Jumbo Hostel

Last Friday Oscar and I boarded a bus to Stockholm, ready to begin a great weeklong vacation in Jordan. Being that Stockholm is a 4-5 hour drive from Jönköping and we had a fairly early morning flight, we had to find a place to stay for the night. We decided to splurge a bit to stay right next to the airport and to have a bit of a fun experience at the same time, and we stayed at Jumbo Hostel, a hotel/hostel in an old 747 airplane. It was pretty cool, our room still having the original overhead baggage hold and windows, along with some nice new extras like a small flat screen TV and cozy bunk beds.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our free breakfast and then the shuttle to the airport. I was definitely looking forward to a break from the freezing cold winter of Sweden! Check-in at the airport went fairly smoothly, except that the woman checking us in decided that my backpack (which isn’t even a big backpack) was “odd-sized/special luggage” and we had to go take it to some other part of the airport to check it. I had some mild worries that it wouldn’t arrive to Aqaba with us, but it did.

Otherwise, this was my first experience with charter travel. We booked a really cheap flight/hotel package with Apollo, a Swedish/Scandinavian travel company. I had thought it was so strange that when we booked the trip we were told it was a direct flight to Aqaba (“Impossible!” I thought) and given a flight number, yet if we went to the SAS website and searched, there was no record of such a flight. I had no idea how this whole charter thing worked, in that the travel company books an entire flight and then sells the seats off to their customers. Hence, booking last minute is quite cheap as they try to sell off as many of the leftover seats as possible.

Rock bridge in Wadi Rum

Of course, being on SAS this also meant no complimentary food or beverages, which of course cost a ridiculous amount to buy in-flight. The flight was about six hours, but went by fairly quickly. And when we landed everyone clapped, which apparently is a charter thing (where I come from, that means the flight was terrible and everyone’s just happy to be alive). Disembarking at Aqaba’s King Hussein International Airport, I was reminded a lot of Morocco. The airport was…MASSIVE. Just kidding! It was tiny. In fact, we walked inside directly to an empty room where we were corralled in to have our passports stamped, then moved immediately into “baggage claim” — i.e. a room with one tiny baggage claim and a duty free shop.

Despite being the only plane at the airport, it still took a while for us to get our bags, and then everyone had to wait for everyone else to get their bags before the buses left to the respective hotels. We had gotten the cheapest deal by choosing “unspecified” boarding, basically having no idea where we would live under the assumption that they couldn’t possibly put is into too bad of a hotel. So we were handed a packet telling us we would be staying in the hotel Aquamarina IV and within a half hour we were in the city of Aqaba checking into our home for the next week.

Running down a huge sand dune in Wadi Rum

That night we walked around a bit, mostly up and down our street, and tried to get accustomed to this new place. I find that I always experience the most culture shock when I arrive somewhere at night, and Oscar was experiencing some as well having traveled a bit less. Walking down the street, it felt like everyone was staring at us, every taxi driver was yelling to us, and everyone was shouting to us “Swedish? Where you from? Sweden?” (This was quite a new experience for me!) We didn’t realize at the time, though it’s obvious to me now, that this was especially bad that night because they all knew that Saturday night was the night all the Swedish people arrive. I think charter flights from Scandinavia are the main source of tourism for Aqaba, as most other people fly in and out of Amman and may not even make it down to Aqaba at all.

So we grabbed a delicious meal — I am a sucker for Middle Eastern cuisine — and headed back to the hotel, having experience a sufficient amount of discomfort in our new country for the night.  The next day held a similar amount of harassment from taxi drivers and such, but again it was because everyone in Aqaba knew it was our first day there, and it was amazing how much it decreased after that day (mostly because most of the drivers had found their clients and were gone from the city taking people to Petra or the Dead Sea).

Red Sea shore (Israel across the way)

We further explored the city that day, walking along the shore to the famed flagpole. According to Jordanians it is the tallest free standing flagpole in the world. (According to wikipedia, it’s the second tallest.) Sadly, there was no flag on the pole. We were told by various people that it was being replaced, but in our entire time in Aqaba (including the one glorious day when we could actually see the pole from our room at the Mövenpick) there never was a flag flying. Apparently, though, when it is up the flag can be seen from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Jordan. Impressive!

