Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Jeddah

Jeddah‘s King Abdulaziz International Airport has a bad rep, and on landing I could see why. We were bused into the terminal and let loose in the baggage claim area, which is split in two and entirely devoid of signage of any sort (except to note that porters are SR 10 and luggage carts are free), but the solitary moving belt drew the crowd and soon enough bags from RUH, mine among the first, started plopping onto it. I paused at the unmanned Supreme Commission for Tourism booth long enough to pick up a map in fractured English, then hopped on a taxi outside and headed to the Marriott. JED is supposed to have the same fixed-fare system as RUH, but here too there is zero signage showing the correct fares and I stupidly figured I could get it sorted out at the hotel. According to the net, SR 50 should be plenty, but the cabbie of course asked for SR 80 and wasn’t happy at being fobbed off with SR 60 — the standard fare in Riyadh, where it’s a longer distance to the airport. Grumble.

Bright and early at 6 AM in the morning, my alarm bell rung and I headed off to dive in the Red Sea. I’d booked with Desert Sea Divers who picked me up, packed 18 people on three boats and set off on the open ocean. Unsurprisingly, all fellow pax were expats, and it was fun to watch the abayas come off and reveal bikinis underneath. We cruised through the creek, passing resorts and palaces of increasing ludicrousness, and then headed out for an hour before hooking up next to the reef. The plan of the day was three dives, so I elected to sit out the first and deepest one (as it happens, I was later told it was the worst of the three), but I joined the second one… and… whoah.

Poking around the Chicken Wreck off Jeddah Lionfish off Jeddah

pictures courtesy of Marja-Leena Lehtola

I’ve dived 50 times in a dozen countries, but I’ve never seen something quite like the Chicken Wreck. Yes, it’s a wreck, once laden with frozen chickens (hence the name) and not even particularly big as far as these things go, but on this dive everything just clicked: 30+ meter visibility, the great looming shape of the wreck encrusted with marine life, plenty of fish, corals bursting with color thanks to the sunshine above… about the only downside was that I was wearing just a 3mm shorty and was freezing my pansy tropicalized ass off towards the end. I switched to my own 1mm diveskin for the last dive (in part due to reports of jellyfish), and it seemed a better choice: better a slightly cooler torso than keeping your arms and legs entirely exposed.

The third dive, too, was through some of the most remarkable coral I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately there was a distraction: my buddy, a morbidly obese Indian guy, with such a pair of man-boobs resting on his pregnant belly that I actually initially thought he was female. Now, there are plenty of well-insulated diving walruses out there, but this guy, despite holding PADI Rescue Diver certification (the highest non-divemaster rating), was probably the most incompetent diver I’ve ever had the mispleasure of partnering with. Yo-yoing wildly up and down with total lack of buoyancy control, smashing into and grabbing onto the corals, swimming way up ahead and ignoring the DM’s frantic banging on his tank, it appeared that the only skill he had mastered was mouth-breathing. I was rather relieved when he surfaced alive.

Fortunately, the other folks on the boat were rather better company, and I hit it off well enough with a blonde Finnish girl and a friendly Basque-Irish couple to arrange to meet them later in Riyadh (about which more later). Once back at the dive shop, a bit of surprise awaited though: I’d paid SR 250 (~US$65) for two dives, which was reasonable, but the shop charged SR 150 for the return transfer from the hotel; not entirely out of line, given that it’s a good 50 km away, but it would’ve been nice to mention this a little earlier. A quick meal of shwarma and Saudi champagne (soda and apple juice) later I crashed and slept until morning.

My second day in Jeddah was a Friday, which in retrospect was a little unfortunate, as nothing in the country stirs until the noon prayers are over. The Marriott obligingly gave me a late checkout, so I whiled away the heat of the day by the rather nice pool until driven out by a quadruplicate mosquecast of the noon sermon, and only headed out to al-Balad, the old town, around 4 PM when I figured the shops would be opening again.

Jeddah’s old town, or more specifically Souq al-Alawi, is the first place in Saudi where I felt like I could have been wandering in the souqs of Cairo, Tunis or East Jerusalem, if not quite as hectic or packed. Conical piles of colorful spices, the queasily intoxicating smells of Arab perfumes and incense, tailors and cobblers with piles of shoes and clothes… but what makes Jeddah stand out is the local style of architecture, with towering buildings (often five or six stories) built from coral and framed in wood painted brown or green. With the lanes rather too narrow to get about by car, they’d been spared from razing, but aside from a few beaten-up “Historic District” signs and a duly ignored English-language sign requiring visitors to register for photography permits, precious little had been done to maintain them. Nearly all were in an appalling state of disrepair, and quite a few were uninhabited and literally falling apart.

The al-Alawi Restaurant was closed (not unexpected; Saudis like to eat late), and I realized I’d better get a move on if I wanted to eat something before the first evening prayer, so I hotfooted out through the gold souq and into the modern part of al-Balad, where not a few shaven-headed US Marines were walking around souvenir shopping — the only other foreigners I’d seen in the area. Picking a large shopping mall at random, I headed to the top floor to find a deserted-looking foodcourt and a packed Filipino restaurant with the delightful name of Barrio Fiesta. Today, the fiesta was being celebrated not only with a string of Christm…err…secular tree lights, but strobe lights above the sign as well, so I decided to give the Pinoys a chance to tickle my tastebuds.

I asked the waiter what was the most popular item on the menu among locals, and after pondering a bit and confirming that I really did want their food as opposed to, say, a nice plate of fried rice, he suggested kare-kare. Having not the slightest idea of what it was, I readily agreed and awaited something different for a change. I wasn’t disappointed in that respect at least: kare-kare turned out to mean a peanut-based stew of oxtail, banana flower, bitter eggplant and string beans, a rather peculiar and, to me, rather unpalatable mix. Fortunately, I was also given a little pot of bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste) to go with it, and while Wikipedia notes that “to many Westerners unfamiliar with this condiment, the smell can be extremely repulsive“, I’ve spent long enough in South-East Asia to positively relish the salty-spicy kick it added. I wonder how this stuff would taste with kebabs and hummus?

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