Wake up and smell the roses

Sometimes an alarm ‘clock’ is unnecessary. Notwithstanding the fact that many of these clocks have been replaced by a mobile phone, it is the case that with the gathering of dust and years, one’s anatomy and slowing failing physiology does the job of jolting oneself awake, perfectly adequately. 

It is with a regularity normally associated with the rising of the sun, or of the bitter disappointment that follows every attempt at cutting out chocolate from the diet, that around 0330 the laconic bladder gives up and asks the brain to stir awake to prevent the nocturnal pissing of one’s bed. In this task it is usually 100% successful, bar those nights following the copious ingestion of curry, Guinness and tequila slammers. Prostate tickling, by an enthusiastic practitioner of this ancient art earlier in the night, probably doesn’t help either. 

I had ordered coffee, croissant and bananas to be delivered as room service at 0430 as well as setting my iPhone to 0420. Eschewing the prostate tickling, saving it for a night in Bangkok at a later date, I tried to get an early night in preparation for a road trip to the mountain city of Taif, 85 kms south west of Jeddah across a litter strewn and sand blasted desert in southern Saudi Arabia. 

Standing at the porcelain throne at 0330 meant that I needn’t have bothered with an alarm. I was awake and in charge of a lethal weapon aimed precariously in the required direction. The gentle tinkling vied with the silence as my neurones slowly fired up. Then at 0420 and 0430, as planned, both alarm went off and coffee arrived.  

Today’s early start was necessary get a full day in on the road trip. I was meeting a work colleague, Catherine, at 0530 at her hotel across town. We had booked a driver and a full itinerary planned which involved breakfast upon arrival. Catherine is from the UK and brings with her a barrel of good British humour which she needs in her role on the same Transformation project I’m working on. 

Taif is known as the ‘City of Roses’ and produces rose water and rose oil for perfume. Due to its elevation, it is cooler than the rest of Saudi Arabia and thus a popular summer destination. Jeddah is of course sea level but Taif climbs to very nearly 1900 meters, that’s over 6000 feet. Ben Nevis is 1345 meters high by comparison. 

We climb into the back of car at night, while Faisal the driver gets us going into the soon to be rising sun. Jeddah is busy at this hour, god knows why, as we head out of town on the motorway. It does not take very long to leave the tall glass and steel towers of the city behind and then to hit a two lane highway across a landscape strewn with sand, barren rocks and low craggy hills. Just about nothing grows. An alien moonscape stretches out towards the very distant Hejaz mountains. The sun rises from behind the hills as we motor onwards. A perfect circle of orange pokes above the blue distant jagged ridges of the mountain tops. At one point we spot a camel train loping slowly in the same direction. They are about half a kilometre, and just over half a century away. This could be scene familiar to any desert tribesman over a millennium.  It is a reminder that Saudi Arabia is a very young country in its present political form. We stop and get out to feel the warm desert breeze, to feel the gentle warming of the sun on our backs and to take in this ancient panorama of camel, wind and desert. 

Standing beside the car, suddenly the oppressive weight and heat of the city of Jeddah is lifted from our shoulders. Like the slowly boiling frog, we don’t notice how cities can bear down on one’s psyche. I feel lighter, happier and more optimistic about the world. The warm air slowly rises taking with it the dense energy of Jeddah that sits inside us. Out here on our own is total peace. No noise of traffic, no rush of people, no deadlines or the fuckwittery of taxi drivers who you would not put in charge of buttering your toast, let alone a speeding ton of death. 

This would be great place for a rave. Wide open spaces, perfectly warm temperature and the only things to have their peace disturbed would be the snakes. The lack of a beer and electricity might be a problem though, let alone the half naked dancing should the police turn up. 

I’ll not mention the half finished construction sites along the highway or the rubber tyres that appear to be a roadside feature every 100 meters or so. Ok, I’ve mentioned them. The reason for both totally escapes me. One development running out of cash is to be expected, but the sheer number of what look like abandoned sites is baffling. As for the tyres, how many blow outs actually occur? 

