The “Where is baby?” incident with our Saudi transit visas cost us an hour on arrival. Finding the Hertz office at Riyadh Airport took nearly as long, no one seemed to know and signs for rental cars pointed in opposite directions. Eventually we realized Hertz was in the parking lot of a different terminal.
Hubris lead me to attempt to drive in Saudi Arabia despite all warnings to the contrary. Jetlagged from flying Shanghai-Tokyo-New York-Riyadh I attempted to follow my Google Maps printout to the Riyadh Marriott on the eastern side of downtown. 45 minutes later I was speeding west toward Mecca leaving Riyadh behind. You can always find a sign to Mecca or the airport, downtown is another matter. The road network is similar to other Gulf States with unforgiving distances between roundabouts. The planned forty-minute journey, with many frustrating steering wheel poundings and failed askings of directions, finally ended at the hotel in two and a quarter hours.
We slept until hunger roused us.
We could have eaten at the hotel. Expensive but easy. Nope, I had to have a local experience. I got another hour-plus of exasperating driving with missed turns, construction detours, near crashes, and at one point following another car in reverse down an expressway exit ramp. Perhaps I should invest in a GPS.
My wife’s patience at an end we found our restaurant, snugly out of business. We ate at the nearest open cafe in their family section. The young male waiter fawned on female customers. Even after just a few hours, seeing a group of Filipino women in the supermarket with abaya (required) but no headscarf (not required) was a bit startling. Only at relative coolness of night did we see people out and about, so the extreme difference of the culture was not felt so much as later in Jeddah.
“No more driving,” were her only words on the ride back.
I couldn’t leave without seeing something more than the rear end of other cars, so with sunrise I slipped out to the already blazing heat and headed for one of Saudi Arabia’s two UNESCO sites, At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah, home of the House of Saud. I was rested and getting hang of the roads, passing King Abdullah Financial District on the well-signed roads to the historic site. Nothing was happening at the visitor center except disinterested tea drinking, nothing was signed in English, and they clearly were not expecting tourists, so I am not quite sure what I saw, but I did see lots of buildings getting extensive restoration. More critically I found a gas station and filled up at US$0.12/liter. No wonder the guys back at Hertz shrugged when I pointed out they only gave me half a tank.
At 8:30 am on the return the city was already traffic-jammed. I thanked my lucky stars to be back in one piece to pick up my wife and we set out for the airport, finding only KFC open for early lunch, and did rushed drive-bys of the iconic Al-Faisaliah Tower and Kingdom Tower. Otherwise, and excepting the massive developments and universities out on the airport road, Riyadh is rather dumpy, ground to dull blandness by sun and sand.