JEDDAH 26 - 28.05.2010
Jeddah, the mysterious coastal town of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s rival. It’s intrigued us since the day we arrived. We had heard many stories about it from fellow expats who had been there or had lived there and it sounded like a pretty relaxed version of Riyadh, plus the added bonus of the mighty red sea.
When in April we returned back to Riyadh from our dreamlike Goan holiday on the southern coast of India, Andrew and I both felt deflated and miserable. Looking down the barrel of a 10 week stretch in Riyadh was making us borderline suicidal and so I decided to rescue us from sure death by boredom and booked us on the cheapest flight to Jeddah. I’d promised myself that I would keep it a secret surprise for my hubby-o. It would be great seeing his face at the end of May, just when he was thinking that he couldn’t pull through another day, I would whip out 2 little green NAS Air tickets and fly us out to the beach! In my head it was perfect. This time I would keep a secret. Not like when I was 6 (this story
still haunts me to this day) and my mother told me to keep my dad’s Xmas present a secret. No, not like that time, when I, that very same evening, totally forgot and casually informed my dad while he was in the middle of shaving in our bathroom that “… I have a secret and I am not going to tell you that mummy bought you aftershave for Xmas!” ……Ooops!
Well you know, we don’t really change that much as we grow older and I can tell you this, when it comes to keeping little secrets (not life or death secrets, I’m good at keeping those, really!) I wouldn’t suggest you trust me with keeping my mouth shut. It’s not a mean thing you know. It’s just that I get so, so excited with the whole surprise thing that I just can’t keep it all bottled up inside.
And so the story goes that one night as we were watching TV, I started bombarding my hubby-o with little, ehhmm, maybe not so little…ok, ok, very obvious hints. He quickly guessed, (well after I said that I bought us tickets to Jeddah there was nothing much left to guess really)
and so the surprise was done with there and then. I was pretty relieved and Andy doesn’t really like surprises anyway. He actually said that he preferred knowing so that he would have something to look forward to. Phew! Perfect match we are.
May’s end came much quicker than anticipated and soon we were on our way to the airport on a Wednesday afternoon to catch our flight to the Red Sea. I had booked us into a NOT CHEAP hotel in Jeddah, so that we would be right on the beach and not waste precious time (and cash) in cabs to get to it. Also since the hotel is a private establishment, bikini’s - as my sources had assured me - would naturally be allowed and I would not have to touch my abbaya for the whole two days. Ah, bliss! All of the above mentioned were reasons enough to forget the price of the room and just look forward to the chilled bubble of a weekend that lay ahead.
Grrrrrrrrrr…… 4 hours later, we were still sitting in that boring ‘80’s time capsule of an airport in Riyadh waiting for NAS(ty) Air to get their act
together. Our friend Claude was also planning on flying out to the Farasan Islands that night on a different Nas(ty) Air flight but had a few days before been notified that the flight was delayed and so stayed at home and waited for the new departure time of that flight. We on the other hand had received no notification what so ever and were sitting in the airport waiting for some kind of information to filter through to us. Naturally no Nas(ty) Air ground staff were anywhere to be seen. They all migrated back into their dirty little holes and stayed there until 5’ minutes to boarding which was now moved from 6:35 pm to 9:50 pm. At around 8 pm the whole gate of passengers migrated from G19 to G36, an act which hubby-o and I completely missed as we had our noses stuck deeply into the TIME magazine and half of the HELLO! (the other half is always missing, cause someone or another is kissing - that rhymes, how poetic of me). If there is one thing I can say about the Saudis and I am not talking about the snobby upper class princess and princesses, is that
they are extremely kind and helpful. Whenever we were stuck in a situation and needed someone to point us in the right direction (of course only when hubby dearest is by my side) they were more than helpful. Had it not been for this trait in the Saudi’s natures and not the uselessness of the Nas(ty) Air ground staff, Andy and I may have very well still been sitting at the wrong gate till now.
The plane didn’t take off until 11:30. The flight attendants had not even bothered greeting us upon embarkation let alone apologise for their company’s fiasco. After a 4 plus hour delay they still had the audacity to come round with their trollies and try to sell us overpriced crappy sandwiches and warm juice. Not even a token of regret in the form of a bottle of water, that would have been the least and trust me I know because I have worked in this industry for over 5 years. Seconds before take off, prayer to Allah was broadcast through the PA speaker and for once I too prayed with them for a safe flight.
We landed in Jeddah at 1:00 am and it took
the luggage (why oh why didn’t we take our backpacks like we always do?) one whole hour to come out on the conveyor belt. Again there was confusion as to which was the correct belt and again there was no Nas(ty) Air ground staff anywhere.
