Land of the Free.. :)

My first step outside of Saudi soil, on my way to the U.S., was pure bliss! As you can guess, it didn’t take any time at all to take off my abaya; 1 minute after take-off. The airport is supposed to be a safe zone for clothing, but I was so close to freedom that I wanted to be absolutely sure that I’d have no problem being so “naked” in public. My 1st public outfit in the sight of men, was a conservative top with tights.  It was a slight show of my liberation to reveal some curves, instead of being a shapeless figure behind a black robe. I realized that I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this moment, as some covered Arab women entered the plane restroom and transformed to high heels and flowing-free hair.. Already, I have received a nice little tan; something that you’d assume was easily achievable in a desert. When I return to Saudi, hopefully, the temperatures will drop out of the 130’s so that I can somewhat enjoy the outdoors of Riyadh again.

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My 1st ride home was an admiration of all of the greenery, one of the benefits of living in the country. I’ve never missed so much, the trees and grass that I’m so allergic too. The sky seemed bluer.. and maybe I’m mistaken, but the stark white clouds of the U.S. seemed like another feature absent of Saudi. In a country where the only animals roaming are cats and camels, I was quite happy to see those ‘pests’ that we call squirrels!

My 1st drive, took a little getting used to. I have a ‘heavy foot’ and maybe a few flashbacks of the speed demons who live inside of Saudi taxi drivers. After a little bumper accident, I got the hang of things. I took a few destination-less trips around town, searching for any little changes of my city during my short time away. Nothing changed..

I ate … and I ate. Delicious pork ribs, real Mexican food, Americanized Chinese food, BBQ’d and fried chicken wings. I had a shot of alcohol the1st night without the fear of getting arrested and/or deported.  All of those food rules you grew up with.. eat balanced meals, don’t eat desert before dinner, eat all your veggies… all of that went out the window. After 2 weeks and 7 lbs. later, my stomach was real mad with me! But thankfully, I now have ‘close-to-nothing’ priced gyms, outdoor running, and the largest, most easily available choice of health foods and protein powders to get me back on track.

For my 1st form of public entertainment, I hit up the movie theatre 2 days in a row. And for a week straight, I listened to music, while sipping on my drink of choice at an outdoor bar.

These 2 weeks in the U.S. is going by way too fast. And although I didn’t spend my vacation island and country hopping, and going to big events, these little reminders of why I love U.S. and the people in it, was much appreciated. All the time spent on my momma’s couch was a much needed break. I think I have officially gotten all of these wants out of my system, before serving my last 6 months in Saudi.

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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

You live where??? Saudi Arabia?!

I just realized that the entire time that I’ve been writing on Saudi Arabia, I’ve never given a proper introduction about the city I live in, Riyadh… Riyadh is the conservative capital, almost directly in the northern center of the country. Contrary to popular belief, its urban inhabitants do not go to work by camel, nor are they totally ignorant to western ways. The streets are bumper to bumper with foreign taxis who break every driving rule that you’d find in an organized city. Here, you will only find a man behind the wheel, and the occasional 12 year old driving his mother to the mall, which also explains the craziness in the streets.

The Arabs of Riyadh range from Pakistani, to Emirati, to African. There’s a rainbow of complexions, wide variety of hair textures, and all shapes and sizes. I assumed that the personality of Saudis would be very dry, and I blame media for this misconception. However, the college-age crowd that I teach are very giggly and immature. I’ve found most of the older Saudi women to be incredibly friendly and giving. They are all close-knit to their friends and family. And once you’ve made your way into one of these categories, you’re always taken care of.

Family, shopping, and religion make up the life of these people. It’s very simple… and makes me realize how us foreigners strive for so much to keep us happy. Some may say that the Saudi way of life is quite backwards… Yes, it’s very different.. and no, it’s not something I’d like to live in for more than a year.. But, if it’s all that they know, it works for them, and they’re the ones who will be raising their next generations in it.. I guess a passer-by’s opinion of the place, doesn’t count for much.

