This is a tribute to the unknown Saudi woman ( and also towels). We could only spend three days in the Wahabistic desert state. That’s apparently not long enough to see one single woman (or towel). Finding hitchhikers was also a big problem in this petrol-run country.
Saudi-Arabia is a strange country. We enter the port of Jeddah in the late morning. The first we see popping up are several cargo vessels that wait to enter the biggest port of the Red Sea. Than the presumably biggest lighthouse of the world appears at the horizon. It’s a big tower with a globe on it, definitely built in a time when the believe in our unlimited human progress made us think we could colonize mars in a jiffy and we would built spaceship like constructions in the mean time.
We disembark and start all the import and immigration formalities. We can skip the long queues of Sudanese citizens who return to work in Saudi Arabia. Those economic immigrants keep this country going. They are the actual backbone of this nation. A friendly older guy in the typical white thobe (white dress) with a Guthra (head scarf) on his head, a spotless white smile, completed with a big black moustache and an American accent assists us in the customs formalities. I’m scared that he will become the same kind of pain in the ass as our semi-blind oldster we left back on the docks in Suakin.
But after all the paperwork is finished, the guy wishes us a safe trip and bids us farewell. I’m baffled: “no money?”. I guess there’s plenty of money in this country?
We also encounter one of the biggest annoyances of Saudi culture. In the middle of the whole customs process all the officers stop working and they take a 45-minute brake to pray. I respect everybody’s religious habits but I wonder how this economy can do well if people stop working five times a day for almost an hour. Offices and shops everything closes, turning even the busiest place into a ghost town in just a few minutes. It clear that two things make sure that the system continues to work: oil and the huge foreign workforce.
We ride into Jeddah, looking for a place to eat. I’m yearning to find a Burger King, but, a bit disappointed, we have to settle with a moderate kebab place. We drive through the city and we both have the feeling there’s just something that doesn’t add up in this city, but we can’t really figure out yet what it is. Because the city gives us such a strange feeling we decide to start to ride north, there’s nothing for us in this city. If some cities around the world try to turn into a paradise for cyclists and pedestrians, in Jeddah is happening the complete opposite. The car, especially the landcruiser V8, is the king of the concrete jungle. What seem to be small back roads on the map turn out to be multilane highways. I’m suprised by the size of this city, yet the official records only mention 3,5 million inhabitants.
We turn off our engines in Thuwal, only a 100 km north of Jeddah, and call it a day. After a long and fruitless search it turns out there is only one hotel. They are willing to take us in for a whooping 50 dollars a person. We are shocked but realize that we left the African continent definitely behind us. We’re now on the Asian landmass, in one of its more expensive countries.
As we enter we encounter two cyclists. After a long day of cycling they decided to sleep in the same hotel. They apparently don’t mind paying this huge amount. Money is for them apparently not an issue. But speaking English definitely is. It takes us more than 30 minutes to have a conversation that could have been dealt with in 2 minutes. They are doing a four-day cycling tour. It’s the perfect time of the year, It’s only 22 degrees. In summer it’s definitely too hot.
At least we have some decent Internet, television and clean sheets in our hotel room. I even encounter some semi erotic belly dancing on one of the TV-channels. The only women I will see these days.
We have everything but when I go down stairs and ask for some towels I get a very astonished look. Communicating in English was impossible but after a long and exhausting mime exercise from my part I’m able to retrieve two new plastic wrapped towels. I have no idea why there are no towels and I also have no idea if it’s a thing in Saudi Arabian hotels to not provide towels. I’m seriously thinking that towels are maybe “haram” (sinful according to the Koran) in Saudi Arabia.
When we go out to find something to eat we only see men on the street. It gives me an impression what a world without women would look like. It’s clear that this is the missing piece of the puzzle to make a normal society. There is an obvious lack of female touch in this society. Shops look basic, just like a man would organise a shop, they all look more like storage rooms. The same goes for restaurants, public areas. It’s the first time that I’m aware how important this female touch is in our society.
