One hot and muggy evening in Jeddah, colleagues take us to the souk where shopping doesn’t begin until 9 p.m. due to the heat. One of our party is interested in gold, and the shops are multiple and glittering, the gold sold by weight – no charge for workmanship. Styles are all ornately filligreed – not something to wear in Port Townsend. Leaving the gold souk, we wind our way through alleys and finally come upon ‘old Jeddah’ – three or four attractive four- story buildings with ornately carved wooden balconies. That’s all there is. We make our way to the agreed pick-up point – all of us parched. In search of something liquid, we enter a cafe but are quickly and brusquely ushered out – it’s for men only. It takes a while to find an outdoor stall where we can all quench our thirst.
Our weekend here is Thursday and Friday. I have yet to get used to this. On Thursday last, three of us and a consulate driver left Jeddah about 9 a.m., heading for the beach – well, a very particular beach run by the Sheraton Hotel for non-Saudis only. Saudis do, of course, go to the beach, but not with the infidels and especially not with women wearing western style bathing suits. Saudi women, I understand, wear something full length. (How to keep from drowning?) We drive along the Corniche. Some ambitious mayor in the 80’s spent a lot of money buying sculptures to beautify this drive, but unfortunately they are not very good, and are placed haphazardly on slap-dash pedestals. The effect is unfortunate.
We head out past the airport and see from a distance the special terminal for Hajj pilgrims – about 3 million arrive every year. There are acres of metal tent-like structures to shade pilgrims until they are put on buses to be transported to Mecca and Medina.
You can make the pilgrimage outside of the Hajj, although you don’t get quite as much credit. That pilgrimage is called an umra. My first encounter with the umra folk was boarding the plane to Jeddah with a large number of men in white bath towels. This is the required garb – no seams – together with a white belt (think weight lifter) and sandals. Their women are, of course, in the omnipresent abaya, but, for extra points, most have faces covered by a see-through mask making the heat build up even more intense – a portable sauna. (An officer at the Consulate said he asked a Saudi contact why black and why polyester in 100+ degrees. He was told it’s to make sure women don’t spend too much time away from home.)
A queer sight from the air was what looked like whole towns of streets and street lights in the middle of the desert, but no buildings. We were told this is land owned by royals who have plotted it out for future development. Very strange.
On past the airport, we drive by occasional compounds with high walls. Over their tops we see lush greenery and huge villas. Surrounding these estates is vacant desert piled with building debris and garbage. We pass the compound of Prince Bandar and his mom – he just returned from many years as SA’s ambassador to the US. About 45 minutes out we reach our destination, drive through the gate and leave our driver. We find a small building with a few snorkels, fins and pressure tanks. We rent snorkel equipment and head for the water. Palm trees, cabanas for shade and a warm breeze.
Into the big bathtub that is the Red Sea, snorkel on, I enter another world. The water is clear and blue, the coral all shades and shapes – purples, reds, pinks – with minute moving fingers. Large clam creatures partially embedded in the coral, suck water in and out. And the fish! Tiny little black and white ones in swarms, pointy-nosed yellow ones with orange and green stripes, 18 inch long rainbow-colored fat ones. And so many more. They allow me into their universe, pay no attention and swim around me. I lie in the water with no need to move and let the show go on and on. I am perfectly free for the first time since arriving here.
Just me and the fish.
Next – Everyday life in The Kingdom