Tuesday 11 October 2005
After just two days at home, it’s off to Gatwick (again) for a smooth check-in and departure for Aqaba, Jordan. Everyone, it seems, is a Voyages Jules Verne client and all 150 of us will be taking one of a number of tours in the middle east. On landing, it’s all very efficient. Aqaba is a small airport with a limited number of flights, so there’s no delay in getting us processed after arrival. VJV is less impressive: they should ditch the air-headed young Sloanes who struggle to call out the most simple names when we claim our passports from them. For the price, you expect experienced representatives who will know what to do in an emergency. Blonde is no substitute for brains.

Safely aboard one of three buses, I survey my fellow travellers more closely. We’re the usual bunch, I suppose: middle aged, white, reasonably well-off. Most are couples, of course, but the odd group of friends is evident. On my tour, I’m the only single traveller proper.

Note on being a single traveller.
First, you pay more, sometimes quite a lot more. Sometimes (though only once, in a single hotel in India so far as this sabbatical is concerned) you get a lot less for your money: a smaller room with fewer facilities, no view, near the kitchens or lift shaft. It’s not just the hotels. If meals are included in the package, the tables laid out for the group are almost always arranged for an even number of people. If you sit down early in your chosen seat, the last couple in will ask you to move so they can sit together. If you wait until the end, you’ll be next to the other single traveller and, like it or not, by default you’ll be paired up for the rest of the trip as an informal couple. Same goes for the tour coach, too, if it’s full. Seems these happily married couples can’t be parted even for a moment! Heart warming, truly.

The drive from the airport to Petra is unremarkable and many take the opportunity to snooze. We pass through the occasional village where little is going on (it is Ramadan, still quite warm and only 6pm) but some of the local youth summon up enough energy to make hostile gestures as we pass. This may just be what young get up to the world over but I sense there’s rather more involved. Westerners can be surprised at the muted welcome we receive abroad. We take our customs and preconceptions with us and often lack the sensitivity to adapt them to local conditions. Sometimes it’s a matter of dress or we can be perceived as ‘loud’ or ‘pushy’. And it’s not just Americans! We expect service to be similar to that we might hope for (though not always get) back home when the local custom is to allow the customer to sit back and relax to enjoy a leisurely meal. Direct questioning can be a difficult area. Our hosts may want to know every detail of our life, family or work but clam up if any foray is made into the world of local politics. People with any 'nous' should be able to pick up when conversation strays beyond acceptable bounds.

The Petra Movenpick is new, just recently finished. It’s swish, clean and classy. There’s a welcome drink and then we’re steered into a room to book ‘optional’ excursions. I suppose it would be possible to decline the offer but why come all this way and just stay in a hotel, no matter how well appointed? It’s important to budget for this extra expenditure, though, as it can add up. Our problem is that we have to choose our trips right now (not so unreasonable, really) and pay for them now in cash. That’s a problem, for most of us as we don’t carry large sums of cash for obvious reasons. There’s a cash machine in town but it’s a taxi ride away. The firm does a roaring business ferrying groups to the ATM which doles out the money in the usual way. I part with $29 and 107 dinars, some £112 in all. It seems a lot but the cost is soon forgotten. I wander down to a local restaurant for an indifferent chicken and salad for 10 dinars but I’m too tired to worry about the value.

Wednesday 12 October 2005
After a splendid buffet breakfast in the hotel we form an orderly line and walk to the entrance to ancient Petra, a mysterious carved sandstone city just up the road. A one-day ticket costs 21 dinars, a two-day pass, 26 dinars. If you have the time (and if you’ve done your preparation properly you’ll have set the time aside) you’ll opt for the two days, no question. A fair degree of walking fitness is required as it’s a trek to see the sights. Horses will take you a fair way (if you like that sort of thing) and the donkeys will go further but it’s mostly level ground to start so the ‘Treasury’ isn’t too hard to reach. I reckon it’s a seven-mile round trip from the entrance to the viewpoint over the Arabah, part of the Rift Valley. The sights on the route are manifold and remarkable. You can ignore those who ply their equine trade, but no-one with a soul could ignore the carved-out tombs, palaces, niches, watercourses and, of course, the ‘Treasury’. The sheer scale of these things is staggering. Be sure to get some scale to your photographs but getting some people in the shot. Only then can their true size be appreciated.