After about 90 minutes the Hejaz mountains suddenly rise up as an impenetrable wall in front of us. Sheer crags of sand coloured sharp ridges and cliff faces that send a message that means you have better be serious if you think you are going to get over them. It reminds me of the Alpe D’Huez in France which similarly confronts you as a barrier that from a few miles away seems just impossible, given the way it rises from the valley floor. On the map the road clearly zig zags up this face. It is going to take 15 minutes or more to climb over 5000 feet. Ears will pop. How this was done 100 years ago was a miracle. The new road we are now on is a duel carriageway all the way up offering a race track experience for the drivers. This is a challenge they duly take up. Bits of the old single carriage road can still be seen. Faisel helpfully describes how dangerous the road used to be and he needs no exaggeration. There are bits of skull and ribcage at various intervals, the bones bleached white in the sun and the organic flesh long ago eaten away by the crows, worms and bacteria. Some of the bones belong to donkeys, some to over enthusiastic drivers who it appears that God willed that they should drive over the edge of a hairpin to smash into rocks forcing jaw bones back into the cervical vertebrae with a snap like a rich tea biscuit. Half way up is a lay-by for spectacular views back down the mountain. The road snakes winding black along contours, dipping and diving its way down into the valley that then opens wide into a desert plain back towards Jeddah.  

Cresting the ridge, we finally reach the Al Hadr road towards Taif. Suddenly a town appears with green trees and green lawns. Date palms are in abundance but it being now only 0730 there are no people. Time for a wee break but with all shops and cafes shut we have to use a ‘public convenience’. These two words are a euphemism. Well, the little toilet block we find is certainly for the use of the ‘public’ and it is ‘convenient’ being right beside the road. There, the similarities to facilities anyone else would recognise as fit to be described as such, ends. Who this public is that it is convenient for is a mystery. It must be a public with very low expectations and very high levels of desperation and a terrible ability to aim straight. The only saving grace is that there were no toilet seats, only ceramic holes in the ground with two spaces for one’s feet. The smell was indescribable as was the detritus left behind by members of the public who obviously had totally lost control of their minds, their dignity and their sphincters. The holes in the ground were big enough to accommodate an elephant’s doings, but for a reason known only to God, the ability to position oneself to undertake what should have been straight drop must have eluded previous users. To add to the scene. The wind or carelessness had brought in litter, mostly plastic bottles, crisp packets and what I hoped to god was writing paper. There are no handles on the walls for ensuring balance would be maintained. Satan himself could not have dreamt of a more God forsaken set of holes for which to torture sinners. I only needed a wee, allowing me to step back and take aim from quite some distance whole holding my breath before gasping for air outside. This toilet block was the manifestation of squalor, disease, infection and festering pollution. It should be bombed with napalm. In a country with several trillion dollars in oil wealth alone, this abomination should not abide. It was biblical in its depravity and plague ridden horror. I’ve seen cleaner bedpans in the dysentery wards and I would rather offer my ring piece to dildo waving lunatics than ever to be forced to use it again. 

In just a few hours, we had experienced both ecstasy and its nadir. We had been taken up in enlightenment and then been shown the black heart of hell. Human beings have built the Taj Mahal, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and more recently the Burj Kalifa in Dubai. We have also built the shittiest shitting shit hole in modern civilisation. The mayor of the little town of Al Hadr should hang his head in shame and at the very least petition the Crown Prince for a few shekels for some dynamite and a JCB. 

Published by Lance Goodman

Freelance writer, bon vivant and all-round good oeuf.

5 thoughts on “Wake up and smell the roses

  1. Loved this one Ben. Some years ago in the Navy I did a detachment to an airfield in Abu Dhabi for two weeks. The aforementioned toilets were exactly as you describe them, how they ever got past Captains rounds is a mystery to this day. We did a road trip across the desert to Dubai which again was much as you describe it complete with camels. It was a very different Dubai to the one of today with almost no high rise buildings at all. The gold souk was an experience I will never forget.


  2. Brilliant. Yes they had toilets like that in one of the airports. Can’t remember which one as it was over forty years ago. Did you manage to buy any of the Rose oil? Sounds like a great adventure apart from the toilets haha.


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