Royal Decree Holiday: The Resort at Sharm

This is the story of my stay in the Park Inn by Radisson. It was a pretty epic deal that I found online and not a bad place to relax. The story is a little less jam packed than most because unlike my previous trips, my stay at this resort was all about doing as little as possible.

The Food and the Grounds

I woke up Saturday morning rather early since my normal sleep schedule gets me up at 6am. The bed was gloriously huge, you know the kind you can roll over in a half dozen times before you reach the other side? I’m not sure if the sheets were Egyptian cotton (being in Egypt) but they were much nicer than the ones in my hotel in Saudi anyway. So I lounged around in bed while waiting for the dining hall to open for breakfast. My all inclusive deal there included 3 meals a day at scheduled intervals in the buffet style dining rooms, but judging from the hours these were open, I couldn’t actually imagine anyone ever having enough time to get hungry between meals.

20150321_075532Breakfast was a bit heavy on the carbs, being full to the brim of pastries, breads, porridges and potatoes, but I managed to get an omelette made to order, an apple cinnamon cheddar danish (omg make that for yourself!) and some fresh fruit including, much to my surprise, fresh dates. I’d never even seen a fresh date before, so I was guessing that these fruits that looked like well hydrated dates were in fact just that. They were quite interesting, and had about as much in common with the dried dates as grapes do with raisins. They were far less sweet and had a texture not unlike a persimmon or khaki fruit. On the whole, I think I prefer the dried ones, but it was a really cool experience to taste them fresh.

The food at the resort was not particularly remarkable otherwise. Despite it’s claim to 4.5 stars, the food was closer to 3. It was perfectly tasty food, but nothing besides the danish and the fresh dates was a new or fascinating taste experience.

20150321_071427After my first breakfast, I decided to wander around the grounds. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot with a nice breeze coming in off the ocean. The water slides don’t get turned on until 10am, so I was able to take a lot of pictures without worrying about disturbing anyone’s privacy. Although Egypt is more open than Saudi, I still saw plenty of women there in modest Muslim dress, including several burkinis (the head to toe bathing outfit that replaces the abaya and hijab for water wear) and I wouldn’t have wanted to offend them by snapping pictures.

IMG_1743The resort compound was huge. It took me most of an hour to walk all the way around the grounds. There were two swimming pools, two restaurants, several bars (also not serving until 10am), an indoor and outdoor dry children’s play area, and of course the water park. Everything was done up in the architectural and decorative theme of ancient Egypt. Having lived in Memphis, TN for some time, I was sort of accustomed to this style. The Memphis (TN) zoo is totally Egypt themed, there are several buildings and restaurants that like to add Egyptian style architectural flourishes or cartouches, and there’s even a giant pyramid down town (concert hall and sports arena, as well as the site of the debaucherous Eyes Wide Shut style parties that the city’s elite hedonists throw). And of course Las Vegas has some similar Egypt themed attractions which may or may not be even more debaucherous. The point is that Americans like making Egypt themed stuff and I’ve seen and even lived with quite a bit of it.

IMG_1744Then suddenly it hit me. This wasn’t some knock off Egyptian history being subverted for marketing, this WAS Egypt. They were totally subverting their own history for marketing!

It was so luxurious to have a week of time in one place, to not have to hurry to see everything that I ended up having naps most days. In the afternoon, I settled into some drinking by the lazy river and met some other Americans (although they hadn’t been back to America for more than a decade) and spent a happy afternoon chatting and drinking having accomplished almost nothing at all.

The Beach and the Staff

IMG_1797The next day I decided to go find the private beach, which entailed crossing the road into the partner resort, the Radisson Blu. All resort guests had wristbands to show we were entitled to free food and drinks and use of the facilities, color coded by resort. It was another beautiful day, so I decided to walk down to the beach rather than wait for the shuttle bus. The Radisson Blu was definitley the more classy of the two resorts, and I’m sure more expensive as well, but it was nice to be able to wander the gardens freely on my way to the beach. There was no sign whatsoever of the over the top Egyptian decor that the Park Inn sported. My resort had a specific area of beach claimed, where I could get a towel with my towel card and where my wristband would be honored at the bar, but past that, I was really free to go where I liked.

IMG_1774The water was surprisingly cold and the ocean floor was covered with shells and rocks that made it uncomfortable to walk barefoot. So after a breif foray into the water, I settled down in a deck chair under a date palm umbrella with a gin and tonic to enjoy the view and the sea air. I spent a rather pleasant morning there alternating between reading my book and watching the water and finally decided to head back to my side of the road for lunch. If my days at the resort seem slow and idle, then I have accomplished my goal. After the February vacation of running around to three countries, I wanted to just lay on a beach or next to a pool and relax. It was blissful.

