Monday, March 26, 2012

Riyadh and the Desert

Flying off to Riyadh, was just another week-end excursion. I can pack an overnight bag blindfolded! Lesley was still recovering from appendix op, so I looked like a Filipino maid with our luggage. Not an uncommon sight here!

Arrived on time in Riyadh, but sat in the plane for 45 minutes waiting for something to happen... Nothing new!

Driving into town at night was as nice as I remembered. The city is lit up at night and everything looks bright and sparkly – a city alive. It is the capital city of Saudi, chosen by the king because of ancestral ties to the area. Highways are superb. Buildings impressive. Shopping malls to get lost in (but only if you have the money). And the cars don’t look anything like the fucked-up antiques we see in our part of the kingdom. Here the sight of a Porsche, Ferrari, Camaro is not at all uncommon. Even on campus, because that is where members of the extended royal family study.

William met us at the airport. In Jeddah I have Douglas and in Riyadh I have William. You will look far to find better hosts anywhere in the world. I know, I am totally spoiled. I seem to gravitate towards men who can cook! Evening meal was Moroccan lamb dish with carrots and sweet potato and all the spices required! In the morning we had kiwi, mango, grapes, banana... a health fanatic’s dream!

William had gone in to his office whilst Lesley and self had Kingdom Towers and the Sky Walk on our agenda. We stepped out the door, and immediately had a taxi pull up. Clearly indicated. Smart car. Meter running! Everything you can’t find in Abha! We got dropped off at the Mall and felt like royals ourselves. The building is 99 floors high, and a sky bridge joins the two towers at that height. We had to pay for the ‘privilege’ of going with a lift (no other option available) – equivalent of R70 each. To find.... nothing. An ugly sight of Riyadh by day. Grey and drab as the rock and sand. It didn’t look spectacular, it wasn’t scary, there was no revolving restaurant awaiting us, .... nothing. At that point I felt that Riyadh was totally fake and that we had perhaps wasted our money. 

We went down to a floor known as the Ladies Kingdom. Only women allowed, so that the head covering (face cover) can come off. We saw many westerners. We no longer stood out. This time we were staring at them, rather than the other way round. Faces! These Arab women actually have faces! We sat down to have coffee. We would have had to pay R60 a cup! We smiled and walked out. Hell man, let’s go make some nice coffee at home! 

We had gotten into a taxi at home, but had no idea how to describe ‘home’ to the taxi driver upon returning. Here’s the text from William which will explain why we were ‘lost’

Drive down Olaya str towards Faisaliah but make u-turn at Tahlia str in front of Centrea Mall to reach Ya Mal Asham (which is slightly down from Jarir Bookstore but on opposite side)

For lunch we went to an authentic Sushi restaurant. That was Lesley’s request. Riyadh is the diplomatic centre, so almost anything can be found there. It was so good, that we even ordered take-aways. Our Filipino waiter goes by the name of Khalid. I asked him why he was wearing someone else’s name badge. He said it was the name he had taken when he had converted! Apparently they get offered money to convert! Then a Saudi man walked in, sat down and asked the waiter if they had anything other than sushi on the menu! Hello, it is clearly a sushi restaurant and no hamburgers or pork served!

After that, off into the sunset. Road trip I – to the Edge of the World, about 70 k’s outside Riyadh. Very dull countryside. No colour. No nothing. Even when we left the main road and went onto the gravel and into the desert proper, it was still unimpressive. Bumpy ride. No soft sand. Was quite hard on our patient. Once we hit a bad bump and when William asked her: “Lesley, are you okay?” Her response was a chirpy “I’m fine. I’m still in the car!” We started seeing camels and made William stop. He even veered off the road to get us closer to them. We saw more and more and it wasn’t such a big deal any more. That is, until we spotted a lonely one who seemed to be watching over something.  We were about to drive pass when I noticed the baby trying to get up and realised what it was. Instant u-turn! Close up. Baby must have just been born. It could smell its mother’s milk and was trying to get up. First the front legs. Then they buckle. Then the hind legs. And they buckle. This went on for quite some time. We took enough pictures and even a video. It was so awesome I really felt like crying. I was so touched by what we had witnessed. How special is that? Unique. Privileged. Blessed. We moved on because the Edge was awaiting us.

