The drive out to Adnan's sister Baheeja’s country home north of Jeddah is mostly dry brown desert all along the way. It is only maybe a 30 minute car ride to get there taking the Madinah Highway. The Sierra Mountain range is visible off in the distance. There are walled villas sprinkled randomly here and there, but in general, the area is fairly remote and sparsely populated.
Several camel corrals or depots are located off the freeway. During one of our drives out there, Adnan delighted me by pulling off the road so I could take closer pictures of the camels. There must have been over 100 camels in each of the lots we saw, including many nursing baby camels. I was thrilled to be able to get out of the car and take pictures of these beasts. A rickety barbed wire fence contained the animals and several camel herders attended each lot. Adnan told me he thought the dark skinned camel herders were Sudanese.
The one-humped dromedary camel is native to Saudi Arabia. There are no two-humped camels here. The camels ranged in color from white to all shades of tan to dark brown. Adnan told me that the white camels are more rare and therefore are more expensive. These camels are available for purchase for their meat, or one can just purchase the fresh camel milk. A full grown camel costs between $750-1,000 US. Adam and I had previously seen camel meat for sale in the meat department of a supermarket. It looks like a very big lean pot roast, but with absolutely no fat. Adnan's mom has prepared dishes for us using camel meat. It's actually pretty good and tastes like lamb, which is the most preferred meat here in Arabia.
Many of the nursing mothers were equipped with a contraption made out of canvas – similar to a bra - to keep the babies from nursing constantly. The purpose of these bras is so that more camel milk is available for sale. Adnan asked one of the guys there to get us some milk, so we watched as three guys milked the camel right in front of us. They had to displace the bra-like contraption and tried to keep the persistent nursing baby away - with great difficulty -while they milked the mommy camel. Squirted into large stainless steel bowls, the milk was bright white and very frothy on top. At a makeshift worktable out in the open air, the milk was then transferred into a large plastic bag and sealed. We got about a gallon of fresh warm camel’s milk for 20 Saudi Riyals, which is about $5 US.
As we continued on our journey, just down the road we could see dozens of tents along the way. There were people actually living in these tents in the middle of the desert. Nowadays, there are not that many Bedouins - gypsies of the desert - actually living in the desert anymore. Many of them have settled in the cities. Seeing these tents struck me as funny because many of the tents had cars parked beside them.
When we arrived at Baheeja's villa about 10 minutes later, Adnan poured me a small shot glass of the still-warm camel's milk. It tasted very much like extremely rich cow's milk. It may be that I have been drinking skim milk for so long that the camel's milk seemed really rich to me. Adnan enjoyed some in his hot tea and Adnan's mom made some custard with it, and it was pretty darn good!
I know people have their own preconceived notions about Arabs living in tents and riding around on camels, and sure, it still exists in areas, but it is just not that common any more. Yes, there are historic older sections with ancient buildings, and there is a small percentage of Bedouins who do still live in tents and perhaps wander the desert. And you can see camel herders, and the men and women here dress traditionally, much the same as they have for centuries.
The reality is that Saudi Arabia is a very modern country with very new and very modern areas that are really quite lovely, and its people are more educated and more civilized than a lot of the rest of the world believes.