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Published: March 2nd 2022
Artwork in the museum
The eyes are the soul. Such beauty.
It was back in 2008 when we had our first experience in the Middle East. We came through Dubai for a few days on our way as we traveled west towards the United States at the end of many months. Since that time, we’ve have the good fortune to visit Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. The Middle East has a stark beauty and a unique culture that continues to call us back. We have always felt that by getting to know cultures unlike our own that we become better citizens of the world.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on world travelers. It's been painful and somewhat tortuous for those who long to wander the planet. We read an article recently that described people who are COVID weary as fatigued, frustrated and frazzled by the five surges over the past two years. That describes us to a "T". The only real cure for us was to give in to our passion for travel. We needed to take the antidote, and that had to be a mystical and fairly unknown travel adventure. So for us Saudi Arabia became the answer. Hence, it was time to enter "The Kingdom."
The kingdom has
only been around a relatively short time as the present-day country was "founded" in 1932 by King Abdulaziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West), hence the name Saudi Arabia. This delightful land hit the mother lode of oil after World War II and the rest as they say, is history. Sitting on bodacious amounts of oil will do that do a country. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The king and his family run the country. By the way, the king's family makes up about 22,000 plus members.
Continued reading revealed that in 2017 Mohamed bin Salman became the Crown Prince and he wanted to modernize the country and decrease the need and reliance on oil revenues. Since that time, he has begun to make changes, one of which is to allow tourists into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi. Prior to 2019 when this change was enacted only a skilled worker, business travelers and those on a religious pilgrimage were permitted to enter. With tourist dollars and a yen for learning, here we are....open to experience the beauty of Arabia.
On our flight from Doha, Qatar to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia we flew sort of near Mecca. The
Making new friends
This lady was tickled to have her photo taken.
pilot made the announcement and hundreds of Muslims on the plane who were heading to Mecca for pilgrimage began to pray. This went on the last twenty minutes of the flight. One gentleman had a microphone and walked up and down the aisle to get everyone going. Rhythmically it seemed more like a song than prayer but was repetitious like a chant or prayer. All Muslim’s are heavily encouraged to visit Mecca once in their lifetime.
But how to best experience this land? It just opened up to tourism, so you've got to figure the infrastructure necessary is really not in place yet. That is attractive to us. Most of you know we are independent travelers and have only taken one group tour in the past. But on a journey here, it seemed like a good plan. On this trip we decided to travel with Wild Frontiers. We have a small group of 7, two guides and a driver on a 52 passenger bus. Why the big bus? They apparently do not have anything smaller and all of us would never fit in a van. We are having a wonderful time and will provide a critique of our Wild
Night time view of mosque
This was the mosque near our hotel in Jeddah.
Frontiers experience in a later blog. So far, things are going exceptionally well. Our guides Daniele and Saad are magnificent and taking great care of our group. One of the pleasures of a taking a group tour is that all you have to do is show up. Everything is arranged for you.
Our first stop was the Tayebat Museum
to gain an overview of Saudi Arabia.
As we drove up to the building, we were impressed with the lovely Arabic detailed architecture. This museum has three floors and multiple rooms of treasures. They provide an overwhelming amount of information about the culture, clothes and history of this country. After all, the culture has been around a long, long time.
Next up was lunch. It was no ordinary one though as it was at the Jeddah Fish Market.
Seafood is one of our favorites and we were all in for what would unfold. The market was bustling with men arranging and rearranging piles of whole fish, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and more. The variety was abundant. Our small group walked up and down aisles as we looked at all the choices. We huddled together with Daniele and Saad to
Daytime view of mosque
Near our hotel in Jeddah
discuss what we would like to eat for lunch. They explained Saad would purchase our selections, take it to the fish cleaners for preparation and then would meet us in the restaurant that they pointed out for our meal. The restaurant prepares the food we have purchased in the market and delivers it to our table. We were given about 30 minutes free time while all of this took place. We meandered, took some photos of the hard workers in the market. We spoked to a couple of the vendors and then moved to the fish cleaning area to observe. We had not seen this kind of organized operation in any of the world markets we’ve seen. Maybe in the past it was more behind the scenes. Watching the intensity of the prep work allowed us to enjoy the meal even more. Before us sat platters of freshly grilled seafood, pita bread, fries, salad, tahina sauce and tamarin sauce which we promptly dove into. We feasted until we could eat no more.
