One of the rewards of traveling in a small country like Jordan is that travel times are fabulously short. After several long haul bus rides from one side of a country to another, Jordan top to bottom took 4 hours, a transportation dream at this point in the trip. We planned to hop a bus, from Amman to Aqaba, Jordan's only access to the ocean. But first we had to get a taxi to the bus station for what was supposed to cost about 2 JD, proving more challenging than expected. Most taxis didn't stop at all. The one who did offered us 4JD so we walked away. In a world where the local currency is half ours, we bartered or walked much more than anywhere thus far. Eventually another taxi stopped and once Bridger asked him to turn on the meter he drove away faster than a blink. Finally we got someone to take us, on the meter and it cost less than 1JD which we happily paid. And then I kicked myself because if there ever were a time to tip, that would have been it to actually reward the only honest taxi driver in Amman. I still feel regretful about it. We got on the bus south after showing our passport in what would turn out to be the only real normal public transportation Jordan graced us with. And then we only showed it 4 more times at 4 different checkpoints along the way. I'm not sure what's with the insane amount of check-pointing here, whether it's the conflict in bordering states or an influx of illegal immigrants or what but passport checking is a regular occurrence. Luckily this time we were actually moving places to we had our passports on us so no more awkward laughs. At one particularly long security stop, most people got off the bus but ourselves, 2 other foreigners and a handful of other people stayed on because we weren't asked to get off. As we were standing there looking out the window, I saw two guys being led into the checkpoint building in handcuffs. And then right after a bus attendant lady came and got the other two tourists off the bus. And then I realized that we were two of 4 people still remaining on the bus and everyone was out gathering their bags for some sort of a baggage check. At this point we weren't sure if we were also supposed to be off with our bags too and were relieved when eventually everyone else put their bags back on and got back on the bus and we continued on our way. We'll never know.
We did end up making it to the strange city of Aqaba. What we imagined as a pretty little beach town was actually an arid, snarly little city that barely had a decent patch of sand. A little microcosm of Jordan in general, after a few days here we just weren't sure how to feel about Aqaba, torn between hateful and charmed. We came here to dive and swim in the Red Sea but within an hour of getting off the bus we truly questioned whether we should just cut our losses and get the next bus out. It started terribly right off from the get go.
Aqaba was much more expensive than Amman, especially for accommodation just out of town close to the beach so we opted for the cheapest hotel we could find in town...it was definitely not a touristy place, more for local holiday makers. Our hotel reception guy told us that a taxi should take 1 JD from the bus station to the hotel. We did our due diligence when grabbing a taxi by confirming whether he would turn on the meter. He agreed. We then told him our hotel name, showed him the name in print and then showed him a map for how to get there and he said he got it. Unfortunately in every country we've ever been to, this level of diligence is required in order not to get taken by taxi drivers who are more often than not, notorious thieves and scam artists. That's all part of the game while traveling, fine, but we couldn't have been more thorough in our part in this situation. Half a minute into the drive he then launched into the regular taxi spiel of where we wanted to go/how we could hire him to take us to a, b, c and d etc. which we politely declined. He then dropped us off at the wrong hotel (I'm now entirely, unequivocally convinced that people in other countries do NOT use Google maps). We again showed/said the name of the hotel and showed the map with our current location which we pointed out. Not good enough. Now I must come into this hotel with him to ask where our hotel is. I go in with him and Bridger stays in the car with the stuff. It's all just one big giant mystery, nobody knows where this hotel is. We must call the hotel and ask, which he does on his cell phone...no need to actually go into the hotel to do this, could have been done from our car while driving. But nope, big run around, all while the meter continues to run. There's nothing that drives Bridger more mad (except for being hot. And slow things) than people who charge us for their lack of knowledge, especially when they confirmed earlier that they knew exactly where to go. Whatever, we got back in the car and eventually made it to our place which, even with the meter running the whole screwaround time, came out to .94 JDs so we paid 1JD. Then it got really rotten when the taxi driver literally scoffed at the money as I passed it to him and I wasn't sure what the hell was going on... until he said in broken English, what I could gather was that we had to pay him 2JDs. Bridger had already gone in the hotel reception with the bags and I was totally blindsided. I was rotted and tried to calmly explain that a) he agreed to the meter b) we already were paying him for the time spent driving in circles not knowing where he was going c) he can't just demand more money than the cost on the meter. By this point he was irate and just threw the money back at me and walked back towards his taxi before turning back and shouting in Arabic at the hotel receptionist who explained that he was pissed because he had to drive all over the place trying to get us here to which we replied that we already paid for that when he continued to run the meter. By this point the hotel receptionist just pulls out the extra money to just pay the driver off himself. By this point Bridger had just walked away which I should have too had I been thinking more clearly. But of course I feel shitty about reception guy paying so I huffily hand over .5 more JD just to make him go away and then tell him that's all I'm giving at which point he storms off back to his taxi in a huff. We were certain that the whole thing was a total ruse to stall and drive up the meter in the first place, a move not unknown to taxi drivers. In all our travels we often encounter opportunistic taxi screw jobs but never a blatant, planned, aggressive screwjobs like this was, so obviously we were reeling from it for awhile after. Our suspicions were all but confirmed by the hotel owner (not there at the time of the jackaround) who, when we relayed our experience, rolled his eyes and said "oh they know how to find us, they just pretend not to". Welcome to Aqaba!
