Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mecca & the Hajj: Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks, Episode One

Well, I promised the publisher of Straitwell Travel Books that I would serialize her latest book on my blog. So. Here it is. Mecca & the Hajj: Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks. And because the Hajj is happening in Mecca right now, you can read along and experience everything just as it is happening -- only a year earlier.

Straitwell Travel Books has asked me to send you an eppisode every so often. But if you can't stand the suspense, go out and buy a copy of the book yourself at or Barnes & Noble:

Mecca & the Hajj:
Lessons From the Islamic School of Hard Knocks
By Jane Straitwell

Chapter 2: Getting to Mecca

December 23, 2005, 10:30 am: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step," they used to say. Not any more. Now it begins with scoring a turkey sandwich to go at the local deli and hopping on a commute train to the San Francisco airport. "I'm going to Mecca, everybody!" I wanted to shout to the entire train. "I'm going on Hajj!" But I didn't. My fellow passengers sorta looked like they wouldn't really care.

"Call me before you leave for the airport," said my daughter Amy last night -- so I did. And woke her up. "Huh?" she mumbled after the sixth or seventh ring. "Oh. Uh." Yawn.

I'm all packed, and I've got all my stuff. The worst thing about traveling is getting everything prepared -- although getting laid off at work two days before I was to leave for the Hajj wasn't all that good either. But once you walk out the door, everything else is easy.

I wonder if the Starbucks at the airport is still selling their fabulous eggnog? I hope so, seeing that I will miss the entire holiday season at home.

11 pm: I got to the airport on time but had difficulties with my tickets once I got there. "You have a confirmed flight to Frankfurt and Jeddah today," the Lufthansa rep told me, "And your return flight from Jeddah to Frankfurt on January 10 is confirmed as well." That's good. "Unfortunately, however, your flight from Frankfurt to SFO won't be until January 22."


"Look at it this way. You'll get to spend over a week in Germany." In the middle of winter? Right. I hate my Hajj tour group organizer. He's had months to secure these tickets. Months. And now I've got nothing.

"But that's better than having to spend an extra week in Saudi Arabia," said the person in line behind me. Is it? I don't know. And at this rate, I may never get to Saudi Arabia to find out.

"Your travel agent covered up the return dates," continued the Lufthansa rep. "It says here you are scheduled to come back on January 15th. That's wrong." Why am I not surprised. The rep removed the sticker with the false information. "And I think they have blocked your return flight until you have made some sort of payment but I could be wrong." Good grief. Blackmail. I wonder if they plan to sell me into bondage if I don't cough up extra bucks.
But I finally was allowed on the plane to Germany and the in-flight movie was all about the Christmas spirit. Maybe that feeling that westerners call "The Christmas spirit" is also the spirit of Hajj -- and that "Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" is the Islamic ideal too. American "Christian" bigots just don't understand that.

One of the things I hope from the bottom of my heart is that this Hajj journey will give me that same spiritual feeling of good will. I'm just too hard-hearted, cynical and cold for my own good. How does one say "Bah Humbug" in Arabic? Maybe Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim will be in Mecca and the Spirit of Hajj Future will visit me and set me straight. I'd hate to think that I might spend the rest of my life being cynical and bitter.

On the plane, we had turkey with gravy and stuffing for dinner and chocolate Santa Clauses for dessert. We will land in Germany in two hours.

11:30 pm: My chocolate Santa melted and I ate it anyway and swallowed a piece of tin foil and got chocolate all over my fingers. "Don't get lost," Amy had told me about ten times when I phoned her from the San Francisco airport. But she forgot to say, "And don't swallow chocolate Santa tin foil." And don't end up having to get an emergency tin-foil-ectomy either.

December 25, 2005, 11:30 am German time: Standing in line for the flight to Jeddah, I was so jet-lagged that I made a complete hash of putting my headscarf on -- with about 50 Muslim women staring at me as I fumbled with the pins and got them all wrong. I finally switched to my "Muslim lingerie" that I got from one of my Muslim friends before I left home and that really helped -- it is a very wide headband that covers up all my hair in front.

