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Out of the Frying Pan into the Aqaba

We awoke once again at the Valantine hotel in Wadi Musa, and finding the hotel room no less grubby and uncomfortable than before, promptly checked out.

We loaded our stuff unto the cycles and headed down into the city to find food and then a bus station. We decided that asking directions to the bus station was best, since food would undoubtedly present itself en-route.

And it did. We settled down at a road side café, to drink a little coffee and feast on our standard meal of pastes and bread. Scott’s new hair and jagged beard were no less inspiring than they had been the day before, and as we munched breakfast, I found the hair on his head to have an effect somewhat like an orchestra crescendo or a particularly charismatic marching band on my demeanor. I couldn’t wait to get out of Wadi Musa and move on to more hospitable zones.

The bus station proved to be not too far outside of town, and it was easier to get to than it had been in Amman. We were in luck. We arrived just as a bus was loading with people to head to our next destination, a city called Aqaba. Finding the bus was easy. Getting tickets for anything close to the price a local would pay was a completely different story.

The ticket seller and driver of the bus had no shame in resorting to theatrics. They made all kinds of comments in English, punctuated with swears in Arabic, about our bicycles, the size of our backpacks, the recent changes in the price of gas, and the like. We stuck to our guns though, attempting to meet snarls with giggles, pacing around hoping that time was on our side, and eventually folding up the bikes to show him how small they got. This bus, unlike the one we had taken to get to Wadi Musa, had a roof luggage rack, which meant that there was also no reason for us to buy extra seats.

In the end, with the help of Claudia’s Arabic skills, and some polling of our fellow passengers as to how much they paid for their tickets, the powers that be were willing to reduce the price for us. And so we sealed the deal. I then climbed up onto the top of the bus, followed by Claudia. Scott handed the bikes up to us, and I used our bungees, supplemented by a spool of rope that the bus operator grumpily threw up at me to secure the bikes to the rack that was bolted onto the top of our bus.

With the bikes secured, I headed uphill to use the bathroom, while Scott and Claudia chatted with a very interestingly dressed, and massively sunglassed fellow. I managed to gain admission to a billiards hall not far from the station, where I was invited to use the bathroom, offered tea, and invited to discuss football. It was World Cup time, and Jordan was aflame with soccer fever. I failed miserably in having anything intelligent to say about the World Cup, but my business card was extremely popular among the clientele, who went to great lengths to show me how they were secretly drinking vodka from a bottle in a black plastic bag in the corner. The owner offered to walk me back to the bus, explaining that these men were bad Muslims, but very good customers.

I bid the billiards shop owner goodbye and joined Scott and Claudia to climb onto the bus. And with that we relaxed into the bumpy climb out of the valley that held Wadi Musa and across the desert toward the coastal town of Aqaba. While I had been in the billiards hall, Scott and Claudia had made good friends with the well dressed and massively sunglassed fellow, who now rode with us on the bus. He explained that he was a bartender in Aqaba, an unusual job for an Arab. He also wore a pair of very expensive looking Italian shoes, which Claudia had fallen in love with. He promised to show her where to buy them in Aqaba.

As I worked to unfasten the bikes from the roof rack of the bus, the driver yelled up at me to hurry. Not a very relaxed guy this one. I paid him no heed and took my time.

Our well healed and sun-glassed friend disclosed, as we were strapping our things to the cycle’s racks, that he knew of a cheap hotel, not far from here. So we followed him down the road. Aqaba was interesting. It was very hot, and quite humid. The sun blazed, and expensive cars whipped by us. This city was very close to the boarder of Saudi Arabia, and was rumored to be a kind of B-level Saudi vacation spot. Sounded like a place for AsiaWheeling.

The hotel he showed us to was not incredibly expensive, but not quite as cheap as what we were seeking. And unless prices had risen steeply since the articles we had read about this place on the web were written, we felt we could find a much cheaper joint… maybe even with Internet. It had been some time since we’d indulged in that luxury.