All around the world each town has a market. Jeddah has Al Balad Old Town.
Every town, village or city thinks theirs is the best. In this
A cat in old town
A comfortable life.
part of the world they are better know as souks. The oddity to us is that one street will sell nothing but shoes, another street will sell clothing. Multiple vendors right next to one another selling virtually the same thing.....What made this experience different is we arrived in the afternoon before the market opened following prayers. We wandered the back streets for about an hour enjoying the architecture. Slowly between 430 and 500pm the shops began to open. They are not open during the afternoon due to extreme heat. It was lovely watching the souks come alive and daily life explode into action. We stopped to taste several flavors of honey. This part of the world is well-known for their dates and honey.
This part of town is quite old with many building that are beyond repair. Seems when they were constructed, no rebar was used and they are now literally crumbling. Some are being rehabilitated in the hopes of future business and tourism.
On another note, a few years ago they commissioned artists from around the world to come to Jeddah and build sculptures. They are scattered all over the city. Plus there is a park with
many of the sculptures gathered together located near the water. You can walk the corniche for a couple of miles along the water enjoying the scenery. The corniche is a focal point with local families as the sunsets it becomes very lively. We were on the corniche for sunset by the water and were able to get a closer glimpse of a fountain they have built that shoots water into the sky about 1000 feet. This takes quite a feat of engineering. It was fun seeing the fountain up close as we had seen it the night before from our hotel roof.
Saudi Arabia is a large country land wise, so as you may imagine space is not an issue. Jeddah is really spread out and takes a long time to traverse from one side to another in the second largest city in the country. Currently, there is a massive amount of construction going on. Jeddah is a blend of new and old. It was once a major trading port along the Indian Ocean trade routes.
Some areas need restoration but all in all the city is in good shape. It is very clean, and we did not
see much garbage. Right now, they are preparing for a Grand Prix taking place in late March. Many roads are closed to finalize the work for the event and this precluded us from visiting the floating mosque. The race is being held all around this famous edifice. We hope we can watch part of the race on TV so we can see if they completed the work (and some of the mosque!) It certainly looks like they have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks.
Other noteworthy observations....the dress code in Saudi Arabia is far more relaxed than we were expecting. This is an extremely conservative country. The women continue to dress traditionally conservative and yet not all of them are in the full abaya… Men often wear the thobe but many men are wearing jeans and we were surprised to see t-shirts! Everyone has been friendly. Many people like having their photos, but it is always polite to ask permission first. The citizens do not pay income tax, they have free medical care and education. The king covers all these expenses.The residents work until they are 60 and whatever they are making at age 60,
1000 foot fountain
It looks different on a windy day
they get for the rest of their lives. The people we've encountered seem quite friendly. To some, we are somewhat of an oddity, being westerners. It would not come as a surprise to us if we are the first westerners some have met. Notes and comments:
As of February 2022, Saudi Arabia offers an e-visa for some countries now, so gaining entry is easy. Print to show upon arrival and as you move around the country. The e-visa can be challenging online if the government of Saudi Arabia does not recognize your bank card. We used American Express to mitigate this issue.
We were required to provide proof of a negative COVID antigen test.
Saudi also requires you to complete and print their online health form which has you include dates and information on which vaccine you have had. This needs to be printed also.
Once in the country you must fill out another health form which is on a special app. You receive a QR code which you will show multiple times as you move around the country. Where we stayed:
Jeddah – Centro Shaheen
Jeddah has roughly 4
million people. Travel Habits Change
In the pre-COVID world we often planned our travels 6,8,10 months in advance. We looked to each trip with joy and anticipation. Our philosophy was to have our next trip or two planned before taking the current trip. We wanted to have something to look forward to. Then the world changed. Now we consider whether we can travel, should we travel, will we travel. In September we took off to Spain and Portugal. The planning for the trip was done two or three weeks out. This trip to Saudi Arabia was planned barely six weeks before departure. One of the key factors in waiting is: will the country remain open? will infection rates spike and do we feel safe heading to that country at this time? We prefer to book when we think the chance of cancellation is decreased. We’ve heard stories about travelers trying to get refunds, some are not pretty.....
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