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.

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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.

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The Edge of the World

When my previously hoped for November trip to Madain Saleh was postponed, I set about trying to quickly find a replacement for my monthly adventure. With very little warning and no time off from work, I decided it might be time to see what I could do with a tour group.

I contacted Haya Tours and discovered they were doing a trip to the Edge of the World on Thanksgiving weekend. Having no plans for the holiday here in Tabuk, and seeing that the Edge was on my Saudi bucket list, I decided to join the group.

I had read a little about the place, seen some pictures on Google, but it was hard to get a real idea of the place. Indeed, I took my own pictures, but they don’t really do it justice. It’s not unlike the Grand Canyon, the scale is simply to vast, the experience is so three dimensional that my poor little camera can’t even come close to capturing it.

Our instructions were to meet up at the Granada Mall at 7:30 in the morning on Friday. I flew into Riyadh Thursday night, the only flight I could get arrived after midnight, so I only got a few hours of sleep in the hotel before I had to catch my car to the meeting point.

We had a pretty large group, mostly made up of women. There was a group of Americans, a couple ladies from New Zealand, and a quartet of native Saudi women as well. In addition we had a contingent of Germans who were apparently in Saudi short-term on a contract to improve efficiency in certain industries… That was a funny conversation. And one older gentleman who’d been working in oil around the Middle East for 20+ years.

We all piled in to the 4-wheel drive SUVs and trucks and headed out of the city. We drove for about an hour and took the time to get to know one another. I was in a car with the 4 Saudi women and the lady from New Zealand. One of my favorite parts of travelling is getting to meet people from all over the place and hearing their stories.

The sky was looking very dark and threatening rain. In the desert, this is a big deal. We pulled off the highway where the “road” becomes a dirt track into the mountains and waited to see what the rain would do. It wasn’t just about our picnic being rained on, our guide explained, but because we had to cross a wadi. If it rained too much, we would be stranded on the other side for days. Laughing a little he asked us, “Did you bring your pajamas?”

Wadi literally means “valley”, but colloquially it refers to a river valley that is dry except when it rains heavily, and then its full of water. So, we waited for about a half an hour until the brief storm subsided and the sky was once more blue with fluffy white clouds.

Another long drive, this time off road, full of bouncing and drifting past beautiful desert plants responding to the recent rain and ever higher rocks jutting out of the ground sweeping past us. Oh, and camels. Lots of camels. They eat the an extremely thorny variety of acacia that grows out there.

We paused for a brief photo op at an oddly shaped rock and the ladies began shedding their hijabs. The three Saudi sisters had tied matching fancy pink turbans on under their hijab, so they could doff the black for photo ops while still maintaining reasonable modesty in mixed company. None-the-less they were fairly liberal, posing in jeans and bedazzled sweatshirts, using one of the ubiquitous selfie extenders to take group shots.

The drive in was not a long distance, but slow because of the off road terriain. Even though we only stopped once for official photo ops, I managed to get quite a few lovely photos of the desert as we traveled. Below are two of my absolute favorite shots from the drive in. You can see them all on my facebook page.

Finally we arrived. The spot we stopped at did not seem much different from all the other cliffs we’d passed along the way. The guide told us that we had 40 minutes to climb up and look around then we’d all gather again for a group photo before heading on to the next spot.

The ladies all abandoned propriety and shed our abayas as well. It was a little cultural vacation, this mix of local Saudis, foreigners, men and women. We were all dressed in “western” clothes, and for a while I forgot I wasn’t supposed to talk to men, and asked a few other visitors (not part of our group) about the best trail up to the viewing spot. Apparently, they forgot too, because they answered politely and without either the awkward formality or leering skeez that accompanies so many of my verbal exchanges with men in Saudi.

As we walked toward the area indicated, it became apparent that there was indeed an edge. As I crested a small rise and the full extent of the valley dropping away below us became apparent, all thoughts, all breath escaped me and I was filled with nothing but total awe at the spectacle of nature.

It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never been to see a great natural wonder in person. Photos and video are so easy to come by, most people are familiar with iconic natural wonders. So it’s hard to express why we should go to them physically, especially at great effort and expense, when we can see them for free from the comfort of our own homes.

All I can tell you is that it isn’t the same. Not even close. It’s bigger than the difference from 8-bit graphics to HDTV, from black and white tube tv to IMAX. We have so many more senses than the 5 everyone knows, and I’m not being supernatural. I’m talking about scientifically acknowledged ones. Plus whatever spiritual relationship with the universe you might have that makes tremendously huge things ping the sacred section of the brain.

The giant redwoods aren’t just “really tall trees”, and the Grand Canyon isn’t just another river valley. Standing at the edge, cliffs spreading out to the right and left of me and hundreds of feet below, ahead a vast expanse of sand stretching to the horizon. It is little wonder that this place is called the Edge of the World. Like standing on cliffs over the Pacific ocean, it seemed that emptiness before us was infinite.

I continued climbing, each step revealing more and more of the amazing vista. There were great desert raptors riding the thermals below us. I spotted a tiny lizard sunning himself on the rocks. The path went on and on, ever upward and outward. The views just kept getting more astonishing. My only regret is that with only 40 minutes, I wasn’t able to get all the way out to the very edge. I did make it out to the second to last peak before we heard the call to return to the cars.

The three Saudi sisters in the car with me had been among the last to leave the peak with me, and we’d chatted and taken many photos on the way back. Indeed, I have one of them to thank for pointing out to me that I should be using the Panorama function on my new phone to get the best shot. I think it turned out pretty well.Reluctant to leave and unsure of where we were headed next, we piled back into the cars and began bouncing through the desert again. The tour guide stopped us all for another brief photo shoot, pointing out the “Saudi Pyramids” and joking that the souls of the Pharos were visiting.

The Saudi sisters I was riding with asked the driver if they could put on some music and quickly linked one of their phones to the cars stereo via bluetooth. Riding through the Arabian desert, the Arabian music, traditional and modern, blasting through the speakers until I felt it in my bones, fusing with the vibration of the SUV and the shaking of the uneven desert terrain — I felt like a really glorious stereotype.We arrived at our second location, and like the first, it didn’t look like much from where we parked, but now I knew better. We wandered around the nearby area, looking at a dropoff that was so straight it could have been a quarry, the fault line in the ground had sheared off the rock so cleanly it looked man made.img_0668

The guides said we could walk up to the view, or they would ferry us up a small group at a time in one of the cars. I was quite fine walking, but as I overheard the eldest of the Saudi sisters entreating the others to ride in the back of the pick up truck “like Bedouin”. Her entreaties for company were a mix of English and Arabic, but I picked up the gist, which was “cool Saudi experience” and decided to join them.Five of us climbed in the back of the truck. We started off sitting (all but the eldest sister who stood in the truck bed holding on to the roll bar), but soon we followed her lead and were all standing side by side holding on to the bar, bouncing along the road, feeling the wind in our hair. “It’s like Titanic.” she exclaimed, and I threw my arm out and replied, “king of the world!”, and truly for a moment it felt like we were.

There is something amazing about sharing adventures and experiences with like-minded people. I like having friends to explore with, but often find myself travelling alone. So when I find strangers in my travels with whom I can share the joy and the excitement of adventure, it’s almost like an amplifier. Riding in the back of the truck with these women, being welcomed into their adventure, we did create something more. Talk to strangers.Just as we were nearly bursting with giggles and bounces, the truck rounded the top of the rise and the new view displayed to our right stopping the laughs and jokes with an involuntary chorus of “oooooh”s. The truck came to a stop and we all piled out.

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The guides told us to look for fossils, but no one really took this very seriously. After all, what were we going to find out here? Dinosaur bones? We climbed around on the cliff edges, admiring the views and taking more pictures. The other groups slowly caught up with us by walking or being ferried up in the truck. Once everyone arrived, a couple of the guides started picking up fossils and showing them to us.

Seashells!

The cliffs we were standing on, high in the air, in the middle of a vast desert that spans the entire peninsula had once been on the bottom of an ocean. We’re taught in school that this is the nature of the changing surface of the planet. I’ve seen fossils in museums with little tags saying where they were found. I’ve watched documentaries that show in beautiful computer animation how the land masses have changed over time. Nothing really compares to being there.

Driving for hours through a desert, riding and climbing up cliff crests to see the vast emptiness around you, then looking down at your feet and seeing a seashell embedded in the rock. Or of turning over a rock and realizing it was part of a fossil you have now uncovered for the first time.

After some final ooohs and aaaahs as we pointed out fossils stuck in the rock to one another and collected a few souvenirs from the loose fossils that had been dislodged by wind and rain, we piled back into the cars once more and headed back into the wadi. About halfway back to the main road, we pulled over in the shade of some larger trees.

One of the guides drove a few of us ladies a ways off to avail ourselves of a little ravine behind some acacia while the rest of the rest set up a little Arabic desert picnic. When we got back, the carpets we all arranged on the ground and cake and dates had been set out along with carafes of spiced arabic coffee and sweet black tea. And just in time too, since all of us were now quite hungry from the exercise and adventure.

