This morning we are free in Aqaba to do as we wish. Some of the more adventurous in the group take a shuttle to the Royal Dive Center for a session of scuba diving and snorkeling , exploring the marvelous reefs and coral in the Gulf of Aqaba. The rest of us “veggie types” (me included) choose to visit Barracuda Beach, for a swim in the gulf and a chance to soak up the Jordanian sun for a couple of hours.
From our vantage point on the beach we can see the Israeli resort of Elat, less than a mile across the Gulf. To the left of Elat, a little further down the coast, is the coastline of Egypt. Further to the left, off in the distance, we can just make out the coastline of Saudi Arabia. A vista of three countries, while standing in a fourth, all sharing the same Gulf. Would that sharing the land were as simple, and as peaceful, as the scene from this beach.
At noon we board our motor coach for lunch at a local restaurant in Aqaba. It is the first day of Ramadan here, and even though the town of Aqaba is a major tourist center for Europeans on holiday, both the restaurant and the streets seem noticeably less busy. As we dine on a superb lunch (one of the better meals on the trip) and enjoy fellowship with much laughter and conversation, I cannot help but speculate on the thoughts of our waitstaff, who have had no food or water since sunrise, and will wait until sunset for their next meal. It would be impractical, and perhaps even offensive, for us to observe the Ramadan fast with our hosts, since none of us are practicing Muslims. Still, here is but one of many small issues that visibly set us apart in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.
After lunch we head north, roughly paralleling the eastern border of the Dead Sea, heading for the Dead Sea Spa in Salt Land Village (sounds like a Disney name!) For the early part of our drive north, we are less than fifty yards from the border which Jordan shares with Israel. The “no man’s land” atmosphere, replete with guard towers every few miles, warning signs, and completely flat terrain (which our guide assures us is no longer mined) tends to dilute our Jordanian guide’s assertion that Jordan is quite friendly with Israel. This doesn’t feel like friendship.
We also begin to encounter Jordanian military checkpoints every fifteen to twenty miles along Route 65. We are quickly waved through each checkpoint, but the Kalashnikovs and the heavy machine gun mounted on the jeep are not there for window dressing. One of our party snaps a quick photo from the window of our vehicle as we accelerate out of a checkpoint. The flash from the camera creates a surge of tension from the guards observing the bus, and the scowl from the soldier immediately outside the window sends a very clear message as to the seriousness of their intent.
As we approach our evening’s destination we stop briefly to see “Lot’s Wife”, a very suggestive rock formation near the purported cave that Lot fled into at the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, leaving his salty wife behind. Looking across the Dead Sea to the shores of Israel, we observe a very dramatic sunset over the Promised Land. I pray that this is nothing more than a metaphor.
Then it is on to the Dead Sea Spa, more bag schlepping, room assignments, quick showers, and a buffet dinner. The food is excellent, but after eight consecutive days I doubt that even Georges Perrier could prepare a buffet to my liking. We end our evening with another pilgrimage to the Movenpick Hotel next door for ice cream (Drew’s personal Haj). While enjoying our ice cream we listen to what is likely the only blonde Arabic female vocalist in Jordan, most definitely not garbed in Islamic attire. Once again, the juxtaposition of cultures leaves the mind reeling.