40 years ago, today – part 2: Camels in the Night

I had seen a car crashes and crushed cars, but I had never seen a car tossed to the side of the road and left behind destroyed after hitting a camel. I will always remember the drive from Dhahran to Riyadh across the Saudi Arabian desert in the middle of a hot July night with my dad, my new stepmother, and Warren and David, my two brothers. I was thirteen and it was 1975. It was the summer between my seventh and eighth grade. It was my summer vacation, it was our summer vacation, and we were driving across the desert to spend the summer with my dad in Riyadh. When my parents divorced, the divorce agreement gave him forty-five days of summer visitation and monthly visits, which were impossible because we lived in Sugar Land and he lived eight thousand miles away in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When I first learned, I was going to spend the summer in Riyadh with my two brothers, a summer in Saudi Arabia sounded exotic and exciting, but soon the feeling of leaving and leaving my friends, my home, and fun things in our neighborhood made me resent my dad and the trip.

my passport - issued in 1973
my passport – issued in 1973

Our summer vacation had begun normally. School let out and we were able to see our friends and have fun in the neighborhood. However, I knew, really and the three of us knew we would be leaving for at least a month to see my dad in Saudi Arabia. To get ready for our trip we had to get new passports and have our immunizations updated. We had our pictures taken and went to the health department in downtown Houston to have our cholera shot. The shot didn’t hurt, though the hustle and bustle of getting ready made getting ready for a trip I didn’t want to go on even more difficult. We also had to pack and make sure we had the things we needed especially, the medicines I needed and the shots for my asthma and allergies that my mom gave each week. It is hard to remember everything you need, until you need it. Finally, my dad came over to pick us up and fly with us. As glad as I was to see my dad, I knew his arrival meant we were really going and that made me sad.

our Visa (right) and our entrance and exit stamps into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
our Visa (right) and our entrance and exit stamps into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

There is no easy way to get to Saudi Arabia, especially from Houston. First, we flew to Miami, then London. We had to stay in London for a few days while my dad made arranged to bring us into the country. Saudi Arabia restricts the people who come into their country and we need special permission called a visa. In order to get a visa we had to go to the Saudi Arabian Embassy and wait with all the other people trying to get visas and into Saudi Arabia, like us. Most of the people at the embassy were engineers or workers like my dad who had jobs in the Saudi Arabia and were trying to get permission to enter for work we were the only children. While we were in London, we visited a few places like Buckingham Palace; we rode a double decker bus, and The Tube, the Underground, London’s subway. It was fun, but not as much fun as swimming in the lake, sailing, exploring the swamp or hunting for frogs, or playing baseball on the corner lot. Finally, after several morning trips to the Saudi Arabian Embassy my dad got our visas and then my dad was able to get the airplane tickets. Unfortunately, my dad could not get tickets to Riyadh, where he lived, and we had to fly in to Dhahran, which was some 250 miles away on the Persian Gulf coast.

a British Airways Concorde at the gate - July 8, 1975
a British Airways Concorde at the gate – July 8, 1975

Flying has always been for my brothers and me. It is fun to plane watch looking for different colored planes from all over the world. Watching airplanes and flying made our trip interesting. At Heathrow, we saw the Concorde, which was being test flown that summer, and watched it take off. Finally, it was our turn and we took off. Our flight took a several hours and soon we were landing in Dhahran. We stepped off the plane into the warm humid Saudi night was like walking into a steam bath. Passing through customs was interesting and the customs officers inspected our luggage to make sure we were not bringing in something that not allowed in the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Finally, we made it through customs and discovered Julie, my stepmother, was there to greet us. Beside her stood, Mr. Muffla, her driver and escort. She smiled and calmly began to tell the story of their journey to meet us.

my passport with London  Heathrow stamps - July 1975
my passport with London Heathrow stamps – July 1975

I had only met my stepmother a couple times before. The first time was when she made dinner for us the night my dad explained to us he was getting re-married and the second time was a few days later at their wedding. When my dad introduced us to her, she insisted we call her ‘Julie,’ but that had been five months earlier and Julie appeared much different than we remembered. Covered from head to toe with her head wrapped in a scarf in respect to Saudi Arabian law and custom. Her dress seemed uncomfortable for the harsh Saudi Arabian climate where temperatures often reach over 110°F and fall into the low 80°F range at night. Neither of us were dressed for the heat. Fortunately, we had arrived at the coolest time in the day – night. Only men can drive in Saudi Arabia and women must have a male driver to drive them and escort them whenever they shop or go anywhere in public. Before we left London, my dad had called and given her our flight information and explained we would be arriving in Dhahran and not in Riyadh as she expected. She decided she would drive to meet us and ride with us on our way back to Riyadh. The journey is over five hundred miles round trip and the highway between Dhahran and Riyadh is a long stretch of hot barren desert, which could be dangerous. As it was, their car ran into trouble not long into their journey driving through a sandstorm. It sputtered and Mr. Muffla pulled the car to the side of the highway. They were stranded. Mr. Muffla’s flagged a passing truck for help, explained the situation and Julie and Mr. Muffla were soon on their way to Dhahran riding in a watermelon truck to welcome us.

