Once inside, it was another enclave of Westerners trying to forget where they were. Bruce Springsteen and Kylie Minogue were playing on the pirated radio station in the cafe; people were inconspicuously pouring clear or brown liquids from unmarked bottles into their nonalcoholic cafe beverages that just happened to have names suspiciously like famous drinks in the US. Kids ran around playing; women wore bikinis and German men wore Speedos. My first time snorkling wasn't too much of a disaster; I even enjoyed myself and would like to try it again in Saudi and elsewhere. I hear that Jeddah's most amazing reefs were destroyed in the 1960s, when some genius decided to build a fake island with the world's largest fountain on top of them, right by downtown. Nonetheless, it was still a good showing. It's so easy to forget for a few moments that you're in Saudi Arabia... and then you have to go back into the real world. Of course, I saw this article immediately upon returning home. Whoops.
I flew Saudia Airlines to Jeddah and back. Saudia is the national airline, heavily subsidized by the government and favored by almost everyone for internal flights. There are some "low-cost" carriers here, but they have to buy fuel at the market rate, which has reduced the usage of that adjective somewhat. As I sat in the terminal in Riyadh on Wednesday, it occurred to me that I had never considered how Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries in terms of gender segregation, would handle cramming 200 strangers into a packed 747. (Everyone wants out of Riyadh so badly on weekends that there are hourly flights to Jeddah on weekends. This is the equivalent of running a wide-body plane from Chicago to Washington every hour in a country with 1/12th of our population.) I found out, when I got to my seat and was promptly asked to move three times so that some offended Saudi or another didn't have to sit next to someone of the opposite gender. Eventually we managed to balance out my row of old women with the row of old men in front of us so no one was too horrified, although I think I was only marginally more acceptable to the ladies than some random Saudi dude. (I was even veiled! Must have been the uncovered face.) You'd think that they would have worked out the reservation system so that you could select based on the gender of your neighbors, but evidently not.
Upon takeoff, after an hour of shuffling passengers around, we listened to a solemn recording intone the words of the Prophet Muhammad when he would set off on a journey. We were then offered our choice of newspapers from around the Gulf and a respectable hot meal later on. This is on a flight of perhaps 80 minutes in length. It was surreal... but at least I now know how to eat a meal while still keeping the facial veil on, because both of my neighbors on both flights did it.