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: Manama, Bahrain

The Bahraini capital Manama reminds me of Abu Dhabi: they’re both smallish and filthy rich cities on the Gulf, relatively liberal by Gulf standards, have city centers dating to the 1970s but with huge amounts of construction now adding modern skyscrapers into the mix, and have virtually nothing in the way of attractions.  Bahrain‘s unofficial symbol is the Pearl Roundabout, which is, you guessed it, a roundabout which has a large statue of pointy things (supposedly dhow sails) holding a pearl aloft.  Yay?


Hotels in Manama are ridiculously priced (US$300 and up), so I’d exchanged 25,000 Priority Club points for a night at the Crowne Plaza Bahrain.  The remarkably clueless reception, though, wasn’t having any of it — they refused to acknowledge the existence of my reservation until I dug up my laptop and showed it to them, and then kept us waiting for half an hour out of spite, eventually giving us a room waaaaaay at the back of this sprawling complex with a lovely first-floor view of a pile of bricks.

The pool was being repaired with paint fumes and drilling noises, which didn’t do much to improve its concrete-and-Astroturf charmlessness, but there were two consolations.  First, real live women in bikinis, and second, the tower counter also did a brisk trade in cold beer.  I’m not a huge beer fan in general, but there are times when a Corona with a wedge of lime hits the spot, and this was definitely one.

The hotel reception continued to be obstructive, huffily telling us to go take a taxi and find out when we had the temerity to inquire after bus schedules instead of just taking their chauffeur service back to Saudi the next day.  As it turned out, our choices were to leave at either 9:30 (d’oh) or at noon, which would have cut it a little too close for comfort for our 4 PM flight, so we regretfully picked the earlier one.  Then to the National Museum, which was closed for a private function, so we opted for an aimless amble down the rather pleasant Al-Fateh Corniche, culminating in an ISO standard Arabic meal of hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs and Ali’s mom (as I insist on calling om Ali, the Arabic version of bread pudding) by the waterfront.

And then back to the hotel, which (according to Wikivoyage) hosted the Harvesters, one of the most popular nightspots in the city.  Indeed, the place was packed, with both Westerners and Saudis — many in full thobe-and-guthra regalia — quaffing down frothy brewskis.  (I was tempted to take a picture or two, but somehow I had the feeling that they might not have appreciated it.)  The mere availability of alcoholic malt beverages didn’t quite seem to explain the crowds, but the mystery was solved soon enough when the Filipino band launched into their second song.  The all-male musicians were joined by half a dozen Filipina singers strutting around in skimpy tops and tight little hotpants, and while it soon became clear that they had not been selected for their vocal talents, nobody seemed to mind very much.

Next morning, we hit the hotel’s fairly decent breakfast buffer, which also hosted well-signposted “Pork Items” section for all us Westerners pigging out.  After yet another fight with hotel reception, who now wanted to charge us extra because we had two people in a twin room (you don’t say?) but were yet again defeated by my laptop and its Reservation Confirmation of Doom, we headed out to the bus station and proceeded to repeat yesterday’s trip in reverse, with only two differences.  First, Bahrain immigration had managed to screw up Trsqr’s entry into the Kingdom somehow and held him for nearly 30 minutes while trying to figure out their own paperwork (it’s a good thing he had the visa receipt!), and second, this time we drove straight past Khobar into the singularly uninspiring sprawl of Dammam.

So all in all, how was Bahrain?  Well, despite beer, bacon, bargirls and other unmentioned decadences like movie theaters and Fashion TV on the telly, I can still sympathize with a friend of mine who was stranded there working for a year — it really is small, and would get boring pretty fast.  On the upside, it certainly makes a nice change of pace from Saudi, and I might even consider a second trip someday.

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.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Train 9, First Class, Riyadh-Dammam

As a bit of a train buff, I tried my best to google up some info — any info — about the services of the Saudi Railways Organization before our trip, but virtually none was forthcoming, and eventually it was Trsqr who did the (considerable) legwork of reserving tickets. He rustled up the number of Dammam‘s train station from somewhere and got an Arabic speaker to proxy, and it turned out that even the SRO website’s schedules are inaccurate. There was, however, still an evening train from Riyadh to Dammam, it just left an hour earlier, and there was availability in all three classes: Second, First and the delightfully named “Rehab”, which I’m told is always patronized by Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears on their visits to the Kingdom. Second cost SR60, First was SR75 and Rehab was SR130, so we opted for First and showed up at the train station half an hour before departure.

