So, we are here. And it was nuts. And this is the journey post, because that journey certainly warranted a post of its own.
Mr. Mostafa, Lavender, Andy and I arrived at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh at around 9:30 p.m., and our flight was scheduled to leave around 1 a.m. As we drove to the airport, we mused that it might be ridiculous that we were going to the airport so early, but as it turned out, it was a good thing we did.
There are multiple international terminals at the Riyadh airport. There’s one that’s just for the Saudi airline’s international flights, and there’s one for…well, all of the other airlines’ international flights. We prefer to fly the Saudi airline when we can, as they are the only airline that offers nonstop flights from Riyadh to the U.S. But Lufthansa is the only airline that can get us from Riyadh to the States (although not nonstop) while allowing us to have Andy in the cabin with us. So most often, Lufthansa it is.
Catching a flight in the Riyadh international terminal is…an experience. The ticketing counters always seem to be a madhouse. Huge crowds of people gather near the entrances, lugging huge boxes and suitcases smothered in plastic wrap toward the baggage check areas.
One way that this terminal differs from others that I’ve been in is that one must now pass a cursory security checkpoint in order to get to the ticket counters. That’s right, you have to go through security to check in, and then go through security again (along with customs) to get to your gate.
This is fairly new; I didn’t have to go through two security checkpoints when I went home to the States last year around this time. I didn’t mind it, until the screeners at the ticket counter checkpoint were baffled by what to do with Andy. At first they tried to tell us to put him through the X-ray machine, along with his carrying bag.
I put my foot down and insisted that the bag could go through the machine, but the dog would have to be taken out and carried through the metal detector.
They allowed that. But then they would not allow us to approach the ticket counter while the dog was with us (which left me wondering why they let Andy go through the security checkpoint in the first place, but hey, not everything makes sense all of the time). The security guards pulled up a rolling office chair and offered to let me sit there with them while Mr. Mostafa went to check in the luggage and get our boarding passes.
So I did. At first, Lavender was sleeping in her stroller and Andy was in his travel bag at my feet, with his head sticking out of the opening. As we sat there and Mr. Mostafa waited in the check-in line, people started to crowd around us, because of Andy. And here is where I have to say that wow, Andy is such a good dog. He never barked, growled, or snapped at anyone (and this was before we gave him his tiny relaxing pill to help him sleep on the planes). He just looked right back at the people, while occasionally looking up at me imploringly as if to say, “Okay, come on, pet me. I deserve that.”
Now, I’m no stranger to being stared at, especially in Saudi Arabia. It happens so often that when Mr. Mostafa and I discussed me wearing hijab in Missouri, he said that while he was obviously fine with me dressing modestly (or however else I choose, but I’ve always been a pretty modest dresser, even before I became Muslim), he preferred that I didn’t cover my head because he didn’t want to spend our entire time in the Ozarks being frustrated by all the gawking that a hijabi would inevitably draw in southern Missouri. He didn’t want to waste time being angry about the staring, the way he sometimes does in Riyadh (we never go out without him saying at least once, “Why can’t people keep their eyes to themselves? Why are we so interesting to look at? So rude!” I don’t really notice it anymore, but it still bothers him when people stare at us, especially now that we have Lavender). (I could write a lot more here about my hijab decisions, especially as they relate to my visits to Missouri, but I won’t right now, because I could go on for ages. But perhaps I’ll tackle that topic in the future.)
But because of Andy, I moved into a whole new level of being stared at. As I already mentioned, Lavender, Andy and I were parked right next to the ticket counter security checkpoint, so it was impossible for anyone checking in to a flight to avoid walking past us.
And boy, did they gawk…especially after Lavender started fussing, and I took her out of the stroller and put our carry-on luggage in it, with Andy perched on top of the other bags, his head sticking out of the opening in his travel bag so he could observe the chaos around him (and receive treats from me, of course).
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before somewhere at some point (I’m sure), dogs are not particularly welcome as pets in Saudi Arabia (and other Islamic countries)–at least, not as indoor pets that get preventative healthcare and organic doggie treats and toys designed by Martha Stewart. Many Muslims, especially in the Middle East (I would venture a guess that “most” is actually an appropriate word here), regard dogs as dirty and try to avoid them when possible. As a result of being raised to believe this and thus never really interacting with dogs while growing up, I think that a large segment of the population is actually afraid of dogs. This is how my husband described how he regarded dogs before he met me. “I said I didn’t like them because they were dirty…and that was kind of true, but mostly it was because I was scared of them. I’d never really been around dogs before.”
