“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

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From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

Royal Decree Holiday: Diving in Aqaba

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written in here. There have been some life events that maybe when I’m farther away from I’ll be able to write as interesting anecdotes, but for the moment they’ve had me holed up and uncreative. Now I’m on my way out of the Kingdom soon and looking forward to some new summer adventures visiting friends in Europe, so I figured I’d try to get the last of my holiday travels written up before I go on to new ones. Thanks for hangin’ in there with me 🙂


Our second semester of classes was meant to be one 5 month long string of classes with no relief in sight (a fact that had I known, might have made me reconsider my choice of employer and has since caused me to add a new question to my interview pile). However, suddenly and out of nowhere, the new King declared that all the schools in the Kingdom would be closed for a week in late March. Later there was some speculation that this might have been related to the impending invasion of Shia held territories in Yemen, but at the time, we had no idea that was coming, we only knew that school was out because the King said so. I think a lot of people believe that the Saudi monarchy is more honorific than practical, because our picture of royals is so based in Britain, however, Saudi is a true monarchy: the King owns all the land, the King owns all the oil, the King makes all the rules. There are advisory councils and local representatives (some of whom are even elected), but in the end, when the King says close the schools, the schools close.

There was a period of debate from my employers however, since we are a private school not entirely subject to the same rules as the Saudi schools, and while our branch was on a Saudi university campus, many of the company’s other schools were not on such campuses and had no reason to close. And of course, during this time of debate, we were strictly told not to purchase any plane tickets or make any non-refundable hotel reservations, because this trick happened last year and the vacation was cancelled at the last minute, screwing dozens of teachers out of their holiday plans and the money they had spent.

I booked a great (refundable) hotel, but had no idea how to get there if not by plane, and all the flights out of Tabuk for the holiday were rapidly filling up, even weeks before the holiday, because all the Saudi’s knew for sure they weren’t going to school. In fact, by the time the holiday was officially acknowledged by my employer, there were no seats on any flights out of Tabuk going anywhere for any price. (valuable lessons have been learned, dear reader, oh how full of fine print and loopholes is the glorious world of ESL teaching)

My only option remained a private driving service that ran shuttles from Tabuk to Jordan. So, along with two other teachers escaping for holiday, I hoped in an SUV and embarked on the desert road trip. Actually, it’s an astonishingly beautiful drive. The desert in northwestern Arabia was once, like all of Arabia, under water and the stunning rock monoliths that jut from the sand in striations of color and peculiarities of shape are quite breathtaking. We stopped in Haql just inside the Saudi border to get some gas (I’m sure it’s much cheaper in Saudi), snacks and find a restroom. The gas station didn’t have one, but we hopped across the road to the public beach that had a changing room/bathroom for public use. On the way back to the car, I grabbed some quick pictures of the sun setting over the Red Sea and some beautiful pink spring blossoms.

It took us a long time to get through the border. There was a lot of paperwork and waiting, and at some point the whole process shut down for sunset prayer. Sometime well after dark, we were finally released into the freedom of Jordan, and one of my car companions popped into the duty free shop at the border crossing to buy a beer. I am not normally one to grab booze at the first exodus from the dry zone that is KSA, but it seemed like a fun idea, so I grabbed a can and looked longingly at the bottles of wine before remembering that I had another border crossing the next day and no idea what the customs rules were on open bottles, so wine could wait until Egypt.

The eventual solution for getting to my resort in Egypt, by the way, was to take a ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Taba (Egypt) and then get a bus to Sharm el Sheihk (Egypt) where the resort was. I would have flown if I could have, really, but then I would have missed this amazing side adventure in Aqaba, so I think it worked out for the best. The ferry departed in the evening around 7, but we were supposed to check in at least 30 minutes early to deal with customs. I knew that it was a 3 hour drive from Tabuk, which meant that theoretically I could have made it to the docks in time, but decided not to chance it and booked a hotel for Thursday night in Aqaba near the Marina where I would catch the ferry the next day instead. It was a good thing too, since the border crossing had taken so long, it was well after 8 when we arrived at my hotel.

I checked in without incident, dropped off my things in the room and came back out for dinner, having only had some laban and a pastry since lunch. I ordered something lamb and tomato which was quite delicious, and chatted with the Filipina waitress while secretly passing tidbits of my dinner to the puppy and the cat who ranged around the patio. I also enjoyed my beer with dinner in the cool spring evening air before crawling into bed and falling asleep.

The room was not luxurious, there were three beds arranged in the space and it was clearly meant for larger groups than me, but it was reasonably clean and the air conditioning worked, even if the television did not. What the hotel lacked in room amenities it more than made up for in awesome people.

I headed out of my room for breakfast the next morning, unsure of what to do with my day but unconcerned as well. While I was staring at the carafes trying to determine which one was coffee, the Pakistani couple already seated clued me in. We exchanged some lighthearted comments about the importance of morning coffee and they invited me to sit with them. It turned out that the husband was also a teacher in Saudi and so they were on the same holiday from school that I was. They were surprised that I had recognized them as Pakistani, saying that most people thought they were from India based on their accents. I’d like to say it’s a lucky guess, but I’m slowly learning that at least in the ME, Indians are treated as servant class, so it was more their clothing, demeanor and status as tourists that clued me in to their economic prosperity and thus their nationality.

We chatted about life in Saudi and I asked about their holiday plans. It turned out they hoped to see Petra, so I was able to share my advise on where to stay and what to see. They were happy to have the insight. I really hope that they made it and were able to enjoy the sights.

Shortly after the couple left to catch a ride to Wadi Musa, I settled in to the hotel’s outdoor seating area to read. Aside from the outdoor dining area, there was a small pool, two floor seating areas designed to mimic Bedouin tents, and another patio with raised seating. Everything was surrounded by climbing trees and vines that were blooming in the late March sunshine. Happy little birds chirped in the trees and the puppy roamed around amiably. The air was fresh with the breeze from the sea that was just over the main road and I had a book and a cup of coffee. I felt that I could happily spend the whole day just like that.

I was interrupted by a friendly face come to say hello. And as I’m sure you all know by now, I love meeting new people, so I put down the book and commenced to chatting. Ismael, as it turned out his name was, ran the dive shop attached to the hotel and had come over to see if he could convince me to take a dive that morning. A scuba dive. Which I had never done before and had no training in whatsoever. I told him as much and he said it was no problem, that the dive master would take good care of me and I would have a wonderful time. Wary of a sales pitch, yet loathe to be rude, I followed Ismael over to the dive shop next to the restaurant where he showed me the equipment they used and several underwater pictures of the reefs were they took people to dive. The offer was becoming more and more tempting.

Before coming to Saudi, I had read about the wonderful coral reefs in the Red Sea and it was my firm determination (believing at the time that I would live in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea with lots of beaches) to scuba dive for the first time in the beautiful waters there. On my one trip to Jeddah, I was able to go to a beach that had a reef close enough to shore to access without a boat and went snorkeling there. It was amazing. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, even though I never swam deep enough to have to hold my breath. I knew that if I had lived there, I would have spent all the time I could at those beaches and learned to dive if I could find a school that would take a female student, but alas, I did not live in Jeddah, and my weekend trips soon became curtailed when the company decreed that we could no longer take personal vacation days, even unpaid ones, but only national holidays or sick days with doctor’s notes.

So when I found myself suddenly presented with the option to actually dive in the Red Sea, as I had declared my intention to do a year previously, I was a bit overwhelmed. Ismael was patient but persistent, he addressed my concerns, talked to me about safety procedures and even offered me a discount by way of encouragement. Adventure finally won over practicality and I went of to don my swimsuit and contact lenses (which I had brought thinking I might go snorkeling again, glasses don’t fit under swim masks at all). Back at the dive shop I was fitted out with a scuba suit and introduced to Mogli who would be our dive master that day. Mogli was a kind and modest young man who really seemed to love his job. He was a capable instructor and did a good job of encouraging us and dealing with my total inexperience.

We donned all the gear and walked from the pavilions down to the beach, which is quite a heavy walk let me tell you. The Red Sea is very saline and we had heavy weights in addition to the tanks. Once we got in the water, he made sure that our fins were on tight and had us practice breathing in the shallows to make sure we were ok with the tanks. He taught us some simple hand signals: ok, problem, go up, go down, out of air, and he told us a signal he would use to tell us to pose so he could take pictures. We practiced getting water out of our masks and practiced the hand signals some more, then headed out toward the reef.

My first scuba dive was done with about 10-15 minutes of training, but it was really cool. Even more than snorkeling, where one is mostly looking down upon the ocean floor, we were able to swim around such large reefs that from the ocean floor, we were looking up the reef with fish swimming above us like birds. I spent a lot of energy focusing on my breathing. You can’t breathe in scuba like you can in air, it requires slightly more force to inhale and exhale, not an uncomfortable amount, but not so little that you can do it without thinking on your first try. There were moments when I would feel like I couldn’t get enough air, but thankfully I’ve had a lot of training in breathing from band, choir, martial arts and yoga, so I was able to stay calm and find the rhythm of breath again. I also had a hard time orienting myself, when I stopped moving I would drift or bits of me would start floating. I don’t have much experience swimming with fins, so I had to keep reminding myself to stop trying to swim with my arms.

