Thursday, June 30, 2011

Saying Goodbye

By the time this blog entry posts, I will have flown away, looking back and reflecting at my two year stint in the Magic Kingdom. Saudi Arabia, despite all that is said about it, is a mystical place to live in, with the strict religious adherence to Islam while at the same time many of its youth wanting to jump head first into all that is offered by the West and pictured on TVs and the internet...

When my French friend Eugenie left last June, she made a list of the things she loved in Saudi and the things she wouldn't miss about the country. I really enjoyed her idea and I'm just going to be completely unoriginal and use the same headings:

What I loved about Saudi Arabia

- getting to know the country, still very closed to tourism and tourists
- discovering the Arabian Desert, its rocky floors and its red sand dunes
- becoming a member of the Hash, the walking club
- sleeping under the starriest sky in the quietest desert ever
- seeing camels up close in their natural environment, free roaming in the desert
- eating Middle Eastern Food at any given time, with the best Arabic bread possible
-  meeting Saudis and finding out they are just like us!
- making friends with other expats and being able to talk, discuss, share common interests and talk about what we are missing from outside the Kingdom...
- finding out ways to make do without pork products and wine (although, that's not quite true, since there are ways around those lacunes)
- learning some words of Arabic and being able to greet people and receive a big smile in return
- roaming the souks and local markets, looking for rugs, scarves, Arabian knickknacks and having to haggle over everything
- listening to the many calls to prayer, giving a rhythm to life
- the access to the French grocery store Carrefour and its plethora of French products
- living on the compound in a spacious villa
- seeing behind the closed doors and high walls of Royal palaces
- taking the children to huge birthday parties where all a kid could dream of is available
- having Alex loose his first teeth biting into an apple here and hoping the tooth fairy would find him
- meeting like-minded people and knowing that, even if they were here in our lives only for two years, we have made friends for life...nothing better than sharing the same war trenches to never forget.
- going to the various embassies in the DQ and making acquaintances with familiar faces seen over and over again.
- shaking hands with ambassadors...I lost track after a while, but before moving here, I had only shook hand with one ambassador!
- visiting friends at Arizona compound and feeling like we were in the States, just for a few hours
- having Alex loose his first teeth biting into an apple here and hoping the tooth fairy would find him
- hearing Emma making huge progress in her fluency in French by blabbering with her little BFF...
- having the children understand that not all places in the world look like and behave like Louisiana or Belgium.  Having them become more world-aware and willing to see new things.

Who I will miss

- our work friends who, for some, turned out to be great friends
- the compound friends and neighbors
- the Hash group
- friends of friends, met by chance, but such great people
- the friends I made and who I am very sad to say goodbye to. I've told them that I hope we will see each other again and I do really mean it, Josh, Kristy, Claude, Nenita, Jay, Cheryl, Vinciane, Pierre...hopefully, one day, somewhere, we will meet up and catch up, Insh'Allah!

What I won't miss about the Magic Kingdom

- the division between men and women, not being allowed to interact
- wearing the abaya in the summer and in hot weather. In the winter it acts like a coat and keeps you warm while it 110F/45C temperature it's just an unbearable black oven.
- always being on the lookout for the mutawas because I did not wear the headscarf, standing out in the crowd sometimes by a head over the women around
- not being allowed to drive and having to depend on my husband or a driver to take me anywhere
- the closing of everything during prayer and having to plan to go to the store, bank or restaurant so that you're not caught by prayer
- the feeling of entitlement and superiority some Saudi have..but I guess that happens all over
- the way Filipinos, Bangladeshi and Indian workers are treated
- the censored magazines, with black markers and white stickers
- the filtered news in local newspapers
- seeing a sea of black abaya at the mall, never hair and rarely faces
- navigating a city where traffic signals are suggestions to stop, where street names have 4 different spellings and when you get misguided, you can't read the traffic signs as they are in Arabic!
- having to purchase an exit-re-entry visa to LEAVE the country for vacation
- the bureaucracy and convoluted ways to get anything accomplished
- the stamps, needed on everything, from store receipts to copies of paper to ads to put around the compound
- the butterfly in the stomach I felt everytime I was going through immigration, hoping that all my papers were in order and that I would be let in/out!  The final exit was a little stressful, but more will be written in a later post)

All in all, a great cultural experience that I won't regret having with my family.

