From Saudi to Czech

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Royal Decree Holiday: Diving in Aqaba

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Saudi Wedding & Engagement Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out on the Town: my first (few) social outings in Tabuk

I am sorry its been so long since the last post, and I further apologize for the length of these posts. So much is happening to me here in Saudi that I hardly every have the time I want to write, and when I do, I’ve got a ton to write about. Thanks for hangin’ in there my loyal friends and readers!

Dinner with the Bosses

Last Saturday, our country directors came to town and we all went out to dinner. This is a more difficult prospect than it might be in other countries, because the number of places that allow mixed gender groups to dine together is pretty limited. Our driver came to pick us up, of course, and we drove through some pretty heavy traffic (which I was later told was actually light traffic) to get to Maisalon.

Even though we were all foreigners, the table was still divided along gender lines, the black abaya clad women on one side of the table and the ‘normally’ dressed men on the other. The meal was a pre-set multi course affair. It started with a very nice soup that seemed to have maybe a chicken and rice motif, and a really delicious tapas plate of hummus, baba ganoush and sliced veggies.

I’m really glad this was the case, because the main course turned out to be a huge plate of meat with a side of rice. Fried prawns, meat on a stick, and some other anonymous looking fried meat things. Did I mention the hummus was really good?

All in all a fairly sedate affair, and I spent most of it chatting with my SD’s teenage son about anime and video games. Yay for not being a very good adult.

Casual Dinner with Friends

Tuesday afternoon, I had this great plan to go down to the Panda (grocery store) and load up on veggies so I could make myself some kind of vegetable stew, since all the restaurants around here are so meat heavy. Now, the shops are closed during the early afternoon, so I have to wait until after Asr (which starts around 4pm) to do anything after work. And then you have to hurry because Maghrib is like 90 minutes later.

Just as I’m getting ready to go, my doorbell rings. [redacted]¬†and [redacted]¬†are at the door and ask if I’d like to go out for dinner with them. Sure! Thinking they mean like to the shawarma place next door or something.

Oh, no.

We drove around so much of Tabuk, finally arriving at a Pizza Hut (quite near Maisalon, by the way). [redacted]¬†is a very entertaining fellow. He’s half Russian and raised in the Czech Republic. While hanging out in my apartment or in his car, he doesn’t care what I’m wearing, but is quite insistent that when we are in public where any ‘religion man’ as he puts it might see us that I wear the niqab in addition to my abaya and hijab. Oh, and as it turns out, also any time we might get over charged for something if the shopkeeper thinks I’m American.

This was a challenge because I didn’t own a niqab. My hijab is also much smaller than most regular Saudi hijab, so I’m trying my best to wrap this thing around my hair and lower face, and consequently got quite a bit of it in my mouth.

[redacted] also loves to drive, and to make [redacted] nervous with his driving, smoking and swearing. This resulted in a pretty amusing drive watching [redacted] tease [redacted], listening to Lady Gaga on the stereo and watching the city transform from bland sand colored daytime to bright and colorful night.

After dinner, [redacted] asked him to take us to a shop called Alrifai, which does imported sweets, tea and coffee. I had no idea that the Lebanese made such good chocolate! I was also finally able to get some medium roast coffee, which is amazing. The coffee I bought from Panda was such a dark roast it was pitch black, which is not (pardon the metaphor mixing) my cup of tea.

Later on I picked up some of these little nougats. I was curious because they were covered in flower petals. Turns out to be a delicious nougat with pistachios. The flowers are rose, and I think it might also be made with rosewater because the rose flavor is very distinct and quite pleasant.  So much yum!

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Shopping Trip for the Teachers

Our contracts stipulate that we be provided with transportation to and from work, as well as two shopping trips a week. The later part wasn’t a high priority here because the hotel is walking distance from the Araqi Mall, where there’s a pretty good grocery store and plenty of other shops.

However, our SDs decided to get it off the ground this week, and we had our first work-sponsored shopping trip on Thursday afternoon. It turned out to just be me and [redacted], but we went out to a new Mall to check it out. We got there too soon after Asr so all the shops were still closed. We wandered around window shopping while we waited for everything to open. This mall had an even larger amusement park, both indoor and outdoor attractions for children.

More than half the shops were ‘Family Only’, meaning that single men are not allowed to enter them. Shopping malls may be the only place in the country where women have more freedom than men. [redacted]¬†spotted a bath and body shop and headed in without noticing the sign. The women actually gestured to him to come in before I pointed it out. As we walked on, he told me he had never had an experience like that, but since the women saw him with me, they assumed that he was married and therefore safe.

I picked up some throw rugs for the apartment. I’ve been having trouble with tracking dust, and stuff, so I now have a foot mat at my bed and my most frequented sitting chair. And I also managed to get a new nose jewel. Originally I was told in no uncertain terms that face piercings were out, but this week I noticed that not only did my students wear nose studs, but that my SD did as well. So I got the go ahead and now have a little light blue gem, and feel a leeetle bit closer to Seattle.

