Dubai December: Champagne Brunch at Al Qasr

The main highlight of my birthday treat to myself was a champagne brunch at one of the most luxurious hotel resorts in Dubai. (ok it was Prosecco, I’m not complaining) It turns out that Friday brunch is the thing to in Dubai. If you’re ever there on a Friday, make sure you find one and go.

See, Dubai is a little like the Vegas of the Gulf, and while alcohol is legal there (unlike in Saudi) it can only be publicly served in hotels. So these brunches, with limitless cocktails, wine, beer and bubbly are where people really let their hair down. I’ve heard stories that some of the more casual places devolve into riotous parties by the end of the three hour brunch tour.

In fact, it was the huge array of brunch options that caused me to spend several days researching and weighing my options. In the end I opted for Al Qasr, located in Al Jumeriah. Three restaurants get together to make the brunch menu, and run from 12:30 to 4:00, slightly longer than the average. Since I wanted to have a chance to try everything without exploding, the longer time was important. The chocolate room didn’t hurt their chances either.

I do not regret my choice in any way.

First, as the taxi drove up, we passed by a beautiful lawn covered in more than a dozen larger than life golden Arabian horses (and some reindeer because it’s Christmas). Then as we pulled up to a beautiful building with traditional Arabic designs and more Arabian horses in the fountain. I spent some time wandering around taking photos before heading in, since I was about 15 minutes early.

When I entered the building, I was completely swept away by the beautiful Christmas decorations that greeted me. I can tell you that there is nothing like spending some time in poor, dirty places to make clean, beautiful, wealthy places seem disproportionately more amazing.

For example, my friend and I while travelling around China, staying in hostels and hiking up mountains were exposed to a wide variety of very … rural amenities. When we took ourselves to a night at the Tang Dynasty theater at a beautiful upscale locale, the bathroom nearly brought us to tears simply because it was bright, clean, private and had warm water to wash up in.

So you can imagine, after living in Tabuk for almost 4 months, working at a school where the toilets haven’t flushed for 8 months, completely unable to clean the dust from my feet or abaya, looking at dreary taupe sand colored everything for nearly the whole time how seeing a huge, beautiful hotel would be awe inspiring.

Even more so that I had been deprived of Christmas celebrations ( having only my own homemade paper ones to try to bring in a little cheer) how seeing soaring, sparkling, bedecked trees under twinkling chandeliers brought equally sparkling tears to my eyes.

I took many more pictures of the building and decorations, little brass camels, antique silver samovar sets, Santa’s sleigh and flying reindeer, and many more things. Those along with the pictures I managed to get of all the buffet displays (before the people started chowing down) are all on the facebook page.

As 12:30 arrived, the staff began to let patrons down the sweeping double staircase to be greeted by a table filled with flutes of pink prosecco and friendly servers handing each guest a brimming bubbling glass.

Escorted, glass in hand, to my table on the patio of MJ’s Steakhouse (one of the three restaurants that blend together at Al Qasr to create the ginormous brunch spread), I passed such an amazing display of chocolates and pastries, as well as a a cheese board that made me wistful at first sight.

I took myself and my camera on a quick tour of the three restaurants and their offerings. In addition to the deserts and cheese that I passed, there was a whole seafood area with a sushi station that could have been a buffet all on its own. There was Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, Creole, eggs and waffles, and some things I didn’t even recognize. All of it cooked or prepared right there in the three gourmet restaurants and served fresh.

There were also buffet drinks stations. There was cognac, beer, a station making lynchburg lemonades, one of mojitos, and one full of fresh coconuts waiting to be cut open and have rum poured into them, and probably some I missed. Just like the food stations, one had simply to walk up and ask for a drink, mixed when you asked so those keeping Halal could know they could have a “virgin” cocktail.

I started at the seafood stations (yes plural). Seafood is one of my favorite categories of food, and I’d eat sushi every day if I could afford it. King crab is a delicacy I rarely eat, not merely because of the price but also because I think it’s crazy that people die catching food in the 21st century. But, there are things to be said for exceptions. Also, steamed mussels, raw oysters, boiled prawns, and sashimi salads were all on one seafood table (and on my plate). And from the sushi table, I focused in on the unagi (smoked eel, and my absolute favorite) and sashimi of salmon, tuna and yellowtail. I should also mention that the pickled ginger was top notch.

Oh and that bright pink and green dish in the corner is lebnah (a kind of soft cream cheese/sour cream thing) with a thin slice of beet, a sliver of fig (which goes great with lebnah as I discovered) and the tiniest most adorable (and sweet/tart) cherry tomato I’ve ever seen.

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It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, all this seafood was fresh, top quality and really delicious. I’ve had mealy shrimp and chewy mussels before when buffets (especially ones that expect you to be drunk) try to cut corners of the pricey food items, and let me tell you that Al Qasr does no such thing.

My second plate was dedicated to the cheese board. I love cheese. I’m always scouring the cheese ends bin at Whole Foods to find tiny tasty tidbits of some old favorite or some new experience. Cheese, as you may know, is expensive. Even my friends who are fully financially secure treat good cheese as a luxury which they buy in tiny slices and serve with matching fruits and wine.

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The cheese board at Al Qasr contained no less than a dozen different types of cheese: cow, goat and sheep; soft and hard, creamy and crumbly, sweet and salty. Sadly, in my eager anticipation of the tastes, I did not record the names. Maybe when someone offers to pay me to be a travel writer or restaurant critic these details will become more of a focus.

In addition to the many fine cheeses, between each was a type of jam or chutney meant to compliment the flavor of the cheese. I picked up these as well, particularly being fond of the mixed berry chutney and the bourbon-bacon-onion jam (I’ll be working on a recipe for that as soon as I’m back where bourbon and bacon are legal).

Beside the cheese board was a bread table with an equally large variety of crisp and soft breads, rolls and crackers to accompany the cheese. I chose a simple pretzel roll as a palate cleanser between cheeses.