It was a lot to take in, I kept getting distracted by the beauty all around me and would forget to do something with my body. It would be like trying to learn to drive on a beautiful country road surrounded by flowering trees and soaring mountains filled with magical waterfalls. You have to pay attention to the road or you’ll crash, but you want to watch the beauty around you. I’m grateful to have had such a good guide, who had me hold on to his arm as he guided us around the reef so that I could worry less about where I was going and spend more time watching. In addition to so many beautiful living corals and colorful tropical fish, we spotted a lone puffer fish and a beautiful red lion fish among the rocks.

Before I knew it, the dive was over and we were heading back to shore. Once we left the water, the gravity that had seemed to ignore us for the last 30 minutes came back with a vengance, and we slogged back up the beach in all our heavy gear in the newly unfamiliar pull of 9.8m/s2 in mere air. We loaded all the gear back in the jalopy and drove the short way back to the hotel. It was still before noon, so I went back to my room to take a shower and get dressed. I managed to find the hotel manager to ask about check out time. I told him I was catching the ferry that night and so wanted to hang out until it was time to go, but could check out whenever it was necessary. He told me not to worry about it, which was nice.

Ismael and Mogli invited me to join them for dinner. I wanted to catch a nap after my exertion diving, so I asked them to call me when it was ready to wake me up. They were preparing a local dish called zarb which involves digging a big hole and putting a fire in the bottom, then layering in chicken, rice and vegetables, covering up the hole and letting it all slow cook in the earth. I had a nice afternoon nap and woke up just a bit before they called me about dinner. We gathered around a large communal dish in the room behind the diving center, myself, Ismael, Mogli, Tyson and another quite shy young man whose name I’m sad to say I never properly learned. We ate without utensils as is the custom of the Bedouin, but unlike the Saudi kabsa, the Jordanians pour yogurt over the rice and chicken, which is not only delicious but makes it much easier to scoop up in your fingers.

I also noticed that although at least some of them did mutter “bismallah” a kind of pre-meal prayer, that the prohibition of left hand food touching wasn’t really observed. I thought about it more and realized that every time I’d been at one of the no utensil meals that it had been necessary to use both hands to tear apart the meat on the plate, since both lamb and chicken were served whole or in barely separated large chunks far to large to pick up whole and often far to stubborn to rend with one hand. They may have moved the food to their mouths right-handed, but the chicken was torn apart two handed. I think there were two or three chickens, in addition to a huge pile of rice, a half dozen potatoes and some onions and peppers. I was quite hungry, and the food was amazing, nonetheless I still ate far less than my hosts who continued to claim I should stop being shy and eat more (some things it seems are the same even across the border).

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, drinking tea and smoking shisha, I collected the pictures that Mogli had taken underwater. My host called out to everyone passing by, some he knew and others were strangers. Some came to talk, drink and smoke with us, others passed by with a wave and a smile. I enjoyed myself immensely, and as the evening drew to a close, I packed up my bag and accepted a ride to the marina from one of Ismael’s many local friends.

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On my way back from Egypt a week later, I arrived on a very early morning ferry and caught a ride with one of the tour guides, although I was not a part of his group. He took me back up the beach to the hotel and as it turned out, was also a friend of Ismael’s. The folks at the hotel were happy to see me again, and I camped out around the public spaces, mooched some coffee from the kitchen and settled down to enjoy my last day of freedom before the driver came that afternoon to take me back to Saudi.

Ismael managed to talk me into a second dive, which was not really very hard to do. This time I went alone with Mogli and we went to an area called the Japanese gardens. We didn’t have the camera along, but it was even more stunning than my first dive. I was a bit more comfortable with the gear, but still felt awkward trying to move along. I am very buoyant naturally, and combined with the high salinity of the Red Sea, I’m extremely buoyant. I remember floating in the water in Jeddah it took no effort at all to float fully vertical with my head above water. Normally, staying vertical requires treading water, and floating requires more horizontality, but not in the Red Sea. Our second dive was a little deeper and even with the weights, I was still floating too much, so Mogli had to put some rocks in my vest to weigh me down. I hadn’t really learned to adjust the buoyancy controls myself yet, so I felt like I was always to light or too heavy. This was probably not helped by the fact that in the crystal clear water it was almost impossible to tell how far away the corals below us actually were.

However, the gardens were unbelievable. They really did resemble beautiful gardens of sculpted topiary and shrines of carefully balanced rocks with beautiful little flowers dancing in and out of the cracks. We swam around so many beautiful formations. One of my favorite color combinations is a sort of sandy brown with a light blue and the corals offered this combination over and over again along with stunning purples, greens and yellows, not to mention the flashing silver, rainbow and neon of the fish. Mogli showed me the anemone clinging to one towering wall of stone and coral, touching them lightly to make them hide. We saw so many amazing animals. There were more puffer fish and large lion fish on display. There were thin snake-like fish disguised as blades of sea grass. There were schools of fish of all colors and patters, zebra stripes, neon blue and sunny yellow, purple so intense it was almost ultra-violet and silver that flashed bright in the sea filtered sun.

It will probably take me many more dives and much more training to be able to use the equipment on my own and to get used to the strange method of locomotion that isn’t like any other style of swimming I’ve done, but it will be worth it. In less than 90 minutes of time in the ocean on only two occasions, I’ve become an addict. I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but I will get my open water certification, and you should too.

After my second dive, I didn’t have a room to shower in, but there were some in the public bathrooms at the hotel, so after washing off the salt, I spent a happy few last hours with Ismael and his friends, drinking tea and smoking shisha and watching the people pass by in the beautiful spring weather. Although my holiday was planned for Sharm el Sheikh, a chance overnight hotel booking became a magical adventure and beautiful two days, starting and ending my holiday with nature’s beauty and humanity’s goodness. In many ways, it was this part of my holiday even more than Egypt, that made returning to Saudi so difficult and has made the contrast between what is available here and what exists elsewhere.

It isn’t just Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Arab world, that offers freedoms and fun in the Middle East. All of the people that I met in Jordan both in February and again in March in three different places were open, friendly and very moderate Muslims who embodied all the hospitality of legends while displaying absolutely none of the intolerance or violence that has come to be associated with the Middle East in the media these days. It safe, it’s beautiful and the people are wondrous. I think I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Jordan, and that if I ever return to the Middle East to live it will be there.

 

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page 🙂

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

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Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

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We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

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Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.


So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows,  I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 2: A Morning in Madain Saleh

I spent a whole day in transit to get to a city only 3 hours by car away from the one I live in. Why go through so much trouble and pain just to see some old ruins? Because Saudi Arabia is closed to tourists.

Madain Saleh may have been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but very little is yet known about the people or the civilizations that predated the Nabateans (who we know all about by studying Petra in Jordan) because it’s only been in the past few years that archaeologists have been allowed to enter and excavate the site. In fact, the French archaeologist Dr. Laila Nehme was there at the same time I was. I didn’t meet her, but I did have in interesting run in with the French cultural attache who had come up from Riyadh to check on her that day (more on that later).

So, as a pure achievement junkie, I could not imagine coming so close to such an amazing piece of history and missing out! The only other time that I could have gone would have been in the summer heat after the semester ended, so I took two days of my precious vacation, and spent one of them simply travelling so that I could walk these grounds.

As it turned out, my adventure was way more than I’d bargained for, but in a good way. Read about it here and see all the photos on facebook!


Arriving on one of only two inbound flights for the week on Friday evening, my guide picked me up at the airport. You have to have a guide to see Madain Saleh. (disclaimer: Lot’s of Westerners don’t, because all rules in Saudi are malleable, but it’s a safer option than travelling all that way and possibly getting turned aside or lost). Particularly since I cannot drive in Saudi, a good guide was important to me. I searched a long time to find one, since tourism isn’t yet a big deal and locals who want to go to Madain Saleh just drive themselves!

Mr. Fayez

After emailing everyone on the official tourist guide website, and scouring Trip Advisor, I found Mr. Fayez. Who, by the way, is awesome and I’ll be happy to send you his contact info if you need a guide.

Mr. Fayez spoke very proficient English and had not only agreed to be my guide to Madain Saleh, he also arranged all my transport, the necessary permits to visit the sites, and helped me with meals! He even sent me a message shortly before my vacation began to verify our plans, a true rarity in Saudi where everything is “Inshallah”.

Knowing I was a single lady travelling alone, he brought his niece and nephews with him when he picked me up at the airport (at night). This may sound odd, but its actually very courteous. It is a protection both of his reputation and of mine to ensure not only that nothing untoward happens, but that no one will talk bad or spread rumors. We drove around a bit and I got a sneak preview of the amazing rock formations that surround the town of Al Ula. He told me that the hotel had a restaurant but that it was very expensive and offered to take me to another restaurant that was much more reasonable.

Of course, he’s friends with the restaurant owner, this kind of thing is standard in lots of places with local guides, but it really was a better price and very good food with such generous portions that I ate the remainder for breakfast the next day. Sadly, the restaurant owner says he’s tired of running it because kids come by and tag the walls with paint all the time, so he’s selling the space to a traditional kabsa restaurant.

