Step 3: The Arrival
Let’s just say I felt like Britney Spears upon arriving into Jeddah. Given the issues I had stumbled across along the way, my wonderful colleagues stopped at nothing to ensure there were no more bumps in the journey.
De-boarding the plane occurred further from the terminal, so all passengers were transferred via bus. As I entered the airport, everyone was moving towards the right, but I saw a sign with my name and 5 colleagues waving frantically towards the left. I headed to them, away from everyone else, and this is why I felt like a celebrity. All other passengers were staring at me wondering why I was being whisked away in such a swarm of people.
These colleagues helped me through customs, where I had to scan my finger prints and take an awful photograph. Aside from the traditional Middle Eastern dress, there wasn’t anything different about Jeddah customs compared to other citites I’ve visited. Before I knew it, I was in the car on the way to the hotel. I had made it. I was officially in Jeddah. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Step 4: Jeddah
When looking at a map, Jeddah is on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. It is the gateway city to Makkah, which is part of the reason I had issues getting to Jeddah from Oman. Driving to my hotel, it resembled many other Middle Eastern cities I’d visited before. I passed mosques, shopping malls, and many, many American fast food restaurants. It still blows my mind to see “KFC” or “McDonald’s” written out in Arabic.
Jeddah was very hot and humid and I was thankful to spend most of my time indoors. I was with with colleagues from both Jeddah and Makkah, and all of our interactions were surprisingly natural. I had been preparing for a toned down, overly monitored setting. In reality, I spoke and hung out with both male and female colleagues in almost the same way I would in my office in Zurich. The only differences occurred during my presentations and lunch, when women sat at one table, and men at the other.
I came to learn from these colleagues that Snapchat is the social site. Upon introducing myself during my presentations, I often include my Twitter and Instagram handles. However, all my colleagues wanted to know was my Snapchat handle. We took some pretty epic snaps together as well.
Before I headed off to Riyadh, I was introduced to Al Baik. This is the ultimate fried chicken restaurant that puts the likes of KFC and Popeye’s to shame. It can’t be found in every city in Saudi Arabia, and is apparently so popular that the chain created special travel boxes for carting food on airplanes. Their secret? They do simple food, very well, and at affordable prices.
Saying good-bye to my new friends brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t expect to form such strong bonds with these wonderful women in such a short period of time. Before I knew it, I was on my way to the airport and off to Riyadh.
Step 5: Riyadh
I went to the airport fully covered in my hijab and abaya. It was like any other airport experience, but the benefit of being a woman was having a much shorter, and private, security line. I was finished and sitting at the gate a good 10 minutes before my male travel companion.
Al Baik was present at the airport, and as had been explained to me, people were lined up to take their travel boxes with them to their next stop. The toilet signs featured images of men and women in traditional head coverings. Thankfully, the male image also hosted a beard.
The flight over to Riyadh and the airport pick-up were uneventful. There was no customs to clear this time so I was quickly on the road. Once again, on the drive to the hotel, I saw many mosques, malls and fast food restaurants. I would never be able to get over seeing so many American food chains in a country like this.
I sadly did not have as much time in Riyadh as I did in Jeddah. I ended up spending most of my time in the hotel, head completely uncovered, and not feeling a shred out of place.
I spent about 4 full days in Saudi Arabia, so I am no expert. All I can do is share my own experience and I hope I have done it justice. I found Saudi Arabia to be an incredibly fascinating place. But as a Westerner, and especially as a woman, there are components about Saudi Arabia that I don’t agree with or understand. For example, women are not allowed to drive and there are no movie theaters, and yet Snapchat is rampant. Alcohol is prohibited but McDonald’s is everywhere. Ew.
However, what surprised me in the most wonderful way were the women I met. Because of some of the examples listed above, there can be the perception that women who live in Saudi Arabia are silent or oppressed. But that is the complete opposite of what I experienced. The women I met are passionate; friendly; talkative and open-minded. They are educated and curious. They are funny and beautiful and smart. They want to feel pretty, they want to have families, they want to have a good time with their friends. They are like any other woman I could’ve met in Chicago, or Zurich, or Paris. They are like any other woman I would be honored to call my friend. Quite honestly, I do consider them friends. And I am very proud of that.