IMG_1763The Red Sea at this particular location is not at its most stunning, but there were still plenty of people trying to sell boat trips, diving excursions and even dolphin meetups. In fact, these sales people were one of the only downsides of the resorts, since they are constantly roaming the poolsides and beaches to try to sell you something. And maybe they have good deals, so if I was interested in a boat ride or a spa day, I think I would have been glad to see them, but I was not the only guest who felt that they were more pushy than helpful. After a couple days, they all recognized me so started bothering me less. However in the first couple of days at the resort I got invited out a lot, and not just by the sales staff (who invited me to go bar hopping with them) but also by the hotel staff who tried to get me to go out on a date! I might have done the former if I hadn’t been alone, going out to the bars with a group would have been ok, but I really couldn’t imagine going on a date. I also had several of the dining hall staff single me out for special treatment and some intensely over-friendly service until one said to me that he had dreamed about me the night before, to which I replied that I felt he was being inappropriate and the unwelcome attention stopped. I really can’t decide if they were really flirty (because of all the loose Western women in bathing suits running around) or if they just thought that all the women enjoyed this kind of attention. I can certainly imagine that some women would find it very flattering, I may have just been in Saudi too long to be comfortable with it. Either way, I was pleased to see that they desisted as soon as I expressed displeasure.

The cleaning staff were astonishingly persistent. If I forgot to hang up the do not disturb sign when I took a nap, they would knock and knock until I got up to tell them to go away. Once, after calling from the bed for them to go away (“no thank you”) they had the reception call my room to ask me to let them in! However, if I had the sign on the door, there was not so much as a peep. And when they did clean the room, they left beautiful arrangements of fresh spring flowers and folded my fresh towels in interesting patterns on the bed.

The Water Park

IMG_1759Other than a toe dip in the wave pool and a short wade in the sea, I hadn’t really done any swimming. The pools were actually rather chilly, which is probably awesome in the hot weather, but the mild spring weather meant that the pools were not quite comfortable. I never did get to take advantage of the swim up bar because it was just too cold to be both in the water and in the shade.

IMG_1753However, the friendly Americans (who live in Jordan) that I had made friends with were often at the poolside after lunch and invited me to join them and hang out. This was nice because I love meeting and talking to new people and it also meant that I got a lot less attention from all the male staff (because we were surrounded by children). It was really nice to see what looked like 3 or 4 separate families interchanging kid duties so that various adults could take turns doing other stuff, and it’s part of how I got the idea to try to organize a similar trip with my kid bearing friends.

IMG_1751So I sat with them and sipped my g&t and watched their children play. I had been looking longingly at the water slides for some time, determined to get in a few good rounds while I was there, but they seemed so intimidating to do alone. Not because the slides were scary, but because there were almost no people using them at all and a single woman still attracted a lot of attention. (sometimes I wonder how long it’s going to take me to be comfortable in mixed gender company again after all this). Fortunately, I was saved. The 8 year old boy was itching to go, but his mother had insisted all the children go with buddies and none of the other kids wanted to do the scary high slides he wanted to go on. IMG_1749So I asked if he would go with me instead and we had an absolute blast. I forgot to hold my glasses on the first slide down, and he happily dove to the bottom to retrieve them for me. We rode several slides and I always let him decide where we would go next, what order we would go down the slides in, and for the two person raft, who would sit in front. I felt totally safe from the attention of the male staff with an 8 yr old in tow and his mother told me later that I absolutely made his day because an adult wanted to hang out with him.

The Food Poisoning

I debated about putting this in, because I feel like it was otherwise an absolutely stunning trip, but for the sake of posterity and narrative tension, here it goes (don’t worry, there aren’t any  pictures). I was staying at the resort from Friday to Friday (although realistically, that was 2am Saturday morning to 2am Friday morning) and figured that an entire week of relaxing was just too much, so I had scheduled a day trip to Cairo for Tuesday thinking that would give me three days of getting adjusted and relaxing before, and another two days to relax afterward. I think this would have been a great plan, except that Monday night I fell astonishingly ill.

You can make jokes about the free booze and overdrinking, but really, I had never gone beyond lightly tipsy at any point, I don’t really like being drunk and certainly not when I am alone among strangers. This was not a booze related puking. Also, with booze you generally throw up and then feel better. I almost couldn’t stop, and even a sip of water would bring it on again. I spent hours like this and worse, I couldn’t get anyone from reception to pick up the phone. Although at the time, I only wanted to order peppermint tea, I can’t imagine if it had been a real emergency how they would have handled that. I guess they aren’t used to single guests there and rely on a family member to be able to run for help. Insane.

Somewhere around 3am I realized I was not going to be able to go to Cairo. The shuttle to the airport was supposed to arrive around 5am and I had had zero sleep and the vomiting wasn’t stopping. So I called the travel agency and said I couldn’t go and asked about rescheduling. Eventually I realized that I had to stop putting anything in my stomach, even water, and was able to get a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, I tried the water again with better results and went down to the dining hall to make myself some hydration fluid (salt, sugar and lemon in water). Armed with several bottles of this concoction and a couple of white bread rolls, I went back to the room and dozed in and out of consciousness while trying to make myself drink slooooowly. There was no way I could have gone to Cairo that day.