During our time talking, I also discovered that Mr. Fayez is 37 and planning to get married in just a few weeks. His bride is only 20, but this age gap is fairly common, since men have to finish their education, get a job and save up money before they can get married, while women only have to be legally old enough. He told us that his young bride really didn’t know anything about running a home, she didn’t even know how to make tea yet! To me, this is just another example of how the oil wealth has really changed the younger generations in Saudi, making them dependent on servants to do anything that resembles “manual labor” including simple household tasks like cooking or sewing a button.

IMG_1059Mr. Fayez is one of many tour guides in Al Ula, but he is the only one who makes guiding tourists his full time job. All the other guides have “day jobs” (which doesn’t amount to much real work for Saudis) and take tourists around on the weekends. He said that the reason he charges less than the others (and he does) is so that he can attract more customers, but that the other guides give him a hard time because he is making their prices seem too high (which they are). It made me happy to be supporting a Saudi who wanted to make a success of his own business and work hard to achieve his goals. I feel like that’s a rare quality in the Kingdom nowadays, so I may be shamelessly plugging for him as a great choice if you visit Madain Saleh.

While we waited for Isha prayers to end so we could pick up the food, Mr. Fayez took me by one of the towns public parks. It was a beautifully grassy area just alongside one of the prodigious rock formations with a nice walking path, and a playground for children. On a Friday evening, many families were out enjoying the mild weather, and it was really neat to be able to see the community. In many ways it reminded me of the Corniche in Jeddah. When I told Mr. Fayez this he laughed and said except there is no sea.

Al Ula is a very small town. I’m not actually sure why it has an airport except for the UNESCO fame. Some blogs I read said that there were smaller hotels or hostels around, but they were single men and had more options. As a woman (single or not) the only real option was one of the towns two hotels. Yes, two. I chose the Al Ula Arac Resort because it was only slightly more expensive and a lot nicer looking. And as with so many things in Saudi, looks are all. I’ll be doing a separate post on all the accommodations of my trip, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

We were scheduled to set out at 9am, joined by a man from the UK who had also booked Mr. Fayez for a tour. My day trip companion was Indradeb (you may notice the name is a teeny bit Hindu), and he arrived decked out with a large professional looking camera and a loaded backpack.

On the drive out, Mr. Fayez explained to me that we would start the day with Madain Saleh, since it closed fairly early, the we would see the Ottoman Train Station, Elephant Rock, the Dadan ruins, Old Town and finish with a sunset view from an overlook rock. Quite a full itinerary, but traffic was minimal and Mr. Fayez had made all the arrangements so everything went smoothly.

He also told us the origin of the name “Madain Saleh” which means Saleh’s Town. Although I have found that this story is fairly well known by Muslims, I cannot speak to the Quranic veracity of this version of the story, I can only relate it as it was told to me.

The Story of Saleh and the Camel

It comes from an Islamic belief that the Prophet Saleh (PBUH) entreated the people to follow a single god, Allah. The people ridiculed him and treated him very poorly, demanding proof of Allah’s power. Finally, Saleh prayed to Allah to send a miracle to convince the people. Allah turned a giant stone into a pregnant camel (also giant) who then gave birth to her calf.

Allah instructed Saleh that the people should alternate days in using water for themselves and for this camel. Drinking one day, and watering the camel the next, but that they could then drink the milk of the camel.

The giant camel came and went from the town as she pleased, seen by the people only when she came to get water and give milk. They were instructed not to follow her when she left.

But people being human, some of them were still not satisfied with the miracle, and desired to kill the camel. So they followed it into the mountains one day, and killed it while the calf escaped. Allah was so displeased with them that he sent a plague. On the first day their faces all turned yellow, on the second day red, and on the third day they turned black and died.

Only the people who believed Saleh (PBUH) and left the town with him were spared.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells his followers this story when they camp at a site somewhere one the road between Tabuk and Madina, and makes them leave the place because it is cursed. Many Muslims today believe that Madain Saleh is that place, although there is still room for question as we await further archaeological discoveries.

As a consequence, some Muslims avoid the historical site, believing it to be the cursed place told of by the Prophet.

Madain Saleh

This is known to be the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization which Petra is the main capitol of. Everyone knows Petra from Indiana Jones, and I was planning to visit it next, but was excited to see the contrast between the two.

The actual town of Madain Saleh is still underground, yet to be excavated fully, and is not open to the public, so we contented ourselves with the necropolis and temple.

The rocks around Al Ula are tall jutting mountain sized boulders, leftover from when the whole area was under water. In fact, I could see clear signs of water erosion on the rocks that the tombs were carved into. It made the tombs stand out even more, since they were smooth and flat in contrast to the pocked, uneven stone they had been carved from.

The tombs range in age and size. The size depended mainly on the wealth of those to be buried within. Mr. Fayez told us that the builders would start at the top and carve the facade, then excavate the inside of the tombs. We saw several that had been only partly finished and this method was obvious.

Also, unlike many historical sites, there was nothing preventing us from walking right inside the tombs where we could see the tool marks left by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. There were niches in the walls that had been carved out for single bodies, and deeper pits that had been designed to hold several bodies together.

The front of the tombs were decorated almost without variation by two pillars, a peaked triangular shape connecting them, and five stepped ziggurat shapes carved above that. Some had urns above the pillars, there were also many eagles as central adornments. A five petal flower was also quite popular. Mr. Fayez explained that five was a sacred number, and that the steps on the ziggurats represented the steps ascending to the gods or descending to the netherworld.

We also saw one tomb that had two small sphinxes guarding it above its pillars, indicating some influence of the Egyptian culture.

The grounds that cover Madain Saleh are quite large, and while we walked around many areas, we also drove between several. The temple area was quite astounding. A narrow passage between two high rocks led past a deeply carved gathering place for worship. Mr. Fayez showed us how the people had used the rocks to funnel the rain water into cisterns to be used in holy rituals.

We passed through the high rocks (a walk that echoed the long passage at Petra leading to the Treasury) looking at the small niches and carvings along the way, small spaces to place statues or offerings. We also climbed one of the tall rocks within, affording us a spectacular view of the whole area.

I’d cast off my hijab in the morning, deciding that I didn’t really need it if we were isolated from the crowds, but I was still wearing my abaya this whole time. Climbing around on the rocks in a flowing black dress is not easy. We ran into some tourists (who turned out to be from the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh) on their way back down from the view point, and I noticed the younger woman had doffed her abaya too. We had all done as much on our trip to the Edge of the World, and it was getting quite warm with the shinning sun and climbing, so I took the opportunity to shed mine and tie it around my waist, promising Mr. Fayez that I would put it back on if we ran in to anyone Saudi.

After admiring the view and posing for a few more pictures we moved on to some of the more “quintessential” spots in Madain Saleh, the ones you’ll see if you search Google Images. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the tombs I saw, I didn’t get tired of them. They shared general characteristics but were all unique. Here there were two serpents, or two lions, once a scowling face. Some had become two-storied in an effort to use more of the rock’s interior space. Some of the tomb faces in this area were pockmarked with bullet holes, reminders of Saudi’s bloody unification.

In a daze I drifted in and out of the ancient monuments, feeling an intimacy with the past that we so rarely experience in the modern era. Finally we arrived at the crown jewel, the Unique Palace. It stands alone in a single huge rock, taking up nearly the entirety of one face. It is the only tomb in Madain Saleh to have four pillars, and despite its opulence, it was never completed. Only the facade was carved, and no one was ever buried inside.

The ground around it was a striking shade of yellow, in stark contrast to the rich red sand all around. There were steps leading up to the door that Mr. Fayez said had just been added yesterday. Further evidence that the site is changing as Saudi attempts to build interest in tourism.

We also visited a couple of excavated wells. Apparently the land around Madain Saleh still has a lot of natural water. And the red sand is rich for agriculture. In fact, we saw a few wood and mud remenants of houses that had been modern Saudis living in the area until only a decade or two ago. The government had paid them to move, and torn out all the farmland to return the Heritage Site to it’s natural state.

The Ottoman Train Station

On our way out of Madain Saleh, we stopped at the train station, now defunct, where there was a restroom and small mosque. Duhr prayer call had passed while we were taking in the tombs and Mr. Fayez needed to pray. I was amazed that even out among the ruins we could still hear the Athan although only faintly.

Sand is pervasive. The sand out here isn’t like beach sand. It can range from the larger gritty crystals down to a fine talc-like powder. My shoes and socks were full of sand from my hours in the ruins, so I took some time in the bathroom to try to shake them out. On the way out, I got caught up talking to a man from Africa, because I can’t go anywhere in Saudi without men trying to talk to me and get my number, but Mr. Fayez returned from prayer and rescued me from further awkwardness.

The train station looks exceptionally British. Indradep remarked on the similarities to train stations in London. I suppose by the 1900’s the remains of the Ottoman Empire had been highly affected by British colonialism. We stood around with some other tourists, taking pictures and being generally amused at the contrast between the ancient sites behind us and this nearly modern train.

