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Monday, March 31, 2014

Trip from Jazan to Abha

Abha is a state in Saudi Arabia’s Asir Province.   The Latitude of Abha is 18.220221000000000000. The Longitude of Abha is 42.508159900000010000.
I delight in travelling. I want comforts but I do not regret the money I need to spend on a comfortable trip to a place where I will get to see vast expanses with no crowds around. I love hills, plains, rivers, rocks all types of places but no crowds, noise and litter. I was happy to come to Jazan , though I had apprehensions too. Wonder why the people in Kerala talk derogatorily about the gulf countries though a huge number of Malayalis live here in the Middle East, finding their livelihood. I know many asked me why Saudi Arabia? I still have queries of that sort. The surprising aspect of it is that they refuse to accept the truth when I tell them it is fine to be here. I can feel the reluctance when they back off and can very well sense the muted sensation they experience… it is Minu, she will speak only like this. She is different from us. I smile my smile I keep for these occasions and enjoy it. The sad part of it is that we as a folk refuse to come out of our practices of intimidating others, being unnecessarily critical of anything outside our practices, however meaningless those practices may be. I was told that the food here would be horrible. The same was told to me by the Malayalis whom I came across here too. I do not mean to say all the Malayalis. I just met a few of them and they discuss these issues though I  never ask their opinion. I was apprehensive of Kapsa but now a days I crave for it after  a tiring outing. I like the aroma of it . I enjoy holding the burning hot packet of Kapsa on way home after an evening outing. I love it. I never had any issues with the stomach eating it. I do not say it is the best in the world but nothing revolting about it. Goes well with lime pickle and salad and paappad. A lot like biriyani. It may not advisable to eat it on a daily basis. The oil content and the chicken could pose health hazards. The hot breads are appetizing too. I love the sight of them making it in the tandoor way. The lamb curry and the bread from the Yemeni shop is incomparable
We started off at 8.20 am on 21 March 2014, the very next morning after the college closed for mid semester break. We were out in the previous night dropping off a friend at the airport on her way to Quatar for spending her holidays with her sister and family there, then doing a hurried shopping for the instantly planned trip to Abha. We bought some nuts, snacks, milk, bread, and so on. By the time we reached home it was around 12 night and we decided to start off a bit late so our friend who would drive us in his car would be well rested. He was on time at our door and we left off stocking enough water and petrol. I knew we were going to a hill station but had no clear idea of the terrain or the roads. I talked to those who have visited the place. They said it is worth going there, it is cool there but they were not vocal about the marvel and awe inspiring part of it. May be they were not moved the way I am now. We saw some people atop Al Sawda arriving, clicking some pictures and leaving. We felt we were hurrying through the place but certainly we saw a few groups coming and going. We left reluctantly. It was windy and cold. Windy in the sense that I felt it would lift me off my feet and carry me off, quite windy, considering my weight.
We started the 53 kilometres stretch of mountain ride but never realized it was a climb though Aziz intimated us. I was relaxed and cool. He kept telling that it is a deceptive ride as we never get to feel we are going up great height. He stopped at a parking area half way and showed us the track we have covered and my first surprise started. I was stunned looking up and down the stretch of road which looked mostly like a series of fly overs built on the sides of the mountain. Rocky mountain cliffs and the depths below the road gave me shivers. It was very cool too. I had no caps and no protection for my ears. I felt the pressure difference affecting my ears. I blocked the ears with rolled up tissue, the only alternative to cotton at hand. Feeling better we started off again after taking some pictures and stretching our limbs. It was cold but the sun was too harsh too, too confusing an experience. My brother and our friend Aziz put on their jackets. I had my abaya on but had a thin velvet stoll for my head. Wish I had more information or sense to take strong head cover. I wore the niquab in the car when I had to fight with the dust and smoke which caused slight irritation. I had no mask too. All this because I am by now used to travelling in air conditioned cars on level roads. I need no masks and I am never troubled by smoke or dust. Next time I know how to be prepared well for the ride.
We nibbled on the stock of roasted almonds and mamouls
 It was the idea and enthusiasm of Aziz which took us to Al Sawda. I read on the internet about Abha and knew nothing else. I dozed off on our way to Al Sawda wondering he kept driving uphill even after reaching Abha. Thought it was taking us nowhere but decided not to interfere with his fancy. I was hungry and kept wondering when we would have the breakfast. Was also worried the stuff I carried with me to have on the way would all be rotten. The place turned out to be the best. The power of keeping quiet and trusting a well meaning soul!
On reaching Al Sawdah, the first thing I wanted was to freshen up. Good that in Saudi Arabia, there are places where women can freshen up and pray. The neatness of the place cannot be guaranteed though. In the commercial enclosure where Aziz found the rest room for men had a horrible place for women and some kind male souls there suggested that if there is no male around and if there is some male to safeguard the entrance while you are in there is no harm in women using it. I could use it as I had two men around to safeguard the entrance. We bought a miniature mud house to take home and it costed 10 SR. I took a fancy for the stone bowls displayed at the shops there but after much reflection and attempts at selecting a good one decided that it is not worth it. I still hold an image of the stuff in my mind and one of the sort will find its way to my hands as some such things I took a fancy for at times in my life later did.
We waited while our friend went for his namas taking pictures of us both alternatively and watching huge trucks bringing in rocks and sand for some construction there. Dust came up in thick clouds when each truck unloaded its stuff. Lot of expatriate men in and around the trucks doing their daily labour.
