Well, I made it. Wheels touched down in Riyadh one week ago. You all got to read about the incredible journey, so now lets take a look at the first week of life in the Magic Kingdom.
This of course takes up most of my time. My first day of work was Sunday, by the way. I landed in Tabuk on Saturday, and started work on Sunday. No break at all. Oh, and also no training. The supposed online training site I was supposed to have access to all summer where I could watch videos and fill out worksheets for feedback (which was a seriously appealing prospect and part of the reason I took the job) was broken all summer, or maybe is just wishful thinking that hasn’t ever worked. Like the toilets… (more later). And the pre-term training that was supposed to start in late August, I couldn’t attend because they took so darn long getting me a visa and a plane ticket that I actually arrived in the second week of school.
So, Sunday morning at 6:40 am, I come downstairs to the van-pool and head to the school. I have an hour before class starts, which is nice, I can check my email, look over my plan for the day, drink my coffee, etc. But on this first day, I did none of this. I stared in confusion at the perfectly symmetrical, identical geometric patterns of the building wondering how I would ever find anything. I talked to the site director about what I should do and got shown a huge amount of paperwork. I collected my students and invented a lesson entirely on the fly.
As it turns out — the internet didn’t work, the a/c was barely working, the toilets didn’t flush, and there was no copy machine because there was “no toner in all of Tabuk”.
Additionally, although the school administered placement tests for the students, someone decided that they should not have a level A-0 class and so split the three groups into A-1, A-1+, and A-2. This might not be a big deal if the teaching method I was sold in the job interview was true, but alas, like so many other things, it was not. I won’t say they meant to lie, but it seems there was a new policy implemented just this school year, so at very least it is no longer true.
See, there’s a book, but we don’t use the book, and the students don’t have the book. The book is a guideline of skills the students should learn and be tested on in each level. Normally, and A-0 is considered someone who has zero English. But they decided A-0 would be learning the material in chapters 1-8. The problem being that this doesn’t start with the alphabet and “Hello, my name is” which is how zero English speakers have to start. It starts with a basic assumption that you have the letters and a small vocabulary, along with a basic understanding of the S.V.O. sentence structure/word order of English.
Ok. So this is fine, I don’t really care what you call them, I care what they know coming to my class, and what I’m expected to help them learn. But A-1’s are supposed to be chapters 9-16, so if they haven’t really got a grip on 1-8, this is not gonna fly.
By the end of the week we have marginally better A/C, some toner for the copy machine (so I can make handouts!), and I’ve convinced them to take my best students up to the A-1+ class, let me take her remedial ones and actually teach to their level A-0, but the toilets still don’t flush…
THE STUDENTS & STAFF
On the plus side, the students are really sweet. Not just mine, but even the random ones I run into in the halls. Its easy for them to see I’m not Saudi, so they like to try out their English on me. Some girls in the elevator struck up a basic conversation, hello, what’s your name, nice to meet you. Of course I responded like a cheerful textbook, but they were so happy. As I left on my floor they waved goodbye and told me I was very nice.
Others don’t speak English but are still curious. One group asked if I spoke Arabic. I replied ‘not very well’, but as we pressed our floor buttons, I pressed 2, and one of the girls said ‘two’ in English, so I said ‘ithnaan’, which is 2 in Arabic. The girls exploded into giggles and began to compliment my Arabic. I couldn’t help but laugh with them, since the whole thing was so silly, and as I was leaving, I added, ‘shukran’ which means thank you, and sent them into fresh peals of giggling.
These girls show up to school looking like a flock of crows, black abayas, hijabs and niqabs covering everything but their eyes. But once inside, they transform into peacocks. Security checks their outfits at the door, so everyone must have at least calf length skirts and 3/4 length sleeves, no cleavage. But they definitely color it up, add a lot of bling, enough make-up to make any 5 Mary Kay ladies’ yearly commission, and hairspray that has time traveled from the 80’s.