Just as they were calling Maghrib and we were heading out, a clerk noticed [redacted]¬†peering at the Alrifai stand and insisted on serving us before shutting down for prayer, so more delicious candy. I’m building a stash since I can’t eat more than a piece or two a day.

And speaking of sweets…

A Night at the Istraha

Thursday (last day of the work week btw, so think T.G.I.T.) I was invited to my first Istraha. This is a villa that Saudis rent out to have parties and relax in large groups. My friend [redacted], this delightful young Saudi woman who works in the administration part of my department, invited us. Her father had just had an angioplasty and his brothers were throwing this party to celebrate his recovery. Her whole local family was coming and she really wanted to introduce us (her American co-workers), and to share her family’s good fortune with us.

It felt a little strange, getting all dressed up, doing my make up, etc, then putting on the black tent and concealing all of it. [redacted] came with her father to pick me up from the hotel and we drove quite a ways, collecting my SD [redacted] and her family (in their own car) along the way.

A thing you have to understand about Saudi, there are no addresses. Streets have names, ok, but there aren’t building numbers and the postal system operates by landmarks. For example, my hotel is the Fawasel Hotel across from the Araqi Mall. Seriously, this is how the address is listed on their business card. So, [redacted]¬†couldn’t just tell [redacted]¬†where to meet them by address and then Google Map a route. They had to meet us at a landmark and then follow us.

The Saudi women are very tactile, so [redacted]¬†held my hand as we rode in her father’s car. She told me about her family, her time in college, and her ideas about how to judge people for their good or bad actions and personalities, rather than religion or nationality.

Her father talked to me about the drug problem in Saudi. He told me about travelling to Amsterdam and seeing everyone smoking hash (his word), and how shocked he was that the government allowed it. I tactfully decided not to mention that Washington state had recently made the same decision.

Another thing to understand about Saudi is that it is a nocturnal culture. There’s a lot of sleeping in the afternoon, and nightlife doesn’t start until 9pm or later even though fajr is at 5am. I can’t quite adjust to this yet, so I go to bed around 9 so that I have 8 hrs when the call to prayer wakes me up. But for this gig, dinner wasn’t going to be served until 11pm, and at even fancier gigs dinner might be as late as 1 or 2 am.

So, that day I was up at 5am, taught classes from 8 to 230, went shopping from 4 to 7 and then got picked up for the Istraha shortly after 8pm.

Like everything here, the Istraha is divided between men and women. Upon arrival, we entered a small side entrance and were promptly greeted by a flood of beautifully dressed women offering hugs, handshakes and kisses. Doffing our abayas and hijabs, we took a moment to adjust hair and clothing that had been concealed.

There was a courtyard where children played in the cooler night air. The women congregated in a large room, the walls lined with padded seating and movable arm cushions. We were introduced to everyone, kisses and handshakes. The ladies here had none of the restrictions that the girls at school face where dresses and sleeves must be worn long. There were short skirts and sleeveless tops, beautiful colors and jewelry.

It was amazing to watch these women. When there are men around, they’re all dressed in black with only the eyes showing, voices low and body language demmure. I’m pretty sure this is the only way most Westerners see Saudi women because the media images and video are all like this because they can’t allow themselves to be filmed in anything less if a man might see it. However, as soon as the men are safely on the other side of a wall, they come alive! Bright, beautiful and expressive, its a whole other world. I actually feel sorry for the men that they can never see how amazing their women really are.

We were offered round after round of the spiced Arabic coffee and sweet black tea. There were chocolates and toffees and some really neat baked goods. There was a kind of pastry made of vermicelli noodles with a cream cheese filling, and there are these cookies… these cookies. They’re called Mamoul, which means ‘stuffed’, and I’d had some store bought ones before, and they reminded me of a fig newton but with date instead of fig filling. However, these were homemade, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! The cookie was this crumbly butter shortbread and the date paste filling was still slightly warm with just a hint of cardamom. I asked [redacted]¬†to tell her aunt how delicious they were, and completely forgot the tendency of Arabic cultures to gift someone with something if it is complimented. So I ended up with a small box of them to take home. Not that I’m complaining.

[redacted]¬†is a beautiful person, inside and out. She smiles all the time and doesn’t hesitate to tell people what she thinks, good or bad, though most of it seems to be good. She’s not married yet, and I think she’s very lucky to have a father who isn’t forcing the issue. ¬†She’s strong-willed, kind and very funny, so the time simply flew by as we enjoyed her company and the treats on offer.

