Dads Can Solve Anything (or "Roadtrippin' to Mada'in Saleh")

By Abu Halen

Sometimes when you're a stranger in a foreign land, you experience curious, surreal moments of the outlandish. Here's one: Grace's six year old eyes are wide in alarm, and she's crouched behind a fire engine in a fleck of a town somewhere in the Arabian desert. Her dad is engaged in a shouting match in Arabic with a young firefighter. Dad pauses, turns to Grace in the shadows behind the truck, and yells, "Go ahead! Just pee! It's fine!" She starts to unbutton her pants. Then the firefighter yells something in Arabic at her, clearly intended to dissuade her from peeing, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad turns back to the firefighter and resumes yelling in Arabic, gesturing wildly, and the fireman yells back, and while he's yelling, Dad jerks his head back to Grace, "I said pee! Just do it!" So she nervously starts to unbutton her pants again, but then the fireman points and fires off another menacing Arabic tirade in her direction, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad furiously takes up again with the fireman in Arabic. Grace walks back toward the car, calling back over her shoulder to the two fighting men, "I don't have to go potty anymore." See? Dads can solve anything.

We were on a roadtrip to Mada'in Saleh, one of only two UNESCO world heritage sites in Saudi Arabia, which we've visited before and which I wrote about here and Shannon wrote about here. Read Shannon's version if you want to actually learn about Mada'in Saleh. Read mine if you love Cheap Trick and Uno.

I (heart) acacia trees.
Also on this trip, the kids had their first exposure to Janis Joplin. "Who is this screaming lady?" Savannah called from the back seat. "Janis Joplin," I said. "Planet Chocolate?" she said. "I like this song."

Since we scoured Mada'in Saleh pretty thoroughly last time we visited, this time we focused on other sites in the area. There's an old mud city a half hour south, which was built back to the 13th century and occupied up until the 1980s. The kids enjoyed exploring the labyrinthian hallways and former homes of the city. Halen discovered that the roofs made of flimsy palm fronds can support a small eight-year old boy, which is good because if they didn't, he would've discovered that gravity supports no one, and also that there are no decent hospitals in this desolate corner of the Saudi Kingdom.

Elephant Rock is a hulking monolith in the desert southeast of Mada'in Saleh. I snapped photos of the boulder for awhile. Grace made mounds of sand in the dust. After twenty minutes, I went to collect Savannah and Halen. They were just pinpricks of color climbing a distant mountain of sandstone. I trudged across the dirt and rock, the cold wind snapping at my jeans, the weak sun gamely shining but warming little. The only sound was the wind and my crunchy footfalls, and I gazed around myself at the harsh, dazzling expanse of dust, rock, and blazing blue sky. Saudi Arabia. Curious and surreal.