With the onslaught of US Airways Dividend Miles I had racked up, I decided to use them to take my mom, the wifey and myself over to Dubai to visit friends, and hop over to Saudi Arabia, to get a taste of what the Hajj would be like. I wanted to participate in what is known as Umrah–a sort of mini-hajj. It’s a great way to experience the pilgrimage, on a smaller scale, and to get an idea of what to expect, should you decide to venture it. I wanted to take a lot of pictures, but at times, was afraid of being pulled over by the authorities. I didn’t see a whole lot of people doing touristy stuff, so I wanted to be in line and not bring unnecessary attention to myself. I still haven’t experienced the A380 on any carrier, so can’t do that if I’m peeling potatoes in some Saudi prison. I did manage to get some great shots though throughout my trip to Mecca and Madinah. I skipped going to Riyadh, as I didn’t see any value in visiting that city.
Going to Mecca is kinda tricky, as you will need a visa issued from the Saudi embassy here in D.C. They aren’t the most friendliest folks when you call with questions, so just know you are sort of calling an offshore call center. The answers you seek will come better from folks who have gone through the process. The forms are specific, and require marriage certificates, if you are married, and each female must be accompanied by a male relative. I think there were some exceptions, but I don’t recall how that worked. Then you must send your passports to the travel agency that is coordinating your Umrah or Hajj package. There is no way around that, unless you know someone from the royal family I suppose. The travel agency then sends it back to you with this one page visa pasted on one of the sheets. Looks like a fancy stock certificate, but don’t get excited–it’s not Google stock or anything, so the only value it holds is assurance you will get past customs and into the country.
We flew Air Arabia from Sharjah, UAE, and I had actually purchased those tickets for $128 O/W for each of us before leaving the United States. You have to submit proof to the Saudi’s that you have a return ticket when going to Mecca/Madinah. I guess they sort of have this ‘we don’t accept refugees because were rich’ syndrome, or something like that. Air Arabia wasn’t bad at all….They have on online check-in, and allow you to purchase a meal for a small fee. I ordered a samosa plate, along with a salami sandwich, which was very tasty.
We arrived at our hotel shortly before sunset after driving from Jeddah Airport. We chose the ZamZam Grand Suites hotel, because it was right in front of the main entrance gate into the Grand Mosque. From the room, and to the Mosque, it took roughly 7 minutes total, which was quite good. Other folks who stay in the vicinity hotels, have to walk a lot, and when you pray 5 times a day there, this could get exhausting from hotel to mosque and back. Check-in was done by our representative there, and our rooms were assigned. The rooms all had a small kitchen area, which was good for warming up food, or storing food items that can be purchased from street stalls around the mosque. You can find an array of great snack items, from dates, to samosas, and everything in between. I heard there were some really nice restaurants around the mosque, but I didn’t have time to look for them, so we ended up eating at the food court in the mall. The hotel is joined with mall, which I thought was ridiculous. There’s even a Paris Hilton store here! Fortunately, it wasn’t there when we visited. When you think of a place like Mecca, you don’t want to associate the queen of vanity with it.
second third tallest building is in Makkah apparently. The Royal Mecca Clock Tower Hotel with it’s 120 room figure stands and casts a somewhat imposing shadow on the grand mosque itself. The whole area is booming with construction of tall buildings, shopping complexes, and timeshares, meant to be sold to the highest bidders. All the construction was annoying. This place is meant to be a peaceful, place of worship, and they are turning it into a kind of ‘Mall of Arabia’. The only thing missing, is an IMAX theater, I don’t know what it is with Saudi’s, but they sure love to shop!
Upon arrival, I wasted no time, and did what I came out here to do. I circled the Kaaba and performed the necessary rituals, as prescribed. It was chaotic, and uplifting at the same time, as this was my first time here. The mosque itself is huge, and has many complexes inside. No shortage of space. Everyone that was here, was here for one purpose and that was it.
Madinah seemed a lot more calmer than Makkah. There wasn’t as much construction boom, and the people there seemed a lot laid back, and friendly. We checked into the Movenpick hotel there sometime in the evening, and our representative met us with an itinerary for the 3 days. The staff was super friendly, and more inviting than the staff at the Makkah hotel. The Movenpick Hotel was nice, as the room was large, and our package included a continental breakfast. We were to visit some sites around town, that included the Quba Mosque, the Qiblatain Mosque, and the Mosque of the Prophet.
The Prophet’s mosque was amazing. The place is so huge, but quite organized. I have to admit, the Saudi’s have done an incredible job of maintaining these holy sites, and if there is one thing they got right, this is it. The entrances were well organized, there were these giant umbrellas in the daytime to protect people from the sun, and the complex was well lit at night. After the final night prayer, the mosque compounds was bustling with activity, with worshipers inside, while others on the courtyard, enjoying an evening stroll, a nice meal, or just kicking a soccer ball around. As for crime….it was non-existent. There were literally kids, as young as 10 just aimlessly walking around with no parental guidance, and not a fear in the world. One coming from the U.S., would totally see this kind of climate as a sort of utopian fictional society in some respects. I found the locals of Madinah to be honest, and quite helpful.The food stalls around the compound, were delicious, and cheap. Everything from Indian favorites such as curries, to Western fare, could be found.
We departed Madinah and headed back to Dubai, but booked a one-way on a local Saudi carrier called Nas Air. The tickets were cheap and came to $79 each. They even served a decent light snack on the flight, of an assortment of deli meats and bread, or a tropical fruit plate. The Airport in Madinah was much nicer than Jeddah, but nonetheless, still chaotic. Since we had to check out of the Movenpick by Noon, we had some downtime at the airport in Madinah. As soon as the counter opened, a mad dash to the agent started, with everyone haggling over the weight allowance of their baggage. One guy even asked me to check-in his additional baggage on my ticket!! Could you imagine the look on someones face if someone asked to do that here in the U.S.?? It was hilarious though I thought. I kindly declined, and he went to the next passenger in line. The plane ride was rough with a lot of turbulence, as there was a storm that evening in the region. The plane was shaking violently, and I could hear some women in the back hurling their internal organs out. I had already repented for my sins at Makkah, so I figured if this plane went down, I should be covered. Luckily though, we landed at Sharjah without any issues, and drove back to Dubai that evening. Thank you Allah!
These two cities had a sort of charisma to them, unlike any other city. The only other cities I have experienced this charisma is Istanbul and Rome, where the rich history dictates your stay. It’s sad to see the Saudi government turning Makkah into a giant mega-mall like city, but they are claiming these changes are to help the worshippers during Hajj. It’s not easy to go there with all the visa and passport restrictions, and I was hoping for a more delightful culinary experience as well. However, in Madinah, it was the opposite. I enjoyed my stay there very much, and found the locals to be extremely friendly and sincere. I will most likely return to these cities under obligatory reasons, and in spite of some of the negatives, both cities will leave a lasting impression with you.