In the US, we only have access to a couple varieties of dates, but here in Saudi there seem to be dozens of varieties. Our picnic had no less than eight visually distinct kinds. The cake was very reminiscent of sweet cornbread but with a date paste layer in the middle. Many of the westerners there were experiencing arabic coffee for the first time that day. Its a green coffee blended with cardamom and other spices. Bitter and served in tiny cups it is a perfect compliment to the dates and other sweets.

There was also a tin of what looked like biscotti, but turned out to be savory with a slight caraway flavor. The Saudi ladies informed us that they should be dipped in hot milk. Sure enough, there was also a caraffe of hot ginger milk. I don’t know why I’ve never had that before, but I’m never giving it up. Also, you should make some right now. Go on, I’ll wait. I bet it works great with soy, rice, almond, coconut or hemp milk too.

Slightly sweet and very spicy, I would have been content to sip the ginger milk like hot chocolate, but we did try dipping the savory bisuits and oh my goodness! Savory crunchy buscuits in hot sweet ginger milk… a local snack I will happily add to my arabic coffee and dates any day.

Full and sleepy, we piled back into our cars and headed back into the city. We chatted and listened to music, shared stories of our lives and other adventures. It was quite a lovely day. When we arrived back at the mall we said our farewells. I took a card from the Kiwi and left my blog and email with the Saudi sisters, requesting that they send me any of the pictures or videos that I was in with them (they took a lot).

And there my day might have ended, for my plans were just to hang out at the mall until it was time to go to the airport. But the universe has a strange way of bringing us what we need, and in the absence of friends, family or feast on Thanksgiving, I was given a chance for two out of three.20141128_121309

Please read on in A Traditional Saudi Diner at Nadj Village… coming soon!

And don’t forget to check out the rest of the pictures on facebook 🙂

King Abdulaziz Historical Center & National Museum of Saudi Arabia

I love museums. I am a nerd.

I grew up partially in Annapolis, MD which is only a short train ride from Washington D.C. and America’s coolest museums, the Smithsonian. Many a childhood memory do I have of wandering the Natural History Museum.

My mother was really good at managing a tight budget and two kids. And one of the things we did everywhere we lived was go to the local museums, cause its a cheap way to spend the day, and who knows, maybe you’ll even learn something. Some kids may think this is torture, but I’m a nerd, so usually I loved it. And as an adult, I still seek out museums everywhere I go.

I even went to the Shandong Provincial Museum while living in Jinan. The Chinese have a very different sense of historical preservation, to be sure. Not a lot of climate control, and very little separating the patrons from the displays.

So when I found myself in Riyadh with no plans, some helpful internet denizens recommended the Museum. Which to my nerd self sounded way better than a giant shopping mall. So I booked my Careem cars and headed out to see what I could see.

The museum is a royal endowment, so it’s got tons of money and costs the people very little. (one day I’m going to delve into the strange political/economic situation here) img_0313The museum is one of many buildings set inside a sprawling park. Even with three hours set aside, I only got to see two sections of park and the museum. Its huge.

In addition to the lush green lawns, play and picnic areas, there was a water park. Swimsuits aren’t the thing here because of the modesty, so it isn’t like swimming pools and slides, but more like a huge interactive fountain. Kids were playing in the water and having their pictures taken by doting parents.

After some lovely strolling and strategic picture taking (to avoid getting any people in my pics) I made it to the museum entrance. I paid my 10SAR (about 2.50$) and began the tour.

The museum is set up in chronological order, so you start from the beginning of the cosmos and end at the present day. Yes, that’s right, the beginning of the cosmos. In the most religiously ruled country on Earth (not counting the ones we consider terrorists/therefore not countries), the big royal museum starts off with the Big Bang.

The section is called Man and the Universe, and it is basically about how cool Allah is for using such amazing techniques as nuclear fusion, gravity, plate tectonics and evolution to form the stars, planets and life. Who says religion and science can’t be friends?

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This is a really neat display of the cosmos forming. It’s actually a video screen surrounded by mirrors, so when you walk up close to it, it feels like you’re standing in front of a giant globe but without having to spend the space on making one. Pretty neat, I thought.

img_0341And this is a mammoth indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula. The entire prehistoric display was pretty cool. Culminating in the connection to the oil that has made Saudi rich.

There were a lot of artifacts of old human civilizations, which I also found really interesting, since I had been led to believe that archaeology wasn’t a high priority here unless it involved the Prophet. As it turns out there was extensive research and very detailed information about the pre-historical and pre-Islamic peoples with no attempt to impose post Islamic beliefs upon them.

I keep mentioning this because in America, there seems to be a war between science and religion, as though one cannot believe in God and accept the evidence of science at the same time. Considering how “backward” so many media outlets portray the Middle East and Islamic religion, I find it pretty darn cool that they don’t seem to have this problem that plagues supposedly advanced/civilized America.

I’m also not saying this museum was secular. Not in any way. Aside from reminding us that Allah created the Universe, the important events of the history in the Quran are referenced often.

Along this wall, a replica of the Taima Wall made in part with stones from the original site, there is a timeline showing the different Empires and ruling tribes of the Arabian peninsula, side by side with the names of the important prophets, Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and of course Muhammad (PBUH).

There was a whole wall dedicated to the evolution of writing on the Peninsula (the linguist in me loved that part), and there were tombs and excavations of these ancient civilizations explaining how historical sites teach us about what people used to believe about life and the afterlife.

There were cases and cases of pottery, tools and jewelry showing the development of the techniques and craftsmanship over the last several thousand years. It was really well cared for and very clearly displayed with descriptions in Arabic and English, as well as time and place markers.

I have like 200 pictures, and I put 100 of them up on my facebook page, because I can’t possibly get them all on here with limited space, so please feel free to check those out.

After a wonderful show and tell history lesson of the pre-Islamic times in Arabia, we moved on to the Life of the Prophet section. Even as a non-muslim, I found this section very nice.

img_0422In contrast to the ancient desert feel of the previous sections, this section was almost sci-fi. This long wall tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Arabic and English. It really is a good story, it explains many things about the conflicts within Islam as well as the attraction so many find in it. I’m still not converting, but I enjoyed the display.

Also, unlike Christianity, Islam has a lot more historical evidence for its main prophet, so while its still clearly a hagiography, it is a better documented one that we’re used to seeing in religious displays. Plus, there’s a clear boundary between the sections, marking Muhammad’s arrival and the introduction of Islam as an historical event within the greater context of the museum, and not isolated religious propaganda.

The next section, the expansion of Islam, is where we start to get a feeling of religious bias that up until now has been happily and conspicuously absent. Clearly, the folks who dedicated, designed and above all paid for this museum do not feel that anything that happened before Muhammad is a threat to their legitimacy, but somewhere around the Sunni/Shia split all bets are off.

img_0449The display tells about the “rightly guided Caliphs” referring to the Sunni side, and focuses exclusively on that version of historical events. (If you’re not up to date on that one, the Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start) There are more artifacts, beautiful gilt Qurans and early inscriptions dedicated to Allah. There’s also a huge full wall map showing the scope and reach of Islam in its heyday, just in case you needed reminding they used to rule a huge chunk of the known world.

There  are instruments of art and science, reminding us also that Islam wasn’t always at war with the world, but shepherded the math, science, art, medicine and literature of the Hellenistic world while Europe went dark.

The next section is where the propaganda starts hitting hard and fast. Some of you may know what I only recently learned, that Saudi Arabia is actually a very young country, not in the sense of a “modern” country, but that the ruling family, Al Saud, has not been in charge for all that long. This section is about the first two shots they had at taking over the peninsula. They refer to Wahabism (also called Salafism) as the “true Islam”. Words like “purity” and “heresy” are invoked. It gets a little creepy.

This was happening around 1726-1814, so the Ottoman Empire was still the dominant Islamic power in the world. img_0476Saud managed to take over a swath of the peninsula by graft and force, and while the museum certainly couches his actions in terms of righteousness and purity, the displays in this section are pretty much all weapons. Gone are the beautiful jewelry, pottery, art and science of former ages of Arabia, replaced by guns, swords and spears.

Then again starting in 1901 and lasting until the formation of the current country in 1931 there was once again a lot of turmoil as a Saud descendant tried again. This display is actually an interesting cultural collage of the different people that were “unified” into Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting choice, but not surprising. They’re trying to celebrate the people that make up the new country, to include them rather than make them feel subjugated. I don’t know how well that’s working, since there still seem to be fairly strong tribal lines here, causing the culture from one city to another to vary greatly.

Finally, the last section was especially nice for me, since I will never be able to visit them in person due to religious restrictions keeping non-Muslims out, the Two Holy Mosques.

 

There were miniature models of the mosques in Mecca and Madinah as well as many artifacts from the area and models of the Hajj pilgrimage route.

All in all, the museum was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and it makes me really happy to know that Saudi families in Riyadh have access to such a wonderful park and educational facility.

Check out the rest of my pictures on the facebook page, and read up about my other adventures in Riyadh at GCON2014, the Al Faisaliah Spa and the Globe Restaurant.