They have a habit of bleaching all or part of the natural eyebrow and drawing a preferred shape back in. Now, American girls pluck all the time, despite the great pioneering work of Ingrid Bergman in Cassablanca. However, the preferred American drawn on eyebrow is generally thin, high and well separated and looks something like this.
Whereas the preferred Saudi eyebrow is thick, dark, and creeping together in the middle, giving the impression of a scowl all the time. Now, the picture here is even a little sedate compared to some of the students and staff at the school, so just try to imagine it even thicker towards the bridge of the nose.
And the HAIR. I have to imagine they get to school hours early because there is no way those up-dos could ever go under a hijab. Honestly, I’m not even sure how they got them to stay up. I’ve seen less complicated and more mobile hairstyles in anime. There is also a lot of bleach and henna around. Less than half of them have kept their natural black.
But basically, they’re college girls. I think this may be the only place outside their homes that they can dress and talk with any freedom and no fear of being heard or seen by a man. It really is nice to be able to see them like this.
The expat staff are nearly all nice. My SD is very friendly, patient and supportive. The other two teachers have been with the company longer, even though they only moved to Tabuk this year, so the wonder has worn off, and now they’re just frustrated they can’t do their jobs properly. For [redacted], this seems like a fairly mild kind of oh-well-I-guess-I’ll-cope frustration, but [redacted] is really a very angry, miserable lady. Honestly, I have no idea why she’s still working at this company if it makes her so unhappy, so I think she may just be a chronically unhappy person. I will try not to let it get me down, while trying to keep my optimism to myself as much as possible.
The Saudi staff are also lovely ladies. They always smile when they see me, which makes me smile. One morning, the lady at the student check in desk ran out to us with date cookies. And I got my first real Saudi greeting from [redacted], who keeps all our attendance (teachers and students) and liaises with us if we need copies or supplies other than what our SD provides, or if we have any trouble communicating non-lesson related (clerical or schedule change) information to the students. After our first couple days of the more distant Western handshake, she leaned in and we exchanged two air kisses, Saudi style.
In case you didn’t hear, I’m living in a hotel. Not temporarily housed until we find me something else, but living for the year in this hotel. Don’t be fooled by the pictures they’ve posted, those are the deluxe suites. Mine is much smaller. Oh, I could upgrade, and maybe eventually I will, but its more expensive and its not like I need that much space being just me.
It took me a little while to learn how to use everything. There aren’t enough outlets for the appliances, so if you want to use the electric kettle, you have to unplug the range. And if you want to use the microwave, you have to unplug the refrigerator. I got a small washer brought to my room because I didn’t think I wanted to have to take all my clothes down to the cleaners (even though I’m told its quite cheap). I guess I like the autonomy of laundry. This may change.
It has two sides. On one side you fill it with water (in my case from the bidet hose, because its the only water source I don’t have to carry in) and add soap then it agitates it for you. The soap takes forever to rinse out. I’m trying to remember, but I think that when I had a machine like this in China, I just stopped using soap on my underthings because I didn’t want the risk of dried soap in sensitive (and sweaty) places. I’ve rinsed this load 4 times and its still sudsing.
The other side is a spinner, to spin off excess water. However, it is so tiny that it overbalances easily. If your washer at home has ever done this, you know the horrible clunk-clunk sound it makes as the spinner tries to turn your washer into a helicopter. Usually you can fix it by redistributing the weight of the wet clothes, or at worst, taking some out and doing the spin cycle twice. Right? Not here. This spin side can only handle about one tank top or three panties worth of laundry at a time, and then only if you wring it out by hand first.
All in all, this machine is only a minor improvement over doing laundry down at the river like our great-grandmothers did, and I’m pretty sure everything but underwear is going to the laundry service from now on.
