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An Independent Shore Excursion That Almost Went Terribly Badly

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Having fun at Aqaba Beach in Jordan

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Sometimes even horrific travel experiences can turn into fond memories. Such was my independent shore excursion at a cruise stop in Aqaba, Jordan. 

I know better than to snap photos of military installations or of any venue of military significance in countries that have experienced relatively recent wars like Jordan or in countries with a history of totalitarian regimes like Russia. Nor do I loiter near them.

Nevertheless, we sometimes innocently make mistakes, as I did in Aqaba. There are important lessons to be learned here.

Above: Enjoy this photo of Aqaba’s beach. I lacked the nerve to photograph my interrogation.

Aqaba Jordan beachfront walk

I loved Aqaba, the sole beach resort and port in Jordan. People come there to have fun. For me, it also served as the gateway to Petra, one of my most memorable travel experiences (although pale in comparison to this one).

Speedboat off Aqaba Beach Jordan with Eilat in distance

Aqaba adjoins Eilat, an Israeli beach resort and port. The border probably runs just to the left of cluster of trees in the distance on the far right. In Aqaba, you are always close to the border. 

After a peace treaty was signed in 1994 resolving disputes over the border and other issues, Israelis flocked to Aqaba to vacation. Shops sell the Jerusalem Post.

Nevertheless, Queen Noor, the widow of King Hussein, remains one of the most passionate advocates of the Palestinian cause.

Boats near Aqaba Beach Jordan

Reading that the Jordanian Royal Family surprisingly maintains a beach palace almost adjacent to the Israeli border, I set out to catch a glimpse of it planning to turn back when I spotted a security post.

On cruises, I love to do independent shore excursions on my own or with friends, instead of always taking regimented group excursions. I am not reckless. I monitor American and Canadian government travel warnings.

In serene Aqaba, I never felt any danger. During November 2011, Aqaba lacked the tensions found in some countries. As long as I did not enter security zones or photograph anything of military significance, I expected no trouble.

Curiosity though has gotten me in trouble before--


  • Peeking out of an open door at Tehran Airport before the fall of the Shah, 

  • Parking too close to the Lesotho Royal Palace,

  • Approaching too near the Élysée Palace in Paris by misreading a sightseeing map at night without glasses, and more.

Two of these involved guns.

Not bringing along reading glasses dug my hole deeper in Jordan.

Popeyes in Aqaba Jordan with Burger King in the distance

I set out for the palace.

Aqaba does a great job of landscaping sustainably. I loved walking there. Sometimes, I even felt a home. 

Sign at abandoned construction project in Aqaba Jordan

Soon an abandoned construction project blocked the coastal walk. This was to have included a yacht harbor, condos, retail stores, and an office building designed for high-tech companies.

Abandoned construction project in Aqaba Jordan

I went around the development and soon was walking on new road, with another but this time finished condo project on the right.

A large billboard obviously promoted the condos in this seemingly residential area, but as you will see, I failed to notice everything.

Starting to turn a corner, I spotted a security checkpoint in the distance and turned around. Hearing yelling though, I reluctantly walked toward the guards. One ran toward a building in order to get help.

Almost immediately, a formidable Jordanian Army officer towered over me. Luckily, I am used to people in some cultures standing very much closer than is comfortable in North America.

Aqaba Jordan mosque across from beach

This may go badly, I thought. How could a military officer not make an example of me in front of his subordinates? Nevertheless, I mustered a cheery and polite greeting, the only Arabic phrase I could remember in this situation. 

Appropriate dress varies widely among predominately Muslim countries, with at times great disparities within the same country. You may have noticed in the news that the first lady of Syria Asma al-Assad does not cover her face, which would be quite unlikely in Saudi Arabia. Although dress in Jordan also varies widely, I was glad that I had deliberately chosen to dress conservatively on this Middle Eastern trip, with full-length trousers and a long-sleeved shirt.

Soon it became apparent that I had already wandered onto a military base somewhere down the road, in spite of the condos back there and the guardhouse positioned here. “Didn’t you see the sign?”

“Where are you staying?” the officer asked. On a ship in port, I replied. Although his English was generally excellent, he did not understand the word ship. Nor did he the word boat. I pointed in the direction of the port, but it was out of sight. I showed him my Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas boarding pass for naught.

The officer then asked for my passport. Now came an enormous problem. I booked one of the those bargain positioning cruises in this case to move the ship via the Suez Canal from its Mediterranean seasonal base in Barcelona to a winter itinerary based in Dubai.

