Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Walking through history in Al-Balad in Jeddah

Sometimes I can’t believe that I live in this amazing place. There is so much history to Jeddah and when you ask the people who grew up here they just shrug and think I’m crazy for thinking it’s so cool.

Just like we don’t look twice at the black squirrels that live in Toronto, these people don’t see their history like I do – probably because they are a part of it. Take Old Jeddah for example.

 Situated in the city of Jeddah, the locals call the area Al-Balad which translates into “The City.”

A street in Al-Balad, Saudi Arabia

Yes, it looks old in the photos and that’s because it is old.

 Al-Balad was founded in the 7th century and used to have walls around it to protect it. The walls were torn down in the 1940s, but many of the original buildings and streets remain.

The Al Shafei Mosque in Al-Balad

The Al Shafei mosque also still exists. Built in the 7th century, it’s currently undergoing a major restoration as over the centuries, it sunk into the ground. 

Fresh meat shop in Al-Balad

A lot of the shops in the area have been around for years and locals still go to the souk there for fabrics, fresh meat, dates and nuts and of course, frankincense, which was a big Saudi export before the oil boom. 

One of the most surprising things was that some of them didn't lock up during prayer time.  They simply hung a sheet across the doorway (see below) and trusted no one would come in and steal anything.  Now that's something you wouldn't do in the US!

Shop closing up for prayer time
The houses in the area were built using rocks taken from Arba’een Lake. They were positioned like bricks and set in place using mud with wood separating them to help distribute the weight. 

You’ll also see lattices in the windows. These are used to catch the wind and create a breeze to cool down the homes. It’s surprising how well this worked.
Ignore my hair. The intense heat and humidity makes it completely unmanageable. 
The entire Al Balad Historical District is 1.5 square kilometers. It was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site in June, 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

And then there was this crater...

At 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, most people are sleeping.  But not my friends.This Sunday in August, we are up and already on the road in an effort to beat the heat of the Arabian Desert. It was still dark out and already 38 degrees Celsius, but we had a quest. We were going to see the famed Wahba Crater.

The Wahba crater is located 254 km from Taif in Saudi or about 3.5 to 4 hours from KAUST. This will mean nothing to you unless you’ve been here so let’s just say, it’s a 2 km hole in the middle of nowhere. Really. It is in the middle of nowhere. The road just stops and when you get out of your car, you are standing at the top and it’s a long 250 meters down to the bottom.

But while it’s a bit of a drive. It’s worth seeing – as it’s strange. Some people told us that the crater was caused by a meteorite, but geologists now say the Wahba Crater is volcanic.

It was apparently caused by a phreatomagmatic eruption-an explosion. And if you don’t know what that means, don’t feel bad. I had to look that up as I had no idea what that meant. It means that groundwater came into contact with hot lava or magma and created a mass of sodium phosphate crystals.

It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, because frankly, how often do you come across a giant white lake of sodium phosphate crystals?

I know you are wondering….can you touch it? Yup…if you can find the way down. This was the hard part of our trip. It took us nearly two hours of wandering around the top of crater in the sweltering sun to find the path. In the end we cheated and had to call someone to guide us to the location. But once you are on it, the route down to the bottom is fairly easy and you can do it in 20 minutes.

The great thing about Saudi is that everything is natural and tourism is a big thing yet so if you can find it, you can see it, eat it (don’t do this), bike over it – whatever. But because it’s not commercialized, you won’t find restrooms, snack bars or any other people for miles around, so come prepared with water, sunscreen and a tank full of gas. Cell phone reception was also a little sketchy out there.

Do I recommend it? Yes!! (that's me in the pink shorts).

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Northern Ireland…it’s just so green

The Rock n’ Roll Marathon series just happened to have their half marathon in Dublin the same time my workplace was shutting down for Ramadan.  And you know what that means…while everyone else is running to the beach for some R and R, I decided I had to run 13.1 miles.

I had already done a cycling adventure in Ireland a few years ago on my own, but I had never gone to Northern Ireland.  As I was I was already going for the race, I figured this would be the perfect time to visit that area as well – especially the Giant's Causeway.  

The Giant's Causeway is considered the fourth greatest natural wonder in the UK, and legend has it that it was created by a giant. Although, geologists say the columns were formed by a volcanic eruption -- still kind of cool though as most of the columns are hexagonal and you wouldn't expect a volcano could create do that.

This photo of the columns is from Wikipedia.

My original plan was to rent a bicycle and ride around the Causeway area, but that was before I got to Northern Ireland and saw how narrow the roads were.  Plus, there were all these great trails right along the coast that I could walk instead.

If you go to Northern Ireland, I highly recommend driving or walking along the causeway, but if you are going to do it, go early or go late in the day.  Numerous tour buses also show up at the area which takes away from the serenity of the experience.  You also might way to check out the suspension bridge which is on the way.

Nearby is also Bushmill's Distillery where you can do a tour of how they make the whisky or have a couple tastings.