The Eighth Wonder

Lists of the Seven Wonders of the World have been constructed from the Ancient Greek Herodotus of 425 BCE to today’s online voters (1). Each of these lists has missed out on the architectural beauty that exists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Rich in varying textures and usage, its buildings and landscapes include ancient mud-thatched forts neighboring contemporary shopping centers.

Al-Faisaliyah Tower is one of these steel constructions of 30 floors made to resemble a ball-point pen, as the reflective golden globe restaurant rotates at its axis. Pictured on many postcards, Al-Faisaliyah was the tallest building in Saudi Arabia in 2000 (2), allowing its diners to view as far as the deserts through floor to ceiling, triangular panes. A year later, Kingdom Tower, 65-stories of ultra-modern accommodations took its record (2). It places as the world’s third tallest building with a parabolic arch (3).  Its peaks connect on the 99th floor by a sky bridge with panoramic views (4). Out of the three entry levels of luxury shopping, the first is open to general public. While, following cultural practice of gender segregation, the next two floors are reserved solely for female shoppers and staff. Here, one would find skinny jeans from Saks 5th Avenue to go beneath an abaya from Bedoon Essm.

Traveling north through the business district of Olaya and then following highways west to the desert, sculptures of an older medium are found. Built of mud and thatch, the ancient city of Al Diriyah was established in 1744 to serve as a military fortress against the Ottoman Empire (5). Once called ‘Najd’, meaning western-lying area, Diriyah sits on the outskirts of modern-day Riyadh and is the original home of the Saudi royal family (6). The siege of Diriyah, in 1818, caused its rulers to flee the damaged fort and rebuild a new life in Riyadh (5).

After many years of abandonment, a major restoration project started in 2000, keeping with traditional architecture (5). Sites include ceilings made of exposed wooden poles, open air windows of triangular cut-outs, and large dungeon-like doors of blaring geometric designs. In 2010, the Turaif district of Diriyah, which includes Salwa Palace and archeological finds, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site (5). Today, tourists can take part in traditional meals with floor-style seating, at Najd Village (7).

In contrast to the expected browns and beiges of the desert, Diriyah’s grounds are naturally sprinkled with date trees, streams, and greenery. On the edge of Diriyah lies Wadi Hanifa, a valley extending 75 miles from northwest to southeast. Traditional folklore presents a history of fertile farmland, which explains the origin of the city name Riyadh, ‘a garden’. As the capital city quickly expanded, pollution and climate change was found to be the cause of disturbed ecological balance, resulting in drought. While some areas of the wadi still remain dry, Ar-Riyad Development Authority has preserved parts of the wetlands for recreational activities (8).

Riyadh is a place that is often a mystery to those looking in from the outside. Its short history of vast development and the pressures to let things be, has produced a wondrous blend of old and new.

najd village

 

(1) Seven Wonders of the World

http://geography.about.com/od/lists/a/sevenwonders.htm

(2) Al-Faisaliyah Center

http://www.emporis.com/buildings/125879/al-faisaliyah-center-riyadh-saudi-arabia

(3) Kingdom Centre

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_Centre

(4) Kingdom Tower

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/saudi-arabia/riyadh/sights/architecture/kingdom-tower

(5) Ar Riyadh: The Birthplace of a Nation

https://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play;_ylt=A2KLqIERJntWhl8AiLw0nIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTByNDY3bGRuBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQDBGdwb3MDNQ–?p=paul+mcdowell+euronews+al+diriyah&vid=3fdcd9b0a2e3ce4bfde85ffe001ca368&turl=http%3A%2F%2Ftse2.mm.bing.net%2Fth%3Fid%3DWN.CX9S6V7P%252fXdRkggK6LumWg%26pid%3D15.1%26h%3D168%26w%3D300%26c%3D7%26rs%3D1&rurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Daypq3lgP1uA&tit=Arriyadh%3A+The+Birthplace+Of+A+Nation+-+Life&c=4&h=168&w=300&l=301&sigr=11bj5p8j3&sigt=11bdahe5t&sigi=12nl9obgv&age=1413829903&fr2=p%3As%2Cv%3Av&hsimp=yhs-prodege_001&hspart=prodege&type=search_6&vm=p&param4=1270166858&tt=b

(6) About & History

http://www.seekteachers.com/country-info.asp?country_id=18&attribute_id=2165

(7) Najd Village

http://najdvillage.com/#c

(8) Wadi Hanifa

https://www.geocaching.com/seek/cache_details.aspx?wp=GC51R22&title=wadi-hanifah-stair-stepping

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The Best and Worst Medical Experience in Riyadh

BEST:

After passing an Aramex, Burger King, and Al-Rahji on the left, make the left at the fork in the road. Continue looking left. It's the 2nd or 3rd street across from shopping center. Smile Design is on the side of building, 2nd floor.

