Thursday, October 21, 2010

Busy Busy!

It seems I've been remiss about posting blog updates lately.  Part of my absence can be explained by not having home internet for a week (a very long week!), but most of it is due to a very busy few weeks at work.  When I first arrived, during Ramadan, things were much calmer.  Now we're firmly in the swing of a normal schedule, which I love because it keeps me busy.  However, it also means I spend most of my precious free time sleeping. 

There are some exciting events on the horizon, including a trip home to NH, which I'll post about once they're complete.  A highlight of the last couple of weeks was a day trip to Taif, a city tucked in the mountains about two hours drive from Jeddah. 

Taif has long been a popular vacation destination for Saudis, including the royal family, in large part because its weather is so much better than most of the rest of the country.  As soon as you ascend Al Wada mountain, the humidity eases and the temperature drops considerably.  Taif is known in particular for its agriculture and tourism industries.  It grows roses that are pressed into essential oils and coveted across the world.  I hope to return in the spring for the Rose Festival. 

Taif was a nice break from Jeddah (particularly the cooler weather!), but it was really the drive there that I want to comment on.  On the way out of Jeddah, you drive along the Mecca Road.  After about 30 minutes you start to see signs dividing the highway into two sections - one for Muslims Only and one for Non-Muslims.  We turned off right before the checkpoint into Mecca.  The authorities check the IDs of all visitors to ensure that only Muslims enter the holy city of Mecca.  I'd heard about these road signs for a long time, so it was exciting to finally see them.  As soon as we were outside the city limits, the road narrow to two lanes.  And almost instantaneously, it was a whole other world.  We were in the desert, surrounded by sloping hills, scrub brush, and desert scenes.  Jeddah is very flat and green, so the contrast was startling.  My favorite part of the change in scenery was the appearance of camels!  Hundreds of camels were grazing on either side of the road, with only cursory attempts to fence them off the road.  (Camels are a very dangerous road hazard here; they have similar physical characteristics to moose in that they have long legs and bulky bodies that can fall in just the right way to crush a car.)  We were speeding through without any chance to take pictures, so next time!

About 60km before getting to Taif, we started ascending Al Hada mountain.  A new road was constructed just a few years ago to allow cars to drive up the 6000+ foot mountain on a winding 35km road.  It's in very good condition and has decent barriers.  The drive is long, winding, and a bit nervewracking, but the view was spectacular!  We didn't see any of the mountain's resident baboons on the way up, though they were out in force when we drove down again.  (Again, no pictures.)  Taif city is a very pleasant place, with more of a small town feel than Jeddah, even though more than .5 million people live there.  It's relatively lush with agricultural projects.  I will definitely return!

(At the top of the mountain is the hotel from which the Kuwaiti government operated during the Gulf War.  We stopped for a rest break - quite a historic site!)

On the cat front, the kittens have discovered the joys of shredding paper.  I now have to keep napkins, paper towels, and bathroom tissue out of sight or risk coming home to find a mess.   (And wouldn't you know, just as I wrote that, I heard a thump.  I went into the bathroom to find both cats in the bathtub, ready to attack the toilet paper I'd hidden under a towel.  *Sigh*)  For beings that dislike water, they spend an awful lot of time in the bathtub...

Anyway, I still owe a posting on Cairo, and I want to write about education in Saudi, a sector I've been dealing with considerably lately.  Some very interesting observations.  Hopefully this week I'll be able to write at least one of those, although it is shaping up to be another very busy week...  (That's okay, I have a trip to NH, and a side trip to TX to see Lyle Lovett, coming up very soon!)

Happy Weekend!  (Or almost weekend for those of you not working in the Muslim world.)