Chapter Nine - Aqaba & Return to Amman
We returned to Rum the next day. I felt sorry that we had to leave so soon. It was again after dark that we headed back to the Desert Highway and then on to Aqaba. The Dominican woman accompanied us. There was one checkpoint between Rum and the highway. Driving along it was still nightmarish ...
Before approaching Aqaba, there was a checkpoint but from what I saw it was a customs check. We didn't need to stop. From there, it was another stretch of road running through the pitch black darkness, and then suddenly the lights of Aqaba came into sight on our right-hand side. On the left everything was dark except for some street lights. Gee, this city was a lot bigger than I had expected. We looked for a turning off to the right but couldn't find one. After a couple of miles, the city was behind us. Strange. Then a little bell rang: that city we saw, was on the other side of the water. So, it couldn't be Aqaba. It was Eilat, in Israel! We had become so fixated on the lights that we had failed to see that there actually was a town to the left of the road as well. What a difference! Aqaba, a small town mainly hidden in the darkness on the left, and there on the other side of the Gulf the modern city of Eilat with lots of high buildings, bathing in light.
We had to find a hotel first. The Red Sea Hotel has singles/doubles for JD6/8. They were clean but stuffy. The extremely friendly old manager and his son told us they also had some '1st class' rooms for JD14. We checked them out and they were indeed better, but certainly didn't warrant the price difference. Next was the Nairoukh 1 Hotel. The only room left was a triple for JD18 (which was actually the price for a double). We could also use it as a double for JD15, and the third person then had to sleep on the roof for JD3. The first suggestion applied most to me, but the room itself also didn't warrant its asking price. Bargaining down was impossible. The receptionist kept pointing at a sign posting official prices. No Problem. There are enough hotels in Aqaba. Third on my list was the Amira Hotel. Rooms were JD14/18 (taxes included) and they were much better than in the previous two places. There was a toilet and hot shower en suite, also TV, a fan, air-conditioning and a fridge filled with all sorts of drinks (except alcohol of course) and sweets. The place was OK, but still I tried to bargain down. To no avail. Here too, the receptionist pointed out the quoted prices on the official sign. Okay, we took it. The staff were friendly as well. Fourth on my list would have been the International Hotel; I heard that it's a very good place. Well, maybe next time...
It was already way past eleven when we headed out on the street to find a place to eat. There were some shawarma stands, but the Dominican lady, Noris, wanted something less common after spending two days in the desert. Why not? At this late (for Jordan) hour, we ended up at the Ali Baba restaurant, the "most expensive place in town" according to the locals. There is a very extensive and varied menu, listing everything from felafel and shish kebab to tournedos, 'Sophia Loren' steak and the sadly inappropriately named 'Diana' steak. All of the latter were JD7, and they come with chips and salad. Not bad for the most expensive meat dishes at the "most expensive restaurant". We ordered. "Sorry, but the kitchen closes at 10", one of the waiters who were swarming like flies around our Dominican friend said. "No, no, it's open", another one shouted. "No, it's closed", the first one said again. A hefty discussion started. At the end, the kitchen was definitely re-opened. Clearly all the men were fascinated by the exotic appearance of Noris and didn't want to disappoint her. There we were, having supper at Ali Baba's two hours after the kitchen had been closed. Nice though ... We really were all very hungry!
The next morning we went to have breakfast at the Amira Restaurant (near the Post Office, round the corner from the hotel). Yes, it has the same owner (or at least his family) as the hotel we were staying in. This seems to be the case quite often in Jordan. The breakfast was the usual boring stuff, but here a baqlawa was thrown in. Price: JD2. We also came here at noon to have lunch, but decided to head for Ali Baba's again instead. The prices are right (it's definitely cheaper than Ali Baba); the problem was that most dishes were only available from 1 pm on. What nonsense is that?
Virtually next door to the Amira Restaurant one can make a telephone call at the music shop. The price is JD2.5 per minute (no minimum).
