In common with much of the Muslim world, I am preparing to observe the holy ritual of Haj in what is rightly called Makkah a few weeks from now. As I do so, my thoughts return to the first pilgrimage I made, a decade or so ago. Yes, I am that old now that I can say that I did this or that "a decade" ago. I was young then and went with a group of friends as part of a school field trip. It was probably one of the toughest but most rewarding times of my life.
The bonding between friends and strangers, the patience needed and the determination, the time for repentance and closeness to Allah were combined with the stress of losing our tent and having our pockets picked as we helped someone find a missing person. Of course, we ended up getting lost and exhausted and laughing about it later on. Before I began getting ready for my second Haj, I had almost forgotten how much there is to do before one heads out to Saudi Arabia. Well, first things first, I had to arrange my visa, which as everyone knows is always hard work. Lots of form-filling, signing this document and that, fees here and there and, of course, the long wait until finally there it is stamped into my passport.
The first box ticked. Now, health. My doctor advised me to have as many vaccinations as possible, as it is well known that since millions of people from around the world will be performing the pilgrimage, it is easy to catch something serious. So, it was decided that I should get vaccinated against a range of nasties from yellow fever and meningitis right down to flu. But even this lot weren't enough for my doctor. "It is a shame you haven't been vaccinated against hepatitis," he told me. "But it is too late now, we will have to do it when you come back."
Not very comfortingly, he then added: "I am sure there will be a doctor around in case of anything serious, but let us just hope he can get to you in time, given the traffic of people." His laugh wasn't very reassuring, either. I was then instructed to go to a pharmacy to buy the vaccines and return so that an assigned nurse could actually give them to me. This system was introduced four years ago, apparently "for hygiene" and "economic" reasons. So I ended up ferrying several packets of vaccine plus an ice-pack - to keep them chilled - back to the nurse, whose only word of thanks was to warn me that the yellow fever jab would hurt. Great, just what someone afraid of hypodermic needles wants to hear.
"No matter what I tell people, they are always afraid, as they had painful childhood experiences with needles," said the nurse with a smile. As soon as she said that, all my childhood inoculations came flooding back; all those painful jabs, every one delivered - or so it seemed - by an inexperienced intern nurse who hadn't yet learnt to wield a needle. And I especially remembered the jab that left one of my legs numb and me unable to walk properly for several days. I was six.
I thought I would have got over those old fears until she injected me. Flu and meningitis in one arm, yellow fever in the other. Ouch. So, another box ticked: I now have my immunisation booklet to show the Saudi authorities if they ask. I also stocked up on painkillers, stomach medicine, herbal medicine, packets of sterile wet wipes and bandages. Can I have forgotten anything? Very probably. I also packed several prayer books, as I lost so many the last time I went for Umrah, a minor pilgrimage. And I also filled a suitcase with shoes, as I always forget where I leave mine when I pray, and as anyone who goes for pilgrimage or prayer to the Haram mosque knows, there will be a lot of people - and a lot of shoes.
All I have left to do now is make sure my place is reserved in the tent cities of Arafat and Mina, and that I have enough food and water. No matter how efficiently you organise yourself for the Haj, the pilgrimage is a demanding experience - rightly so. It is, after all, a test of your faith in Allah, and in a way, of yourself. My first pilgrimage, was comparatively effortless, but then I was younger and so much more energetic. I can't imagine how tough it is for older people and those with a handicap or illness. Thankfully, there is assistance on hand for them but, ultimately, it is a difficult task and is required of Muslims only once in their lifetime. Some people save up their entire life so that they can attend, while others can afford to do it more than once. But each person comes back with a different personal story of their Haj experience. I know that with the constant expansion projects going on each year in Makkah, I will see drastic changes in the landscape surrounding the Haram Mosque housing the holy Kaaba.
I still have much I have to do before I leave, and I hope I come back a more giving and forgiving person. It is said that Haj manages to change people if performed with a sincere heart. Let's hope so email@example.com