It's a long, long time since I sat down and wrote a "travelogue"; although I enjoyed writing about places and people, there was getting to be much of a similarity in what I wrote - indeed, the world is
a smaller place year by year. But yesterday, I flew into [place to be named later] and although the first restaurant I saw out from the airport was McDonalds, and the first bank was HSBC, there is a good "story" here. All is NOT what I expected, and you may enjoy some surprises from this personal tale.
Let me start with a question. How does a lady wearing a burka that only exposes her eyes though a tiny slit eat her lunch in a restaurant? I'll come back to dress issues later too ...
Jump to First Impressions
Jump to The People
4 a.m. could be considered a cruelly early time to have to get up, but I don't mind it. Lisa gave me a lift the six miles into Chippenham and I joined other passengers on the 5 a.m. National Express coach to Heathrow. There were 20 or so passengers on, another four joined at Chippenham, and perhaps a further dozen at Swindon. The bus driver was disgustingly good humoured for that time of the a.m.! I dozed around Wootton Bassett, and slept rather better past Reading, Maidenhead and Slough.
I suppose Heathrow's central bus station IS in the centre of the airport. Which means that it's not really near
to any of the terminals. I dragged my cases down the lift and on a long walk to the Heathrow Express to connect on by train to Terminal 4, Noting wryly as I did a "First Connect" train arriving to terminate with just two passengers on board. And then another walk at Terminal 4 up to the lifts to check in. In this safety-conscious age, it's great to see the trolley barriers near all the platforms and escalators stopping one taking a cart for one's luggage -- just have to hope that the Heathrow trolley team, as featured on "Airport", has the right number of trollies in the right place at the right time. And in some places they do.
"Self service check-in - beat the queues" says the enticing sign. Sure, why not? And after a few screens and some data entry, a boarding pass and receipt are issued. Lousy choice of seats (all middle-of-three jobbies), but then it was a cheap flight and I wasn't surprised. Oh well, only six hours on the plane.
Now to drop off the luggage. "Fast luggage drop" say the signs, but most people don't read them, it seems, as two BA bruisers were turning away a steady stream of people from the entry to that area. Taking my credibility in my hands, I approached them and was allowed through. Round a couple of turns in the barrier and .... onto the back of a queue.
The lady at the fast-drop was polite but firm. My bags were overweight, and it would cost me more than my return trip ticket for them as excess baggage. OK, I needed them; they had 20 sets of delegate notes in them. So they had me by the short-an-curlies. Hmm. "Gosh, is there anything you can do?" I asked. "I'm much lighter than some of the other passenger, I'm sure". Yep, I know they've heard it before but I would rather be a considered a bore/twit than have to pay all that much. And, d'you know, she did budge. "Is that a laptop in there?" she asked pointing to my shoulder bag". "Yes". Oops, is that going to be weighed too? "It's not really hand baggage to I can allow you an extra six Kgs in the hold. THANK you. That's more than a hundred quid saved. And the lady looked at my boarding pass and suggested that I might like a better seat ... found me an aisle. The only place there was no queue at Heathrow was the desk to pay my excess. I guess commercial companies are only too glad to ri... take payments. Then into the security queue.
Tempted by the shops? Yes and no. Bought some more travel adaptors (I'm sure that the cat eats them in the middle of the night at home - can never find enough no matter how many I buy) and was very tempted by a 250-quid 8-Megapixel tiny digital camera, you know the sort of "end of Gondola" special. But thought of the money just spent on excess baggage which, company's money though it is, will reflect in profits and our own pockets in due course, damn it. Lisa and I own Well House Consultants. And sanity prevailed.
So, NOT tempted by the shops very much. Did spend a fiver on a Wifi session, answered a few emails and made good use of time and, as my hour ran out, they were announcing the flight. "Gate 1b". Umm - sounds ominous and, sure, Gate 1b is a queue-for-the-lounge, sit and wait, queue-for-the-bus, queue-at-the-aircraft-steps job. Some of the first class passengers, standing on the bus, were complaining; "at some airports they do a car for first class, a minibus for Club and a coach for Cattle ... but here at Heathrow, we're all together". As one of the cattle, I think I'm grateful to people like this for helping to keep the airline flying, in profit, and able to provide seats at a better price for the likes of me (and I suspect of most of my readers). I do feel that it was a little, err, arrogant of them to express their views of their fellow-travellers right in front of everyone.
I was glad to get on the plane, find my seat, and store my carry-on bag. The two laptops and heavy weight of books and other paperwork in it were killing my shoulders by this point.