After passing an Aramex, Burger King, and Al-Rahji on the left, make the left at the fork in the road. Continue looking left. It’s the 2nd or 3rd street across from shopping center. Smile Design is on the side of building, 2nd floor.

 

Smile Design Dental

Suleymania Square

Mousa bin nuseir street

Riyadh, KSA

http://www.stylishsmile.com

The taxi meter creeps up in Riyals, as I search relentlessly for this dentist office known for its luxuriousness and cheap (insurance free) cleanings. As I make my 3rd tour around Suleymania Square, I’m ready to call it quits, until finally I find

Smile Design peeking from the side of a factory building. Perhaps I was looking for a royal-like exterior, instead of a cluttered side alley with an undefined dark entrance. The elevator doors of the 2nd floor open to a bright, airy lobby that steals all of the customers from the gloomy businesses downstairs. Suddenly, my Nike’s feel unworthy of stepping onto the polished cement floors of purple, glittery swirls. I would normally have thought of purple and glitter as quite gay, but now consider where in my house to put the combination.

Being the first customer since noon prayer, female dentists are just now making their way back in. A stunning receptionist, dressed as if she works for a high-end hotel, sits under an impressive chandelier. She asks in impeccable English of which services I’ll be needing. A simple cleaning doesn’t sound like enough, but I stick with the original plan. I take out a pen in preparation of filling out medical forms. Unexpectantly, my pen was met by her IPad. Portable online applications? Am I so far in the past, to not have seen this coming?

I go to the women’s waiting room and take a seat on the black and white furniture, encased by funky metallic walls. Pink cones and flowers accent the modern corner tables. And rare melodies of Enya play softly, so not to outshine the sounds of the waterfall feature at the entrance. I almost forget that I’m in Saudi, until I flip through fashion magazines with blacked-out faces, arms, and legs, for its modest readers.

The Filipina dentist, who ends every sentence with “Madame”, calls me into her high tech office of rotating chairs and gadgets.  This is nothing like the scary dentist appointments of your childhood. She hands me some earphones and turns on the television mounted to the ceiling above. A nature scenery plays, as she meticulously paid every tooth the same attention, unrushed. When it came time for the rinse, I had a flashback of the bubblegum “SWISH” from my elementary years. She ends every session with a flossing tutorial. Then she finishes off with honest recommendations and is patient with questions. That was the best dental experience ever. Out of the three dentists I’ve visited in this country, Smile Design wins hands-down!

WORST:durrat

 

Durrat Ghronata Medical Complex

Khalid Bin Whalid, Exit 8

(same corner as ROAM market)

Riyadh, KSA

This winter fills my apartment with brutal bouts of viruses and stomach bugs. Only because I can’t make it longer than a 10-minute taxi ride, is why I pay the dreaded visits to Durrat Ghronata up the road. Walking up to the counter, the receptionist glances at the ghastly pale and frail bodies that stand in front of her. Her questions are always short, never sweet. Prepare for the unprepared, as this facility lacks direction and organization.  I am told to go “somewhere” upstairs to sit in one of the three waiting areas, as opposed to the dingy red nurse’s lounge that I waited in last month. I go for the room with a play-set, as I assume that it’s designated solely for women and children. I opt out of the beige couch turned brown, and sit on the bench, conscious not to touch any railings.

A nurse suddenly comes with a small clear bottle and asks for a stool sample. Now… public bathrooms gross me out in general, let alone asking me to do #2 in public. After I find the facility’s only bathroom, I realize that it has a water-spray, instead of toilet paper. I know that works for some people, but I just can’t do it. So basically they’re not getting anything from me today. The nurse seems irritated when I come back empty handed. I’m sure she can’t go on command either…

When I finally see the doctor, I give him a run-through of the stomach virus. He asks how long this has been going on; the symptoms. But somehow he misses important questions like “What have you been eating/drinking?” and “Do you have any history of ____?” I offer him the answers to my own questions. In full abaya, he asks me to hop up on the table. Four deep breaths into the stethoscope, three taps on the stomach, he gives  a “Hmmmm” accompanied by a furrowed brow, and he’s done. I am sent to the emergency section for a saline drip and a prescription to keep food down. I’ve never taken a medical course in my life, but something tells me his degree is worth crap.