🙂

#GCON2014: All Girls, All Gamers, No Gates

IMPORTANT NOTE: I asked every young lady’s permission both before taking any pictures and again in regards to posting the pictures on the internet. Privacy is a very serious matter for Saudis, especially women, so it is really amazing that these ladies have not only put so much effort into creating these amazing costumes, but are willing to let me share them with you. One young lady used her props to cover her face and another asked me to simply edit her face out, which I have done. Please respect them. If one of these pictures is of you, and you need me to take it down, simply message me and I will. I only wish to share your amazing talents and not to cause any issues for you or your family.


When I first learned that there was an all female gaming convention in Saudi, I just about turned inside out. That was less than three weeks before it was set to happen. I was excited for several reasons. One, I’m a girl gamer geek and love cons. Two, any access I can get to culture behind the scenes here is to be jumped at. And three, to put it bluntly, #Gamergate.

I wanted to see how the most oppressive to women country in the world (only place women can’t drive, women can’t travel without men’s permission, can’t work or keep their own money without men’s permission, must be covered in public… I could go on, but you get the idea) treated their gamer ladies while in America (land of the free) trollz are doxing, and threatening to rape and murder anyone with two x chromosomes who dares have an opinion about the games they write or play.

*(I’m including any transgender ladies who feel trolled upon too.)

I’m gonna talk about the con first, so those who want to skip the GG part can safely read on and stop at the break.

It was held Wednesday – Friday, but I was unable to get any days off work, so I flew down Thursday after class and managed to attend Thursday night.

When I arrived the con was absolutely full of young women dressed in all manner of geek clothes and cosplay. There was supposed to be a cosplay competition/show, but unfortunately some mother called the religious police and complained*, so it got cancelled and the night’s events ended early.

*UPDATE: GCON staff have told me that the Hai’a were never called (Ilhamdulilah!) and that the night ended early “due to a problem with several of the devices in the ballroom during the cosplay competition”.

Before we all got booted out, I got to take several pictures, not nearly as many as I would have liked, but I had to be very careful to ask permission and make sure that there was no one in the background. Several ladies were kind enough to grant permission to post here, too, so I hope you enjoy.

In addition to the pictures here, I saw 2 Malificents, more anime characters than I could count, I sat next to a Wednesday Adams who was super happy to be recognized, Pocahontas, a few dozen versions of the Day of the Dead full and half skull faces, witches, Hogwarts and other, zombies, not as many fairies as I’d have thought, one vampire, and many video game characters.

All of the attendees were women, so the cross dressing cosplay was especially impressive. Even though there were no men, the clothing was still fairly modest. It was really nice to see female cosplay done without T&A display being a priority. I really felt like showing off a good and accurate costume was more important than being sexy, which was neat.

The amount of English I heard was really astonishing. I did run into a couple other Americans at the very end of the night, but for the most part I was talking to Saudis, and I feel really ashamed of my school’s program right now, because many of these girls had near native fluency and barely noticeable accents. I had no trouble communicating to anyone, and didn’t even need to use my “ESL” talking style.

I found a red fez and got to have a conversation about the Doctor, she hadn’t started watching Capaldi yet, but we bonded over the universal love and humanity saving qualities of previous regenerations. That big blue box knows no borders.

I complimented so many people both on their costumes and their English, one girl even reached out to me on twitter afterward to say thanks. 😀

The main ballroom was intensely pink… I’m not sure if that was a gender choice or just that Saudi’s like bright colors, but pink*. There were big screen TVs set up with different games around the room, so that attendees could play their favorites or try new ones.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me that pink “was intended to make a bold loud statement when selected for the logo about women breaking into games”. Grl Pwr.

The expo room (?) had a lot of the sponsors doing advertising and showing off games or goods. Not everything was game related. Mrs. Field’s Cookies was there doing a raffle. I didn’t get to see too much of that room because I was hurrying over to the Artists Alley (the only room where photos were allowed). I did see an interesting console version of the old “Operation” game where the goal was to perform surgery, but the girl playing it had decided that a hammer was the way to crack a ribcage…

The Artists Alley was a little combination of dealer’s room, Art room and photo shoot. The tables were full of the works of local geeks and artists. There were beautiful canvas paintings, an interesting display of very surreal needlework. There were some antiques, and several booths with pretty good fan art, often sold on t-shirts, keychains and buttons. I really wanted to be able to buy some things to support these artists, but events decreed otherwise (keep reading).

If you want to support one of them, Nana (the lovely lady who made her own horns in the pictures above) gave me her card, her stuff is pretty cute and she does custom orders! (shameless plug)

Onward!

As they were trying to usher everyone out, there was a major Abaya Disaster. See, when women are secluded from men, they don’t have to wear the black tent, and many of these girls had checked theirs coat check style at the front when they came in.

Because of the rapid and early ending, this meant everyone was suddenly trying to get their abayas all at once, in a small lobby, from like two volunteers… eep. I had mine in my backpack so didn’t have to get into the line/press of bodies and decided to wander back into the main room and see more sights.

As I was staring at the crowds, soaking in the amazing girl geekness around me, a young woman doing an anime cosplay (that I am ashamed to admit I did not recognize: long orange hair in a partial ponytail, white sleeveless top and orange pants with flames at the bottom, plus katana) came up to talk to me. It actually took her a moment to get my attention because I was so dazed by everything going on around me, and had sort of stopped turning to face English by this time because I’d realized they were using it to talk to each other.

When I finally did realize she was talking to me, she invited me to come sit with her and her friends while we all waited for the Abaya Disaster to clear up. She told me she was getting her Master’s in English Literature. We talked for a little while about gamer culture in our countries. She was (as I expected) very surprised to hear about #Gamergate, and told me laughingly that boys in Saudi beg their parents to find them a wife who games. Then we moved on to other things. She shared my total love of global culture, so we bonded over academics for a while and of course I had to ask her what her favorite piece of literature was: The Great Gatsby. She admitted that she had seen the movie first, but that in the end, she liked the book a lot better. Her big take away was the way Gatsby idealized Daisy and their life together without ever recognizing the reality. Pretty sharp lady.

She also told me that the con itself was comprised of many of the smartest most educated girls in that age group (late teens/early 20s) in Riyadh. Can’t say I’m too surprised, nerdy girls are nerdy!

The Abaya disaster got worse. The poor volunteers trying to return the abayas were growing more and more frustrated and began screaming into the microphone at the girls to back up, get organized, wait their turn, etc. Apparently some girl actually passed out because the crowding got too bad.

The screaming into the microphone was making conversation more difficult, so I thought it might be time to wander back to the hotel. But the volunteer who checked me in and told me I could use her wi-fi to summon my car had disappeared (doubtless to help with the Abaya Disaster). I still had no smart phone at this time, waiting on my Iqama, so in order to summon an Uber or similar service, I relied on the tablet and wi-fi. My travel adventures will greatly improve now that I finally have a smartphone of my own.

I found some other girls who were willing to let me tether in to their mobile hot-spot, but couldn’t get strong enough signal to get the app up and running. One volunteer told me it would be really easy to get a taxi, so even though I had such horrible experiences in Jeddah, I figured I’d better try.

Wandering around outside, I hailed a taxi and handed him the Hotel’s business card. This normally works when travelling. Cards have an address and phone number in the local language. But drivers in Saudi don’t actually seem to know where anything is, and expect their passengers to direct them. I don’t live in Riyadh, so even if my Arabic was flawless, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell the driver where to go. Isn’t half the job of a taxi driver to know how to get there? Don’t you have GPS?????

Two failed taxi attempts later, both drivers refusing me (also strange, since all other taxi experiences in Saudi have started by the driver going “ok, no problem” then waiting until we’ve started driving to tell me they don’t know where to go), I went back inside to try once more to find wi-fi. This time with success. I love nice people.

While waiting for the driver, I heard a more native than other English voice and saw a very Caucasian face. I said hi, and she looked up and asked, “American?” When I confirmed, she bounced up to give me a hug. We chatted about our experiences in Saudi and other countries, and what we thougt of the con while we waited for our drivers.

I feel like I could write a whole separate blog post about the driving in Riyadh, even though I’ve done one on Jeddah… Short version, taxis are better but Uber and Careem are worse.

Finally got back to the hotel, but awoke the next day to find that day 3 had been cancelled. I’m not sure if it was the Hai’a, the Abaya Disaster or something else*, but that two hours was all I got to see. I did tell the staff that I’d flown all the way from Tabuk for the event, and they’ve offered to “compensate” me**, but I’m not sure what that means quite yet. I really hope they’re able to get another one running before I leave Saudi next summer, not just for me cause I can game or cosplay pretty much whenever in America, but for the beautiful, talented, intelligent women I met there who have so few outlets for their brains and creativity and deserve so much more.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff informs me “The cancellation of the last day followed the Abaya situation & subsequent events, it was intended to avoid a recurrence of such incidents” and “the team and volunteers were at the venue the last day helping classify and return some personal belongings to their owners”. Good on ya!

**And further, they did generously not only refund my admission cost, but also put a dent in my travel costs, which was very gracious.


