Somewhere around the final match of the rugby world cup, right as Matt Damon is declaring that this is the team’s destiny; I realize that we are flying over Iraq. Amber leans over and points out that this will be the closest she will ever get to her father’s hometown. I consider this for a moment, and then get lost in the rest of Invictus.
There are 35 minutes left in the flight. My stomach wis turning somersaults as I grip my entry card. The plane starts its rapid descent. My ears pop. A few rows up, a child starts crying. I sympathize. With 25 minutes left in the flight, my new life in Saudi Arabia is about to start…I feel like crying too. I’m not upset, but I am nervous…and the somersaults are turning into full-on backflips as we get closer to our destination. I am beginning to feel a little overwhelmed.
The plane touches down almost perfectly. I am totally impressed with the Dutch pilot. He got us here early and everything. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m gonna hurl. We step off the plane and immediately, I am brought back to that night in July almost 15 years ago when I did the same thing in Kuwait. The smell of the airport is very…unique. There’s also something very Arab about the décor: mirrors…geometric shapes. We head over to passport control.
There is a sign that says “no smoking” in both Arabic and English. There is a man smoking next to it. We wait in a line. Amber asks if this is the right line. I say, “I think so…” She pauses, “You just picked the one with all the white people in it, didn’t you?” “Yeah,” I say. We switch to the line that says “foreign citizens”. It is our turn. The young man in the green beret behind the desk looks…bored. I can just barely sound out his name from his name tag: Abdullah. Abdullah types on the keypad as if it had said something about his mother. He calls out to another officer and makes a thumbs down gesture. I tense up. Amber glances at me. He had run out of ink…just needed a refill. We get fingerprints and photos taken…but honestly, how many photos do they need? We’ve already given them 3 a piece. We’re allowed to pass through. “Khalass,” Abdullah says, with a dismissive gesture.
We collect our bags and walk out to meet the school welcome committee. They are all very helpful and very, very kind. My new boss is a grandfatherly sort of man who when we ask, tells us with arms opened wide, that he founded the school with Amber's new boss and has been there for 34 years. Our apartment is not ready yet and won’t be ready for another week. We’ll be living in a hotel. The elevator takes an absurd amount of time to arrive.
The drive from the airport is longer than I thought. The man driving is amazingly careful for an Arab driver…which leads me to believe that he is not actually Arab. Amber and I are lost in thought. We finally made it. This is totally different than anywhere we have been before. The desert stretches for miles in each direction. We crest a hill and see our new home, a thin string of lights on the horizon. I think of Las Vegas. Amber and I hold hands for the rest of the car ride.
It seems that driving in the city demands a kind of aggression that only Bostonians or New Yorkers could muster. There is construction everywhere. The lines on the road seem more like suggestions than rules. A wildly painted Toyota truck passes us. The driver is talking on the cell phone as he flies down the road. Just like in the US.
The driver refuses to let me help him with the bags. It seems like it’s frustrating him that I keep picking one up and carrying it. I even get an eye roll for holding the door open. “Sorry,” I mumble. The hotel itself is hot. The air feels heavy. I feel the first prickle of sweat on my forehead. The gentlemen from the school make the arrangements with the front desk. I glimpse the name of the hotel on the register: Gulf Flower Hotel; our home for the next week or so. The school gives us a fruit basket and a bag of snacks. Mr. Fawzi makes the quotation marks with his fingers. “Hospitality…” he says. We’re grateful for it.
Our room is small. “It’s like everything here is stuck in the 1970s…” Amber says. What can only be described as the strongest window unit in the world makes the room cool and comfortable. Sleep is in order, and it comes quickly.
I am awakened in the morning by the call to prayer. Its haunting tone does not allow me to return to sleep. It’s 4:30 am. I lay awake. The saying “we’re not in Kansas anymore” does not adequately describe our situation. I have to wait 3 hours before I can get up. But I’m ready now. I want to get to the school and get started. However, I need to stay in bed and try to sleep. The call to prayer ends and I roll over to try and get back to sleep. I can’t help thinking that the adventure we had set out to find was right outside the door. Waiting.