Monday, November 12, 2012

Hajj 2012 - 1

I began working for the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last year in mid-November. At that time, I perceived myself to be a moderate Muslim, not too much into religion, a sort of average person. About four days after my entry there, I went to Makkah to perform my first Umraah ... a sort of prelude to the Hajj, the once-in-a-year annual pilgrimage performed by millions of devout Muslims from all over the world. The experience I had at my first Umraah made me a stronger Muslim than I had been earlier. During my first eleven months, I performed the Umraah three more times, each time hoping to return for the Hajj in October 2012.

What prevented me from actually considering this was the fact that my co-pediatrician was first in line to go for Hajj as he had joined before me. Then, due to some personal reasons, he opted out at the eleventh hour, and I suddenly realised that I could, after all, go for Hajj.

Unlike pilgrims who are brought from overseas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I had only 5 days in which to complete the rituals that make up the official visit to Hajj. These five days are the “core days” of Hajj. In fact, overseas pilgrims, including those from India, come much before the actual date for the performance of the Hajj, and spend their money and time doing whatever suits their temperament. Once the dates for Hajj have passed, most tourists often hang on forever … or at least a week more. No such luxury for me.

I was going to Hajj with several of the doctors from my hospital along with their family members (in some cases). We were a contingent of 20+ with children and old persons in addition to the six or seven of us, the doctors. Arrangements had been made with a travel organizer by the name of Sk. Jamal for his bus to pick us all up from the village, and to bring us all back at the end of the pilgrimage.

Thus it was that on the eve of 23rd October, all of us gathered at the pre-agreed rendezvous to board our bus. It was a 19-seater small bus, and there were already about 12 people inside. The bus had come from Riyadh, and had passengers who had already boarded it from there.

We were all sort of wondering how the organiser planned to accommodate twenty other people in the 8-10 remaining seats, when the driver announced that there were foldable seats attached to each of the rows of seats that would unfold in the aisle ... thereby opening 10 extra seats!

We gave our luggage to the driver who now stood atop the bus, adjusting our luggage in the carrier at the top. By around half past nine, we set off. This journey would count among one of my most unique journeys. While I was unprepared for the troubles we would all soon face, I was totally surprised by the overall result of this trip. More of this follows.

A trip to Makkah normally takes about three hours, give or take. The actual distance from my village to it is about 290 km. This night, though, we took over ten hours to reach Makkah, and over 16 hours to finally reach the hotel rooms where we would all be staying. I would tell you all the sordid details, but suffice it to know that our agent had arranged the whole trip DIFFERENTLY ... that is, there was no payment made to the Government of Saudi Arabia for performance of a legal journey. We were performing Hajj at a very low cost ... the cost would include the transportation to Makkah and the return from it, and the 11-persons-per-room stay in a hotel in Makkah. Food, internal travelling, comforts etc. were EXCLUDED. Of course, the organiser's huge profit margin was INCLUDED in the 1800 Saudi Riyals per person package!

As we were not official pilgrims, the police stopped our bus at many places. At one spot, we were immediately directed to the opposite side and asked to return to Ta'if, the city from which we had just left; we tried to re-negotiate this barricade, and failed again. Then, in a burst of creativity, one of my co-passengers simply shifted one of the barricades aside and we drove past it, out of sight of the police! Ahead, as night deepened, most of us went off to sleep. The bus plodded on, inch by inch, as it neared Makkah. At the break of dawn, the driver woke us all and asked us to get off the bus, while he tried to get the bus past yet another police barricade. We got off, and walked past the lingering police with hundreds of other pilgrims in a similar predicament. Finding some flat, even ground on the side of the road, we all plopped there to await the bus that would come to pick us up. It was another two hours before it did. In the meantime, night turned into day and the sun climbed up, changing the weather from a balmy, warm one into an uncomfortable, hot one.

We got back inside our bus as it came around, and after a tiring, slow run of another few hours, we reached the third, and as it turned out, the final police outpost about 20 km before Makkah. This spot was, in fact, a huge parking lot or "sharaaya", and the unforgiving policemen here brought our journey to a complete halt as they refused to allow the bus to proceed ahead.

We all got off, unloaded our baggages, and trudged towards the public bus stand. We were all told to reach Makkah, now a mere 20 km away, by public buses.

... to be continued.

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