Like most governmental buildings in Saudi, Riyadh‘s train station is improbably huge, especially given that it caters to all of four trains a day. All passengers were subjected to a quick security check, and the guards in proper TSA style even demanded the removal of beep-inducing footwear, but at least liquids were not on the no-ride list.

SRO doesn’t assign seats, but finding two seats wasn’t a problem — although we were shooed out of the front-facing ones, these being reserved for families, and kicked back into the rear-facing bachelor section. “First Class” hardly qualifies as luxurious, but neither was there much to complain about: it was clean and the seats were reasonably comfy, with tray tables and a token amount of recline. Second Class seemed to be much the same, with slightly narrower pitch, while Rehab had big leather seats and roof-mounted TVs featuring the latest in Islamic programming, and their pax also get to use the VIP lounges at the stations. Snack carts equipped with an ever-dwindling array of plastic-packed pastries, chips and drinks rumbled through every now and then, and the cafeteria car offered more of the same.

The problem with riding trains by night is that there’s nothing to see, especially when the line passes through the vast emptiness of central Saudi. It was supposed to be a 3:45 trip, but that much time had already passed by the time we finally pulled into Hofuf, much of it alternatively sitting or crawling through the desert at a siding while we waited for the train in the opposite direction. (The entire Saudi network is single-tracked.) It was thus past 1 AM when we finally pulled in Dammam, five hours after we left.

Dammam’s terminal is an exact carbon copy of Riyadh’s, to the point that I couldn’t help wondering if this was all some colossal prank and we’d somehow missed the train turning around and returning to Riyadh… but no, there was a tang of salt in the air, and a lunatic cabbie (is there any other kind in Saudi?) careened us into the Holiday Inn Al-Khobar in no time.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: A Multimodal Escape to Bahrain

One sunny day I found myself in Riyadh with a weekend to spare, and as luck would have it, fellow Wikitraveller and Flyertalker Trsqr was in exactly the same predicament. It was school holiday season in Saudi Arabia and flights to sensible places like Jeddah and Abha were packed tighter than the Jamarat Bridge on 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, so fuelled by a champagne-and-cigar binge in a giant disco ball suspended 240 meters above Riyadh, we eventually settled on visiting that den of relative iniquity known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, taking the train out and the plane — my first flight on Saudi Arabian LCC Sama — back in via Dammam.

Index

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Flight recap

All in all, I was quite satisfied with all the carriers I tried out on this trip.

Jet‘s international product blew me away, being probably the single best economy cabin I’ve tried anywhere, and I’d definitely like to try their J product someday. It’s a real shame that the hassles of Indian visas and airports mean that transiting via India to anywhere else is just not a sensible option…

I had high expectations for Etihad, and they were pretty much met, but I was a little disappointed in the ungenerous seat pitch (esp. on the A346) and the cumbersomeness of the IFE system. On the plus side, service was very good for economy, their hub AUH is not bad and is likely to soon get very much better, and their network is also growing furiously. The main downside really is the total lack of usable frequent-flyer miles usable anywhere other than EY.

Nas in Saudi was exactly what I expected from a low-cost carrier, perhaps even several degrees slicker than most. As miles aren’t a consideration for Saudi domestic flights, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

EY 470 AUH-SIN Y B777-300 seat 54K

Another three-hour layover at a time when I’d really much prefer to be sleeping. I picked up a few bottles at the tax-free, noted to my surprise that Romeo & Julieta No.2’s are appreciably cheaper in EY’s in-flight sales than here (US$11.50 vs US$15 for box of 3), tried and failed to find a local souvenir that didn’t involve dates, and then hacked on my laptop for a few hours.

I’m starting to kind of like AUH though. The two-layered squashed-octopus shape means it’s really compact and easy to get around, and the bizarre blue-green tiles roof-fountain-structure pulls off the rare trick of making a terminal really stand out: there is no way you can possibly mistake AUH for any other terminal anywhere. It’ll be a real shame if the new Etihad terminal here is just another soulless box of glass and steel.

