The great ride to the holy cities and back.

Trip Start Jun 05, 2008
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Trip End Jun 30, 2008


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Where I stayed
some 3 star hotel

Flag of Saudi Arabia  ,
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back to Queen Alia airport for the short flight to Jeddah, I should have figures something was amiss when the departure was late at night.

I should have been clued into the fact that the journey to Mecca would be hard in as much as the flight from Amman, Jordan to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia did not leave until 10:00 at night.  Half way thru the pilot announced we would be passing into Haram territory in 5 minutes.  This meant that I had that much time to change into my pligrim's garb without facing a penalty when I landed.  As a recent convert to Islam, I was ignorant of protocol.  I passed thru customs at just past midnight and went to look for out guides.  They were there looking for us, but because we were not properly attired, we passed by as businessmen or something and went unnoiced.  When we [my friend Isa Musa] found that a drive back to a 'Miquat' was necessary to don our garb, I really began to feel the stress of traveling so far from home in such a different land.  This coupled with the fact that credit cards and traveler's checks are not accepted in Arabia, and that the currency exchange was closed, conspired to knot my stomach very badly.  I had been studying Arabic with the Pimsleur language discs for a few months, so I could make myself understood at least.  This was good since the prefered language in Saudi is not English, even though it is on many signs and billboards.

The ride to Mecca, via the Miquat, was about 4 hours in duration, and our driver did not speak any "anglezee".  He drove us thru the unlit desert at 150 km per hour, so I knew at the most fundamental level, that I had finally put myself in the gracious hands of Allah, once and for all.  We arrived at the Grand Mosque in Mecca just in time for morning prayers; exhausted from the flight, the drive and the adrenilin.  We entered thru the King Abdul Aziz gate, made our way thru the throngs, and before we knew it, we were facing the enormous black cube; the Kaaba.  When a Pilgrim first views the great black cube, it is said that the first prayer made will always be granted.  When I caught my breath, I prayed for success and longevity for my children.

We were supposed to meet our guide, but since we were 4 hours late, and it was the middle of the night, I assume he left.  As we wondered out loud about how to commence our rituals, a friendly voice speaking fluent English approached and volunteered his services.  A brother Muslim, a physician from Cairo, heard our plight and took pity on us.  He walked us thru the seven circumnambulations around the Kaaba and the runnings between Safa and Marwa.  These are the hillocks where Hagar frantically sought water for her infant Ishmael, all those thousands of years ago.  It is now entirely enclosed and airconditioned, courtesy of the House of Saud.   When we finished our Umrah, he graciously offered to pay for our ritual haircuts, and then departed as he had a plane to catch.  We have been eMailing back and forth ever since!

Allah is too merciful, this is what a pilgrimage is supposed to be like, what people are supposed to be like, how life is supposed to be lived.  The Kaaba is the most impressive structure I have seen, up close, circling it on foot with all those thousands of fellow worshipers, I felt like an electron circling around an atomic nucleus, farther back from the gallery, I thought I was looking down on an entire galaxy with a myriad of stars swirling around the core.

Back in the hotel after being up for nearly 48 hours straight, I fell asleep and slept more soundly than I had in ages.  Isa-Musa and I awoke to realize that we had left our passports, money, health cards, etc., on the dresser with no thought of using the safe in the closet.  It never crossed our minds that someone might rip us off in this holy city.

With the Umrah behind us, we sought out some local color on our second day in Mecca.  Everyone was accomodating, and most doubly so when they heard my pigeon-Arabic.  "Arbah moe kabir, min fud luk"  Four big bottles of water, please".  The tent city of Mina went nearly as far as the eye could see.  The furious pace of construction everywhere in the city made it seem that there were as many construction cranes as there were palm trees.  The street vendors sold spicy lamb and onion sandwiches on fried pita bread on neary every corner, though how anyone could stand near a roaring gas burner when it was 120 F in the shade, anyway, is beyond me.  After all, it was Mecca in June; not entirely unlike the Las Vegas strip I once visited at midnight in July!

When it came time to depart for Medina it turned out that there were no flights because of pending dust storms.  Our tour company arranged for an Egyptian driver who was the most friendly and talkative guy that we met so far on our journey.  He spoke utterly no English at all, but that did not deter him from going on and on for the entire trip.  With my smattering of Arabic I gleaned that he had kids in college back in Cairo and that he could make much more driving in Saudi than he could doing anything else in Egypt.  At prayer times we always pulled over to a gas station to make our 'salat' in the local mosque, usually in the back, and then have a hot cup of turkish coffee that is available at every gas station in the country.  When gas prices were $4 per gallon in the US, we could fill up the Crown Victoria for under $5 total, and that was 100 octane to boot.

Amazingly, there are wild baboons along the road halfway between Mecca and Medina!  No trees, jungles or shrubs of any kind, yet there were wild baboons begging by the roadside.  And no, we did not try to feed them as they had teeth, the likes of which I had not seen since last I was in a zoo at the wild cat cages.  Every few miles there were bridges crossing over the freeway and police and/or military officers waiting in the shade.  The driver always slowed down so they could see the occupants of the car and they always let us pass, unmolested.  For all the talk I had heard about the Saudis and overzealous security officers, none of it was a problem on this trip.  Our driver could not slow down below about 150 km per hour, no matter how many times we said; "Shwai-ai", I think it made him feel unmanley.  Because of this we asked for a different person for our return trip to the Airport in Jeddah.  Of couse, we had the same driver, but after he had been explained that it was the speed that concerned us, he gladly slowed down to 130 km per hour, or so, and all was fine.

Once in Medina we settled in to a much larger, newer looking city, that was at least 15-20 degrees cooler.  The Prophet's Mosque [PBUH] was immaculate and perhaps constituted the largest building I had ever been in.  Outside a curious admixture of denizens circulated around the grounds, including street vendors of every stripe.  Once the sun went down, the sellers really appeared in droves.  Dates, carpets, prayer rugs, everything you would want to stock up on was available at rock bottom prices.

Be forewarned, that currency is the only medium of exchange.  The banks we went to did not recognize travelers checks or credit cards. [no one had heard of post cards either, which was a real disappointment] While we heard tell of an internet cafe, we could never find it.  The hotel had one internet connected computer for business, and for a humble pilgrim's plea and 50 Ryals, the manager let me use it for half an hour.  Silly me, as it had an Arabic keyboard and non standard key positions that made it impossible for me to send even the most rudimentary eMail to confirm to my family that all was well.

We were totally on our own for the two days spent in Medina, but a friendly off duty guide that we met at the hotel took us to the plant where his brother worked processing dates.  Dates from Medina are considered a fine delicacy, so we stocked up.  Unfortunatley, everyone we met during the rest of the trip prevailed upon us for the dates, so when we arrived back in the states we were bereft of them.

The people of Medina were, perhaps, just a bit more standoffish than those of Mecca, but not so much as it was a problem.  Saudi Arabic is in the process of modernization, but not so much as the streets are choked with cars and smog like cities in Asia or the subcontinent.  On our final day, it dawned on us that we were soon to leave the Kingdom, perhaps never to return, as Hajj/Umrah visas are strictly controlled by the government.  A great feeling of sadness swept over me as the airport came into view, and I knew that I would shortly be boarding a plane back to Amman.


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