Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Secret Life of Arabia This is a new beginning.

“If you go to them, they will come,” the guide told me when we had stopped at a pen of camels.
He made noises to attract them. His name was possibly Mottieb but I cannot be sure. He was wearing a thawb and headdress. I had just spent thirty-some hours on airplanes and in airports including a six-hour delay in Istanbul.

Everything was dreamlike in this desert outside of Riyadh. On the bus, I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness. A genie, was there a genie on the bus? Were there men riding camels on the shoulders of the highway. Were the ghosts of T. E. Lawrence and Peter O’Toole having tea in a souk? What was happening? How did I get here?


A little over a week ago, I was not even certain that I would be going to Saudi. At that time, I had no air tickets, no work visa, and no confirmation. Now, a little over a week later, I am here in Jeddah starting a new life or a new chapter to an old one.

On the day I left the USA - flying from Tulsa to Riyadh, I got my work visa (or a visa that I will use until I get a work visa). The day before it was confirmed that my visa had come through. That evening my new employer made flight arrangements for the following afternoon. In a rush, I did all of the last minute chores in preparation for another year away. After awhile, all of this gets much easier. Really, no matter how settled we are all of us are in transition. For me, knowing this little tidbit makes life in general easier.

The Tulsa airport was as empty as ever making my flight out a pleasure. Flying out of smaller airports such as Tulsa or Oklahoma City is never as nerve splitting as flying out of an airport such as Dallas or Chicago. Don’t even get me on the nightmare of Chicago O’Hare. Did a halfwit lay it out?

Since I got to the airport in plenty of time, I had quite a wait. Having had no lunch, I grabbed a quick sandwich at Camille’s and took it back to the gate to eat it. Surprisingly, unlike most airport food, the sandwich was reasonably priced and actually made fresh.

On the airplane, I had a row to myself, which was nice. A nice, albeit misleading, introduction to what would be a grueling 30 plus hours of airports and crowded airplanes. In Chicago, the pain of the ordeal began. To get to gate 5, in no-man’s land with no restaurants, I had to go out of the actual airport and go through the security line again. There was no line just a mob. The mob discombobulated me so much that I actually left my shoes on the floor and someone had to hand them to me through the screening area when they were discovered. I thanked the woman who found them and made my way to my gate.

Since O’Hare is a world airport, I thought I would be able to eat at a restaurant near my gate once I had gone through security. This was not the case - once inside the secured area the only choice was a few insanely overpriced sandwiches of the 7/11 variety at a kiosk. Yes, I had two hours to wait for my plane but I decided I would just have the almonds and cran-raisins I had packed in my carry-on to hold me over.

Across from me, a Slav and his young son sat down. The man mussed with his son’s hair, talked to him in a Slavic fatherly way and gave the son money, a twenty dollar bill. The son spoke in English at times. The son disappeared and came back with two of those aforementioned 7/11 clone sandwiches and gave his father a few coins in change. The father scoffed at the price and looked at me and said something but it was not in English.

“Yeah, the sandwiches are really expensive.” I replied realizing after I said it that he had no idea what I said.

Finally, the plane boarded. As usual, I hoped that I had a few seats to myself on the transcontinental part of the flight. I did not. A younger man sat next to me. I casually said hello not knowing how friendly he would be. He smiled and said hello. During the course of the flight, he told me that he is a banker and he used to work for Bank of America. Now he is going to Kenya to help a local bank near his hometown. He asked me if I had let Bank of America - my bank I had told him earlier in our conversation - know that I was going to be living in Saudi. I told him that I think that I had alluded to the fact at some point.

During the flight, I tried to sleep but every time I nodded off something woke me so I did not sleep. By the time, I got to Istanbul I felt as if I was in the minions of walking dead. At the airport, I was not sure where to go. I got in a line but then I heard a self-possessed older woman in line behind me talking about all of the times she had been to Istanbul. I asked her if I needed to be in the line if I was in transit. She told me no I should be able to just follow the in transit people through a doorway. She pointed vaguely behind us. I went that way and found my way through the in-transit doorway.

Since I had a few hours, I browsed the duty free and looked for a copy of International Living on the magazine stand – they did not carry it. I debated eating but I was actually fairly full from the breakfast from my previous flight. After sitting in a lounge area, I got up and made my way to my gate.

To get to my gate, I had to go through another security area. Since I was no longer in the USA, the security gate was much more relaxed. The guards gave everyone a cursory inspection but did not seem to be paying too much attention.

Relieved that I had only a couple of hours to wait for Turkish Airlines to take me to Riyadh where I would be having several days of conferences, I sat down on one of the somewhat uncomfortable metal seats in the small waiting area. A few people came and sat and then got up and left. Another Westerner sat down in the row of seats next to mine. He looked as if he might be another teacher. I thought about asking him but then I decided not to because I was not in the mood for conversation.

