With eight hours in Jeddah overnight, and a hotel room booked, I still didn’t want to waste an opportunity. You need a visa to go to Saudi, so short of more work – which might happen – the best way for me to make sure that I have some sort of a touchpoint for the place was to stay up late and see the sights.
Joe and I came off the plane tired, and my travelers instinct was wonky. I approached one of the guys who shout “taxi”. “Ahh he’ll do. It’s just a broke guy with a car. Let’s give him some business.” Our mutual linguistic understanding was not good enough for us to reach an agreement. We realised before we got into his car that he was going to scam us, and we still got in. That’s how tired we were. It was a fraught journey.
We followed his route on maps and when he started going completely the wrong way we tried to make him understand that he couldn’t just take us to any hotel – we had a booking. Eventually after much tension we arrived at the back of The Airport Clarion, and had a row over money. It’s a familiar row – I once had it in Peru before I realised it amounted to fighting over pennies and gave in. When you’ve been somewhere a while you start to know the worth of things. Travelers bring money though, and we all need cash these days. This was a good fifteen pounds overcharge though, so I paid him much more than it was worth and stood my ground about the rest. It turned into an unpleasant interaction – lots of shouting in Arabic and me trying to say things in Google form translate. I felt jacked with bad adrenaline by the time ai checked in. Another reason to get more of Jeddah. I wouldn’t want my only memory of the town to be of that guy. After all, Dr. Jesus told me it was his favourite city.
I showered, changed my clothes and took off my hat in case cab guy was looking for me, and at one in the morning I jumped into the back of an uber. A much better transport idea. Mariam drove the car, and had good enough English that she understood my intentions. She took me to the waterfront, driving and conversing in English. I knew much more about the town by the time we got in sight of the fountain.
She took me to a bay with the imposing edifice of the Ritz Carlton overlooking it. I would’ve booked there for my layover had the last minute rooms not started at £350. At the back of the bay, across the water, the King Fahd Fountain jets salt water up at over 200mph to a height over 800 foot, and is reflected in the sea below. The air in the bay is wet and humid, perhaps partly because of the mist from that jet. It runs all day and all night, floodlit. It’s certainly imposing.
I walked down the strand taking in the alien smells and life and heat, trying to remain invisible and to just observe. The thing I couldn’t quite compute was the fact that the sea is out of bounds. The fence is continuous, and the perimeter is patrolled. Small huddles of animated young men and women were sitting at intervals on the pavement, as close to the water as they could get. They were mostly segregated by gender – this is the case with loos, prayer rooms, waiting rooms, security queues – there are no polygender loos in Saudi.
Many of the people I saw had ice cream. It was a warm night. Occasionally a breeze would waft the scent of stagnant water to me, occasionally the scent of mist. Taking a lovely deep breath over the sea was a calculated risk. Mud and talking and a surprising number of children considering it was past two in the morning. Considering the Ritz complex is just the other side of the road it is still pretty run down on the lawns, but it gets a huge amount of use here even late at night. The moon was at its mid point, filled at the top, empty at the bottom, unfamiliar, hanging over the Ritz.
Having glutted myself with sensation and cheerful late night ice cream from the stall, I ubered back to the hotel and hit the hay for another short sleep. I’m in the cat nap pattern so I woke a split second before my alarm.
The morning uber to the airport was more than seven times cheaper than the amount the “Taxi” guy was trying for. It made me feel a bit less of a dick for not just giving it to him – I don’t like leaving any human interaction with a sour taste. Who does?
I’m back in London now. What a strange place Saudi is to me – it is already taking on a kind of dreamlike property, and I woke up there. I’m going to miss the heat. But at least I got Bergman back intact. Now I can plug myself back into London and all the friends and strange things I’ve built here. First, though: a hot bath. A beer. My own bed… Oh joy. Oh joy. Zzzzz