AS WE BID ADIEU TO the mystical Wadi Rum, we stuffed our faces with fresh watermelons from the fields. Within an hour, I and other travel bloggers reached Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan. It was different from everything else in Jordan. We headed straight away to the cruise for what turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our vacation in Jordan. Located at the north east tip of the Red sea, its beauty is characterized by Gulf of Aqaba.
Being a border town junkie, what made it most exciting for me was the discovery that Aqaba lies at a crucial crossroad of Asia and Africa. As our cruise moved, we were excited when our guide pointed to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel within few minutes. We were shown an impressive white building in the distance. It was Taba Hilton, Egypt. On 7th October, 2004 a terrorist attack killed 34 people in the hotel. Ten floors of the hotel collapsed when a truck drove in its lobby and exploded. Since then, the hotel has been rebuilt. Formerly called Sonesta Hotel, this hotel was a bone of contention between Israel and Egypt. After many negotiations and intervention by UN, it was granted to Egypt. The Hilton group took over consequently. 6 kilometers away from Eilat, Israel, a visit to this hotel is tax free for the Israelis. However, post the terror attack, the hotel has seen lesser number of tourists from Israel.
I sat on the floor of the cruise, my legs dangling and flirting with the cold water of red sea. I was so absorbed with the views that I didn’t even realize when my co-travelers jumped in the water for a session of snorkeling. Never mind, I concentrated on tasting the refreshing sea air. I have seen many beaches in India but this was the bluest sea I have seen in my life till date. In fact, I noticed many shades of blue. The barren brown coastline complimented the azure water. A live barbeque at the rear of the cruise hung precariously over the sea.
I was dying to see Eilat in Israel up close and personal. Due to lack of time, I settled for its view from the comfort of Movenpick Hotel. Later in the evening, I was again close to the border when we settled for a dinner at the upmarket Royal Yacht Club.
Overlooking the marina, it was a perfect place to end the day. The small boats and yachts moored to the harbor made for a picturesque foreground for a setting sun. Many water related activities can be booked from here. We were pleasantly surprised to see a Bangladeshi steward serving us dishes, mostly Mediterranean. It was an unhurried evening spent leisurely in good company. The place was ideal for my ‘Me Time’ and as everyone was engrossed in conversations, I veered off surreptitiously to soak in the silent beauty of the place. I sampled only the vegetarian fare. The food was good but not extraordinary. What was more satisfying was the ambiance of the place.
Post dinner, my group decided to take a post prandial walk in the markets of Aqaba. Aqaba is the kind of place which grows on you slowly. We passed many touristy shops, spice markets, even a Mc Donalds etc. The al fresco cafes at Raghadan Street were full of burqa clad women smoking sheesha with their male friends dressed in western clothes.
Pics above: Mohamed and his musical Ice Cream
We were walking casually in the Pizza Street in main market area when groovy music pulled us in. At Bakdash Ice Cream parlour, young Mohamed single handedly pounded ice cream with a long wooden log. The churning made a quirky upbeat music fit for energetic dance steps! It was the first time I tasted ‘Musical Ice Cream’. What makes the ice cream different (for me) here is the Arabic flavor. Try, Toot Shami, for instance. Mastic (plant based resin), Sahlab, fresh cream are some of the ingredients used. We asked Mohamed to repeat the ‘game’. It was one of my best moments in Aqaba.
To my great luck, I got separated from my group and ended up wandering alone on the streets of Aqaba. As I pretended to find my hotel, I kept my eyes peeled for anything fancy or interesting. I stopped for a moment at Al Sharif Hussein bin Ali mosque dedicated to Hussein Bin Ali, the leader of great Arab revolt.
I was dispassionately asking the address of my hotel to the strangers on the road. Not so much to get back to my hotel but to steal an opportunity to interact with locals. Little did I know 3 strangers will bite my bait which I did not even aim at them. Al-Hussein Bin Ali Square is a lively space in the middle of a crossroads. Families and friends sit here and while away their time eating ice creams, clicking selfies and rescuing their kids’ promiscuous balloons.
Pics above: The Syrians who asked me to click their pictures and send them on Facebook
Just as I was about to sit on a bench, a Syrian boy and his friend Sozi Hamdoun approached me. They looked at the DSLR dangling from my neck. “Photo Photo? How much?” They were taken aback when I said I would take many pictures and will inbox them on Facebook without any charge. I dropped the last bit of my pretense of finding my way to MovenPick hotel. I was rather feeling happy to get lost in an alien country. They had happy go lucky personalities for an apparently conflicted Syria. The boy was expressionless while the lively girls giggled, pouted and flirted with the lens. It was the first time I was clicking a stranger in a far away country.
Small interactions like these make a visit to any destination memorable. They had the same mannerisms and perhaps similar issues in life which an urban person of their age has in my country, India. Yes, we are all the same, yet different. When they learnt that I collect currencies, they offered me notes from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I accepted the Egyptian 5 pounds. Its value is not much. But it is my prized possession now. Every time I will see it, I will remember them.
I finally did find my hotel. The night was spent staring at the Aqaba city from my balcony. Late night, with special permission, some of us spent some time at the rooftop of the hotel. The views helped us understand the landscape of Aqaba. The next morning, I repeated the same, this time getting a better view of Marsa Zayed mosque. It is a redevelopement project undertaken by U.A.E.
The ancient ruins of Ayla were visible from the balcony of the hotel. Built in 7th century A.D., it was one of the first Islamic cities. It is a recent discovery and still in a state of restoration. Other points of interest in Aqaba are: The Aqaba Archeological Museum, Souk By The Sea (Street market open on Friday evenings), Aqaba Fort and the ancient Church.
How To Reach: Air Arabia runs economic yet comfortable flights from India via U.A.E. Check my review of the flight in previous blog.
Where to stay: I stayed in the luxurious Movenpick Resort. It’s review will be up soon.
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NOTE: I was invited by Jordan Tourism Board to Jordan on a Press Trip
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