Nothing could have prepared us for the scenery ahead. We stopped, got out and scrambled up the little hill.....

I was speechless. I had seen photographs of William’s. I kinda knew what it looked like. But the reality is simply beyond description. It has to be experienced. Awesome, awesome, awesome. And unspoilt.  We had the place to ourselves.

It is an escarpment, which ends abruptly and falls down, almost vertical, to the valley below. You can see the future in the distance. Amazing rock formations. And somehow this used to be the bottom of the ocean at some stage and fossilised seashells can still be found. The highest point is reached by following a narrow foot path. About 15 to 20 minutes’ hike. Not really difficult. Very do-able. But have no fear of height or conquer it to conquer the peak. There are no safety barriers, no chains, no ladders. Not even a sign to warn you that you are doing this at your own risk. I thought I’d never ever have the guts to stand on the Edge. The fact that William was prepared to do it, had done it before and is not that comfortable with heights either, gave me the courage to say “Yes, let’s go!” I did not allow myself to think. Did not look around at the scenery to see how precarious it was. I kept my eyes focused on the next meter ahead. In my madness, I had left my running shoes in the car and was doing the hike in orange sandals. I never once stopped till I reached the top. Even then I was still staring straight ahead, looking towards the horizon, rather than down! But what a feeling!!! The moment was amazing. Awesome. Unbelievable. Incredible (fill in as many words as you like)

Then reality set in: What goes up, must come down, and going down, you can’t ignore the surroundings. Everything seemed higher, narrower and more precarious. It was my turn to be scared, but only for the briefest of moments, because there was no way round it but to descend. Pure adrenalin carried me through. My feet were firmly treading, but my soul was dancing.

Having reached the safety of open space and gentle slopes, I started looking at the rocks and stones. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate to find a fossil! And I did!!!!!!!!! And then William found one too, but he called Lesley over and made her ‘find’ it. What an unselfish gentleman!

It was almost dark as we started the journey back. (There was a song playing that I had wanted to remember. Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi. “If you could stay the night, it would last me forever.” It’ll come back to me later.) Have no idea how William managed to find and stay on the winding dirt track. If you miss a turn, you’ll continue into another wadi and another and another until you end up on the wrong side of some border! At some point one passes through a gate. We were alone in the wilderness. The gate had been locked! The gatehouse is almost a km further. As we were contemplating our next move, with Lesley getting excited about the prospect of spending a night out in the open, the Rangers arrived having spotted our lights. Freedom!

We were not done with the desert yet, only grateful to be on the other side of the gate. We found a nice-looking thorn tree to accommodate us. Made a fire. Ate take-away sushi. Saw a hedgehog scuttling along at one heck of a pace. Saw a genet. (muskeljaatkat) Enjoyed the full moon to its fullest and ended our day on a perfect note. It couldn’t have been more perfect!

Day two started bright and early. Coffee in bed at five, starting our road-trip at six. We saw the sun rise, but because of haziness, it wasn’t at all spectacular. I kept thinking it was the moon. This time the journey was shorter. Instead of going to the escarpment, we stayed at the bottom in the wadi (dry riverbed) We past modern day Bedouins and camels, camels and more camels. We stopped to take pictures. I guess it was feeding time and we looked familiar. They all came wandering towards us and were ever so loving and charming. Not smelly. No bad teeth. Soft and adorable. I fell in love! Next time someone offers camels in exchange, I will be much less offended. I will see the compliment for what it is.

We arrived at our destination, low and behold, yet another thorn tree. Not quite as spectacular and picturesque as the previous one, but William is good at spotting the right tree. Breakfast/picnic was set up in no time. Fresh fruit and yogurt. Of course, no picnic is complete without Kit-Kats. And then we just chilled big time, enjoying the quiet, the remoteness, the rock formation. Observing camels drifting pass. William reminded us that we could look for more fossils. We wasted no time. Scattering in different directions, eyes glued to the ground, we spent the next hour fossil-hunting, each returning with a bag full of treasures. (Okay, a handful!) It is an addiction once you start, simply because success is almost guaranteed.