It reminded me of the old West tourist sites in California, carefully preserved or even replicated relics of that were less than a century old. The date on the trains wheels was 1914.

Elephant Rock

Ok, it really looks like an elephant. That’s kind of all, but it was a short side trip, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the amazing rock formations around Al Ula. It’s especially stunning to see sand dunes drifting right up to the bottom of these rocks. The whole landscape looks like it’s barely changed since it was under water 50 million years ago.

I think at this point we finally stopped for lunch. Mr. Fayez had brought along juice and some snacks, which was very thoughtful, but it was a lot of trekking, even with the car. We went back to his friend’s restaurant and had a quick sit down lunch of kebab, grilled meat, green salad, humus and pita, then back in the car again to try to stay on schedule!

To be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3.

Don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook!

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 1: The Madina Airport

Why am I writing about the airport? Because this day’s experiences, while not ideal spring break activities, show some very important aspects of Saudi life and culture, so hang in there and take the whole trip with all its ups and downs along with me.

The first day of my vacation was spent in airports for the very simple reason of the Saudi driving ban and gender segregation. Madain Saleh is only about 2-3 hours drive from the town I live in… by car. But since I can’t drive here, and can’t take a bus between cities alone, and can’t hire a (male) driver without extraordinary expense, I instead spent over 11 hours in airports and in the air.

I tried to find a driver, but they were all going to be more expensive than the airfare. My students and local co-worker were surprised to hear I was flying, but they all have husbands, brothers, fathers, or uncles who can drive them where they want to go. The driving ban doesn’t strongly affect them, since it’s only a hardship for those women who don’t have a strong family structure (like divorcees or immigrants and who really cares about them? right?)

There are only 4 flights in and out of Al Ula (the town nearest to Madain Saleh) every week, and they are either to Riyadh or Madina. The one on Friday I took connected through Madina, a city closed to non-Muslims. As a result, I spent the entire 7 hour layover inside the airport. Now, some people will say that this was unnecessary, because I could have easily caught a taxi there and gone out. Like all laws in Saudi Arabia, they are only applicable if you get caught, but the penalty for getting caught is severe. So, while I would love to see the holy cities, I don’t think alone and with minimal Arabic skills is the way to go.

The highlight of my waiting time was my conversation with the Filapina bathroom attendant. She was bored too, as you can imagine, and after seeing me over a course of a couple of hours, approached me to chat.

A thing to understand about KSA, the underclass of immigrant laborers is treated very poorly. There is rampant slavery (withholding of wages, withholding of passports, forced to live in employer provided housing, no transportation and limited contact with others are all very common), and female employees are often subjected to unwanted sexual advances by their male sponsors (heck, even young men can be pressed into homosexual activities). There is no place for these folks to turn. They are promised wages, and often they *are* making more money than they could at home (when they get paid), but they have no way to leave. Exit visas must be granted by the sponsor, flights are expensive, and their Embassies are overwhelmed and underfunded.

As a consequence, I try hard to be nice to these people whenever our paths cross. This lady was in many ways very lucky. Her job in a public (and very holy) place meant that she was protected from some of the worst treatment that immigrant workers are subjected to. She had also become friends with some of the Saudi women who also worked in the airport, and they looked after her to an extent, bringing her small gifts of chocolate and sheltering her from the worst consequences of being Filapina in Saudi.

She had a college education. She spoke her native Tagalog as well as a family village dialect, English and Arabic (the last she taught herself). In the Philippines she had a white collar job doing manager level work, but still did not make enough money to send her two sons to college. This alone is a travesty. She tried some other countries before finally landing in Saudi, where she is content to work cleaning up bathrooms after entitled Saudi wanna-be queens because it allows her to provide the education she wants for her sons (despite the fact that the same education did her no good economically speaking).

She told me that when she first arrived in Saudi she didn’t speak Arabic and was treated very poorly. She determined to teach herself so that she could confront the people who were talking bad about her and making her life harder than it needed to be. Her first step worked. Once the people around her figured out that she could understand them and talk back, she got fewer insults and even a few overtures of friendship.

Then she told me she had converted to Islam from the staunch Catholicism that is practiced by most people in the Philippines. However as we talked more about it, she admitted that she did not partake in the required five times daily prayers, but still prayed in her own time. A few other hints and clues led me to believe that her conversion may have simply been born out of loneliness or a desire to fit in, at best to have a spiritual community to belong to. I don’t blame her. I’ve spent my life without a spiritual community, but I see how important it is to others, and sometimes I envy them. It would be interesting to see if she keeps her faith in Islam once she returns to her homeland and is surrounded by Catholics again.

She told me a story of one of those self important Saudi ladies who had come into the prayer area without removing her shoes. The whole purpose of the sajjaada (prayer rug) is to make sure that the floor you are praying on is clean. The airports often have permanent carpeted areas in the prayer rooms, and this one also had a little shelf for shoes just outside the carpeted room. So the woman walking on the rugs with shoes is very disrespectful and inappropriate. When the Filapina tried to ask her to remove her shoes the Saudi lady became hostile, and physically hurt her by grabbing and pinching her arms, then told her she would make a complaint and get the Filapina fired and deported.

Sadly, this is a real threat. If a Saudi (or other upper class foreigner like, say, an American) makes a complaint against one of the near slave underclass immigrant workers, there won’t be an investigation or a warning, the worker will simply be ejected. If the complaint is bad, they may be jailed, whipped or fined too. This is why I was hesitant to complain about the taxi drivers in Jeddah, because despite their obnoxious behavior, I didn’t think they really deserved such harsh punishment.

Her employer took her papers and she was not allowed to come to work for 15 days while things were being decided. She was sure it was the end of her stay in Saudi and her dreams of providing college to her sons. However, by this time she had, with her Arabic and conversion, made friends among many of the other airport employees, and when they found out what had happened, they appealed to the bosses that the Saudi woman who had complained had a reputation of unreasonable complaints, and begging them to restore the Filapina.

This is wasta at work. Because some of the folks who spoke on her behalf were Saudi and higher ranking employees their word counted for something and her deportation was stayed. They airline told the Saudi complainer that her wish had been granted while quietly moving the Filapina to the international terminal for a while to reduce her chances of being seen by the complainer.

All in all, she has it better than most Filipinas in Saudi, yet she is still working far below her education and qualifications, and living apart from her family and community. She told me that whenever she is alone she cries, because she misses her home and family so much, but when she is around customers at work she always puts on a smile because she wants to bring happiness to others.

Broke my heart.

I like to believe as an educated American, I will never know what it’s like to have to take a blue collar job in a strange country just to provide for my loved ones whom I have left behind. I am fortunate enough to be travelling and working for myself and by choice, but I would be a fool if I didn’t take these stories into myself and let them change me.

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from those less fortunate, or to paint them into only the starving children of Africa or India who are so destitute they become a romantic tragedy, a plight for Angelina Jolie to bring aid. And they need it, don’t get me wrong. But so many more people around us, right next to us, people we pass on the streets and in the airports, are living “lives of quiet desperation” in a way that Thoreau himself could not have imagined.

So if ending world hunger seems like too much for you to tackle, think about those around you. When was the last time you talked to your company’s janitor? Or the bus boy at your favorite restaurant? I think we tell ourselves we can’t make a real change, but a small kindness like a bit of luxury chocolate, a friend who’s willing to listen when it seems too much, a friend who’s willing to speak up and lend a hand when the crazy bureaucracy threatens to beat their dreams down can make all the difference to someone struggling to find a dream.

This woman didn’t want anything from me but someone to hear her story. Friends she made in Madina did little things like bring her chocolate that she would never buy for herself because she was sending every spare cent home. And they fought for her when her job was in danger. Never doubt that even small actions can make a big impact when applied with love.

Reflections: Halfway Through Saudi

So, we’re in the last few days of my first of two semesters teaching in Saudi. I thought I would take a moment to reflect.

As with all new experiences, there was so much I didn’t know when I first arrived. How to wrap a hijab, how to time my shopping and dining around prayer times, how to haggle for a taxi, and so much more. A visiting substitute teacher started reading my blog from the beginning today, sort of forgetting that my taxi experiences were back from late September and early October, he started giving me some advice on “the way things are” in Saudi. It was a little funny, because I realized how much those early posts must have shown off my ignorance, but at the same time, it was nice to see that I was able to share the real first time experiences so well. I worry sometimes now that I’m leaving out or glossing over things that a Western reader would find interesting or not understand, simply because I’ve become so used to them.

In the time since I arrived I’ve been snorkeling in the Red Sea, and ridden Asia’s tallest double loop roller coaster. I’ve had a marriage proposal from a taxi driver and a slightly less savory offer from an over amorous telephone salesman. I had my first drive by flirting. I went to an all girl gaming convention, a family party at an Istraha and a wedding at the town’s most famous wedding hall. I’ve visited a Saudi home, and been treated to a traditional Saudi meal. I’ve seen the Edge of the World and ridden to the top of the world’s tallest man made structure. And so much more.

Sure sometimes I’m bored or lonely, because my days are not one string of adventures after another, but those times of solitude are needed rest times, and also serve to contrast the excitement of exploration.

