning on for me.  It’s been a long long day which includes getting lost in As-Salt and sitting in the bus to Aqaba on an empty stomach for 7 hours. My heart and soul desires nothing else but a hot shower and a bed to collapse onto.

But there he stands in the middle of the room, still beaming with a smile. ‘Oh I love you. The moment you got out of the taxi.. I saw you.. So beautiful. I love you’. My mind races at this unprecedented situation. Why is he just standing there? Is he waiting for an invitation? I quickly scan his posture and eyes for any sign of lusty expectation, but to my relief I find none. Just an innocent adoration. ‘Thank you’, I reply courteously and obligingly. Had I ever in my life responded so casually to an I-love-you.

As soon as he leaves the room, I rush into shower and savour every moment under hot water. Air condition is a little too cold to have it on during the night, but I cannot figure out how to turn it off completely. The off button I pressed has stopped it from pumping out cool air, but it carries on whirling. Never mind.

I drop onto the blue and orange blanket, its thick fur comforting and warm against my freshly washed skin. With the buzzing of the air condition reverberating in the room, I sleep ever so contently.

IMG_2221

The hotel promised me a mini-bar..

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, Hotel in Aqaba

 

 

 

Welcome to Aqaba

Luggage packed. Early dinner eaten. Bus timetable checked. I will be getting a coach at 5 pm and travel for 5 hours to get to Aqaba, the city at the southern end of Jordan popular for diving in the Red Sea. Arriving there at 10 pm would give me enough time to get my 8 hours of sleep at Aqaba, which means I can wake up early in the next morning for a quick tour of the city, and head to Wadi Rum desert at noon. I have already checked the location of the coach station in Aqaba, and have intentionally booked a hotel at a walking distance in case there are no taxis after 10 pm. It’s all been planned. It’s all been double, triple checked.

I reach the coach station and ask the man standing outside, ‘Aqaba?’ He nods and tells me it leaves at 6 pm. I go inside to get a ticket and ask the staff, ‘Aqaba? 6?’. He nods and gives me a ticket. I am not the only one having arrived too early for the bus. Two Arab girls in the early 20s, and a small boy about 9 years old are sitting a few seats away from me in the waiting room. They are giggling constantly throughout the whole two hours of waiting time. It is a tedious wait, sitting on a plastic seat with only a ticket booth and an analogue clock on the wall to stare at.

‘Aqaba?’ I ask once again when a coach finally arrives 10 minutes later than the scheduled time, and the man repeats another ‘yes’ with a hint of suppressed smile on his face. I realise ‘Aqaba?’ is the only word I’ve been uttering at this coach station, and I get on the coach feeling a little too silly. The giggling trio is already seated at the back of the bus, but as I sit myself down at the front row they immediately gather all their bags and change to the seats on the opposite side of mine. The closer proximity between us induces them into more uncontrollable fits of giggles, and I feel amused at that I’ve been the source their entertainment all along. Feeling completely nonchalant rather than irritated,  I offer them my lemon sherbet from England hoping to make friends. Our language barrier means we go no further than the exchange of names, but at least the I have passed over the stiff wall of being strangers and I feel more at liberty to stare back at them and satisfy my curiosity in who they are.

They told me they were siblings, but they do not look alike at all. The little boy has a doll-like round big eyes, but is too sleepy to be mischievous. Slouched across the two rows of seats he is mostly asleep throughout the long coach journey. The girl sitting on the window side doesn’t talk much but smiles shyly everytime I look at them. The taller girl, who is called Safa, has been giggling the loudest has an animated voice. Soft black material with brown leopard print at the hem is wrapped around her slim figure bringing out her fair skin more than any other colour would have. The way she makes sure her little brother is comfortable and takes care of all the affairs tells me that she is the eldest of the three. Her elegance in her demeanor and uninhibited youthful laughter, her motherly tenderness over her siblings and the dental bracelets she is wearing is combined together and bring out a peculiar charm about her. 

The allegedly 5 hour journey lasts for 7 hours all I’ve eaten for the day is some pitta bread with hummus for breakfast and a small portion of pasta for early supper. Feeling my energy draining, I scoff down the KitKat chocolate bar Dody from the hostel gave me and fall into sleep. When I wake up an hour or two later, Safa taps on my shoulder and gives me a handful of crisps. Thirty minutes later comes another tap, and she gives me a carton of juice. This goes on several times until all her snacks run out.

Travelling alone, I can do, eat, and go wherever and whatever without anyone’s wishes to adhere to. Coupled with this liberating independence, a child-like dependency is what I continuously experience. I often encounter situations that are part of Jordanians’ everyday lives but is foreign to me, and I am standing there alone like a fool until someone comes along for guidance. I am always slightly embarassed by my helplessness, but it also makes me much more grateful of all the kindness people shower me with.

I couldn’t be more glad when the bus finally reaches it’s final stop at 1 am. The passengers quickly disperse into the empty town and I get my map  out trying to locate my hotel which must be near by. I say I shall walk but Safa insists I get into the taxi with her. I try to gesture with my hands that I don’t have far to go, but Safa resolutely says ‘taxi’, so I get in. 

The famous resort city is eerily quiet. Warm humid breeze strokes my cheek as I gaze at the endless rows of palm trees. The song Everything I do, I  Do it For You is playing on the radio, and the voice of Brian Adams sounds huskier than I remember. Safa chats to the driver in her characteristic melodious voice. The drive is so much longer than I had expected and I realise what a terrible mistake it would have been if I had stubbornly insisted that I’d walk to the hotel thinking it’s only 5 minutes away. What could I have done in this empty city, without a faintest idea of my whereabouts and no-one around to help me? It’s a daunting thought.

The taxi finally stops in front of a tiny building, where a man with a moustache is waiting outside with a big broad smile. I already booked the hotel, so he must have been waiting for his last guest to turn up. It is so late into the night and I feel awful that he had to wait for so long. But there is not a trace of annoyance or irritation. He spreads his arms wide open and his eyes make a crescent shape. He comes down the steps and with an Arabic accent that I am now so familiar with, he warmly greets me saying, ‘Welcome to Aqaba’.

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, from Amman to Aqaba

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