Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: A Multimodal Escape to Bahrain

One sunny day I found myself in Riyadh with a weekend to spare, and as luck would have it, fellow Wikitraveller and Flyertalker Trsqr was in exactly the same predicament. It was school holiday season in Saudi Arabia and flights to sensible places like Jeddah and Abha were packed tighter than the Jamarat Bridge on 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, so fuelled by a champagne-and-cigar binge in a giant disco ball suspended 240 meters above Riyadh, we eventually settled on visiting that den of relative iniquity known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, taking the train out and the plane — my first flight on Saudi Arabian LCC Sama — back in via Dammam.



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?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Riyadh

ALLEGIANCE: Independent
TYPE: Isolationist Religious Enclave
GOVERNMENT: Religious Dictatorship
ILLEGAL GOODS: Animal Meat, Liquor, Narcotics, Animal Skins, Live Animals, Slaves, Luxury Goods, Hand Weapons, Battle Weapons, Nerve Gas, Robots, Radioactives

The van Maanens Star system is the home of a radical religious sect that believes in suffering as the key to salvation. Mining is done without machines, and any surplus money that is not needed to satisfy basic requirements like oxygen, food and water is burned in a sacred ceremony. The system is only accessible with a special permit.

Back when I was a kid, I used to play a lot of Elite, the now classic space trading game where you get to fly around the galaxy, buy and sell goods to strange aliens and occasionally blow them up. Elite’s universe is vast and intricate, with star systems divided by level of technological development, type of government, amount of crime and so on, but whether you wanted to trade in wheat, electronics or drugs and whether to try your luck in an industrial democracy or an agricultural anarchy was up to you — just fly in and dock.

But there was one exception: van Maanens star. Located just a hyperdrive stone’s throw from Sol, this “isolationist religious enclave” only allows visitors with a special permit, which is famously difficult to obtain: you’re only allowed in if you’ve proved your reputation and have a package to deliver. And even if they do let you in, they cut visitors no slack, with a lengthy list of restrictions banning goods like robots and animal meat that are allowed everywhere else in the universe.

Saudi Arabia has been my van Maanens star. I’ve been to Aqaba, Jordan, and gazed across the desert towards the barbed wire separating me from the forbidden kingdom. I’ve flown along the Persian Gulf, looking down at a string of lights along the forbidden coast. Once, in 2003, I even had a Saudi visa in my passport and was all set to go… when the mullahs decided that picture messages on mobile phones were sinful and torpedoed that project.

This time, it was for real. I disembarked into the surprisingly quiet terminal, got a stamp in my passport and a seemingly sincere welcome from a young, grinning immigration officer and clambered aboard a taxi for the trip to downtown Riyadh down an eight-lane highway, with palm trees and Gucci ads lining both sides and the occasional dun or white-colored building flying past in the night. And, like in Elite the first time I got that long-awaited permit and visited van Maanens, I somehow felt oddly disappointed: this is it? Just another Arab country and just another Arab city, just like Abu Dhabi or even Dubai?

However, Saudi Arabia turned out to be a little more than a few flipped bits in a video game’s configuration. Most of what you’ve heard is true: tne women really do have to wear the head-to-toe black abaya robes (not all veil their faces, but most do), alcohol really is banned (although 0% “malt beverages” do a brisk trade) and red paint really is applied on CD covers to give, say, the Pussycat Dolls more respectable necklines and hemlines. But while I knew men and women were segregated, I hadn’t realized how segregated: every restaurant, bank, shopping mall, food court counter and historical site was either divided into separate zones or separate times. Want to go check out the National Museum? You need to figure out not just when it’s open (daily), but when it’s open for men: Sun, Mon, Wed and Thu mornings or Tue afternoons only. I knew the Saudis took their Islam seriously, but I hadn’t realized how seriously: five times a day, everything, repeat, absolutely everything — shops, restaurants, banks, post offices, tourist sites — closes for prayer. Want to eat dinner? You need to plan to have it before 5:30, between 6 and 7, or after 7:30, as between those times, every place you could get food is closed. I’m still a little conflicted about how I feel about all this, so I’ll leave that for the next trip’s musings…

Another bit of a surprise, which I know will sound both offensive and obvious, is that Saudis look like terrorists. Offensive, because that should be a ludicrous stereotype to apply to 20 million people; yet obvious, because most of the 9/11 terrorists were devout Saudis, and hence in the West we associate the Osama bin Laden look — white robe, red checkered headdress, scraggly beard, leather sandals — with fanatical suicide bombers. I like to consider myself a pretty tolerant kind of guy, and have travelled in a fair few Arab countries before, but I was shocked and not a little ashamed at how often I at first got a visceral “eek!” reaction on spotting bin Laden or Ayman Zahawiri’s long-lost identical twin shopping at the Hyperpanda or behind the wheel of a taxi. Is that a bomb vest under his robe? Is he planning to drive me into a deserted alley and slit my throat?

Yet not once — not once! — was I made to feel anything less than welcome. Precisely because (white) foreigners are so uncommon, especially outside the confines of their housing compounds and five-star hotels, most people I met were friendly to a fault and brimming with curiosity. The three Saudi brothers running the little corner store where I did my daily shopping endeavoured to teach me Arabic, the Indians at the curry shop around the corner made sure I got an extra-large portion when I paid the paltry four riyals (US$1) for my meal, the post office clerk smilingly humored my request to add a few phrases in Arabic to a card, and on my last night I ended up sharing a plate of injera and wat with an Ethiopian cabbie, him refusing to accept any payment for a meal that cost him the equivalent of several hours’ takings. (He did leave the meter running while we ate, so it pretty much worked out the same.)

Riyadh is famously short on things to do, but work kept me busy enough that I only managed to sneak out once in the evening to climb up to the top of the Kingdom Centre, variously likened to a giant bottle opener or Pikachu, but in any case the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a spectacular sight when lit up at night. Up top, connecting the two towers together at a height of 300m, is the Skybridge, where you can gaze on the bright lights of Riyadh and get some idea of how big the city is. Definitely worth the 25 riyals, and it’s probably the only skyscraper tourist trap in the world without a gift shop!

My last day was a Thursday, the Saudi equivalent of Saturday, and I had a three-hour window of opportunity for sightseeing in the morning, so I opted to check out the National Museum. And it is, it must be said, quite a spectacle: done up with the latest technology, there are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend a day in there doing virtual tours of Madein Saleh (the Saudi version of Petra) or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed’s battle of Medina. It wasn’t quite so much a museum as a propaganda exercise though: the display on plate tectonics started with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds was rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam.

And then to the airport, which is a bit of an architectural masterpiece, but otherwise a remarkably boring place to wait any longer than necessary. Once through immigration, the international departure holding area has prayer rooms, two snack bars, two long-empty dusty rooms where the bookshop and souvenir stores used to be, and nothing else. At least there were power plugs if you pry up the little brass things on the floor…

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:

RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:

DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:


That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.