Getting back into teaching after a six year break has also been an adventure. It turns out that even though I didn’t get paid for it, I never really stopped teaching. My “teacher mode” is still alive and well, and has been commented on if I accidentally slip into it when chatting with my peers. There were a lot of things about the educational facility and the national system here that I found frustrating at first, and sometimes still do, but I feel like I’ve settled into a groove and nearly every day I enjoy my job, so that seems like a good sign for my present and my future.

Keep Calm and Inshallah

I think one of the more interesting things is my own changes in perception of time and plans. One of the biggest phrases used here is “Inshallah” which literally means “if God wills it”. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that I not only didn’t understand when I arrived, but found endlessly aggravating. I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just committing to a plan, but every time I asked if someone could do something, the answer was “Inshallah”. It didn’t seem to mean anything! Sometimes it was an excuse to say ‘no’ without being rude, sometimes it was a ‘yes, assuming nothing catastrophic goes wrong’, and it could be anything in between.

Before I came here, I was really big into plans, and confirming plans with other people. Are we gonna hang out tonight? If yes, great! If not, I’m gonna find something else to do. But “maybe” means I sit around waiting for you, and you change your mind at the last minute and I miss out on something else cool I could have done if you’d made up your mind earlier today? PNW people are notorious for replying “maybe” when they mean “no”, but you can never tell the one time they’re going to expect you to follow through because they said “maybe”. I still think that’s really rude, but I think I’ve found a headspace where I can be less bothered by it through the power of “Inshallah”.

Now I know that “Inshallah” works because the whole culture embraces it. Everything is slow, no one gets upset when things aren’t on time (except my driver when my plane is late), and if it doesn’t work the way you expected you can generally get someone to help you work it out anyway. For example, once I showed up to the airport a little bit late. The check in desk had closed. In America, this would mean I was s.o.l. I’ve heard my roomie who works for an airline say this often enough. But in Saudi, Inshallah, I can still get on the plane. And I did. It was a convoluted story involving several airline employees moving me from place to place, through security, from one gate to another, and finally hand writing a boarding pass for me, but I got on the plane, and I got back to Tabuk. Ilhamdulillah (thank God). I don’t think I can live by it in America the way people do here, because the whole society supports it, but I’m hoping it helps lower my blood pressure anyway.

The Shrinking To-Do List

Because of the way that everything is so casual about when it happens, you spend a lot of time waiting here. Whether you’re waiting in line at the store, or waiting at home for some news or for your driver, or for prayer to be over so you can go out… there’s a lot of waiting. I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that some of the worst time in the world is time spent waiting that you could be doing something fun or useful. I spent some time in the beginning waiting in that state. Then I realized no one but me expected me to do as much with my day as I had done in the states. I could spend hours watching tv while slowly doing my laundry (cause that takes forever) or take an hour to do a self pedicure a couple times a week, or just talk to my mom for 3 hours. I didn’t have to get anything much done, and more importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not accomplishing everything.

I’m not laying around all day every day, mind you. I still teach 5 days a week and go on adventures whenever I can, plus each one of these posts usually represents a solid afternoon’s work. Before, I treated down-time like any of my other mandatory health maintenance tools (like doing yoga, fixing healthy meals, brushing my teeth etc), I knew I needed it to stay healthy, but that was the only way I could “justify” spending an afternoon lounging around in my PJs marathon watching “Dexter”. Since coming to Saudi, I’ve learned that I don’t need to justify it. My to-do list doesn’t have to include a million and one activities just to look full or avoid “wasting time”, it needs to include the things that I genuinely want and need to get done, and if one of those is break out the Shisha and catch up on facebook gossip, that’s ok.

Happier and Happier

The last time I lived abroad for so long, I was still reeling from some pretty bad life experiences that I’m still not quite ready to publicly discuss. Suffice it to say, I was not emotionally/mentally healthy. So, I went through some pretty extreme emotional roller coasters caused in part by my own state, but in large part by culture shock. I felt bi-polar. I was actually really worried I was going crazy at the time, until I found out that it’s fairly normal to react to culture shock this way. (in later years I had a friend who went completely off the deep end within a few days of arriving in China and only managed to not fly home instantly because I could explain this phenomenon over a beer and convince him we could work through it). I would go through phases of loving everything and hating everything. I’d want to go out every day, or I’d want to hide inside and watch tv. I missed the people in Seattle so badly it was a physical ache. I had a six week break for the winter there and decided to go back to visit. Returning to China may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So when I was getting ready to come to Saudi, I reviewed these experiences and sort of braced myself to have some serious emotional roller coaster-ness. What I didn’t take into account was that I’d been actively learning the art and science of happiness since about the fall of 2012 (I swear, I’m going to write about that someday). I’d started from the basic idea that my main goal in life from thence forth was to be happy. I learned a lot about how to make that happen since then. And it seems to have made a big impact on how I experience culture shock.

To start with, the extreme mood swings simply don’t exist. I’d expected to have the new place euphoria for about 2-3 months and then maybe a slump, and that happened, but neither was as big as it had been in China. Moreover, the slump coincided with some very real-world causes for sadness such as the one year deathiversary of my friend, my first experience being censored, a very serious fever/flu, a new class of absolute hellions (which I did eventually figure out how to relate to and now love), and the impending holiday season in a place where such things are illegal. But even with all those things combined with the anticipated culture shock slump, it really only lasted a couple of weeks, and I was able to find center again as the events that contributed to the icky feelings passed or were resolved.

Secondly, while I think of my friends in America often, and miss them, it’s more like fondly remembering the past and quietly anticipating a future where we are reunited. It isn’t an ache or pain. This might change if I didn’t get to chat with them online or stalk them on facebook, so I’m grateful for all the internet has to offer, but I also recognize the change from needing these people daily to bring me out of depression and looking forward to talking with them or seeing them so I can share the happy times. Mental health win!

When you like Islam, the terrorists loose.

I can’t/don’t want to go into all of the things I’ve learned about Islam while living here in this post. I’m still working on my own understanding both of the culture here and of how my feelings are changing in response. I do want to say that before I came here, I had a solid intellectual understanding that Islam does not equal terrorism. I used to try to correct people’s misconceptions, and would say things about it that I’d learned in a book somewhere, mostly because I don’t like fear, hatred or ignorance about anything. But living here, making real emotional connections with my co-workers and students and seeing how they live inside their religion, and how the fear, hate and ignorance are hurting them has really caused me a deep shift in my emotional understanding.

I’ve found myself having much more emotion-driven responses to Islamaphobic media, and defending Islam and Saudi with much more feeling than I had done in the past. I don’t think I’m going to convert or anything, but I’m extremely grateful to be allowed to see and feel things from this point of view. Sorry, I can’t really get into details until I’m back in the land of free speech, because while my overall intention is positive and supportive, it’s not all roses and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers while I am a guest in this country. Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll be able to write more about what this has meant to me and how the transition has happened as well as list out all the good and bad things I see here with new eyes, but for now, I just want to say that I can feel myself changing, growing and deepening as a result of connecting with the people here.

Islamaphobia sucks. There’s some theories that terrorist groups are actually trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims so the (large majority of) non-violent Muslims are further isolated and driven toward the terrorists for comfort and support. So, piss of a terrorist and be tolerant of Islam!

What’s Next?

Well, now that I’ve gotten my feet under me, and jumped some of the biggest cultural hurdles, I have another semester to look forward to starting in a little over a week. My last real vacation is in just a few days, and I’m planning to get some stunning pics of two Nabatean Ruins and some parts of Dubai I missed last time.

I’m looking forward to the new semester in some ways and not in others. We’ve all learned a lot about the program and each other. We’re hopeful that a new batch of students means a fresh start to avoid our previous mistakes and improve on our successes. But I’m sad because so much of what went wrong this semester means that there’s a crackdown on rules like bathroom breaks and coffee in the classroom. I’m pretty darn tired of feeling like a prison warden when my students are grown adult women, some of whom are married with children of their own. But, since I don’t have any real control over it, I’ll take what I’ve learned from the first semester and just focus on doing what I can in a positive way.

The next semester doesn’t have any breaks for 22 weeks, oh and it’s an extra week long because Ramadan will fall at the end of the semester, shortening our days but lengthening our weeks to balance the hours. I have a few weekend trips I’m hoping to take, however (Inshallah) and I’m interested to see how Ramadan goes in an all Muslim country. I’ve gotten a lot of disparaging comments from the other non-Muslim expats around, but that happens fairly often, so I take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure if this country didn’t pay us so well, 80% of them wouldn’t be here. Besides, by then I’ll be happily planning my summer adventures!

So stay tuned readers, as we continue to travel, seek, teach and learn together 🙂

 

A Saudi Wedding & Engagement Party

Sometime last term, one of my students told me she was getting married soon. Actually, because her English is terrible, she mimed the act of putting on a wedding ring. At the time she also asked if I would come, and I said sure. The term ended and the classes rotated and while I saw her a couple times in the halls and always said hello and exchanged kisses (Saudi greetings are multiple cheek kisses), I didn’t hear anything more about the wedding.