The religion of Saudi Arabia is Islam. This is seen in everything a Saudi does, from the 5 daily prayers, to throwing an “Inshallah” (Christian equivalent of “Lord Willing”) in their casual conversations. For nearly 30 minutes per prayer call, shops shut down, waiters take a break, and you even get locked into the grocery stores and restaurants. Time is very precious for non-Muslim foreigners here, because of this!

The weather, so far, has been a little iffy. There’s been a weekly rainstorm with the most booming of thunders. Within 15 minutes, the city is flooded, due to the lack of sewers. With the piles of puddles combined with 90+ degree weather, you can imagine our problem with mosquitos. There’s an occasional sandstorm, and it makes for an awesome sight! This is almost always followed by rain, to clean the city and clear the air. Another one of God’s awesome solutions to our problems.

Most of the royal family lives within Riyadh, which plays a part in why it is more conservative compared to the port city of Jeddah. This family is quite extensive, spanning into the thousands since multiple wives and an abundance of children isn’t shunned. It is likely to have a prince or princess in the classroom.

The laws of Riyadh can be quite strict, which is why the city is considered a hardship. Men and women outside of the family, are almost always segregated. Women wear black-based abayas. Coverings may be a little more enforced in comparison to other cities. Music in public is outlawed. The mentioning of pigs and dogs, the picture of a woman’s face, or pop culture references are not allowed in the classroom.

The food is a great mix of the Gulf countries. You can find Saudi kabsa (a mix of meat, rices, and spices), Turkish shawarma (meat wrap w/ veggies and sometimes french fries), and various Yemeni dishes. A lot of dishes include chick peas/hummus and rice. A popular Saudi snack consists of dates (my new fave, but oh so high in sugar!) and Arabic tea. Of course there’s also your Burger King, McDonalds, Applebees, and Krispy Kreme. Two things you will not find in this country is pork and alcohol.


6 Things I Learned from Living Abroad


6) How to distinguish needs from wants

If you’re a fan of the television show “House Hunters”, you will often see potential buyers go through long inventories of things that they need, like a hood over the stove, a jacuzzi to fit 5 people, a shower with a mountain view. I have down-scaled my “must have” list, after some of my travels. The basic American appliances that I have in the U.S. has slowly made it to my list of luxuries. This was realized the moment I arrived in the congested city of Seoul, S. Korea; where there was an odd absence of bathtubs and ovens in apartments. The memories of my spacious country bathroom, was now being compared to the ability to use the bathroom, shower and brush my teeth in the sink.. all at the same time.

Here in Saudi, when someone told me that I’d have to fill my washing machine by pan, pull the machine to a hole in the middle of the floor, drain it, and then hang dry.. I made sure that a conventional washer/dryer unit was added to my list. It’s the simple things that you miss the most, when everything is foreign to you. I no longer will assume that another country’s definition of a “need” and “want” is the equivalent to my own.

5) Your survival instincts come into play

Before leaving the US, I’ve often been asked.. “Do you know anyone out there?” “Can you speak the language?”.. “No?!? Sooo, how are you going to get around??” … You just gotta figure it out! We are all primitively programmed to fight for our survival. I’ve learned this best in Saudi. The 1st three days in the KSA, I lived off of cold pita bread and rice. I saw not one soul who spoke English or could direct me to something familiar. Each day, I inched a little further down my road, counting buildings and turns, so not to get lost. I took down as many taxi numbers as possible, so at least someone could direct me home. I immediately befriended the hotel staff, so that they’d felt comfortable loaning me money if things got tight. Survival! Without a lick of Arabic…. ‘Whatever higher power you believe in’ always seems to work the immediate things out. You can always figure out the details later..

4) At the same time, you’re never truly alone

There’s 100 English teachers on my campus. All of them came with the same expectations (or lack thereof). All with the same frustrations. All having the same questions… Outside of the school, there is the occasional English speaker; the taxi driver from Pakistan who wants to practice through conversation, the Filipina nurse who understands your homesickness, the Saudi woman who wants to soak up all things American. You start to realize that maybe running off to a new country, a new job, and a new culture… is not such a new idea.

