Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Airport Farewell

It's 7a.m. The taxi pulls in beside the path and I take a deep breath to prepare for the chaos so common at the international terminal that makes up Riyadh airport.

Sweet wrappers litter the curb and men of South Asian extraction lie about on a number of boxes piled atop the pavement.  It occurs to me, in that fleeting half thought lost in the mists of time sort of way, that there aren't as many people or boxes as usual, perhaps because of the time of day.  I pay the driver and the men stare at the western woman exiting the taxi, then turn away when her husband jumps out of the car too and grabs the bags out of the boot.

I'm prepared to wave off the men in green who usually run up too close for my comfort, jabbering and pointing in the direction of my suitcase wanting to take it from me and wheel it into the terminal.  Their presence is only useful for people who are too pathetic to wheel their own luggage, or those who have packed their bags to over-bulging, overweight and can't lift them onto the scanner.  Today though, there are no Green Men and it starts to sink in, as I look up and down the terminal entrance exhaling a pent up breath, that the airport is unusually quiet this morning.

The doors to the terminal stand closed, uninviting, their frosted panes covered in tattered, aging stickers warning non-travelers to stay outside.  Another deep breath is consciously taken before heading through the doors that, for all their visual unpleasantness, slide quietly and smoothly open.

Inside I stop and look around in surprise.  The airport is empty.  No lines of worker expats waiting to be allowed to check in, their plastic wrapped or rope tied belongings piled high beside them.  No throngs of black abaya's clustered around white thobes.  I look at my husband who, still in his own 'Riyadh Airport Attack' mode, is striding over toward the baggage scanning.  I quick march to keep up.

I thought there would be hordes of illegal expats trying to get home - that's the impression all the newspaper reports have been giving of late. Perhaps the new extension to 'The Grace Period' has eased their panicked exit from the country.  Or perhaps the early days of Ramadan has kept everyone at home.

With so few people traveling, check-in is quick and easy before lining up in front of the customs booths.   An Indonesian maid is being handed her tickets by a bearded Saudi man and is directed to follow us in the queue.  Her Bearded Saudi then stands by one of the large silver pillars disappearing into the high terminal ceiling, watching as the line inches towards the customs desk and, every now and then, rearranging his headware.

I point him out to my husband.  Whispering in hushed, manly tones he tells me that Saudi Sponsors must make sure their charge leaves the country without any issues when on Final Exit, which requires personally delivering them to the airport and watching till they are gone.  A thin smile tugs at one corner of my mouth as I lose myself in imagining Saudi Sponsors as comic characters running to and from the airport to farewell the thousands of expats who have decided to leave recently.

 The line moves forcing me out of my own head and, once we have shuffled forward, I turn to take another look at  theBearded Saudi waiting patiently.  He doesn't look like the Saudi Sponsor in my imagination.  His demeanor is quiet, calm.  He makes me wonder when our Final Exit day will come and who will escort us.

Two more maids are soon ushered into the queue, their Saudi's not as as reserved as the first, making a rowdy show of handing over tickets and papers.  The newly arrived Saudi's then speak to one of the airport security men who are directing passengers, pointing out the two maids and obviously asking the guard to keep an eye on the women who are looking lost and overwhelmed from too much fuss and too many instructions in an unfamiliar place.

Then the Saudi's disappear. I search the near empty terminal to see where they have positioned themselves, like the first Saudi, but they are nowhere to be seen.  'Perhaps these women aren't on final exit', my husband responds to the question in my raised eyebrows.  Or perhaps the Saudi still standing by the terminal pillar takes his role more seriously than the showy two who are not seen again.

A conversation comes to mind between myself and a friend, a Muslim woman, who, on her husband accepting a job in what they believed to be the exalted home of Islam, was so excited.  Once they arrived, however, their excitement was replaced with a disappointed at the reality of the place.  People are people, I remember telling her.  Everywhere.  Including Saudi Arabia.  It didn't help her.  She remained disappointed and, hardly surprising, her husband soon found another job, in another country.

At the customs counter our visa's are checked and our passports stamped.  I load my hand luggage onto the second baggage scanner and walk through the thick curtains that hide the area for scanning ladies, where I'm wanded and directed out the other side.  My husband has his satchel over his shoulder and is waiting for me.  As I pick up my belongings, the  Indonesian maid who was behind us in the queue is loading her bags on to the scanner.  I look over toward the silver pillar.  Her Bearded Saudi has gone.

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