Surprisingly, the headband and scarf soothes me and holds me together. Otherwise I would fall apart all over the floor of the Frankfurt airport. Not a pretty sight. I'm getting too old for jet lag and 11-hour flights.

9 pm, Saudi time: We sat on the Frankfurt runway for over an hour. "Technical difficulties, ladies and gentlemen." On this plane, there must be at least a hundred men dressed in large white towels, the official dress of male Hajj pilgrims. After we took off, I finally got some sleep. Then we flew along the course of the Nile -- outlined by ribbons of city lights as it wandered through the desert.

15 minutes out of Jeddah, the restrooms are completely wet from "wudu" water -- wudu is the sacred ritual water cleansing done before prayer times. One washes one's face, mouth, nose, ears, arms to the elbow and fingers and toes. Now all the men in white are chanting prayers prior to landing. This is one spiritual plane.

Jeddah is located on the Gulf of Something-or-Other and, as our spiritual plane approached that city, we saw ships and boats below us, their rows of lights stretching along piers and harbors much like in San Francisco or Sydney. Then there was Jeddah itself; well-lit, geometrically laid out and looking for all the world like Los Angeles. And as large as Los Angeles too. Lots of boulevards and freeways. Lots of cars.

11:30 pm: The hustle of the Jeddah airport was wonderful! "Where are you from?" asked the baggage handlers and the passport stampers and the officials. They were all very friendly and efficient. They were also all males (but cute ones). I finally connected with some members of the SuperHajj Tours group. There were ten of us and everyone seemed really nice. One young man instantly became our leader -- and boy did we need one!

"Where is the SuperHajj rep?" Ha. Plus every single one in the group had a horror story about their airline tickets. "Our tickets came the day we were to leave. And then we had to drive 700 miles to make our plane," said one Pakistani woman from Florida.

The Jeddah HAJ airport was amazing. "Apparently this is a special airport that is put up every year just for Hajj," said someone in our group. I took several photos of it. Can you take photos on Hajj? Is it legal? No one stopped me so far. But I do know that it's a crime to bring alcohol into Saudi Arabia or pictures of scantily-clad women. And will they accept U.S. dollars here.

"How much is that headband?" I asked a hawker at one of the booths at the airport.

"Five dollars."

"I'll give you three."

"No." I walked away. "Okay! Three dollars." I love to bargain. Now I am the official luggage-watcher while everyone else went off to get something to eat.

When everyone came back, I went off to try to phone home. "How much does a phone card cost?"

"100 dollars."

What! Get out of town! "I have ten dollars here."

"It can't be done." I then spent 45 whole minutes running around the airport, talking with everyone in sight. Finally one Saudi guy took me to a phone booth.

"You dial your number. You talk. You hang up when you are done. You pay the cashier." Boom. That's it? "That's it."

"Merry Christmas, Amy!" I told my daughter over the phone. "I'm here. I made it. I love Saudi Arabia. I love my group. I hate SuperHajj Tours. We've been here for two whole hours and are still waiting for someone to come meet us." Unbelievable. "Other than that, things are really going well. I'm glad I came."

One kind woman dressed in a full-kit headscarf and robe came over and asked me if I wanted to pray with her group. "Sorry. I can't. I'm supposed to watch the luggage while everyone else goes to find something to eat." Then my group came back, bringing me some sort of chicken taco thing that was really good -- but needed salsa.

December 25, 2005, 2:30 am: I think that I now know the Jeddah airport better than any other human being on the planet. It was six hours before one of the airport employees shoved us onto a bus heading for Mecca and then another hour before said bus departed. But we still felt that we were in good hands and that all those 20-something young Saudi men clad in floor-length white dresses (every guy in Arabia wears floor-length white dresses) who helped us at every point really knew what they were doing.

"You know," I told the lady next to me, "I bet SuperHajj Tours just let everything in Jeddah slide on purpose, knowing full well that the Saudi airport staff would take care of us no matter what and the SuperHajj guy could save a few more bucks that way." Punk.

The freeways of Saudi Arabia, like the freeways of Israel, look exactly like the freeways of southern California.

