When you’re travelling almost every single day involves at least one experience that is amazing, interesting, challenging, disappointing or exciting. And some days are packed with them from start to finish. I’d like to share one of those days.

I was in Petra, Jordan, after burning south along the tourist trail: Jerash, Amman, Madaba, Dead Sea, Petra — I gave Wadi Rum a miss due to time constraints and a sufficient dose of desert in Iran. (I’ll be writing more about Jordan soon, but in the meantime you might want to have a peek at my photos.) I planned to travel this day from Petra to Dahab on the Sinai coast of Egypt and had a reasonable commute ahead of me.

It all started at 7am when I left my hotel to catch a minibus to the coastal Jordanian town of Aqaba, from where I would catch the ferry to Nuweiba in Egypt. I had been advised not to leave my departure any later because the bus drivers are notoriously relaxed in their attitude towards the timetable and the ferry leaves only once a day at 1pm on the dot. I boarded a nearly empty minibus and waited while the driver repeatedly counted the occupied seats and kept coming up with single figures.

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The drivers try to wait until their buses are full before leaving but some of the locals on my bus were getting edgy to get going. In response, this driver went around to collect fares and declared that he was charging everyone on the bus (tourists and Jordanians) double the price in exchange for an immediate departure – 5 dinar instead of 2.500 dinar, or $7 dollars $3.50, so still not totally highway robbery for a two hour trip. But a couple of Spanish backpackers sitting up the front were certain that the driver was discriminating in the application of his pricing, even though I clearly saw the locals hand over the same cash as me. Two of the locals tried to assure the couple that everyone was being ripped off equally but after ten minutes of one of the most sensational tourist meltdowns I’ve ever witnessed (during which the woman pretended to call her embassy on the phone) the couple stormed off the bus and we were on our way.

On arrival at Aqaba I met a middle-aged French gay couple who were also catching the ferry. We banded together for a taxi to the ferry terminal and spent an hour negotiating the sprawling and unsigned terminal building buying ferry tickets, changing currency, and paying departure tax. After standing at the ferry company’s official ticket window for ten minutes and being utterly ignored, we went and spoke to one of the several enthusiastic travel agencies across the hall and found that they sold tickets for exactly the same price as the company. Figure that one out.

The two guys and I had a whole pile of conflicting information about whether or not we could get an Egyptian visa on arrival (looked extremely likely), how much it would cost (quotes ranged from $US5 to $US50), and whether we could pay in Egyptian pounds or only in US dollars (jury was split). Rather than change money into dollars and pay commission, we decided to take a risk with pounds and cop the flak together if we were wrong.

During this process we were approached by a large, smiling, skin-headed man who was Syrian of Ukraine origin. This man started talking to us excitedly in a crazy but friendly stream-of-consciousness, and announced that he would travel on the ferry with us and isn’t it great to meet people and this is going to be the best boat trip ever and even though I’m only 29 I’m going bald losing my eyesight and having problems maintaining an erection.

I did not make that last bit up.

The travel agent pointed us all in the general direction of a long and pulsing queue for the ferry outside the terminal building and in the direct midday sunlight. We asked where immigration was and he just smiled, said, “Yes,” and walked away. After ten minutes of searching for immigration we discovered that we had walked past it four times – that’s how completely anonymous and unofficial it looked. No signs, no queues, no camera, no security dudes, just two bored-looking officials seated behind plain benches.

We approached the outside ferry queue with trepidation, not looking forward to having to fight to keep our place while being assaulted by the 40-plus-degree heat. But as soon as we joined the back of the line a uniformed man came and guided us to the front and said that tourists didn’t need to wait. Sweet.

On the ferry we were instructed to place our backpacks on the vehicle ramp. I looked back at the line of vehicles waiting to use the ramp and asked if the luggage man was joking, but he said that the bags would be pushed right up against the side so it would be no problems. Once on deck we were guided towards the cafe area which was clearly reserved for tourists so they didn’t have to battle the hell of the general seating area up front. An Egyptian immigration man took our passports, handed us each a tatty slip of paper in return (mine simply had ‘Australia’ scribbled on it in Arabic), and told us that we could get our passports back at the port. This was awesome – our backpacks were downstairs on the vehicle ramp and our passports were … well, we didn’t know where they were.

