Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 14 November 2000
Well the bush telegraph is a bit of a misnomer at the moment considering the fact that we are well and truly into the middle east - but to call it the middle eastern missive or something in that vein doesn't seem right - so I guess bush telegraph it is! So much has happened in the last week that it is difficult to decide where to start. I guess the big news is that we waved goodbye to the African continent from the deck of the Al Judi last Saturday afternoon. Suprisingly enough, we had mixed feelings about leaving. I had though that we would only feel extreme relief and jubilation to be shot of all the infuriating African bureaucracy and ghastly roads but instead we felt rather sad to be leaving the continent that we have spent the last 7 months exploring. Most of all I think that we miss the simplicity and the slower pace of life, although those are just the things we complained of when we were travelling through. Go figure! Although we were sad to see the African continent fade into the distance we were not sad to say goodbye to the Sudanese customs officials who had prepared a special bon voyage gift of a six hour customs marathon for us before they would let us board the ship. Most of the six hours were spent waiting, which we figure must be an ancient Sudanese torture method (death by boredom!). To make matters worse, when a Sudanese person wants to tell you to wait they make what we view to be a very vulgar and offensive gesture by clasping all five fingers of one hand together and hoisting it into the air. In our culture it has quite a different meaning and is enough to get your back up immediately. We have since discovered that Saudis and Jordanians do exactly the same thing. We played the waiting game however and tried to retain as much dignity as possible and they eventually let us go when it became apparent that we were the last people that the Al Judi was still waiting for before she sailed.
The ship, which, by the way, was hardly the QE2, took about 16 hours to cross the red sea and reach Jedda, Saudi Arabia. Luckily we had our tickets upgraded at no extra charge and were
given a cabin in the first class section. Cabin it was, first class it was not but at least we were able to get some shut-eye and escape from the mobs on the deck.. From the deck of the Al Judi, Jedda looked amazing and the differences between north Africa and the middle east became apparent immediately. Huge skyscrapers, fly-overs, concrete everywhere - quite unlike anything we had seen in the last couple of months. The Jedda port is a very organized place and we were quickly ferried by bus from the ship to the immigration hall to be met by a host of Saudi immigration officials all mincing about in skin tight mustard coloured uniforms. This was the part I had been dreading and I was clutching my sarong/doekie-thing nervously expecting to be shouted at for not having my head covered. The officials did not seem to concerned about my exposed locks but the first question that was asked (even before we entered the immigration hall) was whether we were married. Once this fact was established, everyone seemed to relax and things progressed smoothly. Every inch of our hand luggage was searched for contraband and when they had established that we were on the level we were allowed to progress to the vehicle inspection section. We waited almost an hour for our car to be brought from the ship - for this privilege we had to pay the slick Al Judi agent a whopping US$15 - what for we could not establish as he seemed to spend most of the hour cruising the customs area in his cadillac or peering at us though his expensive sunglasses but everyone else did the same so we were not going to rock the boat/cadillac. We were told that our car was being searched for drugs and we were to be patient (very ominous indeed!) Eventually the car was brought around and the customs officials set about searching it. I must say that the whole process was very half hearted as to open everything would have meant a couple of days work. The process was quickly curtailed when they discovered our mountain of dirty laundry. The officials were not so kind to the Sudanese who were importing cars, they had every inch of the car searched, boxes torn open, carpets lifted, spare wheels removed - we were just happy that our meagre possessions were not exposed to this type of scrutiny!