Chapter 3: Mecca

5:30 am: We are in sit-and-wait hell. Everyone else in Mecca is street-hiking off to morning prayers at the Kaa'ba -- the most sacred place in all Islam -- and we're sitting on a bus in front of the wrong hotel. The efficiency level has sank drastically since we left the airport. No one in our group has slept in over 48 hours. I am totally clueless as to how I am still holding body and soul together and I have to go to the bathroom and I'm hungry too. We must be half a mile from the Kaa'ba and the chances of us getting there by noon are zero. Zilch. Just another example of being thrown to the wolves by SuperHajj Tours.

Then this woman shows up and starts screaming at everyone -- the bus driver, the state Hajj agent and the hotel people. She curses them out in Arabic and in perfect English for at least a half-hour. Then I heard her yelling, "I am the group leader! I am the group leader!" We got a group leader? Finally? Then she says something I do not want to hear at all. "There are no more hotel rooms." Oops.

The muezzin is doing the call to prayer and thousands of pilgrims are streaming past us as we sit on the sidewalk with our luggage and we are too tired to move and I need to pee!

7:30 pm: Amy would be really proud of me. I got lost today. Twice. After sleeping like a rock until 3 pm, I finally made it to the Haram -- the huge mosque where the Kaa'ba is located.

"You need to circumambulate the Kaa'ba seven times when you first come to Mecca," said our tour leader who is also now my roommate along with her son and a woman from Mali named Yasmeen who says that she loves to cook. Our group leader's name is Alice, she is from Wisconsin and she is freaking nuts. She calls up the front desk, housekeeping, room service, etc. and screams at them. But she is also really, really funny. "I used to be a comedian," she said and sang a really funny song which kept us laughing, laughing, laughing. She ordered us a gigantic room service breakfast and she called the poor room service guys five times and yelled at them that they were late. She had them so flustered, we got two extra breakfasts -- which I saved one of and am now eating for dinner.

So I started off for the Haram. "Islam" translates as "submission" and I now understand why. Circumambulating the Kaa'ba was a very humbling experience. There were approximately 100,000 pilgrims crammed into the mosque. Outwardly they are there to begin their Hajj pilgrimage by circumambulating the Kaa'ba -- a huge three-story-high square edifice draped in black velvet embroidered with gold -- but it seemed to me that their ulterior motive for being there was just to smush poor sweet me. I gave up actually trying to touch the Kaa'ba because in that crunch of people, said act would obviously be hazardous to my health -- if not downright fatal.

At first, I thought I could do the seven circulations faster if I did them close into the area of the Kaa'ba. Not true. That inside track was almost at a stand-still, causing me to realize how insignificant I had become within the single gigantic amorphous living being that surrounded me, of which I had become but a single molecule or cell. One single person's life had started to lose importance within this massive sea of humans. That scared me. I bailed.

Looking for breathing room, I went up onto the second level of the Haram, a structure that surrounded the Kaa'ba and was meant to be in the Kaa'ba's service but in its own right was magnificent. Stretching over an area of at least ten city blocks, it was sculpted from marble equal to anything used in the Taj Mahal. And even though it was the Kaa'ba that took center stage at the Haram, the mosque itself was on a par with St. Peter's in Rome or Angkor Watt.

I never saw so many Indonesian Muslims in my life. Many of them looked really poor, like peasants. I wondered if so many of them came as a result of the tsunami -- that they had suddenly realized, "Life is short. I'd better go on Hajj."

For me, life is long and I don't want to be on Hajj if it means going for 48 hours without sleep. That was a bad idea. Worrying about how I'm going to get home is bumming me out. I was thinking, as the wheel of Hajj grinded away on me today, how insignificant I was within the whole world picture and how I always worry about everything all the time nowadays and never have any fun. I just keep worrying about life's next tsunami and don't enjoy the good stuff life has to offer -- like the Haram, Islam's Angkor Watt.

"Be here now, Jane," I told myself.

But I can't.

After the evening prayer at the Haram -- which was embarrassing because of the tendonitis in my knees which, in a sea of pilgrims prostrating in prayer, caused me to be the only person within a ten-mile radius who was standing up -- I got lost. "Lost Pilgrim Orientation Center," read a sign. Wow! A lost-and-found for pilgrims! Some guy was assigned the task of taking me back to my hotel and he looked really pissed. "Why am I having to deal with this stupid lost female?" was his attitude as he delivered me back to the hotel like I was a crate of cauliflower. Amy would have loved the concept of a "Lost Pilgrim" service for her mom, although I think what she really wants for me is an electronic monitoring device with a homing signal.

