Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Secret Life of Arabia - After the Arrival

My biggest fear teaching Arabian students is that they would not like me, that they would actually go out of their way to be abusive to me since our governments have tenuous relationships at best. That was my biggest fear but I am getting ahead of myself. In my last communiqué, I had just boarded the plane.

The plane. The plane was hot. The air didn't blow. I couldn't sleep. The boy from the six-hour wait who sat next to me is actually 23. He slept the entire flight. At the end of the flight, I gave him my email address. I told him to write me. I introduced myself. He introduced himself as Fily. We disembarked. He disappeared.

The line through customs did not disappoint in its vagaries. Most of us waited in one line and then we were ushered into a new line and then ushered back into the first line. This did not happen to be in any order. When I did get to the passport check, the inspector looked over my picture a few times and then he called to another inspector, which was more than slightly alarming. What was wrong with my passport?

The other inspector looked at me and then looked at my picture and told me that there was a shadow over my picture. No one had ever noticed this before which was bizarre since I am one of those people who has had to get extra passport pages because of all of the pages of visas and entry exit stamps. Nevertheless, I was one of the first people through the line. Later, I heard from other teachers that they stood in line for over an hour because at times the line was at a complete standstill.

When I got my luggage, there were little men there to help but I quickly realized these little men were trying to make some cash and I had no riyals just greenback so I piled my Tumi bags on top of each other and rolled through the exit gate where I hoped and prayed that a company representative would be.

At the end of the waiting mob, I saw a young stout Arab holding a sign for TVTC employees. I told him my name. He told me my name was not on the list of pickups, which was disheartening to say the least. He told me to have a seat while he waited for the others.

The waiting room was filled with what looked to be transients. In actuality, the waiting room bore a closer resemblance to an inner city bus terminal than an international airport. Occasionally, a young Filipino would flit by with a Justin Bieber towel draped around him like a cape. Once, the Arab came back to check on me. He asked me if I had any riyals. I told him I only had American. He offered to put me in a cab and pay the fare. I told him I could wait. I really did not want to go off in a cab on my own. This seemed slightly reckless.

He disappeared again. The jet mechanic came out of customs and talked to the Arab. His people had not shown up. How he picked out my Arab, I am not sure. I watched from my seat amongst the transients. The jet mechanic did not see me. I was too tired to move and I really didn’t want to get involved. The jet mechanic wandered off.

The Arab came back and told me that we could go. The others were not coming. Or rather he did not want to wait on them. I crammed my arsenal of luggage into his tiny car that looked uncannily like a Yugo. We took off onto the desert highway. The sun was beginning to rise. Within 20 minutes we came to civilization. Ten minutes later we were pulling into the Holiday Inn. The exterior was weathered from the constant sandstorms and extreme heat. However, the inside was well appointed, maybe even four star in quality.

While my consort filled out the paperwork for my room, the busboy took my bags. The clerk gave me my key and told me the room number – Room 325. Finally, I could sleep. The time was somewhere around 8 a.m. local time. I was told to sleep and not worry about the day’s activities.

I dragged myself to my room ready to sleep after 30 plus hours of being awake. Shortly after I got to my room, there was a knock on my door. When I opened the door, the bellboy was there with my luggage. After he arranged my luggage around the room, since I still did not have riyals, I gave him three dollars American.

Sadly at this point, I was so sleepy that I couldn’t sleep and I just lay there. Or I thought I couldn’t sleep but I did fall asleep because the ringing telephone woke me, the ringing phone that I could not locate. I stumbled around the dark room and the ringing seemed to be coming from the bath. Finding the bath, I picked up the receiver and nothing. I lay back down. Again, I must have fallen asleep because a knocking at the door woke me.

A young sprite was there to greet me. I was groggy and undressed. His name – Dominic; he told me to rest. He was just checking to make sure that I had arrived safely. If I wanted, I could come down to the restaurant later and eat. At 2 p.m., there was to be a workshop that I might want to attend if I was up for it. I told him that I thought I would be rested enough to attend. He told me to have a nice rest. I lay back down.

To say that everything after that is a blur is an understatement. We had strange meetings. I met my new colleagues and the teachers at the other colleges around the country. There are somewhere in the vicinity of 40 teachers. I ate some wonderful food over the course of the conferences including some delicious local dishes. Unfortunately as nice as Holiday Inn and the staff at Holiday Inn were, I was never able to get completely rested while I was there, nor did my unsettled stomach settle. This is the first time that I have had such extreme jetlag, which might be because in the past I have never had to jump right into something but this time I immediately had meetings and seminars so my body clock was not able to fully adjust. The hours dreamily drifted by from seminars to camel markets.

And, as dreamlike as it was, the camel market and the wonderful music that followed are what stick out the most from that first few days. Imagine an infinite expanse of camel pens in the middle of the desert and that is the camel market. Camels with their Betty Boop eye lashes and their slow deliberate swagger are like transformed intergalactic beings giving earth a try. I look at them and I see these evolved Saturn spirits resting within. I know that I am completely camel crazy. Thus, I could have stayed with the camels all night but we had to move onto the next attraction.

Back on the bus, we drove once more through the desert winding through the streets and going more and more into the ripped backsides of Jeddah. We joked that we were going to be overtaken by bandits because we stopped at a walled compound that was remote and creepy but then the bus driver once again started the bus and we lumbered along the secluded desert road.

We stopped again at another walled compound that was well lit. We exited the bus and entered through the gate into a beautiful manicured lawn where men were dancing and singing and beating drums and then holding the drums over fire to tighten the drums to beat them harder. The music was beautiful. It was chillingly beautiful and emotionally jarring. Combined with the other worldliness of the camel market, this truly touched my soul. I actually got goose bumps. As he walked past, I grabbed the sprite Dominic in exultation. He nodded knowingly.

Yes, this was the grand finale for our time in Riyadh and it was as spectacular as anything I have ever witnessed. After the singing and dancing we feasted outside on all of the Arabian delicacies, which was nothing short of wonderful. Finally, my appetite had returned. I no longer felt travel-sick. After we got our bellies full, we were corralled back onto the bus and taken back to the hotel. The next day we would be heading off to Jeddah to start teaching.

Again, I wondered how the students would respond to me. Was Jeddah going to be a place I wanted to stay for a year or more? Back in my hotel room as I drifted off to sleep, I remembered what the guide told me “If you go to them, they will come.”


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