“The hotel is back that way. Do you think you can find it?” Mohamed asked, pointing past a crowd of young Jordanians laughing outside a convenience store and down a darkly lit street. I had a general idea of where our hotel was, so I gave a faint smile and replied, “Yeah, we stay to the left mostly and look for the sign.” “If you get lost, ask someone to call me,” Mohamed suggested. And with that, my 10-year-old daughter and I were on our own to wander Aqaba’s busy nightlife alone.
It was summer and the majority of Jordanians were waiting until the sun had set and the mercury finally dipped back into double digits on the Fahrenheit scale before moving about this coastal town for groceries and goods. I wasn’t expecting to be dropped off and left to my own devices, but I’m not one to pass up a chance to get to know a town, albeit briefly, by walking its streets.
Aqaba has a storied history as a strategic location on the northernmost tip of the Red Sea. That past includes conquests by ancient Romans, Greeks, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others over the last 6000 years. Today the town is the only port city of Jordan and an important link for the transportation of goods into and out of the region.
On this hot summer night, we were in a city that few of the 450,000 annual tourists to Jordan visit. The streets were narrow, barely permitting two cars to pass in most areas. The shops were full of local Jordanians scouring outdoor bins for clothes, toiletries, cookware and other sundry items. Laughter and smoke billowed from a hookah lounge as we started downhill toward the beaches where a majority of visitors stay while in Aqaba.
What caught my fancy most about this section of the city was the profusion of neon lights. They’ve been out of fashion for about 20 years in America, and the number and variety of neon lights in Aqaba was like nothing I had experienced in other Middle Eastern countries.
Neon over the nut shop. Neon for a liquor store sign. Neon advertising hotels, a pizzeria, jewellery stores. A variety of signs in both English and Arabic. Neon became, for me, the red cars you can’t stop seeing on the road once someone tells you not to look at all the red cars on the road. My daughter, who was more interested in returning swiftly to the infinity pool at our seaside hotel, exhaled exaggerated sighs when I asked her to stop for a moment so I could get a picture of yet another neon sign.
I had only one night in Aqaba, and the thing I found most exciting, besides the bustle of nightlife in a port city, was the vast array of neon in use over almost every third store or hotel. Inquiries about the profusion of neon in the city went unanswered as no one had a good reason why there were so many signs as compared to the likes of Jordan’s capital Amman, or Kurak, or any other major city in the country of six million people.
Neon is not why people come to Aqaba. Beaches, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, shipping commerce are the reasons why tourists, both foreign and domestic, visit Aqaba, and for good reason. It has amazing coral reefs you really should check out and the variety of beachfront hotel offerings is growing quarter by quarter. There are beautiful sunsets over Egypt to the west, and there is a history mixed with myriad cultures.
But we don’t travel just to see the things we think we are supposed to see. We travel to experience what is there. On our trip to Jordan, I can remember some aspects of the intended highlights (watching a local wedding from our hotel room in Amman, visiting Petra after dark, the beautiful desert formations of Wadi Rum), but what I remember most, and what I photographed just as much as the highlights, were the neon signs of Aqaba.
By the time my daughter and I walked into our hotel on the Red Sea I had shot more than 20 different signs, not an easy task without a tripod. Once within sight of the hotel’s non-neon sign, my daughter left me gazing, trying to line a sign up in my viewfinder. She was eager to take another dip in the gorgeous pool overlooking the sea and night sky, while I absorbed the last of this unique aspect of Aqaba.
Yes, a strange feature to latch on to, yet those signs are what endeared Aqaba to me, and what make me happy to return one day to the little port city in Southern Jordan.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Jordan encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.