Sophie’s Story: A Woman Alone in the Middle East
You never get tired of being out there, you become exhausted of the constant step forward, but the desire to immerse yourself in a new a culture is always alight. After being on the road for so many years you mature as a traveller, when you’re young you take nothing in and have a false sense of superiority. But there is a point where you stop judging, and simply begin observing. In my experience, Jordan would seem to stand alone in the Middle East as one of the most modern and liberal nations of the region. In a part of the world that has been in near continual conflict for thousands of years, Jordan is the oasis in the desert.
My last stop in Egypt was Nuweibah. A small seaside port that offers the only connecting ferry service to to Aqaba in South-West Jordan. Post-Apocalyptic is the only description I can offer to describe the town. I exited the mountains on a lone highway and turned down a single dirt track leading into the centre. Scattered forty-four gallon drums littered either side of the road which ended at my destination, the ticket office. Several mud brick houses and some larger government buildings surrounded the port but the population seemed eerily absent. I was an hour early, so I waited in a nearby tea house built from corrugated iron. It wasn’t long before I was joined by the only other traveller in town. She pulled up her bicycle, set it on it’s stand and took her seat. Sophie had decided three months earlier to travel from her home in Brussels across Europe and Asia to Hong Kong. She had no plans, just a vague route, a bicycle and an idea. Every year there are thousands of people that make similar journeys around the world. You don’t hear of their tales, they don’t do it to impress others, they do it for the passion, to see what’s out there.
We sat there for several hours drinking tea and sharing stories. I asked her if she felt safe to be travelling by herself with her entire worldly possessions strapped to a bike. She said that she hadn’t had any real concerns until she entered Egypt. To begin with it was only stray dogs that would try and attack her as she rode by. After her first run in, she became forced to carry a rock in her hand at all times to fend off the disease ridden animals. But in recent times things had become far more perilous. As she left the bigger cities and moved into the countryside, men had begun to constantly harass her and at times, threaten her. She told me that there was one occasion where she had to strike a man in the face with the rock who was chasing her and masturbating at the same time. Her tales became easy to fathom later as we walked through the terminal to board the ferry.
Where we were, was less a terminal and more of a large metal shed more suited to housing farming equipment than passengers. Inside, there must have been over three hundred men, no women, sitting on the ground or benches waiting to board. Our class of ticket was called ‘first’ so we had to walk from one end of the terminal to where the ferry was waiting on the other. Sophie led with her bike and I followed. As soon as we began walking it became apparent that we were the centre of attention. As we walked, every single step that Sophie took was watched by every man in that room. From our starting position until we boarded the ferry, their heads slowly turned and followed Sophie as she moved. She was stared at and scrutinised so closely as if the world had stopped. We increased our pace to remove ourselves from the situation as quickly as possible. Once safely aboard I asked how she was. She said she had become used to it and was now able to control her emotions and think only of her safety first. But there was still something in her eyes that told me just how terrified she was.
It’s unfair to judge an entire nation based on a negative experience. It’s far too easy and can simplify endemic problems that are inherent to that society. Although a blanket reaction is understandable, it’s unjust on the vast majority of people who are actually genuine and only wish to share their own amazing part of the world. I realised this later in the evening in Aqaba. As the sun went down Sophie and I shared an incredible seafood feast with the owner of the restaurant we were in. For the entire night the conversation flowed and we took in the true culture from this part of the world, and it was as welcoming and human as any other on the planet.