Saturday, April 28, 2007

Voyage to the Hidden City, Pt. 1

My adventures for this weekend revolved around visiting Petra. Strictly speaking, however, most of my time was spent in transit - an experience, I can assure you, was a bit less than exemplary. As a study in how the Middle East basically seems to work, however, it was pretty invaluable. So I'm going to drag you through every excruciating moment of it. I will, however, refrain from using the phrase "Rose Red City," throughout, because I'm thoroughly sick of that epithet.

We set out from Cairo late Tuesday night to take a bus to Nuweiba, a little port city on the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula. The plan was to take a ferry from Nuweiba to the Jordanian port of Aqaba and from there another bus to Petra, about two hours inland. There's another way to get there, by cutting through Taba in Egpyt and Eilat in Israel, but that involves getting an Israeli stamp on your passport, which is the kiss of death for trying to enter any Arab nation except for Egypt and Jordan.

Little did we know that Nuweiba is pretty much the sphincter of Egypt. It wasn't quite a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but it was pretty damn close. Apparently the tourist part of the town is actually quite nice, but the port authority area is a sprawling mess of dirty cafes, loading docks, shipping offices, and filth. This place was seriously disgusting even by lax Egyptian standards. We spent most of our time in the shaded courtyard of the ticket office, which was the least awful of the available locations.

Don't even get me started on the cement-block hole-in-the-ground Egyptian squat toilets. The most foul truck-stop restroom in America wouldn't even be able to hold a candle to these - in fact, if they did there might be some sort of explosion. I will never be able to understand how an Islamic culture which places such a high value on personal cleanliness and regular ablutions allows its streets and especially its washrooms to become such vile cesspits.

The bus which we had taken was actually chock-full of AUC students, but most of them were going to Israel, so they got off in Taba to head north to Jerusalem. There were a couple of others with is in Nuweiba, including two crazy guys who planned to visit Petra, Amman, and Damascus all in one weekend. And even though it often takes 8+ hours to cross the Syrian border - if you get across at all - they still probably spent less time in transit then us.

Joe and Ben - another guy visiting Jordan - and I chilled in the ticket office until they finally decided to start boarding the "fast ferry." After being shuffled through six or seven different waiting areas, having our passports and tickets checked innumerable times, and being put on buses that sat idling for 10 minutes to travel no more than 500 ft. from the terminal to the boat, we finally boarded the ship - only to have our passports confiscated for "processing."

Now, being out of control of your passport is a worrying state of affairs at the best of times. Giving it over to the grimy hands of the Jordanian/Egyptian state port security services would be enough to give the Dalai Lama an aneurysm. But, we bore it with admirable patience, and after finally shuffling everyone around, the boat took off from the dock. And it was a fast boat - the "slow ferry" was still boarding trucks when we arrived in Aqaba an hour later, around 6pm. We were optimistic that we would be in Petra by 8, and happy that our investment in the "Fast Boat", about twice as expensive as the regular ferry had paid off. So we pulled into port...and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more. We sat in our seats, with no one telling us a bloody thing about what was going on. A few other foreign nationals were let out but they weren't letting Americans anywhere. Mind you, they still had our passports during this whole ordeal. Finally, over an hour later, they relented and let us out of the boat and put us on another 500m bus ride to the Jordanian customs/arrival terminal.

Where they didn't have our passports. Now, I'm used to Egyptian bureaucracy and official stupidity, but I have never before encountered a customs bureau that had simply vanished our passports. For almost an hour, I couldn't get a straight answer out of any of the duty officers as to where they had gone. People walked back and forth. There was shouting in Arabic and a fair amount of gesticulation. We were repeatedly assured that the wait would be "10 more minutes." Some of the Americans' passports emerged, while others inexplicably remained hidden in the bureaucratic void. It finally emerged that they were "processing" each passport for security, a process which appeared to take about 5 minutes per passport. They trickled out over the course of the hour, emerging in small, illogical batches - one guy got his while his girlfriend didn't, while a Korean family was handed all of theirs - except for their 5-year-old daughter.

Finally, having determined that Joe and I and two middle-aged travelling companions from Ireland and Oregon did not represent pressing security risks to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, we were allowed out around 9pm - to get a bus to Petra. At this point, Joe and I had been travelling for 24 solid hours, with only brief naps on the bus and boat. But we got a taxi, and after being shunted between four different drivers and twice as many arguments about something - Allah only knows what, although it undoubtedly involved money - we were on our way to Petra.

I was honestly only conscious for the first bit, where our driver pointed out the world's biggest damn Jordanian flag flying over Aqaba port and bought jerry-cans of petrol from a station run exclusively by eight-year old boys. Then it was off into the Jordanian countryside. Fortunately, Joe was able to make conversation with the middle-aged couple who had gotten stuck in the same trap as us, and I was able to lie back, sleep and have my head repeatedly slammed into the doorframe of the car by the squealing hairpin turns that led to Petra.

We got to our hotel, and found that two other groups of AUC students were already occupying it, so that was an interesting surprise. Fortunately we had booked ahead of time, and through the incompetence of the hotel staff we were for some reason given a four-bed room for the price of the two-bed room we had booked - not particularly useful, but it at least gave us clean linen for each night we were there! They briefly tried to charge us the 4-bed rate, but we were so thoroughly fed up that we took our bags upstairs and told them we expected the right rate when we returned. They obliged.

That was the end of our voyage to Petra - or strictly speaking, to Wadi Musa, the village just outside Petra. The next day brought all of the good, awesome, and beautiful stuff. Stay tuned...

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