So we headed off, wheeling fully loaded, and stopping in hotel after hotel. None of them seemed to have Internet, but we were beginning to find cheaper options, which was encouraging from a budgeting standpoint, if not from that of  corresponding with you, dear reader. When the first three had no Internet, we gave up on that requirement, and began to select a hotel based purely on quality and price.

Eventually we settled on a very nice and delightfully affordable place, by the name of the Amira Hotel, which had been coincidentally run by another immigrant to Jordan from Egypt. We were beginning to learn that Egyptians offered us invariably a special deal based on Claudia’s experience in Egypt and her Egyptified Arabic. We were instantly celebrities at the hotel, offered a prime spot in the lobby to park the cycles, and shown, dripping with sweat from our ride, up to the room where we gratefully dropped our things down onto a giant king-sized bed, which dominated the room, shrinking even further the tiny table and dorm sized bed with which it shared the space.

Though the temptation to relax into the air-conditioning was great, we decided to put it off and take advantage of the last bits of sunlight to do a little bit of wheeling in Aqaba. The first goal would, of course, be to find and consume some more food, which turned out, as was becoming the trend in Jordan, to be an easy, delicious, but none too cheap task.

After another standard meal of pastes, breads and oil, we hit the road. The streets here in Aqaba were wide, recently paved, and gentle on the cycles in a way that those in Wadi Musa had not been. We took the cycles around in a big, loop, searching in vain for the fabled Aqaba coastline. We did not find the coast, but we did stumble across an interesting looking coffee shop, from which a fellow called out “AsiaWheeling!” as we drove by. This is always reason enough for a waypoint in our book, so we headed over to investigate.

It turned out to be a café run by none other than the best friend (and possibly lover) of the well healed fellow we had met on the bus here. We began chatting with them and soon found ourselves compelled to be their guests. So we took our cups of complimentary coffee and sat down to listen to the proprietor play us a tune on his Jordanian oud.

The coffee was great: thick, black and just barely sweet.  We were plenty amped by the time we managed to wheel away from this social engagement. Before we departed, which was by the way no small task, we asked for directions to the seaside.

Now we had read online, and it had been corroborated by Jordanians on the bus and in Wadi Musa that there was no such thing as a public beach in Aqaba. We are pleased to announce this is resoundingly untrue. There is a giant public beach in Aqaba.

In fact, it was quite the popular place. We pulled off the busy main road and onto a paved beach-side walkway, to wheel along at a slower pace, and take in the coastline. Most of the bathers were men, but some were women. Most of the women chose not to enter the water, keeping their bodies covered in the traditional way. But a few of them chose to use a certain halal wetsuit-type bathing outfit, which was totally fascinating. It seemed also that the Hotel Previa culture was alive and well here, as evidenced by this sign.

We pulled over at a very strange restaurant so I could use the bathroom, and when I emerged this fellow was riding Claudia’s cycle. He appeared to have enjoyed it greatly, and we explained to his great chagrin the folding capabilities and the jaw-dropping nature of the in-seat air pump. With another local sufficiently impressed by the majesty of the Speed TR, we got back on the road.

A few kilometers down from the beach, we took a moment to quell our urge to visit Saudi Arabia. They of course would not let us in. In fact, they don’t even issue tourist visas. But that was just all the more reason to want to go. “One day…” we told ourselves.

The sun was hanging low, so we headed back to the Amira to drop off the cycles. After a brief recuperation and frustrating battle with the reluctant air conditioner, we headed out on foot in search of food and further adventure.

Aqaba is a city that does not shut down in the evenings. As we headed out, we found it to be every bit as crowded as during the day, perhaps even more, with most of the shops still open, now brightly lit. There was some interesting, NRA style graffiti on the whitewashed walls, which we stopped to inspect as we rounded the corner onto a street filled with freshly roasted nut merchants.

The smell of nuts was so strong; it had us uncontrollably salivating before we even reached the first vendor. Luckily, all the shops were more than happy to give out samples. The nuts were piping hot and delicious. So we bought a mixed bag, and headed on in search of more snacks.

Next we found a shop with this giant chunk of homemade halva, of which we would certainly need a piece. We supplemented that with some drinks and chips, headed back to the hotel to call it dinner.


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