Sunday, May 3, 2009

Show me the way to go home...

Aqaba, our next destination, is Jordan's only seaport and resort, on the Red Sea at the southernmost point of Jordan, known for it's coral reefs, snorkeling and moderate temperatures. I'd email-argued with a travel agent back in Dubai about what sort of hotels we needed for our stay in Jordan, explaining that all we needed for our family was safe, clean places to stay when he was pushing 5 star options. In frustration, I'd found and booked all our places myself with the help of our Lonely Planet-Jordan book, the only Jordan guide in either of the big book stores in Dubai, and I bought the only copy they had.

From Wadi Rum, through the desert, then down into a sandy canyon to where the landscape opened up again to reveal Aqaba. We found our hotel, overlooking the Gulf of Jordan, to be sure, but surrounded by massage parlors in a littered, graffitied part of town. Admittedly, the grafitti seemed relatively harmless: spray-painted line animals and phone numbers. Not that I would recognise an Arabic swear word written out, but I can at least tell the difference between the Arabic letters and numbers.

After going though what appeared to be the entrance to the hotel but getting it completely wrong, and consequently chased out with a broom, the wielder of the broom barking "No women HERE!" (heaven only knows what that place was,) I found the correct lobby and asked to be taken to see our room.

It was, frankly, a little bit scary. Dark, narrow halls, and in the actual room, scarred furniture, cracked plaster, and wires hanging out of the walls. Red curtains, instead of adding warmth, gave the room an ominous rusted blood color overtone. If I were a location scout looking for a movie set, this would be the perfect place to film actors portraying some sort of squalid drug overdose.

The guide book described it as: "A stone's throw from the castle and hence removed from (but easy walking distance to) the bustle of central Aqaba. The rooms are clean and pleasant and most have great views. Five new rooms come with beach views. Credit cards are accepted. A good family option."


The hotel staff had arranged for our kids to have a room across the hall. The employee who'd taken me upstairs was surprised I didn't need to see it after having had an eyeful of the first room, but was very nice about it as I fled back out into the sunshine. There was just no way we were staying there with Thomas and Bethy. Just us, maybe. With kids, no way.

A travel agency in Amman had recommended another hotel, the Crystal. So we tracked down hotel #2, traffic circles and one-way streets, of course, but fortunately the tourist area of Aqaba is small enough that we found it after driving through an alley that may or may not have been one way. This hotel was described (again by the guidebook) as: "Walk into the plush marble lobby and you'll feel like you're in an upmarket hotel. The rooms are very comfortable and spacious, if a little sterile."

Sterile sounded pretty good. I went in, again for a preview before unloading the family. Indeed, a marble lobby past the now-ubiquitous metal detectors. Strangely, though there were a few people inside, most of the lights were turned off. Again at the front desk I asked to see a room.

The first I was taken to was small, which we could live with, but so freshly painted and varnished it smelled like a chemical factory. The employee who'd taken me there practically said "tah-dah" as he waved his arm expressively around the room. I hated to say no, but we would have been better off sleeping in our car. He made a quick phone call and a flurry of Arabic resulted in my following him to another room. The elevator tried to take us there, but conked out after one floor so we went for the stairwell, my escort looking embarrassed. This second rooms was perhaps a bit dingy, but mostly clean, beds nicely made, and only one outlet coming off the wall. Well, what the heck.

Mike, upon seeing the room, said to me, "This is an improvement on the other one? Seriously?"

"Seriously," I averred, "trust me."

There was some sort of cinema outside our window on the street below, dramatic music and shouted lines in Arabic, people milling about. Carpet sellers, motorbikes. The kids glommed onto the room's television immediately, but the only English channel was CNN Sports. Lots of golf. Ah, well, that'll teach them.

We went to a local spot for shwarma, a meat cooked similarly to Gyros, served with pickled vegetables and french fries and fresh squeezed juice cocktail. Shwarma is the take-away fast food for the Middle East. There were only two little tables, both outside, for sit-down patrons, and we sweated and squinted in the sun as we enjoyed our meal, the table slanting dangerously downhill with the pitch of the sidewalk. The cooks were tickled to meet Bethy and Thomas, and were so obviously proud of their juice that I praised it effusively.

Back in the hotel we went up the dark stairway to our room, the elevator having proven to be less than reliable, moved tall furniture away from the windows so we could open them. We'd realised that the air conditioning was not going to make its presence felt, oh goody, Then I went through the now-ritual of setting up a water bottle at the sink and sternly instructing the kids once again to use the bottled water for drinking and teeth brushing. Outside of our room's door, in the center of the hotel, was a patio garden with plants and rocks attractively arranged that would have been charming had it not been for the curiously disembodied toilets all over.
After a show of fireworks out our window, a wedding celebration, most likely, I made Thomas a bed of pillows on the floor and the other three of us crammed into the bed for the night, after Mike wedged a chair under the door handle...the safety chain was broken, after all. I made a mental note to myself to email that travel agent when we got back to Dubai and tell him: You were right, I was wrong.
The kids were all bug chewed from camping, miserably itching, the room uncomfortably warm and the street and theatre noise intruding. All that wasn't enough to keep us from sleep after a long day.

The view from our hotel window