“Are you sure you’re going to Saudi Arabia alone?”
“Yes, I am,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel every time someone asked.
Because if I was honest, Saudi Arabia was never on my radar when I dreamed of traveling the world when I was a kid. I wanted to visit Japan, the Caribbean, Australia… But with how different their culture seemed to be, Saudi Arabia was way out of my safe zone. At one point, I even joked that was one place I had no plans of visiting at all.
Until I was assigned to go on a work trip there alone last February, and I was faced with a decision.
Do I take this chance to try something completely new?
Even though some people around me thought I shouldn’t? Even though it scared me?
Well, I did say I loved experiencing new things, right?
My friend Jennifer wrote about overcoming your fears to live adventurously last week, and she’s right. You don’t get to live colorfully when you stick with the safe zone.
But on this trip, I learned getting over your fear to go try something new is just the beginning of the story.
Because overcoming your fear? It’s like exercising a muscle. When you win over it, you grow. Then you get comfy with the new normal, and the cycle starts over with another change and different fears.
So it goes and so you grow.
Getting around Saudi Arabia as a solo female traveler is, well, interesting. Almost impossible if you don’t know anyone there, I’d say, especially since a woman walking alone was a rare sight in these parts. Women were usually with other women or with their families.
Coming in, I needed to be sponsored by what they call a “guardian” since I was a single woman. If I hadn’t arranged with locals to have someone waiting for me at the airport, I couldn’t have left on my own.
And walking beside, eating with, basically interacting with men I wasn’t related to in public? Though there was a bit of leeway for me as a foreigner, it was a definite no-no in certain parts of the country. I quickly learned to shuffle a few feet away from any males I was with, not to shake men’s hands during meetings, and not to sit with them in “men only” areas in restaurants.
Or in cars. Every time I climbed into a vehicle with businessmen, I got the whole row of backseats to myself while they sat shoulder to shoulder up front. I took advantage of the extra space by napping during long drives.
“Don’t forget to wear your abaya when you get off the plane!”
Thus began my experience with the long black gown women were lawfully required to wear in Saudi Arabia. I spent two days in a panic looking for one in my city, Googling about it, and asking ex-overseas worker friends how to wear it.
When passengers began filing out of the plane in Riyadh, I quickly put it on and wrapped my head in a black scarf. I then lined up at Immigration and quietly observed the other equally quiet women around me swathed in black.
Where were they from?
Did they feel as strange about this as I did?
I have a tradition of buying a touristy magnet at every place I visit for my thesis adviser at Uni. I meet her twice a year since my college days carting 15 magnets at a time.
But it took me almost a week to find a magnet on this trip, and in the city of Dammam, I didn’t find any.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Saudi Arabia doesn’t issue tourist visas at all; family and business are generally why outsiders come into this country. There are no tourists, ergo there are no touristy shops.
As someone who just talked about wanting to live with less, Saudi Arabia was a maximalist opposite where more and bigger were the order of the day.
“We have two hobbies here,” a local said. “Eating and shopping. And we don’t like the heat.”
True enough, sprawling shopping malls closed past midnight with shoppers enjoying the stores and the cold air blasting from the airconditioning units all the way to closing time.
Except during daily prayer times. That was when stores closed their doors and locals flocked to the nearest mosque. The rest of us could either wait inside the store or walk around outside while waiting for shops to open again.
Restaurants were also something else here. Upscale places had high ceilings and eye-catching decor.
Every time I was asked out to eat, we ate very well with about half of whatever was ordered left over.
“So what happens to the leftovers?” I whispered as the group I was with got up from the table.
The locals just shrugged.
I stopped at the mirror by my hotel room’s door and gave myself a once-over.
Was my abaya buttoned right? Check.
(And I was going to pick a bone with the friend who taught me to put it on the wrong way once I got home. I couldn’t believe I’d been wearing it wrong three days straight!)
Feet covered by the hem of my abaya? Check.
Wrists and forearms covered? Check.
Neck and ears not showing? I fiddled with my headscarf. Check.
I headed to the lobby.
An Arab we’d just had business meetings with stood between our group of foreign delegates and the camel behind him.
“No one wants to ride the camel?” he asked, perplexed. The people beside me hummed and milled around the open space as other camels & horses clopped around us.
“Oh, why not?” I laughed and walked up to the camel. The man holding the animal’s reins pointed at the stirrups. I awkwardly climbed on and held onto the makeshift handles.
“You’re a brave woman,” our Arab friend said before the camel started trotting away.
A family of four yelled in Arabic at staff manning the check-in counter at the airport. They were surrounded by three carts piled up with luggage.
“They’re upset they have to pay extra luggage fees,” a friend explained.
I looked behind me at families similarly heavy-laden then looked down at my little bag that could have passed for carry-on size.
“You mean you’re not Muslim and you don’t live here?” a businessman blurted out during one meeting.
“So how does wearing that outfit feel?” his partner added excitedly.
“Well, it’s different.” We laughed at that understatement. “But I’m visiting your home, and this is part of your culture.”
And I meant that.
Traveling to a new place is like visiting a friend’s home. They might put their shoes by the stairs instead of by the door like I prefer. Their living room might face the kitchen instead of facing away from it like at my place. But we put our shoes where they tell us to and sit on the couch without saying we’d arrange it differently. Because at the end of the day, it’s not our house and it doesn’t run by our rules.
“We appreciate it.” The other man’s words were short but full of meaning. We got back to business.
Because of the desert heat, the days here start slowly and end late. Most meetings were set no earlier than 10 am. Lunch was at 1, dinner could be 7 or 8, sometimes 9, and if you were lucky enough, you could nap in the afternoons.
“It’s not a bad life,” a friend I made in the city said.
“No,” I agreed. “Just different.”
“We’re not so conservative here; you can just wear your abaya without the head covering,” I was told after I left the capital.
I had reason to regret following that advice that afternoon.
Not five minutes after walking out, I wrapped the scarf around my head and the men I passed on the street stopped turning to look at me. The outfit that had felt so alien that first day had become a cocoon from prying eyes.
With a start, I realized why my business meetings here had felt so different. I was used to comments about my appearance when I met new people who were more frank than I was used to.
I’d get asked my age — someone recently thought I was 10 years younger than I am — and proving I had what it takes age notwithstanding was a game I often played.
I’d hear about how thin I was or how my short hair was interesting (or not “girly” depending on who was doing the talking). Someone would observe I looked Japanese. Another said I dressed like a student.
I didn’t get any questions like that since I got here. Wearing this meant no one could make judgments about my personality and life situation from my hairstyle, the clothes I wore, or even my weight. Maybe my bag, decorations on my abaya, or my shoes were clues, but it wasn’t to the same degree as in other places I’d been.
I mused on those differences as I went about my day.
I laughed and held on as the camel galloped past one of the friends I’d made on this trip.
“How does it feel?” he yelled up at me.
“Like riding a truck over an unpaved road,” I shouted back. “You should try it!”
The camel went further away in a dust cloud as I thought for what felt like the thousandth time: I never imagined I’d be doing this here.
What if I’d decided not to take the chance and to stay in my safe place instead? Or take each chance after that, and after that?
Because I went from fear to fear, I also went from strength to strength.
I felt like I could do anything as I looked around me at a place that was no less beautiful because it was different. From my perch, I saw Saudi Arabia had its own issues, yet it also had its own charm.
The sun set in a clear sky as the camel slowed to a trot.
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