Back at my hotel room on the fourteenth floor, from our window I could look down upon at least 10,000 pilgrims pouring down the exit road from the Haram -- just one of many such streets. Mecca's streets are like spokes on a wheel, radiating out from the Kaa'ba and the Haram. The pilgrims streamed past our hotel and on down the hill to the other hotels or wherever the heck else they are all staying. And the main body of Hajj pilgrims haven't even arrived in Mecca yet. This is crazy.

I'm thinking that maybe I should go back to the Kaa'ba around 4 am when there might be less people there. Or else just watch it on TV. They broadcast the Hajj in Muslim countries just like they broadcast the Pope's Christmas mass in Italy. Or like Monday night football in America. Why not? The Hajj is definitely a contact sport.

11 pm: What a strange Christmas this has been. We -- the lady from Mali and I -- walked up the street next to our hotel, looking for some more Saudi tacos. "There's an international phone call center," I told Yasmeen. "I'm going to go call my children again." I told Amy about getting lost. "And the guy made the desk clerk sign for me just like I was a UPS package."

The street that our hotel is on is located only one block from the Haram mosque. On that block, we found three taco stands and a shop that sold dates. "Our hotel is only a four-star hotel," commented Yasmeen. SuperHajj Tours had promised her a five-star hotel. She had paid several thousand dollars more for her tour than I had. But I couldn't complain. The shower worked fine and after three days without one, I was happy.

Perhaps the Muslims are right about headscarves. Imagine if Muslim men were to get even the slightest glimpse of my hair! It would surely drive them all mad with desire. I mean, we all know how unbelievably sexy and erotic and alluring gray hair can be! I went through freaking hell today trying to keep my freaking Hajj Halloween costume on my freaking head. However, it's lucky for the Muslim men of Mecca that I did. If I hadn't, a possible 50,000 Muslim men would now have broken down and become blubbering idiots, wallowing in the unholy grip of lust for the rest of their lives because of my hair!

December 26, 2005, 6 am: Last night was almost but not quite a total circus. There are only four of us sleeping in this room but at least one of us was either coming or going all night long. Yasmeen left at 1:30 am to go pray at the Haram. Alice banged at our door at 2 am because she had forgotten her key. The son kept having nightmares. Alice was back out the door at 3 am, knocking for admittance at 4 am, back out the door for morning prayer at 5:30 am, dragging the son with her against his will. "No. I am not going," he said about 20 times but both he knew and I knew that he would eventually cave. I would have if I had been him. Nobody can stand up against Alice! She's fierce.

And whenever we finally got everyone in the room to sleep, someone would snore.

But outside my window, I could watch the thousands of pilgrims stream up and down our street like ocean tides. The tide surges in at prayer time, then goes back out again afterwards. But what is so impressive about everyone here is their incredible faith and belief. And I swear that three out of four people here look like lowly peasants. What sacrifices and struggles they must have made to get here? It must have been unbelievable. Hajj fee? Sacrifice fee? Hotel room costs -- unless of course they are sleeping on the streets. The cost of an airline ticket alone must have been nearly impossible -- and many of them would have had to get here by air.

The image of 500,000 airborne African and Indonesian peasants is staggering.

Speaking of airborne, I'm still very worried about getting home -- and also about having accidentally changed three other people's reservations at the San Francisco airport as well. How am I going to survive here for three more weeks?

Hopefully tonight will be more peaceful than last night!

3:30 pm: "My uncle and aunt are coming," said Alice. "They are here from Afghanistan." Near Kabul. When they arrived, I asked them how things were in occupied Afghanistan. They said things were bad there but not unbearable for them -- apparently they have relatives in the U.S. who send them money to live on. They were nice. Friendly and dignified. But they knew very little English.

Yasmeen and I got into a hot debate over whether women should be imams and both of us were madly searching through the Qur'an for quotes to bolster our case. This seemed to impress the uncle and aunt. And earlier in the day, Alice had given me a huge lecture on Islam. Between Alice and Yasmeen, I'm learning a lot about Islam.