Then on Wednesday, she comes to tell me it’s the next day! Planning ahead hasn’t really caught on here in many ways. She couldn’t really explain where it was however, so we went over to the AA’s office to get some help. It transpired that I had misinterpreted the wedding ring sign language and the party was actually an engagement party. My AA sent an email with the name of the location in Arabic so we could get it to the driver. Saudi doesn’t use addresses, but this building (I was told) was known to every Saudi in Tabuk because it is used for all the weddings.

Once the times and locations were sorted out, next I had to figure out what to wear. Saudi weddings and engagement parties are a real excuse to dress to the nines. All those stores I pass in the malls that sell decadent evening gowns are catering to the wedding crowd. I myself had no such beautiful gown, the majority of my wardrobe is tailored around the school dress code, or my weekend adventure needs, neither of which is fancy.

Fortunately, I had just found a beautiful black velvet skirt on sale the week before. I had thought it was just going to sit in storage until it was time to go back to the much cooler PNW, but I decided it would be a good choice for a formal party. Sadly, all my non-stretchy blouses that had been sitting in the back of my closet as too hot/formal for school wear had mysteriously become slightly too tight to be flattering. Something about spending the holidays away from home may have led to a serious reliance on comfort food. I managed to find some stretchier tops that could be dressed up decently by the right hair and jewelry, and made a solid determination to curtail my afternoon snacking.

I didn’t have time to go to a salon, so I had to rely on a classic French braid ending in a bun topped off with one of my velvet and sparkly scrunchies from China. Long dangly earrings, and bracelets and rings on both hands finished off the outfit. I went for dramatic eye makeup since it was a late night affair. (It would turn out I had some of the most understated eye makeup there).

My driver was 30 minutes late, which was really frustrating because I had said I wanted to go after Isha’a (the night prayer), and he agreed he would come pick me up as soon as he was done praying. I asked him about what time that would be, and he said 8 or 8:15. He could have said 8:30 or 8:45 and I would still have been fine with it, I just hate waiting! So there I was, sitting around dressed for 30 minutes because I didn’t want to keep him waiting. I miss my car.

I arrived at the place, a huge building, the men congregating around the front entrance, and another gate off to one side with a tiny entrance for the women to slip through. Inside was a large courtyard where I could see dozens of women in various types of dress milling around and moving from one building to another. It occurred to me then that I had no idea where to go, nor did I have my student’s phone number. However, it is a testament to my cultural adjustment that this didn’t bother me, because I knew someone would help me. I was not disappointed. A lovely middle aged lady soon realized I didn’t speak Arabic well, and switched to English. I told her my student’s name and that I was her teacher, and she asked if it was the Bride or the Bride’s sister. This flummoxed me slightly, since I had been told it was an engagement party and not a wedding, but you learn to roll with it.

She led me across to the other building and knocked on doors and made inquiries until my student appeared. Before leaving me, she made sure I knew I was welcome to come and sit with her should I not have a place to sit as events unfolded. I adore the culture of hospitality in this part of the world.

I almost didn’t recognize my student when I saw her. Normally in class, she is a slight girl who dresses as tomboyish as is possible while still wearing a skirt. Once or twice I saw her come to school with makeup and had been surprised by the contrast, but she’s never struck me as “girly”. Now she was dressed in a stunning gown in a dusty red color offset with sparkling patterns of gold thread, sequins, beads and other sparkly bits. Her hair would have made Marie Antoinette sit up and take notice. She had always lightened it to a nice light auburn, but now it was up up up and big with falls of complimenting strawberry blond curls cascading from the top and gold and diamond pins dotting the main part of the do. Her makeup was no less extravagant. Huge eyes with deep khol lining, metallic gold eyeshadow and long false lashes. Her lips were plumped out with a wide liner and beautiful shade of red that complimented her skin and the dress. And her hands and forearms were adorned with intricate spirals of henna.

Taking pictures is very against the culture, and when they are taken, it is for personal use only, so I don’t have any pictures, but you can imagine something like this dress, this hair (but auburn with jewels instead of flowers), this eye makeup, and this henna.

When she spotted me we instantly became woo-girls, which it turns out is an international language. Not just polite cheek kisses, she embraced me in a full hug and told me over and over how happy she was that I came. We complimented each other’s dresses, I hugged the other student that was with her, and was quickly whisked off to another part of the building. Any doubts I had about attending or my dress or what to do were completely settled by the sheer joy that it brought to this girl that I came. I’m always seriously surprised and flattered when I find out my opinion matters so much to someone, and as a teacher I’m especially impacted when I can see I’ve touched a student’s life.

I was introduced to a whirlwind of ladies, cousins, nieces, aunts, mother, grandmother. I really hope no one was sick because I was subjected to sooo much affection. I was given Arabic coffee and sweets from the table in the reception room. Trying to shake hands while balancing these was very challenging, and between her excitement and my precarious balancing of too many things in my hands, we managed to knock the small cup out of my hand and narrowly avoided spilling it all over our dresses.

Having met everyone I needed to meet in that room, we headed back to the main hall. The room was set up with a stage and catwalk. I couldn’t take pictures, but I found this image online that gives a pretty good idea of the set up. Tables with carafes of Arabic coffee and sweet mint tea and plates of sweets filled the rest of the large room. Ladies filtered in from the reception hall and took their seats, passing around the coffee and sweets. I went through another round of introductions, handshakes and cheek kisses and was offered far more sweets than anyone could eat.

I noticed that only a dozen or so women were as fantastically dressed as my student. Most of the the younger women were dressed not unlike myself, in something fancier than every day wear, but not extravagant. There were another dozen or so all in matching deep burgundy velvet dresses, and a lot of the older women were wearing abaya and hijab, though in stark contrast to the daily all black affairs, these were brightly colored and bedecked with sparkling embroidery or beads.

The entire affair felt like the four corners meeting of the 80s, Disney Princesses, Drag Queens and 1,001 Arabian Nights. There were no actual drag queens of course, but I think that some of these outfits (dress, hair, shoes, makeup) would be right up their ally.

Then the music began. Music is a challenging subject in Islam. It has been explained to me that drums and vocals are generally accepted even in the more conservative parts of the culture, but that other instruments are more controversial. In my experience, its very personal. Some people will listen to anything (East or West, even dubstep), some will listen but only if the lyrics are not haram topics, some will only listen to Arabic music from other Muslim countries, some will listen to only drumming and vocals, and some will listen only to the Quran.

This student had been from the class that begged me to play music and dance any time we finished our work early, so it didn’t really surprise me that there was some lovely dancing music. There’s a sort of modern Arabic/hip hop fusion thing that I’ve heard several times here and am becoming quite fond of. It’s really great to dance to.

The dances seemed to have some meaning, but since my Arabic is very limited and the students of mine that were there weren’t very high level (plus the music was very loud) I didn’t really get any explanations. Some dances seemed reserved for just the fanciest dressed ladies, and others open to anyone. There was one dance where mostly older ladies (all in their fancy abayas) got up and danced with meter long sticks that had been decorated with colored strips of cloth. Other dances seemed to be associated with specific types of dancing depending on the music, some focusing on dancing steps in a circle, others a hip focused kind of belly dance, others more swaying and arm oriented.

All the while, young children frolicked around the fancy dressed ladies. No leaving the kids at home with the sitter, I saw women in fancy evening gowns and salon hair-dos picking up babies and trailing small children as they danced.

After a half dozen or so dances, the lights were dimmed and all eyes swiveled to the back of the room where, just like a western wedding, the double doors opened to reveal the bride. I found out later that this was my student’s sister, making it some kind of combined wedding and engagement party. While the rest of us studiously kept our cameras turned off, there was one official photographer to take pictures of the bride. As they passed by, women who thought they might be in frame quickly donned their hijabs or simply draped them over their heads and faces until the camera passed.

The bride walked very slowly down the catwalk toward the stage, not to any classical music, but to the same modern fusion dance Arabic music we’d been listening to before. She took one tiny step every minute or so, allowing people to admire her, the photographer to take pictures and her attendants to keep the dress in perfect position. All the while her bridesmaids (all those women in matching burgundy velvet dresses) stood on the stage clapping rhythmically and occasionally bursting into cheerful screams.

Once the bride ascended to the stage, she moved to the wide bench at the center and after posing for a few more photos, sat down. People came by to pay their respects, or congratulations, and sure enough, my student led me by the hand and up onto the stage to meet her sister.

Those of you who have been following the blog up to now know about the extreme gender segregation in Saudi. Men and women who are not related aren’t supposed to interact socially (professionally is acceptable with oversight). Weddings are notoriously social events, and of course all these beautifully dressed ladies could never let a non related man see them uncovered. So the men have their own celebration on the other side of the building, do their own dances and celebrate the groom. My understanding is at some point in the night, the men will come over, sending the women diving for abayas, and join the bride and groom together. But in the mean time, the bride gets to walk down an aisle of sorts and spend some time being the center of attention in an uncovered state.

