March 30, 2022. 87°F/31°C
I cancelled my walking tour in Jeddah today, which was to be a recap of yesterday but from a woman’s perspective. Frankly, I was uncharacteristically grumpy after last night’s excursion, and didn’t want that to rub off on other unsuspecting passengers.
Late yesterday afternoon, Ted and I headed out on an excursion called “Desert Safari at Sunset”. The enticing description, both in our excursion summaries and in our port talk, had us excited about a romantic evening under the stars. Here’s what it said:
“Experience the beauty of the desert and its inhabitants’ hospitality during an evening visit to a nomadic camp. Leave the hustle and bustle of Jeddah behind as you embark on a drive outside the city into the desert, a breathtaking landscape of sand dunes and mountainous terrain. Upon your arrival at a Bedouin-style camp, meet your welcoming hosts and learn the definition of Arabic hospitality. Enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, along with local delicacies. You will have an opportunity to gain insight into the lives and traditions of your hosts. Enjoy watching the sun slip below the horizon, then sit for a mouthwatering meal of traditional dishes under a canopy of stars. After dinner, bid farewell to your hosts before returning to your waiting ship.”
Doesn’t that sound magical?
Things went awry almost from the beginning, but before enumerating the disasters, Ted and I both agreed that this had the potential to be a really good, really enriching experience, and we know Viking will learn from everyone’s feedback. By the next time they bring a group to Saudi Arabia, this could be a highlight excursion. Even this time, some people had a really good time – just not those of us on Bus # 10.
Despite being the second of 8 buses (around 250 people found the trip descriptions as enticing as we did) to load, we were the last to leave the port, since a couple of our fellow travellers were delayed in Saudi customs/immigration, having to do the entire photo/fingerprint process since they hadn’t been on a morning excursion.
No one’s fault, and someone has to be the last bus.
Sadly, with no bus to follow in convoy, our bus driver got lost. At least twice (maybe more, but twice was obvious). He appeared to take an alternate initial route out of Jeddah (since it was not the route by which we returned that night), past a vast area (several kilometres) of rubble where the existing city is being demolished awaiting modernization. It’s hard to imagine that area is one that Saudi tourism would want to highlight.
It’s amazing the wholesale rebuilding of the country that is going on,
Rush hour traffic was in full swing – again, no one’s fault – and about 90 minutes into our journey the bus pulled over and the driver started calling the name of the group leader who’d been assigned to our bus. No response; he’d gone to the back of the coach and fallen asleep. Several (male) passengers joined in calling his name, finally managing to rouse him. He and the driver exchanged words, consulted the GPS, and we set off again. Not one word spoken to us passengers. Every once in a while we could hear the GPS repeat what sounded like the same word in Arabic. “Recalculating” comes to mind, since each time we veered in another direction.
At the next Y intersection we headed right, pulled over… and then our driver BACKED THE BUS UP BACK ONTO THE HIGHWAY in order to take the left option.
We proceeded as far as what seemed to be an industrial area, where we missed our turn, backed up, collided with the low cement barrier, and then appeared to be following a lone chicken truck for miles. This will seem funny one day, but at the time, with no communication at all, it was just scary. On some level we knew we weren’t being hijacked, and that Viking would miss us, but logic wasn’t necessarily first on any of our minds.
Another half hour of desolate landscape, dotted with the occasional worker’s shack. Pavement ends. No streetlights or landmarks except some hydro towers. Absolutely, definitely, 100% no “breathtaking landscape of sand dunes and mountainous terrain”.
Suddenly a white truck appeared from the other direction, turned around, and pulled up beside us. Our driver opened his window to exchange a few words, and the truck pulled in in front of us, “leading” us somewhere. Still not one word from our driver or companion about what was happening.
And then … we saw 7 other tour buses parked on the sand. The collective sigh of relief was audible.
We’d left the Port of Jeddah around 4:30. It was now just after 7:00 p.m. That may have been the longest 2-1/2 hours any of us have ever spent.
Needless to say, there was no opportunity to “Enjoy watching the sun slip below the horizon”, since the sun had set while we were trying to find our way to the camp.
Upon arrival at the “Bedouin camp” we found the other 200+ Viking passengers seated in a variety of ways: at low tables in tents, on couches under the open sky, on pillows at tables, and some at dining style tables. There appeared to be a large buffet area set up to our left, but no food yet being served. At the far end of the venue were 2 (I have to hope well-treated) camels available for short rides, and a small stage area. Mats and rugs covered the sand in seating areas, and there were a few low lights marking pathways in the sand – plus LOTS of electrical cords and sand-coloured rocks (ouch).
We were greeted with a cup of tea and a date, followed by trays of “authentic” Bedouin Lays potato chips and Loacker biscuits in snack pack sizes. What?
Some entertainment followed, in the form of traditional Bedouin song and dance. Given the vast size of the venue, the entertainment was out of the sight line of most of the people there, but there were loudspeakers amplifying the music.
Packaged snacks and small cups of various hot teas, bottled water, and cans of pop continued to be offered, but no mention of dinner. At one point, around 8 p.m., we noticed a couple of Viking crew members carrying plates of food, so we headed for the buffet area.
Chaos. No one directing “traffic”, no clear lines, and the added hazard of electrical wires laid on the sand. Piles of plates were visible in at least 4 places, seemingly indicating staggered starting points. Wrong (apparently). I chose a plate and joined a line that turned out to be the dessert area, but when I asked the Viking passenger next to me if they would mind putting a piece of stuffed pita on my plate, I was informed that I wasn’t in line. No food for me.
Ted opted not to eat at all, too frustrated with the process to persevere. I eventually got some spiced beans, kofta, and rice – all that would fit on my dessert size plate. It’s possible the menu was “mouthwatering”. I just didn’t get to find out.
When it was announced that it was time to leave at 9 p.m., we discovered our bus at a 120° cant, mired in the sand. A brief passenger rebellion ensued at the idea we all need to stay together, and our group dispersed themselves among the other buses.
Ted would have killed for a pizza by the time we got back to the ship just before 11:00, but sadly room service only does pizza when the World Cafe pizza ovens are operating.
BOTTOM LINE: This was Viking’s first ever incursion into Saudi Arabia, and glitches are to be expected, even with a company as amazing as we think Viking is.
We expect Viking will make it right, because they always do.
But… I did get to ride a camel.