The Unexpected Side of the Veil

Many years ago, I thought as probably many young Americans did, that the coverings Muslim women wore were oppressive. That is was unfair to force women to dress in baggy tent cloaks and cover their hair and faces. Eventually, I embraced the idea that a woman being free to wear whatever she wants should include covering as much of herself as she wants. I still don’t think I agree with the forced adoption of the abaya in Saudi, but I also don’t like the niqab ban in France. Turns out, wearing an Islamic style face veil in France gets you a 200 Euro fine, ouch!

When I went shopping for my own Abaya and hijab, I went into it with the expectation that it was a sort of necessary inconvenience. If I wanted to go to Saudi, I had to obey the laws and respect the culture. And the shopping experience itself helped me to a new understanding that the covering garments were culturally appreciated as beautiful, sort of the same way that seeing a woman in a nice dress or a man in a nice suit is: it shows a care for your appearance, not in this case by showing it off, but by protecting it for the right person.

You see, that’s the positive aspect of abaya/hijab/niqab wearing that I hear most often from Muslima. There is of course the call for modesty (for men and women) in the Quran, but there isn’t a specific dress code anywhere in the religion, so what qualifies as modest varies from culture to culture. (Although, I do understand that there is a specific mention of covering the bosom/chest.) Additionally, they’re supposed to not show-off their beauty to anyone but their husband, but there is no description of what showing off means or of what exactly is “her beauty”. Is that her hair? her face? her legs? her ass? who knows?

Other Muslima say that they like to wear it because it keeps men from looking at them like sex objects. I’m not sure this is realistic. The men here still try to pick up girls, they hurl their phone numbers at them from car windows, plaster their social media accounts as bumper stickers on their cars, and wander around malls with their blue-tooth connections open, signalling single ladies with a subtle hand sign or hat tip that they’re available. The abaya may keep men from seeing a woman’s body shape (to a point, cause the wind plasters those things right down like a bodysuit), but it doesn’t stop men from passing around dirty pictures like they have done since the dawn of time and fantasizing about the women they can’t have.

Some Muslima even talk about how much they like chatting online with men because they know the man must be interested in their words and personality because he can’t see their face or body. I absolutely believe that men all over the world are capable of appreciating a woman for her mind and personality. But I have a really hard time believing that the internet is full of sexually frustrated young Muslim men who are interested in these women for their minds. So, I’ll just be holding off judgement on the objectification prevention aspect of the abaya. Maybe some men can weigh in on this one.

Many Muslima say that they like to wear the coverings because it keeps anyone from seeing their beauty but those whom they choose. This seems almost romantic when they talk about it, guarding their beauty for the man they love, but I’m not sure about this one either. They barely get a chance to meet, often only see each other once or twice while chaperoned and then phone or online conversations to “get to know one another” before the wedding. I’m not saying love can’t grow out of an arranged marriage, but it does seem overly Disney Princess to imagine that you’re hiding your beauty for your true love’s eyes only.

On the other hand, I have to say that as an American woman, I get pretty fed up with the notion that my beauty is on display for everyone all the time. There’s an expectation in America (and probably large chunks of Canada, Europe, Asia and South America) that we should be dressing up every day. That it is our duty to look good not for ourselves, or even just our husbands or boyfriends, but for every man whose field of vision we will enter that day. The idea that if I choose to go out of the house in comfy jeans and t-shirt with no make-up and my hair in a casual bun that I must not be feeling well (best case scenario) or that I’m a lesbian who doesn’t want to turn men on (not even the worst case, but you get the idea). Leaving aside the fact that lesbians might want to turn women on with their looks, its totally ridiculous that we can’t have casual days without there being some big reason other than “I wanted to be comfortable” or “I like how I feel about myself in this”.

*Seattle may be an exception, cause people there dress in PJs and yoga pants. It’s been accused of being a fashion blind city and I love it to pieces, because I can’t stand the idea of wearing makeup every day.

Recently there has been a photo movement  which encourages Muslima to take a selfie in their hijab (with or without niqab) with the hashtag #damnIlookgood. The idea is to raise awareness that women who cover their hair and faces still feel beautiful and confident and want to capture that feeling to share with their friends and their future selves. All reasons we take selfies in the West, too.

I expressed a desire to find some kind of middle ground for modesty in dress and behavior and the ability to still have friends of the opposite gender. It sure would be nice to be able to dress in a way that made me comfortable and not feel sexually objectified without being called ugly, fat, tired, sick or butch. To be able to feel beautiful and confident without feeling like I’m on display, and then be able to break out the sexy when I choose and for whom I choose. Seriously, how cool would that be. But, I really like my guy friends. It drives me crazy that every dude in this country who talks to me in anything other than a strictly professional capacity ends up coming across like that creepy drunk in the bar who makes you beg your gay friend to pretend to be your boyfriend. And I feel like this is a direct consequence of not being allowed to talk to girls their whole lives. So, middle ground.

In the end, though, these are all aspects of the veil that I’d read about or heard about in some form before coming here. The experience certainly adds depth to my understanding of these motivations, but none of them were wholly unexpected.

What was unexpected was the feeling of safety, security and protectedness that the veil imparted to me.

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When I first arrived here, I had an overwhelming desire to meet the bare minimum of the legal requirements. I would wear the abaya, but I knew it wasn’t legally required for Western women to cover their hair, and dang its hot in September here. It was explained to me swiftly that Tabuk is a more conservative town, so it would be a “good idea” to wear my hijab as well. Two of the ladies I work with also wear the niqab (face veil) as well. Only one chooses to veil for religious reasons. The other one started off not wearing the veil here, but experienced so much harassment from men that she started veiling in self-defense.

Sadly, she probably got more harassment because she is African-American and her skin tone (while light) is still more similar to someone of Arabic or African nationality than Caucasian, so the Saudi’s are more likely to think she’s a third class expat than a first class one. Sad but true, they are pretty bigoted against certain nationalities and tend to forget that there are black people all over the world.

At the time she told me about this, I had experienced nothing but positive interactions with the people I’d met in Saudi, men and women, so I felt very far removed from the possibility of experiencing similar problems. But over the course of the next several weeks, events in my life changed my perspective.

I’ve only worn the niqab once, but I remember feeling that it made me invisible, like I was looking out from behind a two-way mirror. This was actually a little trippy and kind of empowering, but not enough to make me want to wear the niqab all the time.

Then there was the unfortunate experience with the hotel manager. Cause few things make you feel more vulnerable and unsafe than the guy with the master key and all the close circuit tv cameras in the building walking around your apartment, touching your stuff and leering at you. It was pointed out to me at great length that the way I dressed and who I talked to was very crucial to my reputation here in Saudi, and that if I was seen as easy or loose (already well on my way just by being American) that it would be seen as an invitation for advances from other men. Showing your hair or smiling at man can be perceived as easy and loose behavior, by the way. And worse, if my reputation gets too bad, then other people will believe that I invited it (was asking for it) instead of holding the man accountable for being a skeezebag.

The “white knight” in the above linked post who so violently defended my honor against the hotel manager also turned out to be way more psycho than I originally realized. Violent behavior was not limited to defending young women’s honor, and he’s caused so many fights and traffic accidents that he’s wanted by the police! My normal friendly behavior and Facebook friend acceptance led to some very awkward electronic communication, even though I have not seen him since that day. Including invitations to join the Communist Party, pictures of car wrecks he caused, stories about ISIS beheadings (apparently he sent the video of the beheadings to one of the male teachers here), pictures of hickies he’s gotten, and multiple public threats to murder someone on my behalf.

And speaking of Facebook, I’ve had to make statements on the Saudi Facebook pages I’m on to the effect that I will not befriend any men living in Saudi, and that I will not go places or visit or otherwise hang out with men in Saudi. In the first place, my personal facebook page is generally limited to people I’ve met in person. I don’t like having anonymous people of either gender reading about things I’m trying to share with my friends and family. In the second, its a huge problem to be friendly with guys here. The pages are great, cause its a public forum where we can talk and exchange ideas and be protected by the moderators and the presence of other readers. But dudes who want to private message or friend me are mostly just looking for easy loose American women. No thank you.

Worse, I’ve had people try to bully me into not being “such a prude” about talking to guys (blocked, btw), and dudes who deliberately had vague profiles. In one post while I was in Jeddah, I said I was going back to the beach and any ladies who would like to share a taxi were welcome, but sorry no men. Someone PM’d me about sharing a taxi and I didn’t realize for a while that it wasn’t a lady. I got upset and tried to terminate the conversation, ended up having to say I felt like I’d been lied to since I’d specifically said no men and he’d responded anyway, and he kept pushing me to meet him at the beach.

Then there were the taxis in Jeddah. Yeesh. I got so fed up with the treatment I got there, marriage proposals, unwanted touching, pretending to get lost or demanding more money when I turned them down. Awful. Finally, I decided to see if my coworker’s experience would help me and made sure my hijab was properly and modestly fastened, and while it didn’t stop the harassment entirely, it cut way back, and I had drivers and shopkeepers who were much more polite and respectful.

One driver told me that he was very happy to see me wearing the hijab because usually Americans showed too much hair, and I had a Starbuck’s employee tell me that he thought I was Egyptian.

I started to notice more and more when I was being treated like a Muslim should treat a woman and when I was not. I started to realize that friendly smiles and handshakes were the Saudi equivalent of “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and grabbing my ass (or at least wrapping an arm around my waist). Behavior that I would not tolerate from strangers at all.

And then I started to realize that all the tension and apprehension that comes along with feeling like a sheep in a room full of wolves when skeezy men are on the prowl and you have to keep your guard up, ladies I know you’ve all felt this way at least once.. all that tight-shoulder-shallow-breath feeling went away when I put on the hijab.

It stopped being a sad or strange theoretical possibility that men harassed women here or that the veil made women invisible, and it became a solid visceral feeling of relief and safety. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

I don’t like my hijab, although the abaya is growing on me (mostly because it makes me feel like a Hogwart’s professor), but I do like the feeling of safety and freedom that it gives me while living here. Of course, I would prefer to be in a society where being friendly didn’t mean being sleezy, but the idea that there’s a piece of clothing that makes men at least act with respect toward the women they meet is pretty amazing, and the way it made me feel was totally unexpected.