A nutritionist once told me that cheese activates the same pleasure receptors as opiates. This day I did not doubt it.

My third plate went after the meats. There was a grilling station that had grilled lamb chops and grilled beef tenderloin (among other things). The lamb was… perfect. Because of the huge amount of dishes to try, I was usually taking only one or two small bites of everything (even those things served in small portions), but the lamb! I enjoyed down to the bone.

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The tenderloin was also delicious, and I also found some chicken satay (one of my favorite Indian dishes) and a new kind of curry that involved sweet potatoes, coconut milk and chicken that I dearly hope I will ever see in a restaurant again someday. Oh! and some Peiking duck, which itself is a dish that is not often seen let alone prepared well outside of gourmet restaurants in Beijing. A perfectly soft pancake, moist duck and a piquant sauce.

Along side this plate, I opted to try one of the coconut concoctions. I really like coconut water, which, like so many other things is better fresh than processed in a bottle or can from the store. These young coconuts were cut open that afternoon, and just enough of the coconut water was splashed out to make room for the rum. It might be my new favorite cocktail, but I’m willing to bet its not as cool if you’re not sipping it from the coconut.

Fresh Coconut Rum Cocktail

I didn’t mean to have a fourth plate before moving on to dessert. In fact, given how beautiful the desert displays were, I was making sure to not stuff myself too full on lunch dishes (hence the one or two bites per dish strategy). However, I passed by a fresh pasta station.

Short of going to a gourmet Italian restaurant or making it at home, one’s chances of enjoying really fresh pasta are far and few between. So I couldn’t pass it up. They had pumpkin, mushroom and spinach fillings for ravioli, and several types of sauce including cream, marinara and I believe a bolognese. I personally chose the pumpkin in cream sauce.

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If you’ve never had fresh pasta, and I don’t mean the stuff in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, I mean dough that was rolled out and filled a few minutes before it hits the hot water, you need to put this on your food bucket list today. Most of my life I only ever had dried pasta, and its fine. With a good sauce it can even be wonderful, but that’s really the point. Dried pasta is a vehicle for sauce. While fresh pasta is an amazing food that sauce compliments.

And while I was there, I snagged a tiny dish of bite sized pot roast and mashed potatoes.

I wish I could come close to describing all the food that was there. I inspected and passed over a whole station of “traditional” brunch foods like egg dishes, waffles, muffins and croissants. I walked past giant cast iron skillets filled with something that looked like jambalaya. There was a small infinity of South and East Asian dishes I vaguely recognized but don’t know the names of. I’m pretty sure even with four plates, I only tried less than half the dishes on offer.

After about 2 or 2 1/2 hours of lunching (breaks to digest and sip prosecco between plates), I turned my attention to the dessert tables. I think there were probably 6-8 of these. One area focused entirely on chocolate concoctions made with Lindt chocolate. And the other was more fruit oriented with tarts, pies and fresh fruit.

In a best-for-last strategy I decided to start with the fruit station. Beginning with the white and orange dish and  moving clockwise:20141219_144159 A coconut pudding with mango sauce, the little orange ball is actually a ball of cream dusted orange resting atop a waffle cone cup filled with raspberry compote, the glass dish contains a mint-chocolate mousse with little crispy decorative bits and a fresh raspberry, a strawberry tart with a cream base and fresh berries, a chocolate caramel macron with gold flecks, the most amazing lemon tart (only thing on the plate that got finished), a mini waffle cone with caramel mousse, some kind of fresh fruit – it was the only one on the table I didn’t recognize so needed to try, it was very tart and a little slimy, and finally a mini soda bottle filled with a fresh strawberry syrup.

This plate went quite well with the mojito I picked up, lest I be remiss in failing to avail myself of a mojito station. The fresh mint and lime flavors complimented the fruit desserts perfectly.

The second dessert plate, and final plate of the three and half hour brunch experience was focused entirely on chocolate. I should point out that while the staff did a great job of making sure that the tables were always full, some of the desserts I saw at the beginning did disappear or get replaced by the time I got to the chocolates. So, if I go again, I’ll be sure to snag anything that particularly catches my eye early on.

Starting at the espresso mug at twelve o’clock an going clockwise:

A tiramisu the bottom layer of which may traditionally be lady fingers, but was dark chocolate cake in this case; a truffle cake lolipop, a pot-de-creme of blissfully creamy milk chocolate, a kind of salted caramel chocolate cream pudding thing (turned out to be my favorite, just lightly salted and a gorgeous blend of caramel and chocolate) with crumbled gingerbread on top; a pistachio chocolate truffle (green); a German torte with a nut filled dark chocolate dense bottom layer and a creamy white chocolate top layer; a white chocolate covered date; some white chocolate with candied ginger painted red and gold.

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At six o’clock we have the darkest chocolate cake with deep dark ganache frosting; a little piece of gingerbread drizzled with chocolate; tied for second place with the chocolate bottomed tiramisu is the molten chocolate tart (kept under heat lamps at the buffet to stay warm and gooey); a Lindt truffle cupcake; and in the center a masarpone cream delight with chocolate and fresh berries.

Someone brought me a delightful and much appreciated cup of coffee with fresh steamed milk and options of white and brown sugar cubes (and it looked like good turbinado brown, not the silly repainted stuff). And I moved onto the main patio with a view of the Burj Arab and the boats carrying visitors by in the Al Jumeriah canal system.

The staff were relentlessly polite without being in any way overbearing. Finished plates were removed, but only once one had set them aside or made some other clear signal. Glasses were kept filled. After any dish that involved finger food (like my prawns) a small dish of scented water and a hot towel were provided.

At one point an American gentleman who seemed to be management of some kind (dressed in a white suit instead of a uniform and clearly supervising staff) asked me about my experience at the restaurant and we chatted long enough to connect over both having family in Austin.

And although the food and beverage stations closed at 4pm, many patrons had plates of goodies and a remaining cocktail or two on their tables which we all continued to enjoy for at least another hour as the staff cleaned up and continued to ply us with complimentary water, tea and coffee (common in America, but not elsewhere, so it was a pleasant surprise).

