Road Trips, in Disguise

When we take road trips, Joey and I go in our traveling disguises—he in his thobe and I in my abaya. It’s not that we’re bashful about being Americans on an adventure in Saudi Arabia. . . . Well, maybe it is, actually.

When we’re out, we’re happy to be mistaken for Jordanians, Syrians, Turks, or (as a last resort) Canadians—because everybody likes Canadians. So I suffer my abaya to slap my ankles while I wander. I bear the desert heat in my black polyester. I swap my bad hair days for bad headscarf days—windy days are the worst, in case you were wondering.

Last week we explored the hill country around Ta’if, a nearby fertile area with ancient agricultural roots. Ta’if is home to a population of indigenous baboons. We met a group of them when we came to a roadblock on the way to Ta’if and had to stop to figure out an alternate route.

We watched the baboons from the car, because you never know when one of those guys is going to realize you’re not a baboon and rip your face off or steal your baby or something. And when you’re a mom, you think about things like this.

The kids were alternately fascinated and repulsed by the baboons. They liked watching the mothers with their young but were disturbed by all of the bare red behinds.

We wanted some pictures, so we threw some banana peels to the baboons. Joey expected the baboons to turn up their noses at our garbage, but the peels turned out to be food worth arguing over. The winner, predictably, was the baboon sheikh. He was the biggest and meanest of the group, swatting away the young ones when they came to beg for scraps.

Harsh as their environment was, I don’t think the females in the group minded the ill temper of their leader. His ill temper is likely part of what makes him a good protector for them and their babies. Gentle, peace-loving males aren't so prised in their culture as they are in mine. 

As the sun began to sink into the west, we decided to stop at a park of sorts, where the locals were paying to ride 4-wheelers and ponies and camels. Events like this are still to be found in countries where parents don’t sue people every time their 4-year-old has a head-on collision with a 16-year-old on a 4-wheeler.

Halen was super excited to join the mayhem. But he was definitely the white boy on the playing field, making conservative turns while the boys and girls around him sped and spun and swerved with abandon.

Marveling at how the girls managed to keep their veils on and dared to show their ankles on the 4-wheelers, I pulled out my paper sack of coal-roasted corn on the cob. It tasted kind of like chewey, dry, ash-covered corn (because that’s precisely what it was), but it didn’t matter because I was being Zen with the moment. And the black ash flakes from the corn were being Zen with my teeth.

A guy came by with a horse and some ponies, and I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. Maybe because he felt bad about abusing his animals, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. Or maybe because I had black stuff in my teeth. I stopped smiling, to make him feel better, and then I paid him to take my girls for a ride.

The pony guy introduced us to the camel guy, who also abused his animal, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. He got a buck out of us too, and then he introduced us to the carriage guy. And the whole evening went on and on like this until finally we were exhausted enough to take our leave of the locals we had become one with and then head back to the hotel.

There, as I took off my abaya and head scarf that had undoubtedly convinced the locals that I was indigenous, I realized that my son had been walking around all day in a red T-shirt that sported a big Mickey Mouse and the words “All American.” I was disturbed. You would think that as a mom, I would notice things like what radical nationalism my kids are advertising on their clothing. You would also think that as a mom, I would double-check that my son had packed a change of clothes for our over-night trip.

You would think. But you know what, although clothing can disguise us, it can’t black out our differences. Far though we might wander into the wilderness, we are still Americans, looking out at the world from within our safe(ish) and shiny(ish) car. We’re both fascinated and disturbed by what we see—partly because it’s different and partly because it’s eerily similar. And I suppose that the locals are both disturbed and fascinated by us.

Many might disagree, but I think differences are okay. God created the world by setting up differences between earth and sea, between light and darkness, between sun and stars and moon. The whole world needs differences. Really, they’re what makes the world beautiful. Ignoring or trying to break down our differences is in some sense a transgression against nature. I’m content to wear disguises when necessary, but they don't stop me from looking on with wonder at the world I see.