Despite all of the intimidating information online about crossing the Jordanian-Israeli boarder, catching a $35 flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat and crossing the border through Aqaba, was painless and it saved me from paying the visa charge.
Aqaba doesn’t get much national tourism. Eilat does. Although the war has certainly affected both countries, superficially Israel appeared unfazed.
Moran’s cute one bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv is only a fifteen minute walk from the beach. According to her, Florentine is a neighborhood that used to be rough but recently started to show signs of gentrification. Staying with her I enjoyed daily sunshine and salt water. Even though my cellphone was stolen while I was taking a swim, before that I never felt tense by fearing that I would be robbed or blown up by a missile. When we relaxed on Moran’s balcony, it was easy to forget that the building comes equipped with panic rooms to shelter residents when they hear a siren announcing an emergency.
And different from Eilat. Eilat is massive hotels, a mall, and generic bars that attract tourists willing to pay $10 for one beer. Aside from my very cool host Ehud and some incredible snorkeling, I don’t have much to say about the culture of this town. Aqaba, in Jordan, is right next to Eilat and geographically speaking exactly the same. But to me it felt different.
Aqaba is dusty in the center and decorated by 4,000 hotel rooms on the coast. Compared to the 35,000 rooms that accommodate tourists in Eilat, it seems like Jordan played their cards wrong as far as attracting travelers. Today, Jordan is focused on quality tourism, not quantity. Feras is a friend who works with tourism product development. He said Jordan wants to attract high profile tourists from countries like England and Scandinavia. At the same time, Israel seems to be focused on attracting travelers from Brazil, China and Russia. Feras and I talked about this while having a swim at the pool of the Kempinski, a luxury hotel with a private beach that anyone can enjoy for a daily fee.
I stayed with Omar and Sasha who offered a killer combination of kindness and fun. Omar is an underwater photographer and a freelance scuba dive instructor. Sasha is his dog. Through Omar I met an international crowd that mostly comes to Jordan for a relaxing vacation dominated by diving. Most American tourists wear bikinis. Some Jordanian women wear outfits not too different from the wet suits required for scuba diving in the Red Sea. There are scarves in the water, but, most locals stay shaded under umbrellas by the shore. I looked at them from a distance and headed off for a night swim.
But I was able to get a closer look while I was in Amman. Thanks to Mays and her strong local connections, I enjoyed home-roasted coffee in a beautiful traditional Jordanian house with a couch that covered all corners of the room and ornate curtains that can make anybody feel like royalty. The visit was quick, but the warmth of the people that I met along the way made me feel thankful for every cup of coffee and tea that I received. With each sip grateful for the life that I live.