Stranded, we had our each other and our luggage, with no way to get to Riyadh. My dad and Mr. Muffla had to find a way Riyadh for six people: dad, Julie, us three kids, and Mr. Muffla. Dhahran did not have a Hertz, or any other car rental, and the only option was finding a taxi driver willing to drive 250 miles across the desert at night with six passengers and their luggage. Somehow, my dad and Mr. Muffla’s succeeded in finding a taxi driver. We our luggage, climbed into the car and set off. It was tight fit; I sat in the front seat between the driver and Mr. Muffla and the rest – Warren, David, Julie, and my dad sat snugly in the back seat. It was a dark night and the further we drove southwest into the desert along the unlit highway away from the lights of Dhahran, the darker it became. Dhahran is on the Persian Gulf, to the west is a major oil field and flares burning natural gas dotted the horizon as we rode along the highway. The gas flares gave illuminated the darkness with a faint orange glow. The bright moonlight and stars guided us. The desert highway between Dhahran to Riyadh is a lonely stretch of highway with few cars out. My dad explained that the driver needed to be especially cautious to watch for camels. We soon came upon our first car crash. When it is car versus camel, both lose. The camel is tall with long legs and a car and its occupants have no chance. We passed several crashed cars and trucks along the highway with the vehicles left where they had crashed. Stopped to get water for our journey. Dad bought us a sweet fruit nectar drink for each of us. The sweet nectar foreign and a traditional desert beverage; it quenched our thirst. Quenched, we continued on our journey. It wasn’t long before nature took its course and we all had to go. My younger brother David was the first to speak up,

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he declared.

My dad ignored his plea and we continued ahead.

After a few miles, Warren and I chimed in that we also had to go. My dad spoke to Mr. Muffla who translated and we slowed and pulled to the side of the highway. There was not a soul in sight along the deserted highway. We climbed out of the car and David asked,

“Where is it?” David said referring to the bathroom.

My dad swept his arm across the horizon and replied,

“Anywhere you want,” he replied.

The moon cast a pale glow across the desert and we walked away from the car along the highway into the desert. I took a moment to peer into the night sky and it struck me how brilliant the stars appeared and how many dotted to dark blue night sky. The deserted highway in the middle of the desert was a beautiful place to star gaze far from the lights of the city. With our stop complete, we piled into the car and were back on our way. I dozed and woke off and on, as we drove through the night.  We rode through the moonlit night along the deserted highway to Riyadh and dad’s home. Sleepily, I thought of Sugar Land and how different Saudi Arabia was wondering what lay ahead.

Every mile and each minute brought us closer to Riyadh, to morning, and the hot desert sun of daylight. Sugar Land can get hot during the summer with temperatures reaching the mid-nineties, dad reminded us temperatures in the hundreds, and sometimes even over hundred-ten were normal in July for Riyadh. The main difference between home and the Saudi Arabian desert is that the desert is dry heat with no humidity and home has thick wet heavy air making it feel hotter than it really is. The car was quiet except for the rush of air rolling through the open windows as we sped down the highway. The ride made me curious about where we were going. There was enough moonlight to show the road ahead or far off to the side. The landscape was flat and empty. There was an occasional car crash and dead camel, but not much else or even other cars.  Dad lived in a gated compound with houses for Westerners who worked in Riyadh, like Julie and he. The compound had a pool and he told us we could swim while he was at work. Earlier in the ride, Julie chatted about visiting the markets and told there were a couple of kids our age who were visiting relatives for the summer, like us. She remained cheerful, despite the day’s ordeal, trying to make us feel at ease. It sounded fun to have other kids and a pool all to ourselves. I wondered; what else could we do during the day? Suddenly, we pulled off to the side of the road beside my dad’s stranded car. He, Mr. Muffla, and the driver lifted the hood, looked at the engine trying to get it started, after a few adjustments it rumbled to life, but it was stuck in the sand. The three of them worked and tried to get it out, but dad would have to come back later with a tow truck. Our journey to Riyadh was almost over and we continued on our way to our summer home. I had slept, but not well and I looked forward to crawling into bed when we arrived. I thought of my friends Robert, Jimmy, and David wondering if they had done anything this cool, ride across the desert in the middle of the night.

