"Remember," said Ismail Fenni, co-leader of the Islamic Society of Boston's hajj group, "do your shopping in Medina. Buy gifts for your family in Medina. Change money in Medina. Because when you get to Mecca you need to turn your attention fully to the practice and performance of the pilgrimage."
And they did. Men bought light cotton thobes, Arab-style full-length shirts, or shalwar khamees, Pakistani style long shirts with loose trousers. Women bought abaya, long dresses and lovely scarves. Some bought books; others sweets; others still bought prayer beads wrought from local Medina stone, and prayer rugs woven in this first Muslim city. The rustling of plastic bags in the lobby mixed with the sound of wheels on marble, as rolling trollies carried suitcases to waiting busses.
Visiting Medina is not mandatory and not part of the hajj. But wouldn't you go there if you were in the neighborhood? Most foreign hajjis make Medina part of their pilgrimage itinerary.
In this first Muslim city, Muhammad the Prophet organized a government with all the trappings of civil and military affairs, education, a market - supervised by a woman appointed by the Prophet, business ethics, women's rights, animal rights, and a justice system that specified Jews would handle most issues according to Jewish law, Christians to Christian tradition, and Muslims in their nascent style.
Around Medina are sites of epic battles, historic cemeteries, and farms. Medina was an agrarian society. Men and women worked side-by-side in the fields and groves of date palms. Today's pilgrims come here to get in touch with a narrative history that is largely unknown to non-Muslims. Seeing it makes it real - ask anyone who's visited Gettysburg.
It's bittersweet to leave Medina. There's something in the air - although it's not the same something Oscar Hammerstein wrote about. It's something serene and storied; something inviting you beyond the comfort zone of your faith. Pilgrims I've met here report weeping during prayers, without knowing what turned on the tears. "I just sat there, crying!" one pilgrim told me, "The tears wouldn't stop. And I wasn't sad."
"Gratitude," said one man. "Needing forgiveness," said another. "Fearing I won't find what's next," said a third.
In general women reported less crying and more wonderment and joy.
Being in Medina is like the prelude to a musical, hinting at themes that may rise during the hajj itself. But because it is not hajj the themes aren't as confronting as they'll likely become. It's mild salsa with salty tortilla crisps.
Mecca is the hot sauce. Served straight up. Men and women all sucked in their breath and shook their heads when asked, "Are you ready for Mecca?"
Rumors fly that Mecca is harsher, hotter, and testier than Medina. Its mountains surround the city. And skyscrapers threaten the skyline. Mecca during hajj has been called "The greatest show on earth." Another chorus is, "I'm nervous about being with five million people at once."
Are they ready to begin the real work of pilgrimage? To face varying degrees of hardship and sacrifice? To remain faithful and cheerful in spite of the unavoidable crush of humanity that waits, densely packed in the living maelstrom swirling counterclockwise at the spiritual center of Islam?
"I will see if I have the virtue of patience," said a pilgrim with a sigh.
For my TV team the questions also present themselves. We will be crowded, crushed and squeezed as we lug cameras and tripods from our hotel to the Haram al Shareef, or Noble Sanctuary. Will we get the meetings we've scheduled? What about the beauty shots from the top of a tall building? Who will open up to us, heart full to bursting?
Without stories of personal and social transformation this film will be another superficial travel show to an exotic place; crinkling with plastic bags.