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Windsbird: Footprints around the world

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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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As-Salt: ‘Freedom for Syria’

“Salt: Salt never experienced the intense wave of modernisation that swept across the capital, and as a result has retained much of it’s historic charm”, says my beloved Lonely Planet guidebook.  It is also said to house a number of tombs and shrines of Biblical figures, which makes As-Salt even more irresistible.

A cozy, idyllic village with stoned pavements was what I had in mind for Salt, which was instantly shattered when I saw an overbearing hill packed with buildings.  I pick a street that seems to be the main road, hoping I would come across any of the tombs, or even better, a tourist centre to pinpoint where the shrines are. The town is surprisingly empty for it’s size and I only come across a handful of kids playing and a few men smoking cigarettes along the way. Before I know it I’m already climbing up the hill, and I am approached by a middle aged lady who holds my hands as if I am her long lost relative.

‘Salam alaikum!’ She exclaims and  I greet her back with equally matching enthusiasm followed by the usual perplexed smile all the way through her Arabics. ‘Shai?’ She eventually asks with a gesture of drinking tea, and I eagerly nod my head. I would love for an opportunity to see a real household of a Jordanian. Together we walk up the steep hill, through a narrow door that leads to an even steeper staircase. At the front door, her three daughters who seem to be in their 20s open the door, and three little kids peep through. It the very first time I’ve seen women without a headscarf.  They don’t seem at all startled at this sudden intrusion of a foreigner, and they lead me to a small balcony which overlooks a narrow street. The cool air from the stone floor immediately soothes my face and arms that has been grilled under the piercing sun the whole morning.

I am led to the balcony to sit, and Auntie (the lady pointed to herself and said what I think is the English word ‘Auntie’) sits opposite. After family introduction, we don’t know what else to say to each other so we simply smile. To cover up the awkwardness, I gesture the children to come to the balcony and start taking photographs. The children instantly hold up their fingers in a ‘V’ shape.

‘We were in Zaatari. We came here one month ago. Angelina Jolie came to Zaatari and took photo with our Farah”. They turn on their laptop and show me the picture – Jolie lifting up Farah, the youngest of the three children, surrounded by many onlookers.  At the mention of Zaatari I light up. I had considered visiting Zaatari on my trip, but abandoned the idea because going there as a tourist seemed somewhat inappropriate. ‘How did you get there? What’s living like? How long were you there for? How easy is it to get out of there?’ Questions after questions are eager to spill out from my mouth, but I see a flash of gloom pass over Aunties face at her daughter’s mention of the place. Perhaps it’s a place with awful memories. I decide not to ask anything. She goes on to tell me that there was a man who wanted to get married to her, but he had died in Syria. 

I think of my Syrian friend Dody back in the hostel in Amman, whom  I have already grown very fond of.  They all have this beautiful untainted smile as if to defy the struggles and heartaches they have known.

‘In Syria, ‘V’ means freedom’. Noora, the eldest of the girls explains as the children never fail to hold up their two fingers every time I click my camera shutter. It is only then I remember – the endless news footages  with all those people in Syria – men and women, young and old – all of them holding out a ‘V’ to the video camera as their country is torn apart. I begin to understand the depth of their yearning in the two tiny fingers held up by a girl who is too young to understand the plight of her homeland.

Noora takes over my camera to take a picture of me and Farah together. I wrap my arm around her little waist, and on my hand glistens a ring that Noora had given me earlier. Farah and I hold our fingers up together in a ‘V’. The gesture is no longer an automatic camera-reflex of an East Asian, but a poignant reminder of my beautiful friends’ pains and a token of hope.

‘V’ is for Freedom. For Auntie, for Noora, for Farah, for Dody.

I whisper silently, Freedom for Syria.

DAY 4: 21 September 2013, As-Salt

View from the balcony

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Post script:

Dody’s story has been reported in The New Zealand Herald shortly after I returned from Jordan.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11135850

First day in Amman

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After landing at the Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan I take a bus towards downtown Amman.  I had to wait for about 40 minutes for it to take off, but the bus fare only costs 3.250 JD whereas a taxi costs about 20 JD.

I get off at 7th circle as advised by the information desk at the airport, but it turns out to be an incorrect advice as I end up taking a taxi into downtown anyway.

The roads here are absolutely hectic. There are no lanes and cars honk all the time, not as a sign of aggressiveness but simply to let others know of their presence to minimise any crashes or accidents.

The young taxi driver and I chat easily during our 30 minute drive, but when I hand him 10 JD note at arrival, he claims he does not have any change on him and insist I just give him 10 JD. I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t have any change on him, and I remind him that we agreed on 7 JD. I handed him a 5 JD note and all the coins I have in my purse which comes up to the total of 6.750 JD, but he is still pissed off at me.  I don’t like how his smiles quickly turn sour at the mere 750 fils.

My hotel is just a few meters across the street from where I got off the taxi, but it takes ages for me to cross. I’m too scared of the unruly traffic and they don’t show any sign of stopping just for me. The trick is slowly start crossing anyway, and then the drivers will stop, but this is something I learn a few days later.

I’m annoyed, tired, and feel intimidated by all the stares from locals.  Perhaps choosing to travel in such an unfamiliar country by myself wasn’t such a good idea. I start to dread 11 more days to come.

 

DAY 1: Wednesday, 18 Sept 2013

Amman

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