The decision to perform Umrah this year has been a spontaneous one. One morning Masood and I were on our way to the office when he casually asks, “Shall we go for Umrah?” I said yes, of course. Three weeks later, I am sitting in an aircraft bound to Madinah, eating cup noodles and writing in my tiny journal. I have already written about my first Umrah experience in great detail before, my second experience was also documented, and I’ve posted pictures here and here. This year, I’m going to just list ten things. Random stuff.
1. It’s Always Crowded
For the past two years, we’d been going to Makkah and Madinah during April, just before we head to India for our annual vacation. This year we thought we’d perform Umrah as soon as the the authorities begin permitting the release of visas. Do not let the picture above fool you; the place is jam-packed with worshipers, subhanAllah! I assume the place is least crowded only from the time the Hajj season is over until the time when Umrah visas become available for the rest of the world. But the good thing is that the weather is extremely pleasant during this time! In fact, during the Faj’r prayers at 5:30 am, the marble floor of the mosque’s courtyard is so cold that I can feel it seep into my bones!
2. Take the VIP Bus
This is probably the most comfortable and safe method of traveling from Madinah to Makkah (and vice versa) and it only costs 90 riyals per person. This is the VIP bus by SAPTCO. We are already content that the seats are so comfortable and that a very friendly staff offered us a bottle of water. So imagine our joy when we discover that there are free apples and newspapers too. Just in time when we’ve finished eating our apples, the staff reappears with lunch! You guys, we are served chicken sandwiches and a bottle of soda! This is like ten times better than the cup noodles from the aircraft. And then we are offered tea and coffee! So if you are planning on Umrah, I highly recommend taking this VIP bus. You can check their timings here. But I think you can’t book online since they need to see your passport.
3. Le Meridien Hotel, Makkah
It costs the same as the 3-star hotel we stayed in at Madinah, except that this one’s a 5-star hotel. I suppose it’s cheaper because it’s not within walking distance from the haram area, but the round-the-clock shuttle service to and fro the masjid makes it so convenient! The 3-minute ride takes one from the hotel, through a tunnel, and right beneath the courtyard of the masjid. You only have to walk a couple of minutes to reach an escalator that leads you up, right in front of Gate 1! We have 2 cups of complimentary expresso, but noticing that we had guests over, the staff brought coffee for all of us for free! Le Meridien is a really lovely hotel with great customer service and good food. We stay for three days, and I look forward to the buffet breakfast each day.
4. People Do Touristy Stuff Too!
Just hire a taxi and he’ll take you around all the must-see places. Most taxi drivers are pretty knowledgeable about the history of Makkah. Be nice and friendly with him, and he’ll show you more places.
5. Comfort and Safety Taken Into Consideration
There are escalators, elevators, cool marble floors, lush carpets, access to wheelchairs, copies of Qur’an throughout the masjid, containers of cold Zam-Zam water everywhere, plastic bag for your shoes, locker for your luggage, wheelchair for the pilgrims, stand-by medics, restaurants nearby…everything done to ensure that everyone has a pleasant time whilst performing the rituals and prayers.
6. History at Each Step
The writing on this wall marks the boundary of two different areas of Makkah. What makes this special is that this stone was placed by the prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon him) himself. There’s a masjid at almost every turn, and each one of this masjid has a history within itself. Every mountain is a witness of the great prophets who lived to spread the word of the Almighty—this includes the prophet Adam, Abraham, Ismael, etc.
7. The Tents Of Mina
This view never ceases to amaze me. Looking down at those white tents takes my breath away every time I look at it! Thousands and thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gather and stay within these fire-proof and air-conditioned tents once a year, specifically during Hajj. Everything is so organized, it’s amazing. There’s access to clean toilets and bath, and each tent has a designated number.
8. The Path to Meeting People Who’ll Touch Your life
You know, when you’re sitting in the masjid next to a complete stranger and begin talking to each other while waiting for the prayers to begin? Despite the language barrier, you manage to communicate successfully through awkward hand movements. And then before you leave, they utter a prayer for you from the bottom of their hearts? Those moments when you offer your own cup of water to a complete stranger, or someone offers you a cup of their tea? Those precious minutes when the person next to you spreads open his or her own prayer mat to share with you, without you ever asking, because you forgot to bring yours? A couple of Masood’s friends and their families visit us and bring us food. When you have kind and loving people around you in a foreign land, you feel right at home.
Shazia, I missed you so much!
9. Asking the Husband to Take Pictures Because You Couldn’t Get Inside
This is taken inside the Madinah masjid, where men have lined up to see the final resting place of the prophet, may peace be upon him. The section is opened up for women too, but there are two things that make it impossible for me to see this place myself: first, some of the women are an impatient lot who have never heard of the word “queue”, and second, a lot of women are so wild you’d think their entire life depended upon seeing this place. So I, along with several other women, appease ourselves by taking a quick glimpse of the place. Hence the need to ask the husband to take pictures so you could see the place up close.
10. I Finally Touched the Ka’aba!
Every pilgrim longs to come really close to the ka’aba and touch it. For the past couple of years, we tried but couldn’t get close because of the crowd. This time, specially after the morning prayers, the crowd thins a bit and we are able to walk easily towards the ka’aba and touch it. Twice! Oh, I can not explain how I feel! There’s this excitement that builds within me as my feet draws me closer to the ka’aba, and when my fingertips first touch the black covering, a strange sensation courses through my veins—like there’s this positive energy that seeps into me. I look up and see a little bird fluttering its wings. I also get to see the footprints prophet Abraham! I press my face onto the glass that encase them, and try to imagine how tall he must have been! You should have seen the silly but happy grin on my face as I walk away afterwards.