In fact, so relaxed and full of champagne and delicious food were we all, that I met a lovely trio of ladies who entertained me for the rest of the day and well into a fun-filled night, but that is another story.

In the mean time, feel free to see all the pictures of Al Qasr on my facebook page, or read about my lovely Dubai December trip to the Miracle Gardens. 🙂

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Dubai December: Overview & The Miracle Gardens

December is major holiday celebrating time for me. Most westerners celebrate some version of Christmas/Yule and the New Year, and of course Americans have Thanksgiving at the tail end of November. On top of that, I’m a Sagittarius, so I get to throw a birthday celebration into the whole mix.

Saudi celebrates none of these things. Not even birthdays. Islamic New Year was in November (tho it changes on the Gregorian calendar every year) and they celebrated by fasting for three days.

I was lucky enough to have an impromptu Thanksgiving feast, and you can read about my Christmas here. New Year’s celebrations are sadly out, since it’s on a Wednesday, and we work Sunday to Thursday. But my birthday goshdarnit, I could do something about that.

I decided to treat myself to a champagne brunch in Dubai. And since I was there, to take in some other sights as well.

I started my explorations bright and early Friday morning at the Miracle Gardens. This is a huge garden filled with structures made entirely of flowers. It’s actually very affordable, merely 30 AED (about 8$ US). And like all things in Dubai, I’m sure it’s the most, biggest, -estest of it’s kind in the world.

20141219_112658I spent the better part of three hours wandering the grounds, which even in December were quite warm in the sun. Every turn brought new views of the staggering flower creations. A village of flower houses, a tunnel of flower hearts, a giant flower clock, a princess tower, a river of flowers, bowers and bells, and even a floral Burj Kalifah (the tallest building in the world also in Dubai).IMG_0731The air smelled wonderful, and all the staff were amazingly friendly and helpful, constantly offering to take pictures for me so that I could pose next to the floral architecture. There were several pagodas and gazebos where people could rest in the shade and a generous but not overbearing snack center.

This was ceilinged by a carpet of flowers providing shade, perfume and beauty while also preserving the all flower panoramic view from the central hill.  The snack center offered a wide array of snacks from countries near UAE, and several dishes I’d never heard of. Because of my brunch buffet plans I didn’t sample any of the fare, but others seemed to be enjoying it, and it was nice to see snacks that weren’t merely pizza, burgers and fries.

I was also told that they’re working on a “phase 2” which will be the world’s largest live butterfly garden if/when they can get the permits. So I’m keeping my eye out on that one because 35 thousand butterflies would be SO COOL.

It wasn’t very crowded in the morning, but became more so as it crept closer to noon. It was very difficult to take wide shots without people in them, but unlike Saudi, that’s ok. And everyone was very considerate about taking turns to pose and take photos at the best spots.

The garden is only open in the cooler months (hardly surprising given that no one wants to do anything outdoors in the summer in Dubai), so plan your visit accordingly.

I could go on about the astonishing architecture, the magnificent scents, the colors and sheer volume of flowers, but in the end, pictures do speak louder than words, so please take a look at all my photos over on my facebook page, and keep a look out for the rest of my exciting Dubai December adventures!

So This Is Christmas…

Christmas, like all other non-Muslim holidays, is banned in Saudi Arabia. It is illegal to celebrate the holiday.

So what will I do today? Having returned from a regular day of teaching at the office, a day unmarked by any event, any well-wishes, or any holiday office celebrations, I will sit down with a 20141212_144325-1traditional Chinese Christmas dinner of fried chicken because it’s the only traditional Christmas meal I can find here. I will find the Grinch on Hulu or Youtube. I will light the beautifully scented candles that my lovely friend sent me as the only Christmas themed item deemed safe to pass through customs. I will look at my paper decorations of red and green and long for a real tree. I will eat dates and dream of my family’s traditional date-ball Christmas cookie, which I cannot make because there are no rice-krispies in the stores here. And I will talk to my friends and family on Skype.

It’s all I can do.

I’ve celebrated Christmas every year of my life. My mother has given me an angel ornament every Christmas since I was born. We have traditional family Christmas cookie recipes that I had to re-invent when I went gluten-free and took me forever to remaster, but I did. We used to bake fruit bread and take it around to the neighbors while singing carols. I was in choir and band, so probably know every carol by heart. And it’s not even a religious holiday for me. I just love it.

I love the decorations, the tree, the food, the music, the lights, the parties, the special clothes. I loved waking up early as a kid to open my stocking, and I love staying up late as a grown-up to fill someone else’s stocking. I love wrapping presents. I love seeing everyone smile and forget that the world sucks for a while.

The only reason we had a nativity when I was a kid was that my grandmother was Catholic. Which is cool.

I have friends who have returned the traditions to their Northern European pre-Christian roots, celebrating Solstice or Yule with a neo-pagan religious flair. And that’s cool too.

The year I lived in China, it was like the perfect Christmas ideology. All the decorations, music, parties and food, with none of the controversy about how to “properly” celebrate a once pagan winter renewal festival turned Christian.

This year, it’s empty. It’s nothing.

I keep reading stories about people being offended about “Merry Christmas” if they’re not Christian, or by “Happy Holidays” if they are. I’m watching cities fight over holiday displays, a zombie nativity scene ordered removed, a Satanist display at the Florida capital vandalized, and Christians all over declaring that there is a “War on Christmas” in America. And I just can’t believe how each and every angry offended person has completely lost sight of what they have.

It is illegal to celebrate Christmas in any form in Saudi. If one chooses to try to celebrate one does so at the risk of being arrested and even deported.

That is a war on Christmas folks.

Someone else celebrating an alternative form of Mid-Winter festivities is not.