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Visiting a Saudi Home

I’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful co-workers in my job here in Tabuk. My fellow teachers, site director and even the guys on the men’s side are all nice to talk to, and we’ve had smaller and larger gatherings where we go shopping or have coffee or dinner. It’s really nice to not feel alone in a new and strange place. However, they are all foreigners like me: American, British and South African. So you can imagine how excited I was to have a chance to make a Saudi friend.

[redacted] is our administrative assistant, but she has quickly become my friend, too. She is a vivacious, spunky and cheerful Saudi young lady. You can read about my first outing with her at the Istraha here.

Ever since that night, she and her family have been insisting that I come visit their home. But between my own trip to Jeddah and an unfortunate late summer flu in her family, we haven’t had the chance until now.

So last Satuday evening, she came (with her brother driving) to pick me up and took me back for a traditional Saudi family evening. The homes in Saudi tend to hide behind high walls and this was no exception. Inside the main doors was a small stone courtyard area that had an entrance into the house and also wound around to another entrance (to the men’s side).

Once we stepped though the door and inside, there was a winding hallway that had several guest rooms on each side. The men’s guest room looked a lot like the istraha hall, the walls all lined with a single sofa-style seating with moveable arm rests, great big chandelier in the ceiling and pretty decorations around the room. When entertaining, food and drink would be in the center of the room. There were bathrooms for guests as well, and finally we reached the women’s guest area.

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[redacted] and her sisters had prepared some tea and sweets for us to enjoy while we chatted and waited for dinner. We sat on the floor, leaning against the sofas mostly, occasionally we moved to sit on the sofa directly. This blanket is filled with goodies, bowls of candy, platters of pastries, a giant basket of chocolates, and a huge container of dolmades (waraqa’ aneb in Arabic). They plied me with juice, arabic coffee (a green coffee flavored with cardamom) and sweet black tea in addition to all the snacks.

We chatted away about our families, what we like and don’t like in our home countries, our past experiences and hopes for the future. The ladies are all very intelligent and creative, as well as being open-minded and thoughtful, so I really enjoyed the conversation.

As dinner arrived, we continued talking. They had decided to forgo the traditional Saudi dinner of meat and rice, and instead ordered some Italian food. There was a kind of lasagna that had no red sauce, some baked bread things with a sort of brioche or nicely flavored spread toppings, and some salad plates with a sort of Middle Eastern version of pico de gallo, a yogurt raita, and some humus.

They piled a plate for me, and I nibbled as we chatted. One of her sisters told [redacted] she should stop asking me questions so I could eat. Every time I took something from my plate, they would put a new piece on it, so the food never seemed to grow less. And although my stomach was near bursting, the ladies insisted I didn’t eat enough (and sent me home with more!)

After they cleared away the dinner plates and set out the sweets and coffee again, it was time to dance! Music and dancing are a debated topic within Islam, but [redacted] told me they accept that its ok to dance in private and as long as the music has no illicit topics. Her sister had slightly other ideas, and after dancing to some Lebanese and Syrian music (very belly-dance-style), she put on some American hip-hop and we continued to get our jam on.

When we were worn out dancing, we took some pictures together (which I cannot share here as the ladies were unveiled) and shared some more music via YouTube. At some point one of them asked me if I liked dubstep, and took my laughter as a positive (oh well, cultural mistranslation) so I showed them Ylvis dubstep lovesong, which may have been a little less than Islamic, but they thought it was hilarious.

Finally exhausted, and facing a 6am alarm clock, I begged my leave and was driven home by their father. I’m very happy to be able to connect with locals, but even more so that the family I have found to befriend me is so kind and willing to share their home and culture with me.

Plastic Flood: Waste and Privilege in the Kingdom

I have spent most of my life thinking that America was the most over-privileged, selfish and wasteful country on the planet, but I’m starting to wonder if this assumption needs to be revisited. Let me disclaimer here, I am an American. I’ve witnessed a lot of waste in my home country; excess packaging, people who buy too much and throw the “extra” away, throwing away things that are slightly less than perfect including food, clothes and electronics that could easily be fixed or refurbished into usable goods.

I’m lucky to have my home base in the PNW (Pacific Northwest) where recycling and composting, carrying our own reusable grocery bags and donating anything still usable is a base part of the culture. It’s actually illegal to use plastic grocery bags inside the city of Seattle, and Portland is creating packaging free grocery markets.

When travelling back East to visit my family, I am shocked at the use of plastic bags (or any bag) for something that could easily be carried, and always have to be on the alert to stop the clerks from bagging. I also get funny looks for my cloth bags.

But nothing in America prepared me for the waste I’m observing here in Saudi.

The grocery stores here (and even the retail shops) have an inordinate fixation on infinite plastic bags. I go shopping once or twice a week because I’m one person and my fridge is tiny, plus I’m usually walking my haul back due to the driving ban. But even one tiny shopping trip can result in as many as 12 plastic bags entering my home.

First, all the produce must be weighed and priced at a separate produce counter. So if I want apples, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, mint, and onions (a fairly standard list) that’s 6 plastic bags, one for each type of produce. Some vegetables are pre-packed and already priced but they’re in huge Styrofoam containers covered in plastic wrap.

There was a similar policy in China of weighing and pricing produce and deli items before one gets to checkout, but they used very thin plastic bags, and very minimally. This was probably a result of economic restriction than a social desire to reduce waste, since China still produces a huge amount of garbage, but for them it is a matter of a 1.3 billion person population.

Once you get to the checkout, the bagger will put only one or two items in each grocery bag. And these aren’t small bags, they’re actually a little bigger than the standard American grocery bag, made of a pretty tough plastic. So I’m stuck walking out with another 5-7 bags, on top of the 6 I’ve already got my produce in.

If I manage to get to the store when its not crowded, and keep a close eye on the bagger, I can sometimes stop them. I use my backpack and cloth bags instead, but they absolutely think I’m crazy and often try to keep putting my groceries into plastic bags even while I’m loading up the cloth ones and waving them off.

But this is me, a single shopper, with a PNW mindset about bags and waste. One of my cupboards is already filled with plastic bags after only six weeks here, and I reuse the bags as garbage bags since they fit perfectly in my tiny bin.

Saudi families shop like a Costco trip every time I see them. They fill up the grocery carts and walk away with 20-30 bags that are each only 1/4 full.

When I go shopping in the mall, I’ll be given a huge durable plastic bag for even the tiniest item. I often try to prevent this, but I know it only makes a difference in my head, since no one else here will do the same.

When I went to the Home Center and got some items for the house, even large items like my new pillow were placed in giant plastic bags (even though it was already in a plastic wrapping that had a built in handle) and loaded up on a trolley by a porter to be taken to the van before I could intervene.

And there’s no recycling. Anywhere. All these plastic bags (not even counting the water bottles and pop cans), are just building up into a massive plastic flood.

Oil is so cheap here, so plentiful, that the concept of resource management or conservation is just entirely foreign. On top of this, they aren’t in any danger of loosing arable land to waste dumps because the vast majority of the land mass here is desert. And when the plastic flood gets too big, the solution seems to be fire.

Driving (ok, riding) home from work one day, I saw a huge plume of dark black smoke billowing up on the horizon. I asked the other teachers in the car what they thought it was, and I was told it was burning garbage. Such plumes of black garbage smoke are sadly not an uncommon sight.

All I can do is keep fighting to refuse plastic bags, and try to stick to my own principles of minimal waste, but it feels even less effectual here than it did in the US. Moreover, I know that the industrial waste in the US is orders of magnitude larger than the individual waste, and if that is a reflection of cultural values then I am horrified by what the industrial waste here must be.

So given all of the global chatter about climate change and sustainability, the criticisms to China and India as developing nations needing to curb their waste, why is no one calling for Saudi Arabia to reduce, recycle, reuse? Is it because at only 29 million people, the footprint is still too small? Or is this another way that wealth (oil) privilege can be seen on the global scale?

The Beach: A Week in Jeddah

The beach I chose to go to in Jeddah is called La Plage. I ended up going twice, once on Monday, my first full day, and again on Saturday, my last full day. I’ve learned a few things in the art of vacationing, and two of them are – make sure the beginning and the end of the experience are awesome; and after about 7 days in the same place, you start loosing the vacation benefit and its time to move. So, the beach became my first and last experience, maximizing my vacation happiness.

The first try wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there were a few hiccups. First there was the quest simply to find the right beach. I wanted someplace I could be in a swimsuit instead of an abaya, and I wanted a swimming beach, and to see the coral reefs. La Plage had all that, but I was told had some picky membership rules. Fortunately, the country director for our company lives here in Jeddah and had a spare ticket!

I got a taxi easily enough, but the driver didn’t really know where we were going. Google maps is a trans linguistic miracle and with some phone help from a friend of his with good English, we were on our way. Travelling in the modern age, yay!

Or not. Turns out there’s more than one place with the name La Plage, since that’s just the French word for beach. We ended up and the wrong one and had a little side adventure trying to find it, but I was able to call my co-employee who’d provided the ticket and get more specific info as he googled landmarks we passed and guided us to the right gate.

This entire stretch of road is just walls and gates. There are no names on the gates and no address numbers, so you have to know about it before you show up. Private beach indeed. The unassuming green gate emblazoned with the Saudi flag’s palm tree and crossed sabers hides thatched rooftops baredly peeking above the walls. The man at reception took my ticket and advised me to remove my abaya and keep it in my bag while I was inside. A real relief I can tell you, to be abaya free outdoors, feeling the sea breeze directly on my skin.

Additionally, the driver arranged to return for me at 7pm and we exchanged numbers in case I had a change of plans before then, so no worries on how to get home from this middle of nowhere stretch of road.