After further exploration, and a delicious 30 cent falafel breakfast/lunch, we donned our swimsuits and grabbed a cab to Japanese Garden, a public beach known for its snorkeling. The beach wouldn’t make it on any top ten lists, and unfortunately the shore and the water were dirty and littered. There were little kids playing in the water collecting cans and other trash. We rented snorkel gear, but for 4JD (equal to 4 euros) it was a rip off considering the bad condition of the gear. The snorkel wasn’t even connected to the mask, and Oscar’s had a hole in it.

In the end, I didn’t even go snorkeling (and sadly, we ended up never going later on like we planned — looks like Red Sea snorkeling with remain on my to-do list).Oscar said it was cool, but even he got a little claustrophobic by how high the coral was, and that’s my one problem when snorkeling. I was also getting over a cold and didn’t want to make it worse. I did go in the water a bit though — couldn’t miss my first chance to say I’d been in the Red Sea! Another cool thing about the beach was that we could see both Israel and Egypt across the water from us. Eilat, Israel is pretty easy to see from anywhere on the coast in Aqaba, but it was cool to have (just the vaguest) glimpse of Egypt, though the visibility wasn’t the great that afternoon.

We headed back to the city just before sunset and grabbed dinner and our first “hubbly bubbly” in Jordan (aka hookah, shisha, argeela), and Oscar’s first ever. It was nice, and Oscar really liked it. I have done it a number of times before, but being just the two of us we had to smoke more and I found after a while it made me tired and a little icky feeling and had to stop. But anyways, it’s something you have to do, a very popular and important part of culture in Jordan and the Middle East in general. We also stopped in at a bar, Sea View Bar, that Oscar had been recommended. It had nice views of the city but the beer was really expensive, more than we would even pay at home!

The next day we spent some more time checking out Aqaba. That morning we received some fairly heavy rain, much more than Aqaba was equipped to deal with (the worst rain in ten years, we later learned). Walking by a mosque we saw that the rain had caused much of the roof to collapse in — we couldn’t believe it! The streets and sidewalks were flooded all over the place. I’ve never seen a place so ill-equipped for rain. Though this wasn’t to be our last experience of how unprepared the area was for rain.

Fresh market

We spent the morning exploring the commercial side of Aqaba (which is a duty free zone, by the way). We were intrigued by the poorly-named Dream Mall, which turned out to be one of the lamest malls I’ve ever been to. Then we checked out the commercial center, which was home to places like Burger King, Popeye’s, Pizza Hut, and Gloria Jean’s Coffee. We eventually ditched the commercialism for a falafel from a place that Oscar had discovered the night before — 50 cents (by the end of our trip we were getting the local price of 25 cents!) and the most popular joint in the area (Oscar was personally shown to it when he asked another restaurant owner where he could get a falafel!)

We spent the afternoon exploring the markets in Aqaba, enjoying being one of few tourists around. We both think that Aqaba hasn’t yet realized how much they can exploit tourism (which is refreshing!) but we can only imagine how much it will change in the next ten years once tourism really booms. Shopping around, vendors were honest and friendly, not at all harassing us, trying to rip us off, or trying to bargain hard with us. Most were glad if we were interested, but didn’t care if we weren’t. It was a huge difference from Morocco!

Wadi Rum

That night we booked a two day tour to Wadi Rum and Petra for the next days. The next morning we were packed and ready to head out to the desert by early afternoon. Wadi Rum is a protected desert not far from Aqaba and it’s pretty famous for its rock formations, reminding me a lot of places out in the Western U.S.

Once we arrived to the entrance we were moved into two “jeeps,” which were really pickup trucks with benches in the back. We ended up in a truck full of Swedes and Norwegians, which was a little frustrating to me because they all spoke in Swedish/Norwegian (mutually understandable languages) to each other and I was totally left out of all conversation, while the other truck had everyone else (Chinese, English, Danish).