I’m a little wary of this assigned treatment, as the emergency “room” is simply rows of curtains, literally three steps away from the main lobby. My neighbor, behind a closed curtain, makes an unwelcoming cry of pain. I’m suddenly reminded of military triage where a soldier with a severed leg is treated right next to someone with a concussion.  I assume that I’d have to put on some type of hygienic clothing. However, my nurse tells me to just pull up the sleeve of my abaya. She walks out and I take a look at the surroundings. There are no handles to open the drawers of the old brown desk, adjacent to the bed. Instead, to open, one must pull on the medical silicon tubing that passes through the holes of where the missing knobs should be.  Old, torn floral wallpaper is the setting for the crafty handmade box used to stash needles. Thankfully, they are all wrapped. After being given two vials of saline, I’m immediately sent on my way. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s the temperature of Hell outside, in the dead of winter.  Drugged, I start counting the beads of sweat rolling down my body that somehow avoids getting soaked up by my encroaching black abaya.  Finally, I catch a taxi, but face the next challenge of remembering my destination in Arabic. In desperation, you can always remember a prayer. Mumbling a few “rights” and “lefts”, I’ve never so urgently wanted my bed and my toilet in my whole life. The driver could’ve taken me for all my money, without me knowing. I did not keep food, nor medicine down, that day.. or the next. I found that the saline basically put me to sleep to forget my hunger. Do your life a favor and just stay away from this clinic.

The Saudi Marathon

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“I ran my first overseas marathon!” is item #4 on my Saudi to-do list, that I drafted exactly a year ago from today.

Preparation

Before becoming a runner, I threw around my plans of doing a marathon, as if it was picking out what’s for dinner. Little do some know that cutting a few practice runs short, skipping a few routine stretches, and eating at the wrong time; could not only effect the “big day’s” run, but can leave you handicapped post-race. Preparation means everything to a marathoner. Those 5 months are spent researching Barnes and Nobles, seizing every issue of Runner’s World, contacting strangers for marathon tidbits of success, and staying enthusiastic about this craziness even when you have 16 miles to put in before sun-up. You now obsess over every new gadget, cream, and shoe that could get you across that finish line.

Saudi is a marathon. It wasn’t a quick decision for me to come here. It took the inability to survive off of 3 part-time jobs, declined credit cards, and the approaching end of school loan forbearances, for me to settle on this location. I picked up every Saudi-related book that I could find, from genres of culture, to novels, to Sharia law. I joined every FaceBook group that contained variations of the word “Saudi”, “Expat”, and “ESL”. I made a lot of my friends before even stepping onto a plane. I stashed extra peanut butter crackers; which came in handy when provided with a faulty stove, a lukewarm fridge, a kind loan of 50 SAR ($15ish) from the cleaner, and a 2-day weekend of no direction. I was determined to not let anything throw me off. The lack of preparation is obvious in many of my co-workers, who quit in their 1st month or complain about the things that they could’ve simply found in a book. This was not going to be me!

 Mile 1 to Mile 13.1 / Months 1 to Month 3 of Saudi

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The race begins! 13.1 miles has been touted as the happy medium for many long-distance runners. The band and cheerleaders send us off in high spirits. For the first 3 miles you’re hyped up with a nervous jitter. Yet, you feel pretty confident in your consistent preparation over the past 5 months. Random spectators give you personalized shout-outs thanks to the last-minute decision to masking tape your name on your shirt. Tranquil coffee drinkers look on from the Starbuck’s patio, as runners pass by in decaffeinated insanity. Fellow runners are smiling. Some are in crazy costumes. Some are exerting extra energy by creatively ducking through and around slower clusters. After the 1st three miles of excitement of passing herds, your breathing has come to a comfortable rhythm. You check your watch to see that you’re still on pace. And once you find a calm runner that matches your speed, anxiety lessens. “Just stay with him and I’ll make it!” The scenery is always great the first 13 miles. You get front row seats in people-watching. Traffic is halted at every intersection, making you the star of the hour.  Mile 13 is just around the bend and you know that you’ll get a nice treat at the mid-point water station. You got this!!

The first three months in Saudi are filled with stories of shopping in gold souks, searching for frankincense and myrrh, and hiking Arabian deserts. Your friends and family excitingly wait for your updates, and then passes it to anyone willing to listen. “Yes, my granddaughter’s over there wearing abayas and she has to sit in womens only sections!!”. “Oh wow, really??!” You feel unique. Every new country presents a bit of anxiety, as I look like a confused foreigner not knowing my way home. With practice, I soon have control over my personal drivers and surroundings with yesar (left), yameen (right), and sida (straight).  I find amazement in the stark contrasts of climate. Aerial views show seas hitting deserts, and a clump of trees lost in the center of endless sand. A sandstorm that turns a clear day, bright orange, and then pitch black, welcomes me on my second day. The first rain of the season immediately follows minutes after, that brings out old men smiling like children. Soaking up all the cultural and religious views of those around me, has become a joy to write about. I settle into a job with half the hours and double the pay of Stateside teaching. I hold tight to friends who are on the same pace and mindset as myself.  This is the honeymoon phase.

