Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aqaba Acabó Conmigo

A little play on words in Spanish between Aqaba and the Spanish verb "acabar" that means "to end or finish". Aqaba finished me.
We went there to avoid the tacky crassness and the expense of Eilat, the Israeli town that is right on the opposite shore of the Red Sea. I have never liked Eilat, which is like Acapulco but without the beautiful bay. Vulgar, overdeveloped, noisy, obnoxious (and full of Israelis). So since there were scuba diving and snorkeling to be attempted, I thought, why not do it in Aqaba, where we were told it would be much cheaper (Israel is super expensive). Actually, the best thing to do would be to get an Egyptian visa for Sinai and go to Dahab or Nuweiba. I remember snorkeling there before Israel gave it back to Egypt and it was a marvel. But we had little time and little strength, so Aqaba it was.
It certainly was cheap. But my heart sank when I realized we had three nights to spend there, already paid for. The town is not beautiful, the beaches are not beautiful.  The place, I'm sorry to say, is a dump. It is evident that they are trying to make it into a tourist diving destination. There are several fancy hotels and restaurants, their main benefit being that foreign women can use their private beaches without feeling ogled or harassed.
I fondly remembered Mr. Ex-Enchilada as we had our first dinner at a restaurant named Ali Baba. Would it turn out to be truth in advertising? Was this a sign to run away and look for a restaurant called Mother Theresa? It was expensive for what it was, but my fish was very good. 
The scene at the public beach (not suitable for foreigners) in downtown Aqaba every evening was fascinating and almost surreal. Vendors sell coffee, rent nargilahs, sell candied apples or children's clothes.

                                  Aqaba. Those lights in the distance are Eilat.

I'm sure Amman is a modern, secular city, but I was surprised by the fact that Aqaba is not so much. Forget about swimsuits. We would walk down the street with pants or bermudas and t-shirts and even a shawl to cover our arms and we were stared at and talked to like crazy, only by men. The first night we went out, a guy followed us. He was middle aged and well dressed. I heard him mutter something in Arabic to me and I shot him a hostile look. I wondered if he was perhaps a plainsclothes government agent, hovering around to protect us (as if), but then we saw him the next day having breakfast at the hotel. To be fair, guys talked to us but no one really bothered us ("Where you from? Welcome, welcome"). It may have helped that we walked around with caras de pedo, fart faces, so as not to give way to too many unwanted conversations. Because you really feel like a lump of meat under their particular gaze. It is exhausting.
I went into the saddest mall ever, a place with fancy restaurants and bars (Chinese, Lebanese, Irish pub), which was totally forlorn, except for a McDonald's. Like many such places in dumpy towns that have dreams of development, it was desperately sad. A very nice man who worked at a candy store asked me where I was from. "Mexico". Then he asked me very sweetly in what hotel I was staying. "Some hotel" I said. My smile had pulverized and he was confused. I tried to understand the reason for the question. I guess it was meant to be friendly, provincial and out of innocent curiosity. But who knows. Same with the spy guy. What does he want? Why is he following us? Who knows. Total culture clash.
However, at one point (after some shmuck hissed the c-word in Arabic at me as I went by) I thought that at least in Jordan the men look at me. No such luck in NY.

The McDonald's was the noisiest McDonald's in the universe, and as is the case with eternally developing countries, a place only the middle class can afford. We were there looking for free wifi, which turned out to be available in most fancy places.
The middle class Jordanians we saw ran the gamut from totally westernized, to wearing the millions of variations of Muslim dress for women. They also tend to go out with their children and dozens of relatives late at night. Like Mexicans, they don't consider it a successful venture if there isn't a deafening racket at all times. And they seem like all upper middle class families in poor countries, bent on making it clear that they are not to be confused with the rest of the rabble. We could have been in Mexico. But the majority of the people we saw on the street and at the public beaches seemed less well-to-do and more pious.

We were ripped off into going to a "beach club" where we could use a pool. The place was a dump, but the use of the pool in 105 degree weather was a true luxury. The murky pool, which could have been overlooking the sea, was blocked by a wall, no doubt so that those outside would not look at women in bathing suits.
We were advised we were going to a public beach. My guidebook did not recommend foreign women going to any public beach over the weekend, but said that on weekdays beaches were mostly empty and it was okay. Sure enough, there were only a few families and pairs of men on the beach, which was strewn with garbage. I went into the sea wearing a one piece, a few kids came by to ask the official question and they left. A man came by to tell me he loved me. Everybody stared.
Three other women in bikinis ventured into the sea as did The Magnificent Arepa, and a swarm of girls surrounded them. T.M.A reported the kids were sweet and fun, although from my vantage point from the shore it looked like she was undergoing a piranha attack. But the same girls threw water and were snarky and hostile at the three bikinied women. The women went to look for a place farther down the beach where no one could pester them.
Look, if this is your culture, fine. Far be it from us to impose our Western ways on your turf. But how are tourists going to come to a beach resort to dive and snorkel if they can't wear a bathing suit in peace?
At the pool in the "beach club", there was a woman wearing a Burkini. This was pants, and a long dress with long sleeves and head cover in shocking pink, with black trim on the sides. Very cute. It was not made of fabric amenable to water, however, so everytime she came out of the pool, the fabric clung to her in a way that revealed her body much more than any normal bathing suit would. I basically could look down the crack of her ass, and other private parts in much more detail than if she'd been wearing lycra. This defeats the purpose, no?
With all due respect to zealots of all religions, including mine, that insist on this puritanical mishegoss, which is nothing but a form of oppression and contempt of women, this is ridiculous.

I asked to see a menu. The prices were super cheap. We ordered lunch.
But when the waiter brought the check, he started reciting random prices, 4 times higher than what was listed on the menu. I don't care if you are in Jordan, in Mexico, in Timbuktu or in Petah Tikva. Nobody likes being taken for an idiot. We may be rich, but that doesn't mean that we are also stupid. Or that there is some unspoken law whereby it is okay to try to divest us of our wealth by cheating. So I showed him the menu. He ignored it. He still was bargaining the prices up with himself, pretending we couldn't do the simplest math. We raised hell, and all of a sudden they were all concerned for our well being and our satisfaction with our beach club experience. I think they were worried about how it was looking to the two Jordanian families who were there as well. They charged more for a can of Pepsi than for a shawarma sandwich with fries.
Arepa found the Jordanians much more polite than the Israelis. Some I found polite, others I found polite and hostile at the same time. Anybody is much more polite than an Israeli, unless you are eating at a fancy Israeli restaurant, where they overdo the politeness, as if they had learned to be polite from a manual. But I'd rather be treated roughly as an equal, than like an idiot or a whore or both.


  1. Tova in Toronto10:30 PM

    would have loved to see a picture of the burkini!! As for the Israelis learning politeness from a manual, that wouldnt surprise me in the least! Its simply not in their nature to be polite, so where else would they learn it?!!

  2. Great impressions. Thanks for sharing.