Expat Life: Nothing Simple Is Ever Easy

Those of you following along with the Facebook or Instagram may recall that I spent most of July in the “good old” US of A. I can’t write quite as much about visiting home as I do when I’m on an adventure, but I’d still like to open a little window into my life. In the next two posts, I’m going to share the ups and the downs of travel in the US as an expat. Because I like to finish on a high note, I’m going to start with the downs first. It’s OK to laugh, schadenfreude is healing.


Why Go to America?

Although there are a lot of wonderful things about America, recently I struggle to recall what they are. I have no intention of moving back, and I don’t really dream of “visiting home” with any kind of heartfelt nostalgia. Mostly it scares me.

I have a lot of anxiety about visiting America. I will admit that not a small amount is fueled by the news: will I have to punch a Nazi? Will border patrol get unreasonable about letting me in? Or out? What will I do if I’m adjacent to a mass shooting? What if I need healthcare? It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy, and I’m not terribly sure I started on the “sane” side of the goal line to begin with. So why go at all? Glad you asked.3821492016_7b1a758042

It’s our favorite game: Bureaucracy!

The main reason I needed to return to America this summer (as opposed to exploring Iceland or something) was to renew my driver’s license (DL). I needed a new license so I could drive in Ireland in August, and so I can vote in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

What’s the Word for Negative Serendipity?

Of course, I came to this conclusion through a hilarious series of unfortunate events. When I went online to try and fill out the application form for an IDP (International Driving Permit), I realized I could NOT FIND my DL! Anywhere! I remembered having it on the way back into Korea from Malaysia in February, so I knew I hadn’t lost it in some random country, but I could only imagine it fell out of my wallet in a taxi or shop in Korea and was gone forever.

The Other Bad News

Back to the DL. So there’s me in a panic because we’re planning a ROAD TRIP for Ireland, and my mom does not know how to drive on the left. I HAVE to have a DL, and according to recent EU laws, an IDP too. I go back to the WA DOL website to replace my license and it says I’m in range to renew, so I think “hey, might as well”. I go to renew only to find out that I have to come in person every OTHER renewal… so that 2 year lottery really bit me in the bum. The good(ish) news is that I have the ability to get to the US before Ireland. The bad news is that WA has the licenses printed out of state and they take 2-4 weeks to arrive by mail. Only. By. Mail.

Sidenote: I never was able to get anyone in the DOL or DMV or USPS to explain to me how a homeless person gets a license. What if you’re living out of your car? Even if you don’t drive, the license is the primary source of ID in America used for benefits, employment eligibility and voter registration. Yet one more untenable obstacle to make a path out of poverty impossible.

The OTHER bad news is that according to the internet the EU is taking this IDP thing pretty seriously. It used to be you could just show up with a US DL and rent a car, but laws change, I guess. So it’s looking like I could be in big trouble for not getting the IDP and I have to have a valid DL in hand to get an IDP. So. I applied online for a replacement DL (still expires in 12/19) to be sent to my friend’s house where I’m staying in WA so I can pick up up when I arrive, then go first to AAA to get the IDP with the soon to expire DL then run over to the DOL to renew in person and get a DL that I won’t have to show up in person again for 12 more years.

Except. It can’t be that easy.

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The Problem with the Post Office

The DL is returned as undeliverable and shredded. I’m told if you aren’t “registered” with the post office, then your official gov’t mail will not be delivered. I thought that mail would be delivered to the address written on the envelope, silly me. Now we’re registering with the post office. (BTW, when I did the DL renewal back in 2016, this was not an issue. The postal service delivered it to my friend’s house with nary a qualm. Clearly this rule is optional.)

Regardless, you’d think it would be easy enough for me to just have this sent to the address that the post office has on file for me, right? No again! My US apartment is a shitty run down poor-ppl apartment, so the mailbox is not safe AND frequently the mail carriers deliver mail to the wrong box, or just decide not to deliver it. This happened so often while I was residing in the US, that I started having anything I cared about sent to my office instead.

In addition, there’s no way to “register” multiple addresses with the USPS. In the end, I did a temporary address change for the period of time necessary to accomplish this and had the DL sent out again.

In the end, I got it all to work, and I got my updated DL and my IDP and then literally no one in Ireland even cared about the IDP. The rental company and the guard (name for Irish police) were only and exclusively interested in the American licence. So much for getting your info from the internet? But seriously, don’t take my word for it if you’re going to drive abroad it’s better to follow the laws as written, even if the locals don’t enforce them.

What’s Up Doc?

Since I now had no choice but to visit America, I had this dream of seeing my primary care provider (another weird American eccentricity that doesn’t exist here) to get refills for my prescriptions that are either uncommon or not available here in Korea (not illegal, just not here). I go to a sliding scale clinic in Seattle because when I was poor and unemployed (which in America means also uninsured) it was the only place I could afford at 15$ a visit. When I got insurance, I kept going there so they could bilk my insurance company for as much money as possible to put toward their operating budget. My care provider of many years actually left America shortly after I did and joined DRs Without Borders (cool!) which sort of means the only health care professional that knows anything about me is AWOL. But at least the office has records, right?

But if any of you have heard anything about American health care it’s about the cost. Some of the (if not THE) most expensive health care and prescription drugs IN THE WORLD. In order to afford it, I would need insurance.

l-35426-usa-accessible-healthcare-we-dont-do-that-here-e1567743486654.jpgI have great coverage in Korea, but it is ONLY in Korea. Generally speaking, traveler’s insurance DOES NOT cover the country you reside in… or the one you are a citizen of. You know, in case those are different. Even though I live, work, and am insured in Korea, traveler’s insurance policies would not cover me in the US because of my citizenship. Foreigner’s visiting America can get traveler’s insurance. People who live in the US can get regular insurance. But Americans who live overseas? Well, heck, that should only be military personnel, no private citizen could POSSIBLY want to live overseas and come home on holiday while still being exempt from medical bankruptcy! /sarcasm

Some expats can get insurance when going home by signing up for a short term insurance plan. Because of the way that insurance is linked to employment, a lot of these are available for ppl who are between jobs, but often exclusive to ppl who are between jobs, such that, if your insurance has lapsed for too long, you are not eligible. There are still some generic short term insurance policies around, but it turns out that’s another state by state law and it’s not allowed in WA state.