So stop being angry that someone else wants to celebrate, and be joyful that you can. Be joyful that you can find a fresh scented evergreen tree at a lot near your home. Be grateful that you can see beautiful decorations in shops and on homes all around you. Be ebullient that radio stations pipe free carols to you whenever you wish. Be in awe if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends or family. And when someone wishes you joy, wish it back.

Merry Christmas

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Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

As some of you may know from reading my previous posts about bureaucracy: The Visa Saga or Clash of the Bureaucracies, I tend to wait until the situation has become ludicrous bordering on the the Kafkaesque, a feat of clerical confounding that would make Orwell or Gilliam reach for the typewriter with pure inspiration before I type it into a blog story. Well, it’s finally happened again. I cannot fit all of the absurdity and frustration of this event into a mere facebook post any longer.

Let me begin with the Iqama.

This is the Saudi equivalent of a green card. It is a national identification card that you will use for everything while living here. It will take you at least three months to get this once you move here. For me, the Iqama journey started the day after I landed, back in early September. My first full day in Saudi I was driven to a medical clinic where they took some samples, asked for my passport and the 6 passport photos I’d been told to bring, and (supposedly) began the Iqama application process.

They returned my passport and sent me on my way. I thought this was odd, because everyone told me that the government would need to keep my passport while the Iqama was processed, but that this didn’t matter too much since I couldn’t leave the country until then anyway.

So then at the end of September, weeks later, I come to find out that they should not have returned the passport, and have not started processing the Iqama yet. But, now it’s Eid (a two week holiday when all the government offices will be closed) so they won’t get to it until the second week of October.

Ok. mafi mushkela. Deep breath. Keep waiting, Inshallah they will hurry and you will have it in only six weeks.

Why is this a problem? Well, because you can’t do anything without the Iqama. You can’t get a SIM card, cell phone or bank account. So it’s not just about leaving the country, but about getting off this cheap pre-paid dumb phone my boss has purchased on her Iqama for me to use in emergencies, and about being able to pay my US bills with my Saudi salary, cause it’s doing me no good accumulating in my lingerie drawer.

So, after much fuss and pestering, I finally get my Iqama on November 10th, a little over 2 months after I arrived, so really, despite the bad start, not too bad. Time to get a real phone! (check out the phone buying adventure/disaster in Smart Phone, Dumb Dating) In addition to the skeezy guy hitting on me as I got my SIM card set up, there was some serious confusion about the payment options. I was initially issued a pre-paid card, then issued a second post-paid card.

Now, in the US pre-paid is usually more expensive per minute and more limiting in data. Contracts where you agree to pay a certain amount per month tend to be a better deal. So, I thought that was likely to be the same. Silly me. More on that later, however, because now we get to the real reason I need a SIM card of my very own, the bank account.

You need a SIM to open a bank account, and you need and Iqama to get a SIM. So, Iqama: check, SIM: check… time to go to the bank, right?

Oh, no.

You also need a bank letter. This is a letter from your employer (who sponsored your Iqama) saying that you are employed and earning a salary. I’m not really sure why this isn’t obvious by the fact that I have an employer sponsored Iqama, but I need another piece of paper, so I ask my boss about this paper. Riyadh is working on it.

Why? I ask, did they not just send it with the Iqama? It’s not like getting a bank account is optional for me. The company requires me to get one so they can direct deposit my paycheck. Up to this point, they have been depositing it in my boss’s account and having her give it to me in cash… which we both dislike. So the company knows I need a bank letter whether I want the account for any personal reasons or not. So, why wait until I’ve received the Iqama (FedEx, btw) to start processing this letter (which also will be sent FedEx)????? Why not just start processing it as soon as possible and send them together?

My boss’s answer: because that would make sense. You see why I like her.

Sixteen days later, the bank letter arrives. It is now Wednesday November 26th. But I can’t go to the bank immediately. Bank hours are the same as school hours, so I have to leave school to go to the bank. Fortunately it is in my contract that the school must give me paid leave time to do this in. However, when any teacher is absent, their class is split among the remaining 2 teachers, so if possible, some forewarning and planning is appreciated by all. Thursday is quiz day. Friday and Saturday the banks will be closed. Sunday is the first day of the week and not a great day for me to miss class. So Monday or Tuesday it will be.

I leave as early as is reasonable, about halfway through my second class. Assuring the students I will be back for class three after lunch (and this is why we say Inshallah instead of committing to anything). We drive …

My driver has been having some attitude and entitlement issues of late. He stops at a couple of gas stations on the way. This is not ok. He’s been told to fill up the tank either before he picks us up or after he drops us off. And I’m trying to get to the bank and back to school in time to scarf some food before class three! So I text the SD, who has the AA call and tell him not to waste time (in Arabic).. while I’m still in the car. So natch, the driver gets mad at me for ratting him out. How hard is it to just do your job?

I go into the bank and take a number and sit down to wait my turn. It is a very long queue. I continue texting with the SD to remonstrate him for getting the driver mad at me. Whereupon, he apparently calls the driver and bawls him out (which I hear about much later). Next thing I know the driver has come into the bank and started demanding someone who speaks English to come and help me (even though it is not my turn).

This works. Not surprising really since so much in Saudi is about who you can get to listen. They take my Iqama to begin the process.

No, we cannot open account for you.

Turns out my name is spelled wrong in Arabic on the Iqama. I feel like my face is going to split and peel off in frustration at this point. I call my AA to help with some translation, because the driver has something to say but has very limited English.

He says we can go to (Arabic word I can’t recall) office and get them to change the Iqama there. No problem. Women can’t go into the building, but it’s ok, he’ll handle it, I can wait in the car. We arrive at the building just as Duhr prayer begins, so we have to sit it out. After about 30 minutes (did I mention this is the one day I decided to leave my water bottle in my office?), he can enter the building.

He comes back and asks me to go with him. So I go in, the only woman, feeling very conspicuous. We shuffle from one unmarked office to another. There are no numbers or names or departmental descriptions on these doors, just halls and halls of doors. (what did I say about the absurdity?). If nothing else, his impatience pays off here because he just keeps bothering people until we get to the right office.