I won’t accost you with the remaining symptoms of the food poisoning, but suffice it to say I was concerned about dehydration and ate only very plain foods in tiny amounts. Tuesday was entirely lost. Wednesday wasn’t a whole lot better. I was able to eat a bit more food, but I don’t think I was digesting it well, I still slept a lot and felt weak and tired the rest of the time. Thursday was my last day in Egypt and the day I’d rescheduled my trip to Cairo for, and come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to miss out on that, so Wednesday evening I asked the hotel to prepare a boxed breakfast for me and I packed my backpack up for a day trip. Thankfully, the lingering effects of my illness were mostly a complete lack of appetite and the excitement made up for any lack of energy that may have remained.

By the time we got back to the resort late Thursday night I had only a few hours to repack my bags and nap before the bus back to Taba arrived, where I would catch the early morning ferry to take me back to Jordan, where I would await my driver to take me back to Tabuk, ending my (mostly) magical adventure.


The rest of the story will be continued in “A Day in Cairo”… don’t forget to check out all the pictures on my facebook page and thanks for reading! 🙂

Advertisements

Royal Decree Holiday: Getting to Sharm el Sheikh

When I found out we were maybe going to have an extra week of vacation, I started considering my options. I’d originally planned my March outing to be a weekend trip to the iris fields outside of Riyadh, but since that tour was the weekend before our holiday, I decided I’d take a longer trip outside Saudi again instead. Turns out I got to see some pretty beautiful flowers anyway, and a whole lot more.

I went to my friendly Saudi expat Facebook page for advice on where I could go for a week and not spend a fortune. I felt like I was pretty much done with Dubai for the moment, plus it is not cheap there. I thought about Bahrain, but the airfare was becoming prohibitively expensive. Then several folks suggested a place called Sharm el Sheikh. I did some research and found out that this is a beach resort town on the southern part of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Although our holiday hadn’t been confirmed yet, I found a resort online that was going to cost me less than 300$ for the whole week, and was all inclusive and had a waterpark on site. Since it was free to cancel, I booked it.

I then went through the dance that results from nothing being sure until the last minute. By the time we were confirmed for our holiday, ALL flights going anywhere from Tabuk were sold out. It was literally impossible for me to fly out of Tabuk. I further found that it’s not allowed for women to take the public intercity buses without a male escort. I remembered one of my co-teachers had hired a driver to take her to and from Jordan, so I asked her for the contact information and began to arrange a private car to Aqaba. But the resort is not in Aqaba, it’s in Sharm. So then I had to figure out how to get from Jordan to Egypt. I looked at flights, but they were more than 600$ and went through 2 stops on the way, Amman and Cairo. I thought about giving up my great resort deal and just spending my vacation in Aqaba, but Jordan is much more expensive than Egypt, and I could not get anything like the accommodation for anything like the price, so I’d probably end up paying just as much to fly and stay in Sharm as I would not to fly but stay in Aqaba.

Finally, my searching led me to discover the existence of ferries that run from Aqaba to the Sinai peninsula. For some reason, tourism websites for the Middle East aren’t well maintained or updated, so I found a lot of false leads and no way at all to book a ferry ticket online, despite finding several places that said that tickets had to be purchased days in advance of the trip. After many emails and phone calls, I finally found a company that would arrange the boat, as well as the car drive from the ferry terminal to my resort. It was almost as expensive as the flight, but I was running out of options. So I agreed to pay the fare and asked them to confirm the booking… then never heard from them again. I hadn’t actually given them any money, so that was pretty strange. At nearly the last minute, I found another company with much better prices and booked with them instead, saving myself several hundred dollars. (aqaba@sindbadjo.com)

You can read about my days in Aqaba here.

Friday evening, I left my Aqaba hotel and headed down to the marina to meet my boat to Egypt. I couldn’t find the slip, but was able to call the company who told me where to go and sent the ship’s captain out to meet me. They made me some coffee while we were waiting, and we had to run up to the immigration office since the official decided not to come down to the slip. There I paid my exit tax for Jordan and was allowed to board the boat. The captain showed me up to the bridge, saying I got the VIP seat.

The captain talked to me for a while about the change in Egypt over the last 5 years, the fall of the Mubarak regime and two revolutions. The collapse of the economy and the death of the tourist trade that made up 34% of their economy before. He was not a young man, and I can only imagine all of the things that he has seen Egypt go through in his lifetime. He seemed to love his country despite all it’s problems and he was proud that they had learned from other democracies and finally arrived at a limited term presidency. He told me about the new capital city that’s being built outside Cairo, and he seemed genuinely hopeful for Egypt’s future.

When his attention was required to navigate the international waters, he returned to his instruments and doused the light in the room. I stepped into the doorway that led onto the deck, remembering the advice of another captain I know “one hand for you, one hand for the boat”. So it was that I found myself crossing the Red Sea by starlight from bridge of a yacht. As I looked up at the stars, I found the familiar constellation of Orion, and then reminded myself that here he was known as Osiris. I am so glad I didn’t fly.