Flight. Painless. Big chap to my left, spilling over the armrest into my seat. Elbowing me as he opened his butter pat at lunch time. But nice enough. Chap in front of me reclined back nearly onto my lap for the flight. Would have offered him a shoulder massage as he was just in the right position, but decided to watch King Kong instead. Was able to hear the sound by keeping permanent pressure on the jack for the headset. From the state of the armrest, clearly someone else had suffered the same problem and lost their cool with the rest. Only thing that was missing from the typical flight was the kicking child in the seat directly behind, so I was able to sleep through most of the first film showing and woke to wonder how this damned Gorilla had got to New York in the first place. Second run of the film filled me in.
My fellow travellers were a mixed bunch, but mostly British, and mostly men travelling on their own. The odd person in Arab clothing, a woman or two wearing clothes that covered everything but the eyes - perhaps a pleasant contrast to the still-wannabe-young damsels in skimpy shirts and in tight-but-loose waisted jeans, with midribs bulging out between the two items of clothing, and offering you the chance to read a label telling you where they bought their pink knickers if that's what turns you on.
The food was by "Gate Gourmet" - the spun-off company from BA at which there was that big industrial dispute a year or two back. I was pleasantly surprised, though, nothing to "blog" about [oops]. And the flight attendants were more helpful and friendly than I remember from previous BA flights, but still far short of what we expect on Virgin.
France - Eastern Europe - the Black Sea - Turkey - Iraq. Occasional glances at the travel map showed our progress, and so on to The Gulf. Around six hours from Heathrow, we touched down in Bahrain and I left the plane -- my first visit to the Middle East. Now WHAT was I going to find?
I found an easy customs procedure (Lisa - please note $6 charge for a Bahrain Transit Visa) and a driver holding up my name, along with a throng of other drivers, and I came out of the arrivals channel. Could have been an airport anywhere in the world. The first "this is different" feeling was the whoosh of heat as we left the terminal. Hotter than Florida in August.
Jump back to Journey
Jump to The People
The airport in Bahrain is modern. Step out of the terminal building, and apart from the heat you could be in any Southern USA provincial airport - there's a driveway with various traffic that's picking up and dropping off passengers, crossed by Zebra crossings, and beyond it a large parking lot. Raise the eyes further and you see the glittering lights (for it was dark when I arrived) of skyscrapers quite close by. It's busy, but not Heathrow-uncomfortably so, and there's a few abandoned trollies around. And there's the "I can't walk another few yards" mentality on show that seems to have slid all the cars in the car park down to the terminal side as if the parking lot was on a slope and the cars skated over it like ice. Oh, and there's a queue to exit the parking lot.
I can't give you much of an impression of Bahrain, for I was on a 24-hour transit visa and probably stayed there, once out the airport, for around 24 minutes. I can tell of a modern, high rise and being-expanded city. Where names like McDonalds, Citibank, HSBC and Debenhams decked out the buildings. Where building sites proudly had pictures of skyscrapers under construction - not just straight-up ones, but shapes that seem to lean and glide; an elegance and size that make London's Gherkin and Hammersmith's Ark look like failed attempts at something. In Bahrain, the shear size allows a success is taking the breath away, at least.
And hotels. And shopping malls. My driver talks of the expansion continuing in this tiny territory, of all the offices and holiday makers, and the people packed in around to work in those offices and service those hotels. It's a bustling, lively road scene - dual carriageway and busy even on a Friday, which is the equivalent of Sunday. The car beside us is a recent VW Beetle, bright yellow, the driver a woman wearing a burka. This is no place that's greatly different; I could be in Denver, Dallas or Detroit, apart from the fact that everything's too clean and new, and the signs are Wales-like labelled up in English and something else that I can't understand. OK, something else I can't even read; it's Arabic.
Want to know more of Bahrain? Perhaps you do, but I'm not your man. We swing off the dual carriage way down a slip road and join traffic on a much quieter "dual". "Busy today" says my driver, though it isn't such to me. I think of the two hours I spent on the M25 the previous evening and feel that my guy probably hasn't seen the nth degree of busy-ness. But he's a good talker, keeps me well informed and, were I wanting a tour I might encourage him to be my guide.
The quieter road turns into a low causeway; there's water on both sides of us and I prepare for a crossing like "Alligator Alley" -- a road with nothing much on either side for perhaps an hour. But it's not like that; we stop at a toll booth and pay 20 Riyal - between 3 and 4 quid - and our driver grumbles about the money being made. We laugh and joke that governments always want money. Then another low section, a rise over a shipping channel, and another low section and - what's this - a service area island? Yes, there's a restaurant and a cafe ... and a sign pointing for "Diplomatic Passports" off to one side. And ahead I can see traffic lights and a short backup of traffic. We're reaching the border and preparing to cross into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Let me see if I can get the border sequence right. The first queue was to get a piece of paper that indicated our registration number and number of passenger in the car (I think - my driver was taking care of it). At the check point ahead is the second queue, and passports were checked. Just before the third check point I thought this was also a convenient loo stop for all the women too, as there were a lot of them getting in and out of cars and going over to a building that I saw a "Mens toilets" label on, and assumed there was a woman's one too. Not so - the ladies were showing their faces to an appropriate authority so that their picture ID could be checked in private, and this check point ensured that all IDs were confirmed. Apparently, there was a precious problem with people, both women and men, passing on someone else's papers.
