Keeping promises

I just found my desk. It’s been here all along, beneath piles of school papers to be graded, odd bits and scraps of notes I scribble down here and there so I won’t forget, receipts that I have to scan and send in for insurance reimbursements, travel planning documents, the headset I use for my language studies, and even a few books.

I’m working on learning to use my phone for more of the good things it can do. I’ve had this phone a year and a half, since I accidentally took a dip in the Gulf with my BlackBerry in my back pocket. (When it comes to rescuing a wet phone, seawater is a whole other animal.) A year and a half. You’d think by now, I’d know some stuff, and I guess I do, but I am starting to use the planning and organizing functions, and getting away from the big, bulky, bound weekly planner that also graces my desk. I love scribbling notes, and that’s why I am lucky to have a Note 2. I have not upgraded to the 3, in spite of the massive ad push here in the Gulf to get people to buy Note 3 and matching a matching watch. (I am waiting for the 4. Word on the street is that it’ll be water-resistant.)

Among the tools you’d think I’d have been playing with all along are such goodies as Bluetooth for transferring files, adding photos and notes to calendar events and tasks, Google doc backups, that kind of thing. Nothing earth shattering, but when all these things come together, it clears clutter. I can’t handle sensory clutter of any kind–crowds, noise, fluorescent lights, traffic, messes–so I feel a lightening.

So imagine this crowd-averse, noise-sensitive, fragile-minded creature in a jostling, heaving crowd of fervent pilgrims. In Medina. In Mecca. It happened, and I’ll do my best to take you for a spin.

We had made an intention to make a pilgrimage when we first learned we would be relocating to the UAE, and yet it was not until well into our third year that we finally came around. The fits of the first year–from spending seven weeks of our very first Dubai summer without the husband/father of the house, to a whole new international school experience, to the realization that it was simply not going to work for us to call Dubai home–were too much. We were all suckerpunched by every experience, every time we turned around, it seemed. We stumbled through that first year, sleepless against roaring AC units and the unbelievably loud muezzin right outside our house. (Before you poo-poo that, consider that this was a pretty consistent news item, the volume of the muezzins’ loudspeakers. We wanted to hear the adhan. We just didn’t want it to perforate our tympanic membranes five times a day.) We made a few tentative connections with a few really great people. But then, work moved us to Abu Dhabi.

Our first year in Abu Dhabi was a new experiment, with online school and homeschoolers’ group, and living in an apartment (much too small) for the first time as a family. It was a truncated and busy year, with a late arrival and an early departure. We squeezed in a long weekend visit to Kenya (only five and a half hours by air), drove to Muscat, and focused on doing every possible thing we could right here in Abu Dhabi. While most of what there is to do is still pay-to-play, we’ve found Abu Dhabi more accessible, and built on a scale we’re more comfortable with. Anyway, that year slipped by fast.

Finally this past winter came, and I began to nag. First, I asked where we would go on vacation. But nothing felt really compelling, mostly due to political upheaval in various places. We tossed ideas at the wall and nothing stuck. So then I asked about Umrah. Yeah, he said. We need to do that. We need to do that before we go on a vacation somewhere.

Weeks passed.

Then I began to nag about Umrah, until finally we walked together to an authorized Umrah agent, and put our plan together. We went to the government clinic and got our required vaccinations. Like Hajj, Umrah is not cheap, even if you go on the cheap. We’d wanted to fly, but couldn’t get tickets in the right window of time to coincide with our available time off. So there it was: we were going on the pilgrim bus.

I knew it was going to be very, very different from the travel we’re used to–and if Rick Steves were a mom of two tweens, he’d be me. We do carry-on only. We do Third World. We do public transit. That 1960s Mercedes bush taxi without seatbelts? I breastfed babies in the backseat in 110F from the High Atlas Mountains to Casablanca and flew home wondering what that smell was (turned out it was me).

So we boned up on our pilgrimage knowledge (read some books and Internet) and of course I downloaded an app. We bought the necessary garments and footwear. We packed food–as many vegetables as I could, which turned out to be a smart decision. And we loaded up on the bus with a couple dozen others, singletons and couples and families we would get to know over the next week, on Thursday right after the afternoon prayer.

The bus was, like every single other Umrah bus on the Arabian Peninsula, a former German tour bus. Most of the arm rests were long gone. Some seats reclined. Others sat straight. Few did both. Window seals rattled, the AC blew a sort of mold-scented cigarette-infused dust, and we sat as far forward as we could, in an effort to avoid motion sickness. The trip was slow going for many reasons. We were apparently not able to consolidate stops–bathroom, prayer, snack, mechanical, smokes/tea. Then, at the border, we all disembarked to go through the immigration line…

And here is where I am just going to stop now and say, there is much more to this story. Sometime, when you see me in person, ask about the border stop.

…And then the bus went through some kind of bus-radiology stop, after we unloaded all our bags and everything we had on board. And then we reloaded it. This was some time around dawn–no, a little before. Because I think it was dawn when we stopped for prayer–no, we stopped because there was a gate in the road, and we could not pass through it until the guards showed up. So we stopped and the driver napped until dawn prayer, and we carried on.

The long story short is that we arrived in Medina more than twenty-four hours later. Google would tell you this was a sixteen-hour drive. Just saying. And the things my daughter got to see in bathrooms en route. Also, many prayer rooms along the roadside smell of cat pee, and I am glad that I carry my own soap. And wipes. And enough for others.

We were at this point road-weary and a little punch-drunk, but also intoxicated with the thrill of having finally landed in Medina. We were in a special place, and it really did feel special. Here’s a shot of our little family outside our hotel in Medina. More to come in a later installment. And a lot more photos.

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One response to “Keeping promises

  • barbbytes

    Not surprisingly, you all look so “Gulf”. Jo, you could be one of the sisters in law I left back in Kuwait. Not sure when we will see each other so I can get the full scoop on the border stop, but no doubt it is memorable enough that you will still have it handy.

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