As we reached the far shore, the bare rock mountains of Sinai loomed suddenly out of the water, lit by the streetlights along the narrow road between the sea and the cliffs. In no time at all we were pulling into the port at Taba. I bid farewell to my host and joined the shuffling mass of tourists heading toward customs and immigration. We passed through with little ado, but when I got clear of the border post, tourists were being rounded up into buses by tour guides. I asked several if they knew where my bus was, but no one did. I think before coming to the Middle East this situation would have made me really nervous, instead I was just exasperated. I called the company back and explained the issue, they gave me the name of the driver I should ask for and I proceeded to. Another driver said he knew the man, but that he wasn’t there that night, so he called him for me. The driver who was supposed to collect me denied that he had been scheduled, so I called the company again. After a few more calls and some offers from other drivers to buy a seat on their bus (not an option I wanted to pursue, since I’d already paid one company for a round trip), the Jordanian manager of my company arranged for another driver to take me that night, effluving apologies and making rather disparaging comments about the Egyptian workforce.

Take home lesson, if you’re lost in the Middle East, make your tour guide sort it out. I’m not a huge fan of tour guides in most situations, but these guys were really helpful in navigating the paperwork and arranging the transportation that would have definitely been more expensive had I tried to simply take a taxi from the port. Plus they do trips both ways, so on my way back a week later, I was amid a group that was headed to Petra for a day before returning to their resorts in Sharm. Shameless plug, but the countries need the tourism and the Sindbad guys really were nice, efficient and well priced.

The drive from Taba to Sharm is 3 hours according to Google maps, but took us more like 4.5. Not only are the roads in terrible repair, making it very hard to rest for all the bumping, but we had to stop at every checkpoint and wait for the entire caravan of vehicles to catch up before we were allowed to move on. I understand this is a security measure to keep isolated vehicles full of tourists from being lost on the road. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing, or if we got extra security because of the 26th Arab Summit that was going on while I was there.

For the first couple of hours, I actually didn’t even mind. The view was really beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The stars overhead were stunning so far from any large urban areas. But after a while, the stars disappeared and the weariness of the day began to sink in. We stopped at a little gas station/rest stop to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a fee for the restroom, and I hadn’t had a chance to change any currency since leaving Saudi. The employees there were accepting British pounds and US dollars in addition to Egyptian pounds, but looked shocked when I told them I only had Saudi riyal. Not to be deprived of money, they figured it out, and I got a few Egyptian pounds in change and access to the the toilets. Considering the exchange rates, I think they were charging us less than 20 cents each, but they must have made out like bandits having several busloads of road weary tourists with nowhere else to pee.

After a further couple hours, we finally arrived. The driver took us around to all the resorts on his list, dropping a few tourists off at a time. Most of the people on my bus were Russian. It seems that Sharm is a very popular vacation destination for Russians. I later learned that all of the vacation literature is published in English and Russian, and most of the staff speak one or both languages as well. I finally got to the Radisson Park Inn around 2am. When I told the gate guard I was there to check in, he asked about my luggage and was really surprised that I only had a backpack. Apparently most people arrive with loads of bags (I often saw piles of luggage outside the reception area awaiting delivery to rooms) and leave with even more, since shopping is a popular Arab pastime.

After a full day that had included scuba diving, crossing the Red Sea and driving the Sinai coastline, I was totally worn out, but I knew I had a full week ahead of me and so I headed to my room and zonked out.


To be continued…

Explore the resort, the beach and the people of Sharm el Sheikh with me in the next installment of the Royal Decree Holiday. 

Royal Decree Holiday: Diving in Aqaba

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written in here. There have been some life events that maybe when I’m farther away from I’ll be able to write as interesting anecdotes, but for the moment they’ve had me holed up and uncreative. Now I’m on my way out of the Kingdom soon and looking forward to some new summer adventures visiting friends in Europe, so I figured I’d try to get the last of my holiday travels written up before I go on to new ones. Thanks for hangin’ in there with me 🙂


Our second semester of classes was meant to be one 5 month long string of classes with no relief in sight (a fact that had I known, might have made me reconsider my choice of employer and has since caused me to add a new question to my interview pile). However, suddenly and out of nowhere, the new King declared that all the schools in the Kingdom would be closed for a week in late March. Later there was some speculation that this might have been related to the impending invasion of Shia held territories in Yemen, but at the time, we had no idea that was coming, we only knew that school was out because the King said so. I think a lot of people believe that the Saudi monarchy is more honorific than practical, because our picture of royals is so based in Britain, however, Saudi is a true monarchy: the King owns all the land, the King owns all the oil, the King makes all the rules. There are advisory councils and local representatives (some of whom are even elected), but in the end, when the King says close the schools, the schools close.

There was a period of debate from my employers however, since we are a private school not entirely subject to the same rules as the Saudi schools, and while our branch was on a Saudi university campus, many of the company’s other schools were not on such campuses and had no reason to close. And of course, during this time of debate, we were strictly told not to purchase any plane tickets or make any non-refundable hotel reservations, because this trick happened last year and the vacation was cancelled at the last minute, screwing dozens of teachers out of their holiday plans and the money they had spent.

