By Maryann Horne
They say that people don’t take trips. Trips take people. And if Saudi Arabia is a book, those who don’t travel have only read a page of it.
It was week two of our new Saudi adventure. At a glitzy reception, full of very important people, I felt bored. My fault entirely for not making the most of incredible knowledge as half the room were top specialists in their respective fields. One of them, a banker, noticed and came to my rescue. I told him not to waste his time. All I knew about finance was trying to keep my account out of the red. “You must be interested in something I can help you with?”, he said. “I’m not very good at anything except moving”, I confessed. “I just want to travel and see the real face of Saudi”.
He burst out laughing, lent in and whispered. “Take a train to Al Ahsa”. What a train, a real train, like Thomas the Tank Engine, I mused? Or was it more like the Japanese bullet train? He had me. “You want to see Saudi? Do what the Saudis do”, he advised. “Forget the malls, the markets and the historical sites. This journey will tell you a story full of love, friendship and our Saudi ways”.
And so we did. Ten days later, our little boy could barely contain his excitement as the stripy orange fast train pulled up. My hubby was suitably backpacked with nothing but essentials and daughter armed with enough popcorn to take us to the moon. The adventure begun as we joined travellers on the 8.05 to Houfouf.
There were students, travelling back to their parent’s homes. Sons checking up on their mothers. Daughters going home to see their relatives. oddly, it felt like taking the train a few stops in Wales or Scotland on a Saturday morning. Minus the rain and delays. Everyone knew each other. Carriages were full of chatter, greetings, hugs and smiles. Within minutes, my daughter was adopted by five children and invited to colour while their mothers exchanged the latest news. My husband was befriended and submitted to a thousand questions within minutes. By the end of the journey, we were invited to many farms and family homes to share the Friday meal. My husband had the full download of interesting sights from several travel companions determined to make our visit memorable. My son, happy as ever, spent most of the journey camel spotting from the window.
We packed the weekend with formidable moments. The lunch at the farm of the grandmother of our daughter’s drawing partner from the train was scrumptious. We feasted on Khabsa while chatting about football. Hanouf and her mother regaled us with tales of Saudi customs. Her brothers filled in the knowledge blanks about Eastern region, it’s trading history and significance for modern day Saudi over green tea. We heard Sunni and Shia call to prayers. The kids saw goats, chickens, dogs, camels and feasted on dates. The governorate of Al Ahsa, listed by UNESCO as the largest oasis in Arabia, harbours so many treasures. We spent the rest of the weekend at natural caves, the old Ottoman style souk, forts, funky cafes and the best women’s clothes shops. Houfouf is, after all, a garrison town and Happy Wife, Happy Life must work with clothes.
The train journey back was less intimate, more crowded but just as enjoyable. This time, women with children returned to the arms of their husbands and fathers in the capital, students swotted and the bohemian vibe was over. The sleepy and peaceful scenery heaved now with activity at every stop.
I have not seen the glamourous banking CEO since the night it all started. But I recall with fondness his words and passion as he spoke about “the real Saudi”. Judging by the car he left in, I doubt he ever took Saudi trains. But he taught me a valuable lesson and one that has been reconfirmed again and again. No matter how well people go on to do, they never forget their roots, their people and where they come from.
It humbled us hugely to be privileged enough to share a bit of love, a few doses of friendship and experience Saudi ways. In the end, it wasn’t just the trip that took us. It was the Kingdom and its people and this feeling has only grown since.