I can’t be certain the seahorse is giving me a dirty look but I’m fairly sure it isn’t happy. But, then, it’s not every day you get eyeballed by a 4cm hippocampus.
Sometimes it really is the small things. I’m eight metres below the surface of the Red Sea, a 40-minute sail south of the Jordanian city of Aqaba. The ship Cedar Pride had been scuttled in the 1980s to create an artificial reef. Now I’m hovering above its looming presence with an aqualung strapped to my back, as my dive guide, Belal, points out the tiny seahorses that have made it their home. And despite their size, these two tiny creatures put on an august display of territorial defiance.
Just as impressive are the scorpionfish, stonefish and lionfish on the real reef nearby. “A friend of mine was stung by a lionfish,” Belal cautions me after we surface and are tucking into one of its aquatic cousins that had been barbecued on the back of the boat. “It was so painful he begged the doctor to cut off his finger. They didn’t, he’s fine.”
Not far away is an army tank that was sunk 20 years ago to make another artificial reef. This was done at the behest of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, himself a keen diver. However, this was only the second-most-interesting fact I learn about the monarch that day: did you know, in 1996 he appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager? Take that, Prince Charles.
That evening, in Aqaba, I recount the day’s adventures to Teya, the daughter of my guide, Nancy. I always find eight-year-olds make an appreciative audience where tales of derring-do are concerned. We all wander around the centre of town, taking advantage of a breeze to cool off. An electronic thermometer blinks at us that it’s 29C.
“Come into my store,” beckons Fadel Al-Baba, who, with his brother, Ibrahim, owns a spice shop at the entrance to the vegetable market. “Try this,” he enthuses as he leads me along a row of spices that contains saffron, cardamom, star anise, sumac and za’atar, among others. “Just have a pinch,” says Fadel. I’m not in a shopping mood but the brothers insist we all pose for photos before we head outside to sit and drink fresh carrot juice at Al-Kabariti cafe. Bunches of bananas and mangoes hang in the window and orange-shirted waiters scuttle about taking orders.
The previous day we’d seen the new face of Aqaba, a short drive away towards the Israeli border. What to do when you don’t have much coast? Build a meandering inland creek, complete with marina, swanky apartments, wakeboarding lake and golf course, that’s what. It might be a stretch to call it a new low-rise Dubai, but Ayla, as the development is known, represents a vote of confidence in the area. Resident golf pro Chris Dodd, formerly of Burnham Beeches, near Slough, does his best to conceal a wince as I take a massive divot out of his lovingly prepared green.
I move on to the beach club, where a DJ spins Shakira and Bieber to a group of Lebanese who fastidiously work on their tans and selfie poses. I smile as they contort to all fit into the picture, but I just get an embarrassed stare in return when they see me. Still, it isn’t on the same level as the ‘back off buddy’ glower I got from a certain disgruntled seahorse.
Read more from our Digital Nomad in Aqaba here.