I booked a great (refundable) hotel, but had no idea how to get there if not by plane, and all the flights out of Tabuk for the holiday were rapidly filling up, even weeks before the holiday, because all the Saudi’s knew for sure they weren’t going to school. In fact, by the time the holiday was officially acknowledged by my employer, there were no seats on any flights out of Tabuk going anywhere for any price. (valuable lessons have been learned, dear reader, oh how full of fine print and loopholes is the glorious world of ESL teaching)

My only option remained a private driving service that ran shuttles from Tabuk to Jordan. So, along with two other teachers escaping for holiday, I hoped in an SUV and embarked on the desert road trip. Actually, it’s an astonishingly beautiful drive. The desert in northwestern Arabia was once, like all of Arabia, under water and the stunning rock monoliths that jut from the sand in striations of color and peculiarities of shape are quite breathtaking. We stopped in Haql just inside the Saudi border to get some gas (I’m sure it’s much cheaper in Saudi), snacks and find a restroom. The gas station didn’t have one, but we hopped across the road to the public beach that had a changing room/bathroom for public use. On the way back to the car, I grabbed some quick pictures of the sun setting over the Red Sea and some beautiful pink spring blossoms.

It took us a long time to get through the border. There was a lot of paperwork and waiting, and at some point the whole process shut down for sunset prayer. Sometime well after dark, we were finally released into the freedom of Jordan, and one of my car companions popped into the duty free shop at the border crossing to buy a beer. I am not normally one to grab booze at the first exodus from the dry zone that is KSA, but it seemed like a fun idea, so I grabbed a can and looked longingly at the bottles of wine before remembering that I had another border crossing the next day and no idea what the customs rules were on open bottles, so wine could wait until Egypt.

The eventual solution for getting to my resort in Egypt, by the way, was to take a ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Taba (Egypt) and then get a bus to Sharm el Sheihk (Egypt) where the resort was. I would have flown if I could have, really, but then I would have missed this amazing side adventure in Aqaba, so I think it worked out for the best. The ferry departed in the evening around 7, but we were supposed to check in at least 30 minutes early to deal with customs. I knew that it was a 3 hour drive from Tabuk, which meant that theoretically I could have made it to the docks in time, but decided not to chance it and booked a hotel for Thursday night in Aqaba near the Marina where I would catch the ferry the next day instead. It was a good thing too, since the border crossing had taken so long, it was well after 8 when we arrived at my hotel.

I checked in without incident, dropped off my things in the room and came back out for dinner, having only had some laban and a pastry since lunch. I ordered something lamb and tomato which was quite delicious, and chatted with the Filipina waitress while secretly passing tidbits of my dinner to the puppy and the cat who ranged around the patio. I also enjoyed my beer with dinner in the cool spring evening air before crawling into bed and falling asleep.

The room was not luxurious, there were three beds arranged in the space and it was clearly meant for larger groups than me, but it was reasonably clean and the air conditioning worked, even if the television did not. What the hotel lacked in room amenities it more than made up for in awesome people.

I headed out of my room for breakfast the next morning, unsure of what to do with my day but unconcerned as well. While I was staring at the carafes trying to determine which one was coffee, the Pakistani couple already seated clued me in. We exchanged some lighthearted comments about the importance of morning coffee and they invited me to sit with them. It turned out that the husband was also a teacher in Saudi and so they were on the same holiday from school that I was. They were surprised that I had recognized them as Pakistani, saying that most people thought they were from India based on their accents. I’d like to say it’s a lucky guess, but I’m slowly learning that at least in the ME, Indians are treated as servant class, so it was more their clothing, demeanor and status as tourists that clued me in to their economic prosperity and thus their nationality.

We chatted about life in Saudi and I asked about their holiday plans. It turned out they hoped to see Petra, so I was able to share my advise on where to stay and what to see. They were happy to have the insight. I really hope that they made it and were able to enjoy the sights.

Shortly after the couple left to catch a ride to Wadi Musa, I settled in to the hotel’s outdoor seating area to read. Aside from the outdoor dining area, there was a small pool, two floor seating areas designed to mimic Bedouin tents, and another patio with raised seating. Everything was surrounded by climbing trees and vines that were blooming in the late March sunshine. Happy little birds chirped in the trees and the puppy roamed around amiably. The air was fresh with the breeze from the sea that was just over the main road and I had a book and a cup of coffee. I felt that I could happily spend the whole day just like that.

I was interrupted by a friendly face come to say hello. And as I’m sure you all know by now, I love meeting new people, so I put down the book and commenced to chatting. Ismael, as it turned out his name was, ran the dive shop attached to the hotel and had come over to see if he could convince me to take a dive that morning. A scuba dive. Which I had never done before and had no training in whatsoever. I told him as much and he said it was no problem, that the dive master would take good care of me and I would have a wonderful time. Wary of a sales pitch, yet loathe to be rude, I followed Ismael over to the dive shop next to the restaurant where he showed me the equipment they used and several underwater pictures of the reefs were they took people to dive. The offer was becoming more and more tempting.