IMG_0129I arrived a little after 10, staked out a place on the beach, not that it was really necessary since even at 2pm on a Monday, there were still only a few of us out here. I wandered around the grounds to see what else was there. A nice pool, a lap pool, an area with couches where you can snack and smoke shisha, and a lovely restaurant where I sat down to a nice breakfast. (You can read more about it in The Restaurants post)

I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view. After a final cup of coffee, I headed back to my place on the beach and decided to check out the diving area. After all, I had a bucket list item to attend to today, snorkeling in the red sea coral reefs.

You have to walk out a ways on a little path to get out past the cleared out swimming area and the shallows where there isn’t any coral yet. The gentlemen at the dive area asked me what kind of diving I wished to do. I don’t really know how to scuba, so I said so, and that I would like to snorkel if possible. They kitted me out with some boots to protect my feet, a mask, snorkel and fins. They made sure I felt confident in my swimming skills and showed me where to go.

Because boats come quite close to the reefs, they had a little area roped off to keep divers safe from the traffic. There were some steps leading down to the water, at the end of which I strapped on my fins and headed into the water.

It was like being inside a documentary. Despite the fact that I cleverly forgot my contact lenses back in Tabuk, I could still see fairly well under water. I had to de-fog the mask a couple times, but the corals and fish were quite close, and the water was so clear, I hardly noticed the lack of 20/20 vision.

The corals weren’t as bright themselves as in other places, though I did see many beautiful soft, well, coral pinks, and a few spots of greens, purples and brilliant blues. But the FISH! The colors and sizes of the fish, as soon as my mask hit the water I was confronted with a moving mosaic. Electric blue and yellow, flashing stripped silver, some fish had a whole rainbow down their flanks, iridescent and shifting as they moved.

I stayed at the surface because the coral was very shallow and I could breathe easily through the snorkel while admiring the view. I swam out to one corner of the cordoned off area and as I curved inward following the buoy line, the coral reef dropped off sharply into placid turquoise depths where I could see the outlines of much larger fish swimming in the depths.

Despite the fact that I was floating easily on the surface, the sharp drop off gave me an intense sense of vertigo, just as if I were standing on the edge of a sharp cliff, or perhaps more so as I had nothing to hold on to. However, I reassured myself that I could not fall, and that the force of the waves coming in toward shore would prevent me from drifting out accidentally.

There were yet more fish at this break, new shapes and colors that only hovered in the space between shallow and deep. They didn’t think anything of me at all, swimming within inches of my face and hands, calmly avoiding me, but not fleeing.

I just floated for a while, not swimming anywhere, only watching the scene below me. The waves started picking up and tossing me back toward the shallow end, even occasionally washing over my snorkel and bringing a mouthful of saltwater. I decided it was time to head in, as fighting the waves was becoming increasingly challenging, but I lost a flipper.

I turned around to find it, but in the process of retrieving it the other one cam off. I was only in a few feet of water at this point, and still had the boots on to protect my feet, but the ground was slippery and the waves were intense, so I was knocked down more than once, and pushed into some coral. Scraped by a coral reef may now be checked off my life to do list as well. It didn’t really hurt until I got out of the water, but I suspect that was adrenaline.

After a few very focused, heart pounding minutes, I made it back to the base of the stairs and up onto the diving area.I washed off the scrapes with soap and water then lay down on a bench to catch my breath. Found some iodine in the dive shop, too. I suspect it was the combo of salt water and sunscreen that made it sting like all get out, but I really can’t say I cared that much. The reef was amazing, I don’t know how it compares to anything else, because I was my first coral reef, but that alone makes it pretty special

IMG_0143I headed back to my deck chair and lounged in the shade, enjoying the view and the breeze. Occasionally I’d wander out into the swimming area for a bit. The water was delightfully warm for about the top four feet, then suddenly turned cold. The sea is salty enough that floating is ridiculously easy. I hovered vertical in the water and only had to flip a hand or foot to adjust my orientation. Every time my feet dipped below the warmth line, it was like dipping my toes into a cold pool, even though I was entirely suspended in water.

Later on I went up to the pool but the water was actually too warm for me, and I came out again pretty quickly.

I spent the sunset floating in the sea chatting with a nice Palestinian lady who recommended some other places I might enjoy in Jeddah (she was right). The taxi drive back was its own ‘adventure’ you can read about in The Taxis.

By Saturday, I’d learned a lot about taxis and of course I knew where the beach was this time. The way in was different. This time, they checked my passport at the gate, but didn’t take my ticket. Instead, there was a check in counter that hadn’t been open on Monday where they had me fill in my name and nationality on the ticket and asked me if I had any food or water in my bag. I was told it wasn’t allowed to bring any in because of the restaurant on site. I told them I planned on eating at the restaurant, too and they let me in with my water, warning me not to bring so much next time. He also would not let me out of the reception area until I’d stowed my abaya in my bag.

1456520_778167035564490_5505859289312907818_nI was also greeted by a pretty blue and gold macaw at the gate. These are big birds and there wasn’t a handler with him, so I was a little wary at first, but he clearly wanted attention, and kept holding his leg out to try to reach me. When I moved my arm over, he climbed right on. I gave him some neck scritches, cause parrots love those, before saying good bye and heading off toward the water.

I got there early again, but this time I headed straight to the dive shop because the waves were really low that morning, and I wanted to tackle the reef again so that being beaten up by strong waves and coral wasn’t my final memory.

It wasn’t quite as populated by fish as it had been on Monday. I don’t know if it was a time of day thing or a weather thing, but it was still nice, and it really helped me to get back in the water after the adrenaline inducing experience of Monday.

I discovered on my way back toward the beach that there’s supposed to be a fee to rent the snorkel equipment, oops. No one had asked for one on Monday, and they were kind enough to let it slide, cautioning me that I should make sure to expect to pay next time. I think if I lived there, I’d buy my own gear, but its not unreasonable to rent it if you’re just visiting. Plus, next time I’m sure to have my contact lenses and an underwater camera!

After the snorkeling, I headed in to get breakfast, much like last time. There were definitely more people at the resort than on Monday, but it never got to be what I’d call “crowded”. I guess having been to beaches in Florida, Southern California, and the Bahamas I have a different perspective on what a crowded beach looks like. Maybe it was because of the holiday, but I’d have thought if anything, that would mean more people would show up than usual.

I chatted with a young man trying  to learn paddle boarding. He asked me how I was enjoying “Miami” referring to the beach. I said I liked it a great deal better than I had liked actual Miami, which he got a real kick out of.

I listened to some little girls singing “Eid Mubarak” (Happy Eid), clearly happy to be celebrating the holiday. A little girl, maybe two or three, showed me her seashell finds and asked how I got the scrapes on my leg, whereupon we discussed why it was important to stay in the safe part of the beach and not go out near the boats in the very solemn way that toddlers have before she ran off to find her dad.

I enjoyed the sea some more, floating in the deep of our little lagoon, and walking through the shallows looking for pretty sea shells and coral bits that had washed in from the reef. I read in the shade, snacked at the restaurant and generally had a really nice day.

Both nights right as the sun was setting I turned around just in time to see a tiny shoal of silver fish leap from the water in a little flashing arc of bodies reflecting the golden pink sun. Pretty darn magical.

While waiting for my Uber to arrive (I couldn’t deal with another taxi), the person who I think was the manager (very proprietary and obviously in charge) chatted with  me about my visit. Apparently he’s Greek Orthodox and took the opportunity to tell me how great it is. For a country where people aren’t supposed to talk about religion, I sure get asked what I am a lot here.

A friendly Uber ride back to the hotel sealed in the goodness of the day.

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Overall findings?
La Plage is a great beach. Beautiful, clean, it has swimming and diving which is rare in combo. Good restaurant, nice service. The weekdays are nearly empty, and the rules are clearly less adamantly enforced. However, the weekends are more lively and the restaurant seems to have a wider menu as well. They don’t allow Saudis, and other Middle Eastern nationals may have a few more hoops to jump through to get in. Like everywhere else in Saudi, the rules are not set in stone, and they seem more interested in pleasing their rich Western patrons than anything else, really. I’m pretty sure if I lived in Jeddah, I’d be out there as often as I could afford it, though, and I’d never save any money at all.

The Souqs: A Week in Jeddah

I didn’t really want to go into many malls on my trip to Jeddah, but the souqs are the modern descendants of what once were the outdoor markets where farmers and traders would congregate to sell their wares. Its changed a lot since then, but I wanted to see it anyway. Al Balad has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has perhaps the best representation of what the old souq would have looked like, and Al Shati is up in one of the ritzier neighborhoods and is a pretty good representation of the modern souq. Enjoy!

Al Shati

Sadly, I have no pictures at all of this souq. I didn’t arrive until well after sunset on a Friday night, so the place was pretty much packed, and I didn’t want to upset anyone taking pictures with so many people.

This  souq is much more modern than Balad, but also smaller. There weren’t any multi story mall like buildings at all. On the outer fringes of the souq were some larger department stores. The souq itself was a sort of grid and multiple courtyard set up. See the satellite view on the map. There are two main courtyards that have a snack stand in the center, amusement rides for kids placed around the courtyard, and plastic bolted down chairs and tables in between.

It looks all nice and geometrical from the air, but on the ground its really disorienting, particularly since in addition to the air conditioned shops in the buildings, there are a myriad of tiny kiosks, carts and blanket top sellers in between them.

Not much ground to cover, but definitely plenty of shops. Every inch of building is a shop, plus all the ones in open space. I enjoyed going into the fancy abaya shops to see what the high class ladies of Jeddah were into. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous that we can’t wear more styles here in Tabuk, there were some really beautiful abayas there, and most of them weren’t too much more expensive than the ones I own.

I tried to find a new hijab that would be ok to wear in Tabuk but have a little bit of flair, but there just wasn’t anything like that. Everything was either very plain black or very very colorful.

There were also some nice jewelry places, selling gold and silver as well as other types. I’m not really that into jewelry, but I was looking for something nice to bring back to a friend in Tabuk. The silver is actually sold by weight, even when it is set with other stones, which I found interesting. Not a bad price, I guess. I found a delicate silver bracelet set with opals that would have been about 32$ US.