By now it was 10 o’clock and it was starting to get a bit hot. It was time to leave. Reluctantly. In the car we drove with open windows and listened to “Going back West”. The setting was superb. The company was good. The atmosphere something to treasure. I am blessed. I know that for sure.

There followed another brunch, a siesta, a visit to Faisaliah building, and then the drive to the airport. We arrived back at Abha at 10 pm. Our transport arrived at midnight. For two hours we sat at this rural airport, irritating the Mutawa (religious police) because we were so visible and men were staring and taxi drivers were getting excited and we were laughing too much. What the heck, laugh I will. We would have to go back to work in order to recover. It will take about five days and we will be fit again for yet another exciting week-end in the kingdom.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Everest is Not in Spain

In South Africa we celebrated Human Rights day on March 21. Not sure if anything was achieved by it. At my school in the Middle East, we held an International Day. Each class had to choose a country, research it and present it by way of displays. At least I know something was achieved. They now know where Spain is. They also know that it is not home to the highest mountain! Here are their responses to the question: What did you learn? Their average age is 11 and they are mostly from Pakistan or Egypt.

What is the most interesting thing you learnt about Spain?
(Something you didn’t know before.)

The strange food – they eat octopus! (Almost everyone found that fascinating – or hard to imagine)

Counting in Spanish – I can still remember how to count to ten. (and he can!)

That they have artists (such as Picasso and Miro) – their art is interesting. (Spain is more than just football, glad Abdullah found that out!)

Words in Spanish and artists – I didn’t know they had so many wonderful artists. (Indeed!)

That Spanish people bury dead bodies under their houses and take out all their organs!!! (No, Aimun – those were the Aztecs!)
They eat octopus.

That Macarena is a dance of Spain, (forgot about Flamenco?)
and that Barcelona is a Spanish team.
Also: I learnt about the king; their food; and that Spanish is spoken in South-America.

The Spanish eat octopus and love seafood. I eat crabs and squid but will not eat octopus. (and the difference being…?)

That Spanish people like seafood. I thought they liked Burritos and Tacos, but then I found out it was the Aztecs (guess they learnt from the Aztecs)
and that Pablo Picasso was from Spain (I thought he was British)

Its culture. I’ve always wanted to know about their culture, the food, the people, the music, what daily life is like. It is exciting to learn about a different country. To me Spain is a country with light, fun and passion. (Angelique is South African and non-muslim – it shows! She will enjoy Spain.)

The interesting thing about Spain is that they have very good football skills and they even won the 2010 Fifa World Cup (I was so happy when I found out that they were the champions!)

They like to eat seafood (I thought they liked pasta, same as the Italians); that Goya is Spanish (because I thought he was French); its capital city is called Madrid (got confused with Lisbon).

They drive on the right-hand side all the time (And how is that different from where we are now?) Here they drive anywhere, even on the sidewalks!

They eat pigs, and most countries in South America speak Spanish.

That the coach for Real Madrid is José Mourinho (The most interesting fact!)

The parts of the body (Spanish words for it!) (Aya made a beautiful drawing to illustrate it – she thought the word for ‘foot’ is very funny – ‘el pie’ “it looks like a pie”)

That Spain is the third largest city in the European Union and it is in the Iberian Peninsula. (I’m sure she means Madrid – third largest after London and Berlin) The population in Spain is about 48 million. I found it interesting because I didn’t realise it was such a big country.

It has the highest mountain (Everest) in the world. (moment of confusion)
Subsequent research: 3404m Aneto – Pyrenees mountain range (thank you, Nagham!)

That the capital city is Madrid and they have the most important teams  in the world. Never heard of Real Madrid or Barcelona before! (So proud of you Aya! Life without that knowledge is still life.)

