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Where In the World: A Saudi Work Trip with an Unexpected Chicago Stay

 

Oh, hey, it's me, Scottie. Taking Turkish Airlines to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia via Istanbul.

I was heading to the Middle East for the first time to photograph a World Heritage Site outside of the Saudi capital. With a lengthy layover I decided to get a room at the airside Hotel at Istanbul's airport.

By the time I woke up, I was no longer loopy as hell. Ready for the destination. IST is something of architectural wonder. Not a bad place for a layover. I had hoped to head to Istanbul proper, but due to COVID rules in Saudi Arabia, that was a no go. 
 
Around here I met up with my travel companions Vincent and Simone from Prestige Visions. I usually shoot yachts, boats and the occasional RV for Vincent. This time we had a much bigger project at hand.

For the second consecutive flight I had no one sitting next to me. Win!

I was crossing over from Europe to Asia for the first time.

I wondered how we'd fly from Turkey to Saudi Arabia with civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Apparently you follow the Iraq/Iran border. When I looked down from the plane I could see the large cities of the Iraqi Fertile Crescent which made way for the vast desert of Saudi Arabia.
 
 
The next morning we met with the team at the Diriyah Gate Development Authority.

We'd be photographing the old Saudi capital: At-Turaif.




It was at or above 100 degrees all week, but felt more like the high 80s back home. Low humidity is a game changer. 

We'd pass the second largest flag in all of Saudi Arabia on the way to the site.

Then we took a private tour of the site we'd be working on all week.

The city had been settled by the Sauds going back to the 1400s and would expand to be the capital of the first and second Saudi states.

It turned out our guide had spent two years in St. Paul learning English after college.

At night the site was lit up with projections and architectural lighting.


Night tours are highlighted by history of the Saudi kingdom.

After our first day learning about the site we ate at Dim Light down to road in Diriyah. 

This simple lahmacun had eggs and melted cheese in the center.

We were hoping to enjoy a locale that had men and women eating, but Dim Light was all men at this hour watching Saudi soccer. Saudi Arabia had allowed men and women to eat together just five years earlier, but some settings are still very male-centered.

The neighborhood was home to dozens of bike shops. It reminded me of how Mexico City's neighborhoods were separated into neighborhoods dedicated to car parts, bikes or home improvement products.

Back at the Crowne Plaza we ate what was the best continental breakfast we'd ever encountered. 

After breakfast we planned our week's work.



I'd tell you more about the project, but for now we have to keep it on the down low.

We were having trouble finding Ubers both in Diryah and back in the capital. So we walked back to Dim Light for dinner

 

Almost as good the second time around.

Lookie here. A mini-Bundt date cake in Saudi Arabia.
 
He was really excited to show me that he had Bundt cake. 


It was much quieter this night. Something to know is that during call to prayer restaurant staff will leave for a break. So if you're wondering why it seems closed, they're just on a break.
 
The call to prayer echoed throughout the cities each night. Occasionally you'd see youngsters riding electric scooters. The juxtaposition of tradition, modernity and change was seen everywhere.
 

Two days down and back at the hotel.

Another meeting. First, we'd wait under the portraits of the king and crown prince. Their pictures and imagery of the nation's founding King Abdulaziz are a constant throughout the capital. Many restaurants, hotel and businesses feature the king and prince. Skyscrapers are festooned with their likeness.

Some of the highlights of shooting on the third day.





Our contact from the development authority suggested we try a traditional dinner at AlRomansiah. It's ostensibly a chain, but a traditional meal of rice pilaf and roast or smoked chicken.



You sit in a large cubicle of sorts on a carpet floor. These days the food is served on a plastic tablecloth.


Outside of the restaurant a young man asked me to take his picture.

As you might expect, Riyadh is extremely car-centric. There are sidewalks of sorts, but they are often blocked by palm trees or other impediments. They are opening a Metro soon, but wonder if that will work with the existing car-centered built form.

On our 4th day we got some Saudi ice cream. Think Blue Bunny from the gas station.

We started to wrap up our work on the 4th day.














 The young men and women we worked with were always great to learn from and open to discussing the many changes happening to Saudi society. Women and men working together. Eating out as equals. Changes to the strict dress code for men, but especially for women. I was uncertain about taking this job, but I found out that I knew very little about to current state of affairs in Saudi Arabia.


By the time we'd finished our last full day at At-Turaif we were making sure we could say our goodbyes to the amazing team At-Turaif and DGDA.




As we'd seen most nights, youngsters were riding their electric scooters near the site and on the road used for annual Formula E races.

I was feeling more comfortable every day asking to take pictures of locals.


This whole area will be home to new development. A pedestrian friendly twin to Riyadh.

We finally got to a more modern restaurant, Ovvi, where we had amazing Italian food.


The pizza and lasagna were on par with the best Italian I've had. Even Simone, a native to Italy, thought it was great, if a tad bit expensive.


The people watching was some of the best of the whole trip.


While we waited for our Uber, we watched the endless traffic pass us by.

Porte-cochère are common throughout the city. Often times the main drags will be tightly packed with businesses on frontage roads that are 2 or 3 lanes wide. Then there are a full-blown highway in the center.



We had one more half-day of shooting before heading home.


Vincent was working hard too.


These extremely private bathrooms stalls should be norm back home.
 
Agreed, American public restrooms are the worst.  

Good bye At-Turaif.

Back at the hotel, Vincent went to get a COVID test while Simone and I found someplace to eat.

We settled on the Indian-Chinese restaurant, Red Cherry. It was mostly Indian with a handful of Chinese via Indian items.

We both ordered too much.


I made my way via Uber back to King Khalid Airport and another couple days in transit. Thankfully I was COVID negative and good to go home.

More near empty rows to enjoy.

I foot the bill and stayed at the Yotel when I got to IST once again.

And then forgot that I'd get two meals on the airplane.


Next time I end up in Istanbul, hopefully I can explore the city.

I forgot to get a magnet for G.G., but picked up some sweets for Brooke and the kids.


When I landed at O'hare I thought I'd be heading home to MSP. But my luggage took the entire hour and a half I'd planned for. After a free flight change, minus the difference in fare, I ended up at Colin and Jen's for the night. A pleasant surprise.

We got some BBQ in the West Loop. I remember how I felt that Chicago wast too car-centric when returning from London years ago. Now Chicago felt like a pedestrian paradise.


Thanks, big bro and Jen.


Back at OHD, I somehow got upgraded to first class. I was heading home.



I arrived to a bed full of stuffies. The kids and Brooke were enjoying Memorial Day Weekend at the cottage.

I couldn't wait to see the fam.

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