Remembering that Saudis tend to prefer gold, I found a little bracelet with heart charms on it, which she turned out to really like, so I feel like that was a mission accomplished.

I also found a really cheap clothing store where everything seemed to be 20 SAR (about 5$), so I got some clothes there. I got a pretty shimmery  skirt, that fabric that can’t make up its mind what color it is depending on how you look at it, sort of dusty rose and golden bronze. Its a little long, but I can hem it, and it follows my rule of not paying more than 5$ for clothes that need alterations. I got a lightweight black long sleeved open fronted shirt thing, since need stuff to wear over the tank tops at work. However, it tore in the laundry, so that may have been a mistake.

Finally, I found what may be the coolest steam punk skirt I’ve seen outside a cos-play competition. Its not real leather, but that’s ok. It’s also a teeny bit too small, but also way too long, so I’m just going to pull out the zipper and lower the whole waistline. Since I won’t be able to wear it until the winter sets in, or possibly until I get back to America, there’s no rush.

All in all, Shati isn’t pretty or historically significant, but its a fun place to shop that has a lot more character and flavor than a shopping mall.

Al Balad

This was one of my big to-do items since I found out I was coming to Saudi because of the UNESCO thing, so I set aside basically a whole day to to it, even though the souq doesn’t really get going until after 4pm. I got dropped of on the very edge of the neighborhood by a very passive aggressive taxi driver, and followed the stream of people walking toward the tall buildings while trying to puzzle over my gps map as to which direction I needed to go in.

It was just after Asr so still reasonably light. The first things I came across were tall mall like structures, but a little more like the Silk Market in Beijing than the other malls I’d seen in Saudi. Tall buildings stuffed with little stands and shops selling clothes, electronics, jewelry, perfume and shoes. Sadly, unlike the Silk Market, no shops selling artwork.

I drifted around several such buildings until I heard the call to Maghrib and sat down next to a fountain to wait for all the shops to reopen.

Finally, after leaving yet another high rise souq, I spotted some signs that pointed to the historical district. As I left the high rises behind, the area became a little shabbier but with a lot more character. There were a few permanent shade structures build over the main paths and an endless number of side alleys cross connecting the twisting roads. There were permanent shops with air conditioning along the larger paths, and people set up with rolling carts or even just blankets full of goods anywhere they could find a space.

More than anywhere else I’d been, I could see the influence of the Silk Road on the two cultures. The whole area reminded me of nothing so much as the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, the former western capital city of China. It really felt like there was a path connecting the two points nearly a whole continent apart.

IMG_0167Eventually, after walking in a few circles, I found the historical center. I didn’t take many pictures in the souq because there were so many people, and its really rude to take pictures of people here, but I managed to snap a few of the landmarks.

Continuing on, I found the food area where fresh produce and meat was on display in every window and cart. And eventually wandered in to what seemed to be a home goods area. I’d clearly left the fashion/jewelry/perfume area and found the place where the locals came to get what they needed.

I parked it on a concrete block to wait out the Isha’a prayer closings, then set about to get my own shopping done. I wanted something to make my hijab easier (pins, clips, a different style, whatever), and I wanted my own shisha pipe (hookah). I knew I should be able to find both in Balad.

The first part was pretty simple, since there were tons of little stands selling abaya and hijab stuff. I wasn’t sure what to ask for, though, so I had to go by looking at what was on display. Eventually I found these little head band/do rag like things that are designed to go under the hijab. They cover the upper forehead and keep the bangs from falling. Also, they create a better surface for the hijab itself to drape on than hair which is pretty slippery.

I got two for 5 SAR each and man does it make a huge difference. I don’t think I’ll use them just going to and from school because there’s no point, but when I’m going shopping, especially if I’m walking in lots of wind, its great to know I have an easy way to keep the darn thing from slipping out of place and won’t have to be fighting with it every 5 minutes to hide my hair again.

The shisha pipe was more challenging. I’d tried to find one in Tabuk to no avail, and I’d asked some folks online who lived in Jeddah where to go, but really didn’t get any solid answers (you know, like an actual store name and Saudi version of address) just vague areas of town, or even whole roads with no cross streets. Google was also no help, since as I observed previously, most businesses aren’t registered with them, so don’t show up in searches or on maps.

After almost 4 hours of wandering the Balad neighborhood and various souqs without spotting a single shisha, I finally decided to bite the bullet and ask for directions. Its not that I’m opposed to asking for directions. I love asking for directions, but cultural barriers such as language, gender and people trying to sell me stuff I don’t want made me hesitant to talk to anyone in the souq.

I picked out one of the home wares shopkeepers, figuring his livelihood relied less on tourists than on regulars, and tried my Arabic, amounting to the very complex sentence “where shisha?”. Hard to mess that one up. He seemed surprised (women don’t often smoke in public), and repeated shisha? miming the act of smoking the water pipe. Nam, yes. I replied. He did some pointing and gesturing while describing directions in Arabic I had no hope of understanding, but the gestures were clear, go back up this road and turn left. So I thanked him, figuring that if all else failed, I would ask directions again in a couple blocks.

As it turns out, they were excellent directions. I took the first left and almost immediately ran into a small shisha shop. The men inside were very young, they looked like high schoolers, and I assumed their family must own the shop for them to be working in it. One of them spoke very good English and they were quite pleased to help me out.

The young man made sure that his compatriots didn’t short weigh the shisha tobacco I bought, made sure to take apart and reassemble the pipe so I could see how it worked, and threw in some foil. I don’t know if I should have haggled, or if I could have gotten a better price, but I got the pipe with a nice hard-sided/padded interior carrying case, a half kilo of shisha, a huge box of coconut husk coals, and a box of shisha foil for less than 30 USD, and they were nice, so I’m not going to complain.

My missions all accomplished, sight seeing and shopping, I legged it over to a larger road to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Definitely a place worth wandering around. Pretty sure you can buy anything that’s for sale in the Kingdom here, and its pretty. I didn’t get to see the Museum because it was closed by the time I found it, but it gives me something to look forward to on another trip.

The Taxis: A Week in Jeddah

Taxis. Taxis are a government monitored car service that can get non driving folks from one place to another. They operate differently in every country, and most cities on earth. There’s a huge controversy in many countries as “private” services like Lyft and Uber edge in on the taxi market, and while the argument is supposed to be about how expensive it is to maintain ‘high’ standards of safety and insurance for the taxi companies, the fact is, I don’t know anyone who takes Uber because its cheaper. They prefer these private car services because they are faster, cleaner and more pleasant experiences. So if the taxis wanna get back in the market, they need to stop being dirty, late, scamming skeezers and start providing a service people want to pay for. OMG market competition.

So far in life, my favorite place to take a taxi is Beijing. This might be changing, because the last time I was there it was much harder to flag down a taxi without a phone app. But the reasons I liked them: the meter was very clearly visible and used for all short in city trips; it was common to sit in the front seat with the driver so you could see where you were going clearly; the drivers were consistently friendly, curious people who never made me feel uncomfortable or in danger; if you ever wanted to negotiate for a longer drip or a driver to wait for you, you could go off meter and negotiate.

I don’t like taxis in the US for the most part. Outside of New York and DC, you pretty much have to call one and wait around for it to show up, so I don’t use them much.

There are no taxis in Tabuk to speak of. I’m told there might be some at the airport, and the internet says there are taxi companies here, but I never see them on the road. If I want to go anywhere here, I rely on the school driver or I walk to the mall two blocks away.

I thought it would be refreshing to have access to taxi transportation in Jeddah, that it would make it easier for me to play tourist and see all the fun things. To that extent, I’m sure it is true. If I’d had to find a private driver for the week it would have complicated things. My schedule would have had to have been more rigid, and I might have ended up missing out on things or sitting around waiting a lot. So, in this respect, access to taxis in a country where I’m not allowed to drive because of my ovaries is pretty neat.

But holy howling monkies, Batman! They are complete jerks!

Understand that Saudis don’t drive their own taxis, so every one of these men is a foreigner who came to this country because he can make more money than at home. They don’t much like the Saudis and all of them are looking for a way up the next rung on the ladder. In addition, for reasons I’m still not clear on, the taxis in Jeddah have no meters. Supposedly, last fall there was supposed to be mandated meter legislation, but I guess it didn’t happen. This means that you have to negotiate a price for your trip with the driver.

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On to the stories.

The Marriage Proposal

I got picked up from the airport by someone else from our company that I had met a couple weeks earlier, so my first taxi experience was actually on my second day in Jeddah when I wanted to go to the beach. Several issues here, not the least of which was that I didn’t really know where this beach resort was. I told the driver I wanted to go to La Plage, and he said ok, so I got in. He started driving and called a friend of his who spoke English, however, as it turns out, neither of them had heard of the place. So we went back to the hotel so I could try to find it online with the wifi.

I found a place called La Fontaine La Plage, and thought that was it, so we set out again. I thought the drive was going ok, but when we finally got there, it was the wrong place. I called my buddy who lived in Jeddah and had given me the tickets to the beach and we spent the next 15 minutes or so trying to track where I was by landmark to where we needed to be. The beach, being a private resort, had no name sign or address. I thought the driver was being very helpful and patient, driving up and down the road, stopping occasionally to ask other folks for directions.

We finally got there, and he asked what time he should come back to pick me up. So far, I’d been pleased with the ride. He seemed nice, was helpful in getting me to a hard to find place, and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get a driver to come all the way back out to the beach, so we agreed on 7pm (also known in Saudi time as ‘after Maghrib’) and exchanged numbers in case I needed to change plans.

He called me at about quarter to 7 to say he was there, and we headed back into town. On the trip back he was much chattier. Despite the fact that he did not speak much English. He started talking about America and how great it was and something about a visa. Then came the akward part.