3) You Start to Define Yourself

There are so many titles that one can take on these days.. Democrat/Republican, Gay/Straight, Christian/Atheist. However, quite a few people have a hard time defining why they feel so strongly about these titles. When you live in a country that challenges these labels, you start to see where on the spectrum you fall. Plus, you’ll have a firm example to back it up. Being in a conservative, Islamic country makes me realize how much of a liberal Christian I am.

2) Life should not be all that stressful

There’s a time to work, and there’s a time to play. As an ESL teacher abroad, you finally have ample time to pick up a new hobby, start and finish a book, choose whether or not you want to have a social life, or even be random and attend a ‘camel beauty contest’… As an expat, in general, you have a totally different itinerary from the tourists. Somehow, I’ve managed to experience various activities from having a few cookouts in the middle of an Arabian desert, to digging for fossilized seashells and desert diamonds (http://www.ehow.com/info_8127431_desert-diamonds.html). You no longer check out the city on someone else’s schedule and course. You tend to make your own fun, and it ends up being a way more interesting story to tell.

1) See life through someone else’s eyes

Yesterday, I was watching a music video on MTV. The American singer spent the whole video in a swimsuit. There was no pool, ocean, or water of any kind present. This sorta bugs me. It is one of the reasons why my greetings in Korea often came to “So, can you sing or dance like Beyonce?” or “Are you Obama’s sister?” And they are dead serious, in asking! In Saudi, out of the 5-10 English channels, these were also the American examples portrayed to a conservative country. I have seen some coverings to the extreme (women not showing an inch of the body, including eyes). Under these all-black coverings, I’ve always imagined two types of women: one who was very timid, or someone expressionless. Going against the stereotype, my students, the ladies under the veil, are some of the most outspoken, confident and dramatic girls I’ve ever met..

The Abaya

The first question I’m asked by family and friends after they found out where I was going.. “Do you have to cover up??”… Yes, I do have to, wherever a man is present. In the KSA, women can only be uncovered around other women, her husband, and their family. So basically, all of these clothes I brought for whatever occasion will never be seen accept at work (my all-women’s university) and when I am in foreign-friendly areas (desert hikes and compounds).

The abaya is a long cloak, that is traditionally all-black. But you will often find today’s abayas with different material, designs, colors and sparkles on the sleeves and the base. As a non-muslim foreigner, this robe is the only strict requirement to wear in public. The niqab, is a piece that covers the face, besides the eyes. I am not required to wear this. However, it seems to be quite helpful during this sandstorm season. Covering your hair with a scarf or hijab, is less enforced for non-muslims, but I’m sure you’re more respected if you don’t go against the grain. Everyone carries a scarf just in case they are approached by the muttawa, the religious police.

There’s always going to be a fuss about it. But as extreme and restrictive the abaya may seem to some, it’s quite easy to get used to. Out of all of the factors that contribute to daily stress, this attire is the least of my worries. Yet, is the main thing people want to know about. The language and the segregation, is the big adjustment! My roommate actually remains covered behind the locked doors of our apartment, which probably makes me look like a heathen in my loungewear. I’ve seen some pretty cute abayas.. and I already own 4 (3 I’m in the process of getting altered) and a 5th one being designed. I’m thinking about putting a modern/Latin spin to it 🙂 ..

In the compound, I was actually ordered to remove my abaya.. In public.. It almost felt like they asked me to remove my shirt. Last week, I went out into the desert “uncovered” and even though it felt GREAT for the sun to hit my skin..Strangly, for a second, I felt naked in front of all of the western men. Of course I got over that though, and enjoyed the rare moment. But this lets me know that perhaps the Saudi women, who have been covered all of their lives vs. my two weeks, welcome this conservative attire.. instead of seeing it as a command. Through their perspective, being uncovered in public is kind of like that question, “have you ever dreamed that you were naked on stage?”