10 Ways to Survive the year in The Kingdom

After announcing my move to Saudi Arabia, I received disapproving shaking of heads, uneasy looks, and plenty of “are you sure??”s. With 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, being Saudi .. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little nervous as well. Movies, like “The Kingdom”, which reenacts the compound bombing of 2003, didn’t help ease anyone’s nerves. So, kidnappings and bombings were what I was looking out for. Little did I know, that these worries are the furthest down on the list. My list is in order, of least often –> often, of what I see foreigners getting deported, arrested, or hassled for.

  1. Negative Talk: Put 100 female teachers together during 6 hours of idle time, and see gossip spread like wildfire. Don’t say anything, unless you don’t mind it shared 10 times over. Voicing your dislike the company can get you fired, if spread to the wrong person. Also, prepare to have your students test you with this question.. “Teacher, do you love our King?”.. The answer is and should always be “Yes”. People have been reported and/or arrested for voicing their opinion otherwise. Thankfully, the Saudi king is actually a good guy and has done quite a bit to advance the Kingdom, making this an easy question to pass.
  1. Contraband: Before you step off the plane and onto Saudi soil, you will see “Illegal drugs = death”. Kind of seems like a late warning, if you ask me.. It’s not like the smugglers can simply turn around. You can find alcohol in a few brave private residences. But getting caught can mean deportation or getting arrested, and possibly receive lashes. Watch “Locked Up Abroad: Saudi Arabia”. Other things not allowed into Saudi, are pork, vanilla extract (it has alcohol in it), and bulk religious items. My Bible was actually confiscated and I had to tuck away my cross.
  1. Gender Mixing: Unrelated men and women are not allowed to gather in this country, except for in a few secure places. I will say that many foreigners have gotten away with this rule. However, it would suck to be the exception.. as one of my friends has spent a few days in jail by doing so. Conservative Saudis are quick to report any suspicions.
  1. Walking Alone: One thing that us foreigners cherish, is the freedom to go wherever you want and however you want. You do not have that freedom here. Walking the streets, in general, is just not done in Riyadh. So a foreign woman walking can bring trouble. Before knowing this, I decided to get a nice workout w/ an hour-long walk home. Fully cloaked from head to toe, I counted 73 honks and 3 men pulling over to offer money. From then on out, I had to put away the “do what I want” “Strong black women”.. I bought a treadmill and took taxis.

  1. Drifters: The latest problem with walking (even in groups), is dealing with Drifters. These young teenage drivers make a game out of getting as close to the pedestrians as possible, without hitting them. A few suck at this game, leaving a few of my fellow teachers injured and/or shaken up.
  1. The Muttawa: Also known as the “religious police”. You will often see these guys parading around the mall advising or harrassing (depending on point of view) females. They don’t have the power to arrest or enforce any laws, but being big men yelling in Arabic, is sometimes enough to intimidate a few. Their actual job is to remind people of the cultural and religious rules of Saudi. They usually pick out foreigners to cover their hair. But you may know the Muttawa from the incident of the womens school on fire. They were locked inside of the burning building because they were uncovered, and unpresentable to public. The latest news were Muttawa attempting to kick a women out of the mall for wearing nail polish.         
    http://www.batangastoday.com/saudi-woman-with-nail-polish-refuses-to-leave-hayat-mall-argues-with-religious-police-video/22730/

  1. Taxi drivers: I know I said in #7 that it’s not the safest to walk, and to take a taxi.. but not any ole’ taxi. When you find one that you trust, it’s a smart idea to take his number as your personal driver. In many parts of the world, foreigners (or American women) are stereotyped to all be “easy”. Therefore, some of the younger drivers think it’s ‘cool’ to have an American in the back seat. He’ll whistle to the young drivers at the stoplight next to him, do the money sign (which is the same in every language), and then ask you to smile …. Or you’ll get some drivers who don’t like foreigners at all, and simply get frustrated with your English/broken Arabic  directions and drop you off on a strange corner in the middle of the night. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but you can see that it’s getting closer to my #1. To avoid all of this, just have a few good drivers handy.
  1. Standing Out: Single foreign females stick out like sore thumbs. First of all, unlike many Saudi women, we don’t have male chaperones. So this kind of makes you a target for unwanted attention. Being alone, having your hair uncovered, even doing a slight jog to get into a closing store will get you stares. When walking outside, covering your hair could eliminate maybe a quarter of the attention. Wearing a niqab can play in your favor too. Basically.. when in Saudi, do as Saudis do.
  1. Words/Topics to Avoid: If you can teach in this city and country, you can teach anywhere. The limitations we have, makes getting your point across quite a challenge at times. If you’ve read one of my previous posts “Things not to say in a Riyadh University”, you’ll see a lengthy list that can easily get any teacher to slip-up. Some students lure you into these topics. And sometimes it’s totally your fault. “Like, duh, what were you thinking, talking about birthdays???”. I’ve accidentally hit these topics a few times. Thankfully, my students love me and let it slide 🙂 Some teachers aren’t so lucky and get reported. This goes on your record, and if done enough could be a reason to be let go.
  1. The unexpected: The #1 thing that I fear in this country, are accidents. Everyday on the way to school we cross a 3-lane, 4-way intersection that has no stoplights. We go over about 10 unmarked speed bumps. The lines to designate the lanes are faded to no avail. There’s a random trough of a bulldozer sitting in the middle of the road. Construction workers lifting an unprotected spin-saw 3 stories, using a rope tied around the handle. Right-laners make left turns. Metal pipes blowing hot steam onto the sidewalks. Jumping over boulders, ditches, and puddles when it hasn’t rained in weeks…All of these things have no warning signs before you reach them. The “Final Destination” series, should have been filmed here.  To sum it up.. Safety is not #1 priority, so constantly be on alert!