We chatted and snacked for a couple hours then moved into another room for dinner. Dinner was a very traditional Saudi affair. In fact most of the women were in a different room. [redacted], as a hostess, had us as her special guests in a smaller room, along with her  sister and a cousin who was particularly interested to meet us, even though she spoke no English.

There was a plastic guard on the carpet, and a large platter with saffron rice and lamb in the middle. We all sat on the floor and dug in. There was no silverware, and no bread to use as a scoop. The tradition is to simply pick up the food that is nearest to you on the platter with your fingers. This is way harder than it looks with rice. [redacted]¬†and her sister tried to give us lessons, a particular tactic by which you scoop up some rice and sort of squish it into a lump (this doesn’t actually happen), then push it to the tips of your fingers using your thumb and transfer this to your mouth, then delicately brush the remaining few grains of rice onto the plastic covered floor.

I can’t say that I succeeded in this approach, but I did manage to eat my fill nonetheless. The food was excellent. I am a sucker for lamb, and this was particularly well made, very tender and flavorful, even if I did have to wrestle it off the bones. I heard on the mens’ side they simply put the whole carcass on the rice platter, and at least they chopped it up for us.

Somewhere around midnight, I was stuffed full of sweets and lamb and having trouble keeping my eyes open, so we begged our goodbyes and I was able to catch a ride home with [redacted] and her husband, since [redacted] and her father were likely to be there for another 2 hours or more.

Sadly, I have no pictures to share, as it would have been very inappropriate to take pictures of the women not covered up, but I hope that the words paint a good picture for you.

A Friday Drive  & A White Knight 

The weekends and holy day are different here than non-Muslim countries. Friday is the holy day, so everyone goes to Mosque in the morning, then maybe a family dinner after Duhr. Kinda like Sunday in large parts of the US.

Again, I had a nice quiet day planned, finish my lesson plans, write a blog post, do some laundry and enjoy my high speed internet for the weekend (I got to take home the school’s hotspot router) to watch some netflix. Then a little light shopping on Saturday, I wanted to pick up a real niqab so I could make [redacted]¬†more comfortable going out, and some more skirts for work since I only arrived with 3.

Just as I have ensconced myself in the comfy chair with my tablet to one side loaded up with Buffy reruns and my laptop to the right of me loaded up with lesson plans and ESL resource websites, once more, my doorbell rings.

[redacted]¬†and [redacted]. Now. [redacted]¬†has an excuse. I sent him an email about the hotel manager. See, earlier on Thursday, in the teeny space between shopping and Istraha, I had asked if the hotel cleaner could change the sheets in my room. I didn’t really expect much beyond that, so my room was kind of a mess. I still don’t have enough hangers or a clothes hamper, so clothes are all over the place. But this doesn’t seem like an issue for sheet changing.

When the cleaner shows up, the hotel manager is with him. At first I thought maybe it was a thing so I wouldn’t be alone in the room with a man, and the door was left open, but the situation got creepy and uncomfortable pretty fast. The manager kept insisting that the cleaner do more things, which meant that they were picking up my clothes and things. He wandered around my room, looking at and even sometimes picking up my things, he kept trying to make conversation and sorta hitting on me. Then after they left and I took my abaya off, he found an excuse to come back and see me in my tank top.

I told [redacted] about it at the Istraha, and she suggested I tell [redacted], who is both a man and lives in the hotel and would be able to do something about it.

So [redacted] came by Friday to check on me and talk about what had happened. When [redacted] heard the story he got really angry. In Saudi, women are to be sheltered and protected, so what amounts to a little creeper vibe that women in the West deal with frequently is really inappropriate behavior here. So he charged out of the room and back downstairs to confront the manager who then was dragged back up to apologize to me.

I appreciate the sentiment here, but of course by having two guys confront and threaten the manager of the place I live has just created a pretty severe atmosphere of resentment from this guy that I have to see every day… things guys just don’t take into consideration, this is why we don’t get hostile when dudes are doing the unwelcome flirting verging on harassment thing because it just makes every subsequent encounter with said dude unbelievably unpleasant.

For example, today I went downstairs to get some water and he pretended not to understand me¬†despite the fact that I used both English and Arabic¬†until I literally walked over and pointed at the water. He just kept barking at me ‘one or two’ and wouldn’t listen when I tried to ask about what size the bottles were or how much they cost. Then he tried to sell me the tiny bottles in the fridge instead of the big bottle that I was pointing to. So he’s gone from being a skeezy creeper who wanted to help me to try and impress and ingratiate to being an angry bitter passive aggressive jerk.

Anyway. Back to Friday.

After telling off the manager, [redacted]¬†and [redacted]¬†hung out for a while, then took off for a break. We agreed to go out shopping later on and get some food. I got a little more work done before [redacted]¬†came back on his own, [redacted]¬†having begged off due to a ‘headache’ I’m not entirely sure had actually manifested and may simply have been a desire to hide inside, which my own itrovert half is starting to sympathize with.