Sometimes I really do think that the countries of the EU have a more stable and interchangeable system of rules than the states in America. I don’t really understand how you can have health insurance in only one state. I wonder in retrospect what would have happened if I’d signed up for short term insurance in another state and then presented it in WA… probably I would have been told I was out of network.

With regular “short term” plans off the table, and regular travel insurance ineffective, I found exactly ONE expat insurance plan for my situation: short term visit to my country of citizenship but not residence. However, it excluded so much (pre-existing conditions, reproductive health, most prescription medicine, the list goes on) that it was basically useless. All too often people buy these policies without realizing what they don’t cover.

1280px-Healthcare_costs_to_GDP_OECD_2015_v1In the end, I decided against getting an additional plan. I have good US car insurance, so anything involving a car (even me as a pedestrian) would be covered by that, anything else would probably be covered in liability. For things like a cold/flu it’s cheaper to go to a drug store than a doctor anyway, and for emergencies? Well, car, crime, and accident would be covered and that basically leaves things like aneurysms, and I decided that if that was going to happen, it’s just my time. ‘Murica!

The Price of a Pill

I was able to see the doctor in Seattle, and after some awkward explaining of my situation re: employment, income, and insurance they decided to give me the sliding scale rate. I have to say I was pretty happy with the way they treated me overall, the doc was invested in my whole well-being not just “why are you here today” and was happy to help me get refills that would last me until my next bi-annual visit. The challenge came in filling those.

Even if I had gotten that expat health insurance it wouldn’t have covered the prescriptions. I found a website called “GoodRx” that does coupons (oh the insane dumbness of THAT process) and was able to cut the cost down. This still ended up being a multi-week, multi-state process because they could only use the coupon on 2 doses a day and I needed 8. I ran out of time in WA and had to finish in TN, and good on those pharmacy reps for going the extra mile to help me, but ffs would it KILL the US to just sell prescription drugs at affordable rates? I bought the same medication in Thailand for pennies on the dollar what it cost even WITH the coupon in the US. The only reason I didn’t do that again is that factoring in the airfare to Thailand it ends up being more, and I’m not planning on being there any time this next year or two.

COSTCO-SIZE ME

On the other hand OTC drugs are sold like gummy bears over there. In Korea, I have trouble getting basic things like acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as Sudafed and Claritin. In some cases they need a doctor and have to be refilled CONSTANTLY because the Korean docs don’t give long prescriptions. In other cases you can buy them at the pharmacy OTC, but like 5 pills at a time. I’ve actually had Drs prescribe Tylenol that is weaker than the American OTC stuff I had at home. Maybe the locals who haven’t been overexposed and built up some kind of pain med immunity can get away with that, but I cannot.

Plus, whatever weak-ass decongestant they sell here cannot attack the portal to the mucus dimension that opens in my face when I get sick. Only that good pre-meth ingredient Sudafed stands a chance. Hence, my desire for Costco sized bottles of all of those meds, and in the case of Sudafed, however much I can buy before I end up on a meth-cooker watch-list. The last refill I got was 2-4 years ago (I got a couple on the 2017 visit but some were from 2015). One short trip to Costco with my mom later and I was 100% restocked for under 50$.

Ladies and gents, the US pharmaceutical economy:

2 years of birth control = 500$

2 years of the top three NSAIDS + allergy meds +cold meds = 50$

This is what I did from April until July. I fought with banks, government offices, and healthcare providers because the US does NOT want it’s citizens to live abroad, or travel, or be healthy.

The “ex” in Expat = extra paperwork, extra hassle, I swear.Expat-Problems


Had enough of complex bureaucracy, crazy international systems, and general complaining? Me too! Stay tuned for the next episode where we explore all the happy and wonderful things I got to experience on my visit to my homeland. Good friends, good family, good weather, good food, so much goodness it will turn your brain to sugar! Coming soon: Expat life: When “Home” is a Holiday.

North American Summer

What with the total media explosion, I was more than a little apprehensive about my plan to return to American for nearly 3 weeks this summer. I think if it had merely been a trip for my own enjoyment, I would have gone to Iceland or Patagonia or nearly anywhere else in the world. However, there were some practical considerations that dragged me not quite kicking and screaming into Trump’s America in 2017. Mostly, my fears were unmet and I had a lovely time reconnecting with friends and family, but I didn’t feel completely at ease until I passed through Canadian customs and was an international traveler once more.


A Little Bit Political

Back when Obama was president and the country still looked mostly sane (at least from my newsfeed), I had this glorious plan to spend every other year overseas teaching English, and to return to Seattle in between times where I have a standing offer for employment from a lovely French lady, and some decent prospects of joining the thrilling world of project management (no, I don’t know if that’s sarcasm either).

In 2014 when I started this blog, I packed my stuff up for storage thinking it would be nice to have my clothes, dishes, bedding etc. for those years I was in the US and that it was worth the cost of a storage unit to not have to buy them new again every time I came back.

When I left for Korea in February of 2016, early in the primary election process, my friends asked me, “how long are you going to be gone this time?” and I replied, “depends on who wins the election”. Everyone thought I was joking.

To be fair, I can’t lay all this on one man. There is a seriously disturbing trend in the US that I’ve commented on a few times in the last year. I try not to wax political often because this isn’t a political blog, but some things affect me so much I can’t leave it out. I see the election of Trump as a symptom, not a cause, and I see America taking a turn for the I-don’t-want-to-be-near-that-when-it-explodes.

Maybe that’s selfish… well, not maybe, it is. I have a better job, better pay, better vacation, better vacation opportunities, better health care, and an over all better quality of life out here than I have ever had as adult in the US. I haven’t been un-poor long enough to be willing to go back to that life. Add on going to rallies, protest marches, calling congresspeople, and risking my job and freedom to do so? No thanks.

My hat is off to all those who are staying to fight, and even more to those who are returning from life abroad to get involved. You are brave, and I respect that. I wish you luck, and I will be cheering for you. I will also bake you cookies, or offer moral support whenever I can.

So Why Go Back At All?

That storage unit was costing me about $1,200 US annually and I can do much cooler things than store stuff for that much money. I tried to get some friends to go and get things they wanted for free out of it last year, but only one person did (and even then I had to remind her several times). I don’t know what it says about my Seattle people that they can’t make time to go get free stuff they want. Thus it became that I was forced to return to Seattle to empty the darn thing myself.