After that third check point was the fourth (perhaps you hoped we were done?), and here every car was inspected. We were gestured into a parking bay, opened the boot, and stood away from the car. A guard came over, looked in the boot, walked over to the front and back door on one side, opened them and looked around inside for a few seconds. Satisfied, he walked over to his table and stamped our paper. We were free to move on, and we queued for the fifth - and final - checkpoint. Simple really - it was just to collect any papers and, I guess, any monies owed on goods being imported.
I wasn't surprised that our car was stopped and searched, after all it was carrying a non-local, but I was surprised that every single car was routinely stopped. My driver commented how easy our transit had been and that it's really tough if you fly in to the airport in Dammam. "Takes a couple of hours - all queues". He went on to explain that these days, they're really concentrating on drugs and alcohol at the border, though they're also on the lookout sometimes for DVDs and pictures they consider to be pornographic, and for pork that's freely on sale in Bahrain, but strictly against the law in Saudi.
The signs changed. The top language was now Arabic, with smaller English translations below. The speed limit was 80 k.p.h., we were doing around that ;-) ... and cars were flashing past us. "Do the police check speeds?" I asked, and was assured that they do. Over 120 k.p.h. and you're taken straight to jail for three days (do not pass GO, do not go to court, pay 50 pounds fine for release). I don't really know if it's 50 quid, but I expect it is - and that's a lot of money here.
By the time we had completed this conversation, we came over land and a slip road joined us. In the narrow triangle between the merging lines sat a police car and a low-loader vehicle. To take the cars of people who had been driving over the 120 limit to a pound as they were taken to jail, I'm told.
A contrast. Bahrain had been a city reaching every higher for the sky, but Al-Khobar is a great flat sprawl - the economics of plenty of land. Saudi Arabia is the size of Western Europe. And other things differ here too. The stores are names that I don't recognise. Just the occasional English subtext to help the visitor. And the housing very much Arabic in style - the streets off to the side look like some of the cities we see in war footage from Iraq or Afghanistan, save for the condition which is pristine in comparison.
We sweep off the main road, and onto the road to Dhahran. "Air base" it says, and air base it is. Not much else around. "Gate 1" or "Gate 2" say the signs, and we follow "Gate 1" ... coming up ahead is a great military fort - high, high high fence, floodlights, and a gate to match. But just a few yards before we get there, though, we take a left and there's a hotel - palm trees around, a drive up to the front door and an efficient porter service that grabs my cases and loads them onto his trolley before I can say boo to a goose. I thank my driver, wish him a pleasant evening, and - oh help - what is the tipping rule?
Dhahran airport, up until the 1992 Gulf War, was civilian and military. The new civilian airport is 50 km away at Dammam, and this one has been left to the Air Force. (Aside - distances are great, and the nearest tourist attraction is some caves and geysers 150 km away according to my guide). So the Dhahran International Hotel sits incongrously here -- service the base, the Aramco Oil company who are nearby, and the King Fahad University of Petroleum & Minerals (please excuse any misnaming there - I tried to take all this in, honestly).
The hotel lobby is plush. Spacious. Rows of comfy sofas set amongst the a couple of fountains and a palm court area. An atrium rising - high for standards here - to stories. Just off to the side of the restaurant is a case with a strange article in it. "Do you know what that is?" asked one of my new friends and delegates the next day. No, I didn't. Turns out to be a Patriot missile that was fired at an incoming Scud during the - was it really that long ago? - 1992 conflict. The debris from the Patriots - 16 were fired at this scud - did more damage than the scud would have done had it landed, and the Patriots cost a million dollars each. "Someone trying to put up the cost of the war to get re-elected" suggests one of my group. And this is the hotel that we got used to seeing on TV where the press briefings were held during those wars ...
Jump back to Journey
Jump back to First Impressions
The Saudi people
Still reading? I admire your stamina, and hope you're enjoying. I do think, exceptionally, this trip so far has been worth a travelogue. It's a long way from Chippenham.
I've headed this section "The Saudi People" but all I can really tell you about are Saudi men, and the clothing that Saudi women wear. I've not bee introduced to a Saudi woman yet, and perhaps never will be. You see eyes. You see the occasional wrinkling of the skin around the eyes that indicates a smile behind. And you see a pair of utterly out of place high-healed shoes poking out from below the black. But that's it. a segregated society where it's illegal for women to drive, where women must be met by a male relative at the international border if they've been out of the country. The women that I work with in the UK, the woman I love and live with, would find it very hard, I think.