After a few more formalities, the dancing resumed, and my student led me up on to the catwalk to join her in some dancing. Soon the other students that were there at her invitation joined in and we had quite a good time being silly and dancing. It’s amazing to me how not-body-conscious the women there were. I had felt uncomfortable getting ready because I wasn’t as sleek in my dress clothes as I wanted to be, but there were women of all body types there, dressed in figure hugging dresses and dancing their hearts out with clear joy. From talking with some of my larger students, they are interested in loosing weight, but it seems to be more health than beauty oriented, and they certainly don’t act or dress the way I do when I’m feeling fat, or the way I’ve seen many American women do when they are told they’re fat (eg loose/baggy/slobby clothes).

After some dancing, it was time to eat. My student led us over to another room where the floor had been set up with the traditional lamb kabsa. Squares of plastic sheeting were laid down at intervals, and a large platter of rice and roast lamb is placed in the center of each one. Side dishes and drinks are placed around for guests as well. Again, I have no pictures of my own, but this is a fair representation. Kabsa is meant to be eaten with the hands only, but my student politely provided us with spoons. I was seated with another of my students from the advanced class and was able to ask a few questions, and get some help understanding the comment’s from the bride’s mother who stopped by to check that I had everything I needed and opened up some new side dish containers for me.

I am a sucker for lamb, so I always enjoy kabsa. This one was interesting because there were also large chunks of lamb fat, not just the bits stuck to the meat. I encountered this first in northern China. There’s a tendency of poorer, rural areas in the colder months especially to consume animal fat in equal or greater quantities of actual meat. And lamb fat, when cooked well, isn’t tough gristly stuff, its creamy and rich, so much so, I tend to enjoy it in very small bites, but I think I could happily spread it on toast. It seems strange to a lot of Westerners, since we’ve become obsessed with lean meat, low fat diets, and while I wouldn’t want to eat it every day, it’s certainly a delicious addition to special occasions.

By this point in the evening, it was nearing the time I’d asked my driver to return for me. Since I wake up at 6am, and haven’t yet mastered the art of afternoon naps, I’m usually in bed by 9:30. Tonight I’d asked the driver to pick me up at 11:30, hoping this would give me enough time to enjoy the evening and not leave so early as to offend. I guessed well, since dinner seemed to end a little after 11, and there were many other people gathering their things and heading out. When I went back into the main room to find my student and bid her farewell, I noticed that the bride was no longer seated at the dais. I wondered if the men had come to carry her off like I’d read about or if she’d simply joined her new husband in private somewhere before heading off to their honeymoon suite.

I found my student and let her know my driver was on his way. She didn’t seem surprised or dismayed, which was a relief. She came out to the waiting area with me and tried to talk again once we were out of earshot of the loud dance music. She showed me pictures on her phone of the young man she was engaged to. He was handsome in a boyish way, and his smile contained kindness and humor, so I hope that turns out to be true. She asked me again if I was happy, and I told her I was so happy to be able to come, and to see her looking so beautiful. She seemed to harbor some apprehension, and told me shyly that she was going to meet with him that weekend. In Saudi, an engagement is a contract similar to marriage, so the couple are allowed to spend time together.

I asked her if she was nervous, but she didn’t know the word. So I asked if she was happy, and her face showed my first guess was right. I put my hands over my heart and made a fluttery gesture, and she made a fist over her chest and pumped it like a fast beating heart, nodding in agreement. I smiled and hugged her again. I remembered some of my first date anxieties, and I’ve spent my whole life socially interacting with boys. I can’t even imagine how scary and exciting it must have been for her, but we had no words to communicate these things, so we just hugged and smiled. It seemed to help.

As I donned my abaya and hijab to go, she told me she was sleepy too and would be going home soon. And after a final round of hugs and happies and beautifuls, I headed off to the parking lot to find my driver and get home.

Recently, I’ve been finding myself despairing of the location I’m assigned to. Tabuk is a small town, and many of the things I miss or find frustrating aren’t problems in cities like Jeddah or Riyadh. Expats there can easily get wider choices of food, better exercise and entertainment options and easier travel options both in city with Uber or taxis and out of country because they are major international airports. Just like living in a small town in England or America can be boring or stifling compared to London or New York.

But nights like this are the real reason I love to live abroad. Being able to make connections across cultural and linguistic barriers, to be accepted into people’s lives and make a valued positive impact means so much more than a better grocery store or bigger mall. So, while I might miss out on nighttime walks by the sea (Jeddah) or easy taxi access to the Diplomatic Quarter (Riyadh), there are some trade offs that make spending a year of my life in a small town a totally worthwhile experience.

Bureaucracy Wars IV: A Glimmer of Hope

I recently read another travel bloggess who pointed out that living in a foreign country is a constant, daily struggle to do ordinary things. She wasn’t complaining. Like me, she seems to love her life abroad, but when she described her own battles with visas, banks and other things we barely consider in our home countries she painted a picture of riding the metro back from yet one more frustration in tears, consoling herself with a kinder Bueno bar, and I laughed. Not at her pain, but at my own. It was briefly joyous to see that I was not alone and to remember that all of us who choose this life are facing the same struggles no matter what country we land in.

That being said, my recent trials and tribulations with the phone and bank systems here in Saudi have finally taken a positive turn.

First the phone.

When last we left our intrepid heroine in Episode III, she thought that the phone issue was resolved in her favor, having achieved the unlimited data plan on the prepaid SIM. Oh, but wait. Remember that post paid bill? The one I couldn’t pay because I hadn’t been able to open a bank account because my name was spelled wrong on my Iqama? It came back. Finally able to pay it, I went online only to discover that I had been billed for another month even though the phone company had turned off the line, and I’d gone into the store to switch to the prepaid.

The bill, which should have been 200SAR for the one month I used it, and had been inflated to 275 for reasons I never understood, had been inflated a further 200 to 475 while I was waiting for my bank account to open so I could pay it. Not from late fees, like we expect in the US, but from a whole other month of active billing on a SIM card that had been deactivated and was in a box!

I went online to the chat help place. The first time, they said they had to send the issue to “Technical Support”. I feel like this is a language barrier issue, because I’m like no, it’s not tech support, it’s billing, but the guy refuses to help me further and says I have to try again after 24 hours so Technical Support for Billing can look at the issue.

24 hrs later I try again, get another dude, who after some time finds that the resolution is that my account has been credited 175SAR.. not the full 200, but better than nothing. The big problem is that his English is so bad, I don’t understand this the first 4 times, because he just keeps copy pasting the same grammatically confusing answer. I don’t know if these guys are using Google Translate or some automated answer system, but I was on the English support site, so it’s not like I was expecting regular people to speak English, I was expecting the people hired for the job of helping English speakers to do so. Silly me.

He also kept calling me “sir” over and over, even though I kept saying I was not a “sir”. Once I finally figured out the credit issue, I then said, ok, lets cancel the line so I never get billed again. But he can’t do that, I have to go into the store… again. You know, the people who wouldn’t let me pay the bill with cash and didn’t bother to tell me that them turning off the service to the line was not the same as the line being cancelled.

While going around about this, trying to find some other way, he called me “sir” again and I once again asked him to stop doing that. Him: “Do you mean you’re a woman?”

Me: “I am.”

Him: “What?”

Me: “You call women ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am’, not ‘sir’.”

At which point he apologized, told me he could not help me and disconnected.

Maybe he was just tired of trying to explain the company rules and policies to me. After all, I’m used to being able to pay a bill or cancel a service on the phone or the internet, and it seems to me that having that technology, Saudi would want to use it to keep more women at home? But it sure seemed like he flipped out and ran when he realized he’d been talking to a woman. *shrug.

So the next workday, a Sunday, I get online and pay the 275SAR that was my first bill, leaving the rest unpaid (the supposed credit is not reflected in my account). I head back to the store after Asr (afternoon prayer) and have another protracted, whining conversation with the poor guy designated to help the women folk. We can’t go in to the main store unaccompanied. I guess the only reason I was able to go in when I went to set up my phone the first day was because a male co-worker was with me (to get a router for himself) and they assumed we were married. It’s the same guy who helped me the last time with the bill I wasn’t allowed to pay and getting the prepaid card up and running.

I explain the situation to date. He says I have to pay 74SAR to cancel it. Why? because 475 – 275 that I paid, -175 credit which should equal 25, but I’ve been billed 49 more SAR for the part of the month since the last billing cycle! I think this might be worse than late fees or interest. If you can’t pay for some reason, you both get your phone cut off and continue being billed at the full rate until you can? Technically avoiding the sin of usury while still sticking it to the people, what an astonishing grasp of capitalism!

I explain the absurdity of the fact that the company turned off the phone line, it was not my choice to stop using it, so why am I being billed for a phone line they turned off? The clerk says he can escalate it to STC (isn’t that where I am?) and I can come back another day. Another day!?! I feel like I’ve been fighting this battle for months (which I probably have) and cannot face the idea that I must arrange with the driver yet another day, to get home from work and wait the hour until prayer is ended to get back into my abaya and hijab and ride through traffic and wait in this tiny boring room to be told once more that it can’t be done. Suddenly 74SAR seems like a small price to pay to just be finished.

Fine! Fine. Finefinefine. I’ll pay.