And then there’s the niblings. I neither have nor want children of my own (I never have and no, I’m not changing my mind, and yes we’ve already established I’m selfish). I don’t hate children. I teach children. I love hanging out with my friends’ children (assuming they don’t drool too much). My sister has two beautiful little ones that are and always will be a precious part of my life. They are as yet too young to join me abroad on their holidays, so I try to get by there about once a year (or two) so they can see my face and form some kind of mental image of their Auntie.

Anxiety

I was so terrified of going back.

I was terrified that the Arabic stamps in my passport would get me flagged at immigration. Even though I’m a citizen, it turns out our constitutional rights to privacy (like cops needing a warrant) don’t apply at the border.

I was terrified that some kind of medical issue would crop up while I was in the US and financially ruin me (travel insurance only covers so much). Or worse, that it would prevent me from returning to Korea. Being trapped in the US has become one of my worst irrational fears.

I was terrified that I would witness some horrific act of racism or xyz-phobia… because if I saw it and didn’t get involved, I would be somehow less for watching passively, but if I saw it and did get involved, I could end up arrested, in the hospital or even dead like that poor guy in Portland. And if it could happen in Portland, it could happen in Seattle.

I was terrified that my growth and self discovery would be disregarded by my friends. It’s not like they’ve been able to see me going through all of this except in sporadic Facebook posts.

I was terrified that toxic people I had cut from my life in the last 3 years would try once more to insert themselves into my attempt to enjoy the company of those I do still cherish, bringing drama and spite to what should be a nice time.

Various versions of these scenarios were the topic of restless nights and nailbiting free-time in the weeks before I went. Perhaps the only bonus to my horrible root canal misadventure was that I was in too much pain and anxiety about my tooth to worry as much about what would happen to me in America.

The Actual Experience

At the border: Customs at LAX was very smooth, all machine operated. I used one of the little kiosks to enter all my data and it printed a sort of receipt I gave to the customs officer who welcomed me with a nice smile.

Healthcare: I did get a little sick, I had a mysteriously swollen lymph node, but it never got hospital worthy and was gone in about 10 days. Mostly, I was just juggling the tooth pain and being totally sleep deprived from trying to do all the things.

Violence: I didn’t see any horrific behavior, although this is more than likely because I spent nearly all my time in someone’s house or being escorted through the nicest parts of town for our errands. I did see a dead body on the highway. It was a suicide. The man had jumped from an overpass and landed on a car below. When I drove past, the EMS had not arrived, but there were more than enough bystanders parked on the shoulder that I decided the best thing I could do was get out of the way. It was a bit strange how blase my American friends were about this story, like oh, yeah, dead body… next.

My Friends: I was able to make a schedule ahead of time so that the people I wanted to see most were already planning something with me, and there were a few “free for all” spots. No one I didn’t want to see showed up, and I got to see everyone important to me. This was a resounding success and resulted in one of the more epic sailing days I’ve ever had, a wild midsummer night’s fairy party in the woods, and my traditional group sing of Bohemian Rhapsody at karaoke (don’t judge me), as well as several days of pleasant company and catching up.

A benefit of selecting only those most important to me for hangouts was that they were all pretty much on board with my growth and happy for my self discovery. It’s a good sign since that’s how friends should be, but I spent too long around people who kept me down or resented my self improvement to take the good folks for granted now.

Bonus: I got the whole storage unit cleared out and managed to only have a half a trash bag to throw away. Everything else I didn’t keep was given to a person who would use it or donated to Value Village.

American Money

This trip was the most expensive I’ve taken by over 1000$, and I didn’t spend a single night in a hotel. Friends and family found me spare rooms the whole way. Yes, the trip was also longer than previous holidays, but I only rented a car for 9 of the days and was not having to pay for every meal of the day, or things like park entrances and tour fees. America is expensive.

Airfare: Getting to America is bad enough what with that giant ocean in the way, but I flew round trip to New Zealand (which is also an ocean away and on another hemisphere) for less than the cheapest round trip to the nearest coast of the USA. And if you want to go anywhere other than the coast, you’re stuck paying inflated airline prices that include no meals or luggage (which basically everywhere else in the world does include). I can fly from Korea to Norway for less than it costs to fly from Seattle to Memphis, and I’ll get fed and my bags will be included.

Hotels: I could not have afforded this trip if I had to rent accommodation in addition to a car. If you want a room in America in a part of town where you are unlikely to hear gunfire, you will pay 80-120$ a night minimum. (booking.com only lists 4 in Seattle for under 100$ and all of those are over 90$) Everywhere else I’ve gone, I can get a bed for between 10-30$ a night in a safe place.

Car Rental: I paid almost 200$ less because I am a legal resident of Korea than US residents would have paid to rent the same car. I tried searching for smaller rental companies, but I couldn’t find one that didn’t have an online reputation as a scam. This in and of itself is crazy, because in other countries I usually rent from small companies because they have better rates. In America, I had to go with one of the big names to avoid being ripped off. When I was reserving the car with Budget online, I discovered that the rate was significantly different depending on what country I listed as my legal residence (not citizenship), and I was instantly outraged about every other time I’ve rented a car while living in America.

Taxes Not Included: I was born and raised in that country and now that I’ve had a glimpse of the promised land of menu clarity I never want to go back. I got the worst case of sticker shock when I went out for dinner with two friends at Azteca. They had treated me the previous 2 meals we’d had during my trip, so I wanted to pick up the tab and thought I had a rough idea of the price… oh no. Because American menus (and coffee shop signs and grocery stores and everything else) don’t list the real price of things. Between tax and tip, it ended up being about 25$ more than I had thought and while I am so grateful I have a job where that’s not bank breaking, I can remember there was a time in my life it would have been.

Tips: I’m all for food service workers being paid well, but I have a hate on for tip culture in the US because it backfires and causes customers to feel entitled to mistreat workers for anything less than 5 star service/food even at Denny’s, and it allows employers in most states to pay them less than minimum wage while taxing them on a presumption of tip earnings. I’d rather just see the price of the food include the tax and whatever markup the restaurant needs to put in there to pay it’s employees well. Then I can decide if it’s in my budget without doing calculus and everyone goes home happy.

The Highlights

Somewhere, one of my bffs* is reading this and going, but wasn’t I a highlight? Yes. Literally everything I got on this trip (except that lymph node thing) was a highlight of my summer, but “I spent all day chatting with my dearest friends in Seattle and then we got Mexican food” does not make a good blog post, so these are the stories I think strangers will find most endearing.

*bff: literally, best friend forever. I employ this as a plural occupancy category.