Masalama Arabia!
Goodbye Saudi Arabia...
October 2009, right after our arrival in the Kingdom

Maybe we will meet again...Insh'Allah!

PS: We are moving to Malawi on August 1st and I will keep a blog of our new adventures in Africa.  Make sure you come visit it

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Banking experience

As the end of my work experience nears, it is time to tie up loose ends, one of them being the financial aspects, including the end of contract bonus and final months of salary.  So, after receiving my last checks, I went to the school's bank to cash them, to the ladies' bank to be more precise. 
Service is slow, the tellers are all smiling and professionally dressed and none are wearing the abaya, as this is a women only zone.  I hand them my checks and they tell me that the bank does not have enough cash for me to cash them...  It's ONE o'clock in the afternoon, I left work for just a little while and need to get back... I tell the ladies just that, that I don't have time to wait, that I can't go to another bank and that they need to cash my checks!  After making a phone call, somehow the money magically appears and they can process my checks.  
While I'm at the ladies branch, my husband is on the men's side, having the same conversation!  But for him not all the money appears....
As I'm sitting waiting for the ladies to finish processing it all, sipping on my tea, I see all the tellers get moving really fast, grabbing their abaya and their scarf and covering up everything except their faces.  I'm dumbfounded, can't figure out what is happening, even check my watch to see if there is supposed to be a prayer I forgot about (and there isn't)... 
Then, a MAN walks into the ladies side!!!  Eureka, that's why they were covering, to protect themselves from his prying eyes!  So, the male teller sits in front of me, produces my husband's checks and processes them, again out of that magically appeared money that wasn't there when I started this whole thing!  While he's doing all this, he doesn't say hi to any of hsi female coworkers,or  to me and never even looks up from his keyboard while he's typing...  It's actually the weirdest feeling, to not be acknowleged at all.  I guess I'm used to customer service and being greeted with a hint of courtosy!
In a way it does sum up a lot of the interactions between the sexes in the Kingdom, they live fullfilling lives each on their side but don't interact and none is the wiser!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

King Abdullah Road is open!

After lenghty construction, the famed King Abdullah Road is finally open to traffic.  I believe construction took 3 to 4 years to complete, as tunnels had to be jack-hammered out of the desert rock. 

The result is fantastic:  traffic flows beautifully, the street lights have that retro/futuristic bluish look, palm trees and grass have been planted and will be watered often to remain green. 
So, you can now go from one end of town to the other rather quickly and avoid Aruba traffic, that runs parallel to King Abdullah.

I honestly didn't think we would see it open before we left, but THEY DID IT!  It's open and beautiful.  I really should go back and take some pictures...

Riyadh Road Project to Reduce Bottleneck!

Update: Mission Accomplished: we drove down and up King Abdullah Road and here are a few pictures of the finished project!

Inside the tunnels

Monday, June 20, 2011

A string of Lasts

The clock is ticking and it seems that the days until departure will be full of “lasts”! Yesterday was the last time we could see some of our French friends... The kids played together, hugged each other and now, my daughter is very sad as she lost the BFF (best friend forever) she had made on the compound. We hope the girls will see each other again, sometimes in the future...

Last night, I also went on my last shopping trip to the Souk. My goal was to either sell or exchange a pair of gold earrings I had and never once worn. It was rather easy to achieve, as all the stores in the gold souk trade gold and buy it by the gram. So, after deciding what I wanted and talking price, I traded my earrings for a gorgeous Saudi diamond pendant mounted on 24 carat gold on a delicate gold chain. I can’t wait to wear it on special occasions.