The desert was incredibly beautiful…and incredibly cold. At first it was fine, just a bit chilly when we were driving, but as the day went on it got cooler (I believe mostly because of the previous day’s rain, and the gray clouds that remained). We saw some really amazing rock formations though, got to climb a huge sand dune, a rock bridge, and visit the House of Lawrence. Oscar and I even got dressed up in traditional bedouin clothing! Unfortunately a lot of those pictures are lost (see The Story of the Theft).

The "jeeps"

We braved the cold to watch the sunset, then huddled together in the back of the truck for the (what seemed like eternal) drive to our camp for the night. Luckily we had anticipated some cold of course (it’s the desert at night!) but even under my layers of clothing I was still cold. The fact that everything was wet from the previous day’s rain didn’t help.

We huddled around the fire while we ate dinner and put off going to bed too early. I was cold and exhausted, and mainly listened as our guide talked a bit about Jordan and Jordanian culture. We did take a few minutes to stand out and look at the stars. Though I’m sure they must have been impressive, I was so cold that I, lover of stargazing, didn’t much care. I have to say, I spent a night in the Sahara, spending almost the entire night out under the stars, and don’t remember being cold at all! Hm.

Bedouin camp

Eventually we all wandered off to bed, and Oscar and I tried to figure out the best way to spend the night in our cold, wet bedouin tent. I imagine the camp and the whole experience is usually a lot more fun. We just happened to be there probably the one of less than a handful of nights in a year where it’s rained and is freezing (not to mention it was winter, if that makes any kind of difference).

The next day we were up early for a pretty dismal breakfast and then the drive to Petra, one of the new seven wonders of the world (I’m now three for seven). The entrance was quite expensive, at 33JD for the day (and it will be rising to 50JD in November), though it included (minus tips) a horse ride to the Siq (the gorge where the actual entrance to Petra begins) and tour. However, after our horsemen forced us to give them 4JD tips each (for a <10 minute ride, where mine didn’t even walk with me nor stop the horse when it randomly decided to start galloping and nearly give me a heart attack), we decided to skip out on the tour and explore it for ourselves.

The Siq (gorge entrance)

Walking through the long gorge entrance, Oscar and I were already fascinated. Every window or set of steps we discovered carved into the rock wall was an exciting new thing we had to take a photo with (which of course led to Oscar’s camera dying prematurely and me taking all the photos…which are now probably deleted or lying at the bottom of a trash heap). Admittedly, neither of us knew much about Petra. I had only read bits and pieces about it, and had only seen a picture of the Treasury, which is the first thing you see upon entering the actual city.

After taking our sweet time through the gorge, we spotted it: the Treasury. The first glimpse was between the two narrow rock walls, and it was spellbinding. Of course, once you’re closer you spot groups of people as well, but they can’t even take away from the majesty of it. A huge, magnificent building carved into this massive pink rock wall. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to create.

We spent some time taking pictures and admiring it, then decided to move along and see what else there was to see. In my mind, I was already satisfied, I’d already “seen Petra.” I had no idea. A twist and a turn around some rock, and we were met with the REAL beginnings of a city. Huge steps leading who knows where, facade after facade carved into the rock walls, huge buildings hovering in the rock above, seemingly unreachable to us. There were tons of little holes dotted in the rock as far as the eye could see, all former homes. There was even an arena, again carved entirely of rock! We were smitten.

Spotting the Treasury

Of course we were immediately climbing all over everything, ducking into every opening. We were explorers in a forgotten land. We sniffed around, found a stairway, climbed it, found another, climbed it. Before we knew it, we were off in the far reaches, exploring the huge buildings we had seen from below, wondering at how to possibly reach them, and we were all alone! No other tourists were venturing off the track as much as we.

Of course we snapped a million pictures, posing in windows and doorways, overlooking the huge and beautiful city of Petra below us….I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the loss of some of those photos. They were so great. We walked into temples that most people hadn’t even realized they could go inside and took picture posing as statues on top of old columns that had long lost their original sculptures.