Miles 13.1 to Mile 20 / Month 3 to Month 8 of Saudi

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The crowds are starting to thin out. The skinny dude in the skimpy runner shorts hasn’t been seen in the past hour, as you start to wonder where you place in the pack. You lose track of your running partner due to shoe-lacing and a porta potty break. You are now entering the desolate backroads and well-manicured residential areas. The race planners must have forgotten about this stretch of the course, as the only entertainment is a juggler and a clown. I hate clowns. By mile 18, smiles start to lessen, everything is starting to ache, and you try not to let the boredom and loneliness get to you. The banana man costume that was a cool idea on Mile 3, now lays on the side of the road at the Mile 20 marker. The countdown begins.

The honeymoon phase of Saudi is over. Some of the friends I entered Saudi with, have called it quits. The exotic souqs are now seen as the American equivalent of a flea market. You are now, “Ashley, you know …______’s daughter… She’s somewhere, I think Iraq? Iran?” The summer months bring along 115 degree, asphyxiating heat that literally scorches your eyes. To avoid the discomfort, I settle for indoor activities, like walking around the countless malls in one square block, that all hold the same thing. Random breezes result in a faulty internet connection, and I lose touch with family for a few days. Due to America’s negative news broadcasts, I hear their worry and frustration on the other end of Skype calls. You are suddenly homesick.

Mile 20 – 25 / Month 8 – Month 11 and 3wks of Saudi

hit the wall

After the 19th mile, your mind is on each painful step. Even worse is the mental exhaustion. You’ve depleted most of your interesting thoughts.   It slowly tugs at your confidence, making you think back on whether you’ve trained to the best of your ability. Somewhere in between the 20th and 22nd mile, runners pass through a prop of a broken wall. If you’re lucky, you will not hit the utterly exhausting, zombie-like mental state that makes even walking to the finish line an unbearable notion. At this point, you may randomly start crying. Or you may just stand there, shaking your head, as if this would summon your short-circuited brain to send the message, “Pick up your right foot. Good, now your left.” This is called “Hitting the Wall”.

The last three months in Saudi are simply tiresome.  I feel like no one officially completed their contract during my earlier months. And now suddenly, everyone’s leaving me behind.. mapping out their upcoming travels, first meal and alcoholic beverage. This starts the desperate yearning phase, when you begin putting yourself in their shoes. I spent my Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, in the classroom, as Saudi doesn’t celebrate these holidays. Listening to “Baby its Cold Outside” on a warm Arabian night, while my small potted plant twinkled with smuggled Christmas lights, was the highlight of my winter holiday.  So, January 1st, the countdown calendars start to go up. To keep from standing soullessly in front of the classroom, a few mental health days are in order. You will know when this day comes, as you will have to physically pick up your legs out of the bed. If you sit on the edge longer than 10 minutes, you’ve “hit the wall”.

The last 1.2 miles / The last week in Saudi

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You can’t call the move your making even a proper shuffle. You would make a perfect extra on “The Walking Dead”.  You are drenched in sweat, with chapped lips, sunburned, and chafing in areas that you didn’t know chafed. Suddenly, the crowds that were absent half of the race, are standing on the sides cheering you on and strangely your mental fog clears. They are smiling so much, that you assume that you actually won’t look half bad in your finishing-line photo. This thinking is completely wrong. You look like hell… But, you switch thoughts to all of the months of training, the sacrifices put in, and all of the miles covered. You have made it through! Crossing the finish line was an accomplishment in itself, no matter the timing. Congratulations! For the rest of your life, you hold the title of “marathoner”, even if it’s your last!

The last week in Saudi actually turns out bittersweet. I’ve realize that I’m a much more productive person than before. Those months of boredom, has led me to find a new talent in blogging. It has allowed me to sit and read books that I’ve never had time for. Time and diligence has allowed me to save enough money to return home with zero credit-card debt and start on student loan payments. The homesickness has not only reminded me how much I love my family and friends, but shows how I’ll miss the friends I’ve made in here. My students have given me enough material to keep me laughing for decades. I am thankful to not just know about Saudi’s culture and religion, but also have some understanding behind their practices. This year has taught me how much I do need others, and has brought out some untimely extremes of emotion that I never knew existed. I have officially made it through the year!! Through all of the ups and downs, I will say that it was all worth it. I deserve a freakin’ medal!

