Nomad Wisdom
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Nomad Wisdom

The Falcom Jet we flew in Jeddah

A Year in Jeddah . . . and 30 days solitary confinement

Single, foreign women were not allowed in the Jeddah, Saudia Arabia at the time I went in the early ’80s.

I waited one year to get a visa after I married my coach while on the U.S. Parachute Team. He was a jet pilot and landed a job flying for a Greek — Saudi construction company building the city Yenbu where oil pipelines met the coast.

Little did I know what it would be like for a woman in the country at this time.

I arrived in Jeddah, just after leaving Zagreb, Yugoslavia where I was competing at the World Parachute Championships. I was used to traveling and entering different countries. But, Jeddah was different. It felt like I was not accepted — something about the energy.

After getting my luggage, we went to our car, but the driver would not let me sit with my husband. As all women here, I had to sit in the back seat — the very back. What a head-trip — I felt demeaned and unworthy right from the start.

As we drove through the streets to our apartment, it looked like a movie set for a Biblical movie. The city was a maze of walls and streets.

New buildings were being built everywhere. Workers were climbing up high-rise buildings on flimsy scaffolding held together with ropes and wood. Piles of rubbish from construction were piled high at every turn. This scene was intermixed with new Mercedes, BMW’s and Land Rovers that were stuck along the road here and there. They were either broken down or out of gas — whatever, no one moved them. Here you saw goats and dogs living in very expensive cars.

And, I did not see any women!

All the way from the airport through the city streets, it was men. Men with men. I wondered where all the women where. My coach informed me you mostly only see women at the souk.

We arrived at the company compound, however, we were not in an American compound or international community. The company my coach flew for was a local private company, so we were just given a little apartment within the Saudi compound. This was a huge disadvantage. We had none of the conveniences most international compounds had a movie hall, swimming pools, things to do, picnics and bar-be-que’s and “FUN.”

Our apartment was behind more big walls. Inside the outside part of the compound were about 20 cars — all full of dust and never driven. They were brand new with the stickers still on the windows.

We walked up a flight of stairs to our apartment. It was actually ok. Nothing fancy. I saw the furniture was new and from Italy. We had an air conditioner!! Yeah! The temperatures were always around 103 degrees.

Morning, noon and night you could hear prayers through loudspeakers on top of the mosques. It was then I realized just how far away I was from any normalcy I was used to.

It is very intimidating.

We went to the souk to get groceries. It was busy and now I saw other women. They were completely covered, of course. I was instructed to always wear a long dress, long sleeves, and a scarf over my head, which I did.

Within minutes of arriving, I was grabbed from behind on the butt— in a harsh way. I quickly turned around only to see a sea of people coming and going. I felt dirty and abused.

In the shopping area, there was store after store with gold bracelets and necklaces. I mean lots of stores — so many, that the gold jewelry just looked like cheap trinkets not worth owning. I learned that gold was the only thing that women could own.

There were also a lot of stores with beautiful materials and silks. I ended up buying a small sewing machine so I could try and sew some nice clothes when we were stuck in the apartment. I had never taken the time to learn to sew well, so it was my new challenge.

I was given an official airport pass, as I was now a part of the flight crew. It felt special, until my first trip to the airport.

It was comical. The airport guards would not let me through the gates when arriving. We had to drive around to different gates until a guard decided to let me through — — even though I had my official airport pass and was in the car with the other pilots. As a woman, I still had to sit in the back of the car.

We were assigned to the Falcon — a nice mid-sized jet! Now, I was in bliss. I played like it was “our jet” as we flew to far off places, often to Geneva, just to pick up fruit and candy with no one on board. I’d have the plane all to myself with the pilots up front. Or, we would go to Nice or on to Paris when the plane needed servicing.

When back at our apartment, — — — boring!! There was nowhere to go and no one to visit, although one day we were able to go out to the Red Sea with a couple of people from the American compound. It was hotter than hell, but floating in the Red Sea was kind of special. You literally do just float on top of the water.