This is like a 50 minute drive, by the way, so I’m stuck in the car with this guy. He says some combination of English and Arabic that I’m reasonably sure means he’s asking me to marry him, but I decide to not understand. The one and only time in my life I have ever been upset about the existence of Google happens here, because on its own, the conversation might have just stopped there. However, he whips out his smart phone and opens Google Translate to try again.

This time I cannot pretend not to understand, so I laugh because my only other option is to get angry miles from another taxi. I say no, and pull out my own Google Translate to make that clear. The next 20 minutes or so is a really good example of why Google Translate won’t replace human translators. First because a lot of people aren’t actually literate in Arabic even when they speak it with native proficiency so Google doesn’t recognize the words, and second because there are just too many nuances to adequately translate all but the simplest phrases from non-related language groups.

So he tries to hit on me some more, I don’t know how you change a girl’s mind about marriage in a taxi ride, but he tried. Most of the Google translate stuff game up as complete garbldy gook in Roman letters, not even English words, just a mess, so I was at least able to go back to not understanding. I’d stare at the phone and say, “no English”.

Finally we got back to my hotel, and he tried to vastly over-charge me for the ride. I thought it was pretty darn foolish of him, after all, he’d already done the driving and hadn’t gotten me to agree on a price. Moreover, he’d been very socially inappropriate which could have gotten him in big trouble if I’d reported him. Lucky for him, I guess, I wasn’t jaded enough to be so mean yet. So I paid him less than he wanted, but more than he deserved and got out.

The touchy-feeley guy

Another night, coming back to the hotel, I got an even more outrageously skeezy guy. I had at this point decided to make sure I got the fare agreed on in advance, but I’ve only been in Saudi a month, and I’m still not in the habbit of refusing handshakes. I’m working on it, but its a lifetime reflex that I have to overcome here. Plus, in Beijing, I really enjoyed chatting with the taxi drivers, so the social reprogramming needed to cope with Saudi taxis was simply not in place.

It was a very short trip and he tried to as for way too much money, we haggled for a bit then came to 13. I know Arabic speakers have trouble with 13 and 30 from teaching them, so I checked, I repeated it, 13 and said one-three. He said ok, I got in.

The guy went through a similar chat about America, are you married, you’re so pretty, etc. At some point he either realized he made a number mistake or just changed his mind and said the fare was 30, three-zero, to which I said no. No changing the fare once I’m in the cab.

Once we reached the hotel, I gave him 20 SAR, because I didn’t have change and didn’t feel like arguing. He took the opportunity of reaching back for the money to brush my leg, and I did get upset at that point, pushing his hand away and raising my voice. He tried to ask for more money again and I refused, holding out the 20 which was still more than the 13 we’d agreed on. Then he puckered up his lips and leaned more into the back seat, trying to get a kiss. Fortunately he didn’t do anything as stupid as try to touch me again, but it made me feel absolutely gross. I pushed the money at him and got out with what I am sure was the purest look of disgust I’ve ever had on my face, then went to my room and spent like an hour talking to friends in the US to calm down before walking out to diner.

The Lazy Liar

Much shorter story, but as I began learning more about negotiating fares and how to act (or not act) in a taxi, my behavior started to change accordingly. I wanted to go to Al Balad souq for the evening and talked a taxi into a 15 SAR fare. In the most passive aggressive way possible, he took me to the very edge of what could be considered Al Balad and claimed he couldn’t get in because the roads were blocked. While the road he stopped at was indeed blocked, there were plenty of cars driving in and out of Balad, so this was a clear lie and a way for him to get more fare for less driving. Not a happy camper, me.

The Wandering Driver

So, at this point I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood and nearest landmarks to my hotel, so I can say them to the drivers. I also can pull up Google maps and show them where I want to go, because the map works pretty well even without any wifi, you just can’t get a route or directions, but you can still see the map. So I tell the driver, show the driver and negotiate a price, then get in the taxi.

After a while, I can see he’s going the wrong way, so I tell him so and show him again on the map. He starts arguing with me (I can’t understand most of the words, but the tone is pretty clear) along the lines of what the hell. I point again to the map, but I’m pretty angry by now and am only yelling in English like a dumb American that this is what I showed him before, and if he didn’t know where it was, why the hell did he tell me to get in the taxi?

When he looks more closely at the map, he then demands more money than we agreed on, which I also refuse, since I’d showed him the map before we agreed on a price and its not my fault if he didn’t understand it or try to ask any questions.

The yelling goes on for a while before he finally tells me in broken English to change taxis. Fine, I say, and open the door. He tried to get me to pay him for the ride so far, and you know, on my first day in Jeddah I might have given him something, believing it was an honest mistake or trying to be nice, but after several days of jerk drivers I’ve completely had it. On top of which, we aren’t even near any place where I’ll be able to catch another taxi at this point, so I refuse to give him any money, pointing at my map again, and get out.

I walked for several blocks of dark empty city before coming to a little strip mall area where I could catch another taxi back to my hotel. Not fun.

The Nice Guy

Lest you think every single taxi driver in Jeddah is a scamming, skeezy douchbag, there were a couple neutral rides and there was one nice guy.

I’d decided after the above experiences that I needed to wear my Hijab when taking a taxi to avoid the impression of being ‘loose’, and to lie about the fact that that I’m not married (which I hate and may talk more about another time). This did get me a couple of less unpleasant taxi rides which do not bear remarking on in any detail except that one of them commented on my hijab saying that too many American women showed their hair and he was pleased to see me covering.

I don’t know if the nice guy was responding to my behavior or if he was just nice, but it was a short ride, and I’d given in at 30 SAR even though I knew it was too much because I was tired and hot. He talked to me, but respectfully, and when we arrived at my hotel and I handed him the 30, he gave me 10 back, saying it was too much and wishing me a good evening with a pleasant smile which I was happy to return.

The Lost on a Straight Road Guy

Finally, on my last day in Jeddah, I wanted to go back to La Plage. Now I knew where it was, could point to it on a map and had a basic understanding of how much it should cost to get there. So armed, I donned my hijab, pulled up my map and flagged a taxi.

I showed him the map, pointing to an empty stretch of coastline where the private beach lay. He questioned me about its name, and I told him, knowing it would do no good, then pointed to the spot on the map again. He took some time to look at the map. Its a straight shot up a single road. The road changes names a few times, from Al Andalus to King Abdul Aziz to Prince Abdullah Al Fiasal, but its really one big highway that follows the coast around a little inlet and into Obhur. No weird turns, no complicated switchbacks. I think I could have followed it without GPS and I get lost in the city I’ve lived in 10 years.

We agree on 70 SAR which is kinda pricey, but not bad for white-person rates. He argues for higher saying that its over 40km, but we settle in the end. This is important later, that he knows its about 40 km away. Don’t forget.

He chats me up, I’m very distant without being directly rude. Talk about my “husband” repeatedly. He tells me he’s Egyptian, and women in his country don’t have to wear abaya and hijab. He asks if we can be friends, and by now I know that’s a bad sign so I politely say  no, we cannot be friends because men and women in Saudi can’t be friends. He tells me its no problem because he is not Saudi he is Egyptian. I tell him no a few more times before the message really sticks. Remember this is a long drive.

Partway there, on the long stretch of highway where there are no turn offs at all, he pulls off on the side of the road, acting like he’s lost. I show him the map again, indicating the little blue dot that is us, and the stretch of beach I want to go to that is further on the road we are on. He continues to act confused. Which is the lamest act I’ve seen in a while. Eventually a cop pulls up beside us. So he explains that he’s got this American in the car who doesn’t speak Arabic and he’s trying to figure out where I want to go.

Seriously, are maps that hard to read? Is this some magical skill my father passed on to me on our family summer road trips? Its not even a paper map, there’s this blue dot that represents where we are! He takes my tablet over to the cop car to show him the map and they talk for a while but I can’t hear them.

Finally he comes back and heads out again. He indicates that I should tell him to stop when we get there, as though that were not my plan already.

When we finally arrive, he doesn’t even pull around to get me to the gate, and he tries to demand more money, acting like he had to drive so much farther than we’d originally agreed on. The fact that our little blue dot is exactly where I pointed to before I got in the taxi, and that his original argument for a higher fare included the distance he now tried to claim ignorance of made the attempt astonishingly pathetic.

There is of course no way I’m asking him to come back to pick me up in the evening. Which leads me to…

UBER

I don’t know what my resistance to using Uber was. I think they were along the lines of I don’t have a smart phone or bank account in Saudi yet. The lack of smart phone makes using the Uber app a little harder because I would be limited to being able to use it only where there was wi-fi which is unreliable in Saudi. The lack of a Saudi bank account means that I have to give Uber my US credit card, which I don’t like because its a pain to get my Saudi salary to my US bank account until I get the bank account here set up. Not impossible, just a pain. I really wanted to use my Saudi salary to take this vacation, and I think I got a little irrationally attached to the idea.

If it hadn’t been a mere three weeks since my arrival in Saudi, these obstacles would not have existed, and I might have been spared all these fantastic taxi experiences. As it was, I finally gave up on my last day and signed up for Uber from the restaurant at La Plage because I really couldn’t handle one more crappy taxi ride.

Once I was all done enjoying my day, I logged into the app and ordered my Uber car. I got a text immediately saying my driver had been dispatched and giving me an ETA. The app itself also showed me a picture of my driver, his name and they type of car he would be driving.

Only complaint was that the Uber estimation of the driver’s eta was off by quite a bit, it took almost 20 minutes longer than expected, but I was kind of way off the beaten track, so I was surprised at the original eta anyway, and I was in a resort while waiting, so not a hardship.

I got another text when the driver was a couple minutes away so I began to wrap up in my abaya and hijab and collect my things. The driver called and I told him to look for the green door and that I would be right out.

The gate guard also wouldn’t leave me until he saw that I had a car, which was nice since its a pretty empty stretch of road.

The car was cleaner and newer than the taxis. The driver had provided cold bottled water in the back seat for his passengers, and he didn’t try to talk to me at all. Its a little sad, because I like meeting people and exchanging ideas, but the reality is, this simply isn’t possible between men and women outside very structured work or school environments in Saudi. So in this case it was a relief to be able to relax on the drive and not have to worry about where the conversation was going or what consequences I would have to deal with for rebuffing advances.

