I’m sitting on the top of a sand dune, looking out at the Red Sea. My best friend, Alex, is running up and down the dunes beside me, blowing off a bit of her always-effervescent energy. We’re on the Sinai Peninsula, about as far east in Egypt as we can be. Saudi Arabia glimmers over the water, so close I can almost reach out and touch it.
“Don’t you just wanna hop on a boat and motor over there, just to catch a glimpse of it?” I ask Alex. Saudi Arabia exudes mystery. Its forbidden aura is intoxicating. I want in, even for a moment.
“Let’s do it!” Alex replies before bounding down the sand dune to the edge of the water.
And now, almost three years later, transit visa glued into my passport, I debark from the ferry boat onto Saudi Arabian soil. Alex may not be with me, but I plan to soak up as much of Saudi Arabia as I can in three days.
This proves easier said than done, however.
The first day, we debark from the boat at three in the afternoon, and have to wait another four hours for our Toyota. Our first day of exploration amounts to driving a couple of hours along the highway in the dark, the bright lights of Jeddah fading behind us as we hightail it out of there.
The reason for our uncharacteristic speed and our night-driving? We have 1500km to drive to the border of the United Arab Emirates, and now only two days in which to do it. Judging from fact that we usually average 200km when we drive, we knew this would be one big, long, challenging transit.
Oh yes, and I have diarrhoea. The cup-after-cup of tea I drank on the ferry must have been brewed with unclean water. Usually, my stomach can handle it, but I hadn’t slept properly in three nights.
So now, we have 1500km to drive in two days and I have to stop along the side of the road every few hours to hide behind a sand dune and let my insides rip.
Maybe it’s just my fatigue and stomach cramps, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t feel exotic as I’d imagined, sitting on the sand dunes of Egypt that day three years ago. We’re driving on a six-lane super highway, along with Chevies and Ford Pickups. In the towns, we pass McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. A few yellow school busses – the ones I grew up riding but have never seen anywhere else in the world – pull up next to us at red lights.
If it weren’t for the diesel costing less than $0.10 a liter, I’d think we were in America.
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. We are driving through a vast desert in the midst of a blistery sandstorm. Arabic numerals and writing warn of sand dunes and camels and speed limits. And Islam is evident everywhere – from the all-pervasive mosques (even in the petrol stations and rest stops) to the truck drivers and highway construction workers stopping on the side of the road to pray. We actually have to wait 45 minutes once to fill up our fuel, because the fuel-man has gone for Friday afternoon prayer.
We are definitely not in Africa, anymore, that’s for sure. I haven’t been on a road this smooth since this past summer, when I spent a few months in Canada and France. Along the side of the creamy-smooth road are carnivals, amusement parks, and more Ferris wheels per square block that I’ve ever seen. Entire kilometers of highway boast road-side playgrounds. In the towns, water jets firmly out of the water fountains, seemingly in protest to the adjacent desert.
After a while, the landscape begins to blur. I can’t tell if it’s my illness taking its toll, but the endless flat sand isn’t holding my attention. I’d heard from other travelers that the scenery in Saudi Arabia is beautiful – but they were driving north along the coast toward Jordan, not through the center of the country.
And anyway, it’s the people I’m interested in here, not the scenery. I’ve read enough books to know about the Royal family, women living behind the veil, the gender inequality that exists here. I want to see the people, to catch a glimpse at them, to see if the books I’ve read are accurate.
Most of the people I see, however, aren’t even Saudi. The truck drivers and petrol pumpers and super market cashiers are almost all South Asian. The few women I see – maybe a dozen in my entire time in Saudi Arabia – have their heads covered, sometimes their noses and cheeks, but only once do I see a woman whose entire face is concealed behind her abbaya.
This is surprising to me, particularly since I seem to be going through my own gender issues at the moment. Initially, my head is covered all the time, even that first night when we’re driving and I know no one can see me. Eventually, though, the shawl wrapped tightly around my head begins to feel like it’s choking me, that it’s some sort of imposed punishment. I loosen the fabric. Sometimes, I even take it off when we’re driving.
But, when we step out of the car, the shawl gets wrapped so tightly around my head – even held in place with one hand against the exposing force of the wind – that it begins to play with my mind. When I encounter men, I gaze downward. I don’t smile, lest they think I’m flirting with them. If a man speaks with me, I answer curtly and without humor. I feel so desperate not to insult anyone or – especially – to be the stereotypical westerner that I no longer recognize myself under my head scarf.
Bruno is un-phased by anything, it seems. He is all business. He’s transited in Saudi twice before, so the country isn’t new to him. But more than that, he’s all alone in the 1500km transit, for women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. Honestly, I wouldn’t be in any shape to drive, even if it were legal.
It turns out that, when push comes to shove, Bruno is a champion at long-distance, high-pressure transits. (Who knew?) And this transit gives a whole new meaning to the word. We’re on the road before dawn, stopping only for quick ready-made meals of canned food (and my frequent poop breaks, of course), and a quick body-wipe-down in the back of the Toyota before hitting the sack on the side of the highway, transport trucks whooshing by.
That’s when I realize that that’s what this trip to Saudi Arabia is – a transit. To really see the country, to experience it and begin to make sense of it, we’d need to step out of the car. We’d need to head into the markets and towns and interact with the people. A few books and 1500km of road isn’t going to unlock the mystery of Saudi Arabia for me.
And so, on the other side of my three-day transit, Saudi Arabia remains as elusive as it was sat on the top of the sand dune in Egypt. I guess I’ll have to go back one day. With Alex, perhaps. I can hear her now.
“Let’s do it!”