After a while I got bored of the hotel room and wandered back to the Haram mosque. That place is huge. Ten city blocks square and consisting of three very tall stories, it is all carved marble arches and chandeliers and people -- many more people than yesterday. Today I couldn't even get to the Kaa'ba courtyard. "And this is just the beginning," said Yasmeen. "It's going to get much, much worse." Wow.

At the mosque, I got busted for taking a picture. I thought the attendant was going to confiscate my camera and throw me in jail and I was going to be bitch-slapped by a bunch of pissed-off Muslim ladies next to me but the muezzin made his call at the most precipitous moment and I was spared. At the very first opportunity after prayer, I slipped off and melted into the sea of people, camera intact.

I then took the "King Faud Escalator" to the roof of the mosque and watched the crowd circumambulate the Kaa'ba below me. From that height, it looked like a mass of animated jelly beans off on a mass migration.
I wish some members of the Bush bureaucracy were here. They might finally understand that by attacking Islam they are waking a very large sleeping dragon. Islam is like a huge force of nature.

"Muslims are patient and slow to anger," Yasmeen said. "We are told to give any person that you think has wronged you 70 excuses before you lose your temper. The U.S. had to napalm Fallugah before Muslims really seriously fought back in bulk. Bush is an idiot to antagonize over a billion people who are very serious about their faith. Picking on Allah is a sure-fire way to really piss them off -- no matter how many atomic bombs Bush has stockpiled."

December 27, 2005, 1 am: I stayed up all night talking at the hotel's restaurant. Well, maybe not all night, but we surely ate a lot. Fried fish and tomato-cucumber salad and Indian pastries. Conversation here is much more stimulating and on much more interesting topics than what I talk about at home. And the food is much more stimulating and interesting too -- especially compared to my cooking.

10:30 am: "How did you sleep last night?" asked Alice. I didn't. Nothing. People came and went all night long. Again. I myself coughed and fidgeted. "You need to pray at the mosque five times a day and you will have the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders," Alice told me.

Fine. But not today.

"The devil takes over your mind and doesn't let you get out of bed." Well, the devil won this round. "Maybe this is an obstacle to your meditation; to stop you from becoming a full person in the service of God." More than likely. But in any case, I'm totally incapacitated at the mere thought of spending the morning with 200,000 people. I can't face it. And my throat hurts. Cough, cough. This is worse than jet lag.

3:30 pm: We packed ourselves into the mosque for mid-day prayers. We wedged ourselves in between a mass of Pakistani women and a mass of Indonesian women in the Entrance Number Two stairwell (there are something like 95 entrances). I felt light-headed and miserable. "I swear, if one more four-foot-high Indonesian lady looks at me funny, I'm going to scream!"

Despite staying in a good hotel and everything, Hajj is truly an exercise in desperation. There are so many people here and they all want to complete their Hajj. There must be a million people here now and more Hajjis are pouring into Mecca by the minute. It's just on too vast a scale for me to digest -- and especially without any sleep. I want to go home.

11 pm: Another high point in the Hajj (see, it's not all just sweaty bodies clogging up the streets combined with lots of no sleep): The four ladies I met at the airport and me went off to hang out at the Haram for evening prayers and we were joined by one of the ladies' sister who actually lives in Mecca and dresses all in black -- from her gloves to the slit in her veil. Surprisingly, she and I really hit it off -- even though all I could see of her were her eyes.

"Come this way and we will get you a cup of Zam Zam water," she said. "Let me hold your shoes for you." She was petite and wraith-like in her mysterious black outfit and she and I slipped through the mosque hand in hand. She was really sweet.

The man who had taken over leadership at the airport asked me if I wanted to go on a preliminary trip to Mina and see Mt. Arafat. "Count me in," I said. Everyone who completes a successful Hajj journey is required to do everything the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) did and go everywhere he did when he went on the very first Hajj -- including a trip to Mina and Mt. Arafat. I figured that if I could get that obligation covered by this preliminary trip, then I'd stand a much better chance of successfully finishing my Hajj.