I’d picked my seat on this flight carefully. Conventional wisdom says seats at the back of the bus are bad, because it takes a long time to disembark and because the turbulence is worse, but I knew I’d be in no hurry in Singapore (my Access Card would get me past any immigration queues and I’d have to wait for my suitcase anyway, and turbulence doesn’t particularly bother me — I find it oddly relaxing in a “yay, I’m flying!” way. Etihad’s online seat map showed that the back of the plane has two rows with only two seats on the window sides, so I picked the second to last row: this way, I figured I’d guaranteed full recline, I’d have some useful extra space between my seat, and I’d have a fair shot at nobody sitting next to me.

Once in my seat, I realized that the extra space was virtually nonexistent: on eg LH 747s, it’s enough to stretch out both your legs, but here there wasn’t really appreciably more space than the other rows. And yes, the seat next to me stayed empty, but with a load of no more than 40% there were plenty to go around and a few lucky guys — including the guy in 53K — got a whole three-seat row to stretch out on.

Drink and cracker service rolled around soon after takeoff, but it took close to two hours until they got around to lunch. Here’s the menu:

Asian glass noodle mixed seafood salad

White fish masala, biryani and harissa vegetables
Saffron vegetable lasagna with basil tomato coulis
Singapore hawker’s chicken laksa yong tau foo

Ginger and kiwi fruit mousse
Strawberry coulis

Cheese

Tea and coffee
Hot chocolate

Note to the menu writer: if you’ve got two “coulis” in one meal, one of them atop lasagna at that, you’re trying too hard. Indeed, the crew did the right thing and reduced that down to “fish, vegetable or chicken?”, and I opted for the “chicken” as it just sounded so bizarre. I wasn’t disappointed: the entree turned out to be a collection of tofu, fishballs, shrimp and, yes, chicken on a bed of thick rice noodles with a sauce that was half laksa, half rendang, with coconut shreds, laksa leaf and plenty of spices. I suspect this might be a bit much for people unused to Southeast Asian cuisine, but for me the end result was delicious, and even the noodles had stayed firm instead of degenerating into sogginess. Full points to Etihad for ingenuity!

I watched No Country for Old Men, which isn’t very good in-flight fare because it demands your full attention, but it does certainly deserves its Oscars. I also realized that Etihad’s headphones, which are excellent for economy (solid, padded, cover the whole ear, comfy) also incorporate noise canceling — I’d just gotten a broken set on the DEL-AUH flight, and this time too the wiring was flaky enough that turning my head was enough to flip the canceling on and off.

And then to bed. Even us economy class plebs got socks, eyeshades and earplugs, and even the brown blanket seemed a little fluffier than what you’d usually get in Y. Two seats with a liftable divider ain’t too bad, and while they never turned the cabin lights off, I managed to contort myself into a semi-sleeping position and catch a few Z’s.

The menu had promised us a “refreshment” prior to arrive in Singapore, which I figured would be the same sandwich-and-juice deal as on the RUH flights. But nope: we were treated to cups of frozen-solid Haagen-Dazs instead.

Disembarkation, immigration and baggage claim went fast enough: the only problem was that the handle I used to pull along my diving gear-laden suitcase had been knocked cleanly off. On my previous trip, the same beaten-up old Samsonite had lost a wheel, but off it was to the baggage claim office. Sorting out the claim took a while, and I was told to expect a call sometime within a week — I was thus rather surprised to get a call on Saturday morning for pickup, and even more surprised to get the fixed bag on Monday. They’d even replaced the top handle as well!

EY 316 RUH-AUH Y B777-300 seat 26D

A brutal flight time, as departing from RUH at 5 AM means getting up at 3 AM. Check-in and immigration were uneventful, although I was disappointed (but not very surprised) that the immigration guy couldn’t tell me when my visa expires. Why, you ask? Because Saudi visas don’t state this date: instead, they just have the date of issue and the number of months it’s valid. The catches are that 1) these are Islamic (lunar) months of 28 days, not Western months; 2) business (non-working) visas appear to have a restriction on how many days within that period they’ve valid; and 3) it depends on the visa type if the days start counting from date of first issue or date of first arrival. Gah.