We left the port at midday only to find ourselves in the midst of Saudi lunch hour - everything (and I mean everything) including the lunch places, close at midday and only reopen in the late
afternoon. This was most distressing as we discovered that Macdonalds (American franchise or no) was closed and the Big Mac we had been promising ourselves since Nairobi was not going to happen (and we were ravenous). In desperation we pulled into the Hyatt hotel hoping that at
least they would be serving lunch. They were and we gorged ourselves on the most delicious lasagne and salad. It was while we were having lunch that we met the Hyatt food and beverage director, Marcus Ptok. Marcus is a German (although he speaks english with a British accent) who had done a two year stint at the Grand Roche hotel in Paarl and who had spotted our SA registered car in the parking lot and had sought us out for a yarn about the South African wine lands (our favourite topic of course!) I rather suspect though, that it was the diesel leaking out of our car and causing a rather embarrassing stain in the Hyatt parking lot that brought us to his attention and the wine issue was just an opener. Marcus invited us to have dinner with him at the Hyatt's roof top restaurant later that evening and it was over mezze and Jedda delight (the Saudi version of champagne - sans alcohol) that he initiated us into the strange ways of the Saudis. I am not quite sure whether he was exaggerating some of his stories for our benefit (egged on by the fact that our jaws dropped visibly at each delectable morsel of gossip) but he told us of how the Saudis don't work at all and that all their labour is imported from outside (as a result the Hyatt has a staff made up of 38 different nationalities), how if you want to have a function which includes both male and female guests you needed permission from the Central Intelligence Department, ditto if you wanted to have more than 30 people in a room. All of this creates some serious headaches for a European food and beverage manager at one of the poshest hotels in Jedda - I mean, just that evening, the Canadian ambassador had had the gall to arrive at a function with his wife in tow - which nearly caused an international incident. We were joined later by Tony, the hotel's Lebanese banquet manager who seemed determined to match and better any story Marcus could come up with. Tony was well versed in the subtleties of Saudi road kill and went to great lengths to tell us just how "finished" we would be if we hit a camel while driving in Saudi. Not only would our car be written off but we would have to pay compensation to the owner. It seems that there are all sorts of unwritten rules, for instance, if you hit a camel at night you pay but if you hit one during the day it is the owner's fault and he pays. Compensation for a camel fatality is no laughing matter - Tony told us very solemnly that one camel was worth between 50 000 and 60 000 Riyals (about R120 000). For the rest of our trip through Saudi we were paranoid about hitting a camel and kept our eyes open for the sneaky buggers.
After an excellent evening which culminated in a round of smoking the traditional sheesha pipe we said goodbye to Tony and Marcus feeling even more nervous about the Saudi culture in general. The next day we headed north along the desert highway towards the Jordanian border - a massive distance of over 1200 kilometres. Driving in Saudi is downright unpleasant at best and totally hazardous at worst. In Jedda itself, most roads have at least three lanes in each direction, with two service lanes on either side (the service lanes are for ditherers and people turning off etc). Everyone drives VERY fast and they are all very irritable (a fact I ascribe to the fact that their heads are overheated by virtue of their dish cloths). Petrol and diesel flow freely and diesel costs only R0.70 per litre so everyone drives the most enormous American cars (Nev calls them yank tanks). Our worst fear (aside from hitting a camel) as we headed north was that we might stray into the holy city of Medina which is strictly off limits to non Muslims. Tony and Marcus had warned us that it we happened to be caught in Medina (even by accident) we would be locked up. Luckily, when we got to Medina we realized that this was not a huge problem as there are signs, police, barricades all directing non Muslims onto the so-called "Christian highway" which gives the city a wide berth. After 12 hours straight driving, Nev was looking a little green around the gills (as women can't drive he had to do it all) so we decided to stop over at Tabuk before hitting the border the next day.
The crossing into Jordan was painless and we noticed an immediate relaxing in the attitudes of the Jordanian people (as compared to their Saudi counterparts). First and foremost, after a couple of dry months through Saudi and Sudan we were able to have our first cold beer and boy did it taste good. We were amazed to discover just how strong the Jordanian currency is - the Jordanian dinar is stronger than the dollar and it was quite odd to change 100 dollars and get a couple of notes instead of shopping bags full as we did in places like Sudan. Another novelty item was the number of western tourists who we encountered in Jordan - literally busloads full. Quite odd when we are used to being the only tourists around - we kept getting the heads of Dutch grannies in our photos (a hazard of foreign travel I guess!)
Our first stop was the ancient city of Petra which is one of the most breathtaking historical sites we have ever visited. It truly is a lost city hidden deep in the mountains which is reached through a 1.2 km Siq (canyon) which in some places is only 2 metres wide but towers over you to a height of almost 200 metres. Petra was apparently featured in one of the Indiana Jones movies although for the life of me I cant remember which. We spent two glorious days exploring the tombs, temples and amphitheatres of Petra lapping up the ancient history and civilization. I was lucky enough to spend my birthday at Petra - I could not have wished for a more memorable spot. Petra was definitely one of the highlights of our trip and is well worth a visit if any of you are venturing this way. From Petra we headed south to Aqaba on the red sea where we met up with Brian and Hugh who are doing the same sort of trip and who we have been chatting to via email. It was great to finally meet them and to catch up on their adventures. We also met a couple of crazy bikers who are doing the trip from north to south on their very cool motorbikes. From Aqaba we headed into the desert and spent an unforgettable night in the Wadi Rum area before heading north to Madaba and Mount Nebo (where Moses was showed the promised land). Our last stop yesterday was at the Dead Sea which is just the most bizarre spot – its more than 340 metres below sea level and the water is thick with salts like Bromine and Iodine. We had our swim, or rather our bob before heading to Amman. Today we hit the ancient ruins at Jerash before heading north to Syria.
Well, I guess that's it in a nutshell - hope you are all well, lots of love,
Penny and Neville