December 28, 2005, 5 am: I got a room all to myself last night! We had traded hotels and it was totally chaotic. Alice disappeared just when we needed her most. She had brought enough luggage to field an army and we were supposed to be out of our old hotel by 3 pm but at 6 pm, her luggage was still strewn all around our room. "Alice! You gotta forget about becoming the next Muslim saint and get our group to the next hotel!" I yelled at her in exasperation. She really is a dear but her organizational skills suck eggs. Are there Muslim saints?

Zam Zam water is from the holy well at Mecca. It's spozed to have miraculous powers and cure both mental and physical problems. "Take a bath in this and all your obstacles will be purified," said Alice. You can order ten-gallon plastic containers of it from the hotel. Then you pour them into the bathtub and bathe in it. But I'm here to tell you that Zam Zam water is cold.
And did I mention that I have a room all to myself at the new hotel? Alice's son was so cute. "Please come room with us! I'll miss you!" He and I had gotten into a story-telling contest. I told him about my weird past experiences and he ran the plots of various horror movies down to me. Plus he is a big James Bond fan. Last night he watched From Russia with Love and today I had to sit there and listen to the entire plot. Somebody needs to set that boy straight. Without Sean Connery, it's not really James Bond.

After a good night's sleep -- did I mention I have a room all alone? -- I felt more hopeful about finishing my Hajj. But I am still really unhopeful about ever getting a flight home.

No need to ever figure out which way is east in Mecca. You just turn toward the source of the muezzin's call.

First Alice and now the four ladies in the room next door to me have taken over supervising my spiritual progress. "Have you done Umrah?" they asked. Umrah is a series of rituals every pilgrim must perform when they first arrive in Mecca.

"Yes. I did the seven trips around the Kaa'ba."

"But did you run between the two mountains?" Oops. I forgot about that one. Apparently way back in the days of Mohammed (PBUH), a woman named Hagar ran between two mountains seven times -- I forget why -- and these mountains are now symbolized by two pillars inside the Haram.
"And did you cut a lock of your hair?" No. "And drink Zam Zam water?" Uh-uh. I was in trouble. The ladies went into a huddle.

"Because she is a new convert and as innocent and untaught as a baby, it is our duty and responsibility to put her on the right course." They took it personally that I had fouled up. "We will help you get it right." I love these ladies. They are totally sweet and spiritual and helpful. They are pure at heart. How often does that occur in people? The mere thought of these wonderful people being hated by "Christians" who don't even know them truly makes me sad.

Today I need to talk turkey with Salim, a new SuperHajj group leader who just arrived at the new hotel -- and who actually seems to be focusing on what he is doing. I need to get the flight situation resolved. But with a room of my own, it's actually possible that I could stay for the full Hajj without totally freaking out.

11 pm: I don't know how much I'll be able to write tonight because my cough -- almost everyone in Mecca has a cough -- is getting worse. Cough cough. I just took some cough medicine called Restyl that I bought at the pharmacy next to the hotel and I'm hoping it will put me to sleep if nothing else. How do you say "Nyquil" in Arabic?

In our group, there is a pharmacist and also a woman with a whole carry-on bag filled with medication. They also took me under their wing. "My husband is a doctor," said the Saudi woman who had come to visit her sister in the room next to mine. She had taken off her veil so I finally got to see what she looked like. She looked about 25 to 30 years old. But then her four daughters came in, and out in the hall were her two teen-aged sons. How does she do that? Young, slim, happy and totally in love with her husband after having six children? How does she do that! She must have a maid.
And the Saudi sister also brought a ton of food.

I told the ladies about my experiences at the mosque today. "I ran between the mountains seven times and asked some Pakistani lady who had a pair of scissors to snip off a lock of my hair, so you can check that off my list of Hajj obligations."

"But you still did it too late, Jane. You are expected to do it the moment you arrive in Mecca. You must make up for this failure. You will still have to sacrifice a goat." Oh. But I don't have any goats. Maybe when I get home I can go to the petting zoo? Eeuuww.