'The Treasury', Petra

The local lads tout their trinkets with cheek and humour. Their ‘knock-down’ prices are matched by the static stalls dotted along the path where you have more time and freedom to browse. Generally, a better deal was to be had inside the site compared with the souvenir shop outside – apart from water and other drinks, of course. And you’ll need to drink plenty!

Being a group, we had pre-booked lunch. For under 9 dinars we had a feast laid before us: salads, stew, pasta, rice, potatoes, vegetables, kebabs, koftis, puddings, fruit; all help yourself. And the toilets were fine!

Sustenance was indeed needed for the climb that was to come: 800 steps up to the ‘Monastery’. It’s a real effort but more than worthwhile to reach the viewpoint: a sheer drop. Hard though the climb was, the descent is more challenging. 800 slippery steps and eyes to the ground isn’t a great deal of fun. The likely lads with their donkeys hover invitingly but having seen the heavy loads they’ve had to carry up the mountain (overweight Americans, mainly) it seems cruel to add to their load on the way down.

'The Monastery', Petra

The evening is spent at a nearly hotel where a local academic tells us about recent developments at the site. We’re all a bit tired to take it in. Two things I remember: no-one can interpret Nubian writing and none of their tools have ever been found.

Postcards beckon before I turn in, so I take myself off to the Movenpick rooftop bar. As I write, I sip an eye-wateringly sharp lemon juice. The lights of the modern city twinkle as the gibbous moon tracks its way across the night sky with Venus in attendance.

Note: As it’s Ramadan, the month when faithful Moslems fast during the hours of daylight, our guide, Ahmad, can’t even drink water during the day, hot walks and guiding notwithstanding. How he manages, Allah only knows!

Thursday 13 October 2005
Off to ‘Little Petra’ today. Strictly it’s called Beida, meaning ’pale’ but for commercial reasons it trades off is near neighbour. Beida served as a caravan centre for Petra proper in its heyday and there are some good examples of ruined free-standing Nabatean houses here. More interesting, though, are the carved-out tombs, triclinia and the like, including one room with fragments of frescoes. To see them, some careful climbing is required.
Little Petra is a half-day at most, so after a snack I head off to the main Petra site solo. Moving at my own (more rapid) pace I take rather more in and buy presents (metal animal ornaments – well, they seemed a good idea at the time) and a guide book. Mint tea is also a wise purchase. It’s a fair way back in the heat of the afternoon, so a rest and a shower at the hotel prepare me for the 6.30pm rendezvous at the ‘Nabatean Cave Bar’ – a modern concept in an old fissure. The wine is fine. Just after 7pm we’re off on the Petra by Night excursion. This is exclusively for VJV clients – but this does not guarantee solitude by any means. In fact, there are a couple of hundred of us, I’d say, strung out in an enormous crocodile wending our way to the ‘treasury’ courtyard. The whole thing is rather well done. Candles light our way, each in a brown paper shield. Very effective and someone has worked very hard to get hundreds (if not thousands) lit in good time, a modern wonder at an ancient treasure.

Arriving at the ‘Treasury’, we find the courtyard outside completely filled with candles and VJV clients. A Bedouin string-player and singer entertains us in a distinctive ethnic fashion while mint tea was brought round. Cabaret over we pursue the candle lighter (we never caught up with him and never caught sight of him) following his lighted trail along the colonnaded road towards the restaurant for our supper. A piper met us at the bride and escorted us the last few yards. Various salads and small snacks were laid out for us on the tables but then the most curious thing happened. A very skilled Bedouin dance group, all men, started a comprehensive display – but right in front of the hotplates where our main course was ready and waiting. There was simply no way to get to it past them! Eventually, some of us went outside where some meat was on the BBQ as we helped ourselves to that and some flatbread – but of the vegetables, rice and other delights we had none. Perhaps they were reserved for the dancers! Modest colourful puddings came our way just in time to be dispatched before the minibus back to the hotel. The whole evening ran out at £39, pretty fair value on reflection. That evening I slept a whole nine hours (almost unknown).

