Bureaucracy Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SIM

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

Let me begin with the Iqama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, we cannot open account for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew!

Then I sat down and spotted the box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Phone, Dumb Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*shudders*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! There’s more.

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

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

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

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

I tried this metaphor:

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

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

 

 

Traditional Saudi Dinner at the Najd Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0680The Nadj Village is a cute little restaurant that mimics traditional eating styles. The waiting area has a little coffee reception spot and comfortable floor style seating. Beyond that, each group has a private area to dine, a mini-Istraha, some outdoors set up like tents and others indoors with thatched rooves and fireplaces.

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

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

Saleek

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

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

Hamees Lahm

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

Jareesh

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

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

Goursan

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

Sabeeb with honey

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

Gisht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Edge of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seashells!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Abdulaziz Historical Center & National Museum of Saudi Arabia

I love museums. I am a nerd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

🙂

#GCON2014: All Girls, All Gamers, No Gates

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Weekend in Riyadh: The Globe Restaurant

The Atmosphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bread Basket

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

The Appetizer

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

The Main Dish

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

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

For Afters

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Experience

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Food in the US and Abroad: Wheat Gluten

I like food. I like to try different foods while travelling and write about them. I also have food sensitivities and allergies. While I’m in America, I’m very picky about what I eat because the American processed food is so horrible. Most of what I avoid are artificial ingredients. I think of myself as a “real foodist”. In America, that means doing most of my own cooking and reading labels scrupulously.

Normally, I also avoid wheat. I know its really trendy now, but about 14-15 years ago as a last ditch effort to deal with a chronic pain and fatigue diagnosis, I tried cutting wheat and dairy from my diet and it had a positive effect, reducing my pain and increasing my energy. I don’t care if I’m allergic, intolerant or celiac. I just like not being in pain. Every couple years, I try something again to see if its still a problem (or sometimes accidentally eat something).

However, I’ve found that travelling outside the US changes my food options very significantly. Not only do most other countries offer real food for cheaper than processed food (opposite of the US), but the candy, sweets, bread, and restaurant foods all tend to be made of more real ingredients than not. Plus the processes for preparing pre-made food are more likely to be recognizable as cooking instead of chemistry.

When I lived in China in 2007 I got homesick once and we went to an expat pizza joint. They imported their flour (this is relevant) because Chinese wheat has less gluten and makes bad pizza. I ate it anyway, and of course felt icky for days afterward. A few months later, in another homesick slump, I thought, to hell with it, I want a slice of chocolate cake. There was a bakery in my neighborhood that I passed all the time. I expected to feel sick, but didn’t care. Imagine my surprise when I didn’t feel sick!

I continued to be able to eat Chinese wheat products with no problem, but imported products were not ok. I even tried wheat again once I returned to the US and it was no go. I chalked it up to Chinese low gluten wheat and moved on.

A few years ago, I read some new research about the fermentation process of bread products no longer being used in the US. Back before huge factories made our food, bread dough was left to sit for hours (often 12-16) while it rose and was kneaded and the little yeast monsters broke down the sugars (and proteins) and made little air bubbles. Turns out the yeast also made the hard to digest wheat easier on the human gut, allowing us to extract more nutrients with fewer problems.

We stopped this process in the name of efficiency, and now can make a loaf of bread from start to finish in 40 minutes! We bleach and strip the flour then add nutrients back in so that it still comes out soft and tasty without the fermentation time, but gluten intolerance in the US is on the rise.

There isn’t yet any conclusive evidence as to why, or what can be done about it, which is why I don’t really care what my “diagnosis” is, and only how my body responds to the food I put in it.

When I first got here to Saudi, I went next door to get some shawarma and the guys brought us some complimentary baked bread thingies with like a chicken spinach filling. Not wanting to be rude, and not feeling able to explain the food sensitivity, I ate one. Again, no ill effects the next day. So I tried a few more wheat items with no problems.

Then I looked up wheat in Saudi and found that the government both claims great exports of wheat and is eliminating home grown wheat by 2016 in favor of importing wheat from a bunch of different countries (including the US, but I’m not sure what their stance on GMO’s is yet). No logic.

At some point I hope to experiment with baguettes in France, too.

I don’t avoid wheat to be trendy. When I quit wheat there were no alternatives on the market, no one had heard of gluten intolerance, waitresses offered me pancakes when I asked about wheat free breakfast options, and co-workers were astonished to learn there was wheat in birthday cake. I appreciate the new trend because it makes my options in the US broader, although I still read labels relentlessly because many companies use other ingredients I object to while claiming gluten free status.

The fact that I can enjoy bread products while overseas is pretty cool. Even nicer is the fact that I’ve grown accustomed to a largely bread free diet means that its still a treat rather than a staple. I don’t understand why I have problems with wheat products only in America. I’ve started to believe the problem for me isn’t the wheat (or at least if it is, then its a particular American mono-culture of wheat), but rather the processing. Until I find the answer, I just tell people I’m allergic to America. ;P

A Weekend in Riyadh: Al Faisaliah Spa

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

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

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

sau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Weekend in Riyadh: Overview

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

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

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

Impressions of Riyadh:

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

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

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

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

🙂

Links to the other posts:

#GCON2014

King Abdulaziz Historical Center

Al Faisaliah Spa

The Globe Restaurant