Petra was amazing. Even in the on-and-off rain we experienced most of the day, it couldn’t put a damper on our explorer spirits. One guy in our group, who we talked with later, lamented that Petra was crowded and dirty. I can agree to an extent…yes, there are people (it’s one of the wonders of the world!), but considering the size (compared to, say, any of the other wonders except the Great Wall) you can easily escape the big tour groups and find a place all to yourself. And as for dirty, yes some of the buildings were filled with water bottles, empty snack bags, and other trash, but considering the increasing price tag they’re putting on the entrance, I think maybe this will improve.

The Treasury, in all its glory

But Petra, oh Petra, none of that bothered us. Our group had been given six hours to spend in Petra, and I had thought that would be overkill, but I could have easily spent a couple days. After a ton of walking, there were still plenty of places to visit. We quickly learned, though, that the must-do was the monastery.

We ignored all the men trying to hawk us a ride on their mules, but we should have realized what that meant. They told us it took an hour to climb up to the monastery, but we were sure they were exaggerating to try to get us to pay for a ride. Well, they weren’t. The climb is over 800 steps, not to mention plenty of non-stepped uphill climbing. And since you can’t see your destination, you have no idea how much longer you’re going to be climbing.

By the time we got to the top, we were impressed by the monastery (again, no pictures, but it’s like the treasury but at least twice as big) but exhausted. But we couldn’t give up then. It seemed the real place to be was at the top of a small mountain across from the monastery.

And so our climbing continued, and by the time we reached the top we had it all to ourselves. The spot had great views of the valley and desert on the other side, not to mention of the monastery. We had some really excellent pictures of us sitting beneath the Jordanian flag with the monastery behind us (sorry so bitter!).

Lovely Petra

Then it started to rain. We hid in a cave for a while until it started to let up, and thankfully it stopped by the time we started climbing down (that could have been disastrous — on our climb up we witnessed at least three people fall!) Once we reached the bottom we were already running low on time. We dragged our exhausted legs the long walk back (the Siq is LONG, and our horsemen refused to take us back because we argued about the tip!)

It was a great, great day, but the end of it was a little scary. We were loaded into a van and two cars to drive back to Aqaba. The first part of the drive, along the King’s Highway, is a little bit scary on its own, winding along cliffs. Add to this the pouring, pouring rain, thick fog, AND the fact that our van’s windows were 100% fogged up and no amount of wiping or opening side windows would de-fog it (and of course the defroster didn’t work). Numerous times the worrying mothers in our van insisted that the driver stop and call for another car to get us, but he refused. I admit, there were a few times where I really started to worry for our safety, and imagined our car sliding and flying off a cliff, never to be seen again.

Luckily, once we got off the King’s Highway the weather and the car windows cleared up a bit, the roads were much safer, and we made it back to Aqaba safely. The next day we learned that some of the people from the van had complained and were meeting with the owner of the tour company (coming down form Amman) to demand a refund, but Oscar and I had a date with the Dead Sea the day of their meeting and so we never did find out how that went.

The "beach" at Aquamarina I

The next day we needed a break, so we stayed in Aqaba. We realized that the hotel book said that our sister hotel, Aquamarina I, had a beach and we could get a pass from the reception and use it. A private beach, how exciting! So we donned our beach gear and walked out to Aquamarina I. Well. The “beach” had a nice sign above the entrance to it stating “THE BEACH.” It needed that sign. Because the beach was actually a huge slab of concrete, hanging out over the water. We couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief, and lay out our towels on the hard concrete. It was nice to sit in the sun for a bit, but we got pretty bored of the concrete pretty quick.

Our taste of the lame sparked our desire to see how the other half lived, so we stopped into the lobby of the neighboring InterContinental. Here we learned what all the surrounding construction was about, and learned that our sad little Aquamarina I would not be around much longer. In the lobby they had a model of an entire tourist city that was being built on the edge of Aqaba, complete with waterpark, shopping mall, condos, five-star hotels, and even sea huts (built over the water, as they were actually bringing the Red Sea inland a bit so they could have a place for all the private yachts and stuff). It was pretty insane.