As far as sights in Aqaba go, they aren't very exciting - bar one. The museum costs JD1 to enter but is plain boring. A walk alongside the nearby waterfront is free and nice enough. Also free is the Fort. It's a nice place to sit for a while and talk to some locals. Both at the Fort and the museum (with Visitors' Centre) the people are helpful and friendly.
Aquarium The best of all places to visit in Aqaba is no doubt the great Aquarium. In true Jordanian tradition it looks like a construction site, but inside is one of the best public aquariums I have ever seen. The fish (and other creatures) seem to be really well cared for and the displays as a whole give a very good overview of the marine life in the Red Sea. Recommended and well worth the one Dinar entrance fee.
In the afternoon we had to head back for Amman as our flight was leaving at 1.30 at night. We planned on getting a couple of hours' sleep in some cheap hotel in the capital before heading back home. The Boeing 767, with its restricted leg room, wasn't going to be a place for a nap, that was clear. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. I was about 20 kilometres out of Aqaba on the dangerous Desert Highway when a passing truck threw up a rock that hit our windscreen. A big crack was the result. The truck was going really fast, and there was no way I could make a quick, safe turn, and even then I would never have been able to stop the truck without being hit by it. So, we were stuck with the damage. What did I need to do? I decided to get a police report for the insurance. My friend reminded me that the blokes at Avis had told us we only needed a police report in case of an accident. Was this a real accident? I wasn't sure. I looked for a police post, but couldn't find one, and as we were heading back to Amman anyway, we decided to go straight to the airport and ask the people at the rental office. A police report had to be made against an unknown third party, so I could - I thought - have it done at any police post. We drove on. Along the way I saw at least four bad accidents involving trucks, two of which certainly had been fatal. At about 100 kilometres from the capital it started to rain. There was a strong wind blowing, causing sand columns to rise from the surrounding desert. I heard later that it was the first rain after the drought. I was doing about 80 km/h (50mph) when suddenly an oil tanker just ahead of me started skidding and made a 180 degrees turn. At the same time I felt our own car starting to skid, but I managed to keep it on the road. There was not much to be seen on the road surface, it was just wet. What actually happened, was that the rain had mixed with the sand that was flying around (and which is always present on Jordanian roads) and the oil (which is likely to be present with all those trucks) on the road. The result was a thin layer so it felt as if one was driving on ice. I immediately lowered my speed to about 50 km/h (30mph). A jeep driver had his own opinion on the matter and passed us doing at least twice our speed. A couple of miles further on, I saw him spinning around like a top. He was very lucky there was no precipice there. He recovered from the spin and continued ... at more or less the same speed as before. A couple of miles further on I was lining up behind a slow-moving truck. Before I knew what had happened I was facing the driver as he spun. This happened several times more before we finally reached the airport. There I heard that a Boeing had started skidding on the runway, but everything was fine. Great news! ...
I went straight to the Avis rental office, but it wasn't manned. I had the man at the airport Information desk page them over the PA system. After a while someone turned up. I told him that we were returning the car and asked what I had to do about the damage to the windscreen. We went outside to the car and he made a damage report (the windscreen was the only damage) and told me that it was "no problem". Phew! Glad to hear that. Inside again, at the desk, he filled in some forms and - without any expression - told me : "That's 450 Dinars then, sir." I couldn't believe it. I explained to him that I had asked about this kind of damage, before and after we had picked up/dropped off the car, and every time had been told not to worry. He told me windscreen damage was not covered by the insurance. I asked if I would be insured if I totalled the car. Affirmative. I told him this was too crazy to be true; one could then just as well wreck the car somewhere on the desert road and have nothing to pay. I insisted on talking to the station manager or making a phone call to the Avis Head Office in the States. Normally, if you have problems with a rental car, you get it fixed, ask for a receipt and present that receipt to the agency. Here they just told me "JD450", a vastly exaggerated price for a Mitsubishi windscreen. I could buy one in Belgium and send it to Jordan for less. He took me to the station manager, who was an even bigger con-artist. He said: "Normally, sir, a windscreen is JD450, but for you I'll make an exception - JD250!" In a matter of minutes, the price of the windscreen had dropped JD200 - 286 US Dollars!! It was clearly a rip-off - and they call themselves an international rental company? I was pretty angry by then and eventually they admitted that if I had a police report, I wouldn't have to pay anything. I had to go to the airport police (who are about 2 kilometres out of the airport actually) and ask for a report. That was all. At the police station they were very surprised to see a foreigner and nobody spoke a word of English. Anyway, they were polite. With gestures and drawings I explained the problem. They called in a General to solve the matter, because they didn't know what to do. When the General arrived, he didn't speak any English either. He asked where the accident had happened. I smelled some shit hitting the fan and told him it had been in nearby Jiza due to the terrible weather. He said that I had to get the report from the Jiza police then. You can imagine what would have happened if I had said that it happened near Aqaba; we only had a few hours left before check-in.
