I boarded the Turkish Airlines flight for Riyadh, and immediately noticed that upon sitting, the men took off their sandals. My first culture shock: men who casually and comfortably displayed their feet. At first, I squirmed a bit, but later relaxed and watched a movie. The flight was half-empty, so I could move around, as did others on the flight. Since it was 1:00 a.m., many people lay down across three seats to catch a snooze during the four hour flight.
I catnapped, and all too soon we were landing. Even though the airport was air conditioned, it still felt hot. I checked my phone for the temperature. It was 6:00 a.m. and already 75 degrees. Before the day’s end, it would climb to 100.
I stood in a long line of mostly men waiting to be processed as a newcomer. When the customs officers noticed me, I was pulled out of the line and processed. I don’t think the men from Europe fully appreciated the gesture of the Saudis. My second culture shock: this was the first of many instances where being a woman in Saudi Arabia appears to be an advantage.
I did not have to pull my bags off of the carousel. I did not have to notify the driver I’d arrived: the airport assistant took my driver’s phone number and called from his cell phone. I only needed to walk to the entrance and wait.
The driver arrived very shortly, took my bags to the car, and handed me an abaya. He opened the car door for me, turned on the air conditioning (thank God!) and off we went.
The first thing I noticed was the sparsely abundant landscape. Everything, even the walls on the side of the freeway, were sand colored. There were palm trees lining the sides of the freeway and, because I was told that this day was a holiday, there was very little traffic.
I needed to stop and buy a few supplies. At the small neighborhood market, I only had to point at what I wanted, and there were store helpers there to pick it up, and bag it for me.
We arrived at my new home: an all female compound made up of flats (or apartments) with a security guard posted in front. The driver took my bags to my new flat, unloaded my supplies, and there I was in a new home and a new city, about to begin what I hoped to be a new life.