Aqaba! — part 1

12 Nov

Jordan’s southernmost and only seaport city, Aqaba, is a 4 hour drive south of Amman on the Red Sea — unless you take the cheap bus.  We’ve heard (ah-hem, ah-hem) that it makes frequent stops to allow passengers smoking breaks and may, on occasion, break down in the middle of the desert and add 2 hours to your trip.  But, the Aqaba experience makes up for the miles and miles of sand and volcanic mountains that line the King’s Highway from Amman.  This route, called “The King’s Highway,” is ancient and referenced in Numbers 20:17 and 21:22.  The vastness of the landscape between the two cities harkens Rachel back to a cross-country drive through Nevada once upon a time; only, Jordan’s mountains are a sandy brown instead of a grayish purple.

After completing our second month-long set of English classes, we had a full week off because of Eid Al-aDHa, which means “Eid of the Sacrifice.” This is the “Big Eid,” which falls at the end of the Hajj. Muslims buy sheep and sacrifice them, imitating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (though the Qur’anic version has him ready to sacrifice Ishmael). They send the meat to feed the poor. Everyone is off work for the week, and we decided to use the time to visit Aqaba. Aqaba sees a lot of tourism, mainly from Europe, the Arab world, and Asia. We didn’t encounter any other Americans. Aqaba is a fascinating city. The contrast between the desert and the sea is quite striking (as you can see in the pictures). Aqaba is, like most places in this area, ancient and surprisingly rich in historical remains. It has been more or less continuously utilized for thousands of years.

We arrived around 3pm on Saturday, November 5, and once we disembarked the bus, we made our way to our hotel (see the pool picture above, taken from our room). We decided to get something to eat, and then take a walk around the waterfront. We ate at Ali Baba’s and, despite the somewhat cliche sounding name, the food was quite good. Rachel got a spicy grilled fish (with teeth and bones still in place), and I tried the traditional Jordanian dish, Sayadiyah (which is from the Arabic word for ‘fisherman’).

After we ate, we decided to take an introductory walk around, and since we were so close to the water, that’s where we began. The Red Sea isn’t ‘red’ at all, but rather a beatiful combination of several shades of blue, turquoise, and Aqua. Depending on the depth, and the presence or absence of coral, the colors vary between these three. Add to that the mountains of the Sinai peninsula across the bay, it makes for an amazing view. We were so tired from the journey that we retired early so that we’d be fresh for Sunday.

Sunday morning we woke up refreshed and ready for our first full day in Aqaba. Our hotel, Aqaba Gulf Hotel, offered a breakfast bar with lots of good European pastries, Ajeh (Egg omeletes), and a variety of European and Middle Eastern breakfast foods (although Phillip was disappointed that the typical Jordanian breakfast falafel wasn’t offered). After breakfast, we decided to head to the beach for some swimming and snorkeling. We’d been warned, correctly, that the public beaches inside the city would be crowded and full of, shall we say, more conservatively dressed beachgoers who wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the sight of a foreign woman in a bathing suit. We’d also been warned the most of the private beaches would cost 40 or more JD per person.

About that time, we met a smooth-talking Taxi driver named Issam, who insisted on calling Phillip ‘Khalid,’ probably because ‘Phillip’ isn’t easy for Arabs to say/remember. After some wheelin’ and dealin’, we negotiated for a round-trip price of 15JD for him to take us to a beach on the south side of the city, a place the locals call ‘Japanese Gardens.’ We set up on the beach, got out our snorkel equipment (masks and snorkels courtesy of Fred and Deb), and made our way into the beautiful water. The water was chilly, providing a jolt to our bodies (though, for November, it was quite warm).

Snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea is world-famous. People come from all across the world to snorkel and dive in the world’s northernmost Tropical Sea. Rachel and I were hoping to see some great fish, and we were NOT disappointed. One of the unique features of Aqaba’s slice of the beach is that, unlike other parts of the area, you can literally walk into the water about 5 meters and instantly be in an underwater world that appears to be straight out of Finding Nemo. We were quite impressed with the variety of fish we saw, and so close to the shore. We snorkeled for several hours.

Snorkeling, however, can make you quite hungry, and so we decided to cross the road to a hotel/restaurant for some food. We ate out next to the pool at ‘Daarna,’ “Our House,” and soaked in the beautiful view, the sunshine, and the relaxing absence of “city life.” We spent several hours after we finished eating just sitting by the pool and soaking everything up.

Rachel’s favorite coral was the neon green “cabbage coral” which grew few and far between the other gnarly fingery-type ones, but luminated a flourescent green glow beneath the surface of the water.

[continued in “Aqaba! — part 2”]


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