Monday, February 3, 2014

A warm welcome from old town Jeddah

Wednesday was my first day at work and already I got to visit Jeddah, which is the nearest city to KAUST and the second biggest one in the country with 4.1 million people.  

Jeddah is currently having its first cultural festival in the city’s old Balad area and I went to check it out with my co-workers.

So imagine me in my abaya – without the veil (so glad I bought this before I left Phoenix or I wouldn't be able to go) trying to follow a group of other women dressed in black through the busy streets of the city. 

Keep in mind that I'm not only new to the area and my Arabic is limited to "thank you" and "yes" -- or if I'm being fancy, I can say "Yes, thank you," but I'm also without my guardian techno angel -- aka my iPhone.

That's right.  I learned when I got here that my cell phone no longer works because I have an iPhone 4 so can’t get a Sim card for it -- and to buy the new iPhone 5 will be $800. So I've been walking around old school -- pre-smart phone.

In other words, I have no idea how to get back to KAUST if I did get lose my co-workers in the crowd, I can't talk to anyone, and I don't have GPS, any translation apps or a way to call for help.

Little did I know that I had nothing to worry about.  My group was also afraid of getting lost in the crowd so they basically were following me (the only blonde in the streets) to make sure they weren't left behind.  Guess I stood out a bit.

The Jeddah Heritage Festival they took me too was the first of its kind in the city and thousands of people were attending that week.  

I know it sounds strange that heritage festivals are a new thing, but some of Saudi co-workers said it’s because in the past, the country really focused on the future.  This makes sense as there are so many gorgeous modern skyscrapers and other architectural buildings in the city.   

However, this is about to change.

According to Prince Sultan Bin Salman, head of SCTA, this 10 day festival was a “turning point for cultural heritage in the Kingdom.” He told the media, they (meaning the government) are starting to focus on national tourism in Saudi Arabia.

Yay for me!  This works out perfectly because when I’m not at work, I’m basically a tourist.   

And it seems like I'm not the only one excited about this new cultural trend.  My group at work had arranged a private tour of the festival so that we could learn about the buildings, history and the stories behind the structures. 

My favorite one was the house with the tree (yes, it is actually known as that because it’s the only house with a tree).

I loved this house because the owners had stairs specially made so camels could walk right in the front door with the packages and food and take them up to the top floor of the home where the kitchen was.  Smart thinking!  The stairs were shorter and wider to make it easy for the camels to climb up and down them.

So was I shunned walking as a westerner in the streets?  Not at all.

In fact, there were countless times when I would walk past an elder and hear say in a quiet voice meant only for my ears, “Welcome, daughter” and then nod as they made eye contact.

It was humbling, touching and very much their culture to be privately welcomed by strangers like that.  

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