As a power saving method, the power only activates if the card key is in the slot by the door. So When I go out, and have to take the key with me, all the electricity turns off, meaning that my devices can’t charge unless I’m at home. Moreover, since my laptops second battery has gone defective, it runs only on ac power. This is a great mystery because I forgot to turn it off the first day I was here and came home to a powered down PC, but yesterday I forgot (cause I was quite sick.. more later) and came home to the PC on and my movie even still paused where I left it.
And its a good thing I brought my country adapters. I keep bringing these things everywhere, even though most countries have started installing American style outlets, and most electronics companies now make devices and chargers that can use a world wide variety of voltage outputs. Even in Riyadh I was able to just plug my tablet charger into the wall, no adapter. But all the outlets in my hotel house look like this.
The good news about this hotel thingie is that it is handy to the shops. Since I can’t drive or take a bus, if I want to go anywhere I must either walk or hire a driver. The other female teacher who lives here, apparently doesn’t like going out alone at all, but I’ve been doing it all week and haven’t had any trouble.
On our side of the street there are lots of small local shops including several restaurants, an office supply store, a computer store, the laundry, a kind of high class-ish sweets shop, a fresh juice bar and a little convenience store. At the end of a block or two on the other side of the street is a mall with a well stocked supermarket called Panda where nearly all the food labels are in both English and Arabic, which is nice.
I only explored the rest of the mall briefly last Saturday with [redacted] who decided to use greeting me as an excuse to have company to explore. The stores are mainly geared toward women, clothing, abayas, perfume, accessories, etc. There was a really nice communal play area for children in the middle. The [redacted] made a comment that he felt discriminated against because all the shops were for women and there were only tiny men’s sections way in the back. I told him it was payback for what the women had to endure everywhere else.
While we were exploring, a Saudi woman approached me and asked ‘Amrikiya?’, which I’m sure you can infer means ‘American?’, ‘Mashalla, Amrikiya in Saudi Ilhamdulilah. Doctor?’ (all these other words are praises to Allah in various forms.’ ‘La (no).’ I replied. ‘Teacher.’ ‘Mashallah. Mashalla. Welcome.’ As she walked away, [redacted] was so surprised. He had never in four years teaching in Saudi had such an experience. Maybe there are a few advantages to being a woman here after all?
I’ve been out to several of the restaurants, and one which was closed I have promised to return to on another occasion as the owners/managers made a big fuss of trying to communicate when they opened so I could come back. One restaurant I won’t go back to for two reasons: it had a women’s entrance, separate order window and seating and everything with a wall in between, and it was all horrible fried chicken fast food.
The place right next door is Shawarma, and pretty darn tasty, I might add. You can get a schawarma wrap for 7 riyals, about 2$ US, and I ordered a platter of some kind that came with what ended up being 3 meals and a snack for 20 riyals, about 6$. The other place I tried served me half a tiny but delicious roasted chicken and more saffron rice than I thought I would eat in 3 days for 13 riyals (about 4$). The place I hope to try next has lovely pictures of vegetable dishes, which I am dying for. So much meat and rice!
I get a few strange looks when I go out, its true. But I need to buy water pretty much every day, so I usually make a trip of it and pick up some food for dinner and lunch or a sweet snack as well. So far, no bad encounters. Some guys just move away from me, a little like they’re insulted that I’m in their space. But most simply ignore me, which being from Seattle is pretty standard for strangers on the street. One guy actually greeted me in passing, and another tried (I think) to buy me a Coke while I was in the convenience store. The shop keepers are very nice to me and I don’t feel unsafe walking between my house and the mall at least. Not quite ready to go out after full dark, and not quite ready to wander around any corners where I can’t see the hotel from, but I think once I have a working cell phone, I’ll have a little more confidence and see what else I can see.
And finally, I got sick.
Wednesday I was a little extra tired and noticed that I was less patient with the students than I had been the rest of the week. I put it down to the new sleep schedule, the 5am call to prayer waking me every day even though my alarm didn’t go off until 6am, and the general frustration with the things discussed above in ‘the job’ section.
