Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia

Originally posted 8/3/06

So, imagine that you've been plucked from your comfortable, temperate home of lush greenery, tall trees, winding rivers, lakes and been spun around until you were dizzy then plonked down in a 125 degree Fahrenheit desert. If you were like me, you'd stand there, slackjawed, dazed, trying to absorb what just happened.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There we were. The new Jeddah airport was still being built (that's why we were there in the first place), so we arrived at the old Jeddah airport close to, or even in, town... I can't even remember anymore. But if ever there was a time to mutter the oft overused quote, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," this was it.

Anyone who has ever gone through Saudi customs can relate to what an alarming experience it can be for a first-timer. After claiming your luggage, you brought it to the customs area, which, at the old airport, was a cavernous white room with long, low counters and bright overhead lighting where they would rifle through all your bags to determine if you were trying to bring in anything forbidden. Pornography. Pictures of women with any skin other than hands, faces, or feet showing at all (to them, the same thing as pornography). Pork. Alcohol. Even, in one story we heard, mentions of pork and alcohol. The customs agents had black markers and used them with impunity to black out anything that they deemed offensive. That is, if they didn't take it away from you instead. After a while, you learned what things to avoid bringing into the kingdom so that you could get through customs with the least hassle. To add further enjoyment to the customs experience was the clear, plexiglas barrier where the people who were meeting you stood. On those counters, before the throng of onlookers, all your dainties and not so dainties were spread out for everyone to see.

But this is something that you eventually get used to and, over the years, you tend to rack up customs stories. Like the friend who was bringing in her precious contact lens solution (a hard to find item there at the time) and frantically trying to stop the customs agent from squirting the entire bottle all over the counter while he was feverishly trying to light it because he was convinced that it was alcohol. Or the time when I was coming back from a european ski vacation and the agent reached into my ski boot bag where I had also packed my furry boots (all the rage in the french alps at the time). With his hand still in the bag and looking into my eyes, he started slowly fondling the goat hair with a lecherous smile on his face and a look that I can still see today. I doubt that I even tried to hide my disgust and there's no way that I can emphasize the word "eeeew" in print to accurately describe what I was thinking at that moment. It's a good thing that I wasn't as outspoken then as I am now or I might have made some crack about his last date and then I would have really been in trouble.

But back to that very first time. It was an eye opener to have my things treated so roughly by a stranger and it was a taste of how different life was going to be now. Finally cleared through customs, we made our way past the armed guards at the barrier into the teeming mass of people from seemingly every possible corner of the globe; once we finally found the company driver who was there to pick us up, we walked out the airport door into the hustle and bustle of the hot, steamy Jeddah night.

"Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, folks. Enjoy your stay..."

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