Ground realities

Let’s face it- you’re paying a lot of money for it, so do you have high expectations from your travel agent? Remember, there are going to be over 2 million people converging on the exact point as you. Things cannot possibly go as smoothly as you’d like. There will be confusions, mistakes, mix ups, mismanagement, delays, theft, sickness, heat, uncouth behavior, not to mention everyone else in your group will claim to have bought the exact same prayer mats and dates as you at a fraction of the price that you paid.

The locals that you deal with will mostly be shopkeepers and salesmen, and the ground staff in the mosques. The Arabs don’t really go with ‘the customer is always right’ approach! If someone gives you back your change, consider it your very good fortune. But a lot of the salesmen are Pakistanis, and deal with customers much more tactfully. However don’t expect everyone isn’t out to make a buck at your expense. Of course, this time is the height of sales for them, and they will milk it for all it’s worth.

Mall in Mecca

All the hotels in the Clock Tower have huge malls.
(Photo credit: Tashfeen Bokhary)

We were encouraged by our sheikh to give as much as possible to the cleaning staff in the mosques, and I would advise everyone to do the same. But you have to have a plan. Once you take out your wallet/purse, they will all gather around you like moths to a flame. You can’t just give to one person. Carry enough change for several people, and try to do it as discreetly as possible. Slip it into their hand as you walk past them.

I had only ever heard horror stories of shurtas (guards) at the mosques. That was not my experience at all. No one ever picked at us or singled us out. We followed the rules and no one said anything to us. They were nice, polite and helped us out a few times. But if you’re going to insist on going against the regulations, then don’t expect them to be nice to you either.

If you can, choose a package that includes food. It just makes life easier. If not, there are more than enough street foods, restaurants, dine in and take away, famous chains like KFC, Pizza Hut etc, Arab and Pakistani restaurants in the hotels and outside in Mecca and Medina. Al Baik fried chicken is a very popular local chain in Saudi Arabia. Every kind of food is available. We even had great halwa poori from Faisalabad Restaurant in Mecca one day. The only thing between you and the food is the crowd. Plan accordingly. It usually takes women less time to buy food because they have a separate line which is usually shorter than the men’s. But when it gets overcrowded, just let the men deal with it.

Street food and hotel food in Mecca

Street food and hotel food in Mecca
(Photo credit: Tashfeen and Ayesha Bokhary)

There are public toilets everywhere. Of course how clean they are will vary but you really can’t be very picky at a time like this. Honestly, I thought the ones in Mecca were maintained very well considering the sheer number of people they cater to. The public toilets are mostly squat toilets. There are also separate areas for wudu. Toilets in hotels and those provided in your tents may be the sitting down style, or a mixture of both. Toilet paper is not available; please take your own travel pack. Muslim showers are available in all the stalls, but the shower heads and hooks might be broken, resulting in just a pipe lying on the ground or even inside the toilet. Make the best of it; the good news is that you are washable. Soap may or may not be available. This is why it is a good idea to keep your hand sanitizer and maybe some travel size liquid soap (even if it’s Johnson’s Baby Wash) with you.


Jabl-i-Noor, famous for the Cave of Hira. I was surprised to see the harsh landscape of rugged, rocky hills. I had imagined a sandy desert.
(Photo credit: Adam Khan)