Since I’m curious if I could enjoy more of the experience for as much of the week as possible (rather than just the last day when I finally relieved myself — or rather the universe relieved me — of responsibilities at the trip’s end), I’m keeping this one to a more manageable one yacht crew this time…
….Although I won’t fight you if more of you still want to join us; I just might have to assign lieutenants to help out! Please still inquire if you are interested.
Once again, I introduce the next generation of monsooners:
Calvin "O Captain My Captain" Sun - Expedition Leader | NYC
About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:
Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car.
The older ones are calm as Zen:
… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:
Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:
We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:
Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):
Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.
During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:
Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:
And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.
The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:
We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:
Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:
We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:
After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.
And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:
And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .
This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.
The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.
Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”
Me: “Are you joking? No!”
Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”
Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)
Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”
Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”
(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)
15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):
Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.
For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.
Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.
Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.
Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?
Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”
Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)
Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)
Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.
Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”
Me: “…(what is going on)”
As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:
Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:
Who were we to stop him?
We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.
Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:
We then crossed a long tunnel:
And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.
Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .
. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:
And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.
This photo is from Wikipedia:
And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:
And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:
I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:
With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:
We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:
…as well as an all-girls university:
We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:
…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.
And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.
The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:
- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Here we wandered around the old city gates, from a time before cars …
… as well as the traditional markets in this labyrinthine part of the city.
This maze like area is where traders from all over Arabia and Africa live and work in a colorful world.
Jeddah’s coral houses, still standing in various states of disrepair, are some of the most famous architecture here:
If you’re looking for a museum, then spend your time at the 19th century Nassif House, formerly a mansion:
And after some souvenir shopping here, we headed onwards to Ta’if (post to come tomorrow).
For our second night in Jeddah after returning from Ta’if, we decided to make another visit to Joujou as we’ve been told it remains the only happening place in town right now.
And as how every monsoon should end, it would be with an unexpected surprise: A nurse based in Saudi Arabia named Jazzie has been following me on instagram ever since the pandemic began. When she noticed from my IG stories that I was in Jeddah, she reached out immediately if she could say hi.
The universe always will reward the ones who show up. She showed up.
After a spirited conversation about fate, travel, our future, and everything in between, we regretfully had to say our goodbyes as they had to return home before their 11pm curfew.
With the bill and best wishes paid to the energized manager of Joujou, Corey, we drove out for one final walk along the Jeddah Corniche for views of the Red Sea.
If you look far up north enough here, you’ll catch a glimpse of Al Rahma Mosque, aka the ‘floating’ mosque, constructed on stilts in the sea:
Despite having some ice cream at one of the numerous “Cone Zones” stalls here, the wet heat ended up defeating us; by 11pm we were dropped off back at our hotel for an assumed end to our night in Jeddah.
However, I would then find out that the BinaxNOW test that Mihaela had helpfully got for me did not have the Telehealth option that allowed me to return home last month from Italy. Without a third party telehealth option to verify that you performed and read your test correctly, it cannot count for travel and a return home to the USA (even if you’re fully vaccinated).
I therefore quickly sent out a last minute message out to both Jazzy and our local guide Abdul Aziz, both of whom immediately responded with options. And at midnight, Abdul Aziz offered to drive us 10 minutes away to Al Borg Diagnostics for a rapid PCR (2 hour turnaround at the cost of around 550 rials or $150 USD).
Negative once again! Let’s go home.
Speaking of returning home, did I mention how ridiculously beautiful Jeddah’s one year old airport is?
Even more beautiful was I used 70,000 American Airline miles to obtain a free business class itinerary on the world’s “best business class” via Qatar Airways from JED to DOH to JFK. I last flew with Qatar First and Business was 2 years ago while on my way to Pakistan.
I proceeded onwards to getting stamped out of Saudi Arabia:
Then after passports and security, I proceeded onwards on a train and a very long walk to the newly opened Wellcome Lounge at JED airport. You’ll just have to forgive the first impressions of their elevator welcome:
Because the rest is much better:
At 9:30pm we began boarding for my JED-DOH leg of my itinerary home.