So, I tuck the hijab back over my face and we head out. Most of the shops are still closed because its only like one in the afternoon, but we managed to find a place I could get a real niqab and stop doing the crazy face wrap.

I noticed a really interesting phenomenon while we were driving around. The streets were crowded with cars so I was still wearing the niqab. As we crawled through slow traffic and stopped at red lights, I looked out the window at the cars around us and I realized that none of the men in the other cars could see me, just this black blob. Suddenly I felt… safer, more at ease. I could look at them but none of them could gawp at me. For the first time since arriving I understood why the American women I worked with had chosen to wear the niqab even though it is not required. I’m not saying I want to wear it all the time, but now I’m glad I own one, and can put it up like a shield whenever I want.

We wandered around looking for open shops and found a few, I got a new skirt too. We picked up some lunch and came back to the hotel to eat, then headed out again after Asr.

Once the shops were open, we were able to go find me a new abaya, its a front closing kind with much wider sleeves, way way easier to put on than the over the head one I bought in Seattle. Inside the shops, [redacted]¬†took the lead. He warned me to keep my voice very low so that the shopkeepers wouldn’t hear my English. He got me a pretty good discount, though, I got what was priced as a 220 riyal abaya plus a new larger hijab and a more comfy niqab all for 180.

We got some iced mochas and drove out on the highway toward Medina, a pretty empty road with some mountains and farmland. There was a checkpoint on the way where police were checking for illegal materials, but they just waved us on through. [redacted]¬†said it was because I was with him, and looked like a real Saudi woman, so they just assumed he was a responsible young man, but if he’d been alone they might have stopped and questioned him.

He explained to me that the black tent get up, niqab and all, means freedom for me as a woman in Saudi. I don’t think I could have ever taken a sentence like that seriously before I got here, but seeing how easy everything is when I’m veiled and following a man around, I’m starting to see what he means.

We chatted and joked and listened to music on the drive. At some point I became curious how he could just drive around all day, so I asked about the price of gas (petrol) in Saudi. He told me its cheaper than water! A litre of water is about 1 riyal, but a litre of gas is about half a riyal! No wonder driving around is a valid form of entertainment for so many young men.

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I got to see a spectacular sunset on the way back into the city, and we stopped at a really upscale shopping area where I got very confused about dress sizes. You’re not allowed to try anything on in Saudi, so you’re supposed to be able to just know if something is going to fit. And bad enough trying to find sizes in America, where I might wear anything from a 12 to an 18 depending on the brand, I don’t even have any clue what the numbers on these dresses mean!

I got a 34, which does fit, but is a teeny bit snug¬†once I tried it on at home. American sizes are supposedly waist size minus 20, so a 14 is supposed to be a 34 inch waist. This isn’t really true anymore, but its how its started and I thought maybe that was what this 34 meant. But then I looked ¬†up some sizing charts online and European sizes which look like those numbers are totally way off because a 34 is like a size 6 or 8 ¬†in American and there is just NO way that I could wear an 8 and only think it was a little snug. So, I’m at a loss. My new solution is to take the only non elastic waisted skirt I already own and hold it up to myself and see how fits across the front of my waist so I can try to judge skirt waist size by just holding it up to myself…. sigh.

The whole shopping experience was very surreal, since I was dressed in my full Saudi gear veil included, and [redacted]¬†had asked me to speak very quietly inside the shops. He took charge of the entire expedition, spinning stories about me being British and himself working for the Embassy to impress shopkeepers and get us a discount. I think it would drive me crazy to live my whole life like that, and I’m still planning to do some shopping on my own where I can just take my time and look around, but it was interesting, and a little reassuring to know that if I need a man to go to bat for me in this male dominated culture, I can call [redacted]¬†to the rescue.

Busy Bee’s Day Off

So, there you have it, another whirlwind week in the Magic Kingdom. Today has been pretty laid back. Apparently its “Black Saturday” here, which is the payday before a major holiday, so I’m kicking back, finishing up my work, doing that laundry and catching all of you up on the adventure!

One more week then I’m off to Jeddah for Eid! Thanks for reading and have a great day!

My First Week in Saudi

Well, I made it. Wheels touched down in Riyadh one week ago. You all got to read about the incredible journey, so now lets take a look at the first week of life in the Magic Kingdom.

If you want to see more pictures about this week, please visit and like my facebook page, and check out the album, This Week in Tabuk.

THE JOB

This of course takes up most of my time. My first day of work was Sunday, by the way. I landed in Tabuk on Saturday, and started work on Sunday. No break at all. Oh, and also no training. The supposed online training site I was supposed to have access to all summer where I could watch videos and fill out worksheets for feedback (which was a seriously appealing prospect and part of the reason I took the job) was broken all summer, or maybe is just wishful thinking that hasn’t ever worked. Like the toilets… (more later). And the pre-term training that was supposed to start in late August, I couldn’t attend because they took so darn long getting me a visa and a plane ticket that I actually arrived in the second week of school.

