Around 2 p.m., I jumped into a bus and left rainy Amman for Aqaba. I spent the duration of the four hour trip staring into the desert while seated in the second level of a double-decker bus. I haven’t gotten bored of the desert yet, in fact, I find the vast, dry landscape humbling and conducive to personal reflection.
Aqaba is located in southern Jordan and rests on the Gulf of Aqaba, a conduit to the Red Sea. The city is commonly known as the port T. E. Lawrence and his entourage captured from the Turks in 1917 and, as result, increased momentum for the Arab Revolt. Despite the town's rich history, I'm traveled here because I heard the snorkeling is decent.
Entering Aqaba the energy was palpable due to the approaching New Year. I checked out a few hotels and, probably because of the holiday, the prices were a bit higher than Lonely Planet predicted. I finally found a decent place, dropped off my luggage and went exploring around town. On the Gulf of Aqaba beach, families were picnicking and gangs of bachelors were strutting along the boardwalk. I quickly found honest company with a man selling coffee. His operation was simple: a small butane burner, water, Nestle coffee and sugar. We talked smoothly in Arabic for minutes, then the language barrier obliged us to enjoy each others company in silence. In an extension of hospitality, he offered a cigarette and I, a non-smoker, sharply refused. But, he persisted, and I, not wanting to be rude, folded and smoked my first sober cigarette. Despite being disgusted with smoking, I wanted to appear seasoned at the trade. I tried the scissors grip with two erect fingers clamping the cigarette awkwardly. Feeling foolish, I switched to the limp grip. In this style, the smoker’s hand assumes a natural shape that makes no concession to the existence of the cigarette. If done correctly, the cigarette loosely balancing between relaxed pointer and middle fingers conveys the cool symbiotic relationship between smoker and cigarette. Haha.
In the midst of our cordial conversation, I was suddenly overcome by a moment of racial prejudice. I suspect I was infected with this prejudice during my time in the military, where insidious racism was necessary for diligent work. Ultimately, this racism may have received its cachet from a suicide bomber that hit a platoon in our company four days before the otherwise smooth deployment ended. Sitting next to this vendor in Aqaba, I couldn’t help imagining he was a covert operative in a terrorist cell, eliciting information from me in hopes of brutally murdering me in my hotel room later that night. When he finished smoking, I was relieved; I didn’t have to worry about him thrusting the ember of his cigarette into my eye. This attitude is a shame because all evidence points to this man as genuine and, actually, very intelligent.
Being New Years, there were fireworks, but not in Aqaba. From Aqaba, one can scan the gulf and see the lights of Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt. There was a chilling irony watching the fireworks of the neighboring countries--who miraculously manufactured a cold peace in 1978--share the sky in a celebratory display of beauty and light. In summary, it was deeply humanizing. The fireworks were so far off they could only be seen, not heard. Taking in the scene as one year retired and another awakened, I noticed that the gatherings on the Aqaba beach were more about family and friends, and less about being entertained by the colors of exploding copper sulfite and magnesium miles away.