Fairy Party: My friend throws the most elaborate parties. She’s going to pharmacy school, but really, I think she could make a mint as a custom party planner. My favorite one to talk about was the time she did a Neverland theme for her birthday. Each room in the house and the yard were set up like a different part of Neverland, and each guest was asked to come in costume. I built a tepee for the Indian area (Peter Pan was not great about First Nations representation, I know). There was a kiddie pool for the mermaid lagoon where wet t-shirt contests were held. Tinkerbell’s fairyland was a glowing tree, the basement was Captain Hook’s quarters… it just went on and on.

This year, she did a Midsummernight’s Dream, but instead of using the house, she used the backyard and the entire greenbelt behind the house. Because it’s public land, they can use it whenever without a permit, and she decorated the entire woods in fairy lights and magical bowers with clues and quests and geas hidden everywhere.

In many ways, I felt as though I had walked into a new world, not only because of the extreme decorations, but because of the 120 people who came that night, I only recognized about 10%. Although I’ve only been away 18 months, it seems that my friends have also been making changes in their lives and perhaps replacing the same toxic people I was worried about with new faces.

Sailing Day: I started off this particular Saturday by visiting the home of some excellent friends who accompanied me on the Thor’s Well Adventure years ago. They cooked corned beef hash and I taught them how to poach eggs. From there we headed over to Shilshole Marina, where another dear friend (who let me live in his attic when I was homeless) had finally fulfilled his dream of selling his house and moving on to a boat with his family. Plus my friend who I met in Dubai (even though we lived a couple blocks apart in Seattle!) and her husband and we had a perfect sailing crew.

The wind was mild, the sun was shining and the mountain was out. We puttered aimlessly around the Sound while enjoying a selection of Korean wines I’d brought back for the occasion and one bottle the captain of the day had brought back from Greece years ago I’d found in the storage unit the day before.

These are people I’ve been trying to get in the same room for years. I was convinced they’d enjoy each other’s company and while I’d gotten them to meet one or two at a time in the past (with good results), this was the first time I got them all together. It was absolutely wonderful to see what a good time they all had.

After we examined our crab hunting results and determining that we would not be having crustaceans for dinner, we migrated back to the abode of the morning where we had a simple grocery store meal and got down to some jazz improv.

Karaoke and Beyond: I stopped by some of my past haunts and reconnected with some old friends, but my favorite part of this trip to Seattle was seeing my friends reconnect with each other. People who had barely seen one another since I left came together at one or another of the events I planned and (re)discovered that they enjoyed each other’s company.

This was nowhere more obvious than my resurrection of the Tuesday Night Karaoke Tradition. For as long as I can remember, while I lived in Seattle, we did this. The group changed over the years. Some nights were packed, other times only 2-3 people would show up. One year, the place burned down and we had to find another bar until they rebuilt. It is an institution of my time in Seattle, and I do it if I’m there on a Tuesday.

It turned out that since I left, it had all but completely stopped, yet everyone who came out was happy to walk down memory lane with me, sing their old favorites and catch up on 18 months of missed time with all the other people there they hadn’t seen even though they live in the same city.

Niblings! How can that not be a highlight? Ok, you don’t get a million kiddo pics because my sister doesn’t want her kids faces on the internet, but I got this one of my niece in her Korean hanbok where you can’t see her face, so that’s safe.

The kids were 4 and 6 on this trip, but it’s been 18 months since I’ve seen them. My niece, the 6 year old, remembered my last visit fairly well, and was happy to see me again. My nephew (4) is basically willing to trust anyone his sister trusts, and was also happy to see me (so many kisses), but asked me at one point if this was the first time I visited their house. You can only imagine how much fun it was to try and explain to them that a loooooong time ago (2001-2003ish), it was my house, too.

I really love blowing their minds with weird facts like, yes your mom is my baby sister, yes your grandma is my mom, and yes it’s tomorrow in Korea.

I brought back a spoiling number of gifts including the beautiful hanbok (Korean thriftstore ftw!), spare change from every country I’ve visited since the last time I saw them, and magical Kinder Eggs, which are dangerous contraband in the US for some reason. At least I know one gift that will always be popular next time I go back?

Additionally, my niece made me a picture with invisible ink, which is basically a white piece of paper with some suspiciously greasy smudges on it and her and her brother’s names in one corner. It is a testament to how much little people can fill your heart that this came back in my suitcase to Korea and now adorns my apartment.

Being There for Milestones

One of my besties who I have dragged into the life of globe trotting glory finally got her chance to go to pastry school this year, and it just so happened that I made it to Vancouver in time to attend her graduation. It’s amazing to me how the friends who live abroad keep popping up in my life. My burlesque dancing magical Vixen Valentine is one I met in Seattle but I see once every year or so somewhere. And Jane (formerly JaneMeetsWorld and now PastryJane) has been with me in the US, in Europe, in Korea and this time in Canada.

It was just one more in a line of seeming coincidences that make our world small and cozy that I could join her and her family to celebrate such a milestone and to have a slice of her final exam cake! Moments like this one fill me with gratitude that I have friends as crazy as me, who will travel around the world, use apps to gossip late into the night with me, and while we may never know what city we’ll be in together next, we know we will meet again for sure.

Also, although my sister might kill me if I put her picture in here, I have to mention her. She only grudgingly let me take selfies with her, in and out of uniform, but it just so happened that we got to hang out on the very day of her 10 year mark as a police officer. I know that’s a hot button topic in America right now, but she is and always will be my baby sister, and I couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishments as a person, an officer, and a mother. I am grateful that I could spend that day with her.

Wrap Up

I spent three weeks in North America covering Seattle, Memphis, and Vancouver. I got to reduce my material possessions (and bills). I got to solidify my theory of meaningful friendship in Seattle. I got to make my sister smile, hug my mom, and play with my niblings. I got to see my sister reach her 10 year mark and get vested, and my best international girl graduate from her dream of pastry school. It was good.

If you’re reading my blog from America and you think, “man, how does she have the money to take all these extravagant trips?” I don’t. It doesn’t cost as much as you think, and it costs even less if you start from outside the US. What I also don’t have is the money to come back to the US very often. This was probably my last visit to the ol’ U.S. of A for a couple years minimum (assuming Civil War II doesn’t start by then). In the mean time, I’ll take 2-3 international vacations for the price of one US trip and I’ll consider myself well off.