IMG_0034So, Sunday morning at 6:40 am, I come downstairs to the van-pool and head to the school. I have an hour before class starts, which is nice, I can check my email, look over my plan for the day, drink my coffee, etc. But on this first day, I did none of this. I stared in confusion at the perfectly symmetrical, identical geometric patterns of the building wondering how I would ever find anything. I talked to the site director about what I should do and got shown a huge amount of paperwork. I collected my students and invented a lesson entirely on the fly.

As it turns out — the internet didn’t work, the a/c was barely working, the toilets didn’t flush, and there was no copy machine because there was “no toner in all of Tabuk”.

Additionally, although the school administered placement tests for the students, someone decided that they should not have a level A-0 class and so split the three groups into A-1, A-1+, and A-2. This might not be a big deal if the teaching method I was sold in the job interview was true, but alas, like so many other things, it was not. I won’t say they meant to lie, but it seems there was a new policy implemented just this school year, so at very least it is no longer true.

See, there’s a book, but we don’t use¬†the book, and the students don’t have the book. The book is a guideline of skills the students should learn and be tested on in each level. Normally, and A-0 is considered someone who has zero English. But they decided A-0 would be learning the material in chapters 1-8. The problem being that this doesn’t start with the alphabet and “Hello, my name is” which is how zero English speakers have to start. It starts with a basic assumption that you have the letters and a small vocabulary, along with a basic understanding of the S.V.O. sentence structure/word order of English.

Ok. So this is fine, I don’t really care what you call them, I care what they know coming to my class, and what I’m expected to help them learn. But A-1’s are supposed to be chapters 9-16, so if they haven’t really got a grip on 1-8, this is not gonna fly.

By the end of the week we have marginally better A/C, some toner for the copy machine (so I can make handouts!), and I’ve convinced them to take my best students up to the A-1+ class, let me take her remedial ones and actually teach to their level A-0, but the toilets still don’t flush…

THE STUDENTS & STAFF

On the plus side, the students are really sweet. Not just mine, but even the random ones I run into in the halls. Its easy for them to see I’m not Saudi, so they like to try out their English on me. Some girls in the elevator struck up a basic conversation, hello, what’s your name, nice to meet you. Of course I responded like a cheerful textbook, but they were so happy. As I left on my floor they waved goodbye and told me I was very nice.

Others don’t speak English but are still curious. One group asked if I spoke Arabic. I replied ‘not very well’, but as we pressed our floor buttons, ¬†I pressed 2, and one of the girls said ‘two’ in English, so I said ‘ithnaan’, which is 2 in Arabic. The girls exploded into giggles and began to compliment my Arabic. I couldn’t help but laugh with them, since the whole thing was so silly, and as I was leaving, I added, ‘shukran’ which means thank you, and sent them into fresh peals of giggling.

These girls show up to school looking like a flock of crows, black abayas, hijabs and niqabs covering everything but their eyes. But once inside, they transform into peacocks. Security checks their outfits at the door, so everyone must have at least calf length skirts and 3/4 length sleeves, no cleavage. But they definitely color it up, add a lot of bling, enough make-up to make any 5 Mary Kay ladies’ yearly commission, and hairspray that has time traveled from the 80’s.

They have a habit of bleaching all or part of the natural eyebrow and drawing a preferred shape back in.  Now, American girls pluck all the time, despite the great pioneering work of Ingrid Bergman in Cassablanca. However, the preferred American drawn on eyebrow is generally thin, high and well separated and looks something like this.

american eyebrow

Whereas the preferred Saudi eyebrow is thick, dark, and creeping together in the middle, giving the impression of a scowl all the time. Now, the picture here is even a little sedate compared to some of the students and staff at the school, so just try to imagine it even thicker towards the bridge of the nose.

saudi eyebrow

And the HAIR. I have to imagine they get to school hours early because there is no way those up-dos could ever go under a hijab. Honestly, I’m not even sure how they got them to stay up. I’ve seen less complicated and more mobile hairstyles in anime. There is also a lot of bleach and henna around. Less than half of them have kept their natural black.

But basically, they’re college girls. I think this may be the only place outside their homes that they can dress and talk with any freedom and no fear of being heard or seen by a man. It really is nice to be able to see them like this.

The expat staff are nearly all nice. My SD is very friendly, patient and supportive. The other two teachers have been with the company longer, even though they only moved to Tabuk this year, so the wonder has worn off, and now they’re just frustrated they can’t do their jobs properly. For [redacted], this seems like a fairly mild kind of oh-well-I-guess-I’ll-cope frustration, but [redacted]¬†is really a very angry, miserable lady. Honestly, I have no idea why she’s still working at this company if it makes her so unhappy, so I think she may just be a chronically unhappy person. I will try not to let it get me down, while trying to keep my optimism to myself as much as possible.