He comes back out of the office unsuccessful and gestures me to follow him back to the car and to call my AA for translation. It turns out that they won’t allow him to make any changes on my behalf unless he has a stamped letter from my employer processed through Riyadh. And they won’t let me make any changes on my behalf unless I have a penis.

So, the Iqama must go back to Riyadh to be fixed. Oh, it gets better. I’ve already made plans to go to Dubai for my birthday in December, and you need to use your bank account to pay for your exit visa. But I can’t get a bank account. So I can’t pay for my exit visa. Because my name is spelled wrong on my Iqama.

Let me talk about the phonemes of Arabic. My last name starts with a hard CH sound. Arabic does not have this phoneme. The sound does not exist in the language. Words like “chocolate” and “sandwich” are pronounced with a soft “shh” sound. So when you want some Pringles, it sounds like you’re asking for a woolly grazer that goes “baaa”. They CAN’T spell my name “right” in Arabic. So this is semantic. They want a different incorrect spelling of my name.

We can do this! We find out how to enable my boss to use her bank account to pay for my visa and I give her the cash. So at least the trip isn’t ruined. And I turn over my Iqama expecting the new one to be back by the time I am. Not so much. A few days ago, the company informs us that they cannot fix the Iqama without the Passport, which my boss tells them they are not getting until I get back from Dubai. I did mention I like her, right?

Then, this Sunday (remember that’s the first day of the workweek), while I am sitting locked out of my office (cause my boss has my key) I discover that my mobile data is not working on my phone. Neither is my text, or calling. Looking at the date, I realize it has now been one month exactly since I signed up for my new phone, and because I have no bank account, I have not been able to pay the bill, so the service has (probably) been cut off.

When I get home, I try to log on to the website, thinking I will just pay the bill online and all will be well. However, the website tells me that “in order to protect me” I will be sent a text message with a secret code to log in on a new machine…. But, they’ve turned the phone off, and I can’t receive text messages.

So I download the app, thinking that if I’m logging in FROM the phone, this should prove I have the phone in my hand as effectively as a text message PIN. Right? Right? Nope. The app in the phone wants to send me a text too… I can’t even.

Ok! Well, I’ve logged in from my office computer before so it should be in the system, I’ll just deal with it in the morning before class. Nope. Still wants to send me a text. So, I meander over to my boss’s office over lunch to commiserate, and let her know that I’m not able to get calls/texts cause that’s actually work related news, and that I’m going to try to go into the shop the next day to pay the bill in person.

This moment is one of the things about Saudi I may never get used to. Advice here is infinite and contradictory. All the people who give you advice are well meaning. And I’m sure that each one of them is truthfully telling you what worked best for them. The problem is, that nothing seems to work the same way twice. It’s like there is an irrational number of possible methods to accomplish anything here. Infinite and non-repeating. So, when I mention the post-pay to my boss, she asks, why are you doing it that way?

Remember back at the beginning of this story I said it works different here? Turns out pre-paid is the better deal 9 times of 10. Especially for data plans. My post paid plan was 200 SAR/month for 2GB of data and unlimited in-network calls. To be honest, I felt like I was back in 2001, limited data and “in-network” calling? who does that anymore? But, I figured, hey, they didn’t even get camera phones until 2004, obviously they’re behind the times on the phone thing.

Pre-paid plans offer unlimited data plans for a decreasing cost in bulk amount. A year is 1500 SAR (breaks down to 125/mo, way cheaper and unlimited). Then you pay for calls by the minute. But since I hardly ever call anyone (sometimes call the driver to say I’m finished… usually less than a minute), and can communicate with the other teachers on WhatsApp or email, I don’t actually need calling minutes as much as I need data.

Awesome! I’ll just pay off this bill and leave the post paid deactivated, switch back to the pre-paid and get on the unlimited data bandwagon. Only a few problems with this.

One, I don’t have my Iqama. My boss handed it over to be shipped off to Riyadh to be “fixed”.

Two, I can’t find the other SIM card. !!!. I distinctly remember putting the teeny tiny SIM card into a little jewelry box, then putting that box inside the box my phone came in with all the warranty junk and receipts so I would have all the phone stuff in one place that was hard to loose.

Oh safe places. You know the ones I mean. The safe places that are so safe you can’t ever find them again? I turned my entire (small) apartment upsidedown looking for that box. I could see it in my mind. I looked in every drawer and cupboard. I got a flashlight and looked under the couch. I got the wobbly chair and looked on top of the wardrobe. I moved all the couch cushions and found a pencil I thought I’d lost forever.

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to get a new pre-paid SIM card. But for this I would need my Iqama for sure. But I could call or text the SD who had it. And I couldn’t call or text my driver to cancel the afternoon trip to the store. So, using the internet alone, I What’sApped my boss, to explain the situation and ask her to contact the other SD to arrange to get my Iqama and reschedule the driver.

Whew!

Then I sat down and spotted the box.

I took out the pre-paid SIM and installed it in the phone. But I decided it was still probably better to go ahead and get the Iqama and go to the store the next day after all the hubbub and confusion.

Finally, today, the day I went to the store to pay the bill and get the unlimited data plan. My driver picks me up at 4, after Asr prayer, and we drive and drive. Apparently its a long way away. I go into the store, same as last time I was there, but am shooed away and told to go in the other door.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because last time I had a man with me or what. But the “other door” led into a tiny white room with a tiny square hole at about face height. There was a big standing advert blocking my view of the main store (although I’m sure it was meant to be blocking the men’s view of me), and a little bell to allow me to summon a clerk.

In broken English, we establish that I am a current customer, that I have two numbers, that I want to pay a bill and recharge a card.

He goes away. He comes back. I can pay the bill with ATM. I explain I do not have such a thing, I do not have a bank account, I only have cash.

He goes away. He comes back. I cannot pay with cash. But I can recharge the pre-paid phone with cash… Soooo, this place is set up to handle cash. I paid for my SIMs originally in cash. The man who was with me at the time was told he could not pay for his router with a card, and had to pay in cash. But I can’t pay my bill with cash?