As soon as the glass doors opened and we set foot outside the air conditioned terminal, the humidity turned my hair into an afro and we were quickly raided by a loud bunch of taxi drivers. We stepped into a smokey white cab, exhausted and starving. The cab driver was quite the character and luckily he agreed to stopping at a McD’s on the way to the hotel.
When he pulled up in front of the Crown Plaza Jeddah it was 3 am. Grateful to be almost in bed we approached the reception desk. I had made the booking on Booking.com a website I had used three times and that had failed me twice. I don’t know what it is about the human psyche that encourages us to repeat our mistakes over and over again. I have learned my lesson now though.
The chatty Indian receptionist informed me with a smile on
his dial that we had no reservation at the Crowne Plaza. My head was ready to explode as I pulled out a print of our online booking. After another half an hour, the managers interception, a thorough inspection of our Iqamas and passports and a lot of tipping and tapping on a keyboard we were finally led to our room. I had booked us into a seaview room and was excited about it. Seeing the blue waters of the ocean , setting eyes on the border less horizon and finally removing my abbaya would make everything that had happened so far, fade into the background of my mind, marked ‘unimportant’. It seems however that the stars where not in the correct astrological alignment for us that weekend. I was quickly informed by the ‘bell boy’ that abbayas should be kept on while in the common areas of the hotel, i.e. the lobby, restaurant and every place in the hotel other than my room! Great! Just, great.
The final bit of information was the one that threw me the most. As I removed my black cloak upon entering our overpriced room and pulled back the curtains to gaze at our
‘Sea View’, the sound of a “puff” indicating the bursting of my mental bubble emerged along with the view of construction work that was taking place right in front our window. The hotel had failed to update us on that tiny piece of information, that their main entrance was being revamped. The spectacular Sea View itself could only be seen if one stuck their head out of the window and craned their neck around the corner and even then it was a tiny strip of water glistening in the distance behind a broad concrete corniche. Where was the beach? I gave up. Andy was already in the shower and I decided to console myself with a Big Mac meal.
Later that night, tired as hell, I grabbed one of the two pillows on my side of the bed and put it on the floor. The sight of breadcrumbs on the white sheets confirmed that this room had not been cleaned since it’s last occupants had left it. Luckily for the hotel, I was too tired to protest. I brushed the breadcrumbs of the sheets and for once kept a secret from my husband. Andy jumped into bed and I
snuggled up next to him.
The following morning we slept in late. We had given up on the idea of just going downstairs and diving into the Red Sea. I reluctantly put on my bikini and my flowery summer dress under a heavy black abbaya. We walked out in front of the hotel and got into a cab. “Nakheel Beach” Andy instructed the driver. Tired and unimpressed we gazed out the window at Jeddah passing us by. We drove for a long time, and I was sure we were being kidnapped by the driver. “This Beach better be bloody good” I mumbled.
We rocked up in front of a big dirty wall with a painting of palm trees on it. ‘Palm Beach’. Ok, I thought; bring it on. We paid the cab and walked to the gate. Two young Sudanese boys led us to the ‘office’. A stinky little room, with old furniture and faded posters of coral reefs and what once seemed colourful fish. A young Saudi was sitting behind the desk. He looked tanned in his singlet, and he had quite a relaxed nature about him. A group of four bubbly teenage Saudi girls in their
abbayas were in the room buying entrance tickets. ’80 riyals and give me your iqamas’ he said. As we walked through the second gate a whole new world opened up. It was like walking through one of those magical doors that Alice in Wonderland walks through. The girls removed their abbayas to reveal extremely short shorts and tight tops. I followed them. There was a football field on the left hand side of the path with green grass that looked to green to be true. On the right hand side, several little yellow beach shacks where lined up in a row. One of them had a sign on the door. ‘Diving equipment, snorkeling, for rent”. Andy and I looked at each other and started laughing. “Things are looking up baby!” I said as we walked into the shop.
A friendly Filipino with an impressive amount of knowledge on all things snorkeling, set us up with masks, boots and flippers. It cost 100 riyals for both of us to get kitted out, which was much less than we had expected. We continued walking down the path, this time with our equipment in hand. I could smell the ocean and I
could hear sounds of music.
The closer we got the louder the music became and before we knew it, both Andy and I stood baffled in front of a white sandy beach where young Saudi’s were dancing to the sounds of Lady Gaga in skimpy bikini’s, smoking shisha pipes and drinking near-beer! Sitting beneath palm thatched umbrellas spray painted green, these youngsters flirted and laughed with each other, while in another corner of this surrealistic bubble of normalcy a group of buff arab men in their late twenties played a game of volleyball. A short ramp led up to a 300 metre long jetty over the crystal clear waters of the red sea. To the left side of the jetty four blue and yellow painted shacks built on stilts reminded me much of our accommodation in Bangkok.
