Saturday, 6 December 2014

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia...

I am very fortunate to have received a once in a life time trip to a normally closed-to-tourist country in the middle east called Saudi Arabia. It's host to the home of Islam in the name of Mecca, and somewhere that I would never have dreamed of visiting.

My Dad has recently taken up full time residency in the country and is benefiting from a tax free salary. Bliss some may say, but to his friends he calls it Jail-ddah. I was able to experience all of the best bits. I was only there for a mear 3 days, but I know I have to visit again.

The adventure didn't start in foreign lands though. Upon getting to Heathrow I became very aware that we were headed to the far right hand side of Terminal 5, the club, business, party, first class of airline travel end of the terminal. And low and behold, club class travel had been organised... Just stepping in to the pre-flight lounge was an experience, You are greeted by name, sat in a lounge where you can shower, drink, eat, lounge and are generally waited on hand and foot for, in our case, hours before your flight (because you turn up to the airport early when you have lounge access!)

I took it upon myself to try each and every one of the 6 scotch’s on offer in the complimentary bar, we enjoyed sky television, a buffet of hot and cold foods, cheeses, beers, a mini cinema, and a whole raft of that days newspapers, articles and niche magazines on offer. When I left to meet the plane I was stuffed and pissed!

When I got on the aircraft I was blown away even more.. The seats looked like nothing you've ever seen before. Space craft materials and design. The plane was nearly empty with my family sharing club class with 3 others. We had the hosts undivided attention and with that came unlimited and rellenteless whiskeys. I opted for the Lamb Birhiani and was amazed that that quality could come out of a microwave at 33,000 ft. I started watching the latest film release on my personal touch screen entertainment system but was too mullered to complete more than 30 minutes and feel asleep on my fully reclineable airplane bed. Shoes stowed in the special shoe drawer.

Arriving at Jeddah airport my sister, Ellie, had to don the sexiest of attire, a Saudi custom is for all women to cover themselves with a, normally black, head to toe garment called an Abaya. From what I could gather it is used for men to protect against other men from looking at their women in a lustful manner.

Driving in Jeddah is the most fascinating and at the same time terrifying thing I have ever experienced. There is all of the infrastructure, its like a normal road, all be it a 4 lane carriageway but we have those in the UK yeh? However, here a 4 lane carriageway has no rules, we witnessed a few of the following:

  • A bus doing a U-turn in a busy 4 lane, 8 way carriageway
  • One chap reversing down the 'slow' lane of the carriageway for what looked to be an indefinite distance
  • 'Dangerous diversion' signs notifying you of a dangerous diversion they have constructed across another 4 lane, 8 way carriageway.
  • People in the far left lane of the carriageway wanting to turn right at stationary traffic lights, what happens when they turn green is hilarious

Ironically you will see numerous 2 - 4 year old cars with their factory installed door bump foam stickers, windscreen protective films, internal dash plastic protectors and plastic wrapped headrests in the vague attempt to keep a car nice when it's not been cleaned since its inception and has picked up enough bumps, dents, dings and scratches to warrant an English man taking it to the scrap heap.

I'd like to describe jeddah in one, hyphentated word, Oxy-moron. The cold water comes out of the tap at 45 degrees C, if there is a queue on a roundabout drivers just drive round it the other way, there are 4 person families crammed in to the front 2 seats of a micra and there's a La Senza in a country where women have to wear a big black sheet in public. But there are plus sides. It costs my Dad £3.20 to fill the fuel tank of his car... and with that he gets two packets of tissues and a litre of drinking water. Water is literally more expensive than fuel and the local desalination plant burns the oily black stuff to make drinking water.

Dad lives on a compound. There are a number of them dotted around Jeddah and presumably the whole of Saudi. These are places of safety for western people. As you enter the 10 metre high walls of the compound by car you are slowed to a creep with concrete fortifications, everything looks scary and miliary like. There are armed guards supplied by the Saudi National Guard and on one compound we visited, a 50 calibre gun trained perminantly down the entrance road. Yet, in true Saudi custom we were subjected to the most stringent of security measures as a man walks the length of our car holding what looks to be an old CRT TV antenna empedded in to a piece of wooden dowling. Apparently this is a bomb detector and I instantly feel much much more safe!