"Anyway," I continued, "by some miracle there weren't all that many people circulating the Kaa'ba so I tried to reach it and touch it." Usually your chances of reaching the Kaa'ba are about zero unless you want to risk your life getting crushed. "I got about eight inches away from the Kaa'ba but couldn't get my hand any closer. But just then my whole hand started shaking! I swear! The Kaa'ba is electro-magnetic! Then some pilgrims moved away and I was able to touch it. But the tingling went away. But then I pulled my hand back eight inches again and the tingling returned." The ladies liked my story.
"And my hand shook for five or ten minutes afterward." And the intense spirituality of that moment got through -- even to me.

After talking with the ladies, I went back to my room and coughed a whole bunch more. I did a whole lot of coughing. It became totally obvious that I wasn't gonna make it through the night without major help so I got ready to trot off to the pharmacy down the block from our hotel for stronger stuff. However, the Saudi sister insisted that I take her two sons along as escorts even though the streets of Mecca are completely safe at all hours. But they were nice kids so I took them along anyway. And the pharmacy sold me the wrong stuff -- they sold me stuff to dry out my throat. My throat was already dry! Rats.

Although I had been completely shaken by the depth of my spiritual experience at the Kaa'ba today, it didn't last too long. So much for having a life-changing religious revelation. By evening, I was back to being my same old hard-shelled and cynical self that I had been before setting out on the Hajj. Only now I was $3,000 poorer and also had a bad cough.

Tomorrow we are going to try again to go to Mina and Arafat. Our ride couldn't make it today.

December 29, 2005, 3:15 am: By 1 am, I realized that the Restyl hadn't worked at all so I trudged off to the pharmacy to try to get something stronger. "It says on the label that this stuff is supposed to dry up my throat," I whined to the pharmacist. "My throat was already dry. I need something else -- that will suppress my cough." The pharmacist gave me a bottle of "Kafosed". I also picked up some more Kleenex and three boxes of cough drops and hopefully I was good to go. I gave the pharmacist money for the new cough suppressant but he refused it, which was honorable of him. After sending the money back and forth over the counter a couple of times, I finally smiled and accepted his generosity.

The cough suppressant worked for two whole hours but now I am back awake and sucking on cough drops -- which of course caused one of my teeth to start hurting. Welcome to more struggling for Hajj.

Tonight, the Saudi woman finished telling me the story about running between the two mountains. I had gotten it wrong. "One of the followers of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) had to leave his wife and small child there in the rocky barren desert between the two mountains and the mother ran desperately between the mountains looking for water. She ran between them seven times and on the seventh time, the Zam Zam spring appeared miraculously. Since that time, it has continued to gush profusely, feeding hundreds of millions of pilgrims with cool, pure water."

When I had done my Hajj obligation yesterday, I had run -- walked actually because only men are supposed to run and also because the place was jam-packed -- between the two mountains seven times. We were all trying to jam our run into the time allowed before the noon prayers started. I made it exactly down to the minute.

Since all the pilgrims in the mountain-run end-zone (maybe about two thousand of them) were all jammed together it was impossible to bow for the noon prayer, let alone kneel. I searched for some women to be with and there weren't any that I could possibly reach. Shrug. I lifted my hands to start my prayer when some rude chauvinist pig next to me started screaming, "Not here! Not here! No women here!" Geez Louise. That guy needed to go read up on the rules of Hajj where it says that you are supposed to be nice to everyone. And helpful. And kind. Oh well. See if I will share my cough drops with him!

After prayer, there was a Pakistani woman standing next to me, cutting off a small lock of her friend's hair to complete the run. "Cut my hair too?" I gestured and pulled out a small lock from my ponytail from under my scarf. She smiled and was very pleased that I had asked her. Snip. That section of my Hajj was done. I'll deal with the goat later.

Another strange thing happened while I was jogging between mountains. There was a whole contingent wearing clothes with "The Islamic Republic of Iran" printed on the back. (A lot of people had their country of origin printed on their garments. Most were from Indonesia, Turkey and Africa but some from Sri Lanka, India and Canada.) I stopped to talk with an Iranian woman because I was curious about Iran but the first words out of her mouth were, "Are you Shi'a or Sunni?" Heck, I don't know. It really bothered her that I didn't even know. "Sunnis are very bad people," she said.

