Thursday, May 13, 2010

A rather Blue Red Sea and an Ancient City

April 27 to May 4, 2010 (by Swiss)

With the Giza and Mediterranean sea checked off our list, it was time to move on to the red sea.  To be honest, both of us are starting to get a tad exhausted, so our goal was to indulge in some R&R in Dahab before heading on to the country of Jordan.  Dahab, located just north of Sharm el Sheikh, is an old Bedouin village turned backpacker haven.  Still relatively expensive compared to, say, India, it's a much more economical alternative to Sharm el Sheikh while offering easy access to the red sea and affiliated activities.  We were to spend 3 days there, then move on for a visit to the ancient city of Petra, Jordan before wrapping up in Amman for our flight back to Cairo.

The Quest for Dahab

As seems to be the case at times when traveling over land in Egypt, the destination is more easily selected than figuring out how exactly to get there.  In our case, we were in Alexandria, and wanted to get to Dahab.  This involved the following over the course of ~15 hours:

- Taxi to bus station (we originally tried to hail one of the many mini-buses buzzing around Alexandria, which use a system of hand gestures to indicate their final destination - we knew the proper hand gesture, but struck out on scoring a ride)
- Oh, and our taxi driver happened to be illiterate, severely crimping our "have someone write down in Arabic where you want the taxi to go" style
- Waiting at seedy bus station with complete inability to read any Arabic signs (save for numbers)
- Catching the EGP 80 overnight bus to Sharm el Sheikh - not a sleeper bus, btw
- The showing of a movie starting sometime after 10pm, in Arabic, with the volume cranked up waaay too high
- Multiple passport/ID checks while on the bus
- The conclusion of the first movie a bit after midnight, only to be followed by  a second movie, again in Arabic, which wrapped up sometime around 4am
- Meeting of new Canadian travel buddy, Marie
- Arrival in Sharm el Sheikh at 7am, booking of EGP 11 ticket for 9am bus to Dahab
- 2 hour bus ride to Dahab
- Yet more ID checks
- Being "welcomed" (i.e., attacked/surrounded/smothered/etc) by a mob of taxi drivers upon de-bussing
- Negotiating a decent fare into town - we felt like wall street traders with all the yelling by the drivers
- Eventual arrival at our pre-booked hotel

It's about as relaxing as it sounds.  But we got there safely, and were ready to chill out for a few days.  Below are some pictures from our journey, including our new French-Canadian friend Marie.

Jason was still feeling a tad unwell after picking up a bug somewhere in Egypt, so once we settled in, he headed off for a nap while I went out to sort out diving activities for the next two days.  I had found Big Blue Dahab via the ever-reliable, and promptly signed up for a boat trip to Gabr El Bint scheduled for the following day.  The red sea, as you may know, is world famous for diving and I had to sample it.  A fairly unexciting dinner was had at Maya Maya restaurant located directly on the beach before it was time for bed.

Dive Day (part un)

I awoke fairly early to get to the dive shop by 7:30am for our departure to the boat.  A brief breakfast overlooking the slightly too choppy seas got me carbed-up enough for what promised to be a nice, long day in the sun and water.

The diving was very nice, and while the locals scoffed about poor visibility, I found it to be better than most anywhere I've dived so far.  Beggars just can't be choosers.  During our day on the boat, I met a variety of cool divers from all over the world, which officially enabled the experience to be filed in the "good times" category.  I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves (thanks Ann and Erika for sharing some of them):

Our crew got back to the dive shop shortly after 5pm, where I soon managed to meet back up with Jason and Marie.  While I was diving, Jason and Marie hung out for the day, enjoying a nice lunch and meeting a nice Egyptian kid and hanging out at "his" beachfront sitting area, enjoying some nice tea, reading and relaxing with the waves.

Marie had plans to hike Mt. Sinai, joining a tour which departed at 10pm in order to allow for sunrise witnessing, so we had a nice dinner at Funny Mummy before parting ways.

Dive Day (part deux)

Day 2 for me, much like day 1, involved more diving.  Dahab offers a plethora of shore dives (no boat required), and plans were to check out Golden Blocks and Three Pools south of town.  I had originally wanted to check out the world famous Blue Hole and the Canyon, but the choppy sea conditions nixed that plan.  Both sites were very nice, with each dive lasting over an hour.  With no underwater camera on hand this time, photo-documentation was a little more scarce.  I suppose I have to put "underwater camera" on my wish list :)

While I was out swimming with the fishies, Jason met back up with Marie after her hike.  They met a very nice couple from Seattle, Jaimee and Asa, who were doing a similar type trip as Jason and I.  We all met up for a tasty dinner at Jasmine restaurant, where we exchanged travel stories for the evening.  More good times, basically, before bedtime.