The Saudi staff are also lovely ladies. They always smile when they see me, which makes me smile. One morning, the lady at the student check in desk ran out to us with date cookies. And I got my first real Saudi greeting from [redacted], who keeps all our attendance (teachers and students) and liaises with us if we need copies or supplies other than what our SD provides, or if we have any trouble communicating non-lesson related (clerical or schedule change) information to the students. After our first couple days of the more distant Western handshake, she leaned in and we exchanged two air kisses, Saudi style.

THE HOTEL

In case you didn’t hear, I’m living in a hotel. Not temporarily housed until we find me something else, but living for the year in this hotel. Don’t be fooled by the pictures they’ve posted, those are the deluxe suites. Mine is much smaller. Oh, I could upgrade, and maybe eventually I will, but its more expensive and its not like I need that much space being just me.

It took me a little while to learn how to use everything. There aren’t enough outlets for the appliances, so if you want to use the electric kettle, you have to unplug the range. And if you want to use the microwave, you have to unplug the refrigerator. I got a small washer brought to my room because I didn’t think I wanted to have to take all my clothes down to the cleaners (even though I’m told its quite cheap). I guess I like the autonomy of laundry. This may change.

It has two sides. On one side you fill it with water (in my case from the bidet hose, because its the only water source I don’t have to carry in) and add soap then it agitates it for you. The soap takes forever to rinse out. I’m trying to remember, but I think that when I had a machine like this in China, I just stopped using soap on my underthings because I didn’t want the risk of dried soap in sensitive (and sweaty) places. I’ve rinsed this load 4 times and its still sudsing.

The other side is a spinner, to spin off excess water. However, it is so tiny that it overbalances easily. If your washer at home has ever done this, you know the horrible clunk-clunk  sound it makes as the spinner tries to turn your washer into a helicopter. Usually you can fix it by redistributing the weight of the wet clothes, or at worst, taking some out and doing the spin cycle twice. Right? Not here. This spin side can only handle about one tank top or three panties worth of laundry at a time, and then only if you wring it out by hand first.

All in all, this machine is only a minor improvement over doing laundry down at the river like our great-grandmothers did, and I’m pretty sure everything but underwear is going to the laundry service from now on.

As a power saving method, the power only activates if the card key is in the slot by the door. So When I go out, and have to take the key with me, all the electricity turns off, meaning that my devices can’t charge unless I’m at home. Moreover, since my laptops second battery has gone defective, it runs only on ac power. This is a great mystery because I forgot to turn it off the first day I was here and came home to a powered down PC, but yesterday I forgot (cause I was quite sick.. more later) and came home to the PC ¬†on and my movie even still paused where I left it.

And its a good thing I brought my country adapters. I keep bringing these things everywhere, even though most countries have started installing American style outlets, and most electronics companies now make devices and chargers that can use a world wide variety of voltage outputs. Even in Riyadh I was able to just plug my tablet charger into the wall, no adapter. But all the outlets in my hotel house look like this.IMG_0058

THE SHOPPING

The good news about this hotel thingie is that it is handy to the shops. Since I can’t drive or take a bus, if I want to go anywhere I must either walk or hire a driver. The other female teacher who lives here, apparently doesn’t like going out alone at all, but I’ve been doing it all week and haven’t had any trouble.

On our side of the street there are lots of small local shops including several restaurants, an office supply store, a computer store, the laundry, a kind of high class-ish sweets shop, a fresh juice bar and a little convenience store. At the end of a block or two on the other side of the street is a mall with a well stocked supermarket called Panda where nearly all the food labels are in both English and Arabic, which is nice.

I only explored the rest of the mall briefly last Saturday with¬†[redacted] who decided to use greeting me as an excuse to have company to explore. The stores are mainly geared toward women, clothing, abayas, perfume, accessories, etc. There was a really nice communal play area for children in the middle. The [redacted]¬†made a comment that he felt discriminated against because all the shops were for women and there were only tiny men’s sections way in the back. I told him it was payback for what the women had to endure everywhere else.

While we were exploring, a Saudi woman approached me and asked ‘Amrikiya?’, which I’m sure you can infer means ‘American?’, ‘Mashalla, Amrikiya in Saudi Ilhamdulilah. Doctor?’ (all these other words are praises to Allah in various forms.’ ‘La (no).’ I replied. ‘Teacher.’ ‘Mashallah. Mashalla. Welcome.’ As she walked away, [redacted]¬†was so surprised. He had never in four years teaching in Saudi had such an experience. Maybe there are a few advantages to being a woman here after all?