Friday 14 October 2005
Having woken rather later than usual, I hurried down to breakfast on our last morning at Petra. It was a long, hot road down to Aqaba (when we arrived it had been dark). There was something of a wait before the boat was due to leave the Royal Jordanian Yacht Club so we took over a nearby restaurant where they were happy to serve food and drink inside only, as it was Ramadan. We were warned not to be seen eating in public in case great offence were caused.

The boat ride over to Taba was delightful. The Movenpick in Petra had sent us a packed lunch each and the drinks were free on ship. The Gulf of Aqaba was calm and huge Jordanian flag fluttered in the gentle breeze. Eilat in Israel was visible just round the corner and the Egyptian shore was in view.

Our arrival in Egypt seemed to be unexpected. The port at Taba is new but we could hardly have been the first ship to dock. The port police were at prayer (fair enough) so we disembarked and waited for them to finish their devotions which they died some ten minutes later. Prayer had not improved their temperament, unless it had been unbelievably bad to begin with. Without the trace of a smile (they are in short supply in Egypt, it seems) we were ordered to come forward one by one into a small holding area and to deposit all our baggage in a pile for screening. One by one the bags went through. Every now and then they would shout ‘Whose bag is this?’ and the owner would have to claim it or account for its contents. My bag came in for particular scrutiny from no fewer than three officials. ‘Whose bag is this?’ they called out urgently and forward I came. There was a problem, apparently, with the small metal animal ornaments I had bought at Petra. They were, in the police’s opinion, priceless antiquities, contraband to be confiscated. I was having none of this – they had cost me, after much haggling, as much as 4 Jordanian dinars a piece, just a few pounds, but they were mine and although there were another thousand of them back at Petra just the same, I wouldn’t be heading that way again. I stood my ground, very loudly. I have since realised a very Egyptian ploy was being played out. Every official in Egypt, every restaurateur, every shopkeeper is on the make. Had I realised at the time I’d have been even more indignant at the port police but then I may not have got my gifts back at all. With a surly glance the officials backed down and my bag was handed over, its contents intact.

The fun was by no means over. All now reunited with our luggage, we remained herded and locked in this same small room. The immigration officer, it was alleged, was not present. He had gone home (not for lunch, obviously) and had not indicated when he might return. Remember: we were expected and had arrived bang on time! Eventually, around an hour later, he sauntered in, spent an inordinate age arranging his paraphernalia on his large desk, and surveyed the restless crowd with an uncaring eye. One by one we were called in. Why were we visiting Egypt, where had we come from, where were we staying? Time and again he heard the same answers, no doubt. No wonder he seemed bored by the time my turn came. ‘Vacation, Aqaba, Sonesta Beach Hotel’ I chorused and with a lugubrious gesture he stamped the visa into my passport. ‘Welcome to Egypt. Enjoy your stay,’ he droned without any sense of irony.

All visa’d up, we waiting expectantly by the exit doors. However, the Egyptians’ sense of fun knows no bounds. We were curtly informed that we would now have a wait of two hours as the customs officials were all at the Eilat crossing point and we could not complete our ‘welcome’ to Egypt without their tender attentions. Even for the English this was proving too much. We could see our coach and Egyptian guide through the windows waiting for us beyond the security fence. We began to stir with a resolute restlessness and there was rebellion in the air. What finally came to our rescue was a second boat arriving ready to disgorge its passengers. There would be no-where to put them as were taking up all the available space in our holding pen. A suggestion was put to us: properly we could not enter Egypt without passing through customs, it was the law and the law had to be taken very seriously, especially by trusted officials of the state. However, on this occasion, and entirely for our benefit, of course, our passage could be eased, without benefit of customs – and only for a consideration, a small one, just to square things, you understand. 70 Egyptian pounds did the trick and as if by magic the doors were opened, we were on the coach, and another group of unsuspecting tourists was about to undergo the same charade that had failed to amuse us for the best part of two hours.

We received the usual ‘take it or leave it’ welcome from the hotel staff at the Sonesta Beach. If they knew how to make people welcome, they certainly didn’t show it. The hotel was almost entirely deserted. Apart from the 29 of us, there were only six other guests that night.

