Saturday, September 12, 2009

Riyadh at last

Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Arrived Riyadh literally within seconds of the posted 1:40pm arrival time. The 11.5 hour (elapsed time) flight on Saudia from Washington D.C. was smooth and a flight should be. Meals were excellent, movies about what one might expect and flight attendants delightful. Interestingly, every movie was image-manipulated to blur out key parts of the female anatomy, whether on actual actresses or simply in the background, as on newsstands, for example. Thus, a woman wearing an otherwise modest dress or shorts appeared to have no legs.

Getting through customs wasn't quite so smooth. Actual time of processing, including agent checking passport, scanning handprints and taking photo: about 2 minutes. Actual time with agent: about 12 minutes. Actual time waiting in line: about 50 minutes.

See, the agents don't just do one patron at a time. They get interrupted, or interrupt themselves, or deal with stray passengers who "just need a minute" about every 20 seconds. No kidding. The agent doesn't deal with the person in front of him and then go to the next person. My handprint scan, for example, had to be re-done four times, with each hand. I can't be sure, but it seemed that the scan worked each time (I could see the little light go on and a soft chime), but the agent's attention had been called away in the 10 seconds it took for the scan to be processed and he had to continually do it over.

Once through customs, I gathered my three boxes, somewhat battered but since they were mostly clothes, no worries. I managed to obtain the most right-steering cart in the universe but was too stubborn to try re-loading all my gear onto another one.

I was met outside the luggage area by a driver sent by the school I'll be teaching at who spoke no English. At first I thought he wanted "cash" but it turned out he was suggesting I change my U.S. dollars to ryals at the small bank branch at the airport. I may have committed a faux pas by taking a quick swig of water while I was adjusting my cargo -- since it's Ramadan, most people have been fasting all day and it's considered rude to eat or drink in front of them.


I haven't quite figured out whether this is a queuing society or not. As I was standing at the bank branch to exchange money, my driver indicated I should stand in line for one window. But it turned out there was a queue already formed that was not obvious. In the meantime, two other men had got in line. I went to the back of the line and no one offered to give me cuts. Fair enough. But then two stylish women (all covered up, but it was clear they were fashionable) sort of sashayed up to the window area I had vacated and, in effect, cut in front of someone else who had been queued up. I'm not sure if they realized that the queue was in effect...or didn't care.

I'm told there is a custom of saying "I only have one item" when you're in a store and would like to bypass the person in front. I then heard a story about a guy in a grocery who was holding two items and received such a request from a man. I didn't ask if he let the guy through.


I was told that Saudi traffic is just awful, but I found that the roads (at least the ones not under construction...OK, that would be about 10 percent) are in immaculate condition. The drivers on the main highway into the city more or less stuck to their lanes, demarcated by small raised white bumps. My driver seemed to like straddling the line marker, as evidenced by the sound of tire meeting bumps but he eventually picked a lane and stuck to it. Traffic itself, while not orderly as in the States, was not as chaotic as I was led to believe. I'd say city traffic is similar to Paris, with lots of lane changing and horn honking but no one crashing.


Coming from Phoenix where temperatures are about the same and there is only about 7 inches of rain per year and virtually no clouds on any given day, I was anticipating a bright sunny day. Instead, the sky has a sort of Soylent Green cast to it, almost science-fictiony in its somber hues. Someone told me it's from the desert dust.

Riyadh means Garden...

...but I'm thinking it should be renamed "Cit of Stray Cats." Oddly enough, no dogs. In the 2 1/2 days I've been here, I haven't seen a single dog. However, I have seen dozens of stray cats. Some lounge in groups of four or five on car roofs and hoods (cooler) or inhabit dumpsters. I can't say they've been a problem, but it does give a sort of The Birds ambience to the part of town I'm living in.

I actually got lost walking back to my pad from the Radisson Hotel (where one buys one's cell phone) and was within a few blocks. I knew it was near the King Abdul Aziz university hospital and behind the Al Yamama hotel but I couldn't quite zero in. I asked a man who was loading his SUV for a trip if he could give me some directions. When he saw how clueless I was, this gracious gentleman asked me to get into his vehicle -- and remember, all he knows is that I'm lost and carrying a backpack -- and actually drove me around for 15 minutes. I told him the main landmarks were that the sidewalk was being excavated for a water line (we currently get our water from trucks)...and that there were an awful lot of stray cats. "Ah," he said...and we found my place within 2 minutes.

Earlier, I needed directions to the Radisson as I was leaving my school campus and stopped to ask the security guards...who spoke little English. We mutually stuttered along in sign language and were making progress when one of the men gestured for me to sit on the floor with them and have some tea. It was delicious, as well as the water they offered.

Graciousness is a hallmark of this great city, as near as I can tell so far.


  1. I'm looking forward to your continued impressions as the initial shock wears off.

  2. No, you don't buy your celphone from the Radisson, unless you want to pay three times the usual price or you want to choose from a limited range of two or three basic phones. No, ask your taxi driver, or driver, to take you to the "Saudi Etisalat compound, main road, celphone souk". This is one of several places in Riyadh where there are more phones to choose from than you can ever imagine. Alternately, if you like less of the rustic life, go to a Carrafour supermarket. The one by Exit 9 is pretty good for phones. And printers. And power cables. Guess how I know?