Since this was my last trip to the Souk, I did go in several carpet stores, just like I do everytime, always talking myself out of buying.  Yesterday I did buy a fabulous lambswool rug from Iran with some intricate patterns at a fraction of its regular price and well below what you would pay anywhere else in the world.  My last little souvenir from Saudi Arabia!
As I was with two male friends, it was different than usual, since I usually either went to the Souk alone, with one of the kids or/and with my husband. Having one being Arabic speake was even better, as he could haggle for us! I was, however, more careful about covering my hair, as I did not want to draw unnecessary attention to us, no explanation needed here.

The boys wanted to go to Batha Souk in old downtown Riyadh, that used to be (and probably still is to some extent) the main commercial artery in town, where a lot of the expat labourers and household staff still shop. You have not been to Riyadh until you drive through Batha after 10 PM!  It is thriving, people are all over shopping, carrying on business...  It reminded me so much of Khan El Khalili, the big Souk in downtown Cairo , even with the set of pedestrain bridges used to cross the street as the Souk is on both sides of it and the traffic is scary busy, to say the least.

We went to a shoe store, on 4 stories, selling mostly Caterpillar, Hush-Puppies, Merrel and Sebago brands...  All were new and all were at major discounts compared to what you would pay in a mall store, even on sale!  I bought 3 band name pairs of shoes, full leather for SAR 200, or about US$ 42...can't beat that!  Place your orders now!

So, three LASTS in one evening...and we still have 10 days to go!  We are putting this quote from Jonathan Huie to great use... as we “Celebrate endings – for they precede new beginnings.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Women driving, really!

This is it!  The day has come for women to drive in the Magic Kingdom...Now, it's not official or anything and is only a grassroot movement that some Saudi women started on social networking sites, but it is a huge step forward in the right direction.  The news is all over the internet refering back to how this all started, when Manal Sharif, a woman in Jeddah, was arrested and jailed after filming herself driving and posting it on the web.  From there, The "Women2Drive 17th June," Facebook page was started, encouraging all Saudi women to drive on this day.  CNN article

We just came home from small grocery shopping and did not see any women driving.  We did see several police cars at intersections and they were visually checking inside cars...I guess trying to catch women driving.  It is time, in the 21st century, that women be allowed some more freedom of movement, able to travel alone and to drive themselves to work, to the store and not have to be dependent on the men of their family and hired drivers.

The great King Abdullah, the progressive Saudi monarch, is himself open to change and has been striving since his coronation in the mid 2000 to open the Kingdom to modern ideas, recently stated that "the day will come when women will be able to drive."  Soon or not, that remains to be seen!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Peacocks on the Prowl

In Riyadh two streets are especially known for their bumper to bumper traffic in the evenings and on the weekends: Taliah and Talatheen streets …not like there is no traffic anywhere else, but those two are really bad. If you had to compare them with other big cities, I would say easy comparisions can be made with the Champs Elysees in Paris and 5th Avenue in New York, both for the stores, restaurants and people watching.

All the en-vue restaurants somehow are located on those two streets, as well as the fancy bakeries, chocolate shops, flowers and luxury car dealerships… This makes for a guaranteed mix of people, and the young single Saudi boys know it. They cruise the streets up and down in their supped-up,tricked out vehicles, parading like peacocks, ruffling their feathers, in their case, revving their engines, until they are noticed by the ladies around.

I’ve even heard of, but never witnessed, the young men writing their phone numbers on pieces of paper and throwing them at passing cars occupied by ladies. What I have seen though is a carload of young men, with their windows all rolled down, shouting across traffic at the ladies seated in the car stopped next to them at a traffic light, follwing the car from light to light,     hoping to catch their attention, their looks and the most treasured phone number or BlackBerry Messenger code. I’ve even seen muscle cars with a huge sticker listing that driver’s BBM code for all to see and hopefully for some to use…

So, here in the Kingdom, “love” may emerge from a speed dating  meeting…on the roads or stuck in traffic….although, and don’t forget this, dating is not allowed here!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Over 10,000 hits

