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When in Jeddah...

Jan 09, 2010 by Jesse Lytle

We knew that it would be a day of contrasts, going from laid-back Sydney through cosmopolitan Dubai to conservative Jeddah.  (To be fair, it's all relative: Jeddah is the most liberal of Saudi cities given its historical focus on commerce, even though it's also the gateway city to Mecca).  Anyway, we were a little apprehensive going into Saudi; it was the first time for each of us, and we didn't know what exactly to expect.  Even though we knew not to bring in liquor, our party was two men traveling with an unrelated woman (not good).  And Lenore, who was told she could borrow a head scarf upon arrival, was feeling awfully exposed as the only woman on the plane with hair visible.  But we were completely unprepared for the surreal entrance experience Effat University provided for us.  

Picture the following scene with the pacing and choreography of a Jason Bourne movie.  In the dark, we walk down the steps from the Emirates 777 onto the tarmac, toward the waiting bus with the rest of the passengers. Two Saudi men emerge from their private car (the only non-service vehicle anywhere in sight), intercept us, and grab our bags.  Within five seconds, we're in the back seat, careening across the tarmac, dodging fuel trucks and planes.  The man in the passenger seat is all business and takes our passports, while the car speeds right up to the door of a small, nondescript building.  The two men march us inside, flash our passports at the guards and lead us quickly through what turns out to be a private arrival facility, past uniformed guards and important-looking men waiting in plush leather seats, with a swirl of Arabic language around us.  Our various attempts at greetings along the way are utterly superfluous.  We're loaded immediately into a waiting van and no more than three minutes after stepping off the plane, we're on the highway to Jeddah.  No lines, no interaction with customs or immigration (and in fact no luggage: one man had stayed behind with our passports to collect our bags, which were brought to our hotel room door two hours later).  Lesson one: when you go to Saudi, it's always good to come at the invitation of a royal princess.  (This is in effect what it means to be a guest of Effat, which was founded by HRH Loulwa al Faisal.)  Everybody has had some sort of surreal travel experience in their lives; this one took the cake for each of us, and it was a quite the punctuation to conclude our 40-hour travel day.

We're staying at a hotel called the Red Sea Palace, ready to crash, and I can see the lights of the working harbor from my window.

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