That day was spent by a surprisingly pleasant pool complex. The compound caters for nearly every interest, offering a barbers, supermarket, bowling ally and no less than 3 swimming complexes. 

That evening saw us and a few of Dads friends piling in to a couple of taxis and making the treacherous journey to a different compound where a French guy was hosting a party. His lounge had been transformed in to a mini night club, disco lasers, smoke machine and full on pole dancing pole in the centre. A group of approximately 30 people turned up over the course of the night and my dancing got even more crazier as the music got louder... until the Tomorrowland 2013 aftermovie soundtrack came on.... BAM .... I'm up and going some! Managing to hold myself upside down on the pole with my feet on the ceiling.

I had averaged 3 hours sleep a night since leaving home and tried desperately to get some kip on the closed off Westernised beach complex but to no avail. We got some take away chicken that evening and settled down for a good nights sleep as we were booked in for a snorkeling trip in the Red Sea the next day.

6am rise and a less hectic drive to the dive centre base on the creek. We joined a couple of Dads work colleagues and an assortment of proper divers with tanks and regulators etc and sped out of the creek towards a couple of coral reefs 23km off the coast in the Red Sea on a fairly large boat. Wealthy Arabs joined us to jump and do stunts off of the boat's wake on their high powered jet ski's, I didn't realise the height some of them could get and was even scared for them when it looked like they may flip over.

Once the skipper had dropped anchor and explained where we could go in relation to the reef in front of us I was first to strip off and take the plunge from the top deck of the boat. It is roasting hot after all! 36 degrees during the day! The water was lovely, not cold, and perfectly clear. I donned my snorkel and was opened up to a completely unknown world. I'd been snorkeling before in harbours and off of beaches, but never had I seen anything like what was on this reef. 
The colours were spectacular, the coral swayed as the waves made me bob like a cork. Fish swam literally everywhere. It was incredible. I was very envious as the 6 proper divers plunged in near the boat and I saw their decent clouded by bubbles.

The day on the boat was very pleasurable. We alternated between floating in the salty sea, taking in the different sea creatures, fish and corals, to soaking up the sun on the boat, refreshments and snacks included. We had seen a school of flat nosed dolphins on the way out. The skipper turned the boat in a big circle so they could play in the wake. Dad and I were floating near the boat when a Polish guy, in Saudi to map the reefs from an aircraft at night, nonchalantly shouted that there was some Dolphins. Dad and I turned around to see the ominous sight of dorsal fins sticking out of the water a little way out from us. I've got to be honest I was a little scared, I'm a good swimmer, but not compared to a 8m long shark. My fears heightened when the fins simultaneously turned towards us and slowly descended under the water. I didn't have my goggles on and couldn't see where they had gone.

Every now and then the Dolphins would come up for air, surprising us as they circled around, one getting within reaching distance of my Dad. It was a truly spectactular experience, and one I craved more of! The fear had gone and I wanted to spend the whole day in that luke warm sea. Through out the day the Dolphins came back to the boat 3 more times. Each time I jumped back in eagerly with my video camera, trying desperately to get close enough for a good shot.

A storm was brewing in the distance, the coast guard had warned us of it when we left the creek, but the Dolphins returned just one last time. I grabbed my mask and camera, jumped in and managed this awesome shot.

It was a really incredible moment. I turned around and nearly everyone from the boat was in the water. Even the Sri Lankan skipper had shed his clothes and was in with us.

Who needs Sea World when you can see wild, bottlenosed Dolphins in their natural habitat. I listened eagerly as we sped back to avoid the storm. The divers had seen Baracuda, Manta Rays and Moray Eals. I need to get my PADI open water license!

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