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Tour #1: 1987-1988





We all can relate to this situation. It is a cold and blustery winter night in mid March,  the wind is howling outside your window, and it is snowing.... again. The winter blues are peaking.  You long to see the sun again and feel its radiance and warmth. 

This sound familiar, have you been there? If you live in Canada, you know this feeling all too well. I was experiencing this feeling big time back in 1988 when I was living in Halifax. Maritime winters are particularly bad  as fog and dampness compliment already chilly winters, reaching into you very bone marrow. It was a 'dark and stormy night' in February when I opened the latest edition on the CSMLS magazine and checked the back pages for jobs. As always, the ad for living and working in Saudi Arabia was there, promising tax free pay, lots of vacation, free housing and most importantly, sand and sun. Sleet and icy rain were beating on my basement apartment window and the snow was piling up....again. On a whim, and in the mood to fight back against old man winter, I dug out my resume, made some quick modifications, wrote a quick cover letter, fumbled around for an envelope and completed the mailing address to the recruiting agency in Toronto.  As I did so, I laughed in the face of old man winter and trumped off to bed. As I deposited my package with Canada Post the next day, I quickly forgot about it, thinking that I had just wasted good money on postage instead of a much needed cup of Tim Horton's coffee. Little did I realize...

About a month later, I received a telephone call from so and so from the recruiting agency in Toronto, saying that they had my resume and they were interested in my application. It took me a few initial minutes to comprehend what was happening as the women droned on, blah, blah blah, 'are you interested in going to Riyadh to work..', blah, blah, blah. Is this really happening I thought to myself? Am I interested in really going, leaving home and family behind?

 '.....will be in Halifax next week if you want to meet with me for an interview..?' I had been watching the hockey game on CBC, what else do we Canadians watch on Saturday night, and and always, the Leafs were losing.

'Sure', I heard myself say, 'I would be happy to meet with you...'

And so, my first journey to Saudi Arabia began....

I haven't seen this much paper work since Income Tax time...

    The job interview was typical of previous ones I had been through. The usual questions were asked about experience, references, etc. I was given a written exam to fill out which had been prepared by the laboratory supervisor from the hospital in Riyadh which I had applied to. After I had completed this, I was given a brief over view of the Saudi laws and customs. Did I have any questions? None. I was a little over whelmed and still in an haze as to this whole situation. Go to live, work (and play) in Saudi Arabia?, was I out of my mind?

The interview concluded and I was told that I would hear back from the recruiter in Toronto in about two to three weeks if my application was accepted.   Then, about a month later, again, on a cold winter night, with the Leafs losing, I received the phone call informing me that my application had been accepted by the lab people in Riyadh. Did I still want to go? (As I was quickly pondering my answer, the Vancouver Canucks, the Canucks of all teams, were killing the Leafs and winning the game). That was it. 

'When do I leave'?

I received a huge packet in the mail a week later by Courier. Enclosed were thousands of forms to be filled out, medicals to be done, pictures to be taken, new passport to apply for, special Visa to get from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. (This was supplied by the recruiter). Forms, forms and more forms. Information on living and working in Saudi Arabia, customs, drug and alcohol laws. (Death to all drug traffickers screamed the title of one brochure). I completed these over two weeks and returned them to Toronto by courier. One month later, I received my passport with the special Visa in it from the Saudi Embassy, as well as the plane ticket, one way, Halifax-Boston-JFK-Jeddah-Riyadh. My journey was beginning. I went into the bathroom, looked under the cupboard for my bottle of sunscreen, wiped the dust off the label and checked the expiry date. It was out of date, and the sun screen was too low. it was an SP8, and the recruiter recommended at least 35-40. Wow, do they make it that high?

So, the whim that started out in late March, turned to reality in early fall as I boarded the plane in Halifax for Boston.

King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    Needless to say, it was a brutally long flight from Halifax to Riyadh, which included the stopovers, line-ups, waiting in airport lounges, etc. With the time difference and long flight, 2 days were spent  getting to Riyadh.  Any seasoned air travel can relate to long, hard flights, so enough said about this. We flew Saudi Arabia's national air carrier Saudia Airlines from JFK to Riyadh. This was an experience in itself as there was no alcohol served on the flight. Also, before we took off, a reading from the Holy Koran was played over the PA system, asking for Allah's blessing for a smooth and safe flight.  As an extra bonus, I didn't know it at the time but I was flying during the Haj season. Haj is the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must perform during their lifetime. Hence, there were many pilgrims on the flight wearing nothing but white sheets in a style the way the old Romans used to wear them in. We also learned that part of the cargo hold below held many lambs that would later be slaughtered as a sacrifice to Allah after the pilgrims complete their Haj. Definitely not your typical Air Canada flight from Halifax to Montreal.

