So…you’ve just left everyone you know and everything you own behind. You’ve been on a plane for 13 straight hours. You’ve just landed in a place called Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The only 3 people you know in this country are still a two-hour car ride away.
You’ve been told a driver will be there to pick you up. Your whole world is spinning as everything is so different than what you’re used to. The sights, the smells, the dress, the language. Thoughts like, “What the hell am I doing here?”, and, “Is it too late to get out of this?” start sneaking into your brain.
It’s at this point that you spot a man, dressed in a thobe, holding a sign with your name on it. You read the name on the sign again, just to make you’re not confused. Of course, how many other André Roy’s can there be in Saudi Arabia? I walk up to the man and identify myself. The man gives you the biggest smile ever, says, “Hello Mr. Andy!”, shakes your hand and then hugs and kisses you on both cheeks. I actually remember looking around me, a bit out of embarrassment and a bit out of shock. “I am Saleh!”, said the man and took my luggage and started walking away with trotting behind trying to keep up. Welcome to Saudi Arabia!
Every now and then he would look back at me, smile and say, “Mr. Andy”. I’d smile back and have absolutely no idea what to say. It was when we got to the airport doors and walked outside that I realized I was no longer in Canada. It felt like someone had thrown a blanket soaked in boiling water on me. My little fat body would have reacted had it known what to do. Holy crap was it hot! My sweat was sweating!! How was I going to survive in the repressive heat?
At some point while my body was losing liters of sweat, I must have stopped walking. I heard Saleh, from a distance, say, “Mr. Andy”. I snapped back to reality, stepped out of the pool of sweat I was standing in and caught up to him.
When we reached the car and I got in, leaving the hellish sun for the comfort of shade, I remember thinking, “How do you say ‘air conditioning’ in Arabic?” I needed have worried. As soon as Saleh starting the car, he began adjusting the A/C and moving the vents around so I was in the ‘sweet spot’ of the cool stream of air. He handed me some tissues to wipe off my face and gave me a nice cool bottle of water. “This guy’s alright”, I remember thinking.
We were on our way. After a few more smiles followed by some “Mr. Andy’s”, I started wondering how we were ever going to communicate. I was dead tired after the long flight but didn’t want to fall asleep as I thought that would be rude. Again, I needed have worried. I was about to discover ‘Saudi Driving’!
The traffic was five cars abreast. Not a big deal unless you consider there were only TWO LANES!! There were cars passing us on both shoulders AND in the ditch!!! I would glance over to Saleh to see his reaction, but he was a calm as could be. Cars would be honking their horns, flying past us at speeds that were frightening, cutting in and out with absolutely no concern for other drivers. I was doing my best to maintain a calm appearance. Of course, it didn’t help when I would see Saleh driving at 120KMs while holding his cell phone and drinking some water while steering with his knee.
Then we finally got out of the airport parking lot. OK, that’s not true but Saudis are crazy drivers!!
I think Saleh must have sensed my complete terror so he started chatting with me. I had no clue what he was saying but he was chatting away. Somehow, at some point, we started teaching each other the words for various body parts. Head, arms, legs, feet, fingers, etc. We were laughing at both of our awkward pronunciations but we were having the best time. Unfortunately, I cannot remember any of the Arabic body part words. It turns out that ‘body parts’ don’t come up too often in general Arabic conversation.
Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Taif campus. I couldn’t believe how much fun I had just had while in car for two hours with a complete stranger who didn’t speak my language. It seemed impossible that two people could laugh so much and feel like good friends under these conditions.
But that is the ‘magic’ that Saleh has. You are never a stranger and he will never let you feel like you are alone or an outsider. Saleh has driven me around to many places over the 15 months that I have been in Saudi Arabia. Each time was a laugh and joyous event. On trips back to Jeddah for the airport or meetings, he would always pull over and buy some water or coffee and snacks. He would never accept any money. Sometimes, he would be driving me and prayer time would come up. He would pull up to a mosque and ask if it was ok for him to pray. I was tempted once or twice to say no just to see his reaction!
Now, I’ve explained the Saleh was OUR driver. He was there for US. The normal ‘Driver/Driven’ thing (if there is even such a thing) would lead one to believe that YOU would tell HIM when to pick YOU up. Saleh was having none of that! You would ask him to pick you up at a certain time to take you to the airport and he would inevitably insist on a half hour earlier pick up. Arguing didn’t change anything. We quickly found ourselves asking Saleh what time he would pick us up of rides. That was how dedicated he was. He knew the roads and traffic patterns. He would not risk having you be late because we hadn’t left early enough.
Saleh is now in charge of our campus security. Turns out he’s very well connected and has many friends that make him a natural for the job. He brings the same dedication and work ethic to security and we all felt much better for it.
It was impossible to know on that hot day at the Jeddah airport in August of 2014 that the first person I met would turn out to be such a great friend. When I go home, I will miss his ever-present, infectious smile and warm, out-going personality.
Thank you for all you have done for me, but most of all, thank you for your friendship, Saleh.