Adventures in Jordan and Egypt

My husband and I traveled through Jordan and Egypt last Christmas with his brother and sister. The journey by ferry from Aqaba, Jordan on the Red Sea to the Egyptian capital of Cairo was quite the experience. And although it doesn't take place in Syria, and therefore doesn't necessarily fit on this blog, I've decided to share anyway. It begins as we wake up on a Wednesday morning in our hotel in Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Breakfast in our hotel was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were the only customers in the entire breakfast room, and the décor was a little outdated and had lots of teal and gold in it. They had soft music playing, but after a while we realized it was actually only one song: the theme from Love Story. But instead of just repeating the same version over and over, there were a dozen different versions that played in tireless rotation. There was original Love Story, saxophone Love Story, salsa Love Story, piano Love Story, Spanish guitar Love Story, New Age Love Story, etc. Finally it drove us so crazy that we just had to leave. We were due to be at the ferry station, anyway.

Two words sum up the entire ferry experience between Jordan and Egypt: Bureaucracy and Confusion. On the Jordan side at the ferry station, nobody seemed able to give us simple instructions on where to go and what to do. Instead, there were people on all sides of us alternately demanding money, giving us documents to fill out, giving us back too much money in the wrong currency, pointing out a dozen different lines to wait in, and urging us to hurry along. It was extremely stressful. Now I know why the guidebook recommended arriving at the dock 90 minutes early. It took us that long to get everything straightened out, including paying a surprise exit tax in Jordanian dinars, when we had been so careful to spend our last ones the night before leaving the country.

At last we made it onto the ferry and settled into our seats for the one-hour ride. We met an acquaintance from BYU who, with his family, was also trying to get to Cairo, and so we made sure to stick with them. By this time, Jeremy was growing weary of being the on-demand tour guide, interpreter, and facilitator, so he sent me to a counter to secure bus tickets to Cairo (a 7-hour bus ride from Nuweiba, Egypt, where the ferry would land). I wandered over to the ticket counter and submerged myself in the mob of shouting Egyptian men thrusting fistfuls of money towards the cashier. I felt very awkward, and it was made all the worse because there was a seating area full of still more Egyptian men at my back! As a foreign woman, I’m already on display at all times, even without putting myself in their view. I did my best to hold my place in “line,” but thankfully, Jeremy came to my rescue a few minutes later. We bought bus tickets from Nuweiba to Cairo for 9 dollars each, which I thought was quite expensive. I’ll come back to that later.

In between the stresses of figuring out where to go and what to do, in the process of which we handed over our passports to an Egyptian official so that he could expedite the entry process, we had a few minutes to relax in our seats and enjoy the ride and the view. We could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea’s eastern shore, and we approached the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt on the west. The mountains rise quite dramatically from the seashore – there is no gentle, hilly lead-up to them as I’ve seen in other parts of the world.

As the ferry docked, they sequestered all the foreigners into one cabin room. To our surprise, before they would let us out of the room and onto the shore, the officials demanded our passports! Of course, when we explained that we had already handed them over to another official, who was now conveniently nowhere to be found, confusion resulted. It took Jeremy yelling in Egyptian Arabic to finally get them to let us through.

We emerged out of the ferry into a mass of people and a sea of even more confusion. There were buses pulling up everywhere, and people were piling onto them. We had no idea what to do, so we followed the family we had met on the ferry. However, an official separated us and again demanded to see our passports. With growing exasperation, we explained, once again, that an official had taken them from us on the ferry. He looked suspicious, but let us get on the same bus as the other family. It pulled up to an even more crowded area of the ferry dock and let us off, with no direction as to what we were supposed to do at that point.

I’ll pause here and mention again the absolute chaos this place was in. It was as if no ferry had ever arrived at the port before, and even if one had, there had certainly been no foreigners on it. There were no signs, not even in Arabic, just a dozen concrete buildings holding various, unlabeled offices. In actuality, a ferry arrives at that dock at least twice a day, carrying tons of travelers from Jordan to Egypt. The lack of organization in spite of this was absolutely appalling.

By a combination of following the other family and asking various officials dozens of times, we managed to buy our visas. The visa official, however, needed our passports, which situation we again explained. He grudgingly gave the visa paper stamp to us separately, and we wandered from building to building before being told to wait at a specific concrete office. I cannot remember how many times we were asked for our passports in the process. I was beginning to think that they were already for sale on the black market, since every single worker seemed surprised that someone had taken them on the ferry. Finally, some dude showed up with a bunch of American passports, and we all gave a huge sigh of relief, but not before Jeremy had resorted to yelling, in Arabic, “THERE IS NO ORDER HERE!!!!!”

