This week I am lucky to have two trips inside Saudi Arabia scheduled - one for work, and one for fun. For fun, I'm joining a group of colleagues for a weekend trip to Madain Saleh - Saudi's version of Petra. More on that after Friday.
For work, I joined our Consul General on his first official visit to this small but mighty province. Al Baha is KSA's smallest province but with an estimated population larger than some Gulf states. (*cough* Bahrain.) It's a 5 hour drive (or 30 minute flight) from Jeddah. We flew; I'd like to have driven. Al Baha is geographically and climatically very different than the rest of the country - it's mountainous and has changing seasons and varied weather. On our short trip, we saw the famed fog - so thick you could barely see a car's brake lights in front of you - as well as a clear, but chilly, day. I thoroughly enjoyed the brisk weather (it probably only got down to about 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit), but everyone was decked out in winter weather gear. Most of the men had on winter jackets over their thobes, while a few sported floor-length fleece/fur overthobes (my own made up word).
The views on a clear day are absolutely spectacular. I've included a few in a photo collage here. We went up to a panoramic lookout point in Raghodan Forest, but, unfortunately, we went on the foggy day. So I missed out on the really great views. But what we saw was pretty awesome anyway! There's considerably more vegetation in Al-Baha than in most of KSA - some low, scrubby bushes/trees but also taller, conifer-like ones. I heard of olive tree farms nearby, and the honey from Al Baha is famous. We didn't go anywhere that sold either, unfortunately.
Al Baha tends to be a conservative area, but I had no problems as the only female member of the delegation. In fact, I was the only one who got to see women at all! Seriously, we did not see a single woman in the streets, in cars, in shops, in the hotel, at the university, anywhere. I have heard that's not uncommon in some parts of the country, but I had yet to experience it. I visited with a group of women at the Literary Club and was treated to the most adorable performance of a welcome song, in English, by some local schoolgirls. I gave them certificates and took pictures with them afterward (none on my camera, sadly) - it was great. The women were impressed/amused by my Arabic and kept giving me things to read (slowly). I had a great time with them, and they gave me two bouquets of flowers (see below photo). I had a wonderful time.
Perhaps the best part of Al Baha, for me, was the baboons. Those who know me know that I am an animal lover. My (two) move(s) to South Africa were based at least partly on the existence of penguins and elephants. Ditto Thailand on the elephants. I could spend weeks, even months, at a time on safari. I desperately miss wildlife living in Jeddah, so the baboons were a welcome change. They appeared at the hotel in the morning to scavenge for food. Unlike those I encountered in South Africa, these baboons were fairly small and not socialized at all - both good things! (I'll save my I-was-attacked-by-a-baboon story for another post...) I spent a good half hour walking around and taking photos and a couple videos. I think I may have to go back to Africa for my next post, simply for the proximity to national parks...
Anyway, the Al Baha trip was short and sweet, and we had some great interactions. I'll post about Madain Saleh next week!
(the photos in the collage below are pretty low-res, as a better quality copy wouldn't load here. apologies.)