It was early in Medina airport as I wandered among the arrivals halls. I barely slept on my 2am flight from Dammam, and slept even less following my 4am layover in Riyadh. But heck, I’m just glad I finally made it out here. Now if I could only figure out whom I was meeting.
Travel in Saudi Arabia is a bit well…undeveloped. Solo travel is possible in some regards but not as easy as in many other places. People really don’t engage in tourism in this country, at least not beyond the religious variety, and so outside of the two holy cities there is a lack of infrastructure.
I had been wanting to visit Mada’in Saleh since before I arrived in Saudi. I had looked up various ways to actually get there. It seemed to not be any easy thing to do by oneself, requiring various bookings, and even permits. The bookings I could do, my Arabic was good enough to communicate those things, but the permit was tough. Well in reality its not a hard process I’m told, however it requires a visit to a government office in Riyadh…a four hour drive from Dammam / Khobar. Not something that I would be able to accomplish on a work day. And so I figured I would book a tour. Now tour companies here seem to be one-man operations, with basic websites and a lack of payment options. They didn’t take credit cards and I was not keen on wiring money, so I worked out a deal to pay cash on arrival, I just needed to book my own flight. No matter how much reassurance I had, I felt that something was not going to work. Emails were sporadic and information even more so, but I had faith or at least it was my only option anyway.
However a week before travel I got an email asking me where I was.. Huh? Apparently they had canceled the dates of my tour a week later and I was none the wiser. Regardless as I was sitting in a café in Dubai with some friends reading the email I realized there was nothing I could do anyway. Could I do it solo? Was there another option. I scrambled and searched for more tour companies since I already had flights. As luck would have it, I found another company going that same weekend. Score. Same issues though, paying in cash on arrival, no clue as to logistics, and no real sense of whether this was a real opportunity or not. But trust in God and get on the plane.
So here I was at 630am in Medina airport looking for a group of other foreigners traveling with me. It was fairly easy to find them though, one of the few Europeans who stood out among the pilgrims from nearby countries. Success one. Now only to figure out who to pay or where to go.
They seemed to be as unsure as we were. One of them thought I was the driver or at least the tour guide. He told me later it was why he was so standoffish with me, assuming it was my fault that things were so poorly coordinated and we were running late.
And we were running late. No one seemed to know where to find the driver, whom we were meeting, or how we were getting there. We had no numbers, no assurances on how to find him (I was told the airport was small so it would be clear where he was when we got there…it wasn’t clear).
The driver did eventually show, a few hours late and bleary eyed. We are told he drove down in the morning…from Al-Ula to pick us up. This was disconcerting. The city of Al-Ula is 3 hours or so away, and it was after 8 am. What time exactly did he leave? I probably would have been cautious about entering the car at another point in time, but with no other options we all knew we would be going along with him anyway.
The driver spoke no English, so I became the group’s translator. Mostly trying to convince to driver to slow down as he tried to make up for lost time. He would bring the car up to 200 km / h as the various folks in the car started to get nervous and I would try to ask him to slow down which he would do for about 10-15 minutes time. But more so I could barely keep myself awake (which contributed to the lovely ignorance of how scary the drive actually was).
He would stop randomly, mostly at various pull offs, gas stations, or mosques. We thought he needed gas, or the bathroom, or some caffeine. Although due to my Arabic skills I was able to quickly ascertain that no, he was in fact just regularly lost. Did he come from Al-Ula?
I was thankful I was asleep though most of the time. Apparently at one point at his normal 200kph rate, while texting across two cell phones, he nearly clipped a pole on the side of the road. Yeah, we could have all almost died, I guess at least I would have gone in my sleep.
We ended up stopping down the street from the hotel, lost again, although already back in Al-Ula. He wouldn’t listen to me as I showed him the hotel’s location on GPS and we waited around until one of his friends came and showed us the way. The hotel as well didn’t see to know who we were, even though they apparently deal with this tour company on a weekly basis. So no matter, it seems that each step of the way one has to wonder if things are actually going to happen.
I guess what can you expect from booking through an outdated WordPress site and flying to a city with cash in hand to pay for a hopeful tour. Perhaps by the time all the pushes for better tourism in Saudi come along things will improve.