Jetting over to Jeddah

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Hello dear friends from around the world. When you last checked in with ActiveSteve, I had managed to successfully avoid creating a full-fledged international incident, but only barely. I can happily report that the next few posts will likely not contain anything quite as nail-biting, but will nonetheless be interesting posts about my activities over the last several days of our time in Saudi Arabia. The next chapter of our travels includes continuing our progress westward towards the ocean port of Jeddah , which also happens to be the city nearest to Mecca, that mysterious, mystical place completely forbidden to visitation by non-Muslims. No worries, I didn’t use my rapidly-growing beard as a disguise to penetrate the security there, as that would be sheer madness. The flight from Al-Ula was quick, efficient, and non-eventful. It was a pretty small plane, and surprisingly, we didn’t even get served a meal, which was quite a surprise to Patrick, who was of the belief that regardless of the flight duration in Saudi, you always ate ;-). Anywho, before reading on, check out the pictures from Jeddah that we took, then immerse yourself in my thoughts on this big seaside city.

By the time we actually drove all the way back to Madinah, separated from the Ambassador and his wife, and flew to Jeddah, it was already early in the evening, so we didn’t really get a good lay of the land right off the bat. We managed to snag a van taxi, so all of us were able to get to the hotel together. Which hotel you ask? Well, none other than the Jeddah Hilton right on the Red Sea! Yup, a luxury accommodation for sure, with a price to match. Rooms were about $300 a night, but we had little in the way of other options. You see, any less than this level of hotel, and you are risking a couple things. Firstly, there’s a good chance women wouldn’t be allowed to stay there, and secondly, the quality and cleanliness really takes a nosedive. At least here we received a level of service you would expect from a western chain. After seeing a lot more of the city, I’ll say it was the right place to stay.

The first night in, we just stayed in our adjoining rooms, ordered room service, and settled in, playing a little travel Scrabble that Andrea had brought. We tried very unsuccessfully to order a rollaway cot or crib for Helena. It was a comedy of errors. We called at least 5 times, speaking to different people and getting different responses. We were phoned back in both rooms at various times, but still with no luck. In the end, Andrea put Helena to sleep on the floor, surrounded by a selection of pillows and blankets to make it somewhat comfortable. Not a great start for a supposed 5-star hotel, but it was clean, and had pretty nice amenities. Of course, most of the amenities were ‘for the pleasure of gentlemen’ only. Here, I’m talking about things like a world-class gym, pool and snooker tables, two swimming pools, bowling lanes, squash courts, sauna and steam rooms, etc. etc. I didn’t get to use everything to their full extent as a result of the ladies not being able to join us, but what I did use was pretty sweet.

Breakfast was thankfully included in the room rate, so we got up and started the day with a most amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the old town centre to start our walking tour of Jeddah . There were a number of sites we wanted to check out, and planned to spend most of the day down there. A bit of reading in a Lonely Planet led us to the direction of the Afghan souq, which the book rated it as one of the top 10 souqs in the Kingdom. We weren’t sure if the cab had actually dropped us off in the right place, but it was definitely a souq, and it was in a dodgy, older part of town. We wended our way through the narrow alleys and the overflowing storefronts. It truly amazed me to see store after store selling all the same stuff. I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly they could all stay in business.Apparently, the fact that power is essentially free plays a big part!

Mixed in and around the souq were all the old buildings of Al Balad, which is the historic old part of town. The architecture of Jeddah from yesteryear is quite unique to the world, consisting of houses all faced with coral plaster, and intricate wood trellises and framework. The problem is that these sorts of buildings are not what you’d call extremely durable! The walk turned into a challenge to find the most delicately balanced buildings waiting to fall over. Thankfully, a few of the old places have been restored and/or at least kept in the same condition as years past. Were it not for these, we might not have been able to picture what some of these streets must have been like 40 years ago. As with much of Saudi Arabia it seems, Jeddah is definitely a land of contrasts. From the super-modern Jeddah Hilton to the mean streets of the old town with rats nests’ of wiring strewn all around hap-hazardly, and completely crumbling dwellings with many people obviously living in a state of poverty. What an experience!

We eventually made our way to the Jeddah gold souq, another well-known Saudi souq staple. If you do find yourself in Saudi Arabia, and like gold, you’d probably love this kind of experience. Gold jewelery is sold pretty much exclusively by weight, not design. In the morning, acquaint yourself with the market price of gold, as that will be your negotiating chip. Vendors will take any piece you like, then just plop it on a scale, then the haggling begins. The other thing to note is that the gold is generally all 18kt or 24kt, and most of it very yellow gold. Designs run the gamut, but most pieces will seem more yellow and/or garish for western tastes . However, there are simple chains, bracelets, and earrings galore for the taking if you can find what you want and don’t mind bartering a bit. In the end, we didn’t buy anything, but we still enjoyed it.

We were interrupted during our wandering and shopping by the ever-present call to prayer. You see, as the calls to prayer occur 5 times during the day, all shops and businesses close during these times. As a result, you will often find yourself hurrying to try and get somewhere before the call to prayer comes up. Most people carry around cards to tell them what time prayers will be, just so they can make it where they need to be. If you happen to be in a store during the call, there is a good chance they’ll just lock the doors and leave you in the store to browse while the prayers take place. Usually, it only lasts around 20 minutes. Anyway, we used this time to head to a restaurant to browse a menu and get some food while the world outside essentially stopped.

After the food break, we decided to try and make it to the carpet souq, as I was hoping to snag a good deal on an authentic hand-made Persian carpet. This is another thing you can get around Saudi Arabia if you’re willing to barter, which I definitely am. The prices will generally end up being much better than what you’d pay over here. To get to this souq took a lot of walking, and much of it in very ‘foreign’ areas. In retrospect, we probably should have either taken a cab to get there, or not even bother going. Once in the right area, two things happened. The first is that we were once again caught during prayer time, so everything was closed. The second was the fact that we were acutely aware that people were staring at us as though we were aliens. We realized it might be the first time in years that people had seen western ‘tourists’ wandering through their neighbourhoods. However, we didn’t feel as though we were in any danger, just very aware of the fact that we were sticking out 🙂

After all this walking around, we decided we’d had enough of the old city, and hopped in a cab to take us back to the hotel. Once back there, Patrick and I decided to hit the gym and saunas for a bit, while the ladies went for a little bit of a stroll along the corniche, which is the road and pedestrian walkway that follows along the coast of the Red Sea and Jeddah for about 25kms , and was just outside the hotel. Later that evening, I arranged the activities for the next day for Jody and I, which would be a full day of Scuba Diving in the Red Sea. More on that in the next post. We decided to head to the Mall of Arabia for supper, so that the ladies could do some more shopping, and Helena could get a chance to run around the halls.

This mall was absolutely huge, and the newest in the area. It may also be the biggest mall in Saudi Arabia, which is no small feat if you saw how many malls there are in this country! Again, we arrived during a prayer time, which meant the food court was closed for a while. However, Helena met up with a whole group of little girls, and had a blast running around with them. Of all places, we ended up at a Tony Roma’s for our meal, and pigged out western-style before finally cabbing back to the Hilton and calling it a day. The next day was new year’s eve, and Jody and I would be diving all day, so we all turned in at a pretty decent time. It had been a full day of Jeddah exploration. Plenty more to see and do, but that’s all I’ll tell you about for now 😉

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