King Khalid International Airport (KKIH) in Riyadh is the largest airport in the world with regards to overall size. It is in the middle of the desert with nothing around it for miles, except of course the city of Riyadh which is  about 20 minutes away. We landed at night, but as soon as we walked out of the plane and onto the on ramp, we could feel the heat.  It was still hot enough that we could feel the heat on the soles of our feet that radiated through our shoes from the ramp.  I can't remember the temperature when we landed, but it was in the middle to high 30's, Celsius. The airport is very modern with impressive architecture. There is a large central fountain bordered with flowers and other shrubbery. There are no little pubs in the airport to have a pint of the local favorite, because there is no local favorite. 

I entered the long line up to the customs window with a degree of apprehension, hoping my passport and Visa were in order. The line was huge and there were not many customs/passport windows open. Next to my long line up on the left were equally three long  lines of humanity. There were no Caucasian people in these lines. There was a cornucopia of people all wearing a variety of clothing and head gears, from ball caps to what appeared to be white sheeting or towels. And it appeared that these people, who had very meager suitcases and belongings, were bringing  everything they had with them to this new country. I looked at my large carry on bag and felt somewhat embarrassed. These people were looking hard at me, staring with very dark eyes and skin, with footwear that I would only wear at the beach. Some of them looked very tired, hungry, and scared.

Finally, after at least 30 minutes, I was next up to the passport/visa window. My stomach was flipping as I picked up my bag and walked to the window, with my passport in hand in a death grip. The man behind the desk was very skinny with a slight mustache and goatee, wearing the brown uniform and beret of the Passport control. I tried to be pleasant with my hello, but he didn't respond.  He looked at my passport photo, asked me to remove my cap to ensure that yes, I am the bald guy in the photo. He punched in numbers quickly and with a huge bang, stamped my passport. I was in! Not too bad I said to myself. I figured the worse was over, but the worse was yet to come.

Can we check your bags please?

After making my way through the passport window, then it was another 30 minutes waiting for my three huge suitcases to come through on the baggage line. Again, soft prayers were murmured as I hoped that all my bags would show up. Thankfully, they were all there. Then, it was on to the customs check and out into the city. This is a breeze I thought. The breeze soon turned to a tornado as I again tried to pick the shortest line possible at one of the three customs/baggage check outs. I picked a line and waited. I then watched in disbelief as the person three ahead of me put his one of four bags up on the customs table and watched as the Saudi customs agent opened up each suitcase, and proceeded to remove everything from it's contents and carefully check each item and stitch of clothing for who knows what. Who knows what I learned later included alcohol, drugs, pornography, religious items and books (anything non-Muslim would be confiscated), video tapes, any kind of magazine that depicted women in scantily clad clothing (which means about 90% of magazines purchased these days), and anything else that the customs agent felt was anti-Islamic. Immediately, I panicked as I had brought with me a small bible. While I was waiting, I was watching those poor souls who had been to my left in the passport line. They were having their belongings searched very thoroughly, in fact, one customs agent was removing the heel of a pair of shoes from one poor person. (Apparently, drugs had been brought into the country this way). There were some Filipinos in line who had their bibles taken away, loud shirts ripped up and thrown out, and some of their local food and sweets chucked as well. I again feared for the small bible I had brought.

After another agonizing 20 minute wait, it was my turn to have my suitcases checked. I loaded them up on the desk and opened all three. The man asked for my passport, and asked me to empty all my pockets as well. I was really sweating now as the people ahead of me did not have to do this. He looked at my pocket change over and gum wrappings, then he nodded at me to help him remove all of my stuff in the suitcases. He checked all my belongings, smelt my vitamins to make sure they were not illegal drugs, and my books and magazines. He ripped out some pages in the magazines that showed liquor advertisements, and with a black felt pen, wiped out  pictures of women that showed bare arms, legs and mid-sections. I stood in disbelief as he did this with no reluctance, in fact, there was a hint of a smile on his face, whistling almost. He came across my bible. He looked at me, could see I was terrified, smiled, and threw the bible back in my suitcase. He put little stickers on my suitcase and pushed them aside.  I was to re-pack the chaos he had reeked, as he was already motioning for his next victim to approach. While I was hurriedly packing, just throwing stuff in there as quick as possible so as to get out of this madness ASAP, I could see small rooms across the hall where Saudi customs officials were viewing video tapes that people had brought in. Some were being held or thrown out. Those that were held would be viewed in detail more thoroughly and their owners could come back to the airport in three days to pick up their tapes. Yeah, right.

Finally, I was through the the line ups and walked through the frosted glass doors and into the airport proper. Again a mass of humanity and confusion as company drivers were looking for new employees, locals had turned up to meet family, and just plain old ordinary people were hanging out at the airport. I frantically looked for the hospital representative  who was supposed to be there to pick me up, along with tree other new people. He was there in the back, holding up the sign. He was smiling and saying welcome, welcome, how are you, welcome. We looked and smelled like hell, but we were thankful to see this guy. Outside into the night heat, there was a smell of dryness and excitement as there were cars and vans everywhere. Orange twinkling street lights were dotted all around like stars in the night sky as there was  mass confusion surrounding us. Hungry taxi drivers hounded us for a fare. We followed our hospital guide to the courtesy van that would take us to....