We settled in our hotel room, we did what we usually do on day one in a new place-walked around and explored. This didn't help our uncertain feelings towards Aqaba. Not only was Aqaba truly ugly to look at with no real attractions, we literally could not have felt more like prey, like meat on a stick as cars, some taxis some just random people inside, went out of their way to pull over to attempt to solicit business by driving/tour guiding us around. The many warm and engaging "Welcome!"s that we encountered in Amman as we walked through the streets,here, turned into a ploy to get our attention to try to sell us something from their shops. Even our hotel manager was a relatively slimy salesman intrusively demanding to know where we're going next/how/what we're doing here so he could sell us his tours, all disguised as "hospitality". Again, this is not uncommon and is another exceptionally annoying thing while traveling--that everyone wants their commission by connecting you to tours/activities/whatever. For us, we prefer to arrange everything independently and choose our own way. In the interests of being purposely obscure about our plans to politely skirt this conversation, usually I respond with something vague like "oh we just got here, not sure what we're gonna do yet" and then drop "we thought maybe about scuba diving". Because while everyone can connect you to "Tour blah blah" or "Sight blah blah", scuba diving is usually a little bit more specialized and not anybody off the street can just do it, thus it's a little more "safe" to assume hoteliers may not have their hands in the pot as much here. Well this guy did have his hand in the scuba diving pot and recommended us a particular dive shop that gives his customers discounts. I, of course, researched this company and its reviews and ultimately the verdict was that it was an old, decrepit and fundamentally unsafe dive operator. At this point, all the owners credibility was totally washed. As much as we wanted to be in love with Jordan, we couldn't help but shake the sentiment that it was just the most scammiest, aggressive, rip off kind of place and we couldn't get away from it no matter where we went. We got the hustle from all angles from out on the street to in the walls of our hotel. It was exhausting.
We also had to arrange our onwards plan destination from Aqaba, potentially the next day, which turned out to also be challenging. We had several options for where we wanted to go next including the beautiful desert of Wadi Rum and the UNESCO site Petra but needed to figure how to get there as cheap as possible. We went to the JETT public bus company office and asked about tickets. The guy working there looked at us like we had 3 heads and it quickly became clear that nobody at this office spoke any English and they had no idea what we were saying. So they gave us a phone number to call and dismissed us. Too bad we don't have a phone. We walked all around the town following a loosely mapped iPhone map trying to find the local bus station to see if/when local buses left. There was no centralized office here and nothing labeled anywhere so it looked like we were hooped for information until we found a lovely guy, employment unknown, who gave us some information that probably a single bus would leave to where we wanted to go...but maybe not. We wandered and checked out car rental places but the cost was outrageous not to mention insurance didn't seem to really be a thing. We pretty well had nowhere to go to get reliable information and we started to feel like we couldn't ever get out of Aqaba. Public transportation was nonexistent or uncertain at best. It was all very exhausting, literally being stuck but still spinning our wheels.