He goes away. He comes back. Nope, no cash. He tells me I can pay at a bank. I explain again I cannot pay with a card. I switch to broken Arabic: Iqama mushkela, mafi bank. There is a problem with my Iqama, I don’t have a bank. Inshallah, maybe one month I will have a bank and can pay. Finally, he is able to express that I can take cash into a bank and pay the bill through the bank even without an account. I remain skeptical, but this is irrelevant because banks are only open during school hours and I’m not taking more time off school to pay this bill. They can wait.

Ok. Ok. But what about the pre-paid card. I explain the offer on the website of unlimited data, and he says but not all phone numbers, maybe yours.

He goes away. He comes back. Ok. Your phone number ok. So I explain I would like to pay for the data plan and also put some additional money on the Sawa (the money used for pay by the minute calling). I hand him the money.

He goes away. He comes back. No. Finished. He cannot process the request, despite having told me earlier in our conversation that they could take cash for pre-paid. And he can’t really explain why, because the poor man’s English is just not that good.

I have learned some things about Saudi behavior by interacting with my students. These last seven weeks of emotional displays and demands for explanations of every policy or decision coming from women with limited English has given me a very direct and visceral understanding of how they react to unwanted situations, how they are culturally programmed to react. So, I channel my students. Why?! I demand, voice warbling into a higher tone, approaching the whine threshold.

I turn away, I raise my hands, tears well in my eyes as I continue to plead for assistance. He tries to tell me I can go to Extra or Panda (other stores) to buy a Sawa recharge, but I don’t know how to do this either, and I don’t see how it will help with the data plan, since all I know of Sawa is the pre-paid minutes aspect.

Perhaps I should be ashamed of my adopted histrionics. In the US, when confronted with something this frustrating, I would have calmly thanked the clerk, then left the store and screamed in the privacy of my own car while banging on the steering wheel to release tension before finding a new solution. But here, it’s actually rewarding to channel that frustration into an emotional display.

The clerk then offered to come outside to explain to my driver (in Arabic) what needed to be done. The driver then took the cash and I sat down in the waiting room and was brought a cup of sweet Turkish coffee to enjoy while I waited.

About 30 minutes later, the clerk came in with the receipts my driver had brought back, and then programmed all the credit into my phone, and signed me up for the internet plan I wanted. And, apparently for buying so much Sawa at once, I got like an extra 100 SAR credit on my phone too! Looks like I shouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything on the phone for at least the next 6 months.

To be sure the Bureaucracy Wars aren’t over yet, but I’m closing this chapter with a win. SIM card and Data Plan – achievement unlocked.

Smart Phone, Dumb Dating

I completely forgot about this story, fortunately I found it while sorting through some drafts. Enjoy!

About a month ago, I finally got my Iqama and was therefore able to get my own SIM card and my own phone. In Saudi, you can’t have your own cell phone without proper ID, and you can’t open a bank account without a registered phone number.

In addition to this inconvenience, I had also become really tired of trying to travel without access to a data plan to use for GPS and Uber summoning. So as soon as my Iqama was handed over, I arranged to go out and get fixed up with a smart phone and SIM. We determined that STC would be the phone company best for me, but headed first to Extra (the local equivalent of Best Buy) to get the phone itself.

Saudi only has three main phone manufacturers (though I swear I saw some really off off brand models in there too): Apple, Motorola and Samsung. I refuse to buy Apple products, this might make some of you stop following my blog, but such is life, I’ve eschewed Apple since the first Mac machines went up against my old Commodore.

I don’t have anything particular against Motorola, but I had a Galaxy back in the States and decided it would be easier and safer to go with something I knew I liked rather than try to research something new. I also tried to find out if the phones here are region locked, to see if I could simply get a new SIM when I go back to America or if the phone would be a brick. Like all else here, Inshalla, it’s not region locked, but there’s nothing I can do about it if it turns out to be.

Also, I covet the Google Nexus phablet that’s coming this Holiday season. So for these reasons, I decided to go with the Galaxy 3 rather than the 5 and saved myself a bunch of money, since unlocked phones are rather more expensive and there are no plan/contract discount packages here.

But what, Kaine, does this all have to do with dating?

Working on it. Having acquired my new (old) phone, we headed over to the STC office to get me a SIM. I begged my male co-worker to come in with me since he’d been through the process and I had no idea what I was doing. He was some help in this, but completely failed in his role as chaperon.

The (I will not preface the word with “gentle”) man who was assisting me to get registered started asking basic questions necessary for the process, confirming my name and employer. He noted, seeing my birth-date on my Iqama, that we were the same age and smiled at me. Then he asked if my co-worker was my husband.

I didn’t think too much of this at first, there’s a lot of legal connotations for married women here, and unlike a taxi or a restaurant, the SIM card was registered with the government and would be linked to my bank account once I got one. So, for the first time in a while, I had to tell the truth about it and admit that I was single.

This however may not have been a mere box tick on the registration form, because from this point the man became more and more forward with me. He continued to chat about things that were not relevant to the SIM process, made sure I knew he was single too, and talked a lot about how pretty I was. He also told me if I ever had any problems with the phone or service I was welcome to call him, giving me his name and a number.

When it came time to get the phone number set up, he made a special point to tell me he’d picked out a “good” number just for me. I’m not sure why it’s good (but I am sure that he took it home). My co-worker found the clumsy attempts at flirting as very funny, despite the fact that I told him it was his role to prevent these things from happening.

As we left, the man once again implored me to call him should I need anything.

*shudders*

We joked about it in the van on the way back to the hotel, marveling at how awkward the man was at flirtation. I pointed out that the men here have no chance to practice as boys and teens, let alone as adults, so it’s more or less constantly being hit on by your best friend’s 12 year old younger brother.