Furthermore, the fact that there are hadith that allude to the idea that dogs can see jinn and other scary things in the dark doesn’t help their case in the Islamic world. Once, early in our relationship, Mr. Mostafa told me this, that it was bad to have dogs in the house because when a dog barks at night it is because it can see things in the dark that humans cannot. I replied, “In that case, I’m really glad I have dogs! The hadith don’t say anything about the dogs bringing the scary things into the house, only that they see them when we can’t. Aren’t you glad to have something in the house that can see those things and maybe scare them off, or protect you from them, or at the very least bark loud enough to maybe let your neighbors know that your soul is being sucked out of you by a demon in your house that has had just about enough of you binge watching TLC reality programming?” He said, “Huh. I never thought about it that way.” In addition, one of the generally accepted roles of a dog in the Middle East is as an outdoor guard dog, so it stands to reason that lots of people from that part of the world associate dogs with fear and danger.
As a result of all this cultural conditioning…well, I might as well have been harboring a tiger snake in the stroller. People shot disgusted looks at us as they walked by. Sometimes they would smile at the baby on my lap, and then recoil in horror once they realized that a dog had taken her place in the stroller. Children would stop and look, fascinated, while their parents clung to them and pulled them back away from the stroller, as though the notoriously wild Yorkshire Terrier could strike at any moment. Small crowds would gather around us and then dissipate as they observed that all the dog was going to do was sit patiently in his bag and look right back at them. We were a sideshow, and it was irritating to Mr. Mostafa, who could only watch helplessly from his place in the line as he waited to check in our luggage and get our boarding passes.
The sideshow was prolonged by the fact that the Lufthansa systems were down in the Riyadh airport, so the lines got longer and longer as everyone waited for the computers to come back online. Finally, the Lufthansa staff decided to get the lines moving in any way they possibly could, so they started serving customers by hand-writing boarding passes and luggage tags.
As you can imagine, this took forever. This also meant that the only boarding passes we could obtain were for the first flight of our journey (out of three).
But finally, we were free to leave the ticket counter area and go through security and customs to get to our gate. Once again, we had to insist that no, the dog could not go through the X-ray machine. I carried Lavender through the women’s section of the security checkpoint, while Mr. Mostafa carried Andy through the men’s section. Finally, we met up on the other side, but then the security guards informed us that additional paperwork was necessary to process Andy’s exit from the country (as far as the airport goes, it was much more difficult leaving the country with Andy than it was bringing him into the country!).
So I stood and watched as the security guards led Mr. Mostafa off into a side room. “Take care of him!” I called dramatically as he walked away with Andy in his arms. What can I say? I envisioned the guards roughly cavity searching Andy (and maybe Mr. Mostafa, too) to make sure we weren’t attempting to smuggle drugs out of the country. My concerns heightened as the minutes ticked by and they didn’t return…and as I remembered the tiny bottle of white pills in Andy’s travel bag, his relaxing medication that helps him sleep while we travel. I had a flashback of the day before, when we had packed Andy’s bag and I had noticed that some of the pills, which had already all been cut up into quarters (because that’s the largest dose that is appropriate for a dog his size) had disintegrated into a fine white powder. We had decided not to dump out the powder because we figured that if we ever ran out of actual pill chunks, we could mix a tiny bit of the powder into a treat or something as we needed it. But as I waited for Andy and Mr. Mostafa to emerge from that little room, all I could think was, “They’re going to find that powder and think it’s something bad and oh my God I’m never going to see either one of them again and I’m going to be locked up in a women’s prison where the inmates will rely on me to teach them the correct pronunciation of lyrics to Madonna songs like in that Bridget Jones movie even though I don’t know that much about Madonna. Lavender will have to stay with me, of course. Surely the prison guards will understand if I frame the situation in Madonna terms, right? I’ve made up my mind; I’m keeping my baby!”
But finally, they did come back. Mr. Mostafa, of course, looked irritated.