Fortunately, we located the Jiza police station quickly enough. At least there some of the officers spoke a little English. We were directed to Captain Youssef who supposedly spoke English very well because "he went to university." Captain Youssef was lying on his bed, making a phone call. "Just a second. Let me finish my telephone call, OK?" The call lasted not a couple of seconds but at least half an hour. Luckily, Youssef did speak English very well and I could explain the problem to him. We went outside to look at the damage and he just had to laugh because it was so minimal. He wanted me to call Avis but I explained I had already paid them a visit. He then ordered somebody to make the call anyway. We were offered tea and had to wait. One hour. "Sorry but it's very busy with all the accidents. I will give you a police report but it must be made by the Traffic Police. We are the Bedouin Police." Two hours. The traffic policeman came in. Hohoho! This man really looked like he'd just walked out of a comic book! But I had other things on my mind than laughing. He didn't speak English, but I could make out from the conversation between him and Cpt Youssef that he wanted money for a report. Luckily, the Captain had taken a liking to us and persuaded him not to ask for a bribe. After 20 minutes a blank report form was put on the table. The officer ordered me to get the car papers, so I did. But he wasn't satisfied. He needed the insurance papers. We didn't have these. "Get them at the rental company." I needed to drive back to the airport to pick them up. My friend got up to accompany me. "Not your friend. Your friend stays here!" What nonsense.
Back at the Avis office I explained to the manager that I needed the insurance papers, but he denied that. I told him to call the police station himself to sort it out, because I wasn't planning on driving around all night. Reluctantly he did, and after a long (and hefty) discussion announced that I could go back to the police and pick up the papers. No more hassles. When I arrived back in Jiza, the papers were almost ready. It was utterly ridiculous having to wait that long for a stupid piece of shitty paper. However, what mattered at this point was that we did have it, at last. Back at the airport we handed it over to Avis. "Okay sir. Everything is OK now. That'll be 25 Dinars, please." "Why?" "For administration, sir." I didn't have the time or inclination to start another discussion, so I paid.
Moral of this story? Renting from Avis in Jordan is not recommended, and I will never rent from Avis again anywhere! This was an international company acting worse than a local firm. Perhaps I was partly to blame, but the least one can expect in such situations is assistance. That's what you pay for, isn't it? They didn't assist - quite the contrary!
The airport check-in was very straightforward. There were no hassles. I have read messages on UseNet from people worried about the X-ray machines at Amman airport. Well, I can set their minds at rest; as an experiment, I put a 1000 ASA film through the detector twice and the pictures were still perfect. Departure tax was JD10 to be paid in Dinars of course. There are banks where you can change money if necessary, but they ask a commission of 500 fils. Except for a small but extremely expensive snack bar there is little in the departure hall. The best things are the excellent 'rest benches' that are available. They are very comfortable for catching up with some sleep on if you're leaving late at night.
Well, that was a little report about my trip to Jordan. I hope it was useful in some way. Although it was not the most exciting country I have been to, it certainly was a nice experience to be there. The people were friendly and helpful. Arab hospitality is renowned throughout the world and Jordan is definitely a country where one is really treated to it. It certainly is not the cheapest country in the region, but it's still cheap enough.