How I missed Q-Suites:
With 2 big surface areas to place your things as well as a storage cubby underneath the “ottoman” next to your main seat, there was plenty of room to call this a “suite.” The main attraction remains the sliding door to maintain your privacy.
We landed 2 hours later into Doha, where even the transfer shuttles are fancy:
It was a quick 1 hour turnaround to make it to my onward DOH-JFK flight. And when I approached my randomly assigned seat, something looked very familiar:
After our first day in Riyadh with an early 6am rise and coffee, Salwa’s partner Mohammed picked us up in his car where we began our 2.5 hour drive to the Edge of the World:
Stop by for the Saudi Arabia’s distinctive black camels before you go off-roading!
Where am I?
The Edge of the World is an unexpected and dramatic geological wonder within the rocky desert northwest of Riyadh. Considered as Saudi Arabia’s own “Grand Canyon,” it boasts its unique name because from atop the escarpment, you have an uninterrupted view of the horizon.
We then spent an hour here underneath Mohammed’s shade enjoying alcohol-free beer, coffee and tea.
Afterwards by 11am we headed back into Riyadh where we caught the 3pm domestic onward Saudia flight to Jeddah.
We landed at 4:30pm in Jeddah where it wasn’t taxi drivers or family members that greeted us, but a freaking aquarium:
Another one of Salwa’s travel partners, Abdulazis, picked us up here where we drove into Jeddah for sunset.
We parked up at Joujou for dinner where sights that couldn’t have been imagined years ago were occurring naturally here. Let alone being informed by literally everyone we were one of the first foreign tourists to visit the “new Saudi Arabia.”
I took full advantage of it:
- At time of posting in Jebel Fihrayn, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Did you press play yet? Are you hearing music playing?
OK, you can keep reading then.
You’re going to miss …
…the moment you were invited to come on your first Yacht Week (YW), realized how opposite it would be from a typical monsoon, and then decided not to pass judgement unless you tried it at least once (or twice). You’ll then miss all the introduction e-mails, pre-orientations, trying to find 8 decent looking swimsuits, more orientations, wondering how to pack regular clothes with a week of elegant costuming and no suitcase, keeping track of all the chat groups, trip updates, new apps, feeling disorientated by who’s saying what, and yet a burgeoning anticipation of what could possibly happen in a week with 34 seemingly both random and hand-picked strangers sailing the Tyrrhenian Sea.
. . . But deep down, we secretly knew the universe was up to something.
You’re going to miss …the anxiety of packing for your first trip since the pandemic, paired with the sudden travel declaration changes in the EU, tripled by the chaotic weather patterns right before you left, and oh yes more anxiety of whether you’d even arrive at all, to finally reach the odd revelatory feeling of witnessing dominoes fall into place when you defeated insurmountable odds as the Red Sea seemingly parted before you. And through it all, you’ll miss the gradual appreciation for the growing message threads that would tie us together, mirroring your own yearning for a novelty that had been eclipsed by the pandemic; threads that drew from wandering hearts of wonder, as we took our initial steps towards liberation knowing sweet is never as sweet without the sour.
You’re going to miss …landing at your final destination and seeing faces you only had known from Zoom calls, breaking the ice in shared cabs, not sure how to turn down maggot-infused cheese and giving in anyway, exchanging plates of food with a group of complete strangers for your first group dinner in a foreign country in months, the taste of fresh gelato after as you walked up and down a single boulevard of unbroken dreams and new promises, feeling both lost and found as camaraderie built in a noisy suite at the after-after party before you passed out in your last stationary bed on land for the week.
You actually might not miss the flash floods that overwhelmed the roads the next day while waiting to be checked in as you fought off panicked sewer roaches the size of your palm to rescue your luggage, while considering prematurely inflating your floaties to escape …that was not fun. But the brightest rainbows come only after a storm, and you will miss the first walk down the aisle of yachts as the weather cleared, dodging awkwardness as you picked your coffin ..ahem room.. for the week, filled up the cabinets of your new home, celebrating the birthday of the most sober birthday girl in the world, before getting dressed for your first night out to meet the rest of TYW fleet. You’ll also miss what was supposed to be a wholesome night became something entirely alternative with …lots of whipped cream … as you then returned back to the marina with no time wasted to party more, all the while making sure we’d be united in setting our boundaries for the days to come.