The Sonesta Beach Hotel, Taba

The hotel, for the most part, faces the sea. So, of course, we were all housed in the few rooms on the side overlooking the unfinished hotel next door. Advertised in the hotel guide was the Fatoush, a rooftop restaurant offering ethnic food, just the thing to lift our spirits after our trying day. Raising our spirits was the last thing this Egyptian ‘Fawlty Towers’ had in mind. We were told very firmly: ‘NO FOOD’ and it was clear they meant it. Seeing how the evening was going, I decided to eat in the Palmeira Buffet at lobby level – food was OK, and even the service acceptable, for 75 Egyptian pounds and a lemon drink at 20 Egyptian pounds. Others who tried the Blue Fin restaurant or the Italian themed Scallini found much to entertain them, if little to consume. Only three kinds of fish were available, and all frozen (after all, the sea was all of 10 metres away) and shrimp soup with garlic bread turned out to be mushroom without.

The Beach at Taba

Saturday 15 October 2005
After a decent breakfast (but I really must find out what sort of breakfast food comes with the name ‘Foul’) we’re in the coach at 7.15am and off through the Sinai to St Catherine’s monastery. There have been several security incidents along this road (terrorist-related) so road blocks and police checks are frequent and our passports much in demand.

A toilet and refreshment stop is made at the Catherine Plaza Hotel, used by VJV when Taba is considered unsafe for foreigners. It seems a decent enough place and well-positioned for visits to the monastery. A familiar game is played by the staff. Water is 3 Egyptian pounds a bottle. We have no change, of course, and nor, it seems, do they. So, unless we club together to buy bottles of water between us, we have to go thirsty (not a good idea at these temperatures) or pay over the odds with whatever note we have handy. It’s scams like these that drain the delight of foreign travel.

St Catherine’s monastery does not disappoint. It has been a long journey from Aqaba (and it will be an equally long one back again, of course, but the three hours spent here is heaven indeed. Open only from 9 until 12 and not at all on Fridays and Sundays there is the risk of being swamped by tourists eager to escape the confines of their security-conscious hotels and resorts. But even with the competing crowds, the over-zealous donkey taxi drivers and postcard/guidebook salesmen, there is an atmosphere of the ‘special’ the ‘holy’. First stop is the charnel house. The monks are buried in the confined of the monastery when they die but, as is traditional in these areas, only long enough for the flesh to rot. The bones are then dug up and placed in the charnel house with their bleached forbears. It’s an oddly moving sight for me, though obviously disconcerting for the regular tourist who keeps all thoughts of mortality firmly beyond arm’s length. On entering the typical Greek orthodox church we admire the thumb of St Catherine (of wheel fame) and her tomb.

Looking down on St Catherine's Monastery

The burning bush is roped off today, apparently for repairs, but the wonderful museum is open and we lose ourselves for an hour or more among the ancient icons and manuscripts. A page from the 3rd century Codex Syricus is of special note. Before leaving the monastery complex we visit what must be the smallest bookshop in the world, and perhaps the busiest. We reach over one another to choose our mementoes and thrust the right money into the hands of the eager assistants. No chance of change here but none of us seems to mind.

Before we get back on the coach, we climb the hill opposite the monastery and take in the view. We see a tiny kingdom, a refuge of faith for centuries clinging to its existence through one turmoil after another. Mount Horeb/Sinai towers above it, guarding its creation. The sight will remain with me for ever.

Mount Horeb (Sinai) towers over St Catherine's Monastery

We headed for the Catherine Plaza hotel for lunch. This was entirely optional and advertised at 50 Egyptian pounds per person. Our earlier experience with the water (no change available) made me bold enough to suggest to our guide that we could do rather better than that. Others agreed. Only a minute’s negotiation with the management secured us the lunch for 35 Egyptian pounds. Result! As it turned out, the lunch was excellent with a wide range of good quality dishes. Had we paid the full price, we wouldn’t have complained – but it just goes to show that there are savings to be made, if only you ask.