Before coming to Saudi, I had read about the wonderful coral reefs in the Red Sea and it was my firm determination (believing at the time that I would live in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea with lots of beaches) to scuba dive for the first time in the beautiful waters there. On my one trip to Jeddah, I was able to go to a beach that had a reef close enough to shore to access without a boat and went snorkeling there. It was amazing. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, even though I never swam deep enough to have to hold my breath. I knew that if I had lived there, I would have spent all the time I could at those beaches and learned to dive if I could find a school that would take a female student, but alas, I did not live in Jeddah, and my weekend trips soon became curtailed when the company decreed that we could no longer take personal vacation days, even unpaid ones, but only national holidays or sick days with doctor’s notes.

So when I found myself suddenly presented with the option to actually dive in the Red Sea, as I had declared my intention to do a year previously, I was a bit overwhelmed. Ismael was patient but persistent, he addressed my concerns, talked to me about safety procedures and even offered me a discount by way of encouragement. Adventure finally won over practicality and I went of to don my swimsuit and contact lenses (which I had brought thinking I might go snorkeling again, glasses don’t fit under swim masks at all). Back at the dive shop I was fitted out with a scuba suit and introduced to Mogli who would be our dive master that day. Mogli was a kind and modest young man who really seemed to love his job. He was a capable instructor and did a good job of encouraging us and dealing with my total inexperience.

We donned all the gear and walked from the pavilions down to the beach, which is quite a heavy walk let me tell you. The Red Sea is very saline and we had heavy weights in addition to the tanks. Once we got in the water, he made sure that our fins were on tight and had us practice breathing in the shallows to make sure we were ok with the tanks. He taught us some simple hand signals: ok, problem, go up, go down, out of air, and he told us a signal he would use to tell us to pose so he could take pictures. We practiced getting water out of our masks and practiced the hand signals some more, then headed out toward the reef.

My first scuba dive was done with about 10-15 minutes of training, but it was really cool. Even more than snorkeling, where one is mostly looking down upon the ocean floor, we were able to swim around such large reefs that from the ocean floor, we were looking up the reef with fish swimming above us like birds. I spent a lot of energy focusing on my breathing. You can’t breathe in scuba like you can in air, it requires slightly more force to inhale and exhale, not an uncomfortable amount, but not so little that you can do it without thinking on your first try. There were moments when I would feel like I couldn’t get enough air, but thankfully I’ve had a lot of training in breathing from band, choir, martial arts and yoga, so I was able to stay calm and find the rhythm of breath again. I also had a hard time orienting myself, when I stopped moving I would drift or bits of me would start floating. I don’t have much experience swimming with fins, so I had to keep reminding myself to stop trying to swim with my arms.

It was a lot to take in, I kept getting distracted by the beauty all around me and would forget to do something with my body. It would be like trying to learn to drive on a beautiful country road surrounded by flowering trees and soaring mountains filled with magical waterfalls. You have to pay attention to the road or you’ll crash, but you want to watch the beauty around you. I’m grateful to have had such a good guide, who had me hold on to his arm as he guided us around the reef so that I could worry less about where I was going and spend more time watching. In addition to so many beautiful living corals and colorful tropical fish, we spotted a lone puffer fish and a beautiful red lion fish among the rocks.

Before I knew it, the dive was over and we were heading back to shore. Once we left the water, the gravity that had seemed to ignore us for the last 30 minutes came back with a vengance, and we slogged back up the beach in all our heavy gear in the newly unfamiliar pull of 9.8m/s2 in mere air. We loaded all the gear back in the jalopy and drove the short way back to the hotel. It was still before noon, so I went back to my room to take a shower and get dressed. I managed to find the hotel manager to ask about check out time. I told him I was catching the ferry that night and so wanted to hang out until it was time to go, but could check out whenever it was necessary. He told me not to worry about it, which was nice.

Ismael and Mogli invited me to join them for dinner. I wanted to catch a nap after my exertion diving, so I asked them to call me when it was ready to wake me up. They were preparing a local dish called zarb which involves digging a big hole and putting a fire in the bottom, then layering in chicken, rice and vegetables, covering up the hole and letting it all slow cook in the earth. I had a nice afternoon nap and woke up just a bit before they called me about dinner. We gathered around a large communal dish in the room behind the diving center, myself, Ismael, Mogli, Tyson and another quite shy young man whose name I’m sad to say I never properly learned. We ate without utensils as is the custom of the Bedouin, but unlike the Saudi kabsa, the Jordanians pour yogurt over the rice and chicken, which is not only delicious but makes it much easier to scoop up in your fingers.

I also noticed that although at least some of them did mutter “bismallah” a kind of pre-meal prayer, that the prohibition of left hand food touching wasn’t really observed. I thought about it more and realized that every time I’d been at one of the no utensil meals that it had been necessary to use both hands to tear apart the meat on the plate, since both lamb and chicken were served whole or in barely separated large chunks far to large to pick up whole and often far to stubborn to rend with one hand. They may have moved the food to their mouths right-handed, but the chicken was torn apart two handed. I think there were two or three chickens, in addition to a huge pile of rice, a half dozen potatoes and some onions and peppers. I was quite hungry, and the food was amazing, nonetheless I still ate far less than my hosts who continued to claim I should stop being shy and eat more (some things it seems are the same even across the border).