“What happened in there?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he said. “Some paperwork. Then the printer wouldn’t work, so we just sat there for awhile. One of the guards gave me an Islamic lecture about how dogs are haram. I wanted to ask him why he was working at the airport if he was such an expert on Islam, but I just wanted to get the hell out of there, so I just listened. But seriously, who does he think he is? It’s none of his business! Just let me go to my flight!”
Of course, we did finally make it to our flight. (Side note: the new duty-free shop in the international terminal is finally done, and it looks really nice! I was shocked to see it completed–it’s been in the works for years, and has always been a major eyesore every other time I’ve been in the terminal.) Once we found our seats, we loaded what carry-on luggage we could into the overhead bins, then settled in for our flight. A flight attendant came by and gave us a small Lufthansa-branded toy for Lavender; it was a little rattle attached to a wristband. Lavender obligingly played with it for a few minutes before conking out on my lap. Pretty soon the plane was in the air, on the way to Frankfurt, and Lavender was officially on her first airplane ride. I was excited for her.
My excitement was tempered when about ten minutes into the flight, Mr. Mostafa touched the top of his head and said, “Honey, something is dripping on me.”
I said, “Oh, that happens sometimes…you know, the condensation from the air conditioners. It’s happened to me before. No big deal.”
A few minutes later, he said, “Honey, I am really getting dripped on–are you sure this is normal? I’m going to call a flight attendant.” Then his eyes got wide, and he jumped up and opened the overhead bin.
As he did this, I too realized what was happening. Before we departed Riyadh, we had decided that it would be a good idea to have a couple of bottles of milk on hand during the trip, just in case . So I pumped, and I saved the milk in bottles, and we packed the bottles in my super cute Hello Kitty lunch bag, along with a couple of ice packs, and we brought the lunch bag with us on the plane and stored it in the overhead bin.
I’m sure you can see where this is going, right?
Mr. Mostafa yanked the Hello Kitty lunch bag out of the overhead bin and hurried off to the restroom. I waited nervously for him to return. Eventually, he came back with the lunch bag and some paper towels. He used the towels to wipe the inside of the overhead bin. Then he replaced the lunch bag, went back to the bathroom to throw the paper towels away, came back, sat down in his seat, and tried to look innocent.
“The milk?” I said.
“All gone. Dumped it all out. Was leaking all over,” he said, in a shorthand sort of speech that suggested we needed to keep this situation as top secret as possible. I didn’t disagree.
“In the bin?” I asked.
“I think I got it all. I hope I did, anyway.”
When we landed in Frankfurt, we waited for the other passengers to leave before we attempted to gather up everyone and everything and deplane. As another passenger came forward and took his rolling suitcase out of the overhead bin that had been the site of the Great Lufthansa Breastmilk Spill of 2013, Mr. Mostafa and I both gnawed at our fingernails as we watched and hoped that the man’s luggage had been unaffected. He didn’t seem to notice anything, nor could we see any spots on his suitcase that would indicate that the milk had reached it. We breathed sighs of relief.
As we left the plane, I noticed a rack of postcards on the bulkhead in the business class section. I snitched a postcard that displayed a pretty picture of a Lufthansa airplane. I’m pretty sure they were intended for the business class passengers, but at least two flight attendants watched me do it and didn’t say a word, so I guess it was okay.
And thus, Lavender’s first airplane ride concluded in Frankfurt, Germany.
Okay, so, remember how we had to get handwritten boarding passes in Riyadh because the Lufthansa computers were down in the Riyadh airport? Once we landed in Frankfurt, we had to acquire boarding passes for our two remaining flights. We headed to the Lufthansa service desk to try to get this problem fixed.
But first, we had to go through security. Again.
Have you ever seen Up in the Air? Brilliant movie. Do you remember this scene?
Combine the stroller family and the “randomly selected for extra screening” guys and throw in a dog, and that’s what we were. I held Lavender and walked through the metal detector while Mr. Mostafa held Andy and did the same thing. I got through the screening with no problem, but right after Mr. Mostafa cleared the metal detector, the guards indicated that he should stop and wait.
Two male security guards circled him, checking out him and Andy. They laughed. Then they walked off, toward me, although not paying attention to me. I don’t speak German–unless you count the lyrics to an Elvis song called “Wooden Heart”–so this is what I heard:
Guard 1: Something something something Auschwitz.
Guard 2: Something something something something Auschwitz!
