Long journey to Tabuk

First thing in the morning, in the short stay car park at Heathrow, I gave the keys to Bergman to a complete stranger by the name of Jabil – I took a selfie with him and then watched him drive away.

He didn’t have me on his job sheet. He took the car though. “Is there anything you can show me to put my mind at rest? This feels a little bit like I’m just … giving my car to a stranger…” He showed me some numbers on his mobile screen… I had a plane to catch. If Bergman has been put into a container and shipped off for a respray, the trail will be three weeks cold by the time I get back from here. Fingers crossed he’s honest.

A long flight to Riyadh. I passed the time watching atrocious movies that I’d never normally be able to justify watching. Justice League, anyone? Mister Magorium? We flew over Tabuk a good hour before we landed. I watched it go by on the map. That’s my destination. Now I’m flying back the way I came in a smaller plane. Not the most efficient but hey it’s the only option I was given.

Riyadh was a carpet of lights out the window.

That’s all I got of it. Huge and flat and in grids, and brightly organised and flowing. I didn’t have any time to leave the airport and take in the sights though. I had to get out through international security. First a stern man with a temperature monitor for fever. Then a succession of inscrutable faces, mostly with heads covered in that familiar red and white headdress. Eventually I am fingerprinted and stamped and I’m through. Then I have to walk past men with dogs and x-ray all my bags for exit. Then through customs and nothing to declare. Finally the automatic doors open and there’s a crowd of men in front of me squashing to the barrier.

I try to travel in a suit when I’m traveling internationally. It raises my chances of an upgrade. Plus it’s easier than packing the thing. I also have a trilby on. This get-up makes me something of a target. The first word somebody addresses to me, less than a second after I emerge from the secure door, is “taxi?”. I decline. Three seconds later I get another offer. This is like Thailand. The second guy follows me. Asks where I’m going. I tell him I’m ok. I am trying to orient myself though and he can see it. “Domestic departures? Come in taxi.” I assure him I’m ok. Even though I haven’t a clue where I’m going. I’ve got hours before my connecting flight leaves. I shake him off firmly but politely and walk in completely the wrong direction with purpose.

Eventually I go back on myself and find a sign that says “shuttle bus”. I wait by it. “You want taxi?” I am asked. “I take bus,” I respond hopefully. “Good luck…” He shakes his head. But I persist and five minutes later the bus fights through the lines of taxis and picks up myself, a woman in her seventies with a red head covering and a mild looking young man with glasses. “Zug???” The woman shouts at me as soon as I sit down. I think she’s a bit deaf. “Zug???” I shrug helplessly. Is she using the only European word for train she can think of to try and ask if this bus goes to the train station? I can’t help her anyway. “ZUG???” She’s going by the principle of “say it loudly and the foreigner will understand”. The man with glasses speaks softly to her in Arabic. I pretend to look out the window. She shakes her head at him contemptuously and toddles off the the bus driver to shout “ZUG” at him for a while. Eventually she sits down muttering.

The moon is upside down. The bus honks its way out onto the open road and I’m just hoping it goes to the domestic terminal. There’s no way to walk there, according to Google maps. But it does. I get off. The other two remain. I hope she finds her zug.

I get a couple of free lounge accesses with my bank account travel pack and I haven’t used any for ages so I use one now and settle down for some free meatballs and soggy veg and an orange juice. Time passes quickly. My flight is called. I go to the gate and try to board the plane last as is my way. But… my policy of boarding last and then ignoring my seat if I don’t like the look of it falls flat because nobody in this country gives a fuck what it says on their ticket. It’s a free for all. Both flights there has already been somebody in my allocated seat when I’ve got on the plane. Nobody is sitting where they’re supposed to. If this plane goes down they’ll have to do it all by dental records.

I’ve got a guy sitting next to me because, he tells the steward, “I like this guy – he’s English.” We have exchanged about 8 words and he has glommed onto me. He’ll be hard to shake the other end. Thankfully my car hire is sorted. He’s just friendly I think, but I can never overlook the chance he’s selling something. He is devout as well. Mohamed is his name. Currently he’s singing softly to a long (about twenty minutes so far) devotional prayer that he has brought up on his mobile phone screen. His voice is a melodious and very soft tenor. It’s surprisingly beautiful.

Prayer is everywhere. Young men by travelators in the airport lay down their mats towards Mecca. The plane took off to a beautiful travel prayer from Mohammed. I often find faith attractive, perhaps because of my polytheistic approach. This strange devout country will do a lot to keep me curious. I suspect I’ll be too busy for out and out tourism. But I’ll find time to plug into this unfamiliar vibe, and work out how to go about unseen. Italian woollen three piece and trilby ain’t gonna cut it. I stick out like a sore thumb, but that’s my usual disguise in stress or unfamiliar situations. I become big and visible and clumsy and stupid and friendly and nobody thinks I’m a threat.

I wish I spoke some Arabic though. I’m only just making sense of the alphabet. Duolingo and I are gonna have to spend some special time together.

Meantime I’m just learning numbers so I know the speed limit. I’m gonna have to drive to the hotel in an hour or so and I’m shattered and it’ll be dark. Fun fun fun.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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