I very nearly missed my flight from Heathrow, and screeched up to the gate, having done a dramatic Hollywood-style run through the airport (but without any annoying kids in tow), just as it was about to close. Lessons I learned from this: 1) check your handbag really carefully for liquids. Forgetting a small, nearly-empty bottle of moisturiser holds you up quite a lot when there are so many people waiting to have their bags searched. 2) Kindles count as large electrical items and have to be scanned separately (although this has never been a problem when I've flown with my Kindle before). 3) My eyes aren't as good as I thought, and it took me several minutes to realise that my flight was closing, rather than still saying "gate opens at xyz". My bag at this point was still 4th from the front of the queue and they were being pretty slow about searching them, so I had to ask for help. Which, luckily, was provided, although I was told off a bit for being forgetful.
On the plane I ended up sitting next to a Saudi girl called Iman, on her way home for the summer. She's an undergrad in bio-medical sciences at the University of Sussex and speaks fluent English, having studied in England since she was 16. We chatted quite a bit, and then both slept, although I think not for very long. We were woken shortly after 2am (UK time - 4am Saudi time) by the cabin lights coming on and an announcement that we were landing in half an hour. I looked out of the window and commented on how strange the moon looked, then realised several minutes later that it was actually the light on the tip of the wing. As we got close to the ground, I kept thinking I could see snow, because last time I landed in the dark I was in Moscow in December, but of course this was actually sand. Looks quite similar from a plane, at night…
Passport control was quick and painless for most people, but I had to have scans taken of all my finger- and thumbprints, twice because the machine was misbehaving, or I was putting my fingers on wrong, or something. I was less than 5 minutes at the desk, but was last to leave the area despite having been one of the first to arrive there, because everyone else was miraculously faster. I think because it was the first time I'd ever arrived at Saudi border control. Once I was through that and I was just about to walk up to the baggage carousel, a young man in a green uniform stopped me and demanded my passport. I showed it to him, but then he wouldn't give it back, despite waving everyone else on through. I tried pretty hard to get an explanation, as I'd already been through immigration and no one else's passport appeared to have been confiscated, but he just smiled and smiled and said "please, no worry, take luggage, sit, wait, passport." I asked him why many times, but failed to get a satisfactory response, so my 3am brain thought, "oh well, it's only my passport," and walked off to collect my baggage. Which took a long time, but did eventually arrive, and I dug out and donned my abaya, but didn't bother with the hijab as Iman said there was really no need in Riyadh. The man in the green uniform appeared behind me and returned my passport to me, still with no explanation, no extra stamps, no pages torn out, I have no idea what it was all about, and neither did Iman, whose luggage was also being slow. Customs consisted of putting all our bags through an x-ray, and my big suitcase was put through twice but thankfully not searched (thankfully in reference to it being 5am rather than the contents of my suitcase). Osama was waiting outside with a piece of paper with my name on it, and as there were only 3 people waiting by this stage I saw him straight away. Iman gave me a hug goodbye, and I now wish I'd asked for her email address or something.
Osama is about 40 (I worked this out because he told me he was around 12 when he visited England 2 or 3 times on summer camps, and during one of them, Charles and Diana got married), speaks reasonable but slow English, and friendly and funny. He drove me to the hotel via a supermarket to get some water and juice (it was a Panda supermarket, for anyone who has seen those "don't say no to Panda" adverts) and I managed my first foray into Saudi currency without getting flustered at all. No idea how much I actually paid though. Haven't even nearly got my head around the exchange rate and I'd believe you if you said I'd just paid the equivalent of £10 for a litre and a half of water and 300ml of guava juice. On down the famous road whose name I've forgotten which has the tall buildings on it, including the one that looks like a bottle opener, which I find quite funny, and to the hotel, which is nothing amazing, but it's clean enough and I've just had 8 hours' sleep (it's now 3pm local time). Osama said he'd come to pick me up around 4 or 5, no idea what for but I hope it'll involve food as I haven't eaten since dinner on the plane and I'm starting to get a little peckish. Apparently another teacher is arriving tomorrow, but I didn't manage to find out any more than that - male/female, where they're coming from, no idea. And Osama doesn't know if they're planning to send me to AlJouf or not. From here on, everything is a huge mystery to me. As long as I keep drinking lots of water, I'll be fine (it's pretty warm here - it was 29C when we stepped off the plane at 5am). I don't quite dare open the curtains in my room - partly because when I peeked out I could feel the heat coming through from the sun, and partly because I'm on the ground floor and I remember the troubles in Libya with neighbours being unhappy that they could see in to such a private space as our sitting room. Apparently tomorrow they're moving me to a different room though, and that might be on a higher floor.
It's now nearly 7pm, and I'm hopefully about to get internet. Osama picked me up shortly before 4 and took me to a photo shop to get 16 passport photos, which took ages, and then to the clinic for my medical test. First up I had a blood sample taken, then was given 2 little pots and sent off to the bathroom for a urine sample and a stool sample. Then I needed a chest x-ray. A little old man gave me a giant pink gown, told me to swap it for my abaya, take off all my jewellery and my bra, and open the door when I was ready. I opened the door when I was ready, and he was just setting up the x-ray when I remembered I'd forgotten to take off my bra. I've never before had to tell an elderly gentleman that I'd forgotten to take off my bra, but the x-ray (first I've ever had) was fine as far as I know, and apparently I should have the result of all my tests pretty soon. Back to the hotel to pick up an American guy who works for the company, and we went to a restaurant (one of the few which has "family rooms, apparently" to eat kapsa - chicken and rice. One of the Great Saudi Dishes, apparently, and admittedly very tasty, but also very messy; you all eat off the same big plate in the middle, with your hand. The American guy, whose name I am apparently forbidden to mention because he's not supposed to be in Riyadh, told me all sorts of hilarious and terrifying stories about foreigners in Saudi, and mostly foreigners in AlJouf, where he spent a year and where I'm hoping to go after a few days here.
Osama reckons I'm almost certainly going to AlJouf, but doesn't yet know when ("as soon as they find you work") - Mr Nobody reckons I'll be in Riyadh for about a week before I go. I wonder what I'll do for a week in Riyadh.