Ferry adventures on the Red Sea

Travel Tales — By on November 24, 2010 at 10:00 am
Aqaba, Jordan

The port city of Aqaba, Jordan.

Sometimes travel is a dazzling collage of sights and wonders, and sometimes it’s an exhausting, sigh-inducing day of trying to get from one place to another. If you’re lucky enough to be traveling, though, then even the sigh-inducing moments can be memorable.

Lisa and I were on Egypt’s Red Sea coast and had made plans to travel to Jordan by bus and boat. The route seemed relatively straightforward: a morning bus from Dahab to the port city of Nuweiba, an afternoon catamaran across the Gulf of Aqaba, and then another bus to Wadi Musa, the town nearest to the magnificent Jordanian ruins of Petra.

Piece of cake, right?

Although the bus out of Dahab was late, it did deliver us without incident to Nuweiba in plenty of time to make the ferry’s scheduled 1 p.m. departure. So far, so good. The day turned mysterious, however, when we were turned away from the ticket office at the boat terminal.

“Ticket office down the street,” we were told, and so we trudged down the block to another building.

“No, boat tickets are at ferry terminal.”

“But we just came from there. They sent us to you.”

“Sorry, no ticket here.”

Bewildered, we retraced our steps back to the ferry terminal. Then back to the second ticket office. Then back to the ferry terminal. To our amazement, no one seemed able to sell us a ticket. Along the way, we met two Swiss travelers who were having similar difficulties. Then an American couple stumbled by. Then two girls from Korea. Soon we were a motley crew of international travelers, carting our luggage back and forth along the same dusty street in the mid-day heat, going from building to building in search of tickets for a boat whose departure time was now growing imminent.

Finally, a tourist policeman took pity on us and herded our group wordlessly into a departure hall, where we had our passports stamped and were loaded onto a standing-room only bus. Still no tickets or explanation, but at least we were moving somewhere. The bus deposited us at the foot of a large ship, where hundreds of Arabs were massed in a shapeless line, trying to get on board.

Unfortunately, this didn’t look anything like the catamaran that supposedly left every day at 1 p.m. for a one-hour crossing of the gulf. For all we knew it was a ferry to Saudi Arabia, so we tracked down an official looking person who spoke some English.

“Where is the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan?”

“This the ferry.”

“No, we’re looking for the fast ferry. For the catamaran that leaves at 1 o’clock.”

“No fast ferry today. Day off. Only slow ferry.”

Day off? Since when does a catamaran have a day off?

Ugh. We had confirmed the ferry schedule the previous night with two travel agencies in Dahab, and the Swiss travelers had been given identical information. But since we now had no choice but to take the slower ferry, we joined the scrum of travelers and began pushing our way through a throng of shoulders, elbows and luggage.

As we edged forward, we watched as dozens of local travelers ahead of us were quizzed intently by security officials before having their tickets and passports examined. This was a great mystery to us, since we still didn’t have tickets for this boat. Nobody wanted to sell us a ticket, nobody asked for a ticket when our passport was stamped, and yet all the non-Western travelers in line with us seemed to have already paid for their passage.

When we finally reached the front of the line, I took a deep breath and prepared for the worst. Surely we were about to be turned away. But when we pulled out our passports the guard waved us past with a flick of his wrist. Not a single security question, not even a request to see our tickets. After a moment of shocked disbelief, we realized that everyone whose documents were being scrutinized was from an Arab country. Lisa and I, on the other hand, owned U.S. passports and were evidently freer to travel between these countries than the locals were. I felt a bit guilty, but elated to finally be on the boat.

And the tickets? We were finally able to purchase them onboard, at a second checkpoint. “It really would have saved us a lot of anguish,” I said, “if someone had just told us an hour ago that we could pay after we boarded.”

With a deep exhale, then, we walked onto the ferry, ready to relax in our seat for the three-hour trip to Jordan.

Piece of cake, right?

Except there was no place to sit. Seriously. Not only were all the seats filled, but every foot of deck space was spoken for. We wandered the ship for 20 minutes, frequently stepping over entire families who slept on blankets or crouched in corners. In talking to a crew member later, we learned there were 900 passengers on board. This included the Europeans, Americans and Koreans we’d met while searching for the ticket office, along with an older Danish couple whom we met on the ferry. That made eight Westerners, two Asians, and apparently 890 or so Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis. Needless to say, we stood out.

We eventually found a self-service restaurant, where we ordered a soda and sat at a table, hoping to wait out the journey there. The two other Americans and the Danish couple joined us. And then we waited. The ferry didn’t leave at 1 p.m., as allegedly scheduled, but at 3:30. And it wasn’t a three-hour ride, but a four-and-a-half hour trip.

“It’s just Egypt,” said the Danish couple, who had done this trek before. “Don’t worry, everything runs more smoothly in Jordan.”

So instead of getting to Aqaba, Jordan, in mid-afternoon, as we’d anticipated, we arrived at 8 p.m. By the time we disembarked and made it through immigration, it was 8:45. The currency exchange window at the terminal was closed and all the buses to Wadi Musa were long since departed. Our only choice now was to negotiate a taxi ride. A two-hour taxi ride, without any local currency in our pockets. Sigh. We walked outside and prepared for a marathon negotiating session.

We were pleasantly shocked, however, when it took a mere 30 seconds to book a ride at exactly the lowest price recommended by Lonely Planet. Not only that, but the taxi driver cheerfully offered to take us to an ATM at a nearby bank. Then, as we set off for the long drive, he began joking with us.

“Look, our streets our clean and orderly. Not like in Egypt. Hahaha. Look, I’m stopping at a red light. Not like in Egypt. Hahaha.”

It took a moment to sink in, but then I realized he was right. The streets were clean. The vehicles did drive in separate lanes and actually stop at traffic lights. Hmmm. After traveling through Vietnam, India and Egypt, this was the first time in months that we’d seen anything resembling orderly traffic.

Half an hour later, as we began our journey through the vast emptiness of the Desert Highway north of Aqaba, the driver stopped at a roadside drink stand.

“I get tea. You want tea?”

“Sure,” I said.

I got out with him to buy some tea, but he beat me to the punch and bought it for us. A taxi driver was buying me a cup of tea? Either the tea was drugged, I thought, or I had entered a parallel universe.

“Jordan hospitality,” he said.

So there we stood by the side of a lonely desert road at 9:30 p.m., breathing in the warm evening air, looking up at the stars and drinking a cup of tea with our taxi driver. Under a silent Middle Eastern sky, all the difficulties of the day swiftly melted away and we were reminded once again of the magic of travel.

Photo credit: Aviad2001 via Wikimedia Commons 

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  1. Jayne says:

    Oh my, now that is a real Odyssey. I was afraid that you were leading us to an encounter with a one-eyed monster. Nevertheless, you certainly tamed the beast.

  2. Bob Riel says:

    Hah. No, no one-eyed monsters. No Sirens, either. But I suppose a tea-buying taxi driver is a pretty rare creature. 😉

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