The return to our hotel at Taba was uneventful and we were passing through the security check at 3.30pm. It had been a long day so far, so a swim in the hotel pool was welcome. Here, the service was very good, in stark contrast to the rest of this shambolic place. Decided to try out the beach. This was a narrow stretch guarded at both ends by men with guns. No doubt this is supposed to be reassuring but for those of us from the UK it’s not quite what you expect to see. The beach itself is fine but rough underfoot when in the water. Once again, jelly shoes would be a good idea. The water was warm but I could have done without the black plastic rubbish sacks floating past.

Having had such a good lunch, I passed on dinner, but took up the invitation to hear our guide deliver a lecture about life in Egypt. It wasn’t terribly interesting but we were polite. We gathered that Egypt is a democracy in name only and that criticism of the government is not well-received. Corruption is rife and backhanders oil the wheels of wheels of even the most petty bureaucracy. This was hardly news. I was surprised by the unweary acceptance with which this reported. The guide went on to say that he had been released from all but the most nominal national service in the air force because his father was well-connected. As usual, money and position are useful if you have them.

There was plenty of evening left to enjoy, so we headed to the roof bar to see if the welcome had improved from the night before. Clients before our arrival numbered two. Swelling their ranks lent some atmosphere at least and there was the risk we might enjoy ourselves. An all-inclusive couple (the majority seem to come on these terms) joined us and the party began. Their beers were free, ours we paid for. Theirs were unidentified, ours were branded and 30 Egyptian pounds per bottle, nearly as much as lunch had been. For the past twenty minutes a keyboard and singing duo had entertained us with soft -focus music. The girl singer then came round and pressed someone to start the karaoke. The others being unwilling, I stepped up to the plate. The songs available were mainly unfamiliar to me but we found three I might have a chance with: Yesterday, Money can’t Buy me Love, and My Way. It was good fun and people were quite complimentary. I sat down (no-one else was prepared to take a turn) and a fellow guest offered me a beer. He came back perplexed. We could have a beer but only the one between the two of us and only with a plastic glass. A few minutes’ later, I tried to buy the other beer but was turned away very brusquely on the grounds that the bar was closed. As it clearly wasn’t (others were being served – and with proper glasses) I took a stand. The manager was summoned and I made my case. It seems the staff had assumed I was an all-inclusive client whose entitlement ends at 11pm. How this confusion could occur I couldn’t understand as those on that arrangement sport a gaudy wristband for identification. I got my beer but after more confusion with other guests, it was clearly time to leave the bar. It’s clear that labour is hard to come by in this remote resort. Apart from one or two exceptions, the hotel staff were unhelpful, unwilling or rude. The men who cleaned the rooms were suspect and some of the ladies in the party felt threatened by their manner and predatory approach to western women.

Sunday 16 October 2005
Couldn’t complain about breakfast (not that I’m the complaining type) but checkout at reception was a trial. Again, staff were at their most unhelpful. I queried a charge of 11 Egyptian pounds on my bill and was told it was entertainment tax. No-one else had been charged this, so be warned: if you sing karaoke in Egypt, you’ll be taxed for the privilege. Of course, that can’t be true – but given the chaos in this substandard hotel, anything is possible. We were provided with a packed lunch (chicken roll, cold chips from last night’s buffet, olives, cake, orange juice and water) and we left for the return to Jordan.

Reviewing my notes, I’ve probably not been hard enough on this hotel. It was a disgrace through and through and there’s a great deal I have left out. The management was weak, the staff incompetent and surly. The food in the ground floor buffet was fine but otherwise substandard and entirely non-existent in the roof restaurant where the staff just couldn’t be bothered. A number of us complained there and then to the VJV representative and followed this up with letters to the company. Recent VJV brochures now advertise the Movenpick at Taba Heights. If we played any part in this change of venue, future clients will have much to thank us for.