Stranded in Jeddah

One morning very early, we heard loud loud knocks on our door. My coach was told to leave immediately and get the jet ready to take a trip to Djibouti in Africa. However, they said no women. I would have to stay at the apartment. The trip was supposed to be overnight, so I thought, well, no problem, we had just gone shopping so there was plenty of food.

By the next evening, the crew had not returned. It felt a little uncomfortable, however, I know how a trip can go, so thought they had stayed another day. But, the next day, again, no one returned. Now, I was getting trepidacious. There was no one I could call. I started developing a sort of routine of exercise, sowing and readying. Surely, they would be back the next day.

And again, they did not return!

A few days turned into 10 days. Now, I’m all out scared. I’m starting to make sure I don’t eat too much and save the food I have.

I start thinking, where can I walk to?

There was a nice Saudi man who was a pilot for another company that my coach and I visited once. I knew his apartment was not far. I wanted to go there and let him know our pilots had not returned. But, never walking outside the compound and with all the high walls in a maze of streets, I did not know which way to go. Also, it would be dangerous for me to be out walking alone as a western woman. If I were picked up, no one would ever find me again. I simply had to hole up in the apartment and stay put.

I was incredibly bored and scared but stayed focused. When two weeks had gone by, my strict routine became an all-out battle. It became obvious now that no one knew I was here — who would find me?

My routine was like this

I’d sleep as long as I could so I would not have such a long day. In the morning I’d go up on the roof and get some sun before it was too hot and read. However, soon, I could see men from all the other houses and buildings staring down at me. Now they knew I was here! Back into the apartment — I had to stay inside now.

I exercised every morning and rationed food for each day. Then I would sew a little and make cool robes out of the beautiful materials I had bought. One of the pilots had left some little cigars at our apartment, so every day I would smoke a little. I’ve never smoked, so it took practice. I read and I meditated.

Soon, it was over 23 days that I was alone. I’m feeling very down, very worried, but also strong in a sense because I realize I’m not crazy yet or doing stupid things. I’m pretty “heads up” and wait. I have not talked to anyone– and no one has come by to check on me.

And then, the whole crew returns! Almost 30 days later! What a relief! I just wanted to leave then! I wanted to get out of Jeddah.

My husband and co-pilot were taken by airport authorities in Djibouti because they did not have proper authorization to arrive. They had to give 24 hours notice and the Sheiks aboard did not want to wait. Even though the Saudi’s insisted they go without filing authorization, they just walked away and left the pilots to deal it. There was no way for them to call me as they were in the same bad pickle of a time as I was.

A Near Crash Landing before Coming Home

After almost one year, it was time to leave Jeddah. But, not before we were to take another trip to Geneva. On the way to Switzerland, we had to make a gas stop in Iraklion a 5,000-year-old city off the coast of Greece.

While flying into Iraklion, our gas stop, the landing gear light showed it had failed to come down. We flew around trying to get the wheels down as we were running out of gas. It was winter in Iraklion and there were limited services. It was also late at night.

My husband informed me we were going to have to go in for a belly landing. We were all a little emotional, of course, as it was a very serious situation. We had to prepare quickly. There was no ground crew at the airport that could do anything for us.

Have you ever known you were going to die?

It’s like this is it! It felt so final.

My first thought was that I never wanted to die by being burned up. And with a belly landing, this is the first thing you think of.

At the same time, my soul ached for my two girls back home. My whole life came before me, and a deep calm came over me. You just kind of wait for your fate.

My husband came to the back of the plane and told me to get ready we were going in. We said our goodbyes. We were brave. That was it. I felt spiritual.

As we landed, I could feel the wheels underneath us. The wheels WERE down, even though the instruments were showing they were not.

We made it!

And, soon, we made it out of Jeddah also.

It’s another adventure I’m glad to have experienced but was so glad to be out of Jeddah.

Over the years, as a journalist and consultant for destination resorts and wellness hospitality properties, I’ve had many invitations to visit top resorts in Saudi Arabia. I have never accepted any of them.

maria@mariacamille.com

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