And what about #Gamergate? Well, in the lead up to this convention, some friends of mine back in Seattle were posting left, right and sideways about this thing. Felicia Day made her debut into the debate and was promptly doxed, and I was going through some serious soul searching as to whether it was even worth it to mention the word. I only have a handful of followers on this blog, but speaking out against the trolls who are perpetuating the anti-girl hate in the gamer community seems to attract a lot of negative attention on the web.

I actually had a long conversation with one of my girl-gamer friends about how ridiculous it was that I even had to think about whether or not I should be nervous or should avoid posting about a topic so incredibly important.

But the more women outside the US I talked to about it, the more I saw the look of horror and disgust, but only after I explained the situation, because those trolls aren’t actually reaching a global audience. They’re barely reaching outside the gamer community, and everyone I’ve taken the time to educate about the situation reacts exactly the same way. They cannot understand it. There is no part of threatening women and their families, or releasing their personal information for abuse that seems even remotely reasonable or sympathetic to anyone I’ve talked to from outside the US.

And what the girls here go through just for being women is so astonishingly foreign to me and all of my life experiences that I couldn’t even begin to draw a comparison between the subjugation of women in Saudi and the abuse of women in the US. They are both horrible, but its like trying to compare Ebola and VX: horrible but not the same.

The girls I met at GCON love gaming, but the men oppressing them aren’t trying to drive them away from their hobby*, threatening to rape them, or exposing their personal details to the world. They’re trying to keep them from being people, to stop them from wearing the clothes they choose even in private, from sharing the things they love or developing any sense of independent identity.

*UPDATE: GCON Staff did point out that even though #gamergate hasn’t reached Saudi, there was a large amount of blowback from some men here who considered gaming a male only community, but that there was “an overwhelming amount of support” that continues to grow.

The most important thing that the Saudi girls of #GCON2014 have in common with the victims of #Gamergate is the positive men in their lives.  Lots of articles about gender inequality stress the point that it will only be through male led actions that equality will be achieved. Men who don’t respect women aren’t going to listen to us when we say we need more respect, but they might listen to other men, or at least be forced to bend to social pressure if their behavior is condemned by the men around them. In both Saudi and the US, there are men who support women in gaming, encourage us to play, design, develop, cosplay and roleplay to our hearts content. Don’t give up on us guys.

A Weekend in Riyadh: The Globe Restaurant

The Atmosphere

img_0516After my wonderful spa treatment downstairs, I headed up to the very tippy top of the Al Faisaliah Tower. The tower is supposed to look like a giant ball-point pen (I dunno who thought that was cool for a skyline), and the “ball” part of the “pen” is a huge silver globe in which sits a gourmet restaurant called (originally) The Globe.

This place is super fancy and has a 300 riyal minimum for dinner. There’s also a cigar lounge with a 200 riyal minimum, and supposedly they do a High Tea in the afternoons, which I didn’t get to do because I opted for the Museum, having only one day, but really hope to do if I find myself with an afternoon free in Riyadh again.

The picture on the left is from the restaurant’s own website, since it was too dark and full of people for me to get a good picture when I was there.

As you can hopefully see, the entire wall is part of the glass ball. There is also a glass barrier between the tables and the globe itself, so the floor stops short of the outside wall, creating the fantastic sense of having the city spanning out under and around you. Not as vertigo inducing as you might think, however. To the right is the view from my own table.

They have seasonal rotating menus, and to make this easier, the menu is on a tablet rather than printed. My water (45 riyals) was in a beautiful glass bottle that was kept in a champagne chiller next to my table. The bread was actually a bread sampler platter with five different types of bread as well as butter and a tangy dipping sauce.

But Kaine, you don’t eat wheat! My friends exclaim… turns out that may be limited to America.

The Bread Basket

img_0535The crispy baguette (long and pointy at both ends) was my favorite. A super crispy outside with a soft fluffy interior. I finished that one. Moving to the right there are two brown bread buns, the one on the bottom was a little sweet with dried fruit pieces with a softer, chewier texture, and the one above was herby and savory with a slightly crisper crust (nothing like the baguette). Only one bite each for those. The bread in the glass at the top right was actually fried in some kind of herbed oil. It is what croutons want to be when they grow up. Alone it was delightful, crunchy but thin enough to be flakey, the oil was pleasant rather than greasy. In the dipping sauce it was outta this world. I didn’t polish it off, but it did get a second bite as well as second place. Finally the ciabatta, the square bread in the upper left. Also very nice, a crust that maintained a balance of crispy and chewy with a white interior, only slightly less fluffy than the baguette. Two bites and third place.

The Appetizer

img_0537Next, the waiter brought out a sample appetizer (or possibly a palette cleanser) that I hadn’t ordered, but was happy to try. If you could sort of imagine a guacamole ice-cream cone… which doesn’t do this justice. The “cone” was made from corn meal, but not just any tortilla, it was impressed with the crosshatch marks of an ice-cream cone and either made with a sweet corn (most likely) or a little extra sugar because it was just slightly sweeter than a regular tortilla. It was also delicately thin, like a wafer cookie. The guacamole filling was very creamy and mild. Totally smooth with a good blend of avocado and lime, but not enough garlic or chili to cling in the mouth or ruin the main course.

The Main Dish

I ordered lamb. I’ve heard really wonderful things about the quality of seafood in Riyadh’s high end restaurants, but I have a long standing aversion to ordering seafood in a land-locked place. Chicken is for safe bets when you’re not sure about the chef. And given a choice between beef and lamb, I’m partial to lamb, although I know the flavor isn’t for everyone.

img_0538I ordered mine rare. I’d read that Saudi restaurants often have trouble with this, but the Globe chef clearly knew what he was doing. I know rare is supposed to be cold in the middle and red all the way through, but I prefer the much more elusive warm and red center. He nailed it. The lamb was not only tender, juicy and cooked to perfection, it was topped with an herbed bread crumb crust and feta crumble which complimented the meat beautifully. Served on a bed of rosemary risotto and porcini mushrooms. Framed by tart grape tomatoes, lightly roasted and drizzled with a tomato reduction. I really enjoyed going back and forth between the flavors, trying different combinations of the savory risotto, earthy mushrooms, salty feta and tart tomato with the wonderful umame of the meat and each other. This was also a very generous portion, making me glad I’d skipped lunch.

For Afters

After a long slow savoring of dinner, it was time for desert and coffee. While I am an eternal chocoholic, there is one dessert I can never pass up at a fancy restaurant: the crème brûlée. I can still remember discovering this amazing custard treat, this creamy yet crunchy, cold yet caramelized culinary coup de grace…. my alliteration ran away with me there, but I really love crème brûlée.

img_0542This particular brûlée was served, beautifully plated in this chilled shallow dish. I have a deep appreciation for appropriately sized desserts that pack a huge flavor punch. I’ll take a tiny slice of mouth-gasm over a giant pile of meh any day.

The crispy caramelized top coat was, as you can see, not even slightly burnt, and yet it was a perfect hard crack with that ever so slightly bitter note that offsets the sweet creamy custard beneath. Atop this candied crust is a mango compote and a tiny scoop of finest vanilla ice cream.

Normally, I have strawberry or raspberry with my crème brûlée if I have any fruit at all. I would not have considered mango. Nor had I ever previously considered making a compote from mangoes. Salsa, sure, but a compote? The flavor was fascinating, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was some peach mixed in. It wasn’t anywhere near as sweet as fresh mangoes or what I would expect from any kind of fruit compote, but it clearly wasn’t made from the tarter, less ripe mango because there was no hint of sour flavors. There was a hint of pleasant bitterness that echoed the mildly bitter flavor in the caramelized sugar topping.

I also would never have considered adding ice cream to a crème brûlée. After all, the brûlée is so creamy and delicious already, right? But as it turns out, I was wrong. If you add really good vanilla ice cream to really good crème brûlée you get really really good frozen custard. As with the main course, I enjoyed mixing and matching the different flavors and textures in different bites as I slowly devoured my dessert course. The final bite included a tiny sprig of mint. I think a good chef will try to make the garnish a flavor pair with the dish, and not simply something pretty to be discarded (maybe I watch too much cooking channel). But in this case, my faith was rewarded, and the tiny fresh mint leaves gave me one last burst of new flavors, blending with the final mouthful of custard, caramelized sugar, mango compote and vanilla ice cream. Heaven.

I finished my meal with a double Turkish coffee while looking out at the view and revelling in my day of total pampering. Just when I thought it was coming to a close, the bill paid and heading to the elevator, the maitre d’ asked if I had been to “the Experience” yet.

The Experience

img_0543The Experience, as it turns out, is the viewing platform just beneath the Globe restaurant. This my view while standing just under where I was eating a few moments before, the city below reflected in the mirrored windows. If you choose to come here without dinner, the ride to the viewing platform is 40 riyals. It’s pretty freakin’ amazing. I admit, I was full of happy hormones from the spa and dinner (yay dopamine!), but wow.

The clear glass walls that surround the viewing platform keep one totally safe while presenting the illusion that one is on the edge of the top floor of the building. However, there is no ceiling. The winds that blow 30 floors up are dampened somewhat by the sheer height of the glass walls (about 10 feet), but are still a presence to be reckoned with. Riyadh is also a very hot city, and even at night its still quite warm, so the wind whipping my abaya and hijab around was not in the least bit chilly despite the elevation.

