I haven’t posted a blog in a while since in Saudi Arabia, the borders are still closed so no international traveling is allowed. I have been getting “stir-crazy” being stuck inside KAUST, so I have taken a few weekends to escape. I have been snorkeling in Rabigh several times, where we just swim out from shore where there are some coral reefs in amazing health, and we can see turtles regularly, and even eagle rays and reef sharks when we are lucky. I also went on a trip during eid, where me and some friends headed to Yanbu (3 hour drive from KAUST) and did three days of diving. It was amazing, I loved the coral reefs there, and I will definitely return. The highlights included a friendly male turtle, a silky and grey reef shark, and my first ever oceanic manta ray!
Last weekend, David and I decided to go on an adventure of our own. I received my driver’s license right before the lockdown, so I didn’t have any opportunities to drive. But now that we are allowed to leave campus, I decided it was time to face all my driving fears and rent a car and go on a road trip. Women were only allowed to get driver’s licenses in Saudi last year. But that is not what made me nervous, it was the fact that drivers can be pretty wild, and not follow your typical rules of the road. I have some pretty funny stories from this road trip so I decided to write a very honest review of this trip.
The night before the road trip I spent trying to find out where we were going, downloaded offline maps, and trying to memorize the Arabic numbers so I could follow the speed limits. This would be my first time driving in a country with km/hr, so I didn’t even understand what 120 km/hr even meant, so I did some conversions just to ease my anxiety. We rented a small car through KAUST, the process was quite easy and we were able to hit the road by 9 AM, after loaded the car with camping gear and lots of snacks. We chose camping since we would be “social-distancing” and not encountering many people. The country also requires us to always wear a mask (even when driving) so don’t worry, Mom, we were safe. Our first stop was a gas station in Jeddah, where we needed to purchase firewood. Luckily, this is also the location of one of my favorite falafel shops. Last year, they announced a change in laws to say women no longer have to wear an abaya, as long as their shoulders and knees are covered. This makes me super happy since it is summer and the temperatures are constantly over 100 F. So I happily walked around in my leggings and T-shirts, and ignore the weird looks everyone gives me (just in case you are worried- I get even weirder looks when I walk around in an abaya so I guess people will stare no matter what). The guy in the supermarket didn’t understand my “sign language” or English, so thank goodness for Google Translate on my phone, we were able to get our falafel and bring it in the car for a lunch picnic later.
There are several different routes to get to Taif, a quicker route and a more scenic route. We decided to go there the shorter way and return the scenic way. The one important rule we followed was to avoid Mecca, since this is the holy city where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. So what do you think happened? That’s right, the signs saying “Muslim” and “non-Muslim” confused me, since it was right before the exit I was supposed to take, and ended up somehow in the line to get into Mecca. What a great way to start the trip. I was having a minor (maybe major) panic attack as we were stuck in the checkpoint, where people were showing the police their paperwork to get into Mecca. David reminded me to breathe and there is nothing we can do about it now. So we strolled up to the checkpoint, where a Saudi police offer stood over me with his large machine gun, and looked at me laughing (I think he was amused that I was driving David around). He didn’t understand English as I was trying to apologize and explain I missed the exit and I am trying to get to Taif. He took my phone and said “maps” so I showed him our route to where we were trying to go, and he just let us in. I let out a huge sigh of relief as we just continued to follow the directions which rerouted after the missed exit. So here we were driving along, getting a pretty good view of the famous Mecca Royal clocktower (which according to Google has the world’s largest clock face).
The road itself was in good condition, but the drivers are absolutely insane. They drive in the “breakdown lane”, but there aren’t even real lanes. There were large stretches on this highway with no lanes painted at all so everyone was just kind of squeezing around you, in tiny spaces where I would never ever think a car could pass through. And if you are going too slow (which could be the speed limit), cars will follow you, literally 2 feet behind your car, and flash their blinders as to say “get the F out of my way”. This was a sure-fire way to get my heartrate elevated as I just did my best to get out of their way without speeded. There are so many speed radars which just take photos of your speed and license plate so you can easily get a ticket without even knowing, which I was trying to avoid. I think some people are so rich that they don’t even care if they get speeding tickets.
In the end, my accidental wrong turn before Mecca took us a way more scenic route, and we ended up on the crazy road up the mountain, filled with hairpin turns but amazing views. I was so shocked with how fast people were flying up the mountain and around the turns, but I happily went a normal speed and enjoyed the views. There were several spots where people were pulled over along the road to feed the wild baboons (which you should never do since they are evil and will attack you- which I probs blogged about in my South Africa post since it scarred me). We pulled over and watched the baboons eating shwarma and bananas, some of them were absolutely massive and crawling over people’s cars. Since we were in this area of Taif (although accidentally) I wanted to show David a spot I visited three years ago (August 2017) on my KAUST orientation. There is a hotel here that has a very scenic cable car ride over the road we had just taken up the mountain. Unfortunately, we arrived around noon, and the cable car didn’t open until 2:30.