But when I got home and turned the power back on (the A/C doesn’t run unless I’m there) it wasn’t too long before I started to feel cold. This wasn’t entirely new. Bear in mind that since the A/C at school isn’t great, I sweat rather a lot, and so I peel off the abaya and sweaty clothes as soon as I get in, and rinse off while the A/C catches up. I’d been playing with the A/C settings since I got here trying to manage settings when there is no automatic temperature sensor to turn off the air when it gets to 70 and turn it back on at 75, I could only fiddle with the knobs until the room stayed comfortable for more than a couple hours at a time. So I turned the cold to a less cold setting.
But I was almost shivering! So I turned the A/C off, then found my yoga pants and hoodie to wear. Indoors, during the day, in Saudi, with the A/C off. Still couldn’t get warm. So I made some tea. Still shivering, now I’m achy, too. My hand brushed one of my steel earrings and I noticed how warm the metal was. I touched my face and my skin was on fire! Did I have a fever?
I rummaged in my medical kit for a thermometer (yes I travel with a medical kit, size depends on length of stay), and had a 100.6 degree temperature. So, I emailed my SD and sent in the lesson plan for Thursday’s class so someone else could take it. I only realized later that she asked me to call [redacted] to pass off my office key and so they could let the driver know not to wait for me. It wouldn’t have mattered because the temp cell phone they gave me (I can’t get my own until I have the coveted Iqama) isn’t working or at least, in my fevered state on Friday I couldn’t figure it out.
Friday morning, [redacted] comes knocking on my door asking if I’ve overslept because my SD didn’t tell anyone else (to be fair, she thought I had a working phone), so I explained I was sick and handed over my office keys and went back to bed. One one of my many awakenings to visit the toilet and get more water, I saw another email from my SD insisting that I go to a doctor that day, because otherwise it would be an unpaid sick day.
Honestly, with my temperature climbing to 101.5, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I didn’t really care about the money. I decided to go to the doctor to keep her happy, however, and agreed to have the driver pick me up when he dropped the others off from school. The other teacher kindly lent me her phone on my way out so I would have some way of calling the driver back to the clinic when I was done.
At the clinic.
The clinic was nice and clean, if not particularly modern. Although the receptionist didn’t speak any English, he found a nurse to translate and they got me into a doctor right away. The doctor was Egyptian and spoke reasonably good English. He listened to my complaints and asked some questions, but when he realized I’d only been in the country a week, he was pretty sure it was “traveller’s diarhea”. He did a little exam anyway, which was odd because I was wearing the abaya and hijab, then prescribed some antibiotics and ibuprofin. I was to get an injection in the clinic, then some pills from the pharmacy for the next few days.
The injection process was strange. The nice Filipina nurse chatted with me while she worked. I thought she must be used to fussy Saudi women because she seemed so worried when she had to inject a needle. First they did a skin test to make sure I wouldn’t have any reaction to the injected medicine. Next there was a sort of manual IV, where the nurse put an IV needle in my hand attached to a tube that was attached to a large syringe instead of an IV bag. Then she sat patiently beside me while she slowly depressed the plunger and released the medicine into my hand.
We asked all the regular questions, where are you from, how long have you been here, where is your family, etc. Her husband works in another town, but its only 90 minutes away, so they get to spend weekends together.
The whole visit cost 145 riyals, 40 for the doctor and 105 for the medicine. That comes in under 40$ without insurance, by the way. And the school will reimburse me. The pharmacy bill came to about 15$, same deal.
The After Clinic Challenge
Here’s where it gets challenging. The whole reason I went (although, now I’m glad I did, cause the fever is all gone!) was to make the school happy. To be happy, the school needs a doctors note. I asked the doctor for this, of course, and he told me to send my driver back in 4 hours to pick it up after it had been signed by the clinic manager.