The Globe restaurant is listed as one of Riyadh’s most romantic dining spots, and the Experience viewing platform was testimony to this. Several couples came out while I was ogling the view. Ladies were carrying roses their husbands had liberated from the tables inside. Couples looked very happy and stood very close, even holding hands, which was more PDA than I’d seen anywhere else. Definitely a romantic locale! The women’s outter garments were clearly a step up from the daily black and showed a lot more color and bling than I’d seen in the rest of Riyadh. Moreover, they had not covered their faces! All the better to enchant their husbands with their beauty. I was asked to take pictures for more than one such couple, but always approached by the woman as her husband stood well back from me, respectfully.

img_0546I circled the platform a few times, taking pictures, admiring the view of the city below and the moon above, and pausing one final time to relish the long road to the Kingdom Tower, to imagine the eye of Saruman poised between those tines and myself on the windswept tower of Isengard looking for giant eagles in the night sky. Then, spa pampered and gourmet food filled, I rode the languid elevator back to ground level where my driver awaited me by the front door to take me back to my own considerably less fantastical and less expensive hotel and sleep.

 

 

 

A Weekend in Riyadh: Al Faisaliah Spa

My actual plans for Halloween weekend having been cut short by Hai’a and/or mismanaged Abayas, I decided my Friday would not be a total waste and set about finding something Riyadh had to offer that Tabuk did not. Turns out among these are first rate spa treatments. Oh, yeah!

I’ve pretty much only experienced spa treatments piecemeal elsewhen in my life, an occasional massage, steam room, man-/pedi- but all a la carte. So when I looked at the website for the Al Faisaliah Spa, I decided I might as well splurge.

To be fair, my first choice was Luthan, which is a ladies only hotel and spa (and still on my list of things to do next time I need pampering and can plan in advance), but they require 24 hr advance booking, which didn’t work with my last minute plan change.

sau

For those who do not know the Riyadh skyline, there are Two Towers… no really, I thought for a while there had to be secret Tolkien fans on the building committee…  The Kingdom Tower looks sooo much like Barad-Dur that I’ve taken to thinking of the tower facing it across the expanse of the city as Isengard. This pic (not mine sadly) shows a full moon though the tower’s horns. If those neon lights were firey orange/red instead of purple/blue… total Eye of Sauron. Yeah, I’m a nerd. But I’m really entertained by the entire metaphor of Riyadh being Mordor and the Hai’a (religious police) as the Uruk-Hai.

Anyway, on to Isengard, I mean Al Faisaliah Tower. There’s a shopping mall, luxury hotel, super fancy restaurant and fully awesome spa. After reading the website options, I decided on a traditional Middle Eastern treatment called Hammam. Its based on the traditional Turkish bath by the same name, but really dressed up at Al Faisaliah.

img_0523First, you are buzzed into this gorgeous reception room. No men are allowed past the main doors of the spa, so everyone inside is dressed normally. The setting is all low light and soft waterfall sounds, with a sparkly starry night feel. I checked in for my appointment and was taken to a nice waiting area to complete my paperwork and enjoy a nice cup of tea, something very fancy with more herbs in it than I could remember. The room had a full wall waterfall and fresh orchids at every table.

Once my paperwork was signed and tea enjoyed, I was escorted upstairs along beautiful hallways where the floors were designed to look like boardwalk planks with light shining between them. In the changing room I met my therapist, then I was given a locker to put my stuff in, and changed into some paper undies for modesty.

Then I went to the steam room. This room was covered in beautiful blue and white tiles with iriridescent stones. There were two large quartz crystals bathed in lavender light, and another wall waterfall. Steam filled the room, sauna style, but there were spouts and shower heads so you could access cool water at need. After a few minutes in steam, my therapist came in and gave me a cool water rinse then lathered a kind of musky soap/gel on my skin. She let that sit for a few more minutes in the steam before returning to rinse it off with cool water once again, and a final few more minutes of steaming.

From the steam room we went into a massage room. If you could somehow imagine combining a massage table, a shower and a bubble bath, that’s what I experienced. First, I lay down on the heated marble massage table and my therapist exfoliated my entire body. I love exfoliation. If I could have a loofah wall in my bathroom to rub up against like a bear I would be in heaven. I actually think my skin is still soft 5 days later. The steam room and soapy stuff had softened up the skin, preparing me for the exfoliation to have maximum effect. This was done both face up and face down.

Then after a rinsing (the massage table had drains), I was covered in foamy bubbles! Like a full body bubble bath without the bathwater. I cannot explain how amazing this feels, especially after a serious exfoliation, so all my skin was soft and tender and I could feel the texture of the bubbles popping against my skin like soft little poofs. Being covered in bubbles is really cool… maybe get yourself a kiddie pool and some willing hands if you can’t find a spa that does this.

Next is a full body massage –while covered in bubbles! Using the foam as a massage oil, my therapist gave me a massage shoulders to toes, front and back. So relaxing.

After rinsing the foam off, there was another application of what was probably a moisturizer. Scents of musk and resin are very popular here in Saudi, so there really isn’t much that smells like flowers here. Also perfect for me, since I’m not a fruity-floral gal, and that meant everything that I was treated with at the spa was just fantastic smelling.

It’s still not over. The next step was a hair washing. On so few occasions does one get a hair washing massage. Its not the same as a salon wash, because the goal is less about getting your hair clean and more about making your scalp feel awesome. Did I mention the massage table was heated?

Then I took a quick shower to rinse anything that the therapist missed off, and was escorted into another room for a final layer of moisturizing lotion. After which I was wrapped in the biggest fluffiest softest bathrobe and slippers ever and taken to the relaxing room.

img_20141031_211149This room continued the beautiful starry night motif, and had large half bed-half chair things covered in pillows. There were privacy curtains for use when the room was more crowded, and one could order juice or tea to have as a relaxing refresher while simply basking in the afterglow of the treatment, the furriness of the bathrobe and listening to the calming chime-like music playing softly in the background.

After a while, I was all finished basking and ready to move on to dinner, so I was taken back to the changing room where I was left in peace to change back in to my clothes (next time I’ll be sure to bring a clean change with me!). The changing room had all manner of goodies for primping after your treatment, blow dryers, curling irons, hair spray and mousse, lotions and perfumes. One of the attendants packed my fluffy slippers up for me to take away, and I left the spa with some reluctance, tempered only by the knowledge that I was heading next for a super awesome meal experience!

(Keep reading in A Weekend in Riyadh: The Globe Restaurant, and as always see more pictures on my facebook page)

A Weekend in Riyadh: Overview

Over Halloween weekend I flew down to Riyadh to attend an amazing event: an all girl gamer convention! #GCON2014. Sadly, events being Saudi in nature meant that my plans went all awry and I had to invent some other adventure instead (or maybe in addition, since I did get to see a couple hours of the Con).

I’ve been trying to write about it all week since I got back, but it has just been crazy here. Everyone got sick, including me. We had a teacher out for surgery, myself sick for several days and missing work for one day, another teacher out for a day, the admin assistant and a bunch of the students… not to mention for the first three days of the week all the students were fasting for Muslim New Year. Not a good week for all of us at Tabuk University.

So, I’ve got one and a half blog posts written out of 4 (5 counting this one), and one photo album up on the facebook page. I was trying to get them all written and post in chronological order of my weekend, but I’ve given up on this dream in favor of simply getting something out there for you all to read.

Impressions of Riyadh:

img_0546It’s really hot there. Really hot. The city reminded me a lot of Beijing. There were many strangely shaped tall buildings under construction. I even saw one that reminded me of the EMP in Seattle, which may be the strangest building I’ve seen. This picture is the Kingdom Tower, which I still think looks like Barad-Dur.

It was pretty clean in the parts that I saw driving around. And the taxis were actually much much better than in Jeddah. I ended up having a better and less expensive experience with the taxis than either Uber or Careem, but the need for a smart phone with gps and Google Maps is still very much present, since none of the drivers know how to get anywhere.

It’s a very strange blend of conservative Saudi culture and ultra modern big city luxury. The women are dressed all in black and mostly veiled, unlike Jeddah with its colorful abayas and women showing faces and even hair! But there are taxis for women to take alone, and many places that allow women to enter and dine alone not in a separate section (not something I can do readily here in Tabuk). I admit, I didn’t get to see much in only one day, but much like Jeddah, nice place to visit, kinda glad I don’t live there.

It’s continuously amazing to me how little the Westerners who live in these cities think there is for them to do other than go to shopping malls. So far I’ve managed to avoid the malls in both Jeddah and Riyadh and still found plenty to do. The National Museum park and compound alone could keep me busy for several weekends exploring everything there. I guess it’s different if you live there a long time, but I’d think they could still remember that newcomers will find these things interesting when asked for ideas. *Shrug, oh well.

Synopsis:

The convention was scheduled for Wed-Fri (remember weekends are Fri-Sat here). I couldn’t get any days off work because one teacher was already out (surgery), so I packed my bags Wednesday night and brought them to school with me so I could go straight to the airport after school. Upon arrival I battled the evil taxi army to get to my hotel and check in, then summoned an Uber to take me to the convention.