A Day in a Saudi Classroom

Assignment 4: Narration (Revision 11/30/15)

“Phones off! Phones in bags! Bags up front!”

‘Phone’ was a word that never needed translation, as these items were affixed to my students palms since Day 1. I’ve never seen such an addiction to social networking in my life, as they type pages of texts to their friends two classes over.

“But Teachuh…” starts the chorus of begging. “Teachuh, dictionary..” says Kahloud, as she points at her only lifeline.

“That must be a very long word you’re typing. I’ll be your dictionary.” She smiles at the sarcasm. In all honesty, it would save me a lot  of hassle if they solely used their phone dictionaries. I never quite understood how every semester I’d end up with high-level books for low-level students. Today’s vocabulary lesson was no exception.

“So, girls, how was your weekend?” I predict the responses to be about shopping and sleeping. Yet, I hope for more.

“I go shopping with my sister” says Hanan. “Sleeping… just”, says Noura.

I then look to my favorite (Yes, I have favorites..). Knowing that she’ll give me a unique response, I repeat the question. “How was your weekend, Sumayah?”

“I do nothing. But today, I see my teacher last semester, and she give me a beer!”

With raised brows, I’m sure that I heard her wrong. You can’t even bring vanilla extract into this country due to its alcohol content. Let alone, a beer!

“Umm, she gave you a what?” I casually ask.

“A beer”, Sumayah says nonchalantly.

Eyes to the sky, I’m searching for all of the words I’ve heard misused over these past two years.

“Can you spell it?”

“B-E-A-R” and then she looks at me like I’m the crazy one for not knowing what a bear is. Of course, I can’t explain the difference between bear and beer. The latter was an “Avoid” topic on the Culture Sensitivity List. So instead we spend 5 minutes doing word repetition, by saying everything we know about bears. They will not leave my class saying that Ms. Ashley taught them about beer.

We then start class with a reading about a man with 13 jobs, one of them being an “Undertaker”. This is a new word that takes every bit of effort, from drawing graves to acting out a funeral. After my performance at the front of the classroom, I get baffled stares. Then suddenly my one 40+-year-old, Amani, proudly shouts out.. “Ahhh, Teacher… Undertaker, like WWE!!” The class must not have seen the slight shaking of my head and lack of confirmation, as they erupted in “Ahhhs” and “ohhhs” of instant understanding.

At the bottom of my lesson plan is a space for notes.

Tomorrow: Phone Dictionaries

 

The Passage to Happiness

Assignment 3: Capturing Voices. Visit a place where several people are gathering. Eavesdrop on their speech, behavior, body language. Revision 11/29/15

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It’s Professional Development month. The teaching staff has survived another semester and now spends their break desk-warming and evaluating their futures. Paint by Numbers sets, knitting needles, and outdated books teaching formal Arabic have worn out their excitement. Each desk holds a pushpin board of extremely ambitious goals or countdowns to the next “break”. Hidden under her hijab, a comatose employee is stretched out on the couch, using her abaya as a makeshift blanket.

In sequence, teachers glance up at the clock wondering if the battery has died. Eight hours tick by slowly as clusters of women busy themselves with Koran study, sample potluck dishes, or share the all-too-familiar story of what has brought them to Saudi… money.  One woman, intending to be homebound when she is next inconvenienced, strikes away at job applications on her laptop. Next to her is yet another American/British debate.

“Why are they called biscuits and gravy?! Those are definitely scones and sauce!” Then comes a needed explanation of how the two ingredients go together anyway. “You Americans will eat all kinds of bits n’ bobs together. Especially when it comes to peanut bu–uh!” says the Brit, as they laugh in agreement and list off peculiar peanut butter combinations.

“I’m ready to go home”, the applicant says undirected at anyone in particular, as if thinking out loud. She has been a popular bet in private discussions of who would flee the country next. Unable to get job experience after university and having received one too many “We’re sorry to inform you” letters, it has turned a once optimistic professional into a chronic sigher.

“Should I go home to a life and family that makes me happy, but be jobless and dodge student loan collectors all month… and ruin my credit, if it isn’t already? Or be miserable and bored to tears, here, just to keep them paid and off my ass?” Her ‘pros and cons list’ has been drafted at many points throughout the year.

The questioning begins, where co-workers assess her skills, the job market, and her potential. “Well, are you, you know, like a ‘teacher-teacher’, or just teaching?” asks a real teacher who has found this her calling.