He pulled right up to the door of my hotel, and we never once had to talk about price or exchange money since Uber simply calculates the rate based on GPS, charges my card and emails me a receipt. I actually tipped this driver because I was so relieved by the entire experience.

The Uber charge was 110 SAR. I’d paid 150 SAR for the same ride on my first day, and 70SAR for the ride to the beach that morning, so while its possible I could have saved a few dollars haggling with a taxi, I feel that the security and comfort of the ride, the courtesy of the driver and the simple fact that I didn’t have to argue or haggle or anything was definitely worth a little extra cash.

I took Uber to the airport the next morning as well, and had an equally pleasant ride, similarly paying only slightly more than most people said was normal for an airport taxi.

Live and learn.

What I Learned

Women travelling alone are more vulnerable in Saudi, even in places where its not completely abnormal. I found that when I was in public spaces like the Corniche or a restaurant that I could doff my hijab with no trouble and no change in the way people around me acted toward me. However, when I was in a taxi, wearing the hijab seemed to make a measurable difference in the amount of harassment I received, even if it did not eliminate it altogether.

If you must take a taxi, make sure they really know where they are going and agree on a price before you get in the car. The drivers would say ok and gesture me to get in even when they had no idea where we were going, and then start driving and try to change prices while we were on the road. Any wiggle room that they have to say they didn’t know what you meant will be exploited, so make sure that you’re as clear as possible before you get in.

If you have a smart phone/wi fi use Uber or another car service with set fares and more accountability. Since the drivers are assigned and recorded electronically, its much easier to lodge complaints if they are problematic, so they have more reason to offer good professional service. It might cost a little more, but its worth it, and you’ll never be ripped off, since again, the route is recorded and if they try to drive in circles to get you someplace, you can show the discrepancy in the route they took and the optimum route on the map.

Never let adversity stop you from having an awesome adventure. Live life for the great stories you’ll tell later on. Don’t stay angry, but don’t let being kind make you a doormat. Be excellent to each other and party on.   🙂

The Attractions: A Week in Jeddah

There are tons of attractions and activities in Jeddah. Here’s a brief review of the few I managed to get to. As always, if you want to see all the pics, check out the albums on my Facebook Page.

King Fahad Fountain

IMG_0102This is the tallest fountain of its kind in the world. It shoots a jet of sea water something like 1000 feet up into the air creating a stunning waterfall from heaven. It sits out in the sea and isn’t something you can walk up to. The Park Hyatt hotel has a stunning view of the fountain, and most of the Middle Corniche Park affords a changing view of the pillar of water.

It was beautiful to watch it change as the sun set and the flood lights at the base came on to illuminate it by night. Several times I just stopped everything else I was doing to watch the patterns of the water as it danced in the wind on its way back down to the sea.

Al Shallal Theme Park

This is one of many theme/amusement parks scattered throughout Jeddah. Actually, it seems like every shopping mall has some kind of mini-amusment park area even here in Tabuk, mostly geared at kids since malls are a big draw to mom’s with kids in tow.

The Corniche in Jeddah has several places that give top billing to the amusement side rather than the mall side, and Al-Shallal has the tallest double loop roller coaster on the Asian continent (according to Wikipedia). Also, acording to their website and to my site director, Tuesday nights are Ladies Night and so I thought I’d go check it out.

Now, I’ve been to both coasts of Disney, California Adventures, Epcot, Universal, Six Flags and Cedar Point, so I am not new to the theme park/roller coaster experience. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I do have some basis for comparison.

First, whatever Ladies Night was meant to be, I think it failed. My SD said it was women only and abaya free, like the women’s side of the school, but there were plenty of men around and all the women were still dressed in abaya and hijab. This was a little frustrating, since a large chunk of why I decided to go was the pleasant idea of an outdoor park adventure with the same level of female freedom that we had inside the school grounds. Maybe they cancelled it, maybe it changed nights, its really hard to tell, but if you’re looking to have a Ladies Night outting, I’d find someone who speaks really good Arabic and call first.

Second, its about 1/3 mall. I know that all the other parks I mentioned are highly comercial and covered in little places trying to sell you stuff, but they aren’t actually malls, and they make an attempt to sell things that are in line with the theme of the… well, theme park, so you get Disney stuff at Disney parks and Warner Bros stuff at Six Flags, and often they have some stuff you can’t get anywhere besides the theme park, and some quite beautiful high quality products among the cheap souvenirs.

IMG_0152This is an actual two story mall. The shops include clothing, perfume, jewelry and toys, none of which are what we think of as theme specific, and the only souvenir items were the custom printed t-shirt kiosks and the lady walking around charging to take pics with the copy written theme park characters of other parks. I could just imaging there’s a team of Disney lawyers who feel a strange itch they can’t identify every time fake Mickey and Minnie pose with a small Saudi child here. The rest of it is just shops and food court places with a huge ice skating rink in the middle.

There is one ride that is inside the mall area called the Amazon which is a water type ride, but only has one short fall. The attendant advised me to sit in the back so my abaya wouldn’t get soaked.

Outside, there are more restaurants and food kiosks in between the rides. The roller coaster and most of the nice restaurants surround a little lake where people can take boats out. Wikipedia says its divided into geographical themes, like the Amazon and China and Europe, but I didn’t really notice that. There were definitely some Chinese themed rides, the tea cups and a Chinese dragon circular ride, and there was the Amazon, but if there were meant to be themes or distinct areas, they weren’t obvious.

However, this doesn’t mean that Al-Shallal isn’t fun. Its a cute little park with a pretty decent roller coaster. The mall is a great place to cool off between rides, since the high walls keep the sea breeze out. The unlimited rides wristband is 55 SAR, and each ride is about 15 SAR without it, so if you intend to ride a 4th anything, the wristband is worth it.

As it turns out, heat, humidity and abayas when combined with spinny rides is a recipe for an upset tummy. As a consequence, I spent about 30 minutes sitting in the AC mall section between each ride, which allowed me to cool off and forestall any severe nausea. Fortunately, they’re open till like 130 am.

I rode an octopus ride, the giant swing, the Amazon water ride, the pirate ship, and the roller coaster twice, once from the very front and once from the very back. I avoided the bumper cars and assorted children’s rides, as well as anything supper spinny, also the deadfall and bungee rides.

The rides were mostly ok. Better than a fair, but definitely a sort of low end generic amusement ride. The Amazon water ride was better than average, although the stories online about life sized animals was total bunk. The plastic jungle critters were about a foot high, but the lighting was low. There was only one drop, so it was less flume ride and more boat ride, but nice.

IMG_0164The roller coaster was a blast. The cars are pulled up backwards to the very top then dropped back down the incline into the double loop and twist before heading back up the paired incline, dragged all the way up then rushed through the whole thing backwards. Going in the front seat afforded a better feeling ride, but the end seat gave a really awesome view not only of the whole park and the sea just beyond the wall, but of everyone else enjoying the ride.

There was an unusual amount of happy screaming on all the rides there. I noticed that people often started screaming in the roller coaster just as it was being pulled up before the real action even started. After a while it occurred to me that this might be one of the few places where its ok for many of these people to express joy and excitement so loudly and ebulliently.

Even on the Corniche where people were clearly enjoying themselves, they were much more subdued. With no bars, few night clubs, and limited public sporting events, all of the ways that I’m used to getting loud and silly at home just don’t exist as an option here. So, that was kind of neat.

Also, I must not neglect to mention the gelato shop. I’d seen some pictures of it online while researching the park, and that was a pretty neat treat stand, different from the regular fries and pizzas. Fresh fruit gelatos, chocolate and nutella gelatos, and optional chocolate coatings. I guess I could have eaten it in the air conditioning, but walking around with a delicious icy treat on a stick trying to eat it before the heat melts it is a rather quintessential part of the amusement park experience, right?

Al Rahma Floating Mosque

This is called the Floating Mosque or Mosque on the Sea because it is built up on pillars so that only one edge of the building is on the shore, and the rest of it is over the water. I understand at high tide the mosque actually looks like its floating in the water. Unfortunately, high tide that day was at 1:30 in the afternoon, which is possibly the most miserable time to be outside in Jeddah, so would have been stopping by long enough to snap some photos and hop back in a cab. I decided instead to go for sunset and Maghrib prayer, even though it was nearly low tide by then.

IMG_0187I do not regret my decision. First, as I may have mentioned before, watching the sunset on the Red Sea just simply does not get old. Secondly, watching the sea and sunset colors reflected in the white mosque was really beautiful. And thirdly, even though I am not Muslim myself, I really enjoy being near sacred rituals of any sort, and being at the Mosque for sunset prayer was itself a unique experience.

On my second circuit, I noticed a sign that reminded everyone that this mosque was no more special than any other mosque and to please let others know all mosques are equal. At first I thought that was kind of cool, since every church and temple tourist attraction I’ve seen goes to great lengths to point out why its special and worth visiting (read giving money to). This doesn’t make them bad, they need money to operate, and often are preserving history and culture that would be lost without tourism. However, for a tiny moment, the thought of humility pleased me, until I realized that it was a really underhanded way to say “our holy place is special” at the same time as saying “see how humble we are about it”. Oh well. Still a cool place.

There were of course separate entrances for men and women, but the outside walkways seemed open to all. There were beautiful archways and a single tall tower beside the main dome. As everyone gathered to the call, I found a quiet spot overlooking the sea and listened to the sermon being broadcast from inside the central prayer area. It was very peaceful.

Fakieh Aquarium

Mostly because it was this or a shopping mall. I don’t mind malls, but we have them in Tabuk, and I’m not extra impressed by larger malls with bigger shops (Mall of America doesn’t do it for me), so I didn’t put malls high on my to do list in Jeddah. However, the daytime is hot and boring. Its too hot to do any outdoor activity until nearly sunset, and most things are closed until after Asr. The malls open around 10-11 am, and the Aquarium opened around the same time (except Friday, when it opened a little later).