You can read all the details of the convention in another post, but for now, just know what I saw of it was pretty awesome, and the third day (Friday) was cancelled, so I only got about 2 hours on Thursday night.

I wasn’t flying back until Saturday, so I had to find something to do Friday. I ended up going to see the National Museum, getting a first class spa treatment, and a gourmet meal atop the famous Al Faisaliah Tower.  So it was still a pretty amazing weekend, despite my plans being totally derailed.

I’m working on a post for each of the adventures, but I am not going to be able to publish them in chronological order. I do hope you’re able to enjoy them vicariously nonetheless.

🙂

Links to the other posts:

#GCON2014

King Abdulaziz Historical Center

Al Faisaliah Spa

The Globe Restaurant

The Long Journey to Tabuk

Its been a while since I was able to make an entry, in no small part because my visa finally arrived and I had to scurry to pack and get on a plane. What follows may be a little long, but it is the story of how I have come to Tabuk, KSA from Seattle, USA.

Seattle to Frankfurt

The first leg of my journey involved a flight on Condor airlines to Frankfurt. Now, I admit, I haven’t flown into Europe as an adult before, so I was going from memories of flying in and out of China as to how much luggage I should be allowed, because I needed to start packing before I got the plane ticket from my company. After packing and repacking about 3 times, I got the reservations, and read the Condor luggage policy. This may be a great budget airline if you’re going on a short trip or vacation, but for moving overseas, the luggage restrictions and prices for breaking these make you think stereotypically negative things about Germans.

One 23kg checked bag, no more than 158cm (add height, width & length), and one carry on, no more than 6kg. !!!!! I had to buy new luggage two days before leaving because mine was a few cm over size. I had to repack 3 more times, stepping on and off my bathroom scale trying to make sure the suitcases didn’t go over weight.

Finally after 4 days of fighting with my luggage, and a roaring karaoke send off by my friends, I was on my way to the airport (thank you Magic Rob for the ride). The entertainment was also lacking. Although there were nice high-tech touch screen tvs in every seat, if you wanted to watch anything, it cost extra. During the Great Luggage Siege, my roommate had gone online and ordered gluten free meals for me on the flight (also cost extra). This turned out to be a really good call, since not only did I get to eat the food that was served, it was much better than the stuff everyone else got, and I stashed away my extra snacks for later, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done because…

Frankfurt Airport

This may be the worst airport in the developed world. Do not fly through here if you can avoid it. There were no eateries. The only shopping was the duty free shop, so unless you wanted chocolate, there was no food available anywhere in the concourse.IMG_0008 This is fine if you’re passing through quickly, but I had a seven hour layover after my ten+ hour flight from Seattle. No food, no coffee, and the ONLY bathroom was at the far end of the terminal on the third floor.

In fact the only nice thing about the airport were the cots that lined all the walls where travelers could enjoy a nap. We even had to go back through security even though we’d all just gotten off the plane. On the far side of security there was another duty free, a tiny expensive cafe, and (thankfully) another bathroom, but not much else. I was told by another weary traveler that Munich airport is much better, so if you have to do a layover in Germany, maybe best to try that one instead.

Frankfurt to Riyadh

Lufthansa, in case you were wondering, same basic service as Condor, but less extra costs. The special meal was free, and the tv was free. I realize these are small things, but when you’re traveling for days, it really starts to matter. Any further review of this leg of the journey would devolve into movie reviews, since I took the opportunity to see a couple summer films that I’d missed out on.

Riyadh Arrival

IMG_0012Approximately 24 hours after I left Seattle, we touched down in Riyadh. From the final approach, the city was a field of lights. It is very flat, uninterrupted by trees, or bodies of water, just miles and miles of lights. Before getting off the plane, I fished my abaya and hijab out of my carry on bag, like most of the other women on the flight, so that I could be appropriately dressed as soon as I set foot on Saudi soil.

The airport was clean and beautiful. Contrary to many other stories I had read, I had a very smooth trip through security and customs. First, at a sort of immigration area, all first time visitors to the country had to register finger prints and face photos. Rows of individual desks, the clerks behind glass were all dressed in the traditional Saudi men’s wear of the white Thobe and red and white checkered Shemagh. The line I joined was having some trouble with the fingerprint reader, and the man there was clearly frustrated, but still nice to me. When I finally was sent to the next kiosk over, that gentlman spoke some English, and we exchanged pleasantries, including the seemingly obligatory conversation when someone finds out I teach English, a joking request for tutoring and an unspoken fish for a compliment on their current level. Customs didn’t even have a declaration form, and all we had to do was run our bags through an x-ray one more time.

Then I was out, and my driver was waiting right outside the doors with a sign. He was a very friendly young man from the Philippines who had been working as a driver for three years. His family is still back in the Philippines. When he asked me which state in America I was from, and I told him Washington, he proudly announced that the capitol was Olympia and that the state was located in the northwest next to Canada. Honestly, it sounds silly, but I was impressed. I felt like this guy was really interested in the world, and trying to learn things even though he was stuck driving a van so far from his home and family for so long.

On the drive to the apartment where I would stay until my next flight, he pointed out many landmarks to me, inlcuding the Princess Nora University, which is the largest women’s university, and boy are they not kidding. He told me as we spent several minutes driving past the campus that students took a train to get across the campus because it was so large.

In Riyadh

IMG_0015I was put up in one of the teacher apartments. It was large, to be sure, but I have to say I’m pretty happy that I’m not living there. It bore some sad resemblances to my place in China: dirty, falling apart, and the shower was just a showerhead in the wall with a drain in the bathroom floor. The bed was pretty, but it became obvious quickly that this was an illusion, since it was just a sham cover over an old mattress. I actually got a fabric burn on my leg from sleeping on the rough material. There was no food awaiting me, and not even any toilet paper in the bathroom (fortunately, I always travel with some).

But, fine! I think to myself, I’m going to be out on a flight the next day to a luxurious western compound in Al Ahsa, I can handle this.

Yes, I said Al Ahsa, not Tabuk, just keep reading.

So, after a few fitful hours of sleep, I head downstairs to meet the driver to be taken to my medical exam. Sadly, the friendly Philipino was gone, and in his place a recalcitrant Indian. Not mean, just not really interested in making conversation. I tried to ask him if we would be coming back to the apartment before heading to the airport later that day, and he said my flight to Al Ahsa was canceled, and I was staying in Riyadh. !!!!

I rode to the medical exam in shock and silence. Not only was the apartment really shabby, but the neighborhood was bleak and barren. There were no nearby shops or markets, and the area seemed under a long term construction project. Was I really going to be stuck there?

I watched the city go by through the darkly tinted window of the company van. In the residential areas, once we got out of our shabby area, I could see the palace like homes of the wealthier Saudis hiding behind sand colored walls. In the more industrial areas, the city reminded me a lot of China. All the pictures I’d seen of Riyadh online made it look like a sleek metropolis, but in reality it seemed every building was under construction. Incomplete skyscrapers were adorned with scaffolding and cranes. Piles of dirt and rubble piled up in construction sites and huge concrete frames of buildings sat, seemingly abandoned in the middle of being built. In its advertising sense, everything was either sand colored or tremendously gaudy. Nearly everything was in English and Arabic, so I had very little trouble reading the ads and shop signs. Fast food and American brand restaurants were clustered together between clothing and furniture shops. Nearer the end of the ride, we passed through a small market area where men sold fruits and vegetables on carts in the street in front of smaller less Western looking shops. Nearly everyone I saw was male. Only a couple of black shrouded figures broke up the all male continuity of the area.

The medical exam went quickly, as all they needed was blood, urine and photos. On the way back, I asked the driver if we could pick up some food, since I hadn’t had a meal since the flight into Riyadh the day before. He seemed to soften up a little at this point, and began talking about the market options. He wasn’t sure if the supermarket was open at that time on a Friday, but he promised if it wasn’t, we would find a convenience store, then he would come back for me after Duhr prayer to try again.

Things Get Scary

The market turned out to be open, hooray. He dropped me off at the door, saying I should go on and do my shopping, and that he would park the car and find me inside. Still unsure of how long I would be in Riyadh, I didn’t want to buy too much and not be able to take it on the plane, so I got some chicken biryani, some yogurt, some fruit and some chocolate. I paid for my purchases and stepped back into the air conditioned space between shops, looking for my driver, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I am a good adventurer. I am usually well prepared, having the name, phone number and address of where I’m staying available on hand. A lot of hostels offer little cards at the check in desk so you can just show them to a taxi driver. I usually get myself from place to place, and tend to spiral outward from easy landmarks. None of this was any good in this situation. I had no phone, and the phone numbers I had for anyone in Riyadh were all in my email. Aside from this, I had no idea where I was staying, no landmark or point of reference, no name of a hotel, just an anonymous apartment complex somewhere in the sand colored city. And even if I knew, how could I, as a woman alone, possibly catch a taxi?