After a short visit to a kebab place, we encounter three older gentlemen, each seated on the hood of their pick-up truck. It’s funny to see them hanging around, chatting about god knows what. They look a bit like a gang of teenage delinquents that are hanging around, looking for trouble. But instead they are very nice and we are invited with are alcohol free beer to participate in their conversation. We repeat the classic conversation like a mantra:
Driving a motorcycle from Rwanda to Belgium.
Not Uganda! R-W-A-N-D-A!
No, it’s very safe. The genocide and the war stopped 22 years ago.
Yes, we are mad
Yes, It’s a long way.
No, we’re not married that’s why we can do these kinds of things.
Yes, your country is amazing.
The next morning we start de 2nd day of our 3-day Saudi stay. We only got a three-day visa to ride from Jeddah to the border with Jordan, 1200km further. There is definitely no time to loose.
Maybe there are some amazing sites to visit in Saudi Arabia. But it’s clear that the government doesn’t really want too many tourists. The Saudi citizens are happy we’re visiting their country and they can’t understand why we only stay 3 days. We spend the whole day driving. The landscapes are impressive but not very mind blowing, left there’s the sea, right sometimes mountains, or just flat lands. On several occasions I have to fight not to fall asleep.
We have lunch in a fast food chicken restaurant in a town that looks like suburbia. The waiting lines are enormous people are rushing in. We’re just in time to order and get out. The restaurant closes for prayer off course. It’s a scramble to get served just before everything shuts down.
We drive on. In an unfortunate attempt to withdraw money I accidentally end up with almost 2000 Saudi Riyal in my hands (500 euro). I didn’t expect to have that amount of money in my hands when I selected the lowest possible amount on the ATM. The many hours on the motorcycle, in wind and sun, made me less attentive and I mistook 2000 for 200 Riyal. Shit happens. But what troubled me the most was that the equivalent of 500 euro is the lowest preselected amount that was possible to withdraw. With just how much money in their wallets do Saudi’s walk around during their daily activities?
I’m especially stressed because I’m afraid we won’t be able to exchange it back. We have only 24 hours left in Saudi Arabia and we are definitely not capable or willing to spend that amount of money.
We set aside all our worries for a while when we see the sun set over the Red Sea. A few minutes later we are remembered once again how restrictive this country is. A coast guard patrol jeep rolls down the hill and the driver asks us what we’re doing there. They want to see the pictures I took. I show them my beautiful, maybe a bit overexposed, pictures. One of the officers yells something in Arabic and wants to grab my camera. Now it’s my turn to yell, in Dutch, that it’s not his camera and that he has to keep his hands off my camera. I realize my mistake and I try to soften my words with a smile. Fortunately, They let us go. We camp on a hill 500 m next to them. We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us. With this common understanding we both prepare for the night.
The next morning they are gone. We continue driving like madmen. We only stop to eat. We also try to exchange our Riyals in dollars but for some reason the exchange bureaus are all closed. We decide to exchange everything in Jordan. Fortunately for us the Riyal has been fixed to the dollar for several years now. So it won’t loose that much of its value.
When we finally arrive at the border we leave the way we entered the country: waiting ages for customs officers to do their jobs. Luckily there is still the head officer of the migration office. He comes over to have a talk with us. He likes to travel and he’s been to several countries: Thailand, France, and England. We didn’t expect to encounter such people here, but it makes sense. There is a lot of money in this country and they have to spend it on something. I’m happy to hear that one guy is at least a bit open minded and wants to see a bit of the world. He tells us he knows he should marry but he’s not interested. He still wants to see the world. He’s going against the will of the family, a powerful statement in a country where families rule and are ruled by one family (the Saud family).
It gives a bit of hope. I’m not easily swayed in saying that people should change their culture or customs, but Saudi culture… it’s just strange. It must be one of the only countries in the world where I really wouldn’t want to live. I believe it’s because a very important piece is missing in this part of the world: the female touch. I strange that I had to drive and travel so many miles to finally be reminded what kind of lucky bastards we are to have women openly around in our society.