About the artists – I like Miro! I also didn’t know the Spanish football teams. I thought Real Madrid was in Argentina! (Given the number of foreign players in their teams, this is an honest mistake.)

I learnt the numbers. It is nice to know another language and in the future I would like to learn Spanish.

As for me, I told them about “Don Quixote” and without exception they all wrote it down as: “Donkey Cote, Donkey Khotey, Donkey Khtas, Donkey Khote, Donkey Khotay, Donkey Ghote… No wonder they were so amused by it! – I also did not think that Flamenco dancing is equal to Flamingos dancing!  (flamenco is indeed the Spanish word for flamingo) - Ms H

Monday, November 28, 2011

Red Sea Diving - Saudi, not Egypt

Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be - Eckhart Tolle

“How was your week-end?”

“Piece of paradise. Yours?”

Didn’t really care about the answer, cause I knew it could be nowhere near as nice as mine. C’mon – Red Sea diving, live aboard, French company... How much better can it get? Of course, I may have been wrong about the French company. They are a strange bunch. Speak only French and stick to their own kind – big time. Out of the 25 people (excluding the Filipino crew) only four were not French. Forget about the accent – 48 hours of it almost did my head in. Trying to understand the instructor who looked and sounded like Insp Clouseau, was hilarious though.

I’m use to men wearing board-shorts on the beach. But the French, they like their tiny costumes, irrespective of their own shape or size. They put everything on display without shame. Even use the tight-fitting garments to store lighters, Gauloise and i-pods (apart from the obvious). Fricken bunch of characters.

We live in the highest part of Saudi - 3000m to be exact. Driving to the Red Sea means going down the escarpment. It also means hairpin-bends and traffic in opposite directions using the same lane to overtake! Problem is that if you don’t drive as they do, yóú actually become the hazard. I asked the French driver if he was religious and could see the question made him feel somewhat uncomfortable. He mumbled that he was born Catholic. Told him not to worry, as I was religious enough for the both of us and that I had every intention of praying all the way to the bottom. Just as well, cause we passed an accident scene with bodies lying around! Negotiating the mountain takes about an hour. Driving to Al Lith takes five hours. Once down the mountain, the highway along the coast to Jeddah is not too bad. But believe me, some drivers still manage to overturn their vehicles.

My job (self-imposed) was to keep the driver awake. I talked a lot (not a problem for me). When I got tired, I offered food (which only I ate). Then I resorted to intermittent “Are you still okay”-s. Eventually he asked: “Are yóú still okay?”, which is when I realised I was perhaps not doing a very good job.

Finding toilets along the route could be problematic. Here’s a hint – find a mosque! They always have washrooms. Think it’s compulsory. You may perhaps not find a female section, but when in need, I can’t see the problem. Scared the hell out of few men though! Won’t go into the graphics of squatting and hole in the ground stuff, but the thought did cross my mind – how on earth do the old ladies cope?

Arriving at the marina was heaven. Tried very hard not to look and seem too excited and unaccustomed to all of this – but WOW! Boat is called Dream Diver. That it was indeed. My compatriot, Blondie, had rocked up for a dive week-end without as much as a mask. Had to purchase a wetsuit at the harbour before taking off. Quite surprising then that she actually did the max dives – 7 in all. Or maybe not. Probably got youth on her side. And cute blonde looks. (She’s great company, by the way!)

French all had a great reunion. Some of them came from Jeddah. They celebrated with pastis.(an anise-flavoured liqueur and aperitif from France, typically containing 40–45% alcohol by volume) And then red wine. (home-brew) It was the only time they drank, because all are serious divers. We spent the first night on the boat, although we only took off the next morning, just before dawn. We slept below deck, but as the engines started up, everyone was up and on the top (open)deck – the safest place to avoid sea-sickness. Thus we saw the sun rise and set every day for the two days we were on board. For me, already a taste of paradise. Some more magical moments when dolphins showed up. (regular occurrence throughout) Then the first reef. The first dive. Calm sea. Warm water. Gentle entry. Gentle exit. Crew who does almost everything but dress you.