Back in Korea, I’ve just finished off summer camp and am undergoing as much healthcare as I can tolerate before the school year starts again (yay! root canal, LASIK, biannual health checkup, I love living in a country with affordable health care!). Hopefully the oppressive summer heat and high humidity will ease up soon and I’ll be able to frolik outdoors. Failing that, I am planning a trip to the Philippines for October.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check out the Instagram for some day to day pictures around Korea and my life as a teacher between vacations.

#UltimateCoOp – A Seattle Gamer-Geek Wedding

As some of you know by now, I have returned to my US stomping grounds in the Emerald City. While I have been away, I wrote many stories about new experiences with new people and now I’m going to try a little experiment and write a story about something familiar using the same perspective I had while travelling. After all, there’s no reason not to keep having adventures just because the surroundings are familiar.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett


I came back to Seattle just in time to attend the much anticipated wedding of a couple of friends of mine who rank among the geekiest gamers I know.  Over time, through accident or design, they have come to talk about their lives in video game terms and so their engagement was announced as “Achievement Unlocked: Engaged”. The groom designed a video game using the wedding party as the characters, and a local comic book artist designed some beautiful comic art versions of the bride and groom for the website and invitations. The wedding theme was “gamer geek”, so I knew we were all in for a fun and non-traditional time.

I picked out a simple outfit using some clothes I’d picked up in Japan and tried to create a bit of an “anime” look with hair and make-up to blend in with the theme and to highlight my recent adventures. I felt a little bad because I hadn’t had time to gift shop at the registry places, but I’d promised the bride a “traditional Japanese wedding present” and she seemed happy with that idea. Mind you, this was before I researched Japanese wedding traditions. As it turns out, the most common gift is money in a very elaborate envelope. What can I say? I’m broke. My friends now have a very elaborate envelope.

First Impressions

I arrived at the wedding hall about 15 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin and got to see the basic outlay. There was a wine bar on the patio, which is fairly standard at American weddings, but the divergences started as soon as I walked in the door. In the foyer, the traditional “guest book” had been replaced with cards (each bearing the comic art bride and groom characters with the names and date of the wedding). Instead of signing a book, guests were asked to write a message (or draw a picture) on a card using the colored markers provided and place them in a treasure box.

For snacks, a candy bar had been set up. No, I don’t mean a square bar shaped candy, I mean a bar (like snack bar or pub) with many full bowls of candy. Guests were invited to fill a bag with their favorite sweets to snack on or take home. Offering guests wedding favors is an American tradition, often small bags or boxes of candy (butter mints and jordan almonds are very popular), sometimes small bottles of bubble solution, and even on occasion a decorative trinket. This couple had opted to use the candy bar to let guests make their own candy bags, and had some beautiful copper keys (with a secret bottle-opener feature) as wedding favors, each adorned with a brown paper tag bearing a loving quote.

Off to one side of the entrance was an old fashioned arcade game set up with the groom’s homemade wedding video game that allowed guests to play a joystick/button-mash adventure that pitted 8-bit bridesmaids and groomsmen against one another with highly customized (read “inside joke) attacks like spilling a drink or flinging a crowbar. And on the other side stood a giant red telephone box replete with a Mario Question Mark cube dangling tantalizingly in the air.

As we were ushered to our seats in the main hall, each guest was equipped with a walkthrough and strategy guide to the day’s events (aka, a program). Written in the style of a video game walkthrough and complete with FAQs, the program gave us some tantalizing glimpses of the night to come, including the eventual appearance of Seattle’s premiere steampunk band, Abney Park.

Looking around me, I saw that the theme had been well and truly taken to heart by the guests who were dressed in an astonishing array of geek finery from
Star Trek uniforms to renaissance garb. Corsets abounded along with crazy hats, gear adorned ties, aviator goggles and foam weapons. The bridal party were possibly the most in harmony with traditional wedding garb, wearing suits and ties for the men, and simple black dresses for the ladies. The geek shone through in the adorable corsages that included a miniature blue spiky shell (from Mario Kart) and a rune adorned mini-dagger.

The Ceremony

The ceremony began traditionally enough (although the officiant had pink hair and a serious steam-punk vibe), but quickly took on the couple’s own unique flair. They began with a ring warming, trustingly passing their wedding rings around the seated guests to be “warmed” with handling and good wishes. Reading special passages is very common at American weddings, although for many this would include an excerpt from the Bible or classic literature about the nature of love or marriage, this couple took instead from their own favorite fantasy writers: Madeline L’Engle and Patrick Ruthfuss.

Side note: The argument about how much marriage should or should not be religious or secular is quite hot in the US in recent years, however Seattle is one of the most liberal cities around and has been embracing all kinds of life-partnership for a long time. Perhaps as a result of the overwhelming liberalness of the area, weddings here are often more about the individuals’ personal values than about a traditional “church” affair. Nonetheless, it was really cool to see how this couple took those church traditions, dug out the meaning behind them that they liked best and then created a new way to share that meaning.

Another new take on an old tradition involved the blending of two into one, and the set-up for the 1 year anniversary. For the for representation of two lives becoming one, many couples choose to use two candles that light a central single candle, and for first anniversaries, a chunk of the wedding cake kept in the back of the freezer is common. My friends decided to integrate their love of Mexican tequila into these traditions instead. Having solidified their love on annual trips to Mexico which included lots of tequila tours, they each chose their own blanco to pour into an aging cask so that it could mature into añejo by the one year anniversary when they will open the cask and enjoy (much tastier than frozen wedding cake!).

Even the exchange of rings had a gamer twist, for when the officiant prepared to hand over the rings, she looked at the couple seriously and warned them, “It’s dangerous to go alone… Take this.” And of course the ceremony ended with a final traditional kiss along with the Achievement Unlocked: Married.

The Wedding Quest

As we filed out to the patio for cocktail hour, members of the wedding party passed out another pamphlet containing the Wedding Quest. The Quest was a great ice-breaker activity set that got people mingling and playing with the various games and props that had been scattered around the building. Not only did a guest have to perform the task (such as play the wedding brawler video game, or take a selfie with the bride), but they had to get someone to witness the achievement and sign off on the checklist. Some quests involved signing the guest book or using the photo booth to help create more memories for the couple, while others involved dancing with strangers or feeding the bride’s mom.

