Spending some time climbing one of the bigger dunes we came across, I easily saw why my family held such positive feelings about this place. I rarely get the opportunity to feel completely disconnected from human influence living in Southern California, and being in this wide-open space without a hint of human existence reminded me how special a deep connection to nature can be.
On the drive home, we passed several herds of camels along the road that were more than compliant in posing for our cameras. We found it difficult to get a shot of the camels without power lines or piles of garbage in the frame, however. It seemed Saudi Arabia’s massive growth spurt was taking wonder and romance out of the natural beauty that makes this land so special.
Half Moon Bay, Hofuf and the al-Qara Caves
Once we got back to the Owens’ house, Kathy, my dad and I drove out to Half Moon Bay. This body of water in the Arabian Gulf is where my dad, mom, sister, grandfather, grandmother and uncle spent a lot of time. When my father was young, he and his friends would sail out to rocky reefs and spear fish for hours. My grandmother and grandfather honed their sailing skills in this bay and my grandfather’s ashes still swim here. Of all the tales that I’ve heard of Saudi Arabia, the stories involving Half Moon Bay are by far my favorite.
Saturday, February 18th saw Tom back into town, and my dad and I convinced him to take the day off work and show us around, a suggestion to which he happily obliged.
At about 10 a.m. we drove south from Dhahran to the town of Hofuf. Just like the other cities we had visited, Hofuf seemed like a collision of old and new, with ancient buildings standing within feet of massive modern hotels and office buildings.
It was great to have Tom with us; he encouraged my father and me to get personally involved in the surroundings as we wandered a souq. Following Tom’s directions, I found myself behind merchant counters selling spices, balancing bushels of crops on my head and helping carpenters build a brick wall.
After the prayer call sounded we left the Hofuf souq and drove to a camel souq, where we were outnumbered by and large by the great livestock of Arabia. The Saudis at the camel souq were very friendly to us and posed for many pictures with their animals. They were not shy about crowding around our camera viewfinders to see their pictures.
As we struggled to find the route to our next destination, I sat in the back seat making handheld cheese and pita bread sandwiches we’d purchased at a gas station. The trip began to remind me of surf trips with my best friends, when getting lost and dealing with the unexpected hang-ups were half the fun.
We eventually found another friendly motorist who led us to Al Hasa, an oasis abounding with palm trees. In Al Hasa we visited the al-Qara caves, a vast, intricate cave system beneath a mountain outcropping.
Unlike caves I’ve visited in Puerto Rico and California, this cave system was above ground and the mountain that housed the caves was scalable. I was able to climb to the “roof” of the caves and take in the view of the oasis. Rather than your stereotypical two palm trees next to a pool of water, this oasis was huge, and from atop the caves I could see the boundary created by the underwater system that fed acres of lush palm trees in the middle of the desert.
An Arabia Worth Remembering
That night, as I wound down my last night in Arabia, I reflected on all I'd experienced that day, happy to have seen so much of the culture firsthand as opposed to looking on from the inside of a tour bus.
I flew home the next day and tried to remind myself that I hadn't dreamt this experience. I had explored a world that only a fortunate few Westerners ever enter. My stereotypes of militant Saudis were shattered, replaced with fond memories of a gracious, generous people.
I am eternally grateful to Prince Sultan for making this trip possible, to the employees of the SCTA who took exceptional care of all of us on the trip, to Arthur Clark who kept our whole group connected and organized, to Dr. Zahir Othman for contacting my grandmother and being absolutely integral in the organization of this trip, to my father who was finally able to show me his home, and to my grandmother for her wonderful generosity in allowing me to take this trip – one that I will never forget.