Friday, March 6, 2009


In February we went back to Australia for the first time in a year and a half, and had a lovely 12 days with our children and grandchildren. A flying visit ... and then it was time to get back to Riyadh and get ready for second semester. University classes would start on the Saturday, so we left Perth on the Monday.

It was 3 am Monday morning in Perth, but it was 9 pm the night before in Riyadh, when we started our journey. The passport check chap in Perth couldn't read Arabic, so he stared at our visas for a while, and then shrugged and handed them back. The passport check guy in Dubai could read Arabic, and studied our passports for a long time, showed them to several other people, and then shrugged and let us through.

After the long, long journey, we were very relieved to get off the plane in Riyadh after about 24 hours of travel. It was evening time in Riyadh.

We joined the passport queue, went to the counter together and confidently handed over our passports which each contained a series of visa renewal stickers.

The man shook his head, and called someone across to take us into the little room, the visa inspection office. Not good ...

There were discussions (in Arabic) and our passports were handed around to various interested parties. Peter quickly got on his mobile to the HR chaps at the university. He then handed his phone over to the Captain in the office so that he could talk to our man and sort it out. Meanwhile I slid down in my hard plastic chair, leaned my head over the back (most uncomfortable!) and drifted off for a bit. The Captain found this amusing, as I realised when I suddenly popped my eyes open to find him laughing, but it didn't win us any sympathy or help our cause.

On the phone our guys at the University were telling the Captain that MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) had assured them our visas were valid. But his response was, "I am the Captain, and I say it's not OK. So it's not OK!" And that was that.

They kept hold of our passports and took us through the airport to the baggage claim area where only a few bags were still going round and round. They pulled our two cases off and then we and our bags had to all go through security again.

We noticed there were very few women in Riyadh airport, and the few we saw were, of course, covered. So they have a special system to take women through the security check. I had to go through a curtain, and then another curtain (can't be too careful) into a cubicle where a robed police woman waited with one of those wands. She was very busy on her mobile, so she waved the wand generally in my direction and waved me on through.

The man who was holding our passports then led us, along with the man who was towing our suitcases, to one of the gates where a plane was about to depart for Dubai ... the one we had just arrived on! He dragged our two cases so roughly on their tiny wheels, that one of them flopped over onto its side. Its little protest went unnoticed and he dragged it the rest of the way on its side. The rest of the luggage had already been stowed, so they put our bags in the cabin somewhere, and we were given the last two seats - right in the middle of the centre section of four seats.

Back to Dubai

When the plane landed in Dubai we had to wait for the official who was holding our passports to once again lead us through the airport, and we had to sit and wait in office after office as our passports were handed around from person to person. Finally a group of white thobed young men (who were sitting around in an office playing on their phones) handed our passports back to us (at last!) and with a yawn we were told "Welcome to Dubai!"

"What now?" we asked.

"You are free to go. Get your luggage, and go!"

Ahhh! Our luggage! We had asked repeatedly, at every stage and every office, where our luggage was, and the reply was always "don't worry!" In our short time in this part of the world we have found that when those words are uttered there usually is a problem.

Of course it had been hours, it was now about 1 am, and no luggage was on the carousel. So we had to go to another couple of offices, fill in forms, answer questions, get them started searching for our luggage.

Finding a Hotel

We asked several people for advice about finding a hotel, and the only help we got was - ask a taxi driver. So, with only our hand-baggage and our laptops, we got into a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a hotel.

He asked if "4 stars" would be alright, and we said that would be great, so he said we would go to a hotel belonging to a friend of his (oh ohh!). It was 2 in the morning, we had been travelling for 30 hours, we just wanted a bed somewhere.

"Zain International" is not a 4 star hotel - that was immediately obvious! Dingy, stinking of cigarette smoke (despite the signs saying it was illegal to smoke there), with a night club that blasted noise every time the sound-proof door in the foyer opened a crack. They wanted us to take a look at the room (the only available one) and they kept our bags in the boot of the taxi while we did so - this made me incredibly nervous. The room was small and smelly, but I just wanted my stuff out of the taxi and somewhere to lie down. I went to attend to the bags while Peter went to negotiate with the front desk. They wanted about $300 ... so we said were going elsewhere. Then they reduced it to $200 - still way over the top, but we were desperate enough.

They wanted our passports - the man said he had to scan them, and held up the big parcel of many different coloured passports he already had. After a long argument we were once again beaten by our tiredness and handed over our passports - he promised to scan them and send them straight on up to our room (at 2 am? yeah, right!)