The photo booth was a fun way to make wedding memories for everyone. In keeping with the video arcade theme, they had set up a computer and printer inside a box that looked like an arcade game. Guests were encouraged to choose from a range of silly props and costume pieces just outside the photo room. Then with a single press of a big red button, the machine captured 4 silly photos against a Mario background and printed your souvenir card with the wedding comic art and date. Below is Abney Park and some of the bridal party having a good time with the photo booth between sets.

The Quest kept me happily busy until the wedding hall had completed it’s transformation sequence into a dining hall, where we all convened for dinner and toasting. I took some advantage of my status as welcome home guest to finagle some of the bridal party’s special vodka and generally enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t seen for the last year along with meeting the new people that had come into our community during my absence.

Toasting, Caking & Dancing

The toasting began with a bottle of champagne that the bride’s parents had set aside at their own wedding, not realizing that unlike still wine, champagne does not improve with age after purchase. I really hope the photographer was standing by to capture the looks on their faces.  I think the aging tequila cask will be a much more successful investment.

Once safer drinks were provided, the toasts resumed with funny stories and clever antics. The bride’s brothers even presented her with a lovely sword to defend her own honor with. Although many of the audience felt that the new sword would be a great cake-cutter, it turned out that the couple had installed a dagger as part of their cake topper for that precise purpose. In addition to the dolls matching the comic book character themes there were several layers of geekery including the Portal cube, a dragon with a hoard of gold, a D20, some Mario Bros., a small library of gaming books and a solid foundation of Pac Man. And, for extra humor, the cake was a lie. It turned out that only one layer was cake for the couple to cut and share for the traditional cake-face-smash, er I mean feeding, and all the other layers were cleverly disguised styrofoam with fondant frosting decorations. Guests were served cake from a hidden resource somewhere in the back (which is just as well because fondant is nowhere near as tasty as butter-creme).

The traditional first dance of a newly married couple is often a sweet and romantic song like Eta James or Frank Sinatra. Sometimes a couple will take dancing lessons or plan some “fancy” moves like twirls and dips to look good on their special day. My friends took this to expert level, as it were, and chose for their first song Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton. In addition to dancing their way through the chorus, they took turns being the code monkey in the story and acting out the lyrics. It was pretty much as insanely cute as it sounds. Parental dances were then followed up with a honeymoon fundraising “dollar dance” that allowed any guest an exclusive dance with the bride or groom for a financial contribution to the getaway fund.

After I took my turn dancing with the groom, I stepped aside to the bar and while chatting with another guest about our Wedding Quest achievements, I related that I had yet to achieve “Dance With Someone You Don’t Know”. At which point, the bartender swiftly emerged from behind the bar to treat me to a quick jig and witness my achievement. I think the catering staff were just as amused by the wedding as we were. It’s always fun when my group gets to attend events with staff, since so many of us have worked those grinding jobs before, we’re all extra nice and friendly to them, and it’s awesome to see their reactions when they realize they’re being treated like people instead of robot servants.

Finally, I stepped outside to get some fresh (cool) air, but my respite did not last long before a bride led conga line snaked into the courtyard to scoop everyone up and down the stairs into the hidden speakeasy. The basement room was decked out with a small stage and dance floor and plenty of comfy lounging couches around the walls plus another bar off to one side. Giant tubs of popcorn provided anyone still hungry with more snacking options and the slices of wedding cake kept appearing as if by catering ninjas. I proceeded to have a lovely time being flung around the dance floor by two very good friends who take dance lessons in swing, blues and salsa. My hairdo did not survive the experience, but I can’t say I was upset.

Abney Park

I’m really not sure what kind of shenanigans, bribes or blood sacrifices were made to accomplish this, but Seattle’s one and only Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk band played at this wedding. These guys aren’t just a local gimmick band, they’ve traveled internationally and enjoyed sold out shows. Apparently they also have a series of genre books about the airship captain and his crew. I however live in a cultural hole in the ground when it comes to music, so until that night I only had a brief and passing awareness of the group based on posters I had seen advertising concerts around town.

As you can see from the picture, they have a violinist among their musicians which is always a good way to win me over. The music is fun and bouncy without being painfully loud, another plus. And it seems to be largely story based type lyrics that are reflective of the characters and world they are portraying. They are also really mellow, fun folks. The venue was pretty small, so the stage was really just a step up from the dance floor and there was no green room or backstage area for them to go so they had to mingle with the guests. Perhaps because most of the guests were also in costume, or perhaps because of the bottles of wine that found their way from the bar to the stage (open bar is music to any musicians ears), they were highly complimentary of our vibe, totally seemed surprised at how happy everyone was, and quickly settled into enjoying themselves too.

Light it Up & Let it Go

At one point in the performance, I stepped away to help create the send-off decorations. Some people throw rice at a departing couple, and I’ve seen doves and butterflies released as well. Apparently the families had wanted to release floating fire lanterns, but the long dry summer had left a normally damp Seattle too dry. In fact, most of the state of Washington had been on fire only a few weeks before. So instead they got a couple hundred tiny battery operated lights and white balloons. This meant a hardcore team of volunteers spent a while assembling the final product, a non-fire starting floating glowing thing to release to the skies.

After we filled all the balloons, there were a couple dozen lights leftover, so I decided these should become fashion accessories for as many people as I could get them to.  This made for some new fun as we all tried to figure out the best places to add lights to our costumes. Several groomsmen wound up with back-lit ties, and an equal number of bridesmaids had glowing cleavage. I handed several around to the band while they were on break. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and wore the lights in hair, clothes and goggles for the second half of their show.

As the dancing went on, it became apparent that the bride and bridal party’s lack of sleep and early start to the day were taking a toll. Among the hundred or so regular size balloons were three giant ones that the couple used to lead everyone back upstairs and out the gates into the street. Once each remaining guest was armed with a glowing balloon, we huddled together and counted down to release. It was quite lovely to watch the glowing pearly balloons float off into the cloudy black sky. When the last balloon had drifted from sight, the couple looked around for their car and had a fun surprise. At some point the groomsmen had decorated the couple’s car with cling wrap and shoe polish as well as about a dozen more glowing balloons. However, since gamer geeks are notorious utility knife carriers, the plastic was swiftly dispatched and the couple drove off into the night, exhausted but happy, all quests completed and all achievements unlocked at the Ultimate Co-Op Wedding.


