Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: SAPTCO bus to King Fahd International Airport, Dammam

Public transport in Saudi Arabia is about as developed as you’d expect in a country where oil costs $0.10 a litre, so it was with no small astonishment that I spied the sign for an airport shuttle service at Dammam‘s little SAPTCO bus terminal. We were at the terminal already and the next hourly departure was in 20 minutes, so why not give it a shot? After all, it was Friday afternoon and the noon prayers were droning on outside, meaning that absolutely nothing was open.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Saudi if life was that easy. Nobody seemed to know anything about the service except that it was “out there”, accompanied with a dismissive wave of the hand towards the sign sitting forlornly in the middle of a broiling parking lot at high noon. The appointed time came and went with no sign of the bus and we were already figuring that we’d take the taxi instead if it didn’t show up soon… but, some 15 min behind schedule, one of the guards waved to us and, lo and behold, there was a big gray bus with a “DAMMAM-AIRPORT” sign, disgorging a load of passengers.

To the mild astonishment of the conductor, we hopped aboard the bus, and so did a Filipino guy (who, as it turned out, worked in Saudia catering at the airport). We set off almost immediately, only to stop again almost immediately as the conductor got off at a market for no obvious reason. He came back in a few minutes and another guy boarded the bus, riding along for a few city blocks until he requested to be dropped off.

We zigzagged our way through Dammam’s suburbs, and then again, for no immediately apparent reason, the conductor stopped the bus, collected our 12 riyals each for the ticket, then beckoned us outside, pointing at the restaurant and saying “Safari! Safari!” I knew the word musafir, “traveler”, and as soon as I remembered “triconsonantal root” I understood what he meant: he proposed that we get some lunch to travel (to go) from the restaurant, so why not? Odds are it would beat airport food. The appearance of two khawagas was obviously the social event of the week for the restaurant staff, who crowded around us with queries of ameriki? and murmured with satisfaction on heading finlandi in response. Another 12 riyals later, half a chicken with a ginourmous vat of rice and the fixings had been procured, and we headed back on board.

We finally got on the highway and proceeded to zoom through vast expanses of honest-to-goodness desert, complete with sand dunes, Bedouin tents and herds of camel munching on shrubs in the fierce heat. The first sign we saw said “AIRPORT 20 KM”, and Trsqr wondered just what was so wrong with this particular chunk of flat, featureless desert that they had to build it so much further on.

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Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company, Khobar to Manama

Up at 10 AM the next morning, we demolished the complimentary fruit basket in lieu of breakfast and had the hotel drop us off at the SABTCO station. We were in luck: there are only six buses a day, but the very next one had free seats at SR50 a pop (~US$12) and was leaving in half an hour. Although it wasn’t exactly a bus: the Khobar-Bahrain service uses little minibuses seating perhaps 20 and pulling along a dinky little trailer for luggage. As we waited, a very flash Ferrari in full racing regalia drove up and dropped off a lady clad in an expensive-looking abaya, who joined us onboard.

Bahrain, literally “the seas”, being an archipelago, we had to avail ourselves of one of the greatest feats of Saudi-financed engineering, the 20-km King Fahd Causeway. It really is quite an impressive piece of work, and thanks to turgid immigration procedures, we had plenty of time to enjoy it. First Saudi exit immigration, with a single bored-looking officer stamping passports; then Saudi exit customs, who waved us through; then Bahrain entry immigration, where we forked over another SR50 a pop for visas and my officer would have forgotten to actually stamp me in if I hadn’t reminded him; and then Bahrain customs, which X-rayed our bags just in case we were, say, importing porn, alcohol or drugs from Saudi.

And, after the better part of two hours spend on Passport Island, we were free to go. The Ferrari was waiting on the Bahraini side, and the girl in the abaya, now freed from her veil, climbed into her beau’s car, and they zoomed off for a weekend of debauchery. Our driver also gunned it down the highway and in no time flat we’d been dropped off at Manama’s Lulu Centre, where we tested out exchanging Saudi riyals for lunch and got back a spray of funny Bahraini coinage in return.