Shortly after arriving in Jeddah, it became clear that you don't go to Saudi Arabia for its night life. With very little interaction of the sexes, a virtual ban on flirtation, a total prohibition on alcohol, smoking, dancing and movies, there was not much for our little tour group to do after dinner each evening.
As for the days, well, they were different than anything you could experience here in the U.S. ... particularly for the women in our group.
The ladies were given abayas-fullbody overgarments-to wear upon arrival in the country and were required to keep them on everywhere outside the hotels. When in public, women must be accompanied by their husbands or other male relatives. They have their own designated waiting areas in public places. In the airport, for example, they're crowded into a relatively small space while the men roam the airport drinking coffee, talking, etc.
These requirements, along with many other Muslim beliefs, are enforced by special religious police. One married couple in our group was required to bring along a certified copy of their marriage certificate in the event they were questioned since their last names were different.
As you can imagine, tourism is not exactly big business here. Not only do the Saudis discourage tourism by making it very difficult and expensive to obtain the necessary visas, but the U.S. Department of State, in its latest advisory on June 14, 2007, continues to "warn U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Saudi Arabia."
When we boarded our tour bus at the airport, we were surprised to learn that the Saudi government mandated that two policemen, armed with AK47s in a military vehicle, accompany the bus as we traveled throughout the country. Our hotels required screening of persons and inspection of bags upon entering the premises.
These were presumably for our protection to ward off possible attacks on American tourists. We saw no other tourists anywhere as we traveled for seven days in the country.
The Saudis are among the most conservative in the practice of their Muslim faith. All activity stops five times a day for prayer. Shops and restaurants close and no business may be transacted. Even in the airport, a large area with prayer rugs is provided to accommodate 40-50 men, no women. Mecca and Medinah, the two holiest cities in the entire Muslim world, were off limits to our group, as non-Muslims are prohibited from visiting there. However, every Muslim male must visit Mecca once in his lifetime if at all possible.
Alongside the mosques and old-time souks are modern, thriving, oil-rich metropolises, such as two that we visited-Jeddah, which is located on the Red Sea, and Riyadh, the capital, which has highly contemporary, visually stunning glass and steel buildings.
Speaking of oil, the price of gasoline was 30 cents a liter, giving rise to wisecracks within our group about taking some home as a souvenir. Saudi Arabia was just another poor country until oil was discovered in the mid 1930s.
And as different as this culture is, the people we encountered, without exception, were friendly and welcoming. Normally we have more contact with the locals because we travel on our own and not as part of a tour group. Here that was not possible. But we did have some contact, and it was all positive. At no time did we feel unsafe.
In my experience, it's usually governments that are to blame for problems, not the people.
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired senior vice president of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there's a fifth Monday in the month. The next one will run June 30.To comment on this column or to request a copy of the first three installments of this column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org mail to 3564 Clearwater Circle, Indianapolis, IN 46240.