I’ve been out to several of the restaurants, and one which was closed I have promised to return to on another occasion as the owners/managers made a big fuss of trying to communicate when they opened so I could come back. One restaurant I won’t go back to for two reasons: it had a women’s entrance, separate order window and seating and everything with a wall in between, and it was all horrible fried chicken fast food.

The place right next door is Shawarma, and pretty darn tasty, I might add. You can get a schawarma wrap for 7 riyals, about 2$ US, and I ordered a platter of some kind that came with what ended up being 3 meals and a snack for 20 riyals, about 6$. The other place I tried served me half a tiny but delicious roasted chicken and more saffron rice than I thought I would eat in 3 days for 13 riyals (about 4$).  The place I hope to try next has lovely pictures of vegetable dishes, which I am dying for. So much meat and rice!

I get a few strange looks when I go out, its true. But I need to buy water pretty much every day, so ¬†I usually make a trip of it and pick up some food for dinner and lunch or a sweet snack as well. So far, no bad encounters. Some guys just move away from me, a little like they’re insulted that I’m in their space. But most simply ignore me, which being from Seattle is pretty standard for strangers on the street. One guy actually greeted me in passing, and another tried (I think) to buy me a Coke while I was in the convenience store. The shop keepers are very nice to me and I don’t feel unsafe walking between my house and the mall at least. Not quite ready to go out after full dark, and not quite ready to wander around any corners where I can’t see the hotel from, but I think once I have a working cell phone, I’ll have a little more confidence and see what else I can see.

THE SICK

And finally, I got sick.

Wednesday I was a little extra tired and noticed that I was less patient with the students than I had been the rest of the week. I put it down to the new sleep schedule, the 5am call to prayer waking me every day even though my alarm didn’t go off until 6am, and the general frustration with the things discussed above in ‘the job’ section.

But when I got home and turned the power back on (the A/C doesn’t run unless I’m there) it wasn’t too long before I started to feel cold. This wasn’t entirely new. Bear in mind that since the A/C at school isn’t great, I sweat rather a lot, and so I peel off the abaya and sweaty clothes as soon as I get in, and rinse off while the A/C catches up. I’d been playing with the A/C settings since I got here trying to manage settings when there is no automatic temperature sensor to turn off the air when it gets to 70 and turn it back on at 75, I could only fiddle with the knobs until the room stayed comfortable for more than a couple hours at a time. So I turned the cold to a less cold setting.

But I was almost shivering! So I turned the A/C off, then found my yoga pants and hoodie to wear. Indoors, during the day, in Saudi, with the A/C off. Still couldn’t get warm. So I made some tea. Still shivering, now I’m achy, too. My hand brushed one of my steel earrings and I noticed how warm the metal was. I touched my face and my skin was on fire! Did I have a fever?

I rummaged in my medical kit for a thermometer (yes I travel with a medical kit, size depends on length of stay), and had a 100.6 degree temperature. So, I emailed my SD and sent in the lesson plan for Thursday’s class so someone else could take it. I only realized later that she asked me to call [redacted]¬†to pass off my office key and so they could let the driver know not to wait for me. It wouldn’t have mattered because the temp cell phone they gave me (I can’t get my own until I have the coveted Iqama) isn’t working or at least, in my fevered state on Friday I couldn’t figure it out.

Friday morning, [redacted]¬†comes knocking on my door asking if I’ve overslept because my SD didn’t tell anyone else (to be fair, she thought I had a working phone), so I explained I was sick and handed over my office keys and went back to bed. One one of my many awakenings to visit the toilet and get more water, I saw another email from my SD insisting that I go to a doctor that day, because otherwise it would be an unpaid sick day.

Honestly, with my temperature climbing to 101.5, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I didn’t really care about the money. I decided to go to the doctor to keep her happy, however, and agreed to have the driver pick me up when he dropped the others off from school. The other teacher kindly lent me her phone on my way out so I would have some way of calling the driver back to the clinic when I was done.

At the clinic.

The clinic was nice and clean, if not particularly modern. Although the receptionist didn’t speak any English, he found a nurse to translate and they got me into a doctor right away. The doctor was Egyptian and spoke reasonably good English. He listened to my complaints and asked some questions, but when he realized I’d only been in the country a week, he was pretty sure it was “traveller’s diarhea”. He did a little exam anyway, which was odd because I was wearing the abaya and hijab, then prescribed some antibiotics and ibuprofin. I was to get an injection in the clinic, then some pills from the pharmacy for the next few days.

The injection process was strange. The nice Filipina nurse chatted with me while she worked. I thought she must be used to fussy Saudi women because she seemed so worried when she had to inject a needle. First they did a skin test to make sure I wouldn’t have any reaction to the injected medicine. Next there was a sort of manual IV, where the nurse put an IV needle in my hand attached to a tube that was attached to a large syringe instead of an IV bag. Then she sat patiently beside me while she slowly depressed the plunger and released the medicine into my hand.