The real-life ‘roadrunner’. Ostrich running the streets of Riyadh, a few months ago..

Advertisements

Walk to the Right, Please!

Yesterday, I officially became a “walker” … No, not the infamous zombies of “The Walking Dead”… More like a mall walker, but in a school setting. Something has always irritated me about seeing these ladies circle around Walmart, nicely air-conditioned, never dripping a sweat, stopping to check out the latest sale. The newbies always tend to take up the full aisle, until they’re taught by a pro or get enough irritated glares. I felt that real walkers hit the track, a wooded path, or at least a treadmill. But these mall-walking events just looked like a social hour to me. I wanted to see someone workout so hard, that they’re too tired to talk; too annoyed with their jabber-mouth partner, because she’s throwing off her breathing rhythm; irritated with the one who’s scared to sweat because it’ll turn her pink shirt into red under the armpits. I applauded the mall-walkers who were taking their 1st steps in working out, or even the elderly who needed a controlled environment. But the rest of them, they needed to step it up!

And now, I’m one of them ..

If I could, I’d run laps around this city. I’d have my running body back.. and feel totally winded, but satisfied with the effort I put in. I’d carb-load on those Saturday 13-milers, and not feel an inch of guilt about it. Take in all of nature, as I run past muddy lakes, crowded trees, and jittery squirrels. I’d mark off each day on my workout calendar, as I work up to marathon distances. Eat, breathe, and live running!

But, I’m an ESL teacher in the restrictive country of Saudi Arabia. The high today is 120 degrees. People catch taxis to simply cross the street. I must wear a long abaya to my ankles, that would definitely trip me up and send me tumbling into a pile of rubble. To top it off, the abayas are black, soaking up every ray of sunshine. The sight of a woman, a foreign woman, running; they’d think I stole something. And with my lack of Arabic, it’ll be hell trying to explain my way out of that one… So on most days,  I’m confined to the treadmill, and now the hallways of my school.  The bland white walls that make up a total maze, does not liven the senses. I’m wearing that ridiculous combination of work skirts and tennis shoes. And getting awkward glances from students, even though the other teachers spend their free-time playing badmitton and racketball in the corridors.

However, me and my co-worker, with the same love of running, sucked up our pride and hit the halls. After 45 minutes of power walking, or “patrolling the halls”, I felt the pulse of my heartbeat in my legs. My heart rate picked up a beat and we discovered new alleyways of our guarded compound. It was time well spent, that I would have used napping in the lounge. And I no longer have to fool myself into thinking that I’d actually get up at 4:00 in the dreaded morning to hit the treadmill. I was reminded that it’s not always about who can finish first, beating your PR, or hanging another medal. Despite the absence of all that, it was a great workout. Tomorrow, we may tack on some stair climbs, and add a few teachers to our posse.

So here’s my apology to all of the mall-walkers of America, for not taking you guys seriously. I’m sure you have your reasons for your chosen workout, whether it’s to escape pollen, walk on level ground, or for the entertainment of “people watching”. I may join you, one day, when I get back Stateside.



Things NOT to say in a Riyadh university

I was just given my Culture Sensitivity List for this semester’s class…

Basically, if you’re considering teaching in Riyadh, prepare to get creative!

Here are the topics you must either avoid, or proceed with caution:

1) Adopted children and children conceived out of wedlock

2) Alcoholic drinks and intoxicating drinks

3) Birthdays

4) Blended family concepts (e.g. a step-brother/ step-sister living together)

5) Boyfriends or girlfriends

6) Celebrities: actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, etc.

7) Christmas

8) Concerts

9) Dating

10) Dramas

11) Drinking alcohol

12) Drugs and drug abuse

13) Devil and demons

14) Euthanasia

15) Eating pork

16) Fashion

17) Film-making

–turning page–

18) HIV or AIDS

19) Holidays outside the two Islamic holidays

20) Homosexuality

21) Love stories, being in love, falling in love, love at first sight, soulmates

22) Magic, magicians

23) Mental situations, mental diseases, etc.