“I’m an Architect major..”

The group winces.

Doctors, lawyers, and hopeful retirees have found themselves teaching in Saudi after the downturn of the economy. The  moment of silence from the group says enough.

“Just one more month.. That’s all I can take..”

“Well, love, look at it this way. Here, you work half the time for double the money. We’ve been taking the piss this whole month! I don’t know about you lot, but we’d never find this back in the U.K.”, says the Brit with the obvious solution.

A few more opinions and trampled American Dreams and the applicant has impassively stated that she’ll finish the year. Unmindfully, she is shaking her head while voicing this decision.

“Just imagine how much you could save if you stuck it out for 5 years, got married to a teacher here, and doubled the income..” chimes one of the ‘lifers’.

With no response, the applicant’s eyes glaze over as she looks through the computer screen.

Devil is in the Details

Assignment 2 (Revision: 11/15/15): Direct Observation

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This is not my flat, btw (lol). But is along my scenic route.

Before I leave the serenity of my heated flat at 6:30 am, Saturday morning, and rush out into the crisp desert air of Saudi Arabia, I say a prayer.  Not to get me through the seemingly endless workday, or a prayer to keep the attention of SMS addicted students, but a prayer that I safely make it through the unpredictable 15-minute adventure to the university.

Jumping into the dirt-speckled taxi, I’m greeted by my old driver, Uncle Ahmed. “Good Morning, Zahrah!” .. My name is Ashley. However, Uncle Ahmed insists that a name must hold a meaning, and “from an ash tree” wasn’t good enough.

“You moat (dead)?!”, he asks. I apologize for my lateness. I wipe out a circle of condensation from the window to peer out. Uncle Ahmed uses his sleeve on the windshield and rolls down his window to see from a different angle. We teach him about the defrost button and he instantly lights up in amazement of this new invention.

We first pass a playground that holds abandoned balls, bottles, and bags from yesterday’s attendants. The cement football/soccer courts sit on the grounds of an old mosque, making it a temporary babysitter during prayer calls. We come to a median at an unnamed street, which would require a right turn, followed by a U-Turn. However, we always make the left onto possible oncoming traffic, until the break in the median. The motels along this street are identical, besides the unique designs of gated windows that encase its inhabitants. Guarding the door, one of the cleaners is occupying a set of airport benches.  Adjacent, a dusty old couch decorates the motel’s outdoor seating area.

We are now approaching what we call “the road of death”, a road left unnamed by city planners. We see our first hazard at the corner construction site, where foreign workers lift a spin saw to the 3rd story of the structure, by tying the handle to a rope. Piles of debris stretch carelessly out into the street.

Facing another mosque, we turn right. It’s pretty much a straight shot from here. The challenge is to navigate an unmarked road of perhaps 3-lanes, unpronounced speed bumps that we brace for by memory, and the absence of signals at crossings. Unbothered, the driver of a sputtering moped speeds past us, using a tightly wrapped scarf as his helmet. Our 65-year old driver slowly makes his way down the street, in comparison to the 20-somethings and occasional 14-year-old driving his mother to the store. Recycled, round trash receptacles line the road. Most of the trash misses the bin by mere inches, while one is used to contain a fire for the chilled workers.

A row of lively, green palm trees peek out from the stone fortress of a private villa. In contrast, outside its walls, it neighbors large piles of dusty rubble and stray cats.  Meanwhile, within the taxi, there’s a burst of conversation between my British co-workers “Oh, I hope my students don’t ____”, “Oh My Allah! Did you just see that ______?”, “Just 4 more weeks, ladies, until we _______”. I spend less time chiming in, and mentally prepare for the dreaded road ahead; the 4-way, 3-ish lane intersection without stoplights. Most of us have learned of common courtesy in driving school of how to execute this in a 1-lane, turn-taking, setting. However, patience is not applied here. We are now sitting in the center of a myriad of angry drivers, who clearly voice themselves with their horns and gestures that are universally understood. My driver gives back the same look and yells a stream of Arabic. One full year in Saudi and the extent of my Arabic is knowing how to say, “You crazy, mentally ill person” with fluidity.

Uncle Ahmed’s horn gets him through the traffic, and I can convince my heart to stop racing. The rest of the scenery helps, as everything else is predictable. We will always pass the smaller men’s only shops with unrushed patrons taking in their Arabic tea and breakfast foul. The cluster of pre-teen boys dressed in their crisp white thobes and checkered scarves always pick up a Pepsi from the local gas station on the way to school. And I delight in seeing rare English, as we pass the golden arches of Mickey D’s and a pharmacy, simply titled “Pharmacy”.

