I love flying on Saudi Aramco Airlines! The bus drives you to the private terminal; someone is there to wait on you hand and foot. There are minimal security checks to go through and nice clean lounges to wait in. The fleet of 737s is almost new and only 4 seats to a row, divided by a nice wide aisle make the plane very comfortable too. Noticeably absent on both flights this time is the travelers prayer, said in Arabic, usually right before take-off asking Allah to protect and bless the travelers on their journey. The flight is full of Aramco workers traveling for business or just taking a trip to see family. The all-male flight crew is polite, helpful and swift as they serve snacks and beverages to all the passengers. Of course only soft drinks but the snacks are a box lunch of sandwiches and fruit or yogurt. The two hour flight passes quickly and as we approach Jeddah I notice a huge wall cloud in front of us coming in off the Red Sea. The air is bumpy but the landing is smooth as glass and soon we are in another private VIP terminal.
Jeddah is a sprawling, bustling city, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia. Our hotel is on the corniche and it is lovely and modern. The air is warm but interestingly, not a humid as Dhahran and slightly cooler. We drop the luggage have a quick bite to eat (during the last prayer of the day) and head out to a local shopping mall. Saudi’s love the night life. They sleep during the day and come out at night so malls and shops stay open until after midnight. We wander the mall until near closing and after much negotiation with the local taxi driver we pile in and head back to the hotel for some sleep. Three of us are crammed into the backseat and one woman is sitting in front with the driver. She is a pleasant Arab woman from Lebanon who speaks Arabic so she can easily give directions and instructions to the driver as needed. As we travel down the heavily congested roads driving too fast and following too close as is the way to drive in Saudi when the taxi suddenly swerves off to the side of the road and stops. We are all chatting and don’t really notice, since this type of inexplicable behavior in a taxi is quite common. The driver moves back in the lane of traffic and a few minutes later, he swerves off to the side of the road again. This time we ask, “What is happening?” Our co-worker in the front seat explains that the driver has spotted a Muttawa car and if they spotted us and pulled us over the taxi driver could be arrested for having a woman he is not married to sitting in the front seat!! She relates her experience with the Muttawa in the past and I am in awe that this stuff actually happens. I hear stories of being with a young male cousin in the mall in Riyadh when the Muttawa approach and make them leave the mall and sign papers promising to never to speak to each other again. In another incident she and her husband (before they were married) were on a public beach sitting on the hood of the car watching the sunset when the Muttawa approached. Both were taken into custody and detained. The man spent the night in jail and was ultimately given 18 lashes; the woman was warned and released. This seems incomprehensible to me!!
I wanted a photograph of the amazing fountain outside our hotel. I decide to walk down the block to an optimal site for picture taking when we arrive back at the hotel. It was hot under the black polyester abaya and it was late. I confidently walked down the sidewalk to the street and began looking for the perfect spot to take my pictures. Taxis were stopping every few minutes certain I must need a ride somewhere. The street sweepers and other workers from third world countries all stopped to stare at me. They seemed amazed to see a woman on her own walking up and down the busy street determined to take a picture of something they had no interest in. As I was drawing more attention than I wanted and before that included the attention of a Muttawa I hurried back to the relative safety of the hotel, climbed out of my sweaty abaya and fell into bed to sleep.
The traffic in Jeddah is worse than I have seen anywhere. Cars are everywhere, not following their lanes, turning anytime without warning and children are not restrained and neither are the drivers or other passengers. When people ask me if I am afraid living in Saudi, the truth is the only thing I am afraid of is driving in a taxi! We inch our way back to the terminal for our Aramco flight and as the plane is being boarded I laugh to myself at the irony that a man and woman who are strangers can’t sit next to each other in a taxi but it is perfectly acceptable on a plane. A reminder that this is what I call a “logic free zone”!
I sleep most of the way back to Dhahran and I am happy to be back to the safe, comfortable, somewhat predictable Aramco camp and my little apartment. It is very late and I have an early day the next day so after a couple of quick calls to family letting them know I am back safe and sound I collapse into bed exhausted and amazed by the sights and experiences of the last twenty four hours.
I have been back in the Kingdom slightly more than a week after enjoying almost a month away visiting my family in England and the US. I find myself dreaming about being home, in my house in Tennessee. I am in my own bed with the sunlight softly creeping through the window tickling my eyelids and whispering “Good Morning” in my ear. I can hear the birds chirping outside the bedroom window and the trees are making a soft rustling sound as the wind blows a soft, cool fall breeze through them. Home is like a well-worn, favorite pair of slippers at the end of a long day. It is a place that is filled with the laughter of my friends from my old job and my two dogs happy to meet me at the door with wagging tails and anxious to sniff all sorts of new exotic smells. It’s the hugs and kisses from my husband and sharing a good laugh with my mom, brother and sister. I have been back in the Kingdom slightly more than a week and already the familiar ache of missing home has set in. But, I wake to the bright sun of a new day, enjoy a weekend with new friends playing at the beach, eating dinner at a restaurant on camp, laughing hysterically at an animated movie in the theater on camp and I remind myself what an incredible blessing this is. An experience that most people will only read about in a book or watch on TV. An opportunity to see a part of the world walled off from sight for most. An adventure filled with crazy moments that make absolutely no sense and yet somehow start to feel normal. I think that must be why they call this The Magic Kingdom!