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Published: October 1st 2017
Geo: 29.0488, 34.6565
Wake to lovely sunrise over Red Sea. Delish breakfast, then 9am departure. Once again, we have our private security officer, crammed into the front seat of the van between the driver and the transfer agent. Why do I feel less secure with armed personnel in the van with us? (Or does that question answer itself?)
The drive through Sinai is beautiful - cliffs streaked with reds and cocoa browns against a deep blue sky. But everything is so dry. A few lone thorn trees against the cliffs, or a bush here and there. All erosion appears to be from wind, not water - although we do pass over a few river beds of indeterminate age. With less than 100mm of rain each year, however, it's hard to imagine how much water flows across this landscape.
At every crossroads, we pass through a security checkpoint. Our private security guard hands over a pass at each point. When we reach Nuweiba, we are taken to an empty hotel (one of many seemingly empty hotels along a strip of beach, accessible from a dirt road) where we are to wait until the ferry to Aqaba departs. It is very pleasant, sitting along pillows in the shade, sheltered from the cold breeze. A few urchins stand on the beach, trying to sell us stuff, but they do not approach. We order Turkish coffees and settle in for what we are told will be a couple of hours' wait.
After an hour, however, we are told it is time to leave, as the ferry will be departing early, due to bad weather in Aqaba. We return to the van and drive to the ferry terminal. First, we are told that we need to wait for prayers to finish, then we will board the ferry. When prayers finish, we still wait. Our guide gets out to talk to port personnel - and we learn the ferry has just left. The next ferry will depart at 4:30pm (about 3 hours from now). In the meantime ... shrug.
After about an hour of waiting in the van while the guide, Wafiz, tries to figure out what is going on, we return to the same hotel for lunch. We are joined by a Belgian family, suffering under the same predicament. The food is quite tasty, and for a total of US$13, we get lunch for the four of us, our driver, our guide, and our security officer.
We eventually return to the ferry terminal and are very happy we have Wafiz to help us negotiate the "Egyptian system" as he calls it. First, we have to have our luggage scanned, but there is no one there to run the machine. Other people are entering through a different gate, but we do not seem to have the option to go there. Some shouting, some running around, some one appears, and we (plus the Belgian family) are scanned. We get back into the van, which has come through a different gate, and are driven to the ferry terminal itself. Here, we pass through immigration - Paul and I first, then the Belgian adults, the their child, then our two kids. We are told to wait in a dim room on very hard wooden benches. After 10 minutes or so, however, an officer appears and tells us to move to the waiting room on the other side of immigration, where, we are told, it is much cleaner. Here, at least, there are seats, not benches. While we wait, we read, play word games, and write a "moveable feast" story - where each writes a sentence at a time, trying to add to what has been written before. The Belgian child plays UNO with the drivers and guides, keeping everyone amused. We are allowed to wander back and forth through the immigration control for exercise. We also have a conversation with a Peruvian and a Jordanian, traveling together.
Finally, a little after 7pm, it is time to go to the ferry. We had clearly been kept in the non-Egyptian waiting room, as there are many, many other people boarding the ferry. Once on board, the foreigners (ourselves, the Belgian family, the Peruvian man, plus two South Africans and an American backpacker, who have been sitting by themselves in the waiting lounge) are herded together - maybe to a place where the waiters speak English? But we are also kept under a different immigration protocol, as our passports are taken from us, receipted, and will be returned, we are informed, only again in Aqaba. So perhaps it helps them to keep us together as a group.
The trip is fine. We spend our remaining Egyptian pounds at the snack bar (which is decorated with tinsel and a Christmas tree). We chat with the three backpackers; the two from Cape Town have taken 14 months to travel the length of Africa and are now heading for further adventures to the east. We also work more on our moveable feast story, which is growing increasingly crazy. When we reach Aqaba, we sit for about 20 minutes while a few small groups of Arabs are called. Then, we are told it is time for general disembarkation.
There is a mass scramble for the exits. We have trouble staying together as a family, but we manage. We find our luggage downstairs on the car deck (again, the luggage of the foreigners are kept separately from the luggage of everyone else), and - hurray - our driver is waiting for us at the end of the ramp. We introduce ourselves, he nods, and we run, literally, to the van. We throw in our bags and, while everyone coming off the ship begins running towards a building, we are driven there. Already, the line for customs and immigration is horrendous - but our driver tells us to grab our bags, and we go in a different entrance than everyone else. Once inside, we see three entry stations: labeled "Jordanians", "Arab Nationals", and "Foreigners". No one is in the Jordanian line; we are the only ones in the Foreigner line. It is the line for Arab Nationals that reaches far back into the darkness of the port.
Our driver, Mojdi, introduces us to another person, whose name I never catch. Apparently, this person will guide us through Immigration and Customs while Mojdi drives the van around to meet us on the other side. The new person tells us to wait for our passports, which the police will bring. Two minutes later, he reappears, saying our passports have been stamped. Now, to Customs.
All three lines leaving Immigration come together to go through a single scanner. About 20 people wait for the Customs officer. Our guide, however, grabs my bag and says, "Follow me." He takes us past everyone waiting to the front of the line, and our bags are scanned immediately. While waiting for my bags to be scanned, he tells me that we will next need to go to an inspector, who will probably open one or two of our bags. My bag comes out of the scanner, and our guide grabs it. He heads for the Customs inspection area, where one of the inspectors sits idle. Our guide talks to the officer in charge, clearly saying that we wants us to be inspected by someone else. Soon, another officer is free, and our guide takes my bag to that officer. The kids are right behind me, but Paul's bag is still being scanned. I hear our guide say that we are Americans (thank goodness that word is the same in Arabic), and the customs inspector waves us through. The entire process is completed before Paul has emerged from the scanning room. The guide turns to me and says about the inspector, "He is a very good man." Well, clearly! I just wonder what all the waiting Arab Nationals felt about our special treatment.
We pop out a door and pile into our van. One more stop: the car inspection. Although the military officer looks at each passport and each passenger carefully, we are only stopped for two minutes or so. Then our passports are finally returned to us and we are waved out of the port of Aqaba. We have not seen a sign of the Belgian family or South Africans.
Our guide chats briefly with us, saying that he lives in Aqaba and only leaves town every few years. He is not happy that Aqaba is now a tax-free haven, believing that is had become too crowded and too expensive. We drop him at his apartment, without having time to thank him properly. Downtown is very busy, and the Christmas lights along the street are disconcerting, although Mojdi tells us that Jordanians like to celebrate Christmas, no matter their religion. In the distance, we can see Eliat, Israel.
We begin the long drive to Petra, in the dark. As we climb into the mountains, it becomes foggy. Eventually, we reach our hotel at the gates of Petra (it is a beautiful hotel). The security here is more intense than it was in Egypt. The armed guards open the van and inspect backpacks, shopping bags, the glove box. They then open the gate, we get our bags, and we enter a tent in the middle of the circular drive (now closed off by a barrier of potted plants). Our bags and scanned and our hand luggage inspected. But once we are inside, we are greeted by Swiss hospitality.
Soon, we are in our rooms, where a delicious dinner of pita, hummus, motabal, labna, vegetables, and fruit greet us. Paul and I tuck in, but, tasty as it is, we are tired and soon fall asleep.
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