Saturday, March 3, 2018

AROUND THE WORLD



MEMORIES, 4th Installment
Going to the other side of the world is an interesting experience, and I think readers might be interested in what it was like for me. So, I’m taking a pause in the story to go back to my notes about my first trip from the United States to Saudi Arabia.

(Reminder: To read previous posts in this series scroll down or type "Memories" in the search box.)

MY FIRST TRIP
©Edward R. Close 2018
AROUND THE WORLD
The flight from SFO in San Francisco arched up over the northern US into Canada, following the “Great Circle” or Polar Route, over Nova Scotia, across the Arctic Ocean, over Greenland and Iceland, Scotland, the Shetland Islands, across the English Channel, down into Frankfurt, in the heart of Germany. As the flight started, it was a clear night, and I could see the reflection of the moon in the rivers and lakes below as we flew over northern Minnesota and Canada.

The sun came up over the Arctic, skimming along the northern horizon, long enough for me to see that Greenland and Iceland were mis-named. Greenland was covered with ice and snow, while Iceland was green! After a short time, the sun went down, and I marveled that a whole day had passed in a few hours! Of course, during the twelve-hour flight, nine hours were “lost” due to the progressive crossing of time zones. My head began to spin as I tried to calculate what day and time it was over the English Channel. It would be about midnight the day after I left California when I landed in Jeddah. There was an eleven-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Jeddah. It would almost noon in LA.

We landed in Frankfort and I marveled at the cleanliness and orderliness of the German airport. Police with small arms were evident around every corner. An enclosed pedestrian bridge crossed the autobahn from the airport to the Sheraton Hotel. I looked forward to the opportunity to practice my German. I had learned some German as a child, because two of my grandparents were of German descent, and German would be one of the languages I would choose to fulfill the PhD language requirements. A polite and efficient bellman accompanied me to my room and complemented me on my pronunciation of words of die Deutsche Sprache. After a short night, I flew on to Athens, and then to Jeddah, on the Red Sea in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My heart ached, leaving Jacqui and our young son Joshua in Pasadena. It was the first time we had been apart for any length of time. The Company promised they could follow in about thirty days, after my arrival in Yanbu and completion of the appropriate paperwork. But, as the plane descended into the Arabian night, I felt the enormity of the thousands of miles separating us. When I stepped out of the airbus in Jeddah, I sensed a world so different that I thought: “Could this even be on the same planet?” The smells, a mixture of hot desert air, strange spices, and sewage, was like nothing I had ever smelled before. The Arabesque curves of multi-colored neon lights dazzled me as my eyes searched for any hint of signs in English. There were none.

It took hours to get through customs. They searched every nook and corner of my luggage for the forbidden: alcohol, pork products, and “pornography” (anything showing the female form). The customs official scowled at my passport and muttered “Amreeky”.

“You drink alcohol.” the inspector stated, as he rummaged through my socks and underwear.

“No.”

“You got girly pictures?” he asked as he dribbled ashes from the cigarette dangling from his lower lip into my suitcase.

“No.”

He finished rummaging and let me close my suitcase. Before he waved me on, he said:

“You not drink alcohol, no girly pictures, no smoke, no cuss at me, I think you not Amreeky!” He grinned, revealing uneven, brown stained teeth.

Saleem, the Saudi representative of the Company, greeted me as I exited customs and hustled me through the crowd of taxi drivers to a waiting car. By the time I reached my hotel room in downtown Jeddah, it was 2:30 am. Saleem had informed me that I had to be on the bus to Yanbu at 7:30 sharp. It would not wait for me! I looked around the hotel room. There was a raised arrow on the corner of the desk, pointing toward Mecca, and a prayer rug was folded nearby with a copy of the Koran lying on top of it. The Koran was beautifully decorated with sweeping Arabic characters. I hadn’t learned to read Arabic yet, but I found a copy of the Koran in English in the desk drawer. Since I couldn’t sleep, I began to read the Koran.

On the bus ride the next morning, I began to get a look at the Arabian Peninsula. We travelled along in a desolate desert land parallel to the Red Sea, north from Jeddah (Variously spelled Jeddah, Jidda or Jiddah, in English: the first vowel does not appear in the Arabic spelling of the word.) The rugged igneous Hejazi peaks flanked the coastal plain on the east. My training and interest in geology and hydrology made me curious about their origin and weathering. I hoped to get a chance to see them up close while in Yanbu, perhaps on weekends.

About noon we stopped at a cross road village called Badr, about 250 kilometers north of Jeddah. There were a few mud and rock buildings, some stunted palm trees and a clump of acacia shrubs. Villagers in grey robes and checkered head scarves stared at the bus blankly. While the driver filled the tank with diesel fuel, I went inside and purchased a package of cheese and crackers and a bottle of water with some of the Saudi currency (riyals) I had purchased in Jeddah. A few minutes later, we were on our way again. On the outskirts of Badr, Bedouins herded a small flock of black goats.

About an hour later, the bus pulled off the road and entered a gate with impressive Arabic lettering arching above it. I learned later that it read: “Madinat Yanbu Al-Sinayah” (Yanbu Industrial City). The Saudi symbols of crossed swords and palm trees flanked it on either side. There was just a gate, no fence. I had studied the plans for the industrial city before I left Pasadena, but what I saw here was what looked like a group of boxcars sitting in a wide wadi (dry wash) between the Hejazi Mountains and the Red Sea. I stepped down from the bus and the Somali bus driver said: “Company man comes soon”, closed the doors and drove away.

I set my suitcase down on the sand and looked at the box car radiating heat in front of me. It was silent, as if abandoned here in the desert. I looked around. I was completely alone. The only movement was a dust devil, whirling like a fat rope dancing in the mid-day heat waves between me and the black mountains to the east. I looked down at the dust settling on the black polished surface of my shoes.

“What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered.



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