Three women from three different decades, two related, sit like ducks in a row, cross-legged and braiding one another’s hair. Our seat of choice? A double bed, atop of which, lies a very ornate comforter. The bed is situated in a very small, white-painted concrete square hotel room. The air is cool, though it possesses that taste and feeling only a room made of concrete with large tiled floors and few accoutrements can: musty and stale. The room speaks of no windows. The only light provided from two sources: the blindingly unflattering fluorescent tubes of blinking light fastened to the ceiling high above; and, more interestingly and perhaps welcomed, the small square cut-out in the top corner of the room. The square’s light diffused by the slow moving and ancient fan within it, the only connection to the outside desert world.
Braid, braid, braid. Left over right. Right over left.
We are in Abha. My only proper memories of Abha include my being ill, buying more handwoven baskets than is necessary, and being on the right end of the hair-braiding chain (hint: I don’t have to braid anyone’s hair).
How did we get here?
We were on a short-ish trek to Abha, a southern city in the Aseer (or Asir if you prefer) province of Saudi Arabia. It was too short a trip to camp really, but camp we did anyway, staying overnight at one of our more frequented sites, Wadi Turabah. Wadi Turabah isn’t exactly on the way to Abha, it’s located a little to the east of the more direct route south of Jeddah, and could be considered a more scenic route as we had to wind our way through mountainous Taif. And deal with baboons. Always the baboons. Who, as it happened, acted as our personal alarm at five in the morning the next day.
There were bigger plans for exploring and camping around the Aseer province, too, where the camping didn’t happen, but the exploring did. Nearly 22 kilometres north of Abha is the Turkish Fort, though it was getting late in the day to do it justice, we soldiered on to our destination.
We travelled with four other groups of friends, all having left Jeddah according to our individual schedules. This particular trek couldn’t have been completed if it weren’t for a coastal road built in 1979 to connect Jeddah, my hometown, to Abha (lucky for my parents (and friends) and their adventuring ways!) We were the last to arrive and met our friends at the hôtel d’incompétence.
Why hôtel d’incompétence? Because I don’t recall its name, but I’ve been told they sorely lacked in providing accurate wake-up calls.
We visited Abha the end of May in 1993, I was nine years old and had some kind of stomach flu. A bug that had me wretch in the streets in my black and white striped Beetlejuice-esque pants, before my dad could escort me back to the hotel.
Abha, a popular destination for tourists (Saudis and expats alike)!
Abha is located in Saudi Arabia’s Aseer province, on the southwestern border of the Red Sea, and is situated 2270 m (7,500 ft) above sea level. Unlike where we lived in the ’80s and ’90s, Abha experiences most of the Kingdom’s rainfall, and therefore, it and the province is quite green and lush. Making our way to Abha, we passed many a stone and mud house and watch towers. Many a goat and bedouin camp too. No big deal but we were invited to sit and break our fast with a family in their mud home. Mmm goat.
An example of the awesomeness of these structures (sadly I don’t have access to the heaps of photos in my parent’s collection, so scouring the internet for pics to post of some of the examples of mud structures from a distance will have to do):
My family and I have had many a free meal at the generous hospitality of bedouins in remote landscapes and of Saudi citizens in obscure villages. It’s true and it’s amazing.
As someone lucky enough to have had access to the interior of such a mud structure (not the ones in this picture, but ones similar and also ones painted the primary colours of the colour wheel—refer to the image below), I can assure you they are perfectly sound, comfortable (especially when decked out in all the Persian and Afghan carpets and wall hangings) and quite cool on the inside. Perfect for escaping that desert heat.
All that I have left of this long weekend trip, besides a handwoven large-brimmed hat that was meant for my much smaller child’s head, is the memory of my being sick. Sitting on a bed, in a room shared with our caravan of travellers, cross-legged in Beetlejuice pants being treated with the luxury of having someone play with my hair. Braiding because we know how. Braiding to pass the time.
The joys of leisurely travel. Even if one is sick.