So I went to the Aquarium, hoping perhaps to see some of the fish and corals that I swam among out at La Plage. Not really. The displays are very pretty, though. It was a little difficult without a smart phone, since the descriptions for each display were actually just QR codes. A neat idea, and yet one more reason not to go to Jeddah without a smartphone.

IMG_0213There were pretty fish, a really cool tunnel through a giant tank (I really love those things). A sea turtle there took a liking to me and followed me around while I enjoyed the tunnel. He even posed for some pictures. There was a cool seahorse display. Those are some seriously curious critters. They came up to me right away and followed me around the tank as I moved, coming right up to the glass to get a good look.

There was a nifty shark tank. I recognized most of them, but there was one that basically looked like Pyramid Head Shark, and I have no idea what that was, but the internet says it might have been a guitarfish. I like Pyramid Head Shark better.

A nice aquarium, to be sure, although I was a little disappointed that the local coral reefs weren’t better represented, I got to see some pretty cool fishes. There was a dolphin and seal show, but between the timing and the controversy over their animals, I didn’t go.

There’s a crazy fancy expensive restaurant in the same compound as the aquarium. You can do one without the other, but lunch was buffet only so I passed. Just up the Corniche is a little area with a Starbucks and a fro-yo place, a short walk to a nice place to get a snack and kill time until the sun goes away.

 

The Restaurants: A Week in Jeddah

Staying in a hotel means not cooking for yourself for a while, so naturally, I tried a lot of restaurants. The heat and quantity of food did mean that I usually only went into 2 a day, but since I hate fast food, I did get a pretty good culinary cross section. One piece of advice, bring your own water. In Saudi, water isn’t free. In fact, even the cheap water costs more than the gasoline, and restaurants will charge 10-30 SAR for something you can get for 1-2 SAR in the convenience store or from your hotel concierge. I didn’t go walking without a bottle because of the heat, so I often still had some by the time I got into a restaurant and not one of them complained. Plus, then I could use the money I saved to get one of the delicious juice, tea or coffee drinks 🙂

Indian

My first night in Jeddah, I had a long walk along the Corniche just outside my hotel. I didn’t really want to stay out any longer because I was pretty tired and wanted to get up early the next day, so I popped into an Indian restaurant on the way back. I don’t know the name and can’t find it on a map, but its pretty hard to miss if you’re walking between the Hyatt and the Corniche park area.

I got myself a veggie korma and some naan and headed back to the hotel. Important side note, the restaurants here don’t give you plastic eating utensils. They sort of assume that folks are just taking the food home to eat, I guess. So I had to improvise a spoon out of the foil, yay girl scout training! Also, good food.

BBQ

10644882_10152315352941646_9097823026925587621_nOn my way back I’d spotted a BBQ restaurant and figured I’d try it another night. I think BBQ might be international code for “meat cooked over fire”. We have an assumption about BBQ in America that involves a sweet yet tart sauce, but this place seemed like it was trying to represent the BBQ of every nation on earth focusing on America, Brazil and the Mediterranean.

I got the lamb chops with mint BBQ sauce and a side of grilled veggies. It was quite excellent. No room for desert, but I finished off the night with a turkish coffee, lightly spiced with cardamom.

Cafe Aroma

This might be my favorite restaurant in Jeddah (close to a tie with the Marina). The restaurant itself is built to mimic an outdoor garden cafe. Its divided by little stone walls, fountains and trellises, and the ceiling is inset and painted to look like a beautiful blue sky. It gives the illusion of sitting in a cool oasis while allowing one to escape the heat and humidity.

The menu is varied, mostly Western style food with a few traditional dishes. There are breakfasts, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees of meat and fish. I had the Shakshouka on my first visit. Its a poached egg dish with tomatoes and onions. As my culinarily inclined US roomie pointed out, it might be impossible to find an egg and tomato dish that I don’t like. Another meal I had a sort of chicken stir fry and a green mint tea.

IMG_0165I also had some coffee and tiramisu for dessert. The tiramisu was actually served in a portion size that was slightly smaller than my coffee cup, which was refreshing because I’m so tired of American oversized but underflavored desserts. This one was a taste explosion in every bite, although I’m sure they had to use a non-alcoholic beverage to soak the ladyfingers.

The staff are attentive and polite without being obsequious. The food is really good, plentiful and reasonably priced. Its possible to eat healthy there, which is not always easy here in the land of meat and starch. The atmosphere is soothing and you can spend a few hours lingering over a meal either while waiting for the sun to drop low enough to walk the Corniche, or unwinding and cooling down after a night exploring the town.

The Marina

This one is the close runner for favorite. Just a teeny walk south of the Park Hyatt (like half a block) there is a building set back a bit from the road. Apparently they use this for art exhibits and business expos, but if you walk through it, you reach the Marina and Yacht Club. There’s a lovely restaurant there where you can eat indoors or stay on the balcony overlooking the water and the people walking below.

I had two separate people recommend this place to me when they heard my hotel was near the Hyatt, one among the group of South Africans I’d met on my first night on the Corniche, and the other a Palestinian lady I met at the beach. So I decided I should definitely check it out.

10646987_10152312162331646_33606677749492311_nIn addition to the stunning view, there is a fabulous (if expensive) menu and a great shisha menu too. I got myself a veggie pizza and a lemon mint shisha. The food was good, but this wasn’t a surprise. The shisha is really what I want to talk about.

In the US, any time I’ve had a hooka, its been with these pre-packaged, kind of dried out cubes of tobacco. Here the shisha is a goopy sticky mess of molasses, flavor and tobacco– fresh. The shisha was brought out in a large hooka pipe, and the waiter placed a new plastic disposable mouthpiece at the end of the hose and pipe handle. This was pretty cool because it allowed them to use these high quality hookas without having to worry about cross contamination.

The shisha was delicious, and there were a fleet of coal bearing shisha attendants who circled around making sure we all had fresh coals, and blowing the ash out of the dishes to keep the shisha as fresh as possible. After a while I got myself an iced mocha. Most places seem to equate ‘iced’ with ‘blended’ and this was no different, but the quality of the chocolate and the coffee was much higher.

They were having a promo on the shisha to buy one get one free, so I ended up staying until almost 2am watching the people walking on the waterfront below, reading my book, sipping my coffee and smoking shisha. Cost me around 55$ US for the diner, the coffee and the shisha and probably about 4 hours of relaxing evening.

Additionally, I’m told they have a great brunch deal at 11am that includes a full breakfast and a shisha for something like 180 SAR, which is a pretty good deal.

Park Hyatt

Right next to the Marina, and probably much more famous is the Park Hyatt. It seemed like a must do for the trip, so on my last night in Jeddah, I headed over to the Hyatt for diner  and shisha. I compare this to the Marina because they are similarly located and offer similar services.

The food at the Hyatt is downright gourmet awesome. I splurged on the salmon. Now, I’m a good cook, not a chef or anything, but I like my food to taste good, so I learned how. Most of the time a restaurant is just a place that makes food I could make, but don’t want to be bothered to. Every so often, however, there is a meal that makes you remember why it is culinary art. The last one of these for me was that little diner off the Oregon coast on my Thor’s Well camping trip. The Park Hyatt was another.

Starting from the bread. Fresh and made on site if I’m any judge. It wasn’t right out of the oven, but was likely less than an hour old. There was a light dusting of flour from the baking process and a light taste of sourdough that made me believe the dough had been well rested and even slightly fermented before baking. It was hard to resist filling up on the bread alone while waiting for my meal.

IMG_0272I’m picky about salmon. The Red Sea is famous for its seafood, so I decided the chefs here should have a clue. They managed to serve me a slice of salmon filet that was still moist even on the thin edges. The fish was so lightly breaded it was just a thin crust of crumbs and herbs that gave a light contrast to the texture and flavor of the fish without overwhelming it. The potatoes were tiny fingerlings sliced in half and pan fried with rosemary and sundried tomatoes. Accents included a small scoop of caviar and a kind of white cream sauce. I alternated combinations to see how the flavors blended. Not a meal you want to talk or read through, because it might distract some of your attention away from your taste buds.

1520824_10152322742821646_1171443480849920569_nI did not have room for desert, but I stepped out onto the terrace for coffee and shisha. The Park Hyatt has the best view of the King Fahad fountain around. The outdoor seating area is right on the water and includes a small decorative pool, a couch lounging area, and a dining table area. There are outdoor air conditioners to keep the dining area cooler and drier than the surrounding areas. In this respect, it outdoes the Marina with an even more stunning view and a cooler environment that is not dependent on the sea breeze.

However, I think I’d still go back to the Marina if shisha and coffee was my goal. The coffee at the Hyatt was quite nice, but not quite as good, and I think they may be the only place other than Starbucks that actually served coffee over ice instead of blended. However, the shisha menu was much more limited in flavors, only about 1/4 the options as the Marina. Also, when the hooka was brought out they used a disposable hose, rather than just a mouthpiece, which meant that the hose and handle were all plastic. Maybe that’s more hygenic? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that the feel of the full weight hose and handle are much more appealing than the plastic.

All told, the Hyatt is a great place for a delicious meal with a great view, a decadent indulgence.

Sushi Yoshi

I passed a little sushi place on my way back from the Corniche on my first night and decided I really needed to have Sushi in Jeddah. So, Tuesday afternoon [redacted] and [redacted] came to take me to dinner and we went to Sushi Yoshi. Turns out this is a small chain, so we didn’t go to the one by my hotel, but rather one up on the north end of the Corniche that overlooked the sea. The family section was on the second floor, so we actually had a really great view.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a chain sushi joint in Saudi, even in a coastal city, but it turned out to be quite delicious. I’d say mid-range price, reasonable for the quality and quantity of food. I’m a little spoiled by our conveyor belt sushi in Seattle, but really, 30-35$ per person for a large sushi dinner is pretty good.

Also, I don’t think I could ever get tired of eating dinner on the ocean front. Ever.