We have one more intersection, but thankfully this one comes with a traffic light. The very second it turns green, starts the blaring of every car horn, including ours. After the driver to our right, makes a left-hand turn, we’re in the clear. We make our final turn onto the backroads of the school, passing Arabic graffiti and a pink villa that stands out among the brown city. We hop out the taxi to join the dozens of veiled women in long, black abayas. A student greets me at the door. She smiles with stunning eyes and lavish accessories. I’m pretty sure it’s Ghada.

Footprints in the Sand

So apparently I will have a chance to mark off a huge goal on my Bucket List: Run an international marathon! Of all places, Saudi was the last place I thought to get this done. By living outside of a compound, it’s an extreme rarity to see a woman 1) running, 2) in an abaya, and 3) in the heat. My whole blog was meant to sum up my struggles adjusting to these restrictions.

In the States, I ran daily with an outstanding group of ladies from “Black Girls Run”, a nationwide movement of long distance runners that has added quite a bit of color to a sport that was predominantly white. When I first joined, 2 years ago, I could barely run 3 minutes without getting totally winded. In elementary, I absolutely dreaded that timed, 1 mile test we were required to do in P.E., and almost always came in last. However, today, it’s an addiction to beat my PR, run extreme distances, and rack up on medals! With one marathon under my belt, I hope to one day qualify for Boston, complete an ultra, and team up in a Ragnar Relay.

 

Before arriving in Saudi I asked my recruiter about the ease of running in this country. “Oh… it’s no problem! Many people run. They have plenty of parks. It’s just like any other modern city!” .. So I packed my running shoes, hydration belt, energy chews, and every runner’s favorite: Body Glide.

For the 1st few weeks, I just observed my surroundings. Not only did women not run, but I barely saw them rush for anything! Nothing  (literally) moved fast in this country, except for impatient drivers. No one even walked around outside for fresh air. People caught cabs to cross the street. There were gyms every two blocks, but none that catered to women. I later found out that the few womens’ “gyms” (more like spas), cost $150-200 per month. Very cruel joke this recruiter played on me..

 

So on Month 2, I made my first big purchase, a commercial treadmill. Although, I was happy to have some sort of real movement, it did kill the excitement and stamina I had for running. So much to the extent that, when I vacationed in the US this summer, I went from being a marathoner to barely making it 10 minutes. It’s as depressing as having an injury that hinders you from doing the sport you love.

Therefore, my goal for the next 5 months is to get back into the shape that I was pre-Saudi. This past Saturday started my marathon training…mostly by treadmill! I know you’re wondering “How in the world will you practice 20 milers on the ‘dread’mill?”. Well, I may have found one outlet. This past weekend, I …ran… outside! Although pricey in terms of transport, and quite inconvenient, the Diplomatic Quarters is heaven-sent. The DQ is a city of embassies, international schools, parks, and are ‘free-zones’ where most of the cultural Saudi laws do not apply. Therefore, I wasted little time shedding my abaya and hijab; finally being able to be out in my run-gear!

 

I really didn’t have a plan, not even a place to put my stuff. But after scoping out the area and making sure I wasn’t in a restricted zone, I walked a few dead end paths through boulders and sand, until I found a distinct path. For once in my lifetime of running, I could care less about my run/walk ratio, mileage, or pace. It was so unearthly silent out that I didn’t even want to ruin it with music. Perhaps the silence would have alarmed some, but it was such a peaceful escape that it almost felt Godly. The only sounds I welcomed were the rare songs of birds and the occasional “Hello” of another runner escaping his treadmill. Two hours later, I climbed up as high as I could on a boulder, while eating my energy chews and watching the sunset. I got to use my hydration belt and my Body Glide. Not because any of this stuff was needed, but because it’s as good a time as any. Right in the middle of a dry rocky ravine, was a random cluster palm dates. The contrast was oddly beautiful and kept me for another 30 minutes. As my ride called out from a distance and echoed my name, I made my final 10-minute jog to the car. This time it was effortless ..

Go Hungry for a Change

I am a Christian living in an Islamic country. It would have been totally ignorant of me to enter Saudi Arabia and not read up on the basics of what Saudi Muslims believe. Without personally knowing a single Muslim, I had to find my information in the most random of places. I browsed blogs, camped-out in Barnes and Nobles, FaceBooked public Saudi profiles. These attempts were made mainly because I try not to offend, if I can help it.. Of course there will be slip-ups; like crossing my legs with the soles of my shoes up, or mentioning how much I’d love a piece of bacon.. but I try to be respectful with the knowledge I’ve acquired so far.

