Amman is such a tease. All day I am surrounded by palm trees, sand, and the stereotypical décor of a beach town, but no aquatic refuge in sight. To make matters worse, I have still had to adhere to the strict dress code of covering my legs, arms, and chest despite the stifling heat. I cannot begin to imagine living here during the peak of summer when temperatures break 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Dead Sea and the Red Sea are the only two accessible bodies of water where Jordanians can vacation and swim off the heat of the city.
During orientation, CIEE staff promoted Aqaba and said that many students take weekend trips there. Aqaba is the #1 resort destination in Jordan and is located in the south along the coast of the Red Sea. Across the sea you can see Israel and Egypt and just 10km east is Saudi Arabia. Traveling around Jordan has definitely helped my geographical perspective and made me realize how large the United States is and how small many of the countries in the Middle East are.
Caroline, Allison, and I decided to spend this past weekend on the beach in Aqaba as it would break up the time before we leave for Egypt in two weeks on Spring Break. A few of our friends had been to Aqaba the previous weekend so we heeded their suggestions on where to stay. We booked one triple room at hotel which claimed to be directly across the street from a beach. At only 12JD per person for one night, it was a steal. The bus ride from Amman to Aqaba was 8JD and lasted 4 hours. We took the most reputable bus service in Jordan which is comparable to Greyhound or Mega Bus in the states. Our friends had warned us to go to the station in advance to get our tickets and this is where the true adventure began.
After class on Thursday we ventured to Abdali to purchase our tickets for the 7am departure on Friday morning. There was no semblance of order in the office so we simply sat down and waited to observe the protocol for purchasing tickets. After a few minutes, a nice worker motioned us over and we explained what we wanted to buy. I even got to show off my Arabic skills when he asked us “خنسية” which means “nationality?” This had been a vocabulary word the previous week, so when my friends didn’t know what he was asking, I jumped in and saved the day! We didn’t entirely avoid being lost in translation, though. He wrote down our names directly from our driver’s licenses and apparently he didn’t think “Katie Collins” sounded like a believable name, so instead, he recorded my name as “Kenton” from the term “Kenton County” which is listed under my address. Similarly, he thought “Schmidbauer” seemed like a more American name than “Allison.” I can’t pretend to know typical Arab names, but isn’t the name of the license holder obvious when it is in the largest font on the license? Go figure.
We spent Thursday night in the city, getting into more shenanigans. Somehow we ended up buying corn off of the side of the street at 2:30am and then buying a veritable feast at 3am. About six of us vegged out and ate fries and chicken in my apartment until 3am when I kicked everyone out as I needed to wake up at 6am to catch our bus. This proved to be a slightly poor decision as I wouldn’t be getting as much sleep on the bus as I had planned.
I volunteered myself to sit next to the old Jordanian woman on the bus and let Caroline and Allison sit together. As it was 7am, I expected she would sleep or read or knit while I snoozed next to her. Instead, she insisted on poking me every 30 minutes throughout the 4 hour bus ride to ask a strange question. Did I mention she didn’t speak a word of English? All of the exchanges were in Arabic and it made me realize just how much Arabic I have learned. First, she asked if I had a baby, to which I replied, “No.” Then, she woke me up to ask which cities I have been to in Amman. Then, which cities I have been to in America. Rather than listing the 100s of cities I have visited, I kept the list short at “New York and Chicago.” She was a big fan of Chicago (somehow most Jordanians are). An hour later, she woke me up again to ask if I bought my wallet in Chicago. I said yes for simplicity’s sake. She wanted to show me what she bought in Chicago. She fumbled through her large purse and pulled out a bottle of asprin. Jordan is one of the most medically advanced countries in the Middle East and the cold medicine I bought worked exponentially better than that in America, so I’m not sure why she liked American asprin better.
The rest of the bus ride followed in a similar fashion as I realized halfway through that my Jordanian cell phone was getting random calls from someone named Khalid. This was surprising as I do not know anyone named Khalid, nor have I ever entered him into my contact list. After some investigation, I realized my friend Joey and I had accidentally swapped phones. CIEE gave us all identical phones during orientation, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected. We finally arrived in Aqaba around 12:30pm.
Our hotel was eclectic and charming. It was decorated in hand painted buildings and had a very beachy feel. The only downside was that our toilet had major malfunctions and the location was in “South Beach” which is 14km away from the center of town. We dropped our bags off and then followed the front desk’s advice to try the beach across the road. During midday, it was packed with Jordanians. This baffled us as we were told that Aqaba and was a touristy town filled with Europeans. The Jordanians gawked at us walking through the beach in shorts. We tried to find an isolated spot, but the harassment only worsened when we took off our cover ups and tried to tan in bathing suits. We tried to ignore the passing comments of “Hello!! Hello ladies!!!” and “Very nice… beautiful!!!” all said with heavy Arabic accents, but the final straw was when a group of 12 year old boys insisted on throwing rocks at Caroline and Allison who were wearing bikinis. The weather was also quite cloudy, so we decided to chalk the beach up to a loss and go into town in search of shopping and dinner.
Following the instructions that we could wear typical beach clothes in Aqaba, I only brought a sleeveless dress to wear to dinner. It was perfect for the weather but definitely a bad decision considering the culture. While walking through town, Allison was extremely amused by the looks I was getting from hijabi women. The worst, though, was when we walked past two girls who appeared to be our age. As we passed, one mumbled “haram” under her breath and then later, once we had passed, she turned around and yelled it at me. “Haram” basically means, “forbidden” and is used when someone is wearing something more revealing than they should be. I can only assume that these women were fellow travelers from Amman who did not know to expect the Western tourists to wear less modest clothing. We passed several groups of other Americans/Europeans who were wearing similar dresses or even strapless dresses! I guess there is a disconnect between what the guidebooks and travel companies are telling Westerners to wear in Aqaba and what is actually appropriate. This minor distraction didn’t subtract from our weekend! We still had a great time in town, discovering the city and its delicious smoothies.
Back at the hotel, we spent the evening sitting in the café and drinking tea. At one point, one of the employees approached us and asked about our opinion of his earlier recommendation of the beach. We continued to chat until the conversation took a turn for the strange and he said to me, “Can I tell you something, honestly? God made no mistakes when he made you.” A horribly awkward silence ensued until I mustered up a halfhearted, “thank you….” And then asked if he knew the wifi password. I have nothing against compliments but not when they are given in front of my friends and by an employee of the hotel I am staying at!
The next morning we decided to try the beach again, but this time, to stay directly across from the hotel in hopes that the other guests would follow suit. We found ourselves surrounded by French and Portuguese families wearing bikinis and speedos. Finally, it felt like home! We spent several hours on the beach until 4pm when we went into town to catch our bus. Our taxi into down didn’t fail to be amusing. As we climbed in the back, the creepy driver enthusiastically said “Ladies! Ladies! Ladies! Where are you from?!” As soon as we replied, “America,” he said, “Oh… the police of the war,” and didn’t speak to us for the rest of the trip. Thank god!
The ride back to Jordan was uneventful. Allison and I mostly talked the entire time and ate the snacks we smuggled onboard. I went to bed as soon as we arrived home at 11pm. I can’t wait for the weekends when I can actually sleep in! Next weekend Allison’s friend who is studying in Egypt is visiting so we will show her around Amman. It is crazy to think that in exactly two weeks I will be in Egypt myself!