You’re going to miss …waking up to footsteps on the deck above you as your skipper prepared for first sail, then really waking up to the Lion King theme blasted from the stereo, before ascending to the open sea, and embracing the long awaited feeling of physical, emotional, and spiritual freedom as a sun-kissed wind enveloped your naked skin for the first time. You’re going to miss the first dive into open waters, swimming (or learning to swim) with your new friends, spending way too long and feeling like your arms were going to fall off from inflating floaties for the first time, tasting freshly curated meals onboard as land approached, and feeling a new kind of alive as you watched the La Maddalena archipelago growing larger before you.
You’ll probably get nostalgic over docking at all-day cafés that rarely understood the concept of iced coffee, the 18th-century town exploration, your first e-bike ride of unknown destination, and tending to monsooners’ injuries as you begin the habit of picking them up after they fall. You’ll even miss how you got dressed in an outfit entirely made of sequins for a dockside disco party only to bring the party back for a yacht against yacht dance-off, after which, you first discovered the illuminating sensation of chatting until sunrise.
You’re going to miss …the next morning’s northward drift towards new countries, approaching the unique natural coastlines of Corsica, snorkeling to shore with fresh sea urchins in hand, cliff-diving into a lagoon, the unraveling of a timeless seaport as you dock in the marina of Bonifacio and the group fights another to hijack an entire train to the top of the citadel.
You’re also be sure to reminisce over long walks through the antiquing town and cemeteries with no plan other than bringing back a semblance of a monsoon, before the following dinner and afterparty where we’d be bringing down the house with endless bottle service. You’ll then miss returning for our first group card-game during which arms were cleaned and truths, connections, and shades of attractions would be established and remodeled. And then you might remember witnessing some toxic masculine rage from afar while thanking your lucky stars you didn’t have to worry about anyone like that in your crew.
You’re going to miss …waking up (nahhhzavenya) to a day entirely on open water, the epic atmosphere of competing amongst 21 yachts sailing side by side during the Regatta, which led to an injury requiring you to care for another fellow monsooner with a yet unnamed medicine bag that hadn’t been used in nearly 7 years. You’ll miss docking at an inlet near Maddalena for a day-long festival of swimming down a tunnel of blow-up pizzas, lobsters, eggplants, and llamas, crossing onto other yachts to meet those you may have noticed but were too preoccupied to approach, both synchronized and unsynchronized diving, devouring another delicious dinner with your yacht before returning to the festivities, getting down to bhangra, rescuing your life-jacket adorned friends from the water and other yachts, teaching your friends how to swim, enjoying music and chats beneath the stars, and falsely believing you could finally go to bed early for once, only to have a shooting star tell you “not today.”
And when you look back on that night afterwards, you will realize we are just a culmination of the tiniest decisions — dare I say seemingly random meteor shower moments — that had felt at the time as if they neither would matter nor add up . . . until they do.
You’re going to miss …being woken up (pass me those caffeine pills?) to pose for a long-planned black swimsuit shoot with the entire group, before arriving in Poltu Qualtu for an entire day at the beach club where “The Spy Who Loved Me” was filmed. You’ll miss flipping your circadian rhythms with the DJ’s tempo, this time underneath a garish sun while balancing friends and glasses on body parts in ways you didn’t think possible, followed by hours of intimate questions over hookah, and an impromptu concert where everyone huddled around one monsooner like a Sofar by Sea, singing Hallelujah in harmony as people on the dock joined in and cheered (with a touch of envy). What followed after was the repeat of a card game with a group getting to know one another just a little bit better, where newer, more intimate truths were divulged. Or maybe you wish you could forget this part (But I won’t).
You’re going to miss …waking up roping the yachts together for the epic circle raft YW is known for, the last dives in unison at the drop of “Peanut Butter Jelly,” the odyssey of floaties in one final run, the impromptu last minute makeshift wound-dressing that MacGyver’s your way into the water of your first and last floating festival, joining our yachts together again for a Mexican fiesta onboard before sailing among the super yachts of the Rolex Cup, learning Queen B was somewhere in attendance, and docking in Porto Cervo for a free day of cafés, shopping, and a serendipity that lead to wakeboarding on a million dollar yacht.