Sitting at home, slowly loading all my apps on to the new phone via wi-fi, watching Netflix and chatting online, my phone rings. I do not answer. I’ve programmed all the numbers for my co-workers already, and this is unrecognized, so I don’t answer. I do this in America, too. Admit it, so do you. Caller ID is magic.

Next, I get a text. It’s the man from the STC store. The text is just him identifying himself, presumably because he guessed I was screening my calls. I do not reply. Then he calls again. And I still don’t answer. It’s after sunset, by this point, so there is NO way he’s calling about anything related to a professional matter about my STC card.

So I block the number, and email my boss about the occurrence.

There’s this app called What’s App. It allows texting outside the phone’s text charges, presumably there are still places that have limited texting plans or this wouldn’t exist, plus it avoids any international phone charges. I’d heard of it in America on an NPR story as something that was gaining popularity in poorer countries.

It is very popular here. My company uses it to send out alerts to teachers en masse, so my boss had asked that I install it and set up an account as soon as I got my new phone, which I had done.

Screenshot_2014-11-14-08-50-21So then I get a message from the STC guy on What’s App. At something like 11pm. Way after hours. After not answering his calls or texts and blocking him once… I had to learn how to use the blocking function on What’s App rather faster than I anticipated.

Two phone calls, a couple texts, a What’s App and two blocks later, I finally managed to stop hearing from this guy. Talk about not being able to take a hint. My boss wanted us to go back to the store and report him, but unfortunately the male-coworker who needed to go with me (I’d need a man to intercede on my behalf) was extra busy for the next week, and honestly didn’t seem to take it as anything other than a joke.

But wait! There’s more.

What’s App apparently installs with the privacy settings on zero as a default. There wasn’t any kind of question or set up process that allowed me to set these before my profile went public!

10422161_10152399967446646_3074836361079130079_nI have no idea how people see public profiles on this thing. But I got several unwanted advances at ridiculous hours of the night before I finally managed to figure out the privacy settings and remove my profile photo and number from the public view.

This was the only one I saved a screenshot of before I just got fed up. When I posted about it on FB later, I realized how generally harmless it looks through Western cultural lenses.

People tried to commiserate with other stories of awkward hitting on or catcalling experiences, but I could tell they weren’t really getting the context of this behavior within Saudi.

I tried this metaphor:

“its really hard to express how far beyond normal skeezy cat calling this kind of thing is, like if the way a guy hit on a girl was to invite her out to kill someone’s grandparents with him, the behavior is not only illegal, in this culture, it is also morally repugnant”

It’s awful that women all over the world have to put up with being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by random men. It’s easy for us to sympathize with girls who get blatant offers for sex, graphic requests, invasive touching, or unsolicited dick pics because we all generally agree these things are not cool.
But trying to get people to understand that the STC man’s sad attempts at flirting and repeated calling, or this man’s kissy face emoticons have the same depth of skeeze within this culture, and that what I would have found funny, cute or at worst mildly annoying only a few months ago, now has the power to make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
This just goes to show it isn’t the act that makes something friendly/safe vs skeezy/gross it is the context. The next time a woman says that a comment or a catcall made her feel bad or in danger, don’t dismiss it as an attempted compliment or an innocent joke. Instead, realize that any behavior can be harassment if it’s invasive and unsolicited.

 

 

Traditional Saudi Dinner at the Najd Village

After we got back from the Edge of the World, I was just planning to spend the remaining few hours before my flight wandering the Granada Mall. However, in the restroom of the mall, the first place I headed after the long drive, I ran into the lovely Saudi sisters again. As we got to chatting, I mentioned I my plans. They were surprised to learn I had only come to Riyadh for one day, and insisted that instead of spending my few hours alone, that I join them for dinner.

It is very strange for Saudi people to spend time alone if they don’t have to. I read about this before I came here. We westerners often value our “alone time”, but apparently that is not something our Saudi brothers and sisters share. Pretty lucky for me, since I get plenty of alone time in Tabuk during the school week, and am happy for some company on my adventures.

These ladies were very erudite and cosmopolitan. One had been born and partially raised in the US, and some had spent considerable time in Jeddah before moving to Riyadh. I believe that they all still lived with their families, and were thus still single. The oldest sister had a great job in finance and the others were finishing up their degrees hoping to get similarly good jobs.

They spoke English excellently, and often with their friend, the fourth Saudi to whom they were not related. I got the impression that the reason they resorted to English was not just for my benefit, but because their home dialects of Arabic were different enough that it was sometimes easier to use English to bridge the gap. Which explains why I heard so much English at GCON. The youngest said she’d actually taught herself English from movies and music, amazing! That kind of dedication and motivation is something I wish my own students had more of.

Riyadh is a very global city. It is a huge, bustling metropolis where one can get nearly anything. There’s even a Victoria’s Secret in one of the malls! So even being native Saudis, in the heart of the country’s capital, the ladies felt very far removed from their traditional Saudi culture, so for them, the day was about having a “traditional Saudi experience”. It sort of reminds me of folks from New York going out to Texas to have a “real cowboy experience”.

So after going to the desert and riding “Bedouin style” in the back of a truck, it was time for a traditional Saudi meal.

IMG_0680The Nadj Village is a cute little restaurant that mimics traditional eating styles. The waiting area has a little coffee reception spot and comfortable floor style seating. Beyond that, each group has a private area to dine, a mini-Istraha, some outdoors set up like tents and others indoors with thatched rooves and fireplaces.

As we were having coffee awaiting our room, I asked them if they knew about the American holiday of Thanksgiving. They had, and I told them that the day before (Thursday) had been Thanksgiving, and I had no celebration, so this would be like my Thanksgiving feast. They laughed and said there was unlikely to be any turkey, but that we could order some chicken and pretend.

The menu was full of food I’d never seen or heard of before. Of course there was the obligatory lamb chunks on rice on the menu, but these ladies had very set ideas about what they would eat.

Saleek

A lot of Middle Eastern recipes involve first boiling then roasting a chicken. I’m usually opposed to the boiling of meat for any purpose, but as it turns out, there is a method to this madness. They use the water as a stock to make the soup or rice that the chicken will be served with, ensuring a blending of flavors and that no flavor is lost.