I’ve come to find so much love for two fabulous ladies in this country. One happens to be Muslim and the other Atheist. We make a VERY interesting trio, to say the least .. We all exchange our beliefs and why, but we never end in a heated conversation; always in respect, and often cracking a slight joke in the end. Although none of us will probably ever convert to the other, we are friends who’ve offered and listened to sound opinions, great entertainment, and a have been a shoulder for homesickness. They’re good people, in my book!

Last week was the ending of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’ve heard of it, but honestly only knew that I’d be vacationing during that time. So, to gain a little understanding on what a good percentage of the world was doing, I interviewed my friend, Amaal, about this time of the year.

1) So what exactly is Ramadan?
Ramadan is a period in which all Muslim adults ‘fast’, or abstain from certain activities. It is one of the five basic tenets/pillars of Islam. It lasts for 30 days, and each day we fast from sunrise to sunset. It’s the month of mercy, blessings and forgiveness. During this time, Muslims are completely immersed in their connection with God. They persevere in doing righteous deeds, pray often and read the Quran (Muslim’s holy book) as much as they can.

2) What must you refrain from?
Food, drink and sexual activity

3) Does it last only certain hours of the day?
Yes, it lasts for a range of hours depending on which country you’re in and what time the sun rises and sets.

4) What is your favorite Ramadan memory?
Ramadan is a beautiful way of bringing family together. I love breaking fast with my family, sitting down all together to eat. I also love going to night prayers. These are special prayers that occur only during Ramadan. You go to the mosque and pray for about an hour, and read chapters of the Quran. This is truly a spiritual booster.

 5) How is Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, in comparison to your home country?
Well I come from England and that is extremely different. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and therefore it abides by Islamic law. I’ve been in a Muslim Country 3 times for Ramadan and every time it always feels like it’s Ramadan. People are all doing the same thing. They are unified in their worship and acts. People are extremely charitable, they give each other goods, they pay for the needy to be fed in Ramadan, and they share whatever they have. Whilst in Riyadh, what I’ve witnessed consistently is the constant giving of food and water to anyone and everyone. One time I was in a car and we were just about to break fast and people came around to our car window and gave us water and dates. This moved me. I’ve been taught that nothing is free in this world so to be given free food is shocking. But these acts aren’t even one of a kind; they happen constantly throughout the Muslim world.

6) How do you celebrate the breaking of fast?

At the end of the day, we actually mourn the end of fasting because it signifies the end of our spiritual detox. A good Muslim’s heart longs for the next Ramadan to come quickly and prays to see the next one.

At the end of the 30 days, however, we have a celebration called Eid. This is where all families come together, get dressed in their new attire and have a good day out or within their own houses. On the morning of Eid, we go to mosque to pray the ‘Eid prayer’. People exchange greetings and children are given sweets and money. Communities come together and celebrate. We also pay a charitable sum of money on that day. This goes towards feeding the poor and needy.

7) How is the environment around you during fasting and non-fasting hours?
Riyadh is quiet because during fasting hours not much is open. Food outlets in Saudi are usually closed, people stay in their homes and wait for the break of fast. They use their time to involve themselves in acts of worship. The beauty of Ramadan is that it pushes you away from the worldly things that often distract you from worshiping God. So during fasting hours, Muslims are meant to use that time to be productive. Non-fasting hours in Saudi is when everything and everyone ‘wakes up’, so to speak. Shops and restaurants are open, people come out and the city comes to life again.

8) How has normal daily tasks been affected?
Well, people can still go out and shop and go with their daily tasks, the only thing they aren’t allowed to do in a Muslim country is eat in a public place. Pretty much anything else can be done during the day.

9) How are non-Muslims handling it? Have they changed their activity hours?
I’m sure they are finding it hard. They aren’t allowed to eat in a public place, so I guess the less tolerant of them are annoyed. Most non-Muslims are very respectful, though. In fact many are happy because their hours of work are reduced during Ramadan.
10) Now that Ramadan is coming to an end, how do you feel?
In all honesty, I’m upset. This month is like a beloved friend that departs from your house and you must wait another 11 months for its goodness to return. Many think fasting hard and draining but it’s the opposite for a practicing Muslim. Knowing that every deed you are doing is exclusively for God can only make it an easy endeavor. I almost cried at the last sunset, signifying the end of Ramadan. But the celebrations of Eid somewhat eased the pain.

 

 

**I wrote this post, not only to be educational. But also so that different religions can learn to be more  tolerant of others. Many religions