Ok. Just one problem, [redacted], the driver, doesn’t speak English. Actually, I’m starting to think that he uses this as an excuse not to do any “extra work” even though he is paid for many more hours of driving a day than he actually does. So we get home and I have at least managed to communicate that I have something else to say, so he comes inside in the hopes that the hotel clerk can help with the translation.
[redacted] is a nice young man [redacted] who mans the front desk in the afternoon. His English is pretty good and I enjoy talking to him. He was very helpful in getting my washer set up, and fixing the two non-working outlets in my room. I explain to him that I need [redacted] to drive back to the hospital after 4 hours to get the note. This does not work.
At this point, [redacted] and [redacted] come into the lobby because they need to go back out with [redacted] on another errand. Quickly they too are roped into helping in the translation effort. We’re using Google Translate, hand gestures, and a live interpreter (whose first language is Egyptian, by the way, very different from Saudi Arabic) to try to explain that all he has to do is go back to the clinic and pick up a note.
We finally believe we have communicated this, and move on to the pharmacy issue. See, the pharmacy was closed for prayer when I left the clinic so we couldn’t go right away, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed at this point, still sick and feverish as I was. This at least was a task the driver understood, so I handed over the prescription and some money agreeing that he could call my room when he returned.
Around 6:30 pm, my doorbell rings. Its [redacted]. He says the driver has called him from the lobby and keeps asking for me. Its still an hour before the doctor said the note would be ready, so I’m really surprised. I’m also exhausted, but there’s nothing for it but to throw on my abaya again, wrap my hair up under the hijab and head downstairs.
Where ensued the worst multi-lingual comedy of errors ever. I was sick and it still made me laugh. Or maybe I just laughed to keep from crying.
Good news, he’d gone to the pharmacy, so I wasn’t called down for nothing. I knew I needed the receipt for the school to reimburse me, so I asked for it. [redacted] knew the Arabic and repeated the one word request. After about 5 minutes of gestures and Google Translate, I finally got the receipt, whereupon the driver realized he had to turn over the change as well. I’m not sure he would have given it to me if I hadn’t been insisting on the receipt so much, which is pretty obnoxious since I sent him with 200 riyals and the meds were only 60.
Then we’re back to the doctor’s note. Its too early to go yet, because the doctor said 4 hours. The driver insists the clinic will be closed by that time, and wants to get it on Sunday instead (remember the weekend here is Friday/Saturday). I’m not convinced, since the doctor told me to send the driver in four hours, not the next day, and that would be odd if the clinic were closing before that time. And on top of that, Sunday is too late, since I need to give everything to the school on Sunday when I come back to work.
Finally, we get across that Saturday is the latest it can be done, and the driver knows there is a big teacher dinner he has to drive us to on Saturday, so he indicates that he will take the others to the dinner, and me to the clinic. NO! we all say together. He simply refuses to go alongside the idea that I don’t have to go with him to get this stupid note.
On top of this, he asked for and subsequently kept my receipt for the doctors visit. I’m sure this conversation was just as frustrating for him as the other was for me, because after the pharmacy receipt issue he started asking me for the doctor receipt, but I couldn’t imagine why he would want it, so I thought perhaps he was asking if that was the paper I needed from the clinic.
When I finally produced the receipt from my bag, he was clearly expressing the Arabic for something like ‘finally!’, and he took it with him.
So, another email to the SD explaining that the note is still at the clinic and the driver has one of my receipts. Hopefully we’ll get it resolved in the next few days.
In the mean time, either the medicine is working or it was the shortest flu ever, because I’ve been up since 5am making up for all the time I missed while passed out Wed and Thurs. My fever is gone and my brain is working again, so things are looking more manageable. I got my syllabus for the rest of the term outlined, and wrote my lesson plans for next week. In a little bit, I’ll go for my afternoon stroll out for food and water and tmorrow, hopefully I’ll enjoy a nice evening out with the staff at whatever fancy restaurant they’ve arranged to take us to.