La Plage

I’ll talk more about the beach itself in another post, but La Plage beach had a restaurant as well. The prices are about what you’d expect from a nice restaurant, possibly a little on the low side for a private resort, on par with Aroma and less expensive than Hyatt.

IMG_0135I chose the Oriental (by which they meant Middle Eastern) breakfast and logged into the wifi. A delicious meal of sliced tomatoes, some kind of pickled vegetable, fresh cheese, labneh – this creamy yogurt stuff that’s like a halfway point between cream cheese and sour cream, some beans in a tart sauce, mint leaves, olives and pita. Everything came in separate little dishes so I could mix and match. Who knew mint and tomato were such a great combo? I made a little wrap with the cheese, tomatoes and mint and it was so yum! The rich cream was a nice compliment to the tart beans, and the olives and pickled veggies were little refreshing bites in between. I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view.

Later in the day I came in for some snacks and an iced (blended) coffee. I’m pretty sure they put frozen whipped cream on my coffee. Ridiculously good.

On the weekend, apparently they also have a sushi menu, but it was really expensive, and I’d already had my sushi fix for the week, so I stuck to the regular menu.

I think if I lived in Jeddah I’d have to find a way to learn to sleep after work so I could go out late at night to enjoy the Marina, and I’d never save any money from going to La Plage every weekend. I might also gain 30 lbs even if I did go for a walk on the Corniche every night. *Sigh, but it was nice while it lasted.

 

 

The Corniche: A Week in Jeddah

The Corniche is described as a 30km long costal resort area.  I had this sort of image in my head of a really long non-vice ridden version of Burbon street or the Las Vegas strip covered in lights, hotels, restaurants and sea side attractions. The reality is not quite the same.

There are stretches of the Corniche which are quite lovely. They have long walkways dotted with refreshment stands which are more like Saudi fair food than anything else. There are some nice attractions too. It is totally worth dedicating a night to walking the waterfront, but it is really important to know where you’re going because the 30 km is not consistently covered with sidewalks, greenery and refreshment stands.

I ended up on the Corniche three times during my stay, in three different places:

The Middle Corniche

IMG_0101My hotel was right across from the Park Hyatt, which has the best view of the King Fahad fountain anywhere on the Corniche.  On my first day in Jeddah, after settling into the hotel, I headed out just before sunset to be greeted with this fantastic view. I walked a couple blocks north to the Middle Corniche Park, which is a lovely greenbelt right on the sea.

Families came and set out picnic carpets (they didn’t use blankets, but rather area rugs), some people even brought mini barbecues to cook food. There were children playing in the surf and folks fishing off the shore. Bicycles, scooters, rollerbladers, kite flyers, and every other waterfront activity was out in full force. As I walked northward along the path, I enjoyed the changing view of the fountain and the city scape. The breeze off the ocean kept the heat and humidity from being too oppressive, nonetheless, I walked a really long way (about 4km each way) and was grateful for the Ish’a prayer break to just lay in the grass and rest.

There is a sculpture garden in this section of the Corniche which was very interesting. The Islamic religion prohibits the representation of humans and often of anything created by God, which is why so much Islamic art is geometric in nature. So the sculpture garden contains some very interesting (and apparently very expensive) works of impressionist and post-modern art.  I must admit, I’m not a super fan of this style, but I found it really interesting how they decided to get around the prohibition of images while still creating a beautiful outdoor art display.

There is also a little mosque along the way called the Hassan Enany Mosque. It seems like the end of the path along the sea, but if you walk around the front of the mosque, there is still more sea front and grassy bits along the other side. Finally, the walk ends abruptly at a roundabout.

On my way back to the hotel, I stopped for another rest and met a group of teachers from South Africa and we sat down in the grass and chatted for a while, sharing our experiences living and teaching in Saudi. A really great section of Corniche. In addition to the snack shacks along the walk, there are also lots of shopping and restaurants on the opposite side of the road, and of course the Park Hyatt and the Marina at the south end.

The North Corniche

I went out one day to see the Floating Mosque (more on this in the Attractions section), after which I figured I could have another lovely stroll along the Corniche, similar to the nice evening I had on my first day in town. It started out pretty good. The Corniche around the Mosque was occupied by picnicking families and I passed a little snack shack (that turned out to be the only one).

IMG_0185There wasn’t any grass and very few trees, but the sea was very impressive here. Waves that rolled in and hit the wall beside the walkway pushed back into new oncoming waves to make huge leaping crashes of spray. The water in the shallows was so clear that even by the light of the street lanterns alone I could see the bottom.

A very nice section of Corniche, and definietly different enough from the Middle area to be worth a separate visit, but this is where I learned to be more cautious about planning. See, I thought since the Corniche was this big famous thing, I could just wander along it until I got tired, then hail a taxi. This would probably have worked in the section near my hotel, but as I walked further and further south from the Mosque, I realized that there weren’t really any taxis around.

I pulled out the tablet to check on GPS what was around, but really, most of the businesses in Saudi aren’t registered properly on Google, so its hard to tell. I headed over toward the Belagio, thinking that it should be upscale enough to draw taxis, but alas, no.

I kept walking forward, basically thinking that I was more likely to find something in an unexplored direction than going back to the emptiness behind me. I passed another amusement park and a little fast food strip mall where I got a lemon mint gelato to help restore my energy and cool me off. But still no taxis.

I finally arrived at a little mini mall where I had gone to dinner with [redacted] and his wife a few days before. I knew that there was a bathroom and several coffee shops inside, and 5km in 98 degree high humidity weather is enough to make anyone tired, so I had a little rinse off in the bathroom and settled down with a nice ice blended coffee drink and my ebook until I felt cool and rested.

Not the only time I found myself wandering around trying to catch a taxi (more on this in the Taxis section), definitely a cautionary tale to the carless traveller in Jeddah. Don’t let the lack of transporation options deter you from seeing the cool stuff, but plan better than I did.

 More North Corniche

Finally, after viewing the Aquarium (see Attractions section) I had another encounter with the Corniche. This was definitely the shortest walk I had, and probably the best planned (I can learn from my mistakes occasionally). There is a little Starbucks right on the water not far from the Aquarium, so after a brief lunch, I walked down to the waterfront. I’m not a huge Starbucks fan, being from Seattle I actually prefer local cafes, but I find that there’s a certain appeal to consistency when travelling, especially when the local kiosks all sell Nescafe instead of coffee from beans. I had to wait a little for the shops to open, so I walked the single km stretch, which included a swimming beach. Once the Starbucks opened, I took shelter from the heat of the sun with an iced americano.

IMG_0265About 30-45 minutes before the sun sets, it gets low enough in the sky that it isn’t glaring directly down on us all, and although the air is still warm, the lack of glaring sunlight and the sea breeze make the outdoors pleasant. This is the time of day families start arriving and setting up for a night of picnic dinners and sea side fun. I headed out into the soft outdoor couches of the cafe to watch the sunset over the sea, a sight I can’t believe will ever get old.

While the Middle Cornice has a peninsula across from it that makes the sea seem more like a bay or a sound, limited and bound by the lights on the far shore, the North Corniche is totally on wide open seafront, and the sunsets are especially stunning, although very difficult to capture on film.

Overall, the Corniche is pretty cool, but not at all like what my previous research on the internet made it seem to be. Make sure you bring water and a snack, and try to have Uber or a driver you can call instead of relying on passing taxis.

The Accommodation: A Week In Jeddah

Several people recommended the Park Hyatt to me, but since I’m not really up for paying hundreds of dollars a night for a hotel yet, I checked out the area to find a better price in the same location. I found the Pearl Corniche Jeddah Hotel, which seemed like a great option, being only about a block away from the Park Hyatt and about a quarter the price.

This is kind of a personal decision, so you may want the super lux hotels, but I had not planned to be in the hotel except to sleep and bathe, and you can always wander over to the luxury hotels for a meal or even just to sit in the lounge with a cup of coffee. The advantage of being white is the assumption that you are valid customer in any luxury establishment here. And the advantage of the abaya is that you never have to worry about the fancy dress code requirements.

The Pearl was a little shabby, but the room was clean and there was wi-fi. For some reason, I don’t know if it was the quality of the AC there or the incredible humidity, even when the room was cool bordering on cold, it was still damp. Nothing dried out, which was kind of annoying since I would come back soaked in sweat or beach every night.

Additionally, there isn’t much to do in Jeddah (or anywhere in Saudi) until after Asr (the late afternoon prayer) so I found myself spending a bit more daytime in the hotel than I really wanted until I figured out what was in walking distance and indoors that would kill the hours (since I didn’t want to take taxis more than I had to, see the section on taxis).

I think that the hotel had services available for ordering food and arranging taxis, but the front desk people didn’t always speak much English, so I didn’t actually try to use the hotel services while I was there. Once they charged me for water, another time they said it was complimentary. I had trouble getting towels. There was soap and shampoo but no conditioner. Additionally, their credit card machine was broken on the way out, which turned out just to be the phone line unplugged, and made me late on the way to the airport.

I walked into the Intercontinental one night because I couldn’t seem to communicate directions with a taxi driver and he knew the name of that hotel which was next to mine, so I gave up trying. The thing is, he dropped me at the front door and I decided it was best to just go on in. I was looking for dinner anyway and thought it wouldn’t hurt to check out the restaurant.

Oh my goodness. The lobby seemed larger than my whole hotel, all glittering marble and chandeliers. I walked on through to the restaurant area, but it was very large and very empty, so I began to feel a bit uncomfortable surrounded by so much over the top glamour, I decided to hike it away to a slightly less palatial dining place.

Another evening I walked into the Hyatt on purpose to go to their restaurant. Beautiful place, excellent restaurant (although I didn’t get to try them all), and apparently a spa too. If you have the money, its probably a great place.

All in all, I think its a good decision to opt for a cheap hotel in a good neighborhood, and save the money to spend on food and attractions, but make sure that you know where you can go to kill time while you’re waiting for the nightlife to get going.