Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The Saudi Shuffle

Friends and Family,

I hope this will be the first of a series of emails documenting Jesse and my super-photolicious-Fall-trip.

Today was day 3 of 90 and our first shooting day. All I can say so far is, “well, we made it”. I’m reminded of the guy who jumped off the Empire State building and as he was falling past each floor was heard to say, “So far, so good.” It’s not the fall that counts, though, it’s the landing. Anyway, I guess it takes a funny sort of optimism to undertake this kind of adventure.

Although our journey began a number years ago, I’ll skip right to our actual departure. In the photo below, you can see Jesse and I standing outside the Harden House Saturday afternoon with all of our gear. As you can see there is about 295 pounds of lights and photo equipment and about 5 pounds of clothing, all of which has to last us 3 months.

At the British Airways counter, the ticket agent told Jesse that his carry-on was too heavy and would have to be checked for safety reasons. Jesse explained that we were already paying a couple hundred dollars in excess baggage fees (which was nothing compared to the $1,000 that Air Africa tried to charge him on his last trip). Jesse didn’t want to check any more bags than necessary, so he offered to make his computer bag lighter by removing a couple of CDs. Are you kidding me?

Before dropping us off, Jesse’s parents told me to look out for Jesse while we travelled. At the airport, my Dad pulled Jesse aside to tell him that he was personally responsible for my safety. Jesse and responsible are two words that are not normally found in the same sentence. In fact, the idea that our parents were relying on us to keep each other out of trouble struck me as some sort of zero-sum chiasmus.

Luckily we were saved from looking up any more big words in the dictionary by our now best friends Von and Amy, who surprised us at the airport with a bag of Red Mill burgers (thanks again Von and Amy, you rock!). The combination of Red Mill bacon burger and Xanax made for a very relaxed flight to London.

After a short eight-hour layover in Heathrow (where we had ample time to worry about the baggage return system), we boarded our flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As our plane taxied for take-off I was having some second thoughts and reservations about what kind of trip this would turn out to be, travelling throughout the Middle East and Africa for three months as Jesse’s assistant. Just then the little girl in the next seat wearing traditional Saudi robes turned to me and vomited all over my lap. Ce n’est pas la chute qui compte, n’est-ce pas, c’est l’aterrisage…

From the moment you land in Riyadh, you get a feeling of how different (and how hot) it is here. I think Jesse described it best when he said, “It’s weird, it’s like being in a foreign country.” There you have it. You can see from the two pictures below some of the foreign foods and places we have already found:

By the way, you have to be careful about taking pictures in Saudi Arabia, as you can get into a lot of trouble. I learned this the hard way taking the picture of the Washington apples above.

There’s an old saying in Saudi Arabia which goes, “All roads lead to Dammam.” Although this isn’t quite true, it is true that Jesse and I seem to end up on one of the ones that do lead there every time we get into our rental car. We were told by one of the administrator’s of the school that we are taking pictures for that you can’t get lost in Riyadh as long as you use the tower below, which is the only tall building around, as a landmark. It's the one near chop-chop square which is named for the corporal punishments that are still publicly carried out there.

Maybe it was the jet-lag, but the tower kept moving around on us as we tried to make our way to visit the U.S. Embassy in the Diplomatic Quarter. In the end we made it, although were not sure how. The DQ turned out to be pretty cool. I would have taken some pictures to show you, but the armed guards looked even more threatening than the manager at Safeway--especially the armed guards who look like their fifteen.

Despite the armed guards and ‘compounds’ everywhere, Saudi Arabia turns out to be a pretty safe and friendly place. I suppose the public beheadings and stonings, the strict prohibition, and the religious fundamentalism have something to do with it.