My KSA trip

Entry #1453, Tue, April 17, 2007, 02:37 CEST (Travel)
(posted when I was 28 years old.)

Dammit all to hell, I'm tired of putting this off. I wrote a half-assed private entry about my KSA trip, and there's probably another private entry to follow, but I want to at least get the public one out of the way.

So an unexpected work engagement took me to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) last month. It all started off with an Air France flight to Charles de Gaulle airport. My impression of CDG was that it was an incredibly poorly signed airport. But the flight from Paris to Riyadh was beautiful. Over the Alps, Eastern Europe, and then finally the Arabian desert. It was almost like the surface of Mars or something. Unbelievable.

The entry into KSA was, contrary to my expectations, stress-free. My visa checked out and my passport got stamped within 30 seconds. At customs my luggage did have to go through some sort of scanning device, but beyond that there was nothing. I'd been expecting to be patted down for drugs, porn, pork, and bibles. But maybe their scanning device is just really sophisticated.

My arrival at Riyadh was the first time I was greeted at an airport by a guy holding a sign with my name on it. I was somewhat amused. I was taken on a crazy cab ride into Riyadh. Along the way I saw not only heavily armored police roadblocks, but also Pizza Hut, KFC, Hardees, Starbucks (twice), and a Cinnabon. It was an interesting contrast to say the least.

I checked into the hotel and turned on the tv. I swear that the first thing I heard (after finding an English-language channel) was "This is the episode of Survivor that will have America talking. Coming up at 20:00 KSA."

I was actually surprised at the variety of Western programming available on the hotel tv. I don't think I've ever been happier to see an episode of family guy.

My notes now divulge into work-related subjects that I don't want included in this entry. And they're suddenly in German, which is rather amusing. I do note how friendly the people I'm dealing with are. If nothing else, the Saudis I dealt with were incredibly friendly. During one break in our activity, one of my Saudi hosts pulled out a desk calendar with pictures of sites in Saudi Arabia, and proudly showed off his country to me.

One of the more interesting aspects of business culture was the interruption of the call to prayer. It reverberated through the building on the loudspeaker system. I mean, I expected it, but really wasn't prepared for the reality of it. After the call to prayer, I only heard English spoken with a native (American/British/etc) accent for the next half hour. This was from other contractors in cubicles near where I was stationed.

As I'm leaving the complex on the first day of work, a guy approaches me and asks "Are you Mr. Peter?" I had checked in with an Arabian colleague at the beginning of the day, and as it turns out, when he left, the guard had accidentally given him this other guy's passport. My colleague had left at about 11 am, and it was after 3 pm when I left. So this poor guy had been sitting around for more than four hours, knowing simply that the guy who had his passport had checked in with me. I gave the guy the mobile number for my colleague, and a passport exchange was quickly arranged over the phone.

After those arrangements had been made, I asked the guard where the best place was to hail a cab. The passport mixup guy offered to drive me to the nearby main street. So...

I got into a stranger's car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The trust I put into my fellow humans still amazes me sometimes. We got to talking, and it turned out my hotel was on his way, and he wound up dropping me off there. He was an electrical engineer from Beirut. Nice guy. I saw him on the complex a couple days later, and he yelled and waved a hello to me.

So back at the hotel, I decide I have to explore the city some. I wander towards one of the big towers, where I should supposedly find a large shopping mall. It's an interesting walk, as I get to observe the insane Riyadh traffic from a pedestrian viewpoint. I also get to see regularly posted armored vehicles with machines guns. As usual, I don't see any women; though I do see the occasional ghost veiled in black. I find an entrance that appears to lead into the building complex around the tower, but as I try to make my way towards it, a friendly Arab asks me where I think I'm going. He makes it very clear that whatever my intention is, this is not the entrance for me. I explain that the shopping mall is my goal, and he points me towards how to get around to that part of the building. I later figured out that I was trying to enter the Mosque that was a part of the building. So at least he was friendly about keeping my infidel ass out of his holy site...

After wandering the mall some, I decide to head back for the hotel and pick up dinner along the way. Of course, I get lost. So I see even more of downtown Riyadh, which seems to consist primarily of high end clothing and jewelry stores. Oh, and American fast food chains. So I do the obvious: I eat dinner at Hardees. The Mountain Dew I had with my meal was fantastic. It was the first Dew I'd had since leaving the US, and it made me so very happy.

While eating at Hardees, I had time to ponder my geographical situation, and easily found my way back to the hotel after dinner. Back at the hotel, I enjoyed some more American tv. This was not only a refreshing alternative to the strict Saudi environment, it was also my first chance to see much American programming since moving to Germany. So I enjoyed the hell out of the Scrubs episode I saw that night.

Day two at the client site is much like day one. Call to prayers, strange business culture. But I do need to point out that the food at the cafeteria was incredible. Typical Arabic food, but to my simple Western tastes, it was cooked brilliantly. So on day two I took a taxi to work. With tip, it cost ten Riyal, which is just under three dollars. The cab driver gave me his mobile number, so at the end of the day, I called him to pick me up. When we get to the hotel, he tells me I owe him twenty Riyal. When I argue with him, he explains that I have to pay for his trip to where he picked me up, since he'd been waiting outside the hotel.

This strikes me as absurd, and I proceed to argue this point with him. The language barrier hampers my efforts, and I eventually just offer him fifteen Riyal. He accepts this, and I return to my room. But the more I think about this, the more absurd it seems to me. I was truly frustrated because I felt he was trying to rip me off. But the sum in dispute was roughly two Euro. The same cab ride in Munich would have cost close to fifteen Euro. I've thought about this a bit since then, and have come to no satisfactory conclusion. I don't like that the guy was trying to rip me off. But I also don't like that I made a big deal about one or two Euro.

That evening, I wandered out of the hotel in a different direction. See more of the same. Dinner I eat at a pizza hut. I order a Hawaiian Pizza and am briefly surprised that the ham has been replaced with beef. As I leave the place, the waiter asks me if I'm from Lebanon. "No," I reply, "Belgium." "Ahh," his eyes light up, "Jean-Claude Van Damme!" "No," I reply, and do my best muscle-man impression, "I think he's a little bigger than me." The guy grins and shakes my hand.

Wednesday, in the lobby at the customer site, we meet an Asian man. He catches me completely off guard by addressing me in perfect Dutch. I reply, but when I don't understand one of his questions, he asks if I'm a francophone. Turns out he's a Belgian, and had seen my passport.

One fact that repeatedly surprised the natives was that I'm 28 and not married. This was nearly incomprehensible to the Saudis. When I tried to explain that I simply hadn't yet found "the one," they asked me "but what about your career?" and "what does your family think?"

Also, the hotel did not have a Gideon's bible. Imagine that.

Waiting in the airport, there was a call to prayers. One last reminder of life in KSA before I left. While sitting at the gate, a toddler, about two, walks up to me pushing a stroller. He stops right in front of me, looks at me, and begins to cry. I don't have a clue how to react. Not only does this kid probably not speak any language I know, but I'm also in a strange land with unknown customs. I look around, and nobody is reacting. I stand up to scan the crowd, but don't see any concerned parents anywhere. I start to wonder if this is some sort of test. Eventually, an Asian man approaches the kid and asks "Where's Mommy." The kid points, and off they walk. I guess English works after all.

Those are the highlights from my notes that I feel like making public right now. There's more, and there may be another private entry or something. So look out for that...

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