The Saudi men. A beard. A white tunic. A headscarf that's always white, with red, chequered decoration in the centre and perhaps a border - red and white too, but varying a little from one to the next, and a black - gosh - scarf-holder that sits on top; about six inches across, like two loops of a curled snake, and always black it's pushed down on their head and re-adjusted from time to time. Oh - and brown slip-on sandals and no socks.
Quite daunting to see a group of almost-uniformed, bearded men talking away. But here's a surprise. Look at the human side and you'll find real persons and real personalities. Are they just like British men, then? No - I'll argue not; in this society the ones that I've met at least have taken on some of the humanity, caring, and gentleness that is so much the woman's prerogative - "girly" - in The West. And it provides an underlying something that's ... all-pervading and an aspect of the society that makes it deeply attractive.
"Meet Abdul in the training room at 8" said my contact here in one of his final emails before I travelled. Only when I got to the training room did I realise that the client had been given an 08:00 start time and some of the group had arrived. Seated being a U shaped conference table, piled high with a big old tower computer and monitor at each of 9 seats, was a group of men dressed as previously described. Chatting amongst themselves, eating sandwiches that were on a table to the side and sipping coffee. Yikes - I find it emotionally REALLY hard to do a setup with delegates already waiting, and I sure needed to clear the desks a bit so that my trainees could see the board. I was relieved to see a projector which there had been some doubt about the previous evening, and mystified by an extra box - a modem - sitting on top of each c.p.u. with a pile of modem boxes in the corner.
I got no help, little interaction, as I walked into the room center and lifted each c.p.u. box, turned it around, and lowered it to the ground in the centre. I managed to step on one power cord and pull it out - a make-shift jungle that (Lisa , please note) make our place look tidy. But there's 10 delegates, aren't there? The 10th machine was set up as if I was to use it, so more movement. Another table found, and I brought out my two Macs. "Oh - wow" - the 17" laptop has that affect the world over!
I invited John, the VP of the company that had arranged this training, to stop and listen as I started. He looked astonished at the offer but took it up with fervour. OK - I wanted to show him that he and Thomas had made the right choice in choosing me for this one. And I wanted him for - a couple of minutes - just in case it went pear-shaped. Yet he stood at the back - clearly NOT about to do an intro. OK - here we go:
"As-salam alaikum" (Peace be upon you). Pause. Slight surprise at my start? "Wa alaikum as-salam" replys my group in a quiet chorus. And smiles. The ice broken, and I introduce myself; I tell them how important it is for me to know a little background on whether they've programmed before ("little point in me comparing Perl to Cobol if none of you knows Cobol" I comment), and I go around the room talking to each in turn. "Eldest first" suggest the guidances I had read, but the eldest was seated in the middle; I started at the end nearest to him so he did rank highly. "The quiet ones are often the important ones" say the guidances. I don't think that's universal, nor unique to Saudi - it's always my way to talk to everyone and establish a rapport with the quiet, too. So around the room we went.
John smiled, then was grinning, the group jelling, and we were rolling along. John slipped away after a couple of minutes, and soon the group learned how to check whether Perl was loaded (and confirm that it was), how to check which version, and how to write a program to print out the words "Hello World".
"Just another course" then. No, certainly NOT, quite apart from the fact that there is NEVER "JUST" another course. I always interact - get delegate inputs, keep the whole thing as a group activity. But here, that's especially relevant. Sh****, the patriarch who says he has not programmed before is writing wickedly brilliant code on his first day. Ab**********, whose name I had some problem writing down when he first gave it, and is quiet and I suspect is quite senior, smiles with delight and spells his name in full as I use it with others in an example. The rest of the room mutters as I had only picked on four for that excercise, but then laugh when I say that "oh, your turn will come". I'm really REALLY enjoying this course and it's made by the class.
Perfect course? No, there's the usual incidents and things to resolve, and I'm not in my own centre nor at the customer's site - a trainer's nightmare. The modems have been installed but not configured nor tested. The delegates get a bit antsy because they need to check emails. Sh****'s machine has an Arabic+Latin keyboard and the keycaps don't match the special characters that are generated when they're pressed. "Where is the '\'?". Goodness, I don't know, and it's unfair to expect the guy to remember the mappings anyway. And the heat - the air conditioning isn't very effective and my local audience is falling asleep and grumbling about it.
This has been a long "write". Written off line, Saturday evening and it's now Sunday morning here. I should get my 8 hours before the second day - START at 08:00, Sunday. I know now. I don't know what the day will bring - whether I'll even be able to get on line to post this - but I do know that I'll enjoy the day.
Jump back to Journey
Jump back to First Impressions
Jump back to The People (written 2006-05-21, updated 2006-05-22)
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