"In America," I tried to explain to her, "all us Muslims stick together because all of us are under attack by that idiot George Bush." But she wasn't buying any of that from me. Then I remembered that I mostly went to an Iranian mosque back in California. Shi'a!

"Give me your phone number and I will send you some information about the Shi'ites." I told her I wouldn't be back to America for a while. I've already befriended the Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't need someone coming to wake me up on Saturday morning all the way from Iran.

The Saudi woman had given me a book on the Hajj and it has been very helpful. It said, "Those who help others to complete their Hajj will be quick to be rewarded by Allah." Goodie. I can tell that to the SuperHajj people if they try to guilt-trip me out of more money. "Being a Hajj guide is its own reward," I'll remind them.

10 am: With only two hours of sleep last night, I trotted off to the tour of Mount Arafat and Mina. Arafat was one of the most spiritual places I've ever been to -- one of those places where you can feel the presence of God. We stepped off our rented mini-van and into a huge tourist circus but you could still feel the vibes. "Want your picture taken on a camel, Hajja?" Yes!

Hundreds of buses spilling out thousands of Indonesian Muslims had already descended upon this holy place and there were still 11 days left before the actual day of Arafat. And apparently my fabulous scheme to be here early so I could fly home on January 10 wasn't gonna work for me. All four million Muslim pilgrims had to go to Mount Arafat on January 9. Period. Earlier or later was no good.

The temperature was really hot.

Then we drove off to Mina, about five miles away. See all those tents? We'll be staying there in a few days. Thousands and thousands of tents! Each tent holds 40 people. "And over there is where you throw stones at Satan." Let me at him! I hit Satan hard with three stones and a peanut.
"Take that, you evil fiend!" But you have to do it on a certain day or it doesn't count.

The Jamarat, consisting of three sets of pillars representing Satan, was located under what looked like a freeway overpass. "With four million people struggling to throw rocks at Satan," said a man in our group who had read up on the subject, "if you stop or turn in the wrong direction or try to go back, you could get killed. It's happened here before. I recommend that the women get a man to throw the stones for them." Three men have volunteered to do it for me. Hurray.

The temperature was really hot.

11 pm: Another adventure in Mecca. I was feeling really rotten today after no sleep last night -- and I made everybody around me aware of it too. Finally the Saudi woman told me about the general hospital right up the street from our hotel, on the way to the mosque. "Just go there and get your cough checked out." She had one of her sons take me up and show me where the entrance was.

At noon, I staggered up to the Haram for the mid-day prayer and could barely stand up. God, what a pathetic mess I was. Having survived having been jammed into the outside plaza along with 40,000 other pilgrims in saris and beards, I went back to the hospital -- and promptly got kicked out! Another Jane first.

Undeterred, I waded back into the line of sick and coughing men waiting at the ER reception counter -- and they started yelling at me. And not very politely either. And shoving in front of me and pushing me aside. Hey! This is my place in line! I was here first! Finally a really sweet intake clerk came out from behind his desk and whispered that perhaps I might want to try the women's clinic. Duh.

Near riot successfully avoided.

Apparently the Saudi woman's son had shown me the men's clinic entrance because that is where he usually went.

At the women's clinic, they took my name at the registration counter, moved me on to a bench in the hallway and then ushered me in front of a doctor -- female, veiled, fluent in English -- who peered down my throat. "You have bronchitis. Take this prescription and have it filled."

At the prescription desk, it was a madhouse. Old ladies in saris fought for position while a really unruffled veiled lady pharmacist grabbed prescriptions and handed back packets of drugs with amazing speed -- and I assume accuracy too. She got my prescription right. "Amoxicillin, Panadrex for pain and Dextrokuf for the cough."

"How much do I owe you?"

"No charge."

I was in and out of the hospital in less than 25 minutes and it was free. American health care system, eat your heart out. Yes, I know that our medical capabilities are five-star and our hospitals look like palaces. But if you can't afford them, you are shoot-out-of-luck.

Jane Straitwell lives in California and is the CEO of Straitwell Travel Books. She is currently editing a series of travel books on Australia, Tibet, China, Belfast, Cuba, New Orleans, the Caribbean, Egypt, Peru, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East including Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan and Dubai.