Diving happened morning, noon and night. At 8h00, 11h00, 15h00 and 19h00. It’s wall-diving at its best. People grouped together according to their experience. It kinda just happened, almost like some cosmic unspoken law. I dived with people whom I’d never met before, knew not their names, and yet felt comfortable with.

Diving is exhausting. Ask anyone who dives. It certainly takes it out of me. So we dived, ate and slept and dived again. I got very good at doing the sleeping thing. Diving and boat and (hate to admit it), but yes, inexperience got the better of me on day 1. None of that on day 2. Sooo.oo.oooo needed to have a day 3. (Next time!)

The guys who went deep (40m) saw sharks. At 20m, all I saw was fish – fairly small fish. Lots of them. Thus, on the last day, the last dive, I bailed and went to explore the little island of Mar Mar. It is a breeding ground for turtles. Didn’t see any turtles, but saw all their tracks. (The divers saw turtles) You know, anywhere else in the world, people would not be allowed anywhere near such an island. This seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Like the Life of Pi – in the middle of the ocean, you come upon a sandbank.

I can’t adequately describe what I saw, felt and experienced. Even the pictures do it no justice. All I can say, when asked about it:

I had a taste of heaven, a piece of paradise.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Qatar - where everything comes together

Said I wanted to visit my friends, no matter if I had to travel halfway round the world or on to Siberia. Fortunately it was a lot easier than that - the neighbouring country of Qatar. Beautiful Doha, where the old and the new come together in perfect harmony.

I remember getting rid of the compulsory black abaya as I stepped onto the plane in Riyadh. I felt such a sense of freedom, and I felt that way the entire week that I was in Doha. This little country in the Middle East where one can actually be oneself without offending. Nobody stares. Everyone does his/her own thing. It is so amazing to see diverse cultures living together, untroubled and unfazed.

The airport was a happy place. It felt open and friendly. My companion on the plane was an Egyptian nurse, working in Riyadh and visiting friends in Qatar. She phoned the driver who had to pick her up, and said: “I’m wearing a black abaya and headscarf” How is that gonna help him?!!! At least another 100 also looking like that. I could have said: I am wearing jeans and an orange t-shirt. A lot more helpful, I would imagine. But I enjoyed her company and we were together on the return flight, chatting away like old friends.

In Doha I was welcomed by my dearest friends who had made a poster to welcome me. It was soooo..oo..oo special. The guard kept pointing me to the exit door, and I thought: I know, I can read...but then I saw he was pointing at the poster. That obvious, huh?

I have many memories and at first all the images was rushing through me at 100 mph. So much to see and take in. You can’t miss the skyline filled with skyscrapers. You can’t help but notice construction of new buildings. Its bubbling and vibey and spells: growth. Some kind of a future – 2022 and beyond! I still smile when I think of the World Cup night when they won the bid. Of course money is involved in any such bidding, but hey, I still think it was pretty amazing that they managed to pull it off. Go Qatar!

On Friday morning it was brunch-time at the Movenpick Hotel. I could have stayed at the sushi table all morning. But then Beef Wellington... how can you not say yes? And a chocolate fountain with fresh fruit to dip in. And a cheese platter to die for. Haven’t seen proper cheese in any form, shape or size for ages. Not part of the Saudi bouquet. Add to that copious amounts of bubbly and red, great company – and I can’t imagine it being more perfect than that. In good Welsh lingo: it was LUSH.

There was a day spent on the beach. Bit of a drive through barren landscape. And yet, the road was excellent - a modern highway with multiple lanes and clear signposts (in English) at every turn-off. God knows where it leads to! The signpost could be bigger than the place it’s indicating. Don’t have any preconceived ideas about the beach. Long stretch of sand that meets an ordinary-looking sea. Apart from us, we had half of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (whatever) enjoying it with us. Again, freedom to wear costumes and skimpy tops and simply be. I was so enjoying the beach and sun-worshipping, I never actually went into the water. Pity. I was leaving it till later, but the weather changed. How the hell does the weather change in the Middle East! Blown away by wind. Unreal! But I remember nursing a cup of tea (gotta love the British for that) and eating chicken off a barbeque made without the help of firelighters – Jay the miracle-worker to thank for that. Funny how good something tastes if you almost didn’t have it!

