Friday, May 20, 2011

Aqaba, Jordan- Burkas, Purity + Environmental Degradation

With Mahmoud performing his stand-up comedy routine, deploying his mega-million catchphrase, “Big asshole,” like a laser guided missile striking our laugh centers with perfect accuracy, the two hour ride into Aqaba passed quickly, its enjoyment tempered slightly by the gray sky outside: the perma-cloud cover of heavy pollution that covers all of Jordan, even fifty miles from the nearest town.
Mahmoud drops us off with a huge smile and a hug. He speaks with a local cab driver to insure we won’t be cheated and instructs him to help us find our budget accommodations. 
Yoni and Zuzka in dry Petra, Jordan
The Red Sea port of Aqaba is scorching. I love hot weather, but being from California, I’m used to dry heat: the weather here is over 100 Fahrenheit, with 95% humidity. I’m a normally super energetic guy, but I have zero desire to move. I cannot ever remember feeling so lethargic.
The Red Sea is world renowned for its diving sites, but as a sample I merely rent flippers and a mask and venture out onto the local beach. There were wonderful sites to be seen in the Jordanian waters: colorful fish, sea urchins, reefs; also used tires, beer cans and bottles, and plastics that had descended the twelve feet to the bottom. The beautifully colored water atop is merely a veneer for what lies below. Mankind’s assault on Mother Nature continues.
I left the water a half hour later, and sat reading a book on the sand, feeling fully refreshed. It took an entire ten minutes for the sun and humidity to wear down my shield of cool.
I look around, and spot women in full burkas resting on the sand. I find it intolerably hot, and I am freshly removed from cool water, I cannot imagine how these women are surviving. Now here comes Zuzka, my pretty Czech friend, jumping into the ocean in a long, one-piece bathing suit. I watch all Arab eyes swing her way, both male and female. Such a site is rare. Zuzka later related how uncomfortable she felt, like the whole world was staring at her.
She towels off and throws on a shirt. Even dressed, this blond still stands out amongst the dark population. We walk to the group of burka clad older women.
“How do you remain covered head to toe, in black, on a day this hot?” I inquire.
“We do not have a choice,” comes the difficult translation, “It is our culture. We MUST dress this way. Even in this heat.”
“My friend Zuzka, is able to swim and wear a bathing suit, would you like to as well?”
It is difficult to understand them, but I gather that they don’t like the fact that Zuzka is here “parading around” in such skimpy clothing, which in California would only draw a second glance if it were worn to a board meeting. I couldn’t understand for sure what they meant, but Zuzka wasn’t terribly comfortable, so we went back to the hotel so she could dress more “appropriately.”

a razor thin edged limestone cliff in Petra
We stop in a local store to purchase some sweets. I’m twenty-five cents short. A man visiting the owner inquires where I am from. Turns out that he recently returned from the US, having studied environmental engineering. I’m excited to speak with him, explaining my surprise at the utter environmental degradation I have seen throughout the Middle East, explaining to him what I had just witnessed in the water.
He shakes his head, and nods in assent. “It was not like this years ago,” he states, “We have a long ways to go as a society to catch-up with Europe in our policies and consciousness.” It’s a very pleasant conversation, and at the end of it, the store owner waives off the twenty-five cents I owe him. When you are friendly with Arabs, what’s theirs is yours. 
Me exploring Petra, rugged terrain
At night we find an Internet CafĂ©. The girl there is not wearing even a hijab. She’s the prettiest girl I have seen so far in the Middle East. Turns out she is a Christian, and thus has no religious reason to wear the hijab. She tells me she is often hassled, and called “impure.”
How dare anyone be different, and that most goes for most societies, not just conservative Islamic. Express yourself differently than the herd, and be prepared for generally un-wanton attention.
There isn’t a lot to do at night here. Thank God it cools off, at least a little. The next morning we are set to cross the Israeli border, which, as you’ll find out, while it takes longer than building the pyramids, it is also more of a hassle. (but in all fairness, it's a lot less pleasant too)

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