Sitting in the cafe during the one-hour trip we met two Australian girls and three British guys, and the eight of us were all headed to Dahab upon arrival. We were entertained during this time (and the 90-minute wait before disembarkation) by our Syrian friend who continued his entertaining Eveready bunny-style monologue, telling us at length, amongst other things, about the differences between different nationalities of women in bed and the fact that if you stand in a crowded room of Arabs and yell, “Mohammed,” nine out of ten will turn around and look.

One particularly sensational example of this man’s complete self-awareness fail started when he suddenly turned to three South Koreans sitting on the other side of us, put his hands together, bowed, and said, “Konichiwa.”

“They’re Korean,” said one of the Aussie girls.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Syrian. “Konichiwa.” He repeated.

“They’re Korean,” repeated Aussie girl. “And anyway, the Japanese say ‘ohayou’ instead of ‘konichiwa’.”

“They do not!” exclaimed Syrian, indignantly.

“They do,” said the very confident Aussie girl.

“Let me ask my Japanese friend,” said the Syrian, turning to one of the Brits whose mother is of Japanese origin. “Do you say ‘konichiwa’?” he asked.

“I’m British,” the Brit told him for the tenth time in his thick cockney accent.

“So, you’re Chinese?” asked Syrian, the Brit’s words going, yet again, straight over his head.

Once let out we were delighted to find no tyre marks on our backpacks and we stumbled out into the extreme heat and humidity. We had no idea where to go and couldn’t see any buildings anywhere, and were given three sets of completely different directions to find immigration. After wandering aimlessly for a bit we were herded onto a decrepit bus which drove us all of about 70m around a jungle of trucks and shipping containers to the main terminal area which was utter chaos. There were people and trucks and trolleys and goats and sheep and all sorts of shit everywhere, and absolutely no signage in any language. We dodged men carrying all manner of crap and trolleys pushed by kids and asked around until we found the immigration building, losing our Syrian mate in the chaos. A lovely man led us into his large air conditioned office where a pile of at least a hundred passports had been casually dumped on his desk. He let us dig through them until we found our own and then asked for our visa stamps.

“What visa stamps?” we asked.

“The visa stamps you bought from the bank.”

The nice man let us leave our backpacks in his office and motioned casually off in the direction of the bank. After some more dodging and asking through the chaos we found the bank and were told that visas were $US15, payable in US dollars. None of the eight of us had dollars so at least we were causing trouble in the safety of numbers. I was first in the line so I asked if I could pay in Egyptian pounds. You know, the local currency. The teller looked at me for ten long seconds, putting on an impressive display of confected pain, before sighing and laboriously plugging fifteen-multiplied-by-the-exchange-rate into his calculator.

After another trip to the immigration office, visa’d passports in our hands, we pushed our way through customs where three large boats’ worth of luggage was being siphoned through a single x-ray machine and a friendly customs official led us straight to the front of the considerable queue. Outside the terminal we negotiated with a minivan driver for the 45-minute ride to Dahab and set off.

About halfway to Dahab we pulled into one of the frequent police checkpoints and our driver was detained for holding a cancelled license. He was led away by the cops and we were stuck sitting in the van with no driver. Eventually the policemen came back and we were told we could stay in the car or come sit in the shade of the station porch. We asked what was going to happen and how we were going to get anywhere and he said that a replacement driver was being called and would be there “soon”. We knew that “soon” meant at least an hour so we settled in and had a good laugh at our first hours in Egypt. After about half-an-hour our driver came back to the car, dirty scowl plastered across his face, and said he’d paid 100 pounds baksheesh for the cops to let him go. On arrival at Dahab he tried to double our fare to cover the cost of his bribe but we refused. He was pretty pissed off, but then again it was 5pm on a hot day and he hadn’t eaten or drunk water for about 12 hours because it was Ramadan. I’d be in a foul mood, too.

We checked out some hotels and checked in to various places according to our individual budgets. The Aussies, the Brits and I immediately changed into swimmers and went for a walk to find a good spot along the bay. The ocean was absolutely, totally crystal clear and shone almost luminescent shades of light and dark blue. With few waves it was possible to see the bottom at incredible depths of three to four metres. We swam in the Red Sea for about an hour and watched the sun set over the mountains of Egypt as the low light changed the silhouetted hues of the mountains across the water in Saudi Arabia.

After showers we went straight out for dinner, sitting on cushions beside the water, drinking beer by subdued lighting.

Days on the road as solidly entertaining and satisfying as this one are pretty rare.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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