Qatar has got nice shopping malls. I’m not a Mall-rat, but having been deprived of it, I thoroughly enjoyed frequenting those. The joy of trying on clothes, drinking coffee, having MacD’s, window shopping, pretending to be very rich (didn’t fool anybody). In my own country I expect to be free and have almost everything available at all times. It’s not a treat. In Qatar, neighbouring Saudi, I didn’t know what to expect, and was therefore totally overwhelmed. To put it mildly: pleasantly surprised.

We did have a trip planned to the dunes – the singing sand dunes. Unfortunately that never happened because of all the unusual things one could experience, I also experienced rain in Qatar. Not a drizzle – proper rain. Bucketsful. And the dunes don’t sing when wet!

We spent a rainy day at the Souk Waqif. Now that is something to behold. I like the old stuff. Little alleys and shops and Bedouin-style jewelry and rugs. A street full of cafes and sisha’s where women are as welcome as men. The ambience is out of this world. Of all the places to be when it rains, we chose the best – holed up in a sisha cafe. Another perfect day. Must also make mention of the falcons and Arabian horses that fills a separate corner of the Souk. Tell you, if I had to live there, I’d skip the hotels and high rises, and head for the Souk as often as possible. That would be the place I’d like to hang out at.

I ate too much, drank too much, slept too little and talked too much. It was only a week, but felt like a month. It was worth it. Absolutely worth it. On the last day we went to the corniche and the Dhow harbour. The day before I went to The Pearl – super smart marina with luxury yachts. Nice to see, but once only. As for the Dhows and the simple fishing boats, that’s more my style. We went to look and take pictures, but my friends had a surprise in store – a ride on one of the dhows, impromptu, cheap, and the best way to end my visit to Qatar.

So many places to see and so many things left to do – not sure whether my journey will take me back to Qatar, but I’d like to think so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Movies - an escape

Watched today:

Paper Man – Jeff Daniels, Lisa Kudrow

Want to see (again):

Strawberry and Chocolate (Spanish/Mexican)

Movie list so far (downloaded for me by some1):

Paying it Forward (The song: calling all angels...)

A Star is Born (If you die, I’ll kill you.)


As Good as it Gets (You make me want to be a better man... and the title)

Next request:

Capt Corelli’s Mandolin (The music!)

All time favourites:

Inn of the Sixth Happiness (First childhood movie memory)

Zorba (Teach me to dance.)

As it is in Heaven (That song!)

The Band (The setting)

The Concert (The story)

Babette’s Feast (The principle)

Out of Africa (The love...and Mozart’s music)

Favourite movie quotes (from Kiss of the Spider Woman):

I will find my escape in whichever form I damn well please (close enough)


What I understand is me offering you a bit of my lovely avocado and you throw it back in my face.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jeddah - City of Contrasts

One random week-end in Jeddah


Jeddah – city of contrasts, city of surprises. It’s a port city. Seaport, airport and principal gateway to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, which able-bodied Muslims are required to visit at least once in their lifetime. It is also a gateway to Medina, the second holiest place in Islam. I know King Abdul Aziz airport very well. Have spent many hours there catching connecting flights every time I travel. Started off sleeping with the pilgrims on the benches, then discovered the VIP lounge where you can buy your way in (legally, not through bribes!) and finally, after one glorious week-end, I now have friends with transport and proper beds that would shorten those uncomfortable hours of restless sleep. Heck, we will even take earlier flights into Jeddah and later flights out!