So he goes away again and comes back to tell me that I’ll get a text message with the final amount and once I pay it they can cancel the phone… at this point my eyes are twitching involuntarily. He’s telling me that he’s still not cancelling the phone! I’m not receiving a text. The phone number that I’m cancelling is not the SIM in my phone. No problem, he says, the battle cry of the Saudi, I can put it in the phone when I get home and I’ll see the text.

There’s a moment I experience where I’m so incredibly frustrated, angry, whatever that I cross over some kind of event horizon, and enter the eye of the storm. I become unreasonably calm. This happened.

I patiently explained that I would never recieve this text, because the SIM was suspended by the company and would not receive texts. I know this because it is how I found out the number was suspended in the first place. No problem! he says, it can still get texts from STC. No. The calm is a physical force at this point. It can’t. Punctuation stabbing at the pauses between words, silently containing my outrage. I know it can’t because when I first noticed the line stopped working, I tried to log in to the website to figure out what was going on. They text you a PIN to log in, and I never got those texts, so couldn’t log in to the website. Those texts were from STC. I distinctly remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the company blocked my ability to receive it’s own messages including those about billing.

I remembered that the last time I was in the store to pay the bill, he had asked me for an ATM card (which I did not have yet, and for some reason a credit card wouldn’t do). But since then, I had opened my bank account and had my shiney new ATM card. Why can’t I just pay it now?

What? I can? Oh yay!

So he has me step outside so I can enter the main store (where I was not allowed to be 30 seconds ago) so I can swipe my ATM card and enter my PIN to authorize payment. This is another mind boggling aspect of the culture here. If it’s so important to separate women (for whatever justification) then why don’t you have a payment option for the separate women’s enclosure? And if we’re going to come in the main branch to pay, why keep us out at all?

Finally, I have paid the bill and am given the cancellation paperwork to sign. The line is paid in full and cancelled. I recieve texts on the prepaid line, now the only one linked to my Iqama, to tell me as much and breath a deep sigh of relief. A huge amount of frustration and about 525SAR later, I’ve learned that post-paid phones in Saudi are a total rip-off. But now I’m free.

Next, the bank.

As you may have surmised from the above, our intrepid heroine has managed to acquire a bank account since her last adventure. The new Iqama arrived and I learned that the way that the Saudis make the hard “ch” sound with no equivalent sound in their alphabet is to put the letter “teh” in front of the letter “shin” looking rather like “tsh” and I can sort of see how that sounds like “ch” so there you go.

I take my shiny new Iqama and a huge wad of cash (my savings since I started getting paid in September) down to the bank during school hours (the company has to give us time from work to do any company related banking). We got there early enough that I got a number only 2 up from the “being served” and I sat down to wait. My number called, I was given many forms to fill out, and sat down with my lovely unlimited internet phone to gather all the info I needed. I no longer have an active phone in the US (I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the globalization of mobile phones). I only have an address because my roommate decided to let me keep my name on the lease and stuff in the closet while I was gone. But you need both to open a bank account in Saudi, in addition to an address and phone number in Saudi. Who maintains two addresses and phone numbers in two different countries? The clerk suggested maybe I put my father’s phone number down, and without trying to explain that complexity, I suggested my mother’s instead, which was accepted. So, hey, mom, by the way, my Saudi bank has your cell phone on file as my US phone number 😀

Lots more paperwork later, I get my ATM card and a print out with all the necessary bank numbers and info like account and IBAN numbers. I am then directed upstairs to the tellers to deposit my cash. Victory! I have an account, there is money in it, I can pay my phone bill, buy my own airline tickets with SADAD and start sending money home!

I can’t link my Saudi account to my US account from the US end. I can open a paypal account in Saudi, but can’t link it to a bank account like you can in the US. So my only send money home option is to link the US to the Saudi account on the Saudi end. Which I am assured I can do online. So I hop on the website to discover that the security regulations are a little over the top. Not just the first, but every time you log in, they send you a new code via text. Then while adding the account (called a “beneficiary” on the website) I have to receive several more texted codes to enter and verify myself. In the end, I have to forward a text to another number. I get a text back telling me to call “Sambaphone” to activate the beneficiary.

So, I hunt around and find this entity, call it, enter my exceedingly long ATM number (even though I am calling from the phone linked to my account) and am then told that I cannot use Sambaphone because I don’t have a secret Sambaphone code and that I must go to an ATM or branch to get a secret Sambaphone code. Now, why in the world the bank didn’t have me create this code when I opened the account and chose my ATM pin I will never know. I’m sure if I were Saudi, I’d know I needed to ask, but of course I didn’t know, so now I have to go back to the bank.

Setting up the phone code was pretty easy. And I decided since I was in the bank, it would be easier to just have them add my US account while I was there. Except the clerk had no idea how. When the online attempt failed, I had recieved a text message telling me to remember to include the ABA (routing number, which is what US banks still use instead of an IBAN, because we can’t join the rest of the world in using metric, Celcius or international banking codes). I have my ABA, but there is no place on the form to enter it.

10940425_10152548489616646_1142087100051168821_nI explain all this to the clerk, that I know what the ABA is and have it, but I just don’t know where to put it. Neither does he. So who can we ask? Surely someone in this building somewhere knows how to do this? But no, he’s going to do it himself. He takes me over to a terminal and has me log in to the website and go through the process of adding the beneficiary again, because he is sure the reason it didn’t work was because I didn’t have my Sambaphone code so I couldn’t complete the final verification step (despite the fact that I showed him the text about the ABA). We then use the Sambaphone to submit the final authorization and he tells me it may take a few days to be fully set up but everything is fine now. I mention again that we did not enter the ABA, so I doubt this, but he is sure and we are done.

Even before I get home that day, I get a text from the bank identical to the first, letting me know it failed and not to forget the ABA.

At least now I have my secret Sambaphone code, so I can call the help line, which I do when I get home. The phone tree takes so long, that right before I get to a real person, I run out of minutes and the call is cut off (the phone knows it’s been defeated so it’s getting in some last jabs on the way down). So I get dressed once more to head over to the convenience store to buy more minutes where my day is very briefly enlightened by the little old Yemeni man who sometimes works the counter. He has the talent that many grandfatherly types have of complimenting you like a father rather than a lecher, so he makes me feel good. Up until that day, I’d never used any Arabic with him, but that day I asked for the phone minutes using Arabic numbers and he was so amazingly happy to hear me do so, I thought he would turn inside out.

Bolstered by positive human interaction, armed with plenty of phone minutes, I return home and call the Sambaphone. Finally get a real person and explain the issue once more. The answer? Use the second address line. Put the whole bank address in the first line, and in the second line type “ABA” then a space then the number. Why? Why make an online form that requires specialized non-intuitive knowledge of what to put where? Why can’t you just write a few lines of code and add an ABA box????

Anyway, this man seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and explained the solution very clearly, so I had a lot of hope as I logged back on and tried the solution. Of course, these form lines have limited characters, so the whole address doesn’t actually fit in the first address line so I remove spaces and abbreviate everything I can and hope it works.

After waiting a couple days with no failing text messages, I log back on the website to see that the beneficiary is now listed as “active”! Still cautious, I send myself a mere 25$ to test the transfer. The fee is 50SAR regardless of the amount transferred, but I feel like it’s worth it to make sure it works before sending thousands, because I can’t even imagine the nightmare if the connection wasn’t working and all that money left my Saudi account and never arrived in the US one. Trust but verify.

After a couple more days, I check my US account and LO! the money is THERE! Happy victory dances ensue, celebrations and affirmations! Endorphins run wild! After 5 months in Saudi, my dwindling US savings running dry paying student loan and insurance bills while no new money comes in, I can finally use the money I’m earning to accomplish the financial goals I set out to do when I took this job! Staring at that tiny transfer, I felt like I’d just made the Death Star run with the guidance computer turned off, and I could hear the pumping brass of the “Throne Room” music ringing in my ears as Princess Leia gave me a medal for defeating the Empire.

I also managed to file my US taxes entirely online this weekend, and should be receiving that refund direct deposit soon. I don’t think I’ve been so excited to be able to pay bills since I cleared out the last credit card.

I realize too that if my stories keep following Lucas, that the next episode is not going to be good for me. Whatever the bureaucratic equivalent of loosing a hand or being frozen in carbonite is, I don’t want to find out.  Inshallah, I never will.

So This Is Christmas…

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

20141212_144325So what will I do today? Having returned from a regular day of teaching at the office, a day unmarked by any event, any well-wishes, or any holiday office celebrations, I will sit down with a traditional Chinese Christmas dinner of fried chicken because it’s the only traditional Christmas meal I can find here. I will find the Grinch on Hulu or Youtube. I will light the beautifully scented candles that my lovely friend sent me as the only Christmas themed item deemed safe to pass through customs. I will look at my paper decorations of red and green and long for a real tree. I will eat dates and dream of my family’s traditional date-ball Christmas cookie, which I cannot make because there are no rice-krispies in the stores here. And I will talk to my friends and family on Skype.

It’s all I can do.

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

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

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

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

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

This year, it’s empty. It’s nothing.

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

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

That is a war on Christmas folks.

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

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

Merry Christmas

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