August 28, 2010

Amman to Aqaba to Nuweiba to Cairo

So I started out taking a bus to Aqaba from Amman. The bus was air conditioned, I slept most of the way, and arrived in Aqaba to ridiculious heat and a bunch of crabby taxi drivers. 5 JD (Jordanian dinars) one says, and starts to pick up one of my bags before I assent. Then another guy swoops in, picks up another bag and yells "3 JD!" I move to go with him and a huge tug of war ensues with the first guy cursing the second profusely and then trying to wrench my bag from his hands. I finally get in the second taxi and we go to the ticket office and then to the port. There were no tickets at the port, which I think, in retrospect, he knew, so we go to the main ticket office and I buy a ferry ticket. He then drops off his other passenger and ends up by taking me to a nearby lodge for the night, as the fast ferry has already left for the day. Meanwhile he is smoking (claiming he can't stop because too many "beautiful ladies at the beach") and blaring Ciara and some Arab disco-trance monstrosities over the sound system. He charges me 11, yes 11 JD for the ride, claiming each trip back and forth cost 3 JD plus 2 JD to the lodge. Sigh. I gave in.
At the lodge, the price/per night the driver quoted me of 15 JD has gone up to 45 JD. The manager is trying to claim its because it "includes breakfast". When I say I won't be eating breakfast because of fasting, he gets interested. "Are you Muslim?" "Do you swear on your God that you are Muslim?" I decline to swear but offer to recite al-Fatiha, which he accepts. He lowers the price to 20 JD and invites me for iftar.

After a beautiful air-conditioned sleep, I wake up for iftar. At iftar, one of the guys asks me if I know of Hamza Yusuf! LOL....the world is getting smaller everyday.

The beach at Aqaba is quiet and beautiful and the stars had started to come out, so I went and sat and watched the waves for about an hour. Very restful. Went to sleep early after swimming some laps in the pool.

The next morning I get up and go to the ferry. In the customs line, I speak a little Arabic to the officer, telling him I was studying Arabic in Amman. The guy next to me is tall, bald, and diesel in the extreme...looks like Israeli army off duty. They question him a bit longer than me, as he went through Israel. Outside, attempting to strike up conversation, he asks me: "Are you actually Muslim or do you just dress like that for protection?" (I happen to be wearing a kufi). Sigh....its Ramadan so I humor him. "Yep I'm really Muslim"....Turns out he is some Italian businessman on holiday. He spends most of the boat ride trying to chat up two striking Afghani girls from Germany.

On the boat, an Egyptian guy, his sister and her four kids sit near me. The kids are hilarious...we have a good time messing around. The guy's name is Mahmoud. "Will you be my friend?" he asks. This happens a lot to me actually...random strangers desiring to be my friend. It takes some getting used to. When he finds out I'm from Chicago he asks, "How is Chicago? kweis? (good?)" When I answer in the affirmative, he continues, "but Chicago...niggers." Its a one word statement of his twisted view of reality, a depressing distillation of white supremacist ideology...writ global. So many things go through my head...Dubois, pan-Africanism, Arab racism, American tv...where the hell did he even learn that word with his halting English?
And finally we arrive in Nuweiba on the Sinai Peninsula. From there I buy a bus ticket to Cairo, for a bus "leaving in half an hour". 2 hours later we finally depart. The air conditioning creaks and barely works, the dust on the seats fills my lungs and the world outside as we move from the port becomes like the landscape of an ancient planet...rock formations with geological time mapped onto their contoured layers, walls of sand blown against the rocks, red and black and brown earth stretching for miles without any sign of human habitation.

We stop for iftar at some highway restaurant. I eat kifta which tastes like it has rocks in it and go to the bathroom to wash my hands for prayer. As I come out a kid is collecting money at the door. Everyone in front of me gives, so I feel compelled as well...but what am I paying for? I give him a 5 pound note and change is not forthcoming until I demand it. Welcome to Egypt.

At 11pm we arrive in Cairo and its a different world....overpasses and billboards and wall to wall traffic. Again I manage to negotiate a decent taxi price (although the first driver pawns me off on a second one who tries to ask for a higher fare) the driver, although he protests, is relatively straight up once I make it clear what the deal is.

And just like that I'm in Garden City...a beautiful neighborhood of gates and walls and trees and long curving avenues. Its so quiet and peaceful at night. My friend comes and scoops me and my looong journey is over.


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