Sunday, April 19, 2020

Micro-Experiences in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Jeddah

The month of November 2019 was amazing for me! At the end of October, I was offered a new position at a consulting company that I accepted. I negotiated to have a start date of December 2, allowing me the entire month of November off to take a much-needed break from the stresses leading up to this time.

Of course, how did I spend this time? Travel. And plenty of it. This is Part I in a series of posts about the month of November 2019.

My last day at my previous job was November 1, and on November 3 we were in flight to a destination that just opened it's doors to foreign visitors - The KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, or KSA for short.

Most people hear this and think, "why? " There's a simple answer. Because what you think of this place is not the reality, and the adventurous nature we've developed over the years tells us that experience will find the truth.

The following is a set of various memories and micro-experiences that, to me, were worth documenting throughout the trip. 
  • While staring at the flight map en-route from Houston to Jeddah via Frankfurt, I realized for the first time in my life that the Middle East is relative to Europe. The Americas are West; and Asia is the Far East. Why did this never occur to me until now? Maybe because it was our first visit to the Middle East, a region that, in the media, is synonymous with terror, anger, barren lands, and deemed unsafe. Surely, parts of this area are exactly that, but certainly the media only portrays the shockingly negative.
  • The flight from Frankfurt was not full, and didn’t have as many Middle Easterners as I would have imagined. In fact, there were many other foreigners but we were certainly two of the very few Americans.
  • Upon entry, the female customs agent whose line we fell into commented that she liked Carolyn’s name and said it was beautiful (I couldn't agree more, of course). She seemed to be genuinely happy to see us. Although we didn't see a smile because she was covered with a niqab, you could kind of tell from the way the corners of her eyes moved. It was subtle but enough for us to feel welcomed.
  • In the airport in Jeddah, there were many Indonesians, Filipinos, and other Muslims. No one looked at us strangely, so there was no awkward feeling. You know, that feeling of being watched or judged. It put our minds at ease a bit and made our initial impression of the country a good one. Why are there so many foreigners in this airport? Because Saudi Arabia is known for hiring help from Asia. It's cheap labor for them, but provides a great income for the 3rd world Asians who send it back home to their families to support them.
  • A very close friend met us at the airport as she’s been working here as a teacher to an autistic boy. She helped us get to our hotel by arranging for a Careem ride. This the the local equivalent of Uber, although they have that too. Our Careem driver to the hotel was Kenyan, from Nairobi. When I looked on the map it made sense as his home was really not far from here. And I had read previously that Jeddah is a melting pot for countries close to and/or bordering the Red Sea. We would meet more foreigners here in Saudi Arabia along the way.
  • One night, our friend's employer took us out to dinner at an authentic local neighborhood restaurant, Palm Garden. She treated us to the experience of dining like locals and a meals with a variety of flavors that make up the Saudi palate. All of the breads, vegetables, dips/spreads, and drinks that a local would eat, we sampled. It was amazing and delicious. The hospitality she gave us was so similar to the other experiences we had with locals. We were treated so kindly and embraced as tourists. We gave them the opportunity to showcase their culture free from the negativity typically associated with it. 
  • In doing our research on KSA, we knew it was important to respect the religious customs of the country. So despite the heat, we both dressed in long pants and long sleeves most of the time. Carolyn even wore a hijab and an abaya most of the time. Although it's worth noting that the guides on a variety of our excursions were pretty lenient despite being male. (What's the difference between a hijab, niqab, and burka?)
  • Jeddah is a sprawling city. It is certainly not a walking city. We were told renting a car would be much easier. But how did we log 20,000 steps?! Haha. Despite there not being any sidewalks, we still managed to walk through some local neighborhoods and reach some of the major areas. We've always found that this is the way to know a city better. Walk the side streets, the main roads, and the local neighborhoods if you want to feel town or city.
  • The only part of the city that is really walkable is Al Balad or Old Jeddah, near the Corniche and where all the souq markets are located. Here you will find everyone walking as the area is quite small and narrow. It's truly an historical feel. The roads meander, seemingly circularly, but always leading you to see new things and views. We felt very safe in this neighborhood, as no one bothered us, and we felt free to photograph as we pleased, always careful to ask permission if we felt it was warranted.
  • When we weren't walking, we took advantage of using ride sharing applications, Uber and Careem. Our drivers have been really pleasant. The ones we’ve been able to talk to have been fun and happy to know that we are tourists. Some have been to the U.S. and have experienced life there but came back to Jeddah to work. One Uber driver told us we were the first tourists he’s picked up! He was very happy and mentioned to us that he keeps telling his American friends to visit but they always decline.
Example of gender segregation (pre-Dec 2019)
  • Coffee Culture in KSA is serious. It seems that Western-style coffee shops have made their impact on local society and the specialty coffee has a place in society. They are a social hub. Like most other public establishments, coffee shops are divided between male only and family only areas, with separate entrances even. The latter is where single females congregate.
  • As of December 2019, gender segregation was ended in Saudi Arabia. It was interesting to experience the divide, but happy it's ended for a more inclusive lifestyle. This came about not too long after females were given the right to drive in the Kingdom, as well as travel abroad without a male guardian's permissions. These movements have been a part of the crown prince's sweeping changes for the country. 
  • Malls. There are so many! The initial wonder was, why? I think part of the answer is because they all have air conditioning, while many homes do not. Walking through the malls gives relief from the sometimes oppressive heat of the arid landscape. The other side of the coin is that I believe Saudis love to shop. Literally every store from around the world can be found here. This is a true East-Meets-West type of place from the retail perspective. Although not in retail, the simplest example I can give to depict the abundance of variety is that you can choose any kind of car you want from anywhere in the world. Ford? Ferrari? Mitsubishi Montero or Mitsubishi Pajero? Opel? Renault? Tata? Abarth? Toyota? It's all here. 

Jeddah Waterfront
  • Jeddah Waterfront. This strip of pavement runs along the waterfront and is only for pedestrian traffic. Imagine Park Avenue in NY but instead of the islands there is a walkway / bike lane as wide as the car lanes. Plenty of locals walk this strip each night for the brisk evening air which is a welcome relief from the blazing sun of the daytime. Men and women together, dressed in a variety of ways from fully covered females to men in shorts and T-shirt’s to women with their hair exposed, the walkway is open to all. We made our way down to the JEDDAH sign which is illuminated in the evening and took a bunch of photos. It seemed we were the only ones on tour, but occasionally other families would take pictures too. I’m not sure if they were local or tourists but I would guess it’s the former just looking for a change of scenery.
  • This evening (11/6) we met some Filipinos at the waterfront. They were fishing and caught an octopus! Of the 4 men, one was from Cebu so I spoke to him most in Visaya even though they could all speak English. I spoke to the others as well. One man has been in Saudi Arabia for 24 years. He has been working as an air conditioning technician all this time. When I asked him why he’s been here for so long he said that his pay is 5 fold than it would have been in the Philippines. KSA is filled with overseas workers, many Filipino, in all different capacities. There are many domestic workers, engineers, nurses, and technicians of some sort. I, now, recall that when I was checking into a flight in Manila there were numerous lines of people checking into their flights to Dubai. I'm sure that was the connection point to arrive here in KSA.
After spending 3 nights in Jeddah exploring the souqs, waterfront, malls, cafes, and catching up with a friend we were off to see the capital city of Riyadh.

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