Saudi Arabia

SAUDI ARABIA 2010

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES!

We were supposed to arrive in Jeddah at 8am, but this ended up being 2pm. The journey took 14 hours. Because of a problem with many illegal people being on board the ferry, we left Sudan 7 hours late. We were due to depart at 5pm but it ended up being midnight. You have never seen such a chaotic and bureaucratic nightmare in your life. We were in a queue for over 7 hours just to get our papers stamped. Then after several hours we made it to the desk only to be told it was lunch time and to come back at 2pm. It took 7 hours to get 3 stamps and our Carnet stamped. Then we had another hold up (prayer time) and the inefficiency is just unbelievable hence the borders are wide open. People seem to wander everywhere including onto the ship without tickets or passports! In hindsight we picked the wrong time, (Hajj) but we had no way at extending our Sudan Visa, so we had no choice. Our ship the Adriatico had 2500 Muslim pilgrims on board, plus 2 westerners (Clary and me)! Every year, millions of Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca walking seven times around the Kaaba. More than 13 million people visit Mecca annually. Funny thing about the ship was that the restaurant had beautiful pictures of food and ice cream, unfortunately none was available, and we were told it was only for decoration. Coke, Fanta, water and 7Up was available as a beverage. Some type of Middle Eastern porridge and chicken as a second choice was included in the price, and that was it. No entertainment no nothing. Definitely not the cruise ships we are used to. But for 400AUD for a first class cabin and the truck we can`t complain about an 18-hour journey. As you would imagine it was an early night for us. But as we tried to walk back from the restaurant we realized that most people had no cabin, so most slept in the gangways and in front of the cabins, included ours. They also set up prayer stations all around the ship making travelling back to the cabin very hard, if not impossible. We were waiting for the abandon ship emergency drill, but this did not happen, in fact we are still wondering where the life jackets were. Probably like in Dar Es Salaam behind lock and key otherwise people steal them.

THE HAJJ

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The main reason Muslims go to Mecca is to pray in the Masjid al-Haram. Pilgrims walk around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction (Tawaf). This annual pilgrimage is known as the fifth pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. The Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to God (Allah in the Arabic language). The pilgrimage occurs from the 8th to 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th and last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar used in the Western world, the Gregorian date of the Hajj changes from year to year. Ihram is the name given to the special state in which Muslims live whilst on the pilgrimage.

ARRIVING IN SAUDI ARABIA

What a difference a day makes! Leaving poor Sudan (only 250km as the crow flies) and arriving in mega rich Saudi Arabia, is a culture shock. After our truck was released from customs, we decided to stay the night in a Hotel in Jeddah. (NO GPS in Saudi Arabia) Saudi and Sudan people are so friendly and within a few minutes we were shown were to go. In fact, we were directed right to the front of the hotel. Five-star luxury for 125 AUD. In Jeddah the shops stay open until 10pm. After we checked in we were walking out of the hotel only to be stopped by the doorman who told Clary she wasn`t properly dressed to go out.

She was told she was not allowed to go out in long slacks and bare arms. We stepped back inside the reception and the lady gave Clary a long black robe and she also had to wear a head-scarf. All this in place, out we went again. I was wearing my shorts, which is quite nice as the temp at 6pm was still was over 40 degrees Celsius. As we say in Australia “I’m alright Jack”. We needed a Saudi Arabia map and if possible, a Lonely Planet magazine for the Middle East.

The map we found but no such luck with the Lonely Planet magazine or a Bradt travel guide. It was unbelievable to see all this wealth, the cars, the amount of food, and all the goodies we had not seen for a long time were all available in the shops. Maybe we have forgotten what it is like to live in a wealthy country. We just wondered what all those poor Sudanese pilgrims would think when they were bused from the terminal to camps outside Jeddah. Security was very tight, and all police and soldiers were on edge. The papers stated over 2.5 Million people had arrived and more will arrive in the next day or so. New facilities, including a railway, have been constructed to make the pilgrimage a success. Going to Saudi must include Mecca but as non-Muslims, we were not allowed into Mecca. Our truck became the point of interest in the hotel car park and it only took an hour or so and everyone knew the truck belonged to us. We are assured it will be safe and looked after overnight. We decided to splash out and have our 33rd wedding anniversary tonight at the hotel BBQ buffet. And in typical Africa/Middle East style you do nothing – everything is done for you. All you must do is just point out what you like. Desserts were a range of the nicest Middle East sweets we have ever tasted. It was a late night and we had our best dinner since we left Australia.

