Monday, February 18, 2008

A Good Time at Jeddah Airport

I generally don’t write about things such as airport layovers, but given how unpleasant they usually are, I thought I’d give a shout out to Jeddah Airport. It’s not the largest, and not the most luxurious, but they definitely earned the Gold Star.

Due to a mix-up regarding Dubai versus Abu Dhabi as the departure point for my flight to Sana'a, I missed by flight. I didn't even get that far, really, I didn't even get a ticket (which in this case is good, as I would never have made it to AD in time). I was on fire to see Sana'a though, and had a very limited time in which to do it, so I bought the next possible ticket, which took me through Jeddah. I was a bit worried, as Josef warned me that I would have to go through immigration to switch terminals, and I had no Saudi visa, but I called Emirates and they told me it would be fine. I was also a bit worried as I didn't have my abaya with me (an invitation for harassment or hostility in many cases, or at least a lot of unwelcome staring), or even a scarf for my hair, and I wasn't sure what Saudi immigration would make of a single woman, under 40 (their cut-off point for women traveling alone, at least as far as the foreign ministry is concerned. Anyone younger is still suspect), traveling alone, inappropriately dressed and without a visa.

Well, it turns out that Josef was right and Emirates was wrong, but in the end it didn't matter. Everyone was extremely nice and helpful. To get around the visa issue they provided a dedicated runway transport buses to take me across the runways, picking me up and dropping me off at gate entrances, thereby negating the need to go through immigration. The various staff were all helpful and friendly. Even if they did all ask to see my passport "for official reasons" just because they were curious. They directed me to my gate, sought plug adapters and were generally helpful and friendly. The one question I had the entire time was when I went through security. The man at the X-ray machine didn’t recognize my curling iron, and made me show it to him. He had a much better sense of humor than most TSA employees, joking that it was maybe “a funny bomb” (it was funny the way he said it) and being generally polite. Of course, I was the only person there unlike the TSA lines with hundreds of hurrying passengers, but still, there is no need to be as nasty as some of those people can get.

Technically, none of this was not allowed, but the official helping me went to his boss and asked him to sign that I was allowed to anyway. The director protested, saying that it was against regulations, my helper pushed him to "do it anyway," so he did. A weak rule of law can be a great hindrance in most cases, but in cases like this I appreciate the ability to circumvent obstructionist bureaucracy. I wasn’t trying to enter the country illegally and I wasn’t a threat, so it would have been a real shame if I were sent back to Dubai instead of Sana’a. Not to mention the Sana’a flight left earlier than the next Dubai flight, so if they really wanted to get rid of me, the fastest way would be to let me just continue on.

The airport is also undergoing some renovations including a new business class lounge (I was in the temporary one, which was quite fine with me, but the ticket desk worker and those in the lounge itself couldn’t stop apologizing for not being able to offer a more luxurious lounge), and more expansive plans may be in the works, but in general it was very nice to be there, as Jeddah Airport hasn’t changed much since I was there last, half my life ago. All of which made me a bit homesick and that much more dedicated to plan my next trip to Riyadh.

Thank You, Jeddah Airport!

PS The flight to Sana’a was less exciting – being the midnight flight the Saudis used it to deport illegal Yemeni workers they had caught and held for up to ten days. It wasn’t the Yemeni’s fault, as the Saudi jails in which they were held are not exactly paragons of hygiene, but they smelled really bad. I made friends with the Saudi woman sitting behind me who sprayed me with her perfume every 15 minutes for the duration of the flight, which was appreciated until I walked off the plane and saw Josef waiting for me on the runway with some of his colleagues and a car. I said soothing about wanting to enjoy the cool mountain air and rode back with the windows open – I didn’t want to knock everyone out with my super-strong perfume. It was actually really nice, but there is such thing as too much of a good thing, and I definitely reached that limit.

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