May 20-May 22
Aqaba! We left our “home” in Cairo to much good wishes on both sides; lovely Hotel Longchamps and its friendly, delightful owner and staff (e.g., when we got back to the hotel from Alexandria our bags were already in our room!).
Our guide from the desert was waiting for us at 8 am, with another driver and a far less “robust” vehicle.
We wanted to see the Suez Canal, but it’s a military zone and you can only see it if you’re in it! We tried to take a side road to a view point but (likely due to tensions withIsrael and Palestine) were turned back. You cross the canal via a tunnel and then (now in Asia) it really is a different place: men were differently dressed (in more Saudi-type robes), it was a lot sandier. We drove southwards with the coast on our right. Beautiful blue-green sea. Every few miles there was an attempt at a resort development, either hotels or houses, we couldn’t really tell. A few looked occupied but most looked more optimistic than actual. I read a newspaper article about the Egyptian real estate bust and maybe this was part of it…
On we went into the mountains in Sinai. Fortunately top speed wasn’t so high, since the driving was ok but no more! Lots of windy roads as we gained height. Not much other traffic. We reached Saint Catherine’s around 4 pm. It was Friday and the monastery is only open for 2 hours on Fridays. We spent the afternoon wandering around the small town of Saint Catherine’s, which obviously owes everything to the tourists who come to the monastery and to climb Mount Sinai(which we did not do!). There were plenty of small boys asking for hand-outs, and some sweet girls who were not…We actually shared our hotel with a group of young Austrians; not very wonderful buffet dinner and breakfast…
Before we left Cairo we’d looked up in the guidebook and Internet about the ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba – and it wasn’t very optimistic, especially about running on Saturdays (you’d think, and we had, that Fridays would be the “dodgy” day – apparently not!). Anyway, we mentioned this to our guide, and the alternatives of a shorter ferry from Taba or trying the land route through Israel. Initially he was not in favour of the latter (maybe due to the volatile situation), and he called friends in Nuweiba to check, and later that evening went down himself to check out the situation. Next morning he said we should try the land route since there was only the slow ferry which may or may not leave at 3 or 4 pm.
We left the hotel soon after 8 am but the monastery doesn’t open till 9 am. We had total tourist shock as there were more tourists crowding into the forecourt than we’d seen in all the other sights put together!!! And we were told usually there are several thousand visitors a day. The whole experience was frankly disappointing: we queued, shuffled around the church in semi-darkness, looked at icons, listened to rude tourists and ruder orthodox monks telling tourists and tour leaders off. We saw Moses’s well and the “burning bush” (it wasn’t!), admired the old walls of the monastery and that was it.
A short drive took us down to the coast and to Nuweiba which looked dead, then we turned north to Taba. Lots of deserted and lovely-looking beaches on the Red Sea and again some sad-looking resort-attempts. We agreed to pay an additional $75 (although strictly speaking it’s likely they would have driven that way back toCairo anyway – no big deal!). Suddenly there was the border! We said fond farewells and they volunteered to wait 30 minutes in case there was a problem. So, 12:15 leave mini-van; we paid 2 Egyptian Pounds each (6 to the Can $), filled in a form with a stamp, walked through a large a/c hall and were out of Egypt. We put away our Canadian passports and pulled out our British ones. A shortish walk in the heat, multiple questions by multiple friendly Israeli officials (mostly young women in tight jeans and short-sleeved shirts; Anna thought they were there as deliberate provocation!) and the first proper x-raying of our bags (a supervisor had to be asked about the hammer!) – and we were in Israel at 1:00. There were 2 taxis waiting, we jumped in one and for $25 US he drove us through Eilat to the Jordanian border. Here we had to pay 101 shekels each (no idea how much that was; they took Visa!) for the transit visa, then another short walk. This time (since we already had our Jordanian visas in the Canadian passports) all they wanted from us was a retina scan – really; never had one of those before! Into the parking lot, and this time the taxi was a lot more expensive - $45 US, but our hotel is at the very southern tip of Jordan’s Red Sea coast; in fact, we’re only 5 minutes away from the Saudi border…Checked in to the hotel around 3:15-ish! Later that evening we might have seen the slow ferry crossing the sea, but by then we’d rented masks and fins, had our first snorkle (absolutely amazing corals!), swam in the pool, booked dives and were about to eat dinner. Our hotel is rather disappointing (except for its location on the beach and the lovely bougainvillea bushes), most noticeably its meals: the only offering was a fixed meal with choice of steak or fish fingers!!! We pushed a little and out came a feast of tabouli, tahine, egg plant and tahine dip (not called babaganoush here!), tomatoes and cucumbers and a local specialty of ground meat cooked in tomatoes, onions, garlic and other yummies!
This morning Anna and Colin went for their dive and I snorkled, then arranged for the Thrifty dealer to drop the car off here rather than me going to them (much more intelligent!). We met for lunch, then they did their 2nd dive and I did the car. Once in my hands I went into Aqaba to try and change our Egyptian pounds and some dollars. I stopped outside the Intercontinental compound and they would have let me in once they had checked the under-side of the car with a mirror on a pole, but the attendant told me I’d get a better rate at an exchange, and he gave me (perfect!) instructions to get there. Aqaba is small; the local housing area looks small; the largest industries are the huge hotels (2 Movenpicks, Intercontinental and others) and the huge container port). I got back to our hotel avoiding a police check stop (obviously white women driving rental cars are ok), and driving into the naval base next door to our hotel – just as Colin and Anna finished their dive. A nice lazy afternoon of reading/snorkeling/swimming. We’re going to look for a nice fish restaurant for dinner (it was well-recommended!). Off tomorrow to Wadi Rum.