One fine day, during a management meeting to discuss the upcoming quarterly roadmap for a project I was involved in, which focused on creating a travel booking engine for travel agents to enable religious travel to Makkah and Madinah for pilgrims.
As the discussion progressed, our CEO proposed, "I suggest you travel to Saudi Arabia to gain a thorough understanding of the project's requirements with the stakeholders before we kick it off."
"Travel to Saudi Arabia? Is this for real?" I couldn't help but question internally. Stepping out of the meeting room, I searched the Google search engine and typed, "Is it safe for a female to travel to Saudi Arabia?"
Surprisingly, the search results revealed numerous articles and vlogs from renowned influencers promoting Saudi Arabia as a desirable destination. A sense of reassurance!
However, my scepticism about the journey lingered.
As I drove home from the office that day, I decided to see "Saudi Arabia with my own eyes" and challenge my preconceived notions about the country. These were some of the questions that had been on my mind:
Could I freely explore Saudi Arabia?
Are there any restrictions on wearing an Abaya (the long robe worn by Muslim women worldwide)?
Could I easily find food that suited my preferences?
Embarking on this journey would not only answer these questions but also offer a unique opportunity to broaden my perspective.
I got my flights and hotel booked. There were still 20 days left for the travel, with no single day with a thought: should I cancel the trip?
The D-Day arrived 18-Sep-23 morning flight to Jeddah from Delhi (Saudi Arabian Airlines - SV 757). I was excited and nervous at the same time. We had reached our destination, Jeddah – The second largest city in Saudi and a gateway for pilgrimages to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. It was surprising to see more no. of female working staff at the airport than males. I was starting to change my perception of the country and its norms.
The cab driver stood holding a placard and greeted me with a warm smile, instantly easing my anxiety. I reached the Hotel – Hotel Centro Shaheen. Again, a warm welcome at the reception with the sweetest smiles - and it wasn't long before I realized that this hospitality was not merely a facade but an integral part of their culture. The check-in in the hotel was super smooth.
In the evening, we left for a Sightseeing Tour in Jedaah. We left the hotel premises at around 6:30 PM. By then, I was settled; the misconceptions were being proven wrong.
Long, never-ending straight roads – worth a self-drive car(I wish I had an international driving license for Saudi). You could see female drivers driving vehicles on the road – the restriction was taken off a few years back.
Smooth drive alongside the beautiful, calm Red Sea. We stopped by to witness the magnificent and smoky – King Fahd's Fountain – The tallest fountain- a breathtaking sight. The area primarily had locals around. Important note – I wore a simple long kurta and jeans, no abaya until now!
We got into the car and drove towards the North Corniche beach –a famous tourist place where some fishermen were fishing. It had beautiful, well-lit buildings around it.
It was a peaceful place to relax and rejuvenate by the sea's calm and eliminate all the tiredness.
The next place to explore was the Red Sea Mall – the largest in Jeddah. I had a satisfying meal, but for the stomach, the heart was not full - A Yemeni restaurant – it was finger-licking good. As we had dinner, I witnessed a group of ladies, with an average age of around 60, celebrating and enjoying themselves. This heartwarming scene in Saudi Arabia defied the perceptions I had.
I had already fallen in love with the people and place. Back to the Hotel – Day 1 came to an end.
Day 2: After closing off with some work-related meetings, this day was planned for Al Balad (An ancient, historic Jeddah and UNESCO heritage site), which took me back to the Arabian Nights Fairytales. It was beautiful and preserved by the government authorities. It had shops around to buy artifacts and local handmade paintings. It had old, withered houses stacked one over the other. I felt all of this was older than history. I could see female tourists without abayas here.
Gold shops nearby were worth visiting with antique and super heavy designs. We wrapped up with dinner and stopped by a local restaurant to eat "Kunafa," the best dessert I have had in my life. We then reached back to our hotel.
Day 3 was an exciting plan; we went to Taif (A serene escape from the hustle and bustle of Jeddah - a hill station near Jeddah, a 1.5-hour drive). I had always imagined Saudi Arabia as a land of dunes and no water. Still, they had this beautiful hill station, Taif, where the average temperature at night in winter can drop to 11 degrees Celsius. The drive to the hill station was beautiful as if you were going to a fort—well-lit and well-built roads. We had a delicious dinner on the open roof of a café with a cold breeze.
The road back to Jeddah felt more beautiful and soulful. There came a viewpoint on the way back to Jeddah, from where the holy Makkah city could be seen; it was a breathtakingly beautiful view. As we stood near the cliff, we noticed a Tea stall. We had that local tea. The most memorable moment of the entire trip was when a tea vendor took a corn cob, put it in the fire for roasting, gave it to me, and said, "This is a gift for you; I will not charge for this as you are our guests" I was almost in tears at that moment, and a clear conclusion was drawn that everyone in the country is generous, and an outstanding host.
And with this, day 3 ended, and we returned to our hotels.
It was already day 4, which was also the last day of our trip, and as they say, when I Rome, do as the Romans; I wanted to buy an abaya for myself and wear it in the city. We went to a local market, bought an abaya, and wore it for the entire evening. I felt nice and one among them. With a hearty dinner, it was the last evening of the trip, and I had already started to miss the place and the people I had met.
It was indeed unforgettable! The warmth and hospitality of the people, the rich history of Al-Balad, the progressive changes in Jeddah, and the natural beauty of Taif all left an indelible mark on my experience.
Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a blend of tradition and modernity coexisting harmoniously, making it a destination worth exploring.
I wish to go back and explore the unexplored places, including Abha, Alula, and many more booming tourist spots.