Returning to Jordan was a real ‘going home’. To compare it with the Exodus would be absurd but after Egypt, Jordan had something of the scent of the Promised Land. The boat trip across the Gulf of Aqaba was delightful. Of course, Jordanian Immigration and Customs officials had their job to do when we disembarked but they did it with cheerful efficiency, such a contrast to the Egyptians. The Movenpick hotel in Aqaba is barely five minutes from the port. My room is good, though the view across the car park is not what I might have hoped for. There’s a hitch but, for once, it’s not my problem. Two couples have booked the Aqaba extension but the hotel denies all knowledge of this which naturally upsets the couples. All is sorted but it’s a reminder of how packages so carefully booked at home can unravel abroad. Having a company representative on hand can make all the difference.

Aqaba Movenpick

No need of dinner tonight. This room had a hospitality tray, an unusual feature I’ve discovered. So coffee and BBC World (programme about Vision 2020 – which would be good Lent charity one year) fill the evening. Early to bed. But at some point in the late evening I’m stirred by a frantic knocking. I’m too dazed to tell if it’s my door or further down the corridor. I squint my eyes shout more firmly and ignore the noise, trusting it will go away. It doesn’t. In fact, it comes closer. A key is being tried on the lock. It turns and the door opens. I decide to feign deep sleep rather than face a confrontation. There’s some tiptoeing and some rustling before my intruder leaves and the door is relocked. Immediately the coast is clear the light is on and I’m out of bed. It turns out I’ve been sent an urgent message from the VJV representative delivered by a member of hotel staff to say tomorrow’s excursion to Wadi Rum will be leaving 30 minutes sooner than advertised. Minor panic over, though I don’t sleep quite so soundly tonight for some reason.

The Hotel Pool

Monday 17 October 2005
Breakfast on the terrace is delightful. Friendly staff and a great setting make all the difference. A stroll to the private beach via the hotel pools made good use of the rest of the morning. A lemon juice suffices for lunch after the generous breakfast and we gather for the transfer to Wadi Rum. It’s to be a day of bumping across the desert in 4x4s. It feels gratifyingly remote. After admiring the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (a rock formation much photographed), we call in at Lawrence’s Spring for a drink, kindly brought to us courtesy of a pipe from halfway up a mountain.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

We view ‘the Tree’ from the film Lawrence of Arabia. I shall look out for it next time the film’s on TV. This area is affected by earthquakes quite frequently, one consequence of which is to change the flow of local springs. Should this celebrity spring be dried up by an earthquake, I suppose the local Bedouins will simply relocate to the nearest running water and make their money there – and take ‘the Tree’ with them.

Anonymous Jeep and Famous Tree

A nearby rock reveals some ancient inscriptions made by caravaneers centuries ago. We’re told the scratchings are directions to local springs and messages about missing camels. Across the ‘sik’ (a gorge) more messages await: a couple, a pregnant woman, a pair of feet, camels, ibexes (or is that ibices?) and verses from the Koran in seven different scripts. No idea what it all means.

Ancient scratchings

Three different kinds of sandstone were pointed out to us, including the very red type beneath our feet. We take it all in. It’s extraordinary the things we find fascinating when we’ve paid out so much money.

Our last stop is to see the sun set over the mountains to the west. Tossing stones at an abandoned tin can provides amusement as we await the phenomenon. When it comes, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. The sky goes red, the sun goes down and that’s about it. The only surprise is how suddenly the cold sets in. A fast, furious jeep ride back to the coach ensues.

Tonight’s dinner is al fresco at a Bedouin camp with a roaring fire. There’s a full moon and I try a fancy photograph of the moon between the fronds of a palm tree.

Full Moon and Palm

An old man plays a one-stringed fiddle and sings some folk melodies. Again, it all adds to the atmosphere. The local scale seems to contain only five notes: C, D, E, a slightly flat F# and G. The singing is strained and repetitious.

Bedouin musician

The rush for the food is a little unseemly but we all end up with enough and it’s a good evening well spent. Back to the hotel at 8.30pm. It has been a tiring day.

Tuesday 18 October 2005
The usual excellent breakfast lifted the sadness of the last morning. A short tour round the block and last-minute postcard purchases preceded a couple of hours’ relaxation around the pool and on the beach. The forecast tells of showers in Jordan later this week, so we’re probably leaving just in time. Our transfer to the airport and the check-in there is efficient. So it should be: we’re the only flight out that day. My final dinars are spent on sweets and whisky.

The beach at Aqaba