Mecca is now no longer an option because as non-Muslims we are not permitted. We also tried to get an extension for our Visa, but unfortunately Western tourism is not important to Saudi and in fact I think the government doesn’t like us being here. Officials are a bit of a pain but friendly and no-one seems to be able to make a decision. As we were already refused a visa once, we didn’t want to stretch our friendship. But after we paid 200USD for the visa, plus 80 USD on taxes etc, which we are not sure what it was for, we would have liked to have stayed longer as this country has a lot to offer the tourist. Especially history and culture. Tourism in Saudi Arabia is largely based around religious pilgrimage. Mecca attracts over three million pilgrims during the month of Hajj, and around two million during the month of Ramadan. During the rest of the year, Mecca receives around four million for Umrah. The Hajj, or pilgrimage to the city, is one of the five pillars of Islam. The mountains and valleys offer superb scenery and Red Sea beaches with turquoise water are known for some of the world`s finest diving, but attract only a handful of tourists. Some other spots are hard to reach, such as the Nabatean ruins, a four-hour drive from Medina, the nearest city. The Kingdom is almost totally dependent on oil. We woke up early to check our emails (for the last time till Jordan) and organized a taxi driver to show us the old and new Jeddah. Our room boy pointed out to us that our room overlooked the area where the beheadings take place once or twice a month. This is a public event and is a large marble slab under cover in the middle of a car park. Our Taxi driver told us very proudly that he has been to many beheadings!

JEDDAH TO JORDAN BORDER

After we had seen the old and New Jeddah, it was time to leave and head north towards the Jordan border for the next 2 days. But wait for this. We filled up with diesel, 145 litres for just 10 AUD (6.5 cents per litre) or 6 Euro (less than 4-euro cents). This made up a little for the high visa cost. The roads are great, and it felt like we were driving on the German freeway. Four lanes and cars doing well over 200km per hour! I said yesterday what a difference a day makes.

The tar is as flat as glass and perfectly level. The whole freeway is fenced for the first 400km to keep the camels off the road. Around 5pm we pulled off the road and found ourselves a nice bush camp on the Red Sea, just in time to see a perfect sunset over Egypt. It didn`t take long before the coast guard saw our truck and in no time at all we had three different visits from the army, navy and the coast guard themselves. None spoke any English, so it was a lot of arm and legwork and it did not take long before we worked out that we were camped on military and coast guard land! But they allowed us to stay but “no photos!”. Tomorrow we must see the Captain to get the permit signed. No Somalis landing on the beach tonight I hope. By 7.30pm the visitors had left, and we had some time to relax and open a coca cola! Clary is still completely dressed up as she can`t show herself and when the men arrived she disappears into the truck. It turned out to be a night with many visits from army, navy and coast guard all ensuring us we were safe and would be looked after. We are also told that the weather will get cooler as we travel north, and Aqaba should be no more than 30 degrees. They say that from here, the weather will get colder every day as we travel north, and we could expect snow in Turkey, which is about three weeks away. So, we may as well enjoy the Red Sea and its 30-degree water and 48-degree days in Saudi Arabia. We left our nice beach spot with mixed feelings as we would have loved to have stayed another day here. Saudi people are very nice and hospitable. Anyway, we could not extend our visa, so we have no choice. The roads in Saudi Arabia are perfect and very quiet, no cattle, no people, no ox carts, no donkey carts.

It should be noted though that Saudi people drive very, very fast and 200kph is not uncommon on the magnificent roads. The scenery today changed hourly from flat sandy desert to hills and towards the border we even climbed to 1100 meters. Coming back down the mountain the view over the red sea towards Egypt was stunning, but unfortunately for us it was getting dark. Two hours for clearance to leave Saudi Arabia and 1.5 hours to get into Jordan. Plus $105 for a compulsory 3rd party insurance and $20.00 for – well we are not quite sure. We think it was a sort of duty. Anyway, we were cleared to leave and enter Jordan. Together with a lot of Saudi`s who spend the weekend here (Jordan has alcohol).

The resorts started appearing just a kilometre from the border and it was only another 7km before we arrived at our camp spot. It is part of a small backpacker resort and is situated right opposite a perfect beach. This place even had a pool! This is the first camp spot with a pool since we left South Africa. Yahoo. All going well we will have a few days R&R here. More importantly, the temp has also dropped and hovers around 33 degrees Celsius during the day, so we are told. By 7pm our camp was set up and it was time for a BBQ.

3 days transit visa was not enough to explore this part of Saudi Arabia.