As odd as it may sound, after seven months of waiting for this day to arrive, I didn’t really know what to think as I sat on the plane and tucked into a very nice helping of curried lamb and rice (economy class before you get the wrong impression of my lifestyle). Here I was, half way around the world (near enough), about to embark on a life in a country completely different to mine, and I was more concerned with the status of my vegetables than I was about where I was going or the likelihood of being celibate for two years. I guess I have priorities that may seem skewed to some.
I had traveled in comfortable clothes – a thin cotton button-up shirt, some light trousers, and comfortable shoes. I wasn’t sure who would meet me at the airport so I didn’t want to show up looking like a slob – but I wasn’t going to put on a shirt and tie either. Most of the clothes I had brought with me were work clothes so I had little to choose from in regards to casual clothes anyway. I had heard that there were a number of mainstream British and American stores in Saudi so I wasn’t too worried about having to alter the way I like to dress.
When our plane landed in Manama, the largest and capital city in Bahrain, we didn’t go to terminal but stopped on the tarmac and waited for the buses to come and get us. I waited for the crowds to thin before I even got out of my seat, my connecting flight not for three hours. As I grabbed my two carry-on bags and headed for the exit I was hit with a suffocating blast of air that caught me off guard.
The clock had just slipped past 7 am local time, and as I stood in the doorway of the plane, waiting to climb down the stairs into a bus that would take me to the terminal, the faintest beads of sweat began to multiply on my forehead. I have always been an athlete, sometimes playing three sports a season, and I never sweat. I get exhausted, but I never show signs of perspiration. That all changed as I stood on the tarmac waiting to board a bus. The sun was cruel, the hot tarmac even more so. The humidity enveloped and as I struggled for my breath on more than one occasion, I cursed my parents for making me a pasty skinned Brit. That first gust of air, as I stood in the plane, like someone had just removed the saran wrap from a freshly microwaved dinner, left me wilted and wet. I swear there must have been steam coming from me. And we were still hours from the hottest part of the day.
My layover was uneventful. I browsed the duty free shops and marveled at the sheer number of Rolexes and other high-end watches on sale, and took part in my favorite pastime – people watching. Airports are usually great for this sort of thing and Bahrain airport has to be one of the best spots. The microcosm of cultures and religions all interspersed as they wait for planes to take them home, on holiday, or just away from it all is unbelievable. Bahrain is a Muslim country, but you can buy alcohol, pork products, and fitness magazines without the girls scribbled on so no skin is showing. And in Bahrain, you can view girls in shorts and skirts, and also the more traditional abayas and completely covered women. Watching the men, and men of all nationalities I might add, watch the uncovered women is a hoot. There is nothing subtle about how they stare and gawk. I don’t think they’ve heard of the term, “use your peripherals.”
I was the only Westerner on my flight from Bahrain into Saudi Arabia. The rest of the flight, completely full, were Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and Indians, with a smattering of Filipinos thrown in for good measure. The flight is only 40 minutes long, but it seemed much longer than that. I had to explain to the gentlemen sitting around me how to fill out their entry forms to give at customs in Saudi, and even managed to get my pen back from the last person to have it.
From my window on the plane I watched as we flew over my new country of residence. At first, it was hard to tell where the Arabian Gulf ended and the land started, the haze coming from beneath the plane was that thick. Row upon row and roll upon roll passed beneath me, and from this distance it appeared to be the gentle undulations of the water. As we lowered, approaching Dammam airport, and banked to shield the sun’s reflection, what I was staring at became obvious. This was not the reflection from the water – this was the dry and dusty landscape that welcomed me.
Sand dunes rose and fell, interspersed by cracked and desolate meadows of sand and grit, a lifeless example of nature’s true power. The roads that criss-crossed the desert floor, just about as bleak and nondescript as the land that held them, showed little sign of life; save an oil tanker or two carrying the lifeblood of this nation. The darker the shadows the stretched across the brown tundra, the higher the sand dune that stood looking over that stretch of land. Could life survive out there? Was this where the almost mythical Arabian Oryx beat the conditions to form a life? I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see, from my vantage point high above, how anything, man or animal, could call this destitute expanse home.
Dammam airport is my least favorite place on earth. At times, I don’t even think it is on earth. And I’m a man so I don’t have it half as bad as a woman traveler using this airport does. The airport is a simile for the land itself – dark, emotionless, fills you with a feeling of emptiness and solitude (but not a good solitude). Whenever I would leave Saudi on holiday, I refused to fly from Dammam airport if I had a choice.
Dammam airport was also where I got my first glimpse into the inequality that is as much a staple of Middle Eastern life as the prayer call is. As we waited in line at customs to have our passports checked and our visas verified, I was whisked from the back of the line to the front, the Asians all told to form another line and wait until people were ready to serve them. Your nation’s currency reveals your worth in this country. My white skin and strong Canadian dollar was all I needed to get a helping hand. I’ve been told by my Indian friends at the hospital that they have waited for hours before being helped, even when no other people are around.
My stay in customs was short lived and I proceeded to the baggage carousel to pick up my suitcases. I had been given a booklet by my company about the procedures at the airport when I landed. I knew that on the other side of security someone from my company would be waiting to take me to my accommodation. I also knew that I could be in security for hours if they decided to go through everything in my suitcases. Despite being the only person to get through customs, my suitcases were the last two off the plane. The other suitcases kept spinning on the track, waiting for the Asians who do all the jobs that are beneath the Saudis to come and take them to a storage area where they can be opened and searched. I put my bags through the x-ray checker at security and the customs officer waved me through. He wouldn’t be checking my bag today. As he walked away, cigarette in hand, to join the dozen or so who weren’t working, I knew this was only because he didn’t want to have to check.
When I left security out into the airport proper, an Arab gentleman in Saudi dress (a white floor length shirt called a thobe and a ghutra, the headdress) approached me.
“You here for Saad?”
“I’m your driver today. Come.”
And I followed him. He could have been anybody, I suppose. We got into his SUV with the Saad logo on it (so if it was a ploy it was a good one) and we started the 80-kilometer journey to where I was staying. His English was only slightly better than my non-existent Arabic so all I could really do was watch the sand turn into small stone buildings and then elaborate residential complexes. We passed little in terms of greenery; very few palm trees even, until we reached the compound and the hotel that would be my initial home in Saudi Arabia.
A 10-foot high wall surrounded the compound, and when we passed the first machine gun turret I knew I had finally arrived. We weaved our way inside the compound, stopped at the hotel, and I was helped with my luggage inside. As I was given a map of the facilities, told about my per diem for food, told that laundry would cost extra, and told when the bus would arrive on Saturday morning to take me to work. It was Thursday afternoon. I had just about two full days before I’d go in to work and meet anybody. What the Hell was I supposed to do?