At the time, I was 24 years old, only one year out of university, and the most exotic place I had traveled to was London, England. So I was excited. This was, after all, the place that I had been 'selling' for the past year. To do that successfully I had sold the experience to myself first. Seeing it in person, would it live up to the ideal in my mind? Or would it disappoint?
After getting a Saudi visit visa — a colourful green sticker that took up a whole page in my passport — we flew to Saudi Arabia, via New York City, on Saudi Arabian Airlines.
After a 12-hour flight, we arrived in Jeddah. Walking through the airport was a bit surreal. The airport we had left was filled with people in all manner of dress, or more accurately (because it was in the middle of August) undress: short shorts, mini skirts, tank tops, and bikini tops. The completely modern Jeddah airport, on the other hand, was populated with men on pilgrimage wearing the all-white ihram, women covered head to toe in the abaya, and men wearing the traditional thobe (also spelled thawb) and ghutra.
My first impression of Saudi Arabia was that it was hot!! We were visiting at the height of the summer and the temperature was around 100F/40C or more. The other, and lasting, impression was how 'not different' it actually was. Certainly many of the people we met looked different, dressed different, and spoke a different language. But it really was not that different from home (Toronto, Canada) — the city was well-organized, the streets were filled with cars, there were air-conditioned malls and modern business buildings, I saw at least one set of Golden Arches, and the grocery stores had many familiar foods alongside the unfamiliar. The people we met seemed to fill their days like we do at home: they worked, cooked, shopped, and socialized — but they seemed to go out after work more than people at home.
Our next stop was Riyadh, which is the geographic center of the Kingdom. The city was busier and more energetic than laid- back Jeddah. Although our schedule in Riyadh was busy touring our client hospitals, we still had time to spend too much money shopping in the gold souks and rubbing elbows at a party at the Canadian embassy.
During my week-long visit to Saudi Arabia, I learned many things that I would never have learned from a book or from the internet. I learned that wearing the abaya is actually pretty comfortable (even in the blisteringly hot August weather); that wearing a head scarf means I don't have to worry too much about doing my hair; that sand boarding is much harder than it looks; that a sprinkle of lemon juice elevates mulligatawny soup to a whole new level; and that using a squat toilet is really not that bad.
My trip to Saudi Arabia didn't just teach me about Saudi Arabia, though; it literally opened up the world to me. It became the first of my many trips overseas and several long trips. In fact, since joining HZA in 1998 I have spent a total of about four years abroad, living and traveling in more than 20 countries, including: East Timor, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba. I sometimes wonder if, since I keep leaving HZA (I've left and returned three times!), my boss has mixed feelings about sending me on that first trip!
For many of our candidates, traveling to Saudi Arabia will be, like me, their first foray into the world … and for many, it certainly won't be their last.
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