First contrast – Abha’s airport compared to Jeddah’s. We arrived at this fairly rural airport to catch the 8 o’clock flight. At 8 o’clock was told it was delayed till 12. At 12 told we would have to wait a further hour for an announcement and at 1 told the flight would now take off at 4 a.m.!!! Couldn’t be bothered to translate any of this. I almost boarded a flight to Riyadh as a result. What a start to the week-end. Missed the party organised for us in Jeddah. Disrupted our hosts’ sleep too and seriously did some re-thinking on regular visits to Jeddah.

Flew into Jeddah at 5 a.m. with almost no sleep and our time reduced to two days.


The guys had organised some spear fishing. Their regular week-end entertainment. It did not include us. We had three hours sleep and then took taxi into town. Second contrast. Walk out the door. Catch a taxi. Difference between city and country life. Taxi’s are freely available. Women can travel with ease without being stared at all the time like you’re from some other freaking planet. In fact we even found a taxi driver who was a smoker and didn’t object to smoking in his taxi! We got dropped in the town centre and felt quite lost, ... for two seconds only. People in Jeddah are friendly and helpful. Cameras are not frowned upon either. We saw expats who were approachable. Asked two women directions. They were French but we managed. Then asked a Filipino lady – turned out to be a man. Never mind. Honest mistake. We weighed ourselves on a digital scale that measure your height and weight and gives you feedback. Don’t think I bothered to read my results. We walked inside, outside, across the square – saw pigeons! I swear their are no pigeons in Abha. Could have been Trafalgar Square or Church Square or any city’s square. Enjoyed watching the Arabs feed pigeons. Wow. Some outing! (sorry, that was maybe a bit rude)

“Jeddah has received millions of pilgrims of different ethnicities and backgrounds, from Africa, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East, some of whom remained and became residents of the city. As a result, Jeddah is much more ethnically diverse than most Saudi cities and its culture more eclectic in nature (in contrast with the more geographically isolated and religiously strict capital, Riyadh). In comparison with other cities of Saudi Arabia, women have greater freedom of movement here; they are not required to wear a veil in public, and religious police are less active here. Jeddah is one of the most cosmopolitan, diverse, and tolerant of all Saudi Arabian cities.” Wikipedia Travel


Excavations in the old city suggest that Jeddah was founded as a fishing hamlet in 500 BC by a Yemeni tribe.

Al Balad is a warren of ancient buildings and traditional souqs (markets), and the teetering, multi-story coral houses that Jeddah is famous for. Unfortunately, coral is not a very durable building material, and most of the buildings are in disrepair. Spend time wandering around the old city and get lost in the seemingly endless souks. You will find yourself in another world and entirely 'in' the world, surrounded by people from all over the Arab world, Asia and Africa. (A photography permit is theoretically necessary, but in practice nobody seems to bat an eyelid as long as you don't stick your camera in people's faces without permission.)

What was left of the walls and gates of the old city was taken down in 1947. A fire in 1982 destroyed some ancient buildings, but much is still preserved. A house-by-house survey of the old districts was made in 1979, showing that some 1000 traditional buildings still existed.

When Jeddah began to become wealthier due to the oil boom, many Jeddawis moved north, away from Al-Balad, as it reminded them of less prosperous times. Al-Balad had insufficient parking space for large cars. Its stores did not sell expensive designer clothing. Poor immigrants moved in place of the Saudi population. Balad is a beautiful blend of the modern and the classic where the glass facades of modern skyscrapers rub shoulders with Historical buildings with the distinct horizontally embedded wooden beams that has come to symbolize Balad over years.

Balad can be a Shopper's Paradise. Balad has a plethora of upscale shopping centers with high-end fashion brands from Milan and Paris, along with the traditional street vendors and open air Souks. Many Saudi companies are headquartered here. The most famous of which is the National Commercial Bank. The award winning structural design is the widely regarded as the first Arab Skyscraper and features Gordon Bunshaft at his best.