So we went to the room, which had not really been serviced since the last unfortunate resident. Someone came in and hurriedly emptied the mini-bar and took away the couple of sachets of tea and coffee (you have to pay extra to have that available). There was no toilet paper - although a bidet took up half the space in the bathroom - and only one towel between us. The bed seemed almost clean, but every time I put my head on my pillow my nose would block up from the dust etc.

We slept a mere four hours, just enough to get us going again. We went downstairs and demanded our passports - explaining that we were in Dubai in order to get visas put into our passports, so we needed our passports. They demanded that we pay another $200 to get them back ... or else check out!

So we had breakfast (another whole story! bleh!) and got out a tourist map and started searching for real 4 star hotels. The taxi driver was right, most places were all booked up because there was some business expo in town. But we found that the Marco Polo had one room available for one night - well, one day at a time. So we checked out, grabbed our passports, and went there.

The Marco Polo Hotel

Lovely! Bright, airy, big clean room with Internet access. Polite, friendly, helpful staff. And not a hint of wanting to keep our passports!

Free breakfast - one of those magnificent buffet arrangements with so many choices that you walk away with a full and aching belly! And

live sitar music to keep you calm and happy throughout the meal!

[So what would you pay for a delightful abode like this one? Originally they said they only had a suite for $625, and then they said they would give us an executive room for $350 a night. We accepted that, and despite the hotel being full we ended up being able to stay for the whole time. When we paid the bill, we had actually paid much less than that anyway.]

Finding our Baggage

Once settled in the hotel, we pulled out all the papers and things that had been hurriedly handed to us at Riyadh airport, and were surprised to find a luggage chit. Carefully examining the hand-written scribbles on it, we deduced that our suitcases had in fact been sent all the way back to Perth, Australia! (Are there frequent flier miles for luggage?)

So after a couple of days of unaccompanied travel, our bags finally returned to us in the hotel.

The Gold Souk

One of the many services offered by this hotel is a shuttle service to various attractions. We decided to take a few hours out of our busy email interaction with the college from our hotel room, and go to the Gold Souk. (A souk is like a market.)

There were a lot of little shops, some of them jewelers, selling all the tourist stuff - especially the ubiquitous "pashmina" scarves.

For a while now I have been trying to buy a nice big leather handbag, so this seemed like a good opportunity to look for one.

We walked up and down the little alleys, window-shopping in the little shops. As we walked by, men would step out and try to draw us into their shops, and tell us what they were selling. Finally one of them mentioned "handbags", and so we agreed to follow him. He went down a number of alleys, with several twists and turns, and finally entered an apartment block and up some steep stairs to a private apartment. (At this point we were beginning to feel a bit nervous!) He opened the door to an apartment which was in fact a shop full of handbags, and other customers.

'Home' to Riyadh at last

We had to get in touch with an agent because individuals can no longer make application for visas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the Embassy closing for the weekend (Thursday and Friday) and the agent being busy with other things, it took nearly a week to get our new visas put in our passports. And then we were finally able to return to our apartment and jobs.

This time we were careful to pack a few changes of clothes and necessary items in our hand baggage - just in case!

At the airport we zipped through passport control - no problems! - grabbed our bags and went out to find our new college driver, looking for a sign with our name ... or the college name ... or a familiar face ...

Oh, well, the flight was a tad earlier than expected, maybe he was late.

We spent the next hour and a half trying to find the driver and the college van. We phoned him, and he told us "I am waiting, sir, I am waiting ..." Where? "Here, sir, I am waiting ..." We walked up and down, inside and out, called him again and again.

Of course, he was at terminal 1 and we were at terminal 2. Despite being told. Finally we got that message through to him on the phone.

Now, to Top it all off!

Back at the apartments, our building guard put our two suitcases and two overnight bags into the tiny-shiny lift, and climbed in after them, to go up to the second floor. Peter went up the stairs, but I was tired and decided to wait for the lift to come back.

A moment later the lift returned and opened, and I noticed the hand baggage had been removed but the two suitcases were still there. I thought about stepping in and going up along with the bags, but, for reasons I cannot explain, I then had second thoughts and stepped back.

The lift doors closed and ... the lift died! It wouldn't go up or down, and it wouldn't open again. It was another full day before we saw our suitcases again!

Back at Work

So now we are back at work, starting the second semester. After Dubai, interesting though it was, the dust and rubble of Riyadh has a familiar homely feel.

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