We made ourselves comfortable under one of the umbrellas and laid out our towels on the wooden sun beds in front of the waterline. Andy got us a couple of Holsten 0% alcohol Beers, while I happily stripped down to my two piece. It took us a good half an hour to adjust to the incredibly relaxed and humane environment although
we found it difficult to keep our eyes off the rest of the beach dwellers. We were both impressed and shocked at the discovery of this alternate universe. I think we were both half expecting the muttawas to raid this place from one minute to the other, making us the next stars of the Nat Geo series “Banged up abroad”.
When we finally relaxed, we decided to hit the water and discover what lay beneath this very attractive surface. We walked hand in hand up the ramp and down the jetty, past the little shacks where groups of youngsters where spending the weekend doing what all other youngsters around the world take for granted. Girls and boys were going in and out of the huts, chatting happily to each other and playing around. At the end of the jetty we came across a group of divers who entered the water just as we did.
We made our way down the stairs and immediately marveled at the fluorescent coral and blue hued clams that paved the way to the deeper parts of the reef. Minutes later we found ourselves immersed in the clear blue waters, looking down onto the
magical world below. The explosion of life and colors beneath us was breathtaking. The pinkest pink, the bluest blues, fluorescent greens and yellow tinted corals of all shapes and sizes formed the world of the most intricately and meticulously designed fish. It looked like whoever created these designs and colors was on some sort of psychedelic infused trip. There is no doubt that God is the master of all painters, designers and creativity. His splendid work of art under the surface of the Red Sea is an inspiration to anyone who has ever appreciated beauty. Just when you thought that you had seen it all, along comes another fish, more beautiful, more colorful, more diversely, uniquely designed than the last. Nature at its absolute best.
I always believed that the best way to communicate something is by photos and not by words. So I will leave it at that, with one final comment before you enjoy the photos of the Kingdom of the Red Sea. Our camera, is a little waterproof, cigarette pack-sized Olympus, to which we are grateful for capturing our memories and being so reliable. However it is not the most sophisticated underwater camera out there, so
keep that in mind when you look through our photos. They are pretty amazing, but one must see the real thing to fully comprehend. I encourage you to visit the Red Sea at least once in your life. It may not be in Jeddah, but Egypt does it just as well, if not better.
That evening we had found our equilibrium. We needed nothing else. We are water people. Once we have the water in our sight and the sand beneath our feet, we are happy and want for nothing more.
We tried to get a cab back home but failed to hail one of the street. Just as we were trying to figure out what our next move would be, a car pulled up and a smiling Egyptian named Mohammed pulled up next to us. “Hi, I am Mohammed, the financial officer of the beach. I will take you back into town”. Along the way he talked non-stop about Riyadh, Jeddah, his family and the beach. Without coming up for air, he continued about his travels to the UK the visa process he had to go through and what each and every one of his 8 siblings
does for a living. Just before Andy drifted off into a deep slumber, we pulled up in front of the Mall of Arabia where he had some business to take care of. We had a quick look around and made our way back to the car. He dropped us off at our hotel and we promised to meet him again the following day at the beach. It was nice to be able to get in a word edge wise again.
We hardly explored the rest of Jeddah. We were just not interested in anything besides the red sea. We both felt we had seen what cities in Saudi have to offer people like us - not much. We both slept well that night.
The following morning we checked out and made our way to ‘our’ beach. The same atmosphere reigned. We swam and danced to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas, drank near-beer, smoked a Shisha pipe and soaked up the compounded freedom. Mohammed proudly showed off his office and we met the owner of the place, a pleasant older man and his wife. Both Saudis. We were given calendars to take home to our friends so
they too could come and visit and Mohammed said that next time he could arrange for us to stay at the beach. If only we had known before.
The beach is very close to the airport. If only we had known this before booking ourselves into the Crowne Plaza. We showered in the toilets and made our way to the gate where our pre-arranged taxi driver was waiting.
If I had any advice to give people considering a move to Saudi, this would be it:
But if you really, really have to - then move to Jeddah. Because at least in Jeddah, you can escape into another sub-culture another sub-world, every now and again. As far as underground parties go, this is one of the better ones I have been to.
The flight back to Riyadh was pretty uneventful. In a way I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a delay, because Jeddah airport is absolute world class, with lots to do, shop, eat and drink.
Back in Riyadh our faithful driver Jamil greeted us at the airport. The dry heat made my skin protest.
“What is better sir, Riyadh or Jeddah?”
Jamil asked Andy. No comparison, I thought to myself.
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