I was awoken by a call at 7 am and was told to get on the next plane to Saudi Arabia. I had been assigned to a project and was asked to be across the world ASAP—no time to even begin to think that I would be heading to, relative to my background, the most exotic place in the world. Only after I hopped on the plane did I begin to realize the life altering journey I was about to embark on.
It’s been seven months, and each day has been a learning experience beyond my imagination. I’m not just learning new things about SAP software; I’m learning new words, eating habits, and dressing customs.
The best place to start when traveling to a foreign country is to go to Google. You know, the same place you go when you have absolutely no idea what you are doing, like when you had to put on your first tie or literally graduated from Ramen to Barilla pasta. What you’ll find on Google is a list of behaviors that will keep you out of trouble. When in Saudi, or many other Arabic countries, never offer your left hand to shake hands. (If you’re interested in knowing why, I suggest you use Google for that too.) That doesn’t come naturally to me, so that was an easy one. More surprisingly, you should also never show the soles of your feet to someone. You might be wondering, “When will I ever sit back and stick both my feet in the air like a five year old whose legs are too short for a chair?,” but we are very used to crossing our legs, particularly in a business setting.
So, these were the rules I went to Saudi with. I brought questions too. “Where would I stay?” “What would I eat?” “Would I be accepted?” And many, many more. I quickly found that the city where I am staying, Al Khobar, is heavily populated with expatriates. Businesses have adapted because of it. The mall has Burger King, McDonalds (they sell Chicken Big Macs—seriously, McDonalds, America is ready for this), Starbucks, Gap, Sephora, and Lacoste. The town has Red Lobster, Chilis, and Virgin electronic stores. You’ll find NBA or soccer games, Die Hard, or Big Bang Theory on the TV. The radio even plays Miley Cyrus. Walk into a store and you might forget where you are.
However, some things are undeniably different. Sand is everywhere and it covers the sun on bad days. Sometimes it is 120 degrees out. People are covered head to toe, men and women. At the mall, I’ve seen burka-covered women packing stores, wondering to myself when they get the chance to wear the strapless shirt or high heels filling their bags. At the food court I have been asked to move to a “Singles Only” designated table, and I have been turned away on the weekends for wearing shorts. Perhaps most shocking, the faces of women on billboards are blurred.
Recreational activities are limited—no bars, clubs, or even movie theaters. My first week in Saudi I asked three people what they do for fun and these were their answers: I go to Bahrain; I go back to my home country; I go to Dubai. In other words, they leave the country.
This seems harsh, but for many travelling here for work it is a reality. However, with time and by leaving Saudi myself, I found that the people who gave me these answers overlooked the most important thing I’ve learned from travelling. Without fail, the hidden joy of travelling is interacting with the PEOPLE. In the last year I’ve been to Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Canada, Greece, Holland, India, and UAE (jealous yet?). I might remember a landmark or site I’ve visited, but I never forget the people and friends I’ve made. They have taken me to dinners, to get their traditional clothing, and to participate in prayer. What distinguishes Saudis from any other I’ve met (except maybe Brazilians, yes I’m biased and shamelessly admit it,) is their generosity and eagerness to teach foreigners what makes a Saudi. When I go to a public location, like the beach I visited in my second week or the park I went to a few weeks after, I am immediately invited to sit with a family.
They share their food and drinks, and we share our stories and experiences. We learn from each other, and I’m reminded why it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t been to the US in months. There’s always a new word, eating habit, or dressing custom to be learned.