Arriving in Riyadh

Right now I’m sitting on my chaise in my room at the Four Seasons (I know, tough life), gazing out the window on the expanse of Riyadh. Our host tells us the city was designed for 2 million residents, but now has closer to 6. Gas being 50 cents a gallon means lots and lots and lots of cars. I can hear them even up here on the 40th floor. 

My colleague and I arrived late last night after a rather pleasant flight from Frankfurt on Lufthansa (kudos to them for managing to make delicious gnocchi in that tiny airplane oven). Scott & I enjoyed the last tastes of alcohol we’d have for a week (decent bubbly and Austrian white for me). Once we hit the 20 minute before arrival mark, out came the abaya and head scarf. We were arriving. 

When I arrive in a new destination, it’s not the change in physical environment I first notice, it’s the smell: the air (stepping off the plane at SFO has always smelled like home), other scents that mark a place as its own. Upon stepping off the plane in Riyadh, it was the aroma of food: cooked meat and spices that hit me upon my first step onto the jetway. Upon entering the airport itself, the environment really wasn’t all that different from any other smallish airport of the same era. Only real difference were the number of men in traditional garb and the distinct – and I mean very, very distinct – lack of women. As in perhaps a half dozen others aside from myself. 

We had been told to expect a painfully long wait to get through first time immigration (as they have to take photos, fingerprints, and make sure you’re not on some “Do Not Enter” list). Luckily, our host worked some sort of local magic as we were whisked to the front of the line and out to baggage claim within 10 minutes. 

Bags in hand, we went through customs, which also was far less painful than I had been led to expect. Just tossed the bags on a scanner, which I was told was only used to identify any alcohol in bags. Then it was out the door and to the car. Our host told us he thought the Riyadh airport was the most chaotic in the world, but compared to Dulles (my least favorite ever), it was nothing. Arriving at 11:30pm probably helped things seem sedate.

We are lucky to have arrived during the single seven-day period of rain each year. This means temperatures are relatively low and the sun is not out and available to dole out its abuse on poor pale and vampiric me. 

It was about a half hour ride to the hotel. Our host pointed out sights along the way: the largest university for women (45,000 students) in the middle east (if not the world), U.S. compounds, and an incredibly HUGE financial center being built to process the scads of money this country generates. (links to follow later)

I was beyond bleary-eyed upon our final arrival to the hotel. 110 stories high – complete with a mall, many restaurants, and a very cool-looking suspended walkway that runs between two spires up on the top floor. Pics from there for certain to follow.

Took just a few minutes to get checked in and then finally up to my room. The letter awaiting me on the desk proclaimed they had paid every attention to my womanly status: special bath salts (they were yummy), fruit, water, a room close to the elevator and sans adjoining door, even a sanitary napkin in a discrete little package resting on the bidet. I’ll be checking out their new women-only gym later. Not sure what the appropriate workout attire will be, but I shall find out.

Today we’re off to a couple of meetings, I believe: one visit to a facility associated with the university healthcare system and a meet & greet with a gentleman who we hope will get us an intro to the top dog at the Ministry of Health. Hopefully, the rest of the day will be spent getting over the sandbag feeling of jet lag, trying out some local cuisine, and perhaps a bit of shopping.

Thus far, it’s been far less stressful than I had feared. The abaya isn’t uncomfortable and it’s actually rather nice to feel like I blend in/am somewhat invisible. The true test will be how I navigate the business meetings and conference to come. 

More reports to follow, along with photos and links once I have more time and more experiences outside of my hotel room.