Same plane as last time, but much lower load, maybe 20% in economy. I watched through that creepy safety video again (I think the dead white eyes of the characters are to blame), devoured the sandwich and juice tossed to us after takeoff, and attempted to sleep.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Riyadh and Janadriyah

First Wife Bribed for Understanding

YANBU, 26 February 2008 — Ah, the complexities of having multiple wives. Some may think this makes life easier, considering that multiple wives means multiple housecleaners and multiple food-preparers and if one gets on your nerves you can go hang out with the other one until the first one behaves properly. But in fact it’s not as easy as it sounds to have a number of women in your life: life ain’t easy for a player, as some might say. So it may come to no surprise that – according to the daily Al-Madinah yesterday – a man lavished his first wife with a grand fete filled with expensive gifts and jewelry when she did not dispute his desire to marry a second woman. Perhaps there is no better way to reward a woman for allowing you to marry another woman than to give her lots of shiny things. —Arab News

Somewhat to my surprise, Riyadh was rather more fun this time around: by now I felt that I pretty much knew how things worked, and thanks to my diving buddies I was introduced to another side of life in Saudi through an invitation to dinner at one of the expat compounds on the outskirts of town — which shall remain nameless for soon to be obvious reasons. Just getting in entailed running an impressive security gauntlet: the outer gate checked who I was, who I was meeting and whether there was an invitation for me, the second automated gate some hundred meters away was opened on command, and the taxi I’d arrived in was turned around at the third and final gate, which was guarded not just by the compound’s own guards but two Saudi army soldiers sitting on top of a tank! This would be pretty excessive anywhere else, but four compounds in Riyadh alone were bombed in 2003-2004, using tactics like first blowing up a car and then sending in an a larger bomb disguised as an ambulance.

Compounds are popular among expats not just because of the security, but because they are in effect little bubbles where Saudi laws don’t apply: women can go wherever they want (within the compound) and wear whatever they want, people can mingle at the pool, and even alcohol is available. It was Wednesday night, the Saudi version of Friday, so after dinner at the compound’s restaurant we adjourned for a drink. I was expecting a juice bar where staff dribbles a little siddiqi (moonshine) into your Coke in exchange for a hefty tip, the way we used to do it at unlicensed university parties, but no: these guys had created an entire English pub, complete with wood paneling, jukebox, Premier League on the telly and beer being ladled out from an honest-to-Allah tap. Ladies in low-cut tops and skirts were clinking together glasses, the guys waved around cigars and the very worst of Britney Spears, Vengaboys and Bon Jovi blared out from the speakers. I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in Saudi.

But rest assured that even if you lack the wastah to get underground, Saudi Arabia has a plenthora of alcohol-free “malt beverages” that provide all the calories of beer with none of the kick, most of them attempting to make up for the fact by adding in copious quantities of sugar and artificial flavor. The bizarrest by a mile has to be “Budweiser NA Green Apple”, the solitary American entrant in the market, and I can state for the record that it is neither overly sweet nor artificial-tasting; it’s merely absolutely disgusting. This is not beer, nor even close to beer — it’s like Sprite with fermented oatmeal poured in. Yecch.

On my last full day, I headed out to the fortuitously timed Janadriyah festival, Saudi Arabia’s largest (only?) cultural event held yearly for two weeks in February-March. It had opened the day before with a camel race and the traditional arhda dance, which I’m told involves the royal family waving around swords as they waddle around, but being a Wednesday I had to work then. Information in English regarding the event is incredibly sparse (the newspapers couldn’t even agree on opening times or schedules), but I chartered a taxi and zoomed 45 km north of Riyadh into the surrounding wastelands to check it out. (For posterity, it appears that the event is open all day, but the best time to come is after 4 PM when things are in full swing.)

Rather stupidly, I’d arrived just before high noon, and it turned out that the site is gigantic and taxis aren’t allowed inside — I thus had to plod about on foot, spending the first half hour just trying to figure out which of the several dozen buildings scattered over the sands actually contained anything of interest. Signage in English was nonexistent (well, there was one that said “Exit” and pointed to the gate), but there were a couple of Arabic-only maps left over from previous years, so I figured that the area with the most points of interest marked had to be the place to go and headed there, pausing along the way for a few camel snapshots courtesy of a bunch of friendly herders.