The construction of Nasseef House on old Jeddah's main street, Suq al-Alawi, began in 1872 and it was finished by 1881 for Omar Nasseef Efendi, member of a wealthy merchant family and, governor of Jeddah at the time. When Abdulaziz Ibn Saud entered the city in December 1925, after the siege of Jeddah, he stayed in the Bayt Nasseef. During his early stays in the city he used it as royal residence and received guests here. John R. Bradley, author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, described the Nasseef House as "kind of social salon" in the 1920s, as consuls and merchants gathered there.[ The house belonged to the Nasseef family until 1975, when Muhammad Nasseef turned it into a private library that eventually accumulated 16,000 books, which could be read by anyone visiting him. Today these books belong to the central library of King Abdulaziz University.

People used to recognize Nasseef house as "The House with the Tree" because it was the only house in Balad that had one. Obviously, growing a tree was not an easy task because of the scarcity of water. The tree grows on a little square on the north of the house and is a neem tree (Azadirachta indica). This may well be the oldest tree in Jeddah.


During the oil boom in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a focused civic effort to bring art to Jeddah's public areas. As a result, Jeddah contains a large number of modern open-air sculptures and works of art, typically situated in roundabouts, making the city one of the largest open-air art galleries in the world. Sculptures include works by a variety of artists, ranging from the obscure to international stars such as Jean/Hans Arp, César Baldaccini, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Joan Miró and Victor Vasarely. They often depict elements of traditional Saudi culture: coffee pots, incense burners, palm trees, etc. The fact that Islamic tradition prohibits the depiction of living creatures, notably the human form, has made for some very creative modern art, ranging from the tasteful to the bizarre and downright hideous. These include a mounted defunct propeller plane, a giant geometry set, a giant bicycle, and a huge block of concrete with several cars protruding from it at odd angles. (I realise now why the camels looked more like giraffes and the horses were cut in half)


Jeddah markets are known for their reasonable prices. One of the most famous shopping districts in Jeddah is Tahlia Street.It is an important fashion and shopping street in the mid-town of Jeddah. It contains many upscale department shops and boutiques, such as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Burberry, Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Massimo Dutti, Tod's, and many more. It has been renamed to " Prince Mohammad bin Abdul Aziz Road". (Not only in South Africa – what’s with people and name changes!)


King Fahd's Fountain is a major landmark built in the 1980s and listed by the Guinness World Records organization as the highest water jet in the world at 312 metres. It can be seen from a great distance.

A proposed tower to be built in Jeddah by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is the Mile-High Tower, or Kingdom Tower, that will stand 1.6 km into the air. Upon its completion, this would make this skyscraper the tallest in the world. (Please. Looking at the construction sites in and around Abha, how different is Jeddah, and will I trust their workmanship? They only use foreign (read: cheap) labour. Good luck! May Allah keep it standing)


Our second day in Jeddah was spent at a private beach. Nothing fancy about that, it just means it has restricted access. If you enter you sign an indemnity which is actually aimed at Saudis – you enter at your own risk and may not complain about anything you see which you might find offensive!!! But then photography is forbidden and there are some rules of ‘decency’ in place.

Some Muslim women swim in a full body suit, suitably covered (headscarf included) They actually turn it into a fashion, and if you are a bit self-conscious about extra weight, I can actually see the point. We did not follow suit.

Scuba diving is a major draw for expats in the Kingdom, although the Saudis themselves seem oblivious to the treasures that await offshore. We did not dive because we were due to fly later that evening. We did however snorkel. With incredible visibility it almost seemed redundant to dive. Apparently the flora and fauna are quite similar to what you'd see on Egypt's Red Sea Coast or off the Sinai Peninsula, only minus all the tourists. Brilliant way to end a great week-end. Amost.


Two friends started a fast food franchise called Chicken Broast. The one was of the opinion that they shouldn’t try and Americanise it, but stick to a Saudi style of fast food. They couldn’t come to an agreement and the partnership broke up. The Saudi supporter started Al Baik. It is now more popular in Jeddah than McDonalds, KFC or Chicken Broast. We stopped for some Al Baik. I was sent in because there was a male queue and a female queue, the latter being much shorter. And I must agree, you can’t visit Jeddah and not have Al Baik. Our final memory of Jeddah will be in my mind when I plan my next trip.

Can’t wait to go back to Jeddah!