About thirty minutes before the plane was to take off, I started getting anxious – perhaps I was at the wrong gate. I finally asked the man sitting next to me if he knew why we were not boarding, why in fact there was not even an airline employee at the counter.

“The plane has been delayed 6 hours,” he told me. Naturally, I thought that I had misheard him though he spoke plainly and with an American accent.

“Six hours?” I repeated.

“Yeah, six hours,” he confirmed.

“That sucks.”

At that point, I was so wiped out that I did not even have an iota of an idea of what to do to pass the time. I would have loved to sleep. I would have loved for a genie to come and bring a magic carpet on which to sleep but that did not happen. So I just sat and sat. And sat. I was too drowsy and dazed to read so I sat and did nothing.

A fidgety young man caught my attention. Since I was in a daze, I do not know exactly when this happened or who was first to speak. I do not remember our first words. Maybe he was thinking that we should be able to get on an earlier flight but I am not positive. At this point, I attached myself to the military man and the young man attached himself to us.

We talked a bit. He had been studying in Michigan but was on his way home to Riyadh or somewhere nearby to see his ailing father. He was the most distraught of all of us about the delay. Most of this had to do with his youth, nothing more. 6 hours is a lifetime. The military man, a jet repairman, and I sat. The youth paced and paced. And paced.

At this point, it had been several hours since I had eaten. Hungry and dazed, I went to the bistro. Nothing looked appealing but I knew that I had to eat because I was starting to get a headache. I chose a muffin and a Pepsi. Back at our post, I offered the jet repairman part of the muffin. He had already eaten. The boy had wondered off. I ate the muffin in silence.

The jet repairman and I sat and watched the departure/arrival screen for no real reason other than that was the only thing either of us could muster up to do. Eventually, the boy wandered back over to us. At this point, an airline representative came and told us we were to have a meal comped which was great news. He led us through security and through the airport up to the Turkish Airlines’ restaurant. Along the way, a passenger needed some assistance. The representative asked the Saudi boy to help. To me, this was bizarre. I am not sure what was said. They were talking in Arabic, or Urdu, or Farsi; they were not talking in English. It was beyond Greek to me.

In the restaurant, the jet repairman and I grabbed seats. We both ordered Pepsis. Thinking that the Saudi boy would find us, I kept watching the door. The entire walk to the restaurant, I had talked to the airline representative. He seemed eager to practice his English. I told him his English is good. I could understand him perfectly. He beamed.

Nevertheless, after the food had come, and we had eaten half of it, I was getting a bit concerned for our young Saudi friend. I was not sure what was taking him so long. I kept looking towards the door. Finally, I could not stand it. I told the jet repairman I had to go to the food court to see if our young Saudi friend was there looking for us. Oh I should mention that I had asked the airline representative about our friend and he did not seem to understand me. Suddenly, I felt as if I was in the middle of some sort of Hitchcockian intrigue, some sort of Middle East cloak and dagger.

At this point, the boy had been gone at least 20 minutes. What could be taking him so long? I suppose I was concerned because he had attached himself to us and now I felt like I was responsible for him though I was in his country. When I asked the airline representative again about him, he finally seemed to understand me. He told me we could take a box of food to him. That is all the information he could give me. The restaurant was about to close. I picked at my food and did not eat much. I nibbled the mysterious lamb sausage.

A waiter brought me a take-away box with the boy’s food. I grabbed it and the jet repairman and I left the restaurant. Miraculously, when we walked down to the food court, the boy was just coming from the opposite direction and saw us. As I handed him the food I told him I had been concerned about him, that maybe he had tried to find us and could not. He told me that he had been helping someone who could not speak the language change a ticket. He thanked me profusely for getting the food for him. I told him I was just happy that we had found him. I had been worried. I suppose I had kicked into parental teacher mode.

The boy took the food and went off to find a place to sit and eat. The jet repairman and I went through security again and planted ourselves by the arrival/departure monitor. Every so often, we would make small talk.

At this point, we had a few hours left. The kid returned and found a row of seats and laid down. I followed suit. Someone woke me to tell me we were boarding. Someone I had not seen. He was wrong we were not boarding. Although I was incredibly fatigued, I got up anyway.
Later we did start boarding. Someone mentioned that we had to get out passport checked. The representative checked my passport and then stamped my ticket and told me I could board but I did not want to leave my two new pals but then I was shuffled on to the plane anyway.

The three of us got separated. I boarded. On the plane, I saw the jet repairman sitting behind me. The boy had not boarded yet. I made eye contact with him as he walked down the aisle. Not giving it a second thought, he sat in the seat beside me and promptly fell asleep.

As we taxied down the runway, for the first time I wondered what my new life was going to really be like. Would I like Saudi? Would I embrace it as I had embraced China, the good and the bad? Would I find another friend like Michael? - who became almost like a brother in Shanghai. One thing was certain; I was off on a new adventure, another chapter. Soon, I would meet my fate.

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Blogger Frances said...

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12:15 PM  

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