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, drinking tea and smoking shisha, I collected the pictures that Mogli had taken underwater. My host called out to everyone passing by, some he knew and others were strangers. Some came to talk, drink and smoke with us, others passed by with a wave and a smile. I enjoyed myself immensely, and as the evening drew to a close, I packed up my bag and accepted a ride to the marina from one of Ismael’s many local friends.

IMG_1987

On my way back from Egypt a week later, I arrived on a very early morning ferry and caught a ride with one of the tour guides, although I was not a part of his group. He took me back up the beach to the hotel and as it turned out, was also a friend of Ismael’s. The folks at the hotel were happy to see me again, and I camped out around the public spaces, mooched some coffee from the kitchen and settled down to enjoy my last day of freedom before the driver came that afternoon to take me back to Saudi.

Ismael managed to talk me into a second dive, which was not really very hard to do. This time I went alone with Mogli and we went to an area called the Japanese gardens. We didn’t have the camera along, but it was even more stunning than my first dive. I was a bit more comfortable with the gear, but still felt awkward trying to move along. I am very buoyant naturally, and combined with the high salinity of the Red Sea, I’m extremely buoyant. I remember floating in the water in Jeddah it took no effort at all to float fully vertical with my head above water. Normally, staying vertical requires treading water, and floating requires more horizontality, but not in the Red Sea. Our second dive was a little deeper and even with the weights, I was still floating too much, so Mogli had to put some rocks in my vest to weigh me down. I hadn’t really learned to adjust the buoyancy controls myself yet, so I felt like I was always to light or too heavy. This was probably not helped by the fact that in the crystal clear water it was almost impossible to tell how far away the corals below us actually were.

However, the gardens were unbelievable. They really did resemble beautiful gardens of sculpted topiary and shrines of carefully balanced rocks with beautiful little flowers dancing in and out of the cracks. We swam around so many beautiful formations. One of my favorite color combinations is a sort of sandy brown with a light blue and the corals offered this combination over and over again along with stunning purples, greens and yellows, not to mention the flashing silver, rainbow and neon of the fish. Mogli showed me the anemone clinging to one towering wall of stone and coral, touching them lightly to make them hide. We saw so many amazing animals. There were more puffer fish and large lion fish on display. There were thin snake-like fish disguised as blades of sea grass. There were schools of fish of all colors and patters, zebra stripes, neon blue and sunny yellow, purple so intense it was almost ultra-violet and silver that flashed bright in the sea filtered sun.

It will probably take me many more dives and much more training to be able to use the equipment on my own and to get used to the strange method of locomotion that isn’t like any other style of swimming I’ve done, but it will be worth it. In less than 90 minutes of time in the ocean on only two occasions, I’ve become an addict. I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but I will get my open water certification, and you should too.

After my second dive, I didn’t have a room to shower in, but there were some in the public bathrooms at the hotel, so after washing off the salt, I spent a happy few last hours with Ismael and his friends, drinking tea and smoking shisha and watching the people pass by in the beautiful spring weather. Although my holiday was planned for Sharm el Sheikh, a chance overnight hotel booking became a magical adventure and beautiful two days, starting and ending my holiday with nature’s beauty and humanity’s goodness. In many ways, it was this part of my holiday even more than Egypt, that made returning to Saudi so difficult and has made the contrast between what is available here and what exists elsewhere.

It isn’t just Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Arab world, that offers freedoms and fun in the Middle East. All of the people that I met in Jordan both in February and again in March in three different places were open, friendly and very moderate Muslims who embodied all the hospitality of legends while displaying absolutely none of the intolerance or violence that has come to be associated with the Middle East in the media these days. It safe, it’s beautiful and the people are wondrous. I think I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Jordan, and that if I ever return to the Middle East to live it will be there.

 

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_0138I 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_20140929_110005

I 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.

img_20141004_103342I 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.

img_0142-pano

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 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_0107This 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 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.

Overview: A Week in Jeddah

Even though I’d only been in Saudi a mere three weeks, the Eid holiday was upon us, and I found myself with two weeks of vacation, and no Iqama (which meant no way to leave Saudi). All of my co-workers had travel plans of their own, and so I was on my own. I decided to go spend a week in Jeddah, the coastal city known for its liberal views and great beaches.

I thought about how best to present my experiences and have decided to break it down by category rather than do a day by day walk through. To keep you from being confronted with a giant wall of text that is a whole week’s adventure, this post is a general overview and basic impressions, and subsequent posts will have more detailed accounts of the week’s events. If you want to see all the pictures, check out my facebook page.