Basically, Janadriyah is a mutant cross between a temporary exhibition, a job fair and a souk. The centerpiece “village” contains two large buildings full of stalls with artisans making and selling local products ranging from daggers and coffeepots to honey and kebabs. One of the buildings is very nicely done up like a traditional two-story souk, complete with narrow streets, balconies and pavilions; the other is just a square block with stalls along the sides. But in addition to the artisans, there’s a Saudi Who’s Who of ministries and companies showing off: the Interior Ministry had a rather gory exhibit showing the aftermath of the compound bombings and what they do to drug dealers, while Saudi Arabian Airlines had built a replica of an airplane cabin and even had a stall selling SV goods, including the playing card sets I’d lusted for — but, alas, the guy running the stall was AWOL and nobody else could sell me one. There are also quite a few shops selling food of all kinds, but having just had my breakfast I picked up a few ridiculously huge pastries for a riyal a pop, trekked back across the sands and returned to the hotel to nurse my burgeoning headache. In the unlikely event that there is a next time, I’ll go late in the afternoon and bring a hat.

SV1069 RUH-JED Y B777-200 seat 45D

…skipping a dull week in Riyadh and heading straight to the next destination…

I’d wanted to try out Nas or Sama for this flight, but neither had conveniently timed flights, while Saudia’s departures are near-hourly and reasonably priced at SR 280 (~US$75). I’d already booked my ticket before the Delhi detour, but changing the departure with a call to SV’s Singapore office was quick, effortless and free, and I could confirm that the date was changed online. Props to SV.

Riyadh’s domestic terminal is creepily similar to the international terminals — no surprise, really, as they’re all cast from precisely the same mold, down to way you have to X-ray all bags (carryon and checked) before check-in and then walk back out through the metal detector before going through security again into airside.  Being the beginning of the Saudi weekend, Wednesday evenings at the airport are unsurprisingly busy with fairly long lines at the Saudia desks, but I’d budgeted for this and check-in itself was unproblematic. The airport’s flight info monitors are rather annoying though, as not only do they switch back and forth between Arabic and English (which is understandable), but they spend half their time showing pretty pictures of the airport…

The airside of the domestic terminal looks identical to the int’l one as well, but one lady was sufficiently impressed by the cascading fountain in the center to lift her veil to take a better look! The domestic terminal is noticeably more lively than the international one, with three restaurants/cafes doing a brisk business and a gift shop/bookstore that, much to my surprise, even stocked the latest Economist. I opted for the Saudi Gazette at a sixteenth of the price, picked up a green salad and bottle of water from the Sport Cafe and leeched off the Saudia Al-Fursan Lounge’s unsecured wifi. Quite a few Umrah pilgrims also heading to Jeddah were already in ihram: consisting basically of two towels wrapped around your body, it looks rather like a cross between a terrycloth bathrobe and a shoulder-baring Roman toga, and the terminal’s bathrooms were full of pilgrims taking care of their ablutions before donning it.

As on my previous DXB-RUH-DXB sectors, the plane today was again a B777, again looking a little worse for the wear and in the odd 2-5-2 configuration. Getting everyone settled down took a while though: for example, in my row, seats F/G/H were taken up by the three Saudi wives, with seat F objecting to having a young Saudi guy sit next to her in E, so the guy was swapped with an Indian lady who didn’t object to my male presence and satisfied Ms. F’s sense of decorum. Now repeat this all over a plane that appeared full to the last seat, and I was surprised that we in the end managed to take off more or less on time.

The plane had the same IFE as on my previous DXB-RUH flights of equal length, but this time it wasn’t even switched on. As flight time was about 1.5 hours, there was enough time to serve a quick meal, which turned out to be precisely the same chicken-and-rice mandi as last time, with a small salad and piece of cake, but minus the bun or drink service other than tea/coffee. About half an hour before arrival, the same prerecorded voice that informed us of seatbelt signs and pre-flight supplications announced in remarkably crisp British English: “We have now entered miqah. At this point, pilgrims should don ihram and recite talbiyah.” Turns out the plane from RUH actually flies over the sacred territory around Mecca — and that’s the closest I’ll ever get to it. (I should have taken a window seat.)

Neatest sight while deplaning: a lady tapping out a text message on her phone under her veil, lighting it up from underneath.