Riyadh to Jeddah
“Just my luck to get my head chopped off over Badfinger.” That’s what I was thinking at that moment. And, no, I am not talking about the digit on my person. The Badfinger to which I am referring is the British pop band on Apple discovered by George Harrison or Paul McCartney depending on whom you ask. Would I be in this same situation with Elephant’s Memory or Mary Hopkin?
A harmless song like ‘It’s Over’ suddenly sounded blasphemous like Aleister Crowley himself had played the opening riff in this crowded music free market adjacent to the Red Sea packed with weekend shoppers looking at electronic gadgets and hiding behind hajibs. Again, I am getting ahead of myself.
After a few days of conferences and workshops in Riyadh, I was off to Jeddah where I was to spend the next year.
The day started with Michael getting kicked out of the mall. This is what happened. Michael is one of the teachers that I immediately connected with. Another teacher Lee jokingly said that we might have to be separated because he accused me of being evil, and Michael of being an instigator.
What happened is this. Michael had to replace a split duffle bag for the flight to Jeddah. We were told to meet at 1 p.m. in the lobby of the hotel. At 8:30 a.m., we picked up our first two weeks salary from H.R. In between the time that we got our checks and the meeting time Michael planned on going to the mall next door to find a new duffle for his dirty clothes since an unnamed airline probably Turkish Air -who played ‘Splash the Contents of New Prada Cologne All Over the Middle East Mid-Air’ with me - ravished his duffel.
Incidentally when I got my two weeks’ pay, this was the first riyals I had seen. I looked at each bill and the King smiled back at me on each one as if to say “Welcome to my country. Teach my people English. Don’t cry over spilt Prada.” Did I mention that I had just bought a bottle of Prada aftershave a few days before I left America only to find it spilt all over everything in my new Tumi bag? Did I mention that? IN the scheme of things, I was lucky. Some teachers did not even get their luggage.
But I am getting off point. Michael went to the mall next door to find a duffel. Here I should add that Riyadh is somewhat strict or can be strict regarding dress codes especially at the mall and especially on family day and especially if you use the f-word towards a security guard who is familiar with said word.
Michael wore shorts to the mall, not Daisy Dukes but over the knee shorts, which is forbidden depending on who you ask. He asked the guard if he knew where he could get a duffle. The guard gave him a vague answer. Michael turned to whoever was with him, maybe Lee, and said, “He doesn’t know what he is fudging talking about.” And he did not use the word ‘fudging.’
With that Michael tried to brush past the guard and go ask someone else in the mall. The guard did not know English but was familiar with the f-word directed at him and told Michael:
“Family day. No short. You leave.”
“I just want to ask about a duffle.”
“Family day. You leave.”
“Over there,” Michael pointed to a merchant manning a kiosk. “I just want to ask him.”
“You leave. Family day.” With that the guard escorted Michael out of the mall.
So Michael came to my room and got my backpack. He asked if it would be okay to put dirty clothes in it. I told him I had schlepped the pack all over Thailand so nothing he put in it could be any dirtier than what it has already seen and/or held. At that time, he told me that since he has Hispanic lineage, he is sometimes mistaken for an Arab and so he does not get to pretend that he does not know the rules like other westerners. After he told me this, he took the pack and left.
During my stay at Holiday Inn, I somehow had scattered my belongings all over my room; though I had hung my suits, my stuff was scattered everywhere mainly because I was rushing from lunch, to a meeting, or almost sleeping through meetings and rushing to and fro. So I had some packing to do before we met in the lobby. At some point, I would have liked to take a short nap but that was probably not going to happen.
While I was packing, Michael rang.
“I have a big favor to ask,” he started.
“Yes,” I said getting ready for about anything.
“The backpack is not going to work out,” he said.
“Yeah. Would you mind packing my shoes?”
Fortunately, I actually had some extra room in my luggage - that whole we-are-all-in-transition-whether-we-know-it-or-not thing – so I told him no problem.
“You haven’t planted a bomb in them have you?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed.
Since the time was approaching 12:30, I thought that I would grab some lunch in the dining room before we departed for Jeddah. Lee and a few others were in the lobby already. I checked out of my room and then I went over to talk to Lee. I told him I was going to have lunch in the hotel restaurant. He told me that we were not on the lunch list since we were checking out. This was disheartening. Since I had already checked out, I sat down and waited. Ten minutes later, Michael came down. Lee told him the same thing.
Michael sat down as crestfallen as me. We sat and said nothing. Suddenly Michael got up.
“I am going to check and make sure,” he said to me.
“Awesome,” I said. “Wave to me if we can.”
If anyone could make lunch happen, Michael could. I sat anxiously waiting for the high sign. From my vantage point, I could see him talking to the maître d. The maitre d consulted the list. A few seconds later. Michael waved me over.
“You rock!” I told him excited that I would be able to eat before we went to the airport.
The other times that I had eaten in the hotel restaurant, I had travel stomach. Now I was somewhat recovered from my jet lag and my appetite was back. I had the salmon the smoked and the smothered. I had cucumbers and the various Middle Eastern pleasures. Fruit was there; I grabbed it. There were approximately 40 items to choose from and I am sure that I tried 39. With all of it, I topped it off with a few rolls. After so many months in OverEatersAmerica, I decided to forego a dessert though they all looked scrumptious. I am sure my stacked plate made up in calories for any foregone dessert.