Overview

img_0094

Flying into Jeddah, I got my first glimpse of the Red Sea from the air. Its a pretty drastic change from the desert that makes up most of Saudi Arabia. Jeddah, despite being the gateway to Mecca and where every Hajji starts their journey, has a pretty lame airport. There are no skyways, so the planes land out on the tarmac and everyone takes a bus back to the terminal. I actually saw a couple of guys dressed up in the Hajj toga, too.

The company I work for has programs all over the country. I’d met the director who lives in Jeddah a couple of weeks before when they visited our branch in Tabuk, and he kindly offered to pick me up at the airport, sparing me the onus of taxis for a while.

Since there are no addresses in Saudi, we had a little adventure finding the hotel, but I got checked in, and we took a little drive around the area, where I got to see the new world’s tallest flagpole too.

The weather in Jeddah is astonishingly hot and humid. I know Tabuk is in the north, and a little cooler than say, Riyadh, but it was still in the mid-high 90s every day since I arrived. I thought I was prepared for Jeddah, but woah. The humidity was like a bad day in the swamps of Louisiana. I couldn’t step outside without my glasses, tablet and camera all fogging up, and my skin instantly developing a sheen of sweat/condensation. Its not hard to understand why everyone waits until sunset to do anything there.

The fashion is definitely interesting. In Tabuk, all the ladies wear basic black abaya, hijab and niqab. I’ve been encouraged to dress similarly to avoid drawing attention. In Jeddah, ladies wear abayas with many colors and patterns. Some aren’t even black. While many ladies were still sporting the hijab and niqab combo, several were wearing brightly colored, loosely tied hijab and no veil at all, and some women simply didn’t bother covering their hair. Young teenage girls often let their abaya fall open in the front, revealing the jeans and fashion tees beneath. Even slightly older young women would wear skin colored leggings beneath the abaya so that when the bottom buttons “came undone” or they lifted the hem to step over something, it could seem scandalous without actually being so.

Over the course of several days, I realized that while I was free to leave my hair uncovered (a relief in the heat and humidity) it was really best if I only did so in highly populated public or guarded private areas. Being alone walking between one place and another, or heaven forefend in a taxi, the hijab provided a level of protection from unwanted attention. Once I got to an attraction or restaurant, there was no problem removing it.

The other strange thing I noticed was the severe line between the haves and have-nots. While this still exists in Tabuk, its less obvious in my neighborhood and job. Any time I went to a ‘ritzy’ place the staff were in super abundance (none of them Saudi of course) and they were very polite, always calling me ‘madam’. I saw many other patrons bossing them around, but I guess having worked in service, I can’t really do that.

I’m fine with the idea that I’m paying someone to prepare and bring my food, its an exchange of money for goods/services. But I didn’t care too much for the feeling that those who are doing it are somehow less than me. I don’t go to super fancy places all that often, so maybe it happens everywhere but it shouldn’t. Treat your servers like humans, ok?

Back to good news: Music and relative freedom. I kind of forgot that background music was a thing. It doesn’t happen in Tabuk. We can’t use music in school, the restaurants, malls and other shops do not play music or even muzak. It took me a day or so to realize it, but music is everywhere in Jeddah. It was very refreshing, and a clear sign of the more liberal interpretations of Islam there.

I walk around my neighborhood in Tabuk alone, but I know its not normal, and I’m relying on my status as a Westerner to keep me safe. Also, since there aren’t any taxis here, there’s a limited number of places I can realistically get to by myself. In Jeddah, not just crazy Western women walk around outside. Women were often seen outside, eating, relaxing, walking around and even smoking shisha!

In Jeddah, there are means of transportation for women other than family or private drivers, so they can go further and do more. Plus they’re tolerated and even catered to in more places. While in Tabuk only the shopping malls really cater to women, most restaurants have no family section or a small and dingy family section. In Jeddah the family sections (where the women are allowed) were the large and beautiful areas often attached to the main entrance, and the singles (men only) sections were smaller and less decorated, located in the back or off to one side.

Although I explored only a small section of Jeddah, I was pretty impressed with the city. There is a lot to: restaurants, amusement parks, shopping malls and souqs, parks and beaches, and probably more. I thought before arriving in Saudi that Jeddah would be the only city I wanted to live in, but after experiencing it, maybe I’m ok with the fact that I don’t live there.

First, its super duper humid, and I gotta say, I felt like I was never completely dry the whole week I was there, I can only imagine a year of that would have made me feel like I was in danger of growing mildew. Second, there is so much stuff to do there, I’d never save any money! I don’t want to hide in my room and hoard my whole salary, but I do want to pay off some debt and save up to travel to more new places, so its probably just as well that I can’t actually go to the beach every weekend.

Not that I won’t go again. I imagine sometime this winter, when Tabuk is freezing (literally), I’ll take a weekend trip into Jeddah and spend one warm sunny day on the beach to stave off cabin fever and recharge my enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia.

img_0129

Soon there will be some more posts on my Week in Jeddah! Look here or on the Facebook Page for links 🙂

The Accomodation

The Corniche

The Restaurants

The Attractions

The Taxis

The Souqs

The Beach