In Saleek, the chicken is boiled with cardamom. The broth created is then used to cook the rice base of the dish. I say rice, but its more like porridge. You cook the rice till its very mushy, then add milk, ghee and a kind of evergreen tree flavor called mastikah. The chicken is then grilled or roasted to give it a good outer crisp before being served atop the rice mixture. Due to the gloopy nature of the rice, a spoon is used to eat it. Yum.

Hamees Lahm

This is a dish of meat cooked with onions and spices. The spices are mainly sweet, like clove and ginger, with some black pepper as well. The flavor of the meat is enhanced but not covered. This is eaten with pieces of bread. Oh such bread! The normal pita I’d become used to in grocery stores and restaurants here had been replaced with some amazing version that most resembled na’an, that Indian Tandoor bread cooked on the inside of a clay oven. The flavor and texture were amazing. I think we forget in the land of processed bread how wonderful a food it can be all by itself, soaking up the meat juices it was pure heaven!

Jareesh

Jareesh is another type of porridge, but this one is made with whole wheatberry or crushed wheat instead of rice (although the complete dish is served with regular rice). Once again, you start by boiling some meat to get a good stock, in this case lamb. This is a long slow cook to get a tender lamb and a flavorful stock. The wheatberry is then cooked in the stock until soft.

Traditionally, this is hours of stirring, making it a special dish for weddings or celebrations, but it looks like grocery stores here sell a kind of quick-cook jareesh that takes only about 15 minutes. Finally, layer the creamy jareesh, the regular rice and the cooked meat in a single dish, topping it with parsley and/or fried onions. Again, a spoon is permissible to eat with. Serious winter comfort food!

Goursan

The best description I have from asking around is that this is a “kind of dough with meat & vegetables (zucchini, eggplants, pumpkin, potatoes, etc). This fits my memory fairly well, as I do remember some orangeish dish that I scooped a large slice of eggplant out of and found completely delicious. I’m hoping some of my online contacts come through with a recipe eventually, because I’m not sure what all the other flavors were beyond guessing at the standard Middle Eastern spice blend, favoring a combination of sweet (clove, ginger, cardamom) and hot (black or red pepper).

Sabeeb with honey

Described as “village brown bread topped with honey” these teeny little pancakes were no more than 3 cm across. The flavor reminded me in a way of buckwheat pancakes. The texture was very firm and slightly chewy. Sabeeb can be savory or sweet. My hostesses ordered the sweet version. The honey may have been melted or watered, because the bread wasn’t so much topped with honey as saturated with it. There was some debate over the proper eating method as the west coast ladies attempted to use the spoons, but the Nadj region lady informed us fingers were more appropriate. They’re also good leftover. I had the rest for breakfast the next day. Om nom nom.

Gisht

I tried looking a recipe up on google, no luck. Fortunately I remember this one pretty well. It was our dessert. In addition to more arabic coffee, my hostesses ordered some warm gisht. This is generous bowl of dates that have been cooked with flour, butter, cream and spices. It should not be confused with a cake or cookie or really any kind of baked good. It isn’t. There’s very little flour in the mix, just enough to get the butter, cream and spices to stick to the dates, really. And although it was served warm, I can attest that cold leftovers are also quite delicious.

20141128_162221

I wrote all the names down at the restaurant, but looked them up again for more details here in the blog. I think now that I’ve found some recipies, I might have to try my hand at making a few myself so I don’t have to wait until another serendipidy takes me to a traditional restaurant.

We spend a happy couple of hours chatting and eating. We took lots of pictures, many of which I cannot share because of the modesty culture here, but the rest you can see on my facebook page.

We shared stories, I told them about my experiences in Jeddah. They thought the taxi driver marriage proposal was so funny, they made me repeat it so they could record it. They loved instagram and snapchat. It almost felt like being back in America, everyone constantly looking at and checking their phones.

I showed them some pictures of the Pacific Northwest, camping trips and day hikes I’ve taken around Seattle. “This is your home?” one asked. I told them Seattle was very green with rain almost every day. She looked at me sincerely, concern in her eyes tempered with a wry twinkle, “Are you sure you’re ok here?”.

They showed me pictures of a Saudi engagement party and told me about some of the engagement traditions. They talked about the difficulty of being an adult still stuck living at home, wanting their own lives and freedom but constantly being checked up on and required to answer to parents. It may sound like a teenager’s lament, but bear in mind at least one of these ladies had finished her Master’s and had a good job of her own.

And, like all Saudi hostesses, they told me I didn’t eat enough even when I thought my stomach would explode.

As the evening drifted on, we chatted and drank coffee and nibbled on the remains of our sabeeb and gisht. Finally they called a driver to come pick them up and it was time to part ways.

They’ve invited me to visit them again, if I’m able to go back to Riyadh, to show me more parts of their city. It’s funny, because in America, extensions of friendship to those met briefly on a shared flight or chance public encounter are so often a veneer, a polite nothing. Especially in Seattle, where the Seattle freeze makes it more challenging to meet anyone except through those you already know. (which seems sad and boring to me, but hey).

Here in Saudi, they are quick to extend friendship, and they mean it.

Had I met with a group of beautiful successful ladies in the US, I would have expected to be shunned and avoided because I do not meet their social standards of beauty, wealth or culture. At best, I would expect nothing more than polite but shallow interactions, and to never hear from them again even if we exchanged email or facebook.

But these ladies were genuine in their concern for me, a stranger alone in their country, and I really think that they had as much fun as I did. They did reach out to me in email later, sending along more photos and letting me know they read my blog and hopped to see me again soon, and I plan to make a point of returning to Riyadh at least once more before I leave just to see them again.

The depth and warmth of the people I meet here in Saudi continues to amaze and delight me. This place and these people are so much more than I could have imagined or expected, and I am thankful this Thanksgiving to have spent it here with them.