Everything felt relatively smooth and normal up until my flight into Riyadh. Before that, in many ways, I felt as if I was simply just going on a trip requiring a lot of luggage and preparation. But at that point, when I looked out the window and saw the endless lights of Riyadh and, as the plane descended, the shadowy palm trees lit up by car lights and streetlamps, I began to recognize the exoticness of all of this and started to feel very far from home. Then I saw the moon. It was in a crescent shape and was familiar, yet at the same time it wasn’t, because it’s position in the sky was that of a smile. It was nice. The familiar moon was smiling at me and it felt good. The moon is a symbol of change after all, and maybe this smiling moon was telling me it would be a happy change. So I took many deep breaths, let a few tears fall, and resolved myself to the fact that all of this happened for a reason, my intuition that this would be good for me was not lying, and just roll with it. This is what adventure is all about, right?
After that, things just became amusing. I was forewarned that the lineups at the passport check area would be long and somewhat chaotic thanks to Ridwan and my new favourite blog, Blue Abaya. Being prepared makes all the difference, so instead of being overwhelmed and confused, I was more or less amused. And, as I was told would be the case, I was surrounded by men. Out of about 150-200 people, I was one of about 15 women. But I wasn’t concerned. For one thing, Ridwan assured me that the men would do nothing because, in Saudi Arabia, men are not allowed to speak to women in public, let alone try anything else. Essentially, he said, “A cat on the street wouldn’t even be allowed to flirt with me.” But also, there was no sense of hostility whatsoever. Yes, the men around me seemed to have no sense of personal space and so were clustered tightly together (they did, however, give me the personal space that I am accustomed to), they were craning their necks to see what was happening up at the customs desks, they were impatiently shifting from foot to foot, and occasionally burst into rumblings of various languages amongst themselves. But they also were calm and had exuded a sense of kindness. I thought that I would experience my first bout of massive staring from a group of people because of my fair skin and blue eyes. That didn’t occur at all. Yes, I did catch the odd person looking my way, but that happens in any crowd that I’m in.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only Westerner experiencing the Saudi customs wait-it-out scenario. A tall and kind Dutchmen, Mike, came to stand behind me and likely without realizing that he technically wasn’t supposed to be talking to me, we both threw caution to the wind (all that would’ve happened is the religious police, muttawa, would’ve spoken sternly to Mike) and started chatting. He was visiting Riyadh to showcase his movie-making skills using remote-controlled helicopters. He wasn’t even sure if he would get past the customs desk, regardless of the Arabic letters he had with him giving him permission to have his helicopters-avec-cameras, which were considered illegal in the country due to their potential for military use. Mike, however, reflected my sense of calm about the situation. What’s the worst that could happen to either of us? We got sent back home. Home really isn’t so terrible, so nothing to worry about. After about an hour of waiting, a Saudi man in a military uniform came through the crowd, looked at me, and with outstretched hand he said, demandingly, “Passport.” Mike looked on in bewilderment as I handed my passport over. The officer looked briefly at it, and then looked up at me and said with the flick of my passport towards himself, “Come with me.” Now, in any other similar circumstance I probably would have wet myself. Instead, because of Ridwan’s and the Blue Abaya’s generous tips, I was aware that this might happen. It turns out that my driver that the family sent was waiting for me and so got someone he knew with “pull” at the airport to help me cut to the front of the line. As I walked away from my place in line, the man in front of me whispered, “Lucky you. Well done!” At the desk, the officer looked at me with a humourous smile, and then looked at the man standing at the desk, finally there to have his visa checked after his long wait. The officer said something in Arabic, which caused the waiting man to step back quickly, lower his eyes, and allow me to pass in front of him. I couldn’t help but be amused and feel a small sense of power. I knew at this point that I would have no troubles with the passport and visa check and so I was just going through the motions at this point. With that wry smile again, the officer told me to place my fingers on the fingerprint scanner, typed in some information, chatted with his desk partner, and then allowed me to go through.
During the time I spent at the passport-check desk there was a man standing at the other end, talking to another officer. He had on an igal, the traditional Saudi headdress, and had an air of confidence and ease to a degree that I have rarely experienced in a man. I had a suspicion that he may have been the one behind my line-cutting experience. I was, in fact, correct. As I left the desk he directed me to the luggage carrels and went to get a porter while I looked for my bags amongst the large groups of bags waiting for their respective owners to clear customs. The porter loaded my bags onto a trolley, helped me get them to security where my bags were scanned by relaxed and unassuming security guards, and then my Igal wearing saviour, the porter, and I were off to meet my driver who would take me to my new home.
Stay tuned for the rest of my Day Zero experiences in PartTwo.