But there was still customs to go through, and we weaved our way through Jordanians and Egyptians toting cumbersome, metal carts piled high with suitcases, boxes, crates, and bicycles, as if they were fleeing the country forever with all of their possessions, and the possessions of all their extended family. The customs officials noticed the souvenir Damascus steel knife Sarah had in her suitcase, and started to make a fuss about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t sharpened at all. Jeremy again came to the rescue and finally convinced them that it was safe to take into the country by repeatedly and exaggeratingly attempting to slash his hand with it (it didn’t even come close to breaking the skin). This was a hilarious sight, and they laughed and let her through with it after all.

Now we had at last reached the bus that would take us to Cairo. I mentioned before that I had thought the tickets were a bit expensive at 9 dollars. However, I was comforted by the thought that this probably meant the bus would be really nice – after all, the most expensive bus ticket in Syria didn’t even cost 9 dollars, and those buses were still super nice. Needless to say, I was grossly disappointed. The bus had indeed at one time been a luxury bus, but those days were long gone. It was old and rickety, the seats were cramped and clunky, and the upholstery was smelly. I shuddered to think what a cheaper bus ticket would have brought us. The driver loaded our bags onto the bus with great urgency, as the bus was due to leave any minute. We dashed to a nearby kiosk to buy some snacks, and we each downed a can of pop before being informed that the bus would be delaying its departure for 90 minutes to wait for another ferry passenger. I panicked, powerless to stop the can of pop from working its way through my system, as I realized that there were no usable bathrooms at the ferry terminal. I was cursing Egypt already, and we still had a 7-hour bus ride to go.

I will spare you some of the details of our bus ride. Suffice it to say that they were some of the lowest hours of my life in recent memory. About 2 minutes into the ride, the driver put in a tape of unpleasant music. At first, I thought it was just a few introductory songs, but after two hours of nasal, atonal singing, it became apparent that was not the case. Sneakily, we turned off the speakers above our seats to dim the sound a bit, but the driver caught on and cranked the volume up even louder.

A little before the halfway point of the trip, the bus pulled into a rest stop, our only break for the whole bus ride. I was grateful for the rest stop and rushed in to use the bathroom. In the Middle East, you almost always have to pay to use the facilities – nothing much, just a few cents to cover the cost of toilet paper and cleaning. As I entered, I noticed they were only charging for the men’s bathroom, but not the women’s. My lucky day! – or so I thought. Once inside, I realized why they weren’t charging the women any money: surely no one had ever, ever cleaned this bathroom since its creation, and there certainly wasn’t any toilet paper. There were already a few women and a child from our bus in the bathroom, staring at the ramshackle stalls with similar horror, and I asked them what we should do. With the typical Arab female fortitude, they straightened up, squared their shoulders, and explained to Sarah and me that there was nothing else to do but use the toilets as they were. We had no other alternative.

With my mood even more dampened, enlightened albeit a little by the discovery of some fake but delicious Oreos (called Borios) for sale at a nearby kiosk, we boarded the bus again. By this time, I was terrified of drinking anything for fear of what the next bathroom would look like. For the next several hours we had to deal with people sneaking cigarettes even though smoking was forbidden on the bus. Jeremy went back once or twice and tried to find the offenders, chastising them and reminding them of the no-smoking policy. But wafts of reeking cigarette smoke kept creeping up to the front of the bus and choking us. I was at a breaking point. Over Jeremy’s objections, I marched to the back of the moving bus and demanded to know who was smoking. An older man meekly raised his hand and I berated him as best I could in Arabic for making me sick with the smoke. Then I softened and asked them to please not smoke because it made me sick, and if nothing else, to do it for God (you can say stuff like that in Arabic). Trembling with anger and nervousness at having confronted half a bus-full of Egyptian men, I returned to my seat triumphant.

Sadly, my triumph didn’t last too much longer before we smelled smoke once again, and I settled down into a resigned, strangled pessimism.

Anyway, we did eventually arrive in Cairo, dehydrated and somewhat demoralized. We said goodbye to the family who had accompanied us all this way and found a place to stay. We then ordered the most delicious food I have ever tasted – delivery from Pizza Hut. Throughout our journey from Jordan, Egypt had sunk very, very low in my favor. This hot, cheesy, western-style pizza was its first step toward making it up to me.

A random thing I miss about Syria

Halloween musings