snorkeling in Eilat
Friday, October 7 2005
setting: Taybet Zaman Hotel, Taybet, Jordan
The cat we've been calling "Achmed" is surprisingly well-behaved, knowing not to come into the dining room and only jumping up on our table once the other day when we were taking our lupper outside. Today, though, we breakfasted inside the dining room but near an open door. Having previously developed a relationship with us, Achmed's attitude was one of "What the hell?" so he just came in. Everything would have been fine had he not started meowing, at which point he raised the attention of one of the restaurant's employees. Gretchen picked him up and put him out just as another of the employees came over and said that the cat belonged to him. Her name, he said, was "Lulu." The way he pronounced the first letter of that word made it sound like it could have either been "Rulu" or "Lulu." Naturally then Gretchen said how funny, we have a cat named Lulu too, adding that we have three other cats and two dogs as well. Up until this point, we'd had the sense that cats and dogs aren't very popular in the Middle East and are mostly just tolerated for the talents they bring to human society. But this guy, this Jordanian, clearly loved Lulu and didn't seem to care if his co-workers thought he was a freak.
This morning we packed up our rooms and were driven back south to the Arava border crossing in Aqaba. Just before crossing the border we took a detour through the streets of Aqaba to get a sense of the city. A lot of it has a very new feeling to it, though it's interesting to see the occasional block of remnant desert (complete with live camels) surrounded by blocks of low-rise residential developments. Freshly-planted palm trees were everywhere. You can always tell when a palm has been freshly planted because all its fronds are sticking straight up in the air.
Leaving Jordan was not difficult. While we did see people being carefully searched at the first checkpoint, our van was just waved through, probably because the checkpoint personnel knew our driver.
Once we'd walked across no man's land to the Isræl, security protocols suddenly became a lot less informal. The personnel were courteous but thorough, and definitely wanted to know whether or not any of us had been given anything to "deliver." Not only did they x-ray all of our luggage, they also went through it manually, both with their hands and also with a chemical-detecting wand. If we were smuggling a bomb into Isræl, it was going to have to be so tiny that a suicidal Palestinian grasshopper could strap it around its waist and still survive the explosion.
We'd be spending the day on the beach in Eilat, but somehow Gretchen and I drove past our destination, the Reef Hotel, and continued on until we got to the checkpoint on the border with Egypt, whereupon (of course) we had to turn around. The landscape looked a lot like Malibu at that particular checkpoint.
After checking into our room, Gretchen and I rented snorkeling gear and then went snorkeling in a place where the crowded beaches bordered on a marine park, whose beaches were empty. Snorkeling wasn't actually all that great, since the reef rocks were few and far between, and I was unwilling to venture far from shore given my poor swimming skills. Still, there were lots and lots of incredibly colorful fish, and big schools of fish with strange faces that would swim leisurely past.
The water was colder than expected, given that I was in the northernmost tip of the Red Sea, which stretches well into the tropics through some of the most oppressively hot deserts on Earth. After about twenty or thirty minutes I had to get out of the water and bask in the sun. Gretchen and I later retreated to a simulated Bedouin tent on the beach, where we ate simple creamy Middle Eastern food wrapped in big pieces of pan-seared flat bread. I also ordered a beer from one of the beachside bars, where I found a couple Dutch guys talking to the bartender in English.
Back in our hotel room, we were delighted to find that our room had not one but two private balconies, one of which was the largest of the entire building. I went out on that balcony with my iBook to trawl for a WiFi signal and eventually got one from a hotel about a quarter of a mile away, though it was too weak to be useful.
This evening, as a token of appreciation for the Jordanian adventure, we took Gretchen's parents out to a nearby restaurant that had been recommended by the Isræli tour guide we'd met in Tybet. When I say nearby, I mean across the parking lot. The place was called the Last Refuge, and it was a fish restaurant, and open despite the coming of Shabbat. The place was full when we arrived, but somehow the maitre d' did some virtuosic juggling and found us a table just as we were heading out to somehow kill the next fifteen minutes on the street. The menu was non-kosher, with shrimp and calamari and things like that. But the speciality was fish, so I ordered what the waitress recommended and it was so delicious I'd forgotten fish could taste that way. I think that the last time I had fish that good was when I lived in Virginia and caught Chubs and Suckers out of Folly Mills Creek. Nearly as delicious, by the way, was the "Nervous Salad," which came to the table already chopped into small pieces. When the others ordered dessert, I ordered a dessert drink: an Isræli liquor called Sabra.
You can tell the Last Refuge has a lot of matter-of-fact class, because they pull off risky stunts as if they're walking the dog. For example, every so often the lights would be extinguished throughout the restaurant and loud music would come on. It was "Happy Birthday," but with a crazy Isræli dance hall twist. Somebody was having a birthday, so we had to pay attention!
After dinner, the four of us walked out along the coastal road and then back, cutting over to the beach where we could. The tide was high and many folding chairs and chaise lounges were in danger of being carried off into the Red Sea.
I noticed, by the way, that security in Eilat was much more lax than it had been in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Gone, for example, were the electronic-wand-wielding security guards at the entrance to every restaurant.
The lights of Aqaba, Jordan, seen from our hotel in Eilat, Isræl.
The Reef Hotel's sign took up the wall above the bigger of our two balconies.
On this vacation Gretchen spent any spare time solving crossword puzzles.
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