Back at the compound, Senior Director Martin asked to see me. I stepped off the bus into the evening heat. Legs wobbly. Neck caked with sand and dried sweat. Eyes barely open.
In less than 13 hours I had arrived in Riyadh, the same airport I’d flown into from Qatar in what seemed ages ago. Strolling under the giant glass dome ceiling, I recalled the hours I’d spent here that first day in Saudi. Unable to exchange money. Nothing to eat. No water. Just sitting in the airport for ten hours in transit without air-conditioning trying to find a cool place to pass the time.
Now I was speeding through sliding doors. In a matter of moments I had found a taxi, haggled a price, and was flying through the bright morning sun into the capital city.
I’d been told by Bangkok Phil that Riyadh was a good city to live in only if you’re on the Embassy Compound. There’s brand name shopping, some English bookstores, and a couple of western restaurants like McDonalds (segregated, of course). There’s even a Chuck E. Cheese, that I wouldn’t be allowed to enter because I wasn’t accompanied by a wife.
“But no matter what you do,” he warned. “Don’t cross King Fahd Road into South Riyadh. That’s ‘Chop Chop Square’ where they kill foreigners on sight.”
When I arrived at the hotel I was too excited to rest. Travel does that, fills me with surges. I dumped my small pack and hailed a taxi and passed the address to the driver. Riyadh streets are well marked, but many businesses don’t have numbers. But this, the King Abdullah-Aziz Detention Center, was easily found.
Nondescript, square, and windowless, the detention center was surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire fencing. There were broken glass shards sticking out the top of a high retaining cement wall and a small gate beside an anti artillery gun mounted on wheels. A menacing looking solder in green beret stood at attention grunting as I approached.
I flashed my widest and most non-threatening smile. Hands up waving. I spoke every Arabic word I knew. I believe I blessed him, his father, and his many sons to come. (I might have even promised him a goat) Then I explained I was here to visit my friend and offered my passport as some kind of peace offering.
After some time a superior came and I was led inside. Through the cement ante chamber and a series of hallways. Past men in green uniform sitting at desks. Past spinning electrical fans. Long corridors of nothing. Then a door opened and another door locked and I was told to sit and wait. After some time, when Mad Dog finally came out, he was dressed in street clothes. His hands were bound in cuffs and there was a small cut under his left eye.
We talked for about half an hour. I felt the guards were either very generous or they forgot about us on one of their long prayer breaks. When I was finally escorted out there were no taxis at the front gate and so I began walking down the highway toward the lights of the city. Cars passed. Brilliant cars. Maybachs and Rolls-Royces and Audis and Lamborghinis. Their engines blaring. Revving. Screaming in the stalled traffic. It was then I noticed the sign: King Fahd Road. Bangkok Phil be damned. I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I had come so far in my life, even traveling this long road to hell.