Trip Archives: Into the Lion’s Den

Almost three weeks of travelling in the Middle East in early 2012.

Suez - Dahab

I hadn’t heard back from Ahmad and so decided to skip Cairo, sleep in, and have a late breakfast. The reason why I’m in Suez in the first place is that a friend of mine, Justus, will go through the Suez Canal today in the afternoon. He’s an officer on a container freighter on it’s way to Asia.

Around 11am Justus txted that they were now leaving the Great Bitter Lake as number 3 in a convoy of ships going south.

I tried to call Ahmad to hire him to go north of Suez to see if there was a spot where I could get close to the canal. He said he was at work right now. So it looks like driving a taxi wasn’t his only work.

I checked out of the hotel and waited outside for a taxi with an English-speaking driver who I could explain my plans to. Eventually I gave up and hopped into one where the driver at least seemed to understand where I wanted to go and that he’d have to wait for a while. His quote seemed reasonable.

He dropped me of inside the city, though, near the port. On the river bank soldiers were patrolling and everything was fenced of with barbed wire. No way to get close enough to see or be seen. The driver was ready to leave and return in 2 hours’ time. Not what I had intended…

I was checking the GPS about other possibilities when Mr Mohammed – that’s how he introduced himself – appeared out of nowhere. He knew me from last night already when he had tried to chat me up and sell his taxi services to me. His English was ok and I managed to explain to him where I wanted to go and why. He said that the road north of Suez, which runs very close to the canal, was completely shut off by police and army.

Instead he brought me to a different place where I could get within 10 meters of the water – an army-patrolled barbed wire was the limit again. At least I was standing next to a mosque, a good landmark for Justus.

The first ship of the convoy sneaked past. I learned that what used to be a promenade was now sensitive military area and I was not allowed to take any pictures.

I had been waiting for almost 2 hours already and the patrolling soldiers got a bit nervous about my presence. The third ship in the convoy appeared in the distance when a couple of army officers turned up and started inquiring about my being there. I had clearly been in the area for too long and they had become suspicious of that westerner with the big backpack hanging around an abandoned mosque near the Suez Canal!

Fortunately, that ship coming up was indeed the one I was waiting for. They tensioned when its name matched the one I had mentioned before, but immediately relaxed when they saw a lone figure stand at the side of the bridge returning my waving. I was even allowed to take a few pictures. We tried to shout a few words across the canal, but didn’t understand a thing the other said. I earned some disapproving looks and questions from my army entourage for the noise. Very cool that it was possible to see Justus there, anyway. :)

Mr Mohammed drove me the 500km back to Dahab – the buses still don’t run -, a service I paid dearly for. He, too, chose the longer route around the southern tip of the Sinai instead of going through the interior via St. Catherine. Too dangerous?

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Dahab - Aqaba

I left Dahab at 10am to go to Nuweiba, from where the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan, leaves.

With me in the van were an American girl on leave from her volunteering in the Peace Corps in Kenya, and Laura and Rens, a Dutch couple, who were on a side-trip to Petra in Jordan and also wanted to catch the ferry.

Only minutes before we passed through, an accident had happened at a long down-hill curve, with two trucks crashing into each other head-on. One of the drivers was still stuck in the wreck of his truck and people tried to get him out. Didn’t look good at all. Apparently the right equipment to cut him out was missing. There was nothing we could have done.

In Nuweiba, Laura, Rens and me hurried to the ticket office, only to see it being shut right in front of us. It was time for prayer and lunch. We were told to come back in one hour’s time, at 12.30pm. We had a little snack and were back after exactly one hour. And waited one more hour before the window opened again. Meanwhile we had learned from a friendly police officer that the ferry would leave between 1pm and 2pm. We held the tickets in our hands at quarter to 2pm.

While waiting I had a chat with a Jordanian truck driver. He told me that he paid USD 485 for a ticket for his truck to Jordan, and USD 400 for the trip from there back to Egypt. We paid USD 75 per person for the 3 hours (approx. 80km) of net sailing. He said he’d have to wait for about 3 days because his truck was number 120 in the queue, and the ferry’s capacity is limited to 40 to 45 trucks at a time (and of course it sails only once a day, weather permitting). Unfortunately I didn’t ask what prevented him from transiting through Israel. He also correctly predicted that the ticket seller would return about an hour later than announced. Last but not least he mentioned that Egypt was dangerous currently. I thought he was talking about dangers for tourists, but he said that nobody here would touch a tourist as tourism is too important for the country, especially now during the revolution where you could count foreigners almost on one hand. No, he said that Arabs were targeted by robbers.

Well, the ferry left at 5pm.

On the boat we met Vladimir from Russia, who had brought his bike to cycle around Jordan on his first-ever bike trip before flying to Ukraine, and Nicolas from Argentina.

They both wanted to stay the night in Aqaba as well and we shared a room in a simple hotel downtown. At check-in the guy at the reception bent my passport in an unhealthy way and it broke almost completely. The ID page is is now held by a tiny piece of plastic and will fall out with the next incautious touching. I hope they’ll accept it at the airport and let me leave the country.

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Aqaba – Amman

Had a tea for breakfast with Wladimir and Nicolas, then we all went our separate ways.
I hopped on a bus to Amman where I arrived around 3.30pm.

There is snow in the hills and in Amman itself it’s raining and freezing cold. People say the rain is normal at this time of the year while the temperatures are not.

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Amman - Bremen

I spent the day in the hotel, freezing. The weather is crap and I’m tired and moody.

Had a great time meeting Huda again in the evening for a nice chat over tea and some late/short sightseeing.

I’m ready to fly home tonight.

How do I best summarize this trip?
The short version: I prefer cycling.

The long version: The countries I’ve seen are very interesting. Especially Israel and Palestine have fascinated me. The conflict there is very sad and has become weird, grotesque and ridiculous at some places, and is humiliating for both Palestinians and Israelis alike. Egypt is unlike any other Arab or Middle Eastern country I’ve been to. Egyptians exercise the art of making money in a special way. They’ll rip you off with a smile and you have to be careful not to give a tip on top because ‘I give you very good price’. :)
I haven’t seen as much of Jordan as I wanted to. To be exact I haven’t seen anything. I’ll be back.
My modes of transport were certainly convenient and efficient as far as crunching kilometers is concerned. But the real beauty of the countryside in between stops doesn’t reveal itself to me when I travel by car or bus. I prefer cycling.

PS: At the airport, a Jordanian officer completely ripped the ID page off my passport. His comment: “Just tape it.” On arrival in Paris the French officer didn’t care at all about the two-piece passport I handed him and let me through after short glances at the photo page and me.

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