Aqaba was a "port city" so the harbor was more full of giant barges and shipping containers than beach goers and swimmers. The beaches of the town proper were pretty rocky, the water wasn't that clear and it definitely wasn't a place for tourist swimming. This is the trouble with Jordan's beaches--the extremely conservative culture makes it unacceptable to really "beach bum" as we know it. Local people just don't do that let alone wear bathing suits so the public beaches weren't really an option for relaxing and hanging out. So, not being able to figure out how to get out without paying an exorbitant private taxi rate, one day we headed down the coast to a fee for entry beach club on the ocean with a pool and loungers. And since it was for tourists, beach wear, lounging and relaxing were acceptable, yeeeees!!! This was actually a really great, much needed ray of sunshine in our Aqaba experience thus far. We spent the entire day just lounging by the pool with the intention to snorkel in the Red Sea, which unfortunately we quickly abandoned once we realized that it cost 20 freaking dollars to rent a snorkel and we had planned to scuba dive anyways. It was outrageous. The place was shockingly empty and for the first few hours of the day, we were among the only people in the entire place! Unfortunately our dive plans were killed when Bridger got a cold halfway through the day that continually got worse throughout the day and next evening (in related news, Bridger having a cold is a new chapter in the disgusting beard saga). We were so exhausted by Aqaba and moving every few days and trying to figure out how to get from a to b and Bridger being sick that we decided to stay an extra day just to freaking sleep in and not have to figure anything out. We thought maybe if we gave it a day, perhaps Bridger would be feeling better and we could dive the next day. All good except it wasn't. Because now it was a weekend and we were regretfully told that the price of our hotel room is now double, almost $40/night. Sure enough, we looked on booking.com and there wasn't even any accommodation to move to in Aqaba as everything had doubled. And we'd yet to find a way out so we just resigned ourselves to the gouge. I guess weekends bring a bunch of locals to the only spot of ocean in the desert country and where there's demand... And by now we were exhausted, sick and incredibly frustrated so at this point we just decided to screw scuba diving, cut our financial losses and just get out as soon as possible. Unfortunately for us the resident cricket that lived in the baseboard cracks of our room who had been intermittently vocal the nights prior, he decided to just kick it up a notch. It literally chirped in a frenzy all night long, constantly. And I'm not exaggerating...constantly, sometimes faster than others, but constant. I would liken the whole experience to trying to sleep with a policeman blowing his whistle 4 feet from your bed every minute for the entire night.
Now here's the thing about Aqaba...for one, we screwed it up. The way things unpredictably unrolled, we neither dove nor snorkeled in the Red Sea, to this day a big regret. For two, outside of snorkeling/diving, it didn't seem to have many much attractions or charm to keep you entertained. But for three, and this was enough to completely redeem itself in our mind making our visit not a total write-off, once we stopped trying to "do" stuff and just wandered with nothing to do, we had some of the most organic and lovely interactions with local people. I think we had some of our best moments in Jordan came while just incidentally "being" in Aqaba. As we were sitting in an internet cafe, the owner randomly shared his lunch with us. As we went to inquire about a car rental we got talking to the two young employees there about everything from booze to ladies to safety of Jordan and shared a ton of laughs and ended with them directing us to a liquor store that would give us discounts. When we picked up a street shawarma from a little place with pictures but all Arabic, the staff who barely spoke English wanted to know our names, where we were from and all about us and then it somehow ended up with Bridger breaking out into song "Ashley I love you" and then into a spontaneous chorus of street shawarma place employees joining in singing "Ashley I love you". Our hotel had a party one night and the courtyard was full of local people of all ages smoking shisha and hanging out. I had been outside writing for a few hours and somehow we found ourselves accidentally in the middle of the party. The hotel owners brother gave Bridger several glasses of whiskey from the secret stash of whiskey at the otherwise dry Muslim event. People started pulling me up to the dance floor to dance with them (this was, as you can imagine, humiliating for me and hilarious for Bridger). There were two young Muslim girls about my age, who even though they barely spoke English, were so interested to just chat which we did over small bits of English and alot of cell phone pictures (it always continues to AMAZE me how much conversation you can have without a common language!) after which there was the obligatory Facebook friending.