It's funny how I never thought that I would care this much about a number, but just a few days ago, the blog had its 10,000 hits - and that's only counting since May 2010, as somehow blogger did not keep automatic records until then.  In my mind, I had been secretly hoping the blog would reach 10,000 visitors before I was to, now, I can leave happy!
I'm now hoping it reaches 11,000 within the next 20 days...and at the rate it's going, it may be feasible. Just today, my husband showed the blog to his students as an example of a travel blog for an assignement...and we've had many more visitors today than usual...  so, students, if you are reading this, let us know and pass the word....  And other readers, share the address around as well...11,111 would be a cool number to reach by July 4th!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Taste of Home at El Chico's

You know how it is, living abroad and craving some foods that you don’t have access to! Well, last night, one of those cravings was met! Up until 3 days ago Riyadh did not have a Tex-Mex restaurant worthy of the name! The lacune has been filled and you can now enjoy El Chico’s for lunch and dinner. It is located on Tahlia street, between Chili’s and the franchise store for the Riyadh soccer team.

My family met up with two other families, with a total of 7 adults and 8 children. We were seated around two big round tables, and received first class service, with a slew of waiters and lots of trainers present. To tell you the truth, the group was very Southern, with one family from Texas, one from Alabama and one from Louisiana. The El Chico trainers all hailed from the south as well, Texas and Alabama, so in a way, it was like a reunion of like minded people.

The menu is very extensive and offers exactely what you would expect from a Tex Mex place, with the exception of Alcoholic bevarages and pork dishes, of course! Even the chips and salsa were delicious and are directly imported from the US. The iced tea were served in large tall glasses with ice filled to the top and Sweet and Low and simple syrup on the side, never encountered experience in Riyadh. We almost felt back in Louisiana, enjoying dinner with the friends.

The children also had a grand time, while their parents were discussing the meal, the chips and the ice teas! The restaurant has built a children proof room, with 3 playstations, climbing toys, and games… Actually, we hardly saw them! Not even sure what they ate and drank among the orders of REAL corn dogs and mac and cheese!

Now, we are ready to face the days left in our contracts, bellies full of a taste of home!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Selling our vehicle

Another page is turned...this morning, we sold the trusty vehicle that took us around Riyadh and the region for the past two years.  After moving to Riyadh, we bought a 2 year old 2 wheel drive White GMC Envoy and that was a smart decision.  We had no major problem with the car, unlike many of our colleagues who bought well used and abused cars and had to replace many parts/motors/tires...over the two years. 
The only regret we had was not having a 4-wheel drive to go dune bashing in the desert... Thankfully several of our friends did and we got to dune bash in their cars!  So, if you want to spend a lot of time offroading  in the desert, get a 4-wheel drive.  Otherwise, for city and highway driving, it's not necessary and 2-wheel drive will be more than enough.
Selling the car was a pretty seamless process.  We advertized around at work and through our networt and, found  a buyer over a month ago who was willing to wait to get the car until June and willing to pay a good price.  My husband met up with the buyer at a car dealership, signed the papers there, paid a small fee (800 SAR split between buyer 600 SAR and seller 200 SAR) and walked out with a wad of cash for the sale of the car. 
The only thing left to do is going to the Insurance Agency, cancel the insurance and get some money back from them...but that is another story as dealing with insurance places sometimes takes a few trips!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Normal Life

As we are getting closer to our departure, our social life has been picking up!  That’s probably going to be my biggest regret about leaving Riyadh…  After almost two years here, we’ve made acquaintances and friends in various circles and now it seems that all those circles are intersecting!!!  We’ve been so busy lately, with parties, get togethers, barbecues, movie nights, Masalama parties and this weekend our last party at the American Embassy with a whole bunch of friends. 

Just last week I was talking with a Lebanese friend who’s lived all over the world and, after I was telling her my regret about leaving, she told me that it is the hardest part about moving on, but also that it’s hardest the first time!  I guess we acquire special skills at making friends.. 

So, if you are reading this before moving to Riyadh, it is totally possible to have a very busy social life…  Just make friends around your compound, join a hash group, attend social and cultural events at the embassies, and make friends at work…  If you stay at home, take part in the coffee mornings and the social activities on your compound.  Lots of expat women don’t work and are so busy while their kids are at school.  There are lots of things happening….it’s just a matter of finding a way to find out about them!