Special thanks to all the photographers I’m using here. I forgot to point and shoot for most of the event, so I’m relying on other guests phone photo skills to provide the fun imagery. I managed to personally achieve all quests in the Wedding Game before leaving (bragging rights) and had a great time reconnecting with my Seattle family. I love you all to pieces. Megan & Brendan, thank you so much for letting me be a small part of your special day, I know you’ll work hard to take care of each other and be happy and I look forward to more games and stories with you in years to come.

One Seattlite’s Quest for Coffee in the Kingdom

Note: I was going to write about my ‘firsts’ here in KSA today, but I’m stuck on coffee instead, sorry Meredith, I promise I’ll get to it soon!

I am  from Seattle. We love coffee there. We generally think Starbucks is crap and will spend hours discussing the region, roast, soil quality, and brew method of our beans with our favorite baristas (or baristos). When I lived in China, I was aghast that the coffee all seemed to be Nescafe instant, which is like trying to sell someone vinegar as wine, sure its made from grapes. The only bean brewed coffee in China was Starbucks, which broke my little rain-drenched Seattle heart.

Saudi, I read, is the most coffee drinking country in the world. Great! They make this amazing strong coffee, like Turkish coffee but with spices like cardamom and ginger. Oooooo! So excited was I to have great coffee available to me in my new home. Oh, no.

IMG_0055Not only is 90% of what they sell in the grocery store some version of Folgers Crystals or Nescafe, but the stuff advertised as “Arabic Coffee” is a 2 part powder packet, half of which you boil for 10 minutes and the other half you add to the boiled mixture after you take it off the heat. I admit, it tasted  a lot better than Nescafe, but not really anything at all like coffee. It mostly tasted like cardamom and ginger, which I really like, so I may drink it again, but not when I’m looking for a cup of coffee.

Then there is the school cafeteria. They serve this stuff called “Violet Coffee” which as far as I can tell is like the powdered coffee premixed with milk and sugar and crazy flavors. The menu is in Arabic, and a strange font that I couldn’t make heads or tales of at first. The girls behind the counter speak some English,  but don’t really know anything about coffee.

One of the other teachers told me about this delicious iced mocha, and the first day was really hot because the A/C wasn’t working well, so by lunchtime I had sweat out about 2 liters, and wanted something cool and an iced mocha sounded just the thing. What I got was a chocolate milkshake…

The next day, determined to get coffee rather than dessert, I try again. I ask for coffee. They say ‘what kind?’. Ummmm… hot? She lists off names: French coffee, Italian coffee, mocha, something that sounded like teruki (later I leared was meant to be Turkish), and maybe another thing I didn’t understand. Flummoxed, I asked for French coffee, thinking maybe this was an Au Lait or something, and Italian was cappuccino. Nope. Super milky, super sugary and some flavor that might have been vanilla. I can say this time there was a slight hint of coffee flavor.

Back to the home front. Next trip to the grocery store, I’m searching the coffee section for anything that is a bean or ground bean product instead of a processed powdered mess. There are some whole beans, and some grinders, but no french press, which is what I’m used to. Not even a drip machine, just these little pots with a little divot of a pour spout 90 degrees from the handle. Next to the pots are sieves. It is clear to me now that I must cook my coffee in a little pot and strain the grounds out in a little sieve.

IMG_0056So, I found some extremely finely ground, but still ground and not dehydrated-freeze-dried-pretend-coffee, beans that advised they were from Brazil and mixed with ground cardamom. I got a little pot and a little sieve and went home to test it out. On my one burner “stove” in my hotel room/apartment, I boiled up the water and threw in a spoonful of grounds. I let it cook for a while on low, then let it sit for a while to let the grounds settle. The sieve is nearly useless because the grind is so fine, but the hotel came with this pretty little samovar thermos, which keeps the coffee hot while getting the grounds to settle, and makes it easy to decant your coffee too.

I had achieved coffee! This morning, I made myself a cup of joe, put it in my to go mug and ….. left it on the counter when I went to school.

Slightly desperate, I went to the cafeteria before my first class and as I was staring disconsolately at the row of powders the girls used to make the coffee, my eyes alit on a coffee grinder with whole beans in the top. When the girl got to my order, I pointed excitedly at the machine with its whole beans. Coffee! I exclaimed. She pointed to the machine on the counter with a questioning look. Yes!

“Espresso.” she said.

“Good.” I replied.

“Espresso or cappuccino?” she asked.

“Espresso.” I said firmly.

“Milk?” she asked.

“No!” I crossed and waved my hands and shook my head, not wanting to receive another cup full of coffee flavored steamed sugar milk.

I listened to the familiar sound of the espresso grinder– that little whir and click click noise, the steamy hiss of the machine as hot water streamed through the tightly packed grounds under pressure to pour into the waiting cup below. Finally I was presented with a tiny paper cup of espresso with beautiful crema floating above dark brown bliss, a few ounces of reassurance that everything will be ok.

 

The Long Journey to Tabuk

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

Seattle to Frankfurt

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

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

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

Frankfurt Airport

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

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

Frankfurt to Riyadh

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

Riyadh Arrival

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

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

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

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

In Riyadh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Get Scary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riyadh to Tabuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tabuk

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

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

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

Abaya Shopping in Seattle

So, I decided that I should buy an abaya before heading over to Saudi Arabia. Although many people in Saudi said that I could enter the Kingdom dressed simply in conservative clothing and a head scarf then go abaya shopping once I was there, I personally felt that the awkward stares in the airport combined with the fact that I did not know how soon after my arrival I would be able to go shopping or be expected to show up at work meant that having at least one acceptable outfit before leaving.

Searching the internet and asking around lead me to find that there are a few “boutique” shops that sell Islamic clothing around, and the prices range from 70-200$. ouch. Online shops were less expensive, but having zero experience in wearing abayas, I was quite hesitant to order something, no matter how descriptive the measurements were.

Finally, I discovered a tiny little Somalian shop in White Center. I GPSed my way down there last Friday (completely forgetting this was the weekly holy day *facepalm*), and pulled into a very empty parking lot with several small immigrant run shops. There was a lady in abaya/hijab sitting on the curb in front of the shop with her cell phone tucked up under her hijab so as to reach her ear without exposing it. She nodded politely at me as I passed her, presumably thinking that I was heading to one of the other shops. When I tried the door of the Somalian store, and peered in the window disappointed that it was locked, she looked up in surprise.