The King Fahad National Guard Hospital

    The National Guard Hospital is located on the outskirts of Riyadh, near the famous soccer 'tent' stadium, not far from the airport. Consequently, we did not have to endure the torture of driving through downtown Riyadh on the weekend.  After a short drive, we drove through the security gates of the hospital, drove past the main hospital building and onto the housing complexes. The married and single female housing were located in the same area, these people were unloaded first. Then, we drove past a large barren field to the single male housing. We stopped in front of my new villa, unloaded my stuff, opened the door and walked in. After one  hehelluva a trip, we had made it. 

    Most of the single male villa's were new, and mine was one of these. It was a large three bedroom villa with a large flat roof that would be later used for catching serious rays, looking at stars in the always clear night skies, and drinking home made beer and wine. The furniture still had plastic on them. Since I was first in the villa, I was lucky to have the large master bedroom and enjoy the place all to myself for some time. It was time to crash out.

    We were to attend hospital orientation the next morning. The hospital bus picked us up and dropped us off. After two days of orientation, we were taken to our respective departments. 

    My first impression of the laboratory was not all that great. They had some modern equipment, some were old and out dated, and even worse, there were no computers!

    I quickly entered the lab routine, and made friends easily. It was a very good, close multi-national group of people.

Getting my first pay check was a real experience as well. Back in the late 1980's, the banking facilities were still far behind what we were used to at home. As well, there were no ATM machines at the time. We received our paper pay checks and were told that we could cash them at the bank which was located on the hospital compound. Of course, when I went there, half the hospital was there.  I got in line and waited, and waited, and waited.... it was getting very close to the noon prayer time, at which everything shuts down for at least 30 minutes. I had already been waiting almost an hour. With five minutes to go until prayer time, there were still 2 people ahead of me.  I just might make it.... 

    The call to prayer sounded just as the person ahead of me received his stack of money. I rushed up to the window with my check. The guy behind the window was just as fast putting up his sign 'Closed for Prayer'. I looked at him with a pleading look, but to no avail, he was off to ablution and to prayer. Everyone had to exit the bank during prayer call, so I had to maintain my position in line by standing right in front of the door. About 45 minutes later, the bank doors were re-opened and I was still first in line. I was up to the window with my check. The guy behind the window was sipping tea out of a tiny glass cup, looking at me, savoring every last drop of his brew. (must have been Red Rose tea, good to the last drop). Finally, he took my check and proceeded  to give me 6 big bundles of 50 SR notes. They had run out of bigger bills, so here I am stuck with these bundles of fifties. I asked about traveler's checks. 

'Come back tomorrow, fill out this form and this form and this form, get this form signed by him, then that guy over there, then onto the bank manger, inshalla.'

Needless to say, it took a couple of paychecks to figure out the system, who to go to and who to smooze, but incredibly, despite the archaic, slow process, things did eventually get  done. This was where I first learned to develop my patience in Riyadh.

While working at the National Guard Hospital, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research. This turned out to be a very impressive institution, and the laboratory was same. Much more equipment, computerized, a larger volume of work, and most important, a better salary. I thought to myself that this was the place where I should have come in the first place. Little did I know that I would end up at KFSH&RC about two years later.

The National Guard Hospital provided nightly shopping buses to downtown Riyadh to the modern shopping malls, or another bus to take you shopping to Batha, the older part of Riyadh. There were better bargains there, despite it seedy nature, this was another experience never to be forgotten.  The shopping malls in Riyadh rival any modern mall here at home, they are quite impressive. 

Batha is like going to a huge flea market, with little shops and big shops, and where you learn to barter for the price of things you want to buy. The shop keepers like to take advantage of the western shoppers by immediately doubling the price when you inquire as to how much something costs. After getting burned a couple of times, we quickly learned to barter, and it was quite fun and interesting as well. Batha is one mass of humanity, with thousands of people living, working and shopping there. It is not that clean either, so wear old jeans and a T-shirt. There is a mixture of aromas that tantalize your nose in Batha, it begins with the fumes of the old buses and cars that drive down there, along with the smell of food cooking, the dry heat, and the acridness of people who bath weekly if that much at all. It is quite a place where you can pick up some beautiful 22 carat gold, nice carpets, brass, spices, etc. It is a good idea to go with a friend, and be careful around prayer time as the religious police like to frequent Batha.

For personal reasons, I left after completing 6 months of my 1 year contract. Looking back, I wish that I had stayed and completed my 1 year contract. Hind sight is always 20-20. But, it was a six months that paved the way for me to return to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. I would  work almost 10 years there in two tours, meet my wife and have our two boys born there:  basically, change my life forever. It was great.

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    Petra, Jordan




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Copyright 2001 Mario J. Hemens
Last modified: September 02, 2001