Working and Living in a Different Country
Yearnings for the bamboo forests of China, the ski slopes of Switzerland and the karaoke booths of Japan – highlights of my previous gap years – don't surprise me, but I never imagined the minarets of Saudi Arabia would call me back. It is two years since I returned from Jeddah, but when I close my eyes on a grey English day I'm walking the city's ancient streets again, seeking out Bukhari chicken or Egyptian flat bread.
Money was my motivation for going to a country famous for exporting oil and terrorism; it has some of the best paid English teaching jobs in the world, and I managed to save £8,500 in just six months working at a boys' school there. I chose my new home city carefully. As the gateway to Mecca, through which the Muslim world passes on the hajj, the port of Jeddah is Saudi Arabia's most cosmopolitan and liberal city.
My new Saudi friends warned me against even visiting the capital Riyadh, home of Wahhabism. In Jeddah I knew Saudis, as well as western women, who walked the streets unaccompanied by a man and with their heads uncovered, something they could never do in Riyadh.
Jeddah also boasts some of the world's best coral reefs. Diving on the Saudi side of the Red Sea offers the same underwater riches as the Egyptian Sinai, but without the crowds. On the downside, I didn't speak to a woman for my first two months there, but I eventually found a private beach where the sexes could mix.
My first lesson on a jet ski was fleeing the coastguard. A Palestinian girl had taken me for a ride when we saw their ship approaching. For fear of being caught together we hid in a cove. Women are barred from driving any kind of motorised vehicles so I had to take the controls and when they passed we sped out of the cove and back to the beach James-Bond style.
Bizarre experiences inform my anecdotes about Saudi Arabia – gate-crashing a wedding and ending up on stage in front of 2,000 guests, my Saudi girlfriend's mother catching us at my apartment together … But what I long for is visiting the crumbling, centuries-old buildings of Old Jeddah, smoking shisha in coffee shops and sipping sweet Adeni tea with a friend. The kingdom is a harsh place, but the people who live there are the most hospitable I've ever met. I went for the riyals but came back richer in so many other ways.
David Trayner, 29, news reporter, Leicester