“Oh! you wanted to come here?” she exclaimed, “What do you need to buy?” I explained that I needed to buy an abaya for my upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, and she grinned broadly, quickly opening up the shop and escorting me inside. “Of course, you need black.” she said, her English was good, but clearly accented and marked by the occasional misplacing of small articles and prepositions that many EFL learners struggle with.

Suddenly it became a dress up game. We were like little girls trying on fancy dresses as she pulled out abaya after abaya for me to try. Initially, I had felt very strongly that I would prefer an abaya that buttoned or zipped up the front, because the idea of shuffling in and out of an over the head floor length gown several times a day seemed so unappealing. My school does not require us to wear the abaya for work, but we have to wear them between home and work, so I would have to put it on and off at least twice every day. However, the front buttoning abaya styles were clearly designed for women less busty than myself, and the buttons strained across my chest.

“If you wear a long hijab,” she informed me, “it will not show.” Nonetheless, i decided I would at least try some over the head styles before I gave in to that compromise. Some were indeed very difficult to put on, but these were mostly the fancy (and heavier weight material) “evening wear” abayas. I was quite surprised after trying several on that it became a simple matter to shrug them on and off over my clothes and hair.

I tried on at least a dozen, some were rejected outright for difficulty to put on, or ill fitting sleeves. I was amazed that such a simple garment could have such a wide variety of fits! For the ones that felt comfortable enough, I bustled back to the fitting room we weren’t bothering to use to look at myself in the mirror. All the while we chatted about my upcoming trip. I told her I was going to teach English, and she told me about her daughter who had been raised in America and wanted to return to the Arabic world to teach as well. This was a little sad, because most of the countries in the Middle East require a great deal of certification and experience to hire someone, which her daughter had not obtained yet.

Finally, we found a very light weight abaya with a very breathable fabric. It was a major relief, because just trying on some of the abayas in the shop, I was starting to sweat a little, even though Seattle heat is only in the low 80’s (that’s about 29 C), which is nothing compared to the heat I will be facing in Saudi. The abaya was a perfect fit; it didn’t even need to be hemmed,  and the sleeves bore a pattern of maroon and creme with tiny crystals picking out a flower and vine pattern above. It was perfect.

Now for the hijab. This is the head covering, not to be confused with the veil/face covering which is called a niqab. She asked me what kind I wanted, and I replied I had no idea, having never purchased or worn one before. Years before, for a class in grad-school, we had to attend a Mosque and write about the experience, but I had simply used a regular scarf to cover my head that day. Using a scarf suited for Seattle in the Saudi summer was not going to work. Additionally, I hoped that there was something simple enough for me to put on correctly without having to master a complex folding, wrapping and tucking technique.

I expressed that it would be nice to have a hijab in a color that matched the accents on the sleeves of my abaya, for although the abaya must be black in Saudi, it can have colored trim, and the hijab may be colored. She found a creme colored swatch of cloth and helped me to put it on. So simple! It was a tube of cloth, wider at the shoulder end than the face end. You just push your face through like a turtleneck sweater, only instead of pulling it all the way over your head, you adjust the edge around your hairline.

10574270_10152225365041646_4307585225450516666_nI ducked back into the changing room with the mirror and tucked a few wisps of hair back under the hijab, then examined the complete picture. I was amazed at how different I looked. I could have been a completely different person, but somehow, the covering garments did not make me feel hidden or oppressed. I felt that these clothes were my cultural passport into my next adventure, affording me the ability to travel in and possibly even be accepted in the country I will call home for the next year.

I made a few final adjustments to the bottom collar of the hijab, settling it in a deep scoop across my collarbone then stepped back out into the main room smiling at my achievement. The shopkeeper immediately broke into a wide grin, “Oh!, you look so beautiful dressed this way!” she said to me. I thanked her for the compliment and all her help as she rang up my purchase. We chatted a little more about my departure date, and the upcoming Hajj, and her own dreams to make the pilgrimage some day.

As I drove home, I thought more about the compliment she had given me. It seems so difficult for me sometimes as a well-educated, liberal leaning American woman to remember that the clothes these women wear are not always prisons. Many women choose to dress in abaya and hijab, or even adding a niqab or going full burqa. Here in America, this Somalian woman surely chose her dress style, and to run a business catering to other women who do the same, for no Mutawaeen will ever find her here and shame her into covering her hair or hiding her body. Her compliment was genuine. She felt that in that moment, rather than concealing myself,  I truly embodied her own cultural ideal of feminine beauty.

I am extremely glad that I decided to buy my first abaya here in Seattle from a store and not online. Not only because it turned out to be necessary to try many on before finding the right fit, but because I got to touch lives with the vivacious Somalian lady with the nut-brown skin, infectious laugh, and deep sense for the beautiful that broadened my own.

Night Hiking

Seattle is not what you would call “warm” most of the year, but we do love our outdoor activities. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in a swing shift job which keeps me indoors during the afternoons, evenings and weekends when most people like to enjoy the great outdoors after work and before bedtime. But now that summer has happened upon us, and the temperatures at midnight are above 45 degrees, I have taken up a new hobby: night hiking.

Remember when you were a teenager, and would relish the freedom to stay out after dark? Or better yet, when you’d sneak out of the house? Night hiking is like that. When I was in high school and couldn’t sleep, I’d creep out of the house and into the woods behind our yard, or go up to the front of the subdivision and climb the tall brick wall that bordered the main road. I’d just sit up there and listen to the sounds of the night and feel like I really owned my own space for once.

Now, there’s no one to tell me to go to bed, and I’m old enough that I’m not likely to get harassed for being a hoodlum. So there’s less illicit thrill in night hiking than there was in sneaking out after curfew. However, it does still elicit a wonderful sense of the strange yet calm. The boundaries and obligations of daytime occupations drift away, and the world is a magical place again.

There are really quite a large number of walking/biking trails around Seattle, and a tremendous number of parks (some of which are closed after 11pm,  most of which are not locked, but I would  never advocate any illegal activity, of course).

In the last several weeks we have gone to a  mountain trail in the Cougar/Squak Mountain area (flashlights are advised for emergencies, but if the moon is out, you can often see the path quite clearly without one), along the Inter-Urban trail in Shoreline, into a quiet still playground, and even a graveyard. Police might think its strange, but usually unless you’re drunk, loud or otherwise obviously breaking the law, they tend to be fairly cool when you explain its just a walk.

So the next time you’re wondering what to do with your night off, instead of heading to a bar/club/party, grab a good friend (and maybe a good bottle of wine), and put a tree line between yourself and civilization.