Then it happened. After we had eaten the most excellent lunch ever, the manager came over and told us we had to pay for our lunch. We were floored. Michael can be the most charming man when he turns on the charm. He explained that we were on the list. And that the waiter told us we could eat but the waiter should not get in trouble because he was just doing his job because we are on the list. The manager brought over another manager and it became slightly circular and ever so Monty Python at this point.
This went on for several minutes. We told the manager and the other backup manager we were told we could eat. We had not broken any rules. The managers repeated we had to pay. We repeated we were on the list. The managers repeated we had to pay. We repeated we were on the list and added the waiter should not be accountable. He was just doing his job. At this point, scattered around the restaurant, we spied other colleagues sitting down and eating as well. We did not rat anyone out.
But then, we spotted one of the representatives of our company. One of the nicest men I have ever met. We waved him over and explained the situation. He completely understood and took care of the problem immediately, which was an immediate relief.
We thanked him and the staff and proceeded to the lobby since 1:00 p.m. was drawing near. At 1:00 pm we were all ready to go to the airport. Everyone was accounted for. We were excited to be in our new city. The same excitement was with us at 1:30 pm when we were still waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the airport. At 2:00 pm, the excitement was on the wane and something like panic was starting to set in because the flight was at 4:00 and we had no idea how long it would take to get to and through the airport to our plane. By 2:45, we were resigned to the fact that we would be going on a later flight, we hoped.
As soon as we were resigned, the shuttle showed. We loaded up 15 people and 15 people’s year’s worth of luggage in a shuttle that would comfortably fit 10 people and 10 people’s two weeks worth of luggage. We were not comfortable but we were on our way to the airport. Soon we were away from civilization on a lone stretch of highway that led to the airport.
About 15 minutes into the lone highway stretch, something slightly bizarre happened. The driver pulled off the road onto what looked like a section road, nothing special, no highway merge, nothing. He stopped the shuttle. We all stared at each other quizzically.
Someone in front called back to the ones in back that he had got lost. We were dumbfounded. I mean I have never been to Saudi before but I am pretty sure that if you are looking for an international airport it is not going to be on some random section road.
Then as suddenly as he stopped, he pulled back out on the highway and continued. I had attached myself to Michael at this point because he knows all of the ins-and-outs of traveling Middle Easterly. He told me whatever I did to get ahead of the pilgrims (people wrapped in towels with no passports making their pilgrimage to Mecca) because it took forever for them to be processed. I said I would just follow him.
When we arrived at the airport, we had 25 minutes until our plane took off. Michael was hopeful. He thought we could make it. I thought he was dreaming. We hopped out of the van and grabbed our luggage as fast as a year’s worth of luggage could be grabbed. We quickly nabbed a cart. Threw our luggage on it and we made haste to the ticket counter.
This is when we noticed an unclaimed plastic bag.
“Should we tell someone about this?” I asked.
“Yeah, that might be a good idea,” Michael confirmed. “I’ll go find a guard.”
I held his place in line while he went to find a guard. The guard was incredibly nonchalant. He asked Michael if it was his. Michael looked at me incredulously. Just about that time, a passenger at the ticket counter who was done checking in came by and grabbed the package, which was a lamp, and took it away and looked at us and smiled.
“Yeah, I just wanted to show you my new lamp,” Michael said in the direction of the guard after the guard was long gone.
By the time we got through the line, we only had 10 minutes to go through security and get to our plane. Michael still believed we would make it. At this point, I thought him crazy. After all, we were in an international airport. And it was not an airport in a country where people going from one place to another were particularly moved expediently. But deep down inside somewhere within my being, I had faith.
Thus, we ran to the security check expecting a line, which there was not. We got through security rather quickly. They did not even make me take off my shoes. But then how would we get to the gate before it closed? Fortunately, the gate was right there. We ran to the plane. After us, a football team came in. We wondered if they were famous to be arriving so late. They were very young.
The flight was non-eventful. We arrived in Jeddah. A shuttle and a couple of cars fit us almost comfortably. We were checked into a motel at the compound where are apartments are but the apartments were not yet ready, something about bug infestation. The hotel was old but clean and was actually a small one-bedroom apartment with beautiful crazy ‘70s tile in the bathroom.
The next day we had off and I really did nothing but lie around and try to get adapted to this new world I had entered. I walked around the compound a bit. I went to one of the pools (we have three) and I chatted with Michael. The day was nothing special, nor was the next day. That day we went to school and were assigned our offices and classrooms. Then the next day was orientation for the students. And we met some of the Arabian staff.
The first introduction to the students was the following day for testing, which consisted of students being herded into rooms and given reading, writing and listening tests. Later when I marked the results, I knew my work was cut out for me. In China, I had enough students who understood English to make a go of it. This time, I am in virgin waters. These students know no English. This is going to be tough.
But what about Badfinger? This is what happened. I wanted to buy an i-phone docking station and so I gave the store clerk my i-phone to test the speakers and I did not really think about the whole ban of Western music when I did this. And I did not think about the fact that there was no music being played in the market whatsoever.
This did not register until the opening chords of ‘It’s Over’ blasted through the market like Moses on crack. I was stunned and felt as if I was in a nightmare where you cannot move fast enough to save yourself. I was sure that the media police would come and take me and, yes, there would be a public beheading. It’s over.
But, I was able to turn off Badfinger. When I did shut them down, I shut my eyes like in that moment before a crash and then I slowly opened them and everything was normal. No one had seemed to notice. Badfinger had gone unnoticed. It wasn’t over. I was alive. I love Jeddah!