I didn’t panic, at first. I walked around the mall’s central area a few times, but to no avail. I’d like to think that low blood sugar and sleep deprivation were the primary cause of my emotionality, but this was one of the scarier situations I’d found myself in. I knew, logically, that the driver couldn’t possibly leave me. He was employed by my school, and I’m sure he would be in lots of trouble abandoning a teacher, so I knew this couldn’t be the case. But I had no control, no back up plan, no ability to be self reliant. Thoughts whirled around my head: could I maybe approach another foreigner for aid? would they let me use their phone to look up the number and call for help? What would happen if the mall closed for prayer while I was still alone?

I wanted nothing more than to find the ladies room and have a good cry, but I couldn’t risk being out of sight in case my driver turned up. So, I sat in what I hoped was a visually conspicuous place near the main entrance and waited. Suddenly the whole journey caught up with me. The luggage, the lack of sleep, the horrible Frankfurt airport, the lack of food, the shabby apartment and the massive uncertainty. Tired, hungry, lost and alone, feeling more helpless than I had in any other similar situation, I pressed a tissue into my eyes to keep from becoming a spectacle in public.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the driver finally descended the escalator. He had several shopping bags. I was so amazed that he would take his time shopping here without even letting me know!

On the way back, I think he might have sensed I was unhappy, because he tried to tell me some other helpful things about our neighborhood. He pointed out where there was a small market about two blocks away and drove slowly by it so I could see the streets and landmarks clearly. He also made sure I had the internet password before he dropped me off.

I managed to log in, and get to my email before finishing my meltdown. The school had decided, since I requested to work in Jeddah that they would move me to Tabuk instead… This makes no sense, and also means I don’t get to live in the super luxurious compound at Al Ahsa which had a pool, a gym, a jacuzzi and a resident masseuse. Some friends from Seattle spent a while talking me back to sanity, and the chicken biryani helped a great deal. I pretty much spent the rest of the day sleeping as the jet lag finally caught up with me.

Riyadh to Tabuk

The Riyadh airport that seemed so welcoming when I arrived at the international terminal became a daunting mass of conflicting instructions once I was in the domestic terminal. I knew that I would need to pay for my second bag, but what I did not know was that this would mean about 30 minutes of wandering all over the terminal looking for where to do this… at 430 am.

Security was also interesting. There was a ladies line for security which turned out to be a shorter line and a largely hassle free experience. After putting my carry on bags on the machine, I stepped into a separate area to go through the metal detector. When it beeped as I walked through, I realized I’d left a metal hair clip in my hair. I took it out, thinking I would need to walk through again, and indicated the offending metal object to the female security personnel there, and she simply waved me on!

My steel water bottle fell out of my bag on its way through x-ray and it took some pains to retrieve it. At first I simply tried to get someone’s attention to ask about it, but the one person who I got responded that he didn’t speak English. Unwilling to give up on my favorite canteen, I looked around the area for it, and finally spotted it under the conveyor belt. After a few more tries, I managed to get the security guys to look at me, whereupon I pointed to the bottle where it had rolled on the floor. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, it felt more like they simply couldn’t imagine that a woman would be trying to talk to them.

They seemed surprised when they finally realized I was addressing them, but once they spotted the bottle I was pointing to, they quickly retrieved it for me.

The terminal was interesting, full of kiosks selling coffee, ice cream, snacks and sweets. A crowd of young men were gathered near a sign that advised there was a 200 Riyal fine for smoking there, but that the smoking room was that way. They posed, in defiance or self-importance, or simply lack of caring, a variety of traditional thobes and modern jeans and t-shirts, smoking their Marlboros next to that sign. I managed to find a bottle of water, using the last of my US currency to purchase it, and receiving my change in Riyals.

When it was time to board, we huddled up around the gate. I didn’t expect neat lines, because I was warned, so I just pretended I was boarding a bus in China, and was fine. Once we got past the gate, we were led downstairs and outside into a bus… which then drove us for quite a ways to an airplane just hanging out on the tarmac with a staircase. I may never know why.

The flight attendants had the cutest little blue hijabs with a little built in hat. They also wore pants suits instead of abayas. It was interesting to see how professional women dressed and acted differently. The nurse at the medical exam place had been the same.

Tabuk

IMG_0026After collecting my luggage I headed out and found a friendly [redacted] named [redacted] holding a sign with my name. He turns out to be the [redacted] on the men’s side, but had taken it upon himself to come and greet me because the driver didn’t speak any English. We chatted on the short ride to the hotel, and I got some details about life in Tabuk. The hotel where we live is nice enough. Nothing compared to the compound I was expecting in Al Ahsa, but its walking distance from a good shopping market and several smaller shops and restaurants.

After helping me get my things to my room, we went down to the grocery store so I could pick up some things. I didn’t really know what to get, yet. Last time I did this kind of thing, I made oatmeal for breakfast and ate every other meal out. But its not far, so I can go back on my own when I figure out what I need.

We’re going to get dinner at the Schwarma place next door in a bit, and tomorrow I start work.

The Visa Saga: One Letter Away

My adventure in Saudi Arabia has yet to get its boots on the ground, but it is no less challenging just because I’m still in the U.S. As previously written about in Clash of the Bureaucracies, the process of obtaining an employment visa to the Kingdom is long and tortuous. While that post dealt primarily with the paperwork I could obtain for myself here, this post is a summary of the one elusive document that *had* to come from Saudi itself: the Visa Block/Letter of Invitation.

This is representative of the long time during which issues continued to mount with increasing contradiction and consternation, and often long polite roundabout emails and exchanges are paraphrased for brevity and/or levity.

May 11, 2014

Welcome email, including instructions on how to log into the employee portal to fill out information and begin early training.

The link to the employee portal doesn’t work…

May 12

A Google doc with (later to be contradicted) instructions is shared with me, and a timeline which turns out to mean absolutely nothing, encouraging me to hurry hurry hurry and get my documents in line. I am warned that once Ramadan begins, everything is very slow, so we should try to get my application in before this. This doc also includes the name and address of the visa agent in DC, and an introduction letter to include when I send him my paperwork.

May 14-15

Contract received, signed and returned electronically.

May 15

A dizzying conversation about contradictions between emailed instructions, the Google doc instructions, and the Saudi Embassy website, the upshot of which I am told

“The website information takes precedent over all.  The rules and regulations tend to change drastically and unpredictably.  So always defer to the website. Our document is only a guidance – the web information is what has to be followed.”

June 7

Another reminder to log into the employee portal which is still not working…

June 10

While inquiring about the details on the very unclear Saudi Embassy website, I am told that “The original letter from the company in Saudi Arabia sponsoring the applicant, certified both by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” will be a document sent to me from Riyadh. It will be in Arabic and show your name and passport number in English.

June 18-19

I report that all my paperwork is in, and I was only awaiting the Visa Block letter from the school to be able to send off my application.

I am told this is amazing, and I am the first teacher to have all my documents in order “Gold Star!”, and I should be receiving the letter soon.

June 29

Ramadan begins.

Also, I get an email from the office in Riyadh asking to confirm my address because they have a package to send to me. Joy! I think, this must be the letter finally.

July 1

A check in email from the school, to which I respond again, I am only waiting on the letter from Riyadh.

July 7

I finally get my package away from FedEx to discover that it does not in fact contain the letter I was expecting, but rather the original contract and a photocopy document in Arabic. I email off for advice on what to do with these.

July 8

I am told to use the electronic version of the contract that I received in May.

July 9-10

Trying to sort out what this all-Arabic paper is:

Me: “This is definitely NOT an original, doesn’t seem to have my name on it, so I’m really doubtful this is the document I need.”

Them: “This could be the certificate that they are asking about. When you get ready to send your visa documents to DMS include this document.  If they need it they will have it, otherwise they won’t. I’ve also sent a note to our office in Riyadh to determine the contents of the document.  I’ll be in touch.”

Me: “I have all my other documents ready. I’m only waiting for the letter. So if that is it, I can send it now. But if it isn’t, I have to keep waiting.”

Them: “This is what the extra document is for.  You surmised correctly.”

What? Quickly review the conversation… what did I surmise? Is it the letter or not?

Riyadh Office: “This is the company’s commercial registration certificate. It was required for the visa application so we sent copies together with the original contracts to the teachers.”

Me: “Sorry, but it still doesn’t meet the requirements listed on the Saudi embassy website, I sent you a copy of the requirement. Will they send the original document with my name on it?”

Them: “They will be sending the visa slip as soon as they can get it prepared. The certificate is not always required, but occasionally.  Just send it with your visa application and all will be well.”

July 22

I had planned a cross country visit to see my family before departing. Given my earlier expectations of timeline that I would have been able to send my paperwork in June, or at least before Ramadan, or maybe the beginning of July? I had planned the trip for the end of July. So I send off an email to let the school know that if they plan on sending the letter while I’m out of town, please let me know so I can arrange for someone to receive the package.

The response: “Nice to hear from you! Hope you’re doing well and that this great adventure is appearing more and more exciting. Nothing is likely to happen between now and August 3, as the Riyadh office (and embassies) are closed for the Eid holiday.”

August 5

Another check in from the school to ask how I’m progressing on my visa application.