And while you’ll certainly miss Beyonce, you’ll sadly also be unable to miss the lamest seemingly never-ending dinner you’ve ever been to at an otherwise swanky nightclub, when you realized you wouldn’t even have done dinner at a nightclub back home…yeah, that was dumb. But then again, you’ll still miss the liberation of leaving the party earlier than all the rest, to return home and chat into the wee hours of the morning over cigars and under lightning-streaked skies.
You’re going to miss …staying up for sunrise again, before sleeping in afterwards through a storm that threatened to throw you from your seabed and hoping you wouldn’t wake up underwater, somehow arriving back at your base marina with the frenzy of squaring away last minute items, repacking, atoning for your sins, and going out for one last gelato in town before returning to dress all in white (which you’d surely stain) for the closing party.
And while you may have missed the background hum of violins building up to the final party, you will definitely miss everything about this night of mayhem as unfolded in real-time: the dancing inside the brightest-lit nightclub you’ve ever been to, the final group photos, a symphony of murmurs that cushioned the DJ’s beats, the pirouetting circles in unison, the furtive glances across the room, the catharsis of sea winds that dried sweat and tears as the Perseids twinkled above, and the brief words exchanged between embraces that meant something; a whisper of truth in our ears.
This is where I’ll break the fourth wall and say I’m going to miss the moment (yes I remember everything) of being immediately picked up when I fell and hit my head on a rock wall, nurtured back to lifeby a group of once-strangers I could call a family especially after the loss of my own during the pandemic.
I’m going to go all in here and say I’m really, really, really going to miss even the idea itself of being taken care of by a family— a concept which had been elusive to me since childhood; you have no idea how much that meant to me. What an odd feeling I didn’t know I had needed. Thank you.
You’re going to miss …the romanticism of looking back on the “last night” even before it was over for a group who bonded so quickly and so much, seeing the threads that bound chance and possibility unravel through a multitude of the tiniest leaps of faith, held together by the underlying support we had for one another, and the literal ‘dancing in the rain’ in between it all. You’ll miss the cab ride back to the marina calling out to people not even in the car with you before the last after-after party where even our once playfully main competitor (the Swiss Boat) carried their speakers to us for the first time. You’ll then miss bringing the house down together with one unifying denouement where every underlying plot-line the past week would converge into a single moment as if we were all in some 90s movie or a particular music video, compelled to recognize a dance of letting go and becoming part of the refrain around you, with no expectations or security of what the next “tbd” step would be.
And you’ll miss how a single night could release a lifetime of self-doubt as if it were a cloudburst in the sky, or how a single night could melt away the chains of insecurities as they passed through us like fleeting waves sent off into the ocean eternal, finally guiding us to recognize that we may be worth the realization of our own personal legends and to dare to live the life that we’ve always wanted. And just like those teen movies or a nostalgia-laden music video, we learned that while we may have playfully chanted “all I need — is your love tonight,” the irony was that we actually never needed it …because we already had each other’s all along.
You’re going to miss …realizing how life isn’t a journey or a rush to a particular conclusion: It’s a dance, and it’s important for us to recognize that before we’re missing these moments imprinted in our minds. But even then, a feeling will stay with you long after the laughter dies down, the rain and tear drops fall, that last sunrise from the marina, that last sunset from the airport, and when you say your goodbyes and “see you again.” Your heart will continue to pine after the emotion that moves you still, like some sort of land-sickness long after you’ve left the sea. For regardless of whether the following reunions the weeks after would conjure up the spirit of what we had or what could have been, you’re going to miss returning home knowing that very moment a needle has shifted, where once familiar things gain new dimensions.
It is therefore now only up to you to keep this momentum going, knowing that the very people you will miss most of all may have arrived inadvertently into your life this week not only “to have the best week ever,” but also to renew each other’s sense of purpose and possibility, beating ceaselessly against the memories of a past we’d certainly never want to forget, and dreams of a future. . . .