It has taken me four years but finally I made it to Jeddah! Jeddah, the Saudi city with a reputation of being much more 'free' and 'liberal' than the rest of the country. (Well, than Riyadh anyways.) Jeddah, where women roam with open abaya's, where lovers stroll the corniche (married lovers, of course), where life is just so much better, apparently.
I actually don't know how true all that is.
I only went for a weekend.
As part of a tour group.
I will tell you that Bandar from Nomad Tours is an excellent tour guide. And the corniche really is a nice place to spend some time, put your feet in the waves, smell the sea air and have your hair tousled by the sea breeze.
We were at the ocean side within an hour of landing. It's a great place to meet and chat with Saudi families. Well, I met and chatted with one Saudi family anyway, though to be honest they didn't look too sure about the crazy lady making a video of herself while jumping about by the seaside. They were rather entertained when said lady ran down to the ocean shore and started throwing water about, laughing like a six year old on her first visit to the sea. And then bugger me if that same crazy lady doesn't stop to chat with the whanau in broken, very bad Arabic while the family are trying to enjoy some of their own together time looking at the waves and eating a sandwich.
Yep, that was me, finally in Jeddah!
And I quite liked it.
Mostly, I admit, because of the sea!
On our drive to, and along, the corniche we got to look at some of the contemporary art sculptures that adorn Jeddah's roadsides. Some of it is pretty random! We stopped at the Open Museum of sculpted pieces which actually has some rather interesting work in it, all of it designed by foreign artists (I was a bit surprised about that).
Continuing our seaside theme we visited the Fakieh Aquarium and I almost had to be dragged out. Though it is only small it is quite a well put together place and it wasn't till this visit that I realized how much I missed the sea. Back home in NZ we take it for granted because it's not that far away.
After a fish lunch at a dining spot that can only be classed as a dodgy looking dinner destination, but where the three different varieties of fried whole fish dished up were rather yummy, we went for a tour of the old city. In electric cars no less.
The cars are a perfect way to tour the Old City. On the way we learned about, and gained appreciation for, traditional Hijaz architecture and many a photo was taken of the wooden latticework adorning the facades of every building. There were some newly restored buildings in the area, but most looked worn and tired, while others looked on the verge of collapse, their wooden beams bowing under the weight of years of neglect. Although it recently became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, there is still a lot of work to do and people to convince that the area is worth all the time, money and effort required to do it up.
Bandar is quite passionate about the old city and it's restoration. In fact, his office is in the old city. He realizes raising interest in the district is a bit of an uphill battle - mainly I gather due to cost. He also thinks that bringing life into the area is an important part of the restoration. To that end he offers tours and engages locals to assist. As part of our tour he had organised a group of youth to entertain us with demonstration of old style school learning (including discipline methods) and also games the boys used to play.
At the end of our Jeddah Old City visit the older blokes put on a traditional dance display. One of our guys got to participate and looked completely lost, but it was fun to see the young (and not so young) men enjoying themselves and was a perfect way to end our busy day.
The next day bright and early we headed off for a traditional breakfast, a tour of a mosque (something most of the group thought they would never do here in Saudi Arabia) courtesy of the Jeddah Cultural Exchange Company, a visit to a couple of art galleries (one came complete with famous female Saudi artist in attendance having just arrived back in the country - we were very lucky), and a visit to what can only be classed as a living model museum - meaning the place is a model of the old city architecture but is actually used by school kids and various other peeps. This was followed by a very relaxing afternoon tea at the home of a Saudi woman who is into media and theater studies - very nice lady.
The trip to Jeddah was quite a hectic one. I'm glad I went but I have to say, I didn't see one open abaya the whole time I was there!