We asked all the regular questions, where are you from, how long have you been here, where is your family, etc. Her husband works in another town, but its only 90 minutes away, so they get to spend weekends together.

The whole visit cost 145 riyals, 40 for the doctor and 105 for the medicine. That comes in under 40$ without insurance, by the way. And the school will reimburse me. The pharmacy bill came to about  15$, same deal.

The After Clinic Challenge

Here’s where it gets challenging. ¬†The whole reason I went (although, now I’m glad I did, cause the fever is all gone!) was to make the school happy. To be happy, the school needs a doctors note. I asked the doctor for this, of course, and he told me to send my driver back in 4 hours to pick it up after it had been signed by the clinic manager.

Ok. Just one problem, [redacted], the driver, doesn’t speak English. Actually, I’m starting to think that he uses this as an excuse not to do any “extra work” even though he is paid for many more hours of driving a day than he actually does. So we get home and I have at least managed to communicate that I have something else to say, so he comes inside in the hopes that the hotel clerk can help with the translation.

[redacted] is a nice young man [redacted] who mans the front desk in the afternoon. His English is pretty good and I enjoy talking to him. He was very helpful in getting my washer set up, and fixing the two non-working outlets in my room. I explain to him that I need [redacted] to drive back to the hospital after 4 hours to get the note. This does not work.

At this point, [redacted]¬†and [redacted]¬†come into the lobby because they need to go back out with [redacted]¬†on another errand. Quickly they too are roped into helping in the translation effort. We’re using Google Translate, hand gestures, and a live interpreter (whose first language is Egyptian, by the way, very different from Saudi Arabic) to try to explain that all he has to do is go back to the clinic and pick up a note.

We finally believe we have communicated this, and move on to the pharmacy issue. See, the pharmacy was closed for prayer when I left the clinic so we couldn’t go right away, and all I wanted to do was go back to bed at this point, still sick and feverish as I was. This at least was a task the driver¬†understood, so I handed over the prescription and some money agreeing that he could call my room when he returned.

Around 6:30 pm, my doorbell rings. Its [redacted]. He says the driver¬†has called him from the lobby and keeps asking for me. Its still an hour before the doctor said the note would be ready, so I’m really surprised. I’m also exhausted, ¬†but there’s nothing for it but to throw on my abaya again, wrap my hair up under the hijab and head downstairs.

Where ensued the worst multi-lingual comedy of errors ever. I was sick and it still made me laugh. Or maybe I just laughed to keep from crying.

Good news, he’d gone to the pharmacy, so I wasn’t called down for nothing. I knew I needed the receipt for the school to reimburse me, so I asked for it. [redacted]¬†knew the Arabic and repeated the one word request. After about 5 minutes of gestures and Google Translate, I finally got the receipt, whereupon the driver¬†realized he had to turn over the change as well. I’m not sure he would have given it to me if I hadn’t been insisting on the receipt so much, which is pretty obnoxious since I sent him with 200 riyals and the meds were only 60.

Then we’re back to the doctor’s note. Its too early to go yet, because the doctor said 4 hours. The driver¬†insists the clinic will be closed by that time, and wants to get it on Sunday instead (remember the weekend here is Friday/Saturday). I’m not convinced, since the doctor told me to send the driver in four hours, not the next day, and that would be odd if the clinic were closing before that time. And on top of that, Sunday is too late, since I need to give everything to the school on Sunday when I come back to work.

Finally, we get across that Saturday is the latest it can be done, and the driver¬†knows there is a big teacher dinner he has to drive us to on Saturday, so he indicates that he will take the others to the dinner, and me to the clinic. NO! we all say together. He simply refuses to go alongside the idea that I don’t have to go with him to get this stupid note.

On top of this, he asked for and subsequently kept my receipt for the doctors visit. I’m sure this conversation was just as frustrating for him as the other was for me, because after the pharmacy receipt issue he started asking me for the doctor receipt, but I couldn’t imagine why he would want it, so I thought perhaps he was asking if that was the paper I needed from the clinic.

When I finally produced the receipt from my bag, he was clearly expressing the Arabic for something like ‘finally!’, and he took it with him.

So, another email to the SD explaining that the note is still at the clinic and the driver has one of my receipts. Hopefully we’ll get it resolved in the next few days.

*****

In the mean time, either the medicine is working or it was the shortest flu ever, because I’ve been up since 5am making up for all the time I missed while passed out Wed and Thurs. My fever is gone and my brain is working again, so things are looking more manageable. I got my syllabus for the rest of the term outlined, and wrote my lesson plans for next week. In a little bit, I’ll go for my afternoon stroll out for food and water and tmorrow, hopefully I’ll enjoy a nice evening out with the staff at whatever fancy restaurant they’ve arranged to take us to.

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.