Now, like I said, I don’t speak German…like, at all. But I distinctly heard the word “Auschwitz.” Twice. Could those guards really have made an Auschwitz joke?? Does “Auschwitz” have some other meaning in German that I’m not aware of? And why were they joking about Auschwitz as they walked away from my husband and my dog??
Too. Many. Questions.
Another guard waved Mr. Mostafa on, and as he approached me, I asked, “What did those guys say to you?”
He replied, “I have no clue. They were speaking German. I could tell they were talking about how fat Andy is, though. I heard the word ‘chubby’, I think!”
Once we finally cleared security, had the stroller reassembled and all of our carry-on luggage sitting in/attached to/hanging from it, with Andy perched on the top of the pile in his traveling bag with his head sticking out, we hustled to our next gate.
Although the Frankfurt airport is huge–huge, I tell you! Or maybe it just seems that way when you’re hurrying to catch a flight–rushing through it was hassling, but much more enjoyable than going through the Riyadh airport, because no one seemed disgusted or terrified by Andy. Rather, everyone found him adorable. And of course, everyone found Lavender adorable, too. And the cherry on the cake of cuteness was the fact that Andy was riding in the stroller instead of Lavender.
Once we got to the Lufthansa service desk in the terminal, we got in line to speak to the customer service rep, who was being berated by another passenger because she couldn’t change his seat assignment to give him a window seat. She was on the verge of tears as the man demanded to speak to her manager, who wasn’t there (after all, it was a Sunday, and it was early in the morning). Finally she said helplessly, “Sir, what do you want me to do?” He finally flounced away in a huff, and then it was our turn.
The poor distraught customer service rep directed us to our gate, saying that we had to get our boarding passes from the gate agent. When we got there, the plane was already boarding and there was a massive line to speak to the gate agent. It seemed that everybody wanted seat changes, even though they kept announcing that the plane was totally full. Why do people think they can get their seats changed when the plane is full? It irritated me because although a seat change would have been nice, all we wanted were our freaking boarding passes.
Finally, we got on the plane, and Lavender conked out in my lap. Here is where I have to say that Lavender was an extremely mellow traveler. She slept most of the time, and the one time she did get a bit fussy was when the plane was descending in Chicago–I assume it was because of the change in pressure and her ears were bothering her. I popped a pacifier in her mouth and she was just fine.
But part of the reason that Lavender’s traveling experience went so smoothly was because a very nice lady was sitting next to me on the Frankfurt-Chicago flight. Our seats were in the middle of the plane. Mr. Mostafa was on my left, and the lady was on my right. Throughout most of the flight, Lavender was asleep on my lap, and Lavender’s feet spilled over my right armrest into that lady’s space. But she never complained or asked me to move Lavender’s feet. Toward the end of the flight, I apologized to her for the intrusion into her space, and she said, “It’s okay. She’s really cute, and she’s a very good baby.”
Later on, as we left the plane, I heard her talking to another passenger, and she mentioned that she is a writer of fiction novels who had just come back from India (I think it was India…), where she had been promoting her newest book. So writer of fiction novels whose name I never got, thank you for being so good-natured about having baby feet in your lap for the duration of a nine-hour flight. I wish I had talked to you more so I could read your book(s)!
Anyway, once we got to Chicago, we got to go through the customs line together. I was worried that Lavender and I would have to go through the citizens’ line while Mr. Mostafa went through the visitors’ line. But we were allowed to stay together, and I was grateful. Once we cleared the passport check, we went to pick up our luggage for the customs inspection…which is how we discovered that one of our bags hadn’t left Frankfurt with us.
We were tired and cranky, none more than Mr. Mostafa, whose bag had been left behind. But the gate agents assured us that the bag was already on its way to Chicago on the next flight, and that it would catch up to us in St. Louis about an hour after we landed there, so we headed off to find the gate for the last leg of our journey.
Our last flight, from Chicago to St. Louis, was only about 45 minutes long. When we landed, and made our way out to meet my mom and my friend Annie, who had come to collect us, it was evident that the presence of Mr. Mostafa and me was no longer the highlight of our visit–Lavender was the star of the show, of course. My mom scooped her up and wouldn’t put her down until we had to put her in her car seat.
The bag arrived three hours later, not one as had been promised, but it was okay. We were tired but happy to be home in Missouri.
And thus began this year’s time in the Show-Me State.