We went into the hotel and tried asking about bathrooms. Since it was prayer time, everything was closed. I am used to restaurants and stores closed, but I didn’t realize hotels did this too. All the lights were off inside and most of the doors were locked so I couldn’t find a bathroom. We went into a nearby building where we found someone working. I used Google Translate again to explain I really needed to find a bathroom, and he helped me out and gave me directions. We were also trying to find a nice lookout to the mountains, since this hotel is literally built on top of the mountain you’d assume that there are lookouts everywhere, especially since this was a “touristy” spot. Turns out, a lookout is too much to ask for, and the only viewpoint was the restaurants which was locked until 2:00 for prayer time. Honestly how does a restaurant close down from 12-2 PM, to me that is prime lunch time. Anyways, we eventually found two random chairs placed along a little ally way in the side of the hotel that had a fine view, so we enjoyed our falafels and chatted about what to do next. On our way to the hotel, we passed super colorful fruit stands, but there was no parking lot on our side of the road so I couldn’t stop, so we decided to hit this up next.
Somehow everything in this country is complicated, and we had to be careful about what route we took, since the fruit market was on the road down the mountain, with a barrier between the two-sides down the entire mountain, so to turn around we’d need to drive like 40 minutes to the bottom. So we parked a little distance away and walked over. The fruit stalls were full of fresh fruits and veg, many of which are grown in the cooler climate of Taif. We noticed a new fruit neither David and I had ever seen, which was the fruit of the cactus, also known as prickly pears. The vendors were kind enough to let us take samples, so we tried both varieties of the fruit, which were delicious. There were also several women selling flower crowns, and I bought one for 10 SAR ($3) which David made fun of me for but it gave me joy.
After we walked around the stalls, we headed back to the hotel to try to get tickets for the cable car. Since the time we left, the hotel was opening up and there were many people there, looking like a totally different building than when everything was closed. We found a coffee shop and had a coffee which we ate on the terrace and read our books while we waited for the ticket office to open. About a half hour later the ticket office opened and we waited in line. There is very little logic going on in this country so the lines were very unclear and it was kind of a free for all. Not to mention when we paid it wasn’t the price written on the sign (but a bit cheaper so no complaints there). It ended up being 150 SAR “round trip” for both of us. We got in the line to the cable car and we were slightly nervous we’d get put in with one of the many large families near us, since each car holds like 8 people. But, thanks to Covid, we got our own private cable car, which normally is quite expensive to reserve. We really enjoyed the amazing views of the mountains, and I highly recommend this to anyone visiting Taif. We could see the crazy baboons along the roads. The whole trip was like 30-minutes long, which was a good amount of time to take in the views. At the bottom of the cable car ride was a water-park. You could tell it was open with the wave-pool on and lifeguards around, but there was not a single person there, which was a very weird sight. I would even be tempted to go if females were allowed, but I have no idea how that works and what I even would be allowed to wear. Maybe I will research that for a future trip.
After the cable car, we noticed the line to board was pretty massive, so I was happy we timed that right. We got back into our car, and entered a GPS coordinate a friend of mine gave me to where she had camped previously. But there were no roads to this location so we just headed in the general direction. Once we got a bit close, I noticed a small stream on the side of the road, a very rare sight in Saudi. So we decided to follow along this little dirt road, which lead to some farms and people’s homes. After driving for a while we reached a car that was parked right in the middle of the road, no way to get around it. We saw that a man had stopped and laid out his prayer mat to pray, and he didn’t seem concerned to move for us, so we backed up and tried another road just to see where it went, trying to find an adequate place to camp. Keep in mind we had a tiny car so off-roading wasn’t really an option for us and we didn’t want to be in the middle of people’s homes. We looked at satellite maps to try to find a good spot, and ended up just driving to the end of the main road, and noticed a nice looking mountain and decided to take a side-road to see how close we could get to it. On the end of the paved one-way road, there was a tiny dirt road that lead to a small farm house a far distance away, but another little road led right to the base of the mountain where we found our perfect place to camp. We couldn’t tell if it was someone’s backyard/agricultural land, but we found a good flat area to setup the tent and the remnants of a small fire, so we decided it would be a great place to set up. We decided to do a little hiking before setting up the tent, so we packed up some water and snacks, and headed up the mountain. That is when we heard gunshots. At first, I thought they were pretty far away, but as we ascended up the mountain we could actually see the men, at the farmhouse down the road, shooting guns up into the hills (luckily on the other side of the road from where we were hiking). I decided it would be best if they knew we were there, so I talked loudly and faked a sneezed until he looked up at us. I was low-key nervous he’s think we were in his property and shoot (like they’d do in the US) but fortunately for us he had no intentions of murder and went back to practice shooting into the mountains.
That is where I will leave the blog post off for today, stay tuned for some more crazy stories about day 2 of our Saudi road trip!