On this cruise, we entered all but two ports on group visas. This meant the ship kept our passports in a safe for immigration inspection while in port. My sole identification was a driver’s license and the boarding pass. With enough Jordanian dinars to dine, I had not brought any credit cards.

Sadly, I had foolishly forgotten to bring along the telephone number of the cruise line representative in Aqaba, something I nearly always remember to do.

The ship was leaving in five or so hours.

A sense of doom settled in, but I remained hopeful. The officer had displayed neither anger nor disgust and seemed to be an honorable, kind, and good man, a feeling that only increased as we went on.

On the other hand, without a passport, credit cards, cell phone, and probably without even a consulate in this relatively small town, what would I do if the ship left without me?

Looking out from Eilat beachfront Israel toward Aqaba Jordan

The officer asked my next destination. This was not a welcomed question. When countries have fought each other in so many wars, families are often very severely impacted and bitter. I said Eilat (Israel).

The sense of impending doom grew more profound, but again I still retained hope and somehow managed to remain quite calm.

Then, the officer asked that I display the photos taken on my camera. I can snap photos. I can adjust settings. However, without my glasses or even with them in sunlight, I cannot see other functions. I download and do all editing on computers.

Although he never strayed from utmost professionalism, I could tell that the officer was having trouble believing me at this point. He took the camera and accessed the photos. Very luckily none had been taken on the road approaching the guardhouse.

 An animated conversation in Arabic took place as the officer and guards examined the photos some of which you see here. That added to the worry.

Image above: Our next port Eilat looks out at Aqaba on the left and Saudi Arabia on the far right. In back and out of the photo to the right, the Egyptian border touches Eilat. With the Heineken sign, you can easily tell that you are not in Jordan.

Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas at Aqaba, Jordan

I had forgotten about earlier shots. When the officer reached those taken on the ship deck that morning, with Eilat in the distance, I almost shouted, “That’s where I am staying!”

Finally, the officer understood. We talked a little more, smiled a lot, and shook hands. I thanked him profusely. Somehow however, I no longer felt hungry and the dinar went unused.

Walking back (fairly rapidly you can be sure), I noticed a small sign under the billboard. The much less prominent English portion informed that this was a military zone and entrance was forbidden.

Would I do things differently on shore next time? Absolutely! I will never leave myself so vulnerable again. Next time will see me bringing the phone number and address of the cruise company's representive in port, my iPhone, a credit card or two, and a copy of my passport.

I will treasure this experience forever.

Seldom do travelers have the opportunity to connect with those in other cultures on such a deep level. From the beginning, the military officer sensed my innocence and treated me kindly, in spite of me wandering onto his military base, and as time went on I profoundly felt his goodness.

I have the utmost appreciation for his professionalism and kindness, as well as for his wonderful country.

Comments

Deia
October 2, 2013

This sounds like quite an adventure, Don, and definitely makes for a great story! The phone number of the cruise rep would’ve probably made things a lot easier for you! Would you take your passport off board if you have to do it all over again?

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Don Nadeau
October 3, 2013

Thanks, Dela.

With these type of group visas issued to cruise passengers, you are not allowed to use your passport while in port. It stays in the ship’s safe for immigration inspection during your time in port.

Not to worry too much about this. Popular cruise ports do not tend to require visas of this sort. For example, if you are American or Canadian passport holder, I have never heard of any Caribbean port prohibiting you from keeping your passport while on shore.

Interestingly on this trip, Israel did not require a group visa. After we left Italy, its immigration officers interviewed us while heading toward the Suez Canal. That saved a lot of time after arriving in Eilat being already approved to enter the country.

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Rachel
October 21, 2013

I would never ever take a photo of any Muslim soldiers.  I don’t mean to discriminate but, like you said.. you almost end in something you’d remember the rest of your life.  And also that’s why I don’t usually go to Muslim countries, though I really think the countries are amazing.. your actions are so limited.. and it cannot be applied to everyone.  You got a very nice post by the way, and I love your photos, especially that one with the camel.. and few ducks.  :>

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Don Nadeau
October 23, 2013

Rachel, thank you so much for reading the post and for your comments.

Travel of course involves risks even to reasonably safe countries.

My plane on one trip to Australia did not have enough fuel to avoid completely three cyclones. During one, we felt as if we were Tom Hanks in Cast Away, because the turbulence and extremely noisy aircraft shaking were so very strong. Moreover, the long periods that we could not access washrooms seemed endless. Qantas, God bless it, made it.

We have to go with what is comfortable. There’s a risk reward ratio that differs for all of us. In my case, I avoid places in marked conflict like Syria, but happily go everywhere else.

Thank you again.

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