Soon I noticed more cars and I realized we were nearing Riyadh and before long, we were in front of the gate outside my dad’s compound. We stopped, opened the gate, and drove into the compound stopping in front of my dad’s house. All of the houses looked the same. The sun was beginning to creep over the horizon bring faintly light the world around us, marking the start of a new day. Dad got out and began unloading our luggage, Julie gently called us to wake and go inside. I do not remember helping unload the car or much else except for the feeling of safety. I was home and I could sleep. Julie showed us to our rooms, I slipped between the sheets, and was soon fast asleep dreaming about the fun my brothers and I would have this summer playing at the pool and exploring this very different and strange land.

End of story, but not the end of the post. Sorry.

the three of us play in the pool with our dad – July 1975

I made that trip 40 years ago. I wrote the essay, in parts, almost five years ago when my blog was new and I was searching for a way to make writing ‘real’ my students. I wrote each part – introduction, rising action, climax (always a tricky word to use with middle schoolers), falling action, and conclusion. Over the past week, I went back and worked to polish the writing, and edited, again, and again. It could probably use another edit and fresh eyes. I hadn’t read the blog posts or my narrative since I had clicked publish in November 2010.  The point was to show my students that you could write about anything and I chose a car ride across the desert when my perspective had changed from gloom to optimism. Below are the links to the original posts.

the original posts from November 2010

I’ve had forty years to reflect on the trip and what it meant and how it shaped me. We were in Saudi Arabia for a little more than fortnight, then Julie traveled with us to London including a side trip to Scotland to visit with her family in Balmore, near Glasgow, before we returned to home to Sugar Land. It was an adventure.

the three of us - London 1975 - Warren, David, a Tower Guard, and me
the three of us – London 1975 – Warren, David, a Tower Guard, and me – after our trip to Saudi Arabia

Dad and Julie lived in Saudi Arabia for another year and then moved to London. I’d spend a few more summers overseas and even a Christmas in England in 1978 before I went off to college in 1980. I did not know how fortunate I was to have such experiences until later in my life.

Today is already in full bloom and it is already a great day. I’ve a few chores that are going to make it even greater, so I had better jump up, jump in, and seize what is left of the day. Making the Days Count, one day at a time, one trip back in time, again.

Was there a time when you didn’t want to go somewhere and it turned out better than you expected? Please share, thank you.

NOTE: Sunday’s post grew out of this one – if you missed, go back in time and read 40 years ago, today posted on July 5, 2015


13 thoughts on “40 years ago, today – part 2: Camels in the Night

  1. Great story and a great adventure: but always tainted, as I read it, by the sadness of having a father no longer part of everyday life, and the sadness of having this adventure at the expense of a normal, happy, local summer. I may be imposing my own feelings on it. You seem to have turned out pretty well-adjusted!

    1. Thank you. I didn’t understand what my father’s absence REALLY meant until later in my life when I was trying to figure out what kind of husband and dad I was going to be. I think I did turn out okay, my brothers did, too. Some, if not most, of my learning was the hard way. Looking back, it’s much clearer than it was at the time, and I think I understand why and I have to work to make sure that history does not repeat itself. I had plenty of summer before and after our trip. We’re all works in progress – still growing and learning, sometimes the hard way, still. Have a wonderful weekend and week ahead.

    1. We were, too. my brothers and I have been having fun talking about the trip and the camels. We ended up having a great time, after all. We don;t always get to pick what we do or where we go, but we do get to pick how we react. Have a wonderful weekend and week ahead.

  2. I know there were many times in my lifespan that I didn’t want to go somewhere and it seemed to turn out ok. That story is incredible. I remember David and Warren telling me stories about their trips. You guys had some great experiences that will last a lifetime! Thoroughly enjoyed this story. It made me think of all the good times I spent with David and Warren.

    1. Thanks for reading – it was a long read – but it was a fun to write and talk to my brothers and my step mom to clear up what I thought I remembered and what actually happened. David remembers a funny story that happened later on the trip when we were on our way to Scotland! Great memories – hard to believe it was 40 years ago. Have a wonderful week!

  3. Wow – how exciting! That’s a fantastic story. I hope your children appreciate it.

    And, I love the plaid pants you brothers are all sporting. I remember those cool 1970’s outfits.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

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