You take off from Indira Ghandi International Airport with the destination of NYC. You’ve found this incredible deal for the flight, Delhi to NYC, for $530. The airline is Saudia Airlines, which recently just joined SkyTeam Alliance, meaning that’s got to be a decent airline at this point.
Leg one of the journey: Delhi to Riyadh. Quite surprised at how pleasant the trip is. Friendly and helpful service, big clean cabin, they even took my request as needing more legroom due to my knees. Foods decent enough for airplane food, they even have a veg option for those of us that don’t eat animals. So far so good.
Quick stopover in Riyadh to let some humans off and clean the cabin quickly and take off for Jeddah. I knew already I was going to have an 11 hour layover in Jeddah, so I was prepping myself for the whole airport forever task. Here comes the fun.
We land in Jeddah after another quick and easy 1 hour and 10 minute flight. Simple. Walk into the Jeddah airport, look for the transfer desk to figure out what gate I’ll be departing from, and you get this really odd looking face from a guy who just hands you this random piece of paper saying that you’re a transit passenger. No gate information, it’s dated March 30th, and it’s actually May 1st. Okay? He says to proceed upstairs. I do so, find myself going through a thick security detail (of course) and end up walking through a duty free area (no alcohol, of course, it’s Saudi Arabia), and once through the duty-free zone, a bunch of chairs,a large amount of faces covered women, and sheiks everywhere. Fair enough, it’s a Muslim country.
I walk around for a maximum of about two minutes to discover that the transfer/transit area is maybe the size of the tiniest wing at a normal airport (but smaller than that even), with 10 gates, all leading underground, as it’s all bus to plane here for international travel apparently (they’re in the process of building some ridiculous $40 billion dollar airport through the means of crazy corruption according to a guy I chatted with on the plane to NYC). There is three shops to buy things at. One coffee shop, one snacky sweet shop, and one fairly under-par ‘restauraunt’. Fair enough, if they have water, and something half-way decent to eat, I can deal for 11 or 12 hours.
Here’s the catch. I just flew in from India. I have very little cash left on me (on purpose), as it’s all in Rupees, and I don’t like getting ganked for exchanging currencies at airports. I plan these things accordingly for a reason! But here in this very small confined space there are NO currency exchanges, and NO ATM’s. I ask around about this and they all shove me off semi-rudely saying, ‘No this is a problem, they are all outside the passport control area, where you can’t go’. Specific quote: “This is your problem.”
Okay…so I start to ask what I can do about it, as I’m here for 12 hours and I need water and probably some food at some point. They wave me off, somewhat rudely (mind you these are security guards). I head back in thinking of course that one of these three shops will take credit cards, as it’s an airport. NOPE.
Great, so I have a 12 hour layover with no Riyals, no water, and no food. There are no comfortable places to sit, basically no power outlets for charging anywhere, no free Wifi, and I’m fairly at a loss at this point. It makes no sense! Don’t places like this WANT you to be spending money while you’re waiting around for 12 hours? Then why is there no ATM or currency exchange, or simply, why don’t they take credit cards?!??!? Mindnumbing.
Thank gods for the $100 bill I keep for crazy random circumstances like this. Apparently, I figure out, if you buy something at the duty-free shop with American Dollars, Euros, or British Pounds, you get Riyals back in change. Wow. This is the only option. If I wouldn’t have had this bill, I’d be in this chair filled room, with no water, no food, no nothing (let alone place to kind of rest or wander around LIKE EVERY OTHER AIRPORT IN THE WORLD – at least that I’ve been to), for 12 hours. Absolutely incredible. It’s like jail, but with AC and a place to pray – if you’re Muslim.
The first few hours just kind of drudgingly go by until I figure out you can purchase 30 minutes – 2 hours of Wifi from the ‘restaurant’ for about 15 Riyals, which is around $4. Ok, normally, I would never do this, but at this point I’m down for the charge, as I for whatever reason do not usually succeed to well at reading books or novels in airports. Success on one front. Next I see one of the guys from the plane handing over the same type of slip (that I got from the information booth guy as I stepped off the plane) to the restaurant, and they’re giving him food! I head over and ask about what’s going on, and apparently this slip is good for one ‘free meal’! Wow, exciting, and kind of amazing to me at this point in the whole experience. I hand over my slip and get back a tray with a tiny bottle of water, a huge bread bun, two strips of airport chicken, some rice, and an apple. Beggars definitely cannot be choosers, and as vegetarian as I am, I’m hungry, and down the hatch it goes!
I go over and purchase a coffee and finish my water, and life is slowly returning to my system. I find a decent table in the corner near one of the only power outlets I can find to huddle around for the next 8 hours. From then on it was the same sort of routine over and over again. Any backpacker or Westerner within a certain frame of mind would head to the restaurant from getting off the plane, see me, and start up the, “Did you know there’s no ATM or currency exchange or place to smoke or alcohol or…” conversation with me. The delirium has set in already and every single one of these interactions I have becomes excessively hilarious until I finally get asked about power outlets by this man that appears to be a fairly young and chilled out Indian!
Turns out he is (from Mumbai), and we end up having a brilliant chat about my last months in India, where he’s from, what he does (he works on shipping boats in the Mediterranean for nine months out of the year), what I do, and then has a load of tips for non-touristic spots to hit with the Enfield next time I’m in India. STOKE. Exactly what I needed. A little taste of India, and a little sliver of feeling like I’m not going back to the States. Perfect.
The next single-serving friends I run into happen to be a Canadian and a Columbian, coming off an excursion through the Philippines headed to Istanbul. Obviously the American (myself) and the Canadian have a fair amount to chat about, and Kelsey and I end up chatting and sharing some music while Edgar somehow takes a nap on the hard-as-a-rock bench chairs in one of the sections of the prison. This definitely passed a lovely chunk of the rest of the time, and before you know it, my plane is boarding.
Having been through a fair amount of airports in the world and the States at this point, I couldn’t have imagined anything like this existed. I later find out that Saudi Arabia has NO tourist visa! Absolutely incredible. They are so wealthy, that they literally don’t care about making money from tourism. The wealth is also at the top 4% of the people or something of the sort, with King Abdullah heading up that department worth around $18 billion (interesting side read on rich royals: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_richest_royals). Corruption is thick, and widespread. If you’re not Muslim or have invested business in the country, you’re basically not welcome. These types of circumstances just keep piling up. Rather unfortunate as well, as even though I want nothing to do with Islam, I have a fascination with world religions, and would love to see Mecca someday – not possible…unless I convert and have proof of it. As I’d say in India, “SANAKI!” (crazy).
Boarded my flight tired like I hadn’t been in a while, immediately passed out, and the journey back to the States continued…
Some further reading on the craziness of Saudi Arabia I found from trotting through Wiki articles after writing this:
Mecca, Saudi Arabia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mecca
With this fort: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajyad_Fortress
Built to protect the Kabba: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaaba
Destroyed to create: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraj_Al_Bait_Towers
Built by: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Binladin_Group
Who will eventually build: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_Tower