24) Mixed gender situations (men and women working together, socializing, etc.)

25) Movies: only when talking about a particular movie or when the word movies is used to refer to the cinema

26) Moving out (not living with the family in the same house) at the age of 18

27) Music, musical instruments

28) Neuroticism

29) Partner relationships (unmarried couples)

30) People not dressed properly, e.g. wearing shorts (men or women)

31) Plastic surgeries, physical appearance changes

32) Political topics, elections, etc

33) Professional dancing and dancers

34) Psychologists or psychiatrists

35) Religion

36) Sculpture (human/animal faces)

37) Singing

38) Sexually transmitted diseases

39) Spirits and witchcraft

40) Social networking

41) Superpowers or superheroes

42) Superstitions: beliefs not based on facts/scientific knowledge (crossing fingers for good luck, the number 13, walking under ladders)

43) Theatre

44) TV shows or programs that discuss inappropriate themes like music, dancing, (American Idol, So you think you can dance, etc)

45) Tobacco and smoking

46) Women driving

**Scratching my lesson plan, before today’s class**

5 Best Hangout Spots in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Ever been to a country that has no movie theaters, clubs, or bars? This is Saudi Arabia!  With about 9 out of 10 workers in this country being expats, we must creatively find ways to have fun. If you happen to make it to the capital city of Riyadh, here’s some tips to make this city feel a little more like home…

1) Hike w/ the Hash

Most major cities around the world have Hash House Harriers (HHH), a group of hikers that get together and explore the local terrain. What makes Hashing in Saudi so special, is the differing landscapes of the desert.  With the permission of authorities, it gives foreigners-only the opportunity to mingle freely, sans abaya (black cloak women wear), and build valuable contacts to make life in Riyadh much easier.  The best part is stumbling across unique finds, like desert diamonds, hieroglyphics, or desert roses.  To seal the memory, end your hike next to a campfire, feet in sand, watching the sunset.

*Locations: Changes weekly.
*Price: 10 SAR/week.

2) Hamam at Direm Beauty Center

Basically, during Hamam, an old lady gives you the best bath of your life! You can find everyone from soon-to-be Saudi brides to curious expats getting this treatment done. It can be compared to the body scrubs of Turkey or the jjimjilbangs of South Korea. The entire treatment is done in a wet sauna, where the woman slathers you with mixtures of soap, oil, and mud.  After she removes a layer of your DNA, you may find that you are a shade and a pound lighter. It’s an interesting experience that has you walking away with skin so soft and clean, as if you were just born yesterday.

*Location: Take Exit 5 at China Mart/Carrefour. Make a U-Turn. Then get onto the service road (be careful not to enter the highway on the right). Direm International Instititute de Beaute is a white building on the right.
*Price: 130 SAR

3) Eat at Najd Village

If you want to experience what ancient Saudi Arabia was like, you must visit this restaurant! When you first walk in, the stone walls encase you like an old fortress. Simple rarities here, like the rich color patterns found in the painted doors, gold Arabic antiques, and plush green grass, are a joy to see.  Every group is  given a private eating room with wrap-around floor seating. The meal is started off with the traditional Saudi dates and tea. And then you are served huge dishes that meant to be shared. Here’s one of your few chances to try camel!.. Don’t forget your camera. This restaurant is a unique experience that you may want to capture.

*Directions: On the corner of King Abdullah Rd and Abo Baker Rd. Across from Prince Sultan University
*Prices: range from 10 – 135 SAR

4) “Visit another country” at the Diplomatic Quarters

Similar to compounds, but on a grander scale, the Diplomatic Quarters is an expat’s road to freedom. These mini international neighborhoods are neutral grounds, where foreigners can do various activities that may not be available on the outside. Often, different embassies will throw a festival for any given holiday, have outdoor movie showings, or BBQ’s. For runners who are confined to the “dreadmill”, the greenery of trails is a dreamland.

This picture is from the blog – Shards of China, by Nicholas Kellingley. If you enjoyed it you can find more material here at http://shardsofchina.wordpress.com and you can also follow him on Twitter – @ShardsofChina

5) Shop and Eat at Al Faisaliya Tower

If you’re looking for a fancy night out on the town, you must pay a visit to The Globe restaurant at the top of Al Faisaliya Tower.  Here you can taste a variety of European meals, High Tea, and deserts, at a table that overlooks all of Riyadh. If this doesn’t fit your tastes, step over to Il Terrazo restaurant, an all-you-can eat Brazilian barbeque. This open-air, but misted, restaurant plays music (which is absent in most public places) and is a mixed gender zone. Once the sun sets, step out onto the observation deck for a 360 degree view of the city, with the desert in the background. Then walk off the food, in the expansive mall below.

*Directions: Major landmark on King Fahd Rd and Olaya St.
*Prices: 100 – 200 SAR for The Globe
200 SAR for Il Terrazo