No really, still have all my materials, only waiting on your letter…

Great!

August 7

Another email from me to them, pleading that with only 2 weeks left until my supposed start date, there is still no sign of the letter. I cannot tell my boss when my last day is, I cannot tell my roommate when I am moving out, and my medical paperwork (that they urged me to get as soon as possible back in May) expires on August 26th!

The response: “After reading your email, I’m still trying to determine exactly what
you need. What letter of invitation?”

!!!!!

I once again refer them to the Saudi Embassy website.

Oh, that letter…. Hopefully you’ll get that this week.

August 11

Once again, they check on where I am in gathering my other materials. Once again I say, yes, have them all, have done so for over a month now, and my medical papers expire soon…

August 12

Them: Good news (addressing me by the wrong name), you should receive the letter tomorrow! We also found out that you must use this visa agent (name and address) — who is the same one from the Google doc back in May. And we’re emailing you the letter.

Me: Actually, my name is …,  and (for the Nth time) the Saudi Embassy website says “original letter”, an email doesn’t seem like that…

Them: “I think we are not sending applicants visa blocks after all because
the Saudi Consulates prefer to work only with Visa Agents.”

At this point, I believe the brain explosion could be heard several blocks away.

August 13

“Dear applicant,

Hope this email finds you will [sic].

Please confirm the name and contact information for the visa agent in your country that you would like to pass your visa application through. We have already applied for the work visas and we are expecting them sometime next week.

If you don’t have a visa agent yet, then we will be using  https://www.vfstasheel.com/ where you will need to book an online appointment with them to pass your application.

Please make sure that the visa agent that you will use is certified by the Saudi Embassy in your country. Otherwise, we can just go with  https://www.vfstasheel.com/.

We will also be sending you Wakala letters (invitation letters from sponsor), certified by the Saudi Chamber of commerce via email to support your application.

Thank you”

Ok. Nevermind the fact that I’ve twice been told what visa agent to use, if you visit this website, you’ll see that it does not have an option for Saudi Arabia listed in its services. And also, email, still not original.

August 14

It is explained to me, in further direct contradiction to several previous exchanges

-Yes, use the visa agent we told you in the beginning

-The original contract (that I was told not to send) is where the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certifications are, so send that.

-The emailed version of the visa letter is certified, but since we’re sending original certifications on the contract, a color printout of the visa block letter is ok.

AND!

I finally got the email of the letter of invitation!

Image (4)

So, here I am, all the paperwork finally. Inshallah, unless they respond in the next few hours with some new contradiction, I will be sending the visa application to the visa agent tomorrow.

Who knows, I may actually make it the Kingdom this month. Whether I’m still sane when I get there is another matter entirely.

Clash of the Bureaucracies

Its been a while since I’ve written. I started this blog in an attempt to get used to blogging before my Middle Eastern adventure began. I thought I’d be further into the process by now, but it seems that I underestimated the true nature of the Bureaucracy I’m facing. I wasn’t originally planning on posting about the boring steps of getting ready to go, but it’s now reached a level of absurdity, that I feel I should share. So for anyone who is planning on travelling to a country that requires paperwork to get in or get employed, enjoy the horror story and learn from my pain.

The last time I was employed overseas it was in pre-Olympics China, and all I had to do was apply for a tourist visa to get in, and then my employment visa was done in person once I arrived. The Saudi visa process for employment is especially painful, but it isn’t just Saudi Arabian Bureaucracy, its the US as well.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

I was interviewed and hired in early May. They sent over a contract which I signed and returned in mid-May. The school sent me a list of things to do to get ready, stressing how very important it was to be able to send off my visa application BEFORE June 3rd.

Things included:

1) Verifying my academic credentials – for which I had to gather official transcripts from three schools, notarized copies of my degrees, and letters from the registrar’s offices verifying my attendance to the school. The first two are a pain, but the schools and notaries are used to these requests, so still fairly standard. However, registrar’s offices are not accustomed to being asked for letters of verification that inlcued the student’s social security number. There is an online service called the Student Clearinghouse where employers or schools are supposed to go to verify attendance or degrees. So there were a couple weeks of emails and faxes trying to get these registrars to understand that I could not use this service and needed this very specific letter that someone was actually going to have to compose rather than automate.

But wait, there’s more. These then must be sent to a separate office in Virginia to be authenticated by the Saudi Cultural Mission before they can be used as part of the visa application! The Cultural Mission’s instructions say to include a pre-paid return envelope. They specifically say no FedEx account numbers, but an envelope with the official words “pre-paid” on it. By the way, FedEx doesn’t do this. UPS does pre-paid envelopes, but they don’t say “pre-paid” they just say “return label” and when dealing with language barriers and bureaucracy, I wasn’t sure that would cut it, so the poor lady at UPS and I had to come up with a way to incorporate the words “pre-paid” into the label with the very limited options the software provided, and ended up putting it on part of the address line.

2) Police report of my (lack of) arrest record – which should be simple enough: fill out and print this form and mail it in with a check. But Seattle PD sent my form and check back to me because I missed an instruction, and I had to start all over again, adding more weeks to the process. And you thought I was being paranoid about the details.

3) Medical Exam – this was the most extensive exam I’ve ever had. Not all of the materials needed could be gathered on my single visit to the office, and I had to take home a sample kit and go to another facility for a chest x-ray. I could also only get to the Dr’s office one day a week, so a week after my appointment, I drop off the sample kit. And a few days later get a call saying it was the wrong one. So the next week I go back for the right one, and a week later return that. The final results were then sent to the wrong doctor… it took a month to get the form after my initial appointment.

DoH sealBut wait, there’s more. It isn’t enough that a doctor has filled out this form in triplicate and I have two copies of the 15 pg lab report. I must get these forms stamped by the Department of Health, and this means a drive to the state capitol. This involved three hours of driving and 5 minutes of standing in an office to get three pieces of paper stamped.

I should mention here, this part of the paperwork is only valid for 90 days, in this case from the date of my initial visit on May 28th to August 26th. I have to enter the Kingdom before August 26th or this paperwork expires, and I have to do it all over again.

4) Finally, the original letter of invitation from the company itself. There are other fairly simple things involved, like the actual visa application form, and a copy of my employment contract, but those are soooo simple, I’m not going into them here. The letter of invitation is issued from Riyadh, and is a document primarily in Arabic that includes (among many other things) my name and the visa block number that the company has obtained for my use. I cannot tell you why I do not have this yet, only that it is possibly the most vexing part of the whole process.

At the end of June, I got an email from the Riyadh office confirming my address because they had a package to send me. Hooray! I thought, finally the letter. But, our FedEx delivery guy doesn’t think his job includes using the apartment buzzer on the front of the building, and instead just leaves the little note saying I wasn’t home (even though I was). This is July 3rd, so there is no way for me to get this again until after the holiday. I try to go online and request the package be taken to a drop off location instead of my apartment, but the website tells me that my address doesn’t match the address they have on file. What? So I end up sitting in the FedEx hub at 630 Monday evening waiting for the driver who won’t even try to deliver my package to bring it back so I can get it.

20140708_135334I go through all of this, open the package and find a badly photocopied document in Arabic and the original employment contract. Now, I don’t need the original contract for anything, but I thought maybe they were just sending it along with a necessary document. But as I reviewed the visa application process on the Saudi Embassy website, I noticed a couple of problems. This document was a photocopy, not an original, and it had no sign of my name anywhere on it. Just to be meticulous, I searched all the Arabic numbers (Eastern Arabic is quite different looking than “Western Arabic” numbers we use here) to see if I could find my passport number anywhere, no luck.

A couple more days of emailing with the school and I find out this is the company’s commercial registration certificate: a document I do not even need!

Now, I know I won’t loose this job over a late start that is brought on by the lack of proper paperwork, because every other teacher is in the exact same boat. In fact, the school tells me I’m well ahead of most other teachers in processing my paperwork. What? But here I am, 42 days from the expiration of my medical paperwork, 38 days from the supposed start of my job, and I haven’t even been able to apply for the visa yet, let alone make any plans for departure including flights, when my last day of work in the states should be, when I can tell my roommate I’m moving out, when I can cancel my car insurance and cell phone service, and when I can throw the all important going away party.

What’s the take-away here?

Well, first off, do your own research when planning to travel. I saw so many websites that assured me that my employer would take the lead in helping me process my visa paperwork, and while they have hired an agent to manage getting my application and fee to the embassy, they have pretty much been useless for everything else, and downright misleading in timing, since they told me to do my medical exam on or shortly after May 27th. From now on, reaearch employment visa procedures before or during job hunts rather than waiting until you’re hired and relying on the company to help.

Secondly, appreciate the lesson in patience. There is nothing like conflicting bureaucratic and corporate systems to create a seemingly endless and unnavigable obstacle course, but you are not the first person, nor even the only person right now, trying to navigate it. Your plans and dreams will only fail if you give up.

Finally, hold on to the story so that when you’ve finally made it to the destination you can look back and laugh, because it will be as nothing compared to all the new challenges you face while living and working in a new country. A little adversity makes the adventure more vibrant.