Mina is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Imagine a valley between copper-brown mountains, filled with identical white tents, stretching far past the hazy horizon, and behind the slope of an eastern mountain. The tents were all large, like the kind you’d see at an outdoor event.
Living in Mina for 5 days isn’t easy. The closest analogy I can compare it to is a refugee camp, albeit with nicer amenities and sanitation. On some of the nights when we were walking back to our camp, there would be great crowds of people lined up at some of the shops, or desolate, weary pilgrims camped along the side of the road in small camper tents, or no tents at all. Some were in wheelchairs, or were missing limbs, and it made me grateful for my air-conditioned canvas tent. As the days went on, trash accumulated in the streets and despite the best efforts of the cleaning crew, it would still get swept away and around. It sometimes felt like living out some kind of post-apocalyptic event, with bottles and newspapers and containers being blown around in the desert wind while white-garbed pilgrims of various races walked through the streets.
Blazingly hot and surprisingly humid.
There were a couple moments where it rained. One night, the rain was so strong that it sounded like someone was blasting static white noise through a loudspeaker. For a moment I worried that the rain would continue to the point where Mina was flooded. Which has happened before. Thankfully, it ended shortly after.
In general, the heat never bothered me. On the long walks from the south end of Mina to the jamarat, there would be such little time in direct sunlight, since the routes are either canopies or underground .
Our tent had drywall set up along the perimeter, with a large ventilation system running just overhead, and several air conditioners peeking out from the wall. A quarter square of the tent was walled off, and this was the women’s side, which had a separate entrance. Packed along the walls of the tent were long, narrow one-person cots that could be folded up into a cushioned chair during the day time. These same cots were placed back-to-back in the middle of the tent. The tent had electricity, and was lit by overhead fluorescent lights. We had wall plugs to charge our phones in.
The main door of the tent led out to a small alleyway that ended on one end in a barrier and, at the other end, connected to the main walkway that led between the tents. Our tent was stationed right across from the main entrance, which also housed the kitchen. In the kitchen, there were snacks and drinks of various sorts.
The main walkway continued into the camp. It was narrow, but wide enough for four people to walk side-by-side. There was a tea station off to the side. The red peak of a nearby mountain loomed if you looked up as you were walking down it.
The main walkway connected to the washrooms. And the washrooms—oh, man, let me tell you about the washrooms.
In Canada—in fact, most of the Western hemisphere—you have the luxury of a sit-down toilet no matter where you go, often with a sink and, if you’re at home, a shower. If you’re reading this and you ever go for Hajj, then buckle up (or down?). Most toilets in Hajj are squat toilets, meaning a ceramic basin overtop a hole in the ground, connected to the main sewer line. There isn’t toilet paper in the stalls either, so you have to bring your own, but there’s a small hose and bidet sprayer with which to wash yourself up with after your business.
There were a few “English toilets”, as they were humorously labelled, which were your standard flush toilets. However, almost all of them were broken or out of order near the end of it all. The middle-ground was probably the outhouse style toilets: pretty much a plastic toilet over top the hole in the ground.
In the end, though, I ended up using the squat toilets the most, simply because they’re the most effective when wearing your ihram. You pretty much just hike it up and go.
Every stall also had a shower head over top. Which I guess is economical when you think about it—just put your toilet and shower in the same stall; it’s all going to the same place anyway.
In the mornings and evenings the experience is pretty tolerable. However, in the heat of the day, with all the humidity and showers and wash basins and sweat and people going on, the combination of all this creates a dank, reeking miasma that lingers the closer you get to the washroom stall.
I never thought I’d write this much about washrooms.
Because the camps were divided by hemisphere, there were a lot of native English-speakers in my camp and other travel groups from Canada.
Once you step out of that gate, though, it’s another story entirely.
Walking along the main road in Mina, you’re exposed to the milleau of pilgrims from all over. And not always in the best of conditions, either. For the poorer pilgrims—or those who snuck into the country without a visa—it’s common to see tents set up along the side of the road, sometimes tucked away along the shadowy perimeters of each section of the city.
With so many people, there’s a lot of litter as well. I’m a bit of a zealot when it comes to recycling, but in Mina (this was also true wherever else I went as well) there wasn’t much distinction between garbage and recycle. I’d say that was probably one of the negatives of my trip, was seeing all the garbage.
We were well fed throughout Hajj. When we were first travelling to Mecca the busses stopped at a checkpoint where all the pilgrims were given a box containing Zamzam water, snacks, dates and other food. We were given a similar box every morning and afternoon while we were in Mina. It often contained some kind of fruit, bread, pastry, and either juice or milk. My breakfast of choice became a bread roll with a soft almond halva spread that came in the same kind of container you’d see peanut butter or jam come in at a restaurant. Halva is typically a crumbly, dense confection made from nut or seed oils, flour, sugar, butter and just all the calories.
In some of the camps, dinner was made in a large communal pot and dished out. Sometimes they would have small Dixie cup-style ice cream at the kitchen. At any time, you could go to the outdoor kitchen and get a bottle of water or whatever other kind of drink they had.
In our camp, dinner was sponsored by a restaurant. One night our dinner was sponsored by Subway, other times by Al-Baik. Usually the meal rice fried with some sort of meat. In fact, I ate a lot of fried rice on my trip. So much so that I’m surprised I didn’t gain weight, but I suppose when your average temperature is over 40 C, you sweat it all out.