Originally posted 8/24/06
Night time again. Cool. Quiet. Still. Most people are starting to think of going to bed if they haven't already turned in for the night. I just can't do it. The dark night tends to make me feel rather feral and restless. That's left over from bygone days, though, and isn't something that I'm going to go into here. These days, more often than not, I end up getting out of bed to enjoy the stillness, the quiet and the darkness of the house after everyone else is asleep. Given the fact that I've been a lifelong night owl, I suppose that it's appropriate that some of my favorite memories are from the night, then, isn't it?
There was one night soon after we arrived in Saudi when the company arranged for us to have a picnic on a beach by the Red Sea. They called it the Goat Grab, though I'm not sure if they had any goat there, but you never know, eh? It certainly wouldn't be the strangest thing that I ate while I lived there. The beaches along that part of the Red Sea were different than they are here. Sure, there's sand, but that's abundant through much of Saudi anyway. What made it different was that the Red Sea had extensive coral reefs along the shoreline that slowly build on themselves as the old coral ages and dies, so you sometimes had to walk through a shallow water area of old coral, sea urchins, mollusks, crabs (and sometimes even a lost pufferfish) for about 50 to 100 feet (or sometimes more) before you get to the drop-off where the waves were breaking. It was strongly advised to wear shoes in the water because there were all sorts of sharp or poisonous things to step on. Another oddity of these beaches was that there were often parts of the beach that were mostly enclosed on the land side with cinderblock walls, as if someone were claiming it as beachfront property, but without any houses on them. Just walls around the beach in the middle of nowhere. Odd, but typical.
In one of these "courtyards" at the beach that night, they spread two long rows of table cloths with oriental carpets along each edge to sit on; on the table cloths were spread dish upon dish of the most mouth watering middle eastern food that I had ever seen in my life. We took off our shoes and sat on the carpets to eat while some of the Saudi nationals who were along with us were playing traditional music. What a great experience. However, the most memorable part of the evening was when we first arrived at the beach. All the kids (myself included...hey, I was only 14) ran down to the waterline as kids always do when they get around water, and we stood there listening to the waves breaking against the coral somewhere out in the inky darkness at the edge of the reef. Eventually, most of the kids ran back to the group, but I stood there, intoxicated by the smell of the sea air and enoying the feeling of the night breeze on my face.
And then I looked up and saw something that I had never seen before: a sky full of stars completely untouched by any trace of man-made light. It was unlike any sky I had seen before or would see again, painted by seemingly thousands of stars, like a barrel full of diamond dust had been poured from horizon to horizon across a sky of black velvet. There was not one place where you could point your finger and find blank sky. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I only saw this for a few minutes. They fired up the generators and much of the sky was lost as the light haze in the humid air bleached out the dark sky.
Those few minutes have stayed with me throughout my life, though. Every time I look at a starry night sky now, I think of that night and what the sky looked like, glad that for one time in my life I could see all that lies hidden from our eyes in much of the western world.