We proceeded for a place to sit and have our brunch. I was worried that the boiled eggs and cold stuff we packed would have got spoilt by then. I suggested eating in the car. Aziz had alternative ideas of eating out in the open. We walked into what is named there as ‘nature trail’ carrying the plastic bags containing the bread, milk and other stuff we had with us. We walked in and found the place quite calm and good enough. I was apprehensive all the while because I had read in a blog about baboons being there. Aziz wanted to go to a distant place walking so we could have a fine view of the valley. We were atop the highest peak in KSA, almost. Then I saw some men taking pictures of baboons and alerted Aziz and my brother. We stopped short and decided to have our food near a fine place near where we had parked our car. We began unpacking and spreading out the items. My brother and Aziz were engrossed in the task and I suddenly saw a baboons of all sizes closing in on us. They were numerous and we somehow put the things back and walked away to the car. Amazingly they made no attempts to grab the bags or try anything aggressive. I was scared but managed to walk away. I saw mothers among them with very small babies perched on their backs. The mothers hurriedly brought down their babies from their backs and placed them in between their hind legs, holding them tight with their hands. I felt sad when I saw how they feared we would harm their young ones. They looked at us sitting there watching us withdraw with the bags. We got into the car and began eating our food and suddenly I spotted two baboons outside on the right side of our car, looking at us eagerly. We threw the plantain peals out and they grabbed them. One was big and the other small. Behind our car there were a few small groups of people having food out in the open. The baboons did not seem to trouble them at all but waited patiently for what came their way. They licked all cans clean and did not fight over anything. We saw them climbing up the parked vehicles and posing for photos.
We drove up to the height where there is an intercontinental hotel. It looked closed. It was off season. We went to the edge of the cliff and explored the place, taking in the breathtaking scenery. It was much more than I was prepared for. All places I have seen are nothing compared to this, I felt.
We drove down to the city of Abha and went uphill to the Green Hill. The open terrace around the restaurant offers a beautiful view of the city. The place is calm except for a few visitors like us. There were fantastic trees and birds all around the place. I noticed a kind of plant which looked succulent, with small fleshy leaves and red tinged roots creeping on rocky surfaces. I wish I could take it to India and have it grow on the rock boundary walls of my dream house. It always surprises me how green the plants here are. On the roads, along the medians we come across lots of plants and close observation I have spotted big water pipes running along inside these structures constantly supplying the plants with water. Or else standing in the blazing sun throughout they would invariably wither away. I brought home 3 small branches from plants in Al Sawda and I have them in a bottle of water atop my refrigerator. I will bring in some green when they die off  because it is otherwise too barren inside the house.
We came across birds and bird nests around new abha. The new Abha resort provides very good facilities for freshening up. We utilized the facilities and looked around the place. There was no sign of any cable car in operation and I was the least bit interested in it. I am too skeptical about it. Never have I travelled by a cable car. It may be a good experience but my fears keep me away. I tried the giant wheel a few times and managed to enjoy the slowest ones which are smaller in size too. No enthusiasm for such things.
We walked around the resort taking a look at the city spread around down the hill and took a few photographs. While I was posing under a tree we heard chirpings from the foliage and tried to locate the source. The cunning bird hid behind the leaves and kept on making the shrill sound as though chiding or mocking us. We saw nests and guessed the cries would be due to agitation. We moved away and we saw a bright streak of yellow among the dark green foliage. It flew off to the next tree giving us no chance to see it in full. A small bird in bright yellow.
We descended the Green Hill and on the way came across a small building named Museum and decided to peak in. It was a tiny curio shop and we glanced around and came out buying nothing. The prices are a problem everywhere here as they either do not display the price at all or write in Arabic numerals which is not easy for us to decipher. It is important that I learn the numerals as soon. We drove down and reached the city and looked around for a place to eat a late lunch. Our friend was very hungry by then. We went in to the shop named ‘Happy Chicken’ wondering how chicken can be happy in a place like that. May be they meant Happy Chicken Relishing’. Anyway we were happy with the chicken we got to eat there as it was good in taste and enough in quantity, and rather cheap. The three of us had a hearty meal. We left for home reluctantly but in a hurry. It was dusk already and we had to drive all the way down the 53 kms of tricky mountain tracks and then cover the rest of the 200 kms to reach Jazan. The ride was smooth but the darkness the silhouetted mountains sent waves of terror coupled with amazement through my spine. The unlit roads aggravated the elements of mystery and intrigue. I wondered if I would drive down in the darkness with composure like the umpteen drivers on the track. The thoughts of the depths beneath was enough to freeze me.
We reached the plains soon and our friend stopped at a place for his namas, allowing me to raise my tired feet up the back of his seat which he tilted forward for my convenience. I just requested him to move the seat a bit forward while he was out so I could stretch my legs. Since both the front seats were pushed backward to the maximum for the men to be comfortable I hardly had enough room at the back for stretching my legs. I am tall and prone to water retention so the favour he did for me was highly appreciable. I was reminded of what a colleague of mine once said when I stretched my legs on a party day in the office. She said one should not put the feet on a chair. I see no wisdom in that. A chair at home may be easy to preserve pure like that but in a public place one cannot insist on purity that way. One has to sit wherever a seat is available if one desperately needs to sit. So where is the sanctity of chairs? Seeing that I had problem keeping my legs bent for long hours our friend offered the best for me. I appreciate genuine concern and refuse to take in ideas of sanctity of furniture at the cost of one’s comforts and health.

The trip to Abha was both a surprise and an intriguing experience. I would like to return to the place if I could travel with full view of the road in front all the while I am travelling, with nothing blocking my view, with enough room to stretch my legs, and a good camera to capture as much of the scene as possible, and a sense of freedom and safety.