View of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo

After that we decided to also check out the other super nice five star hotel, the Mövenpick. We walked in (after going through the super security just to get inside — which I of course now greatly appreciate!) and started to make our way across the bridge to where the pools and beach were, but we saw the security guy at the end and immediately felt, “Wow, we don’t belong here!” Funny how a few days later we would be staying there!

We called it an early night because the next morning we had a bright and early wakeup call for our daytrip to the Dead Sea We had found two elderly Danish men to share a cab with, and we set off for a bit of a drive up the edge of Jordan. The Dead Sea is quite big, and appears on the side of the road long before you reach where you can bathe. But we were saving that for later anyways. First we drove to Mt. Nebo, where it is said that God showed Moses the Holy Land, and where Moses is apparently buried (though no one knows where). It was interesting, really great views but it was hazy enough that we couldn’t see Jerusalem or much of the other places in the Promised Land panorama.

Taking in the view from Mt. Nebo

Our old Danish friends wanted to visit Madaba, so we went there next. Well, luckily our driver knew what most people go to Madaba for and dropped us off in front of the church, because it seemed when we arrived the Danes had no idea what there actually was to do there. We went into the church and looked at a mosaic on the floor that was a map of the Promised Land (which the Danes had shown us a picture of in their Jordan book, yet they didn’t even seem to recognize until I mentioned it to them!) and then we were off again.

I was a little miffed at first because there was a 15JD entrance fee to the Amman Beach on the Dead Sea and our driver had told us it was free, but we had such a great time there that I forgive it now. (I just don’t forgive the thieves who ensured that we have no pictures of it!!!)

The Dead Sea (saaaltyyy!)

The Dead Sea was, in two words, ridiculously awesome. Looking at it, Oscar and I questioned if it was really as floaty as it was reputed to be. We had no idea what to expect, really. You can walk in (though the first couple meters are a maze of crusted salt to navigate over) but as soon as the bottom leaves your feet, you sure do float! And certainly floating on your back is the best way to give in to the salty sea’s control.

You can balance yourself to “stand” in the water, but it requires a bit more concentration. Oscar and I did some ballroom dancing in the water which was fun. It’s definitely a nice place to be with someone else to try out different ways of floating with each other, on each other, entangled with each other, and practice some synchronized floating.

Of course, the salt is a little painful on any areas that are cut or dry, but I didn’t feel much of any pain. The one thing I had read was the thing to do was to cover yourself in Dead Sea mud. There were plenty of people (mostly heavy men) covered head to toe, even all over their bathing suits, in black mud. But we then found that it was 3JD a person to use it (they had a huge vat of it) and we hadn’t even brought in any more money.

Us at the Dead Sea

So we decided to take some initiative and dig up some mud from the bottom ourselves. We were nowhere near covered, we probably looked more like we were attempting some kind of tribal paint, but it was fun! And it was more fun watching the chubby men out in the water flipping around because they were trying to stay up and wash the mud off but they were losing balance bobbing and flipping around.

It was very cool, though, and your skin feels so strange afterword. Sort of soft, sort of oily, sort of just…different. We had a really good time, though, and we of course did all kind of poses, reading a magazine, raising all fours, lounging, etc. for pictures but again…you know the deal by now.

Again we were exhausted by the time we got back to Aqaba and called it an early night. The next day was (we thought) our last day. We were sad, we loved Jordan so much, and I made the mistake of saying, “I wish we didn’t have to leave!” Ha, if only I knew.

Sad because it was (I thought) our last day in Jordan

We walked all over Aqaba, cementing it all in our minds, doing some souvenir shopping (a lot of searching for the right hookah for us, and for a few other things for other people). We made a point to spend all but a couple JD of what I had left (I like to always save a little bit of every currency, but in the end I didn’t get to keep any JD…) on food and gifts.

By mid-afternoon we were back in Aquamarina IV, sitting in the lobby waiting for the bus to arrive and take us to the airport. And then we were robbed. And the rest…is history. Which you can read about in detail in The Story of the Theft.