Experiences like this also constantly remind us how lucky we are to be native English speakers! Ok well actually it's a blessing and a curse because as native English speakers we don't learn other languages as a general rule which is pitiful and a total shame. But on the other hand, it really is the universal language so we are really lucky to have a solid handle on it. My gosh, I can't even explain how difficult it would be to communicate with someone who speaks English as their second language if you also speak English as your second language. It's difficult enough to get clear information as a native speaker so I can't even imagine figuring stuff out in the other scenario but brave people do this ALL the time traveling the world, it's amazing! Speaking with so many people who are English second language a) always impresses me from an SLP perspective as well as a human perspective because learning a second language as an adult is hard and should be totally commended and b) really reinforces how culturally typical it is, especially for women, to water down our language to make it less direct/more polite (e.g. "would it be possible to.../is it ok if we.../are you able to help me..."). It is always a struggle because this really (obviously!) doesn't work for people who are developing English as straightforward direct language is much easier to understand (e.g. please do.../can we.../help me...) but I always feel like I'm being SO rude and demanding!
Through our wandering, we were finally able to find a phone to use to book an overnight tour/camping in the Wadi Rum desert, a staple on the Jordanian tourist trail, for the next day. The guy we booked with was uncertain that we could get public transportation from Aqaba to the desert and wondered if we needed a private driver. At first we declined because private drivers are always more expensive than public transport at which point the guy who's phone we used said he could get us a driver for cheaper (but still expensive because alas, it is still a private driver). Here is the other thing about Jordan that was more pronounced than anywhere else thus far. Everyone personally knows someone who can do something for you and will hook you up...so you have to be really careful what you say to people if you are planning to arrange everything on your own. Again, I don't know if that was more intense and more pronounced now because there is literally just less tourist bodies to go around and everyone is desperate for a chunk for business, but it was unequivocally our experience while we were there. Ultimately it came down to the fact that a local bus was not guaranteed to be going that way tomorrow and we actually couldn't afford accommodation in Aqaba anymore so we decided to just bite the bullet and get out of there in whatever way we could. So we took the easiest option of the private hire associated with the desert tour guy for a disgusting $50 CDN for a one hour drive.
Our pick up was at 8:30 am. We woke up early and went to get our free breakfast that was included with our hotel price. Too bad everyone was still asleep, the hotel receptionist/chef passed out on the couch. Ok, no breakfast for us. Luckily the driver was SO nice and stopped for both coffee and breakfast for us, insisting that it would be cheaper if he went to buy it than us foreigners. Which he did, and paid as well! Our next stop on route to the desert was the very deserted visitors center where we had to buy our ticket. Normally apparently, alive with a pile of people at the very least, trying to solicit business from any last minute souls who showed up without a pre-booking but alas, not even those guys were there.
The Wadi Rum desert has been historically inhabited by the nomadic Bedouin people who basically were gypsies and roamed the desert setting up temporary camps wherever they went. This type of lifestyle continues in many parts of Jordan, however, some entrepreneurial Wadi Rum desert Bedouin have also started offering jeep tours through the spectacular desert scenery followed by overnight desert camping for tourists which was our plan. We were dropped off at this tiny tiny little town on the edge of the desert at our Bedouin businessman's house essentially. We sat inside the compound drinking Jordanian tea (it's incredible and flows nonstop in Jordan), chatting with a French girl who studies middle eastern studies and speaks Arabic so is living in the desert to continue to develop the language...crazy. Eventually we were met by our tour guide, the businessman's brother and Bridger and I were off into the desert, just the two of us in the back of the truck.
Over the day we stopped at a ton of different places to explore and take pictures. The scenery was absolutely spectacular and completely mind blowing, especially considering the vastness of it all as we continued to drive deeper and deeper into the desert.
The landscape of this desert shattered all our preconceived notions of what a desert was (loose, blowing sand and sand dunes like we experienced in Dubai). While there were places that were sand dune like, the desert was more mountainous with dry hard ground.
We passed through and climbed on "bridges" made of rock, giant rocks that were so eroded only small portions remained in contact with the ground, canyons, water sources high up on the mountain and we walked through this spectacular gorge to the other side which opened up into the most incredible view (again, pictures can't do even close justice) that screamed "Land Before Time/Great Valley"...seriously, to the point that I started to quote lines from the movie, much to Bridger's complete confusion.
At one point driving through the desert we ran into a herd of grown and baby camels. They were obviously owned by a Bedouin but were just loose to roam in the desert. Until our guide called them and then they came from all over, surrounding our jeep in the middle of the desert, waiting to be fed. It was kind of a highlight of the trip so far somehow haha. To have true, "free" camels, animals you usually only see in a zoo or circus or something, within their natural environment surrounding us just hanging out, looking at us, and at one point, I'm quite certain contemplating spitting on us as those cheeks were definitely puffed up.