Time changes, Labor day, and what we now call "The Epic Journey to Aqaba"

We awoke Friday morning to the sound of my phone alarm, only to realize that we just encountered an overnight time shift (spring forward to daylight savings), and thus had lost an hour.  This happened on a Friday, we surmise, because we were in a Muslim country where their Friday is equivalent to our Sunday.  Oops.  We had plans to catch a shuttle to Nuweiba at 10am, and since it now was 8:30 instead of 7:30, it got us off to a somewhat scrambly start.  So showering, packing, saying goodbyes, and snack shopping all had to get done in time for our 10am pickup, which I'm happy to report we achieved with about 15 minutes to spare.

The shuttle was to take us to Nuweiba (about one hour away), where we planned on boarding a ferry to Aqaba, Jordan.  Time permitting (we weren't sure when exactly the ferry was leaving and there was conflicting information aplenty), we would move on from Aqaba to Petra, our final destination.  But I get ahead of myself.

Save for the numerous police checks, the ride to Nuweiba went off without a hitch and we arrived at the ferry ticket office shortly before 11:30 am.  The USD 70 (yes, that is USD) ferry tickets were purchased, and we were informed that the boat was leaving at 3pm.  So we had about 3.5 hours to burn, which for some strange reason seems to be about the median waiting time for public transport on our trip lately.

While waiting for the boat, we met a couple other western travelers, including Mike (USA), Ravi (USA), and Stefan (Belgium.)  We also met a couple of Canadian students, one which I'm pretty sure is the love of my life, although I've forgotten her name.  So maybe it wasn't meant to be after all.  Damn memory.

Time was spent chatting about life, working our way through immigration (Ravi kept getting mistaken for a local and asked to move to the non-foreigner line), and placing bets as to when the ferry would ACTUALLY leave.  Early-on in our waiting stint, a couple of local men offered us a variety fresh fruit, a welcome snack and kind gesture.  Unfortunately they didn't speak a lick of English, and feel free guess how well Lawton and I speak Arabic.

Regardless, the majority of the time was basically spent like this:

My "bet" for an early 14:45 departure, ludicrously optimistic in hind sight, of course turned out to be way off.  Other times thrown out there, ranging from 15:00 to 17:00, were off as well, as the ferry didn't take off until almost 18:30.  Although we did get to board the ship around five, so Mike's bet of a 17:00 departure was probably the closest.  Lucky for me, no money was involved in the betting process.  And I got to spend more time with, um...Esther, my Canadian love.

The ferry ride to Aqaba was supposed to take about 1.5 hours, and the boat is actually quite nice.  Tired and hungry, we caved in to purchase some of their on-board food, before heading up for views on the top deck.  We were all happy to be on our way, and still had a slight glimmer of hope to maybe, perhaps, somehow making it to Petra that night. Maybe.

Inevitably, those hopes were shattered as we didn't arrive at the Aqaba port, make it through customs, and finally into town until well after 10pm.  The only transport option to Petra at that hour was to hire a cab, which at 40 JD was above what we were willing to pay, even though our new found friend, Ravi, was now going to join us in our journey to Petra.

So the three of us teamed up with Stefan (Mike went on to Amman as buses were still running up there) to seek out lodging, which we quickly learned was all but impossible, as the next day was May 1st.  May 1st the world over, except for the US apparently, happens to be international labor day.  In Aqaba, that means all hotels were packed to the brim with folks enjoying a long weekend.  I mean, there were literally zero rooms available, except if you were willing to splurge well beyond flashpacking levels.

After declining a couple of offers to sleep on roofs of hotels (true story, bra), we eventually found one guy around midnight with sufficient pity to offer our group a furnished apartment for the night.  The pad offered shelter and a bed for each of us.  And yes, it was literally a full apartment including balcony, kitchen, and dining area.  Though a bit overpriced at 15 JD (USD 21) per person, it was a welcome find after about 1.5 hours of room hunting.

Dinner was had sometime after midnight, and well deserved bedtime came around 1am.

Off to Wadi Musa and Petra

Despite the prior day's late bedtime, Ravi, Lawton, and I were up and going early to work our way to Petra.  A fairly common way to get around in Jordan is to show up to a mini-bus station, where you pay ~JD 5 or so for a share ride to your desired destination.  Buses leave when they are full, and we happened to just miss one, causing us to have to wait yet again for around an hour for other passengers to show up:

Look familiar?  Besides the slight delay in getting out of Aqaba, which was laced with various offers by cab drivers to take us to Petra, the ride to Wadi Musa (3km from Petra offering cheap lodging) went very well and we arrived about two hours later. We scoped out a couple of places to stay, finally settling on Orient Gate hotel which offered a triple room with view for JD 20 (USD 28) including breakfast and transport to Petra.

