Behind the wheel a world away
Toward the end of a trip that sent three friends from the Pacific Northwest halfway around the world to train women how to drive, they got to enjoy a new experience of their own.
Lois Lents, co-owner of Gresham's Pacific Driver Education, Dominique Kuzmaak and Sheryl Vanderwalker rode camels across the desert of Saudi Arabia.
"They are very sweet animals, tied to their owners and very loyal," said Kuzmaak. "But, when they get running you have to hang on tight."
The three driving instructors, who have formed Driving Solutions International, were asked to help teach the women of Saudi Arabia how to drive through a 10-day trip that began April 21.
Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia because of the easing of restrictions that barred them from getting behind the wheel. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman passed a royal decree that allows ladies to hit the road.
Because religious stipulations meant only women can teach the estimated 9 million interested in learning how to drive, Lents, Kuzmaak and Vanderwalker were needed. Kuzmaak was approached by a Saudi Arabia consulting firm looking for women instructors, which led to the three friends taking the trip to join a Women's Driving Forum.
"It was easy to say, 'let's train 9 million women to drive,'" Lents said. "We were part of the group figuring out how to actually go about it."
In Saudi Arabia five women's universities have taken on the task of building and staffing drivers' education facilities. One of the schools, Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University (IAU), hosted the Women's Driving Forum attended by Lents, Kuzmaak and Vanderwalker.
"You could feel the excitement during the forum," Lents said.
The forum was held in Dammam, a city on the Arabian Gulf and the capital of the Eastern Province. The three instructors met with women to learn about the unique challenges facing the country as it moves forward with the new policy, and hosted a booth where they spoke about training methods.
"I didn't meet anyone who was upset about women driving," Kuzmaak said.
Experiencing a new culture
Before the trip the three friends were somewhat nervous about going to a country with what they thought would be a huge culture shock. Based on what they had seen through media and other sources, their image of Saudi Arabia was a closed off place. Thankfully, those preconceptions proved to be completely false.
"It was such an honor to be there," Lents said. "Everyone was so kind to us and the whole experience was wonderful."
Any fears the three had were alleviated the moment they stepped off the plane in Saudi Arabia. Exhausted after their long 24-hour trip they shambled toward the confusing process of going through customs.
"I was standing in line trying to figure out where to go, when a nice young man walked over to me and said, 'This way sister,'" Lents said.
Throughout the trip they encountered kindness and people interested in speaking with Americans. They got to enjoy delicious local cuisine, explore markets and take plenty of photos. Lents even swears she had the best Italian food she's ever eaten at a restaurant owned by a woman.
One day a princess of the House of Al Saud visited and spoke at the forum. During her talk, which Kuzmaak said was easy to follow despite the lack of translations because traffic safety jargon and hand signals transcend language barriers, the princess paused.
"She turned to the three of us and thanked us for being there," Kuzmaak said. "I never thought I would be addressed by royalty."
As they neared the end of their trip, the three friends were distraught because they had yet to see one camel. So, with help from the company who was hosting them, they drove out to visit a camel farm and have what ended up being the most memorable part of the trip.
While riding the camels was fun, it was the time after that sticks with them. At the end of the day, the three joined their hosts around a beautiful Persian rug for a meal out under the stars.
"They have the nicest way of being with each other," Lents said. "That whole night, and the trip, felt surreal."
Work to be done
So far about 1,000 women have received their licenses, a small slice of the millions interested. The women who attended the forum ranged in age from 16 to 50. The three instructors met young teens just getting to the age for driving, and older women who never imagined they would get the opportunity to climb behind the wheel.
One major issue that the country will have to tackle is the lack of infrastructure. That many more drivers will wear on the road system, and there is also a severe lack of parking at places like IAU, where women never before had need for it.
The country is also looking at retraining male drivers, requiring they return to take an updated safety and driving test to try and curb a reputation for the roads being unsafe.
But Saudi Arabia is continuing to put in the time, evidenced by the beautiful three-story instruction facility that played host to the forum and left the local trio in awe.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," Lents said, "But they are trying really hard."
Since returning to the U.S., Lents received an email from a 50-year-old woman she had met at the forum. The woman thanked the three for attending, and then shared her plans once the driver's license is finally in her possession.
The email said: "Tell them I've saved enough money to buy a Cadillac."
Lents, Kuzmaak and Vanderwalker have all been invited back for future training and sessions. While there is no firm date in place, they expect to be jet setting in August to continue helping with the whole process.
"We want to be a part of their solution," Lents said.