Halfway through the day we stopped for lunch. The guide laid out a mat on the ground and we leaned up against a rock while he prepared lunch. After we just sat and/or napped on the mat and were surrounded by just silence from all directions, seemingly the only people for miles. It was pretty surreal and amazing. We stayed there for probably about an hour and a half. It definitely wasn't an action packed day, much more slower paced than I was expecting but more beautiful and tranquil than expected as well.
In the late afternoon we were dropped off at the camp, literally the only tourists there, one tent full out of about 20. As much as it was cool, I'm not gonna lie, it felt a little bit creepy! The camp was basic with a dining tent, several square tents big enough for a bed with a few feet on each side and a rudimentary window that swung open to get some airflow. The camp actually had much better bathrooms than expected with clean, flushing western toilets!
Anyways, we were basically set free to hang out and do whatever we wanted until dinner. So naturally, we started climbing up as high as we could on the cliff/rocks behind our camp. I spent an awful lot of time admiring the view and taking pictures and Bridger, in true man fashion, spent an awful lot of time behind me throwing and cracking rocks against other rocks. It was actually so fun to be up there and also afforded us an incredible viewpoint of the surrounding desert, especially as the sun started to set around us. We hung out here I'd say for a few hours until eventually other tourists from other jeeps started to flow in, alas, we were not the only ones which was really ok with me.
Now is the time where I tell you that, in true Jordanian style, the cost was outrageous for the product that you received for this desert tour. Don't get me wrong, the jeep tour and desert was hands down, amazing, we loved it and it sold itself...you couldn't really go wrong with it. Sleeping in the middle of a desert in a makeshift cloth camp also sold itself, it was awesome. But we were constantly left to wonder what exactly we were paying such exorbitant rates for?! Sure, we had a private desert tour but our guide was an absolute lump if not borderline assholeish. Where other guides were talking and laughing with their people, walking them down and around the sites and offering to take pictures for them, our loser guide stopped the truck and pointed which way to go and sent us on our way. Of course, not a huge problem in itself because we'd rather go alone anyways, but there wasn't really much by way of guiding or information sharing. We tried making conversation, especially over lunch but he was just so apathetic to Bridger's attempts and downright dismissive to me that we just gave up. And then he rolled over and had a nap for almost an hour. I wonder how many other peoples guides slept?! The evening at the camp consisted of the staff starting a fire and everyone sat around drinking tea and entertaining themselves. Then dinner was served, long awaited, and to be honest it was pretty gross and it's not like there was an abundance of food. So again, not much cost associated with meals. After this we expected some sort of entertainment or something but we were just kicked out of the dining tent back to the fire where the staff totally ignored everyone and just chatted with eachother in Arabic the whole time. Until a spider crawled across the sand, then they stomped it and went back to chatting. Ok, no entertainment budget worked in. Luckily there were some really cool people of all ages around so we chatted with the others. We actually met two Americans who were on internships in Amman to learn Arabic so eventually they could work in government and be effective liaisons. Very cool. Actually, on a sidenote, it's been crazy because we really don't meet too many backpacking Americans but when we do come across American's they are so often doing these amazing volunteer/internship projects. Anyways, eventually people just slowly started dismissing themselves to their tent and we followed suit at about 10 pm. Though it was actually so welcome, cozy and we slept like babies in the quiet! In the morning we ate a quick and equally lackluster breakfast and then were dropped off back in town by our guide with not even a goodbye. No tip for you, you prick!
We made it back in the am to catch the Wadi Rum to Petra bus that operated essentially only for tourists at a super inflated rate because locals wouldn't travel this route. We were lucky the bus ran that day at all because given teh lack of tourists in Jordan at the time, it apparently only arrived "sometimes". We were crossing our fingers because if it didn't arrive our options would be to spend another $50 some dollar night in the desert or a $70 some private taxi ride to Petra. It did and thankfully we were off to Wadi Musa to visit the ancient rock cut civilization of Petra. Most of Jordan is desert and our drive between Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa was no exception. Looking at both windows, we saw vast, dry land with tiny little dry shrubbery and donkeys and camels grazing in the field like you would see cows in Alberta.