The rest of the day involved relaxing, enjoying the gorgeous views from our pad, eating, and concluding with a lazy viewing of "The Bourne Ultimatum" in the common lounge.  Energy was to be conserved for a full day exploration of the ancient city of Petra the following day.


Our main reason for visiting Jordan, which btw is quite a bit more expensive than Egypt, was Petra.  Sporting stunning scenery and rock cut architecture, Petra is believed to have been established sometime in the 6th century BC and served as the capital of the Nabateans.  Yet another UNESCO world heritage site we can now cross of the list, be warned, the admission price is quite steep and is slated to increase even more by the end of the year.  For a one-day visit, we paid 33 JD (USD 47.)  Starting in November, be ready to shell out JD 50 (USD 71) for the same ticket.  And don't even get me started on day visitors (i.e., tours from Egypt), who will be forking over JD 90 (USD 127) to see the site.  Makes the Taj Mahal sound downright cheap.  I guess it's their top attraction, but come on...not cool!

We managed to get up nice and early for a 7:30 breakfast and the subsequent cab ride got us to the site a little after 8am.  While we only spent one day there, the site is large enough to easily spend two days exploring.  Instead of boring you with prose, check out some of our pictures below.  It was absolutely stunning.

Don't ask me how many miles/kms we walked, but I assure you, it was a lot.  We got back to our hotel around 5:30pm in a state of complete exhaustion.

So what better way to unwind than a Turkish bath/massage?  We teamed up with another Orient Gate guest, Matt from Los Angeles, to check out the Salome Turkish bath.  For JD 20, we got access to the facilities, which ironically enough lacked an actual bath (perhaps because we were in the middle of the desert.)   It did, however, sport a steam room and places to lay down and relax.  The "highlight" involved a good scrubbin' and massage.  With our collective skins now feeling like a baby's butt, we showered and enjoyed a post massage herbal tea and Sheesha before heading for a late carb laden pizza dinner to wrap up the day.  Sleep, as you can imagine, came quite easy that night.

Northbound to Amman

Our last stop in Jordan, and basically the middle east save for a layover in Cairo, would be Amman.  With a population of 2 million, it also happens to be the capital of Jordan.  Ravi, or Rev Rav (a nickname he earned due to the fact that he is an ordained minister), decided to join us for the ride up north.

And yes, you read correctly, our friend Ravi is an ordained minister thanks to an online degree he completed a while back.  He got the degree, which apparently is free and takes less than 10 minutes to complete, to partake in a very good friend's wedding.  Since another friend was already tapped for the best man slot, Ravi stepped up and became the minister for the wedding.  I don't know if it's an Indian thing (Rav is Indian-American), but it surely sounds like something our good friend Sujit would do.  Paul Precoda's wedding a couple years ago comes to mind, where Sujit went from not being invited to the wedding at all to being IN the wedding in a matter of days.  But I digress.

FYI, Rev Rav also doubles as an entertainer, having apparently mastered - or at least invented - the art of "ministaining."  We have his contact info if you are in need of a ministainer for your wedding.  He accepts cash or gin.

Contrary to our experience in Aqaba, we managed to get on a near full mini-bus just in the nick of time, and were off for the 3 hour ride to Amman well before noon.  We arrived at a bus station in Amman in the early parts of the afternoon, and after a frustrating taxi haggling session, managed to get to Farah hostel.  While the hostel didn't have triple rooms, they did have four bed dorm rooms which at 5 JD/bed worked out about as good as a private room, especially since nobody else checked in.  They also offered free breakfast and wifi, which allowed us to try once again to score me a Turkish airlines upgrade (negative) and check email.  Not content with disappointing airline news from Turkish, I also received an email stating that my Spirit Airlines flight from Ft Lauderdale to Detroit had been canceled/moved to 4pm, causing my layover in FL to now be 10 hours for the trip back to the USA.  So if anybody wants to hang out around Ft Lauderdale on July 7, drop me a line :)

Settled-in, the three of us grabbed a large but tasty lunch before visiting the Amman amphitheatre, strolling around the city, ingesting a small dinner, and heading off to bed.

Good Bye Jordan / Reverend

To kick off our last day in Jordan, we slept in a bit before saying good bye to Rev Rav (he was scheduled for a tour), packed our belongings once more, and checked out.  We had learned that Royal Jordanian had a city terminal near 7th circle, which allowed us to check-in our bags downtown and catch a ride to the airport with their shuttles.  The service, costing 1.5 JD for the bags and 3 JD for the shuttle, was very convenient and allowed us to check out the area around 7th circle for a bit.  The main objective, besides checking the bags, was to locate a McDonald's to keep alive our streak of sampling Mickey D's around the world.  I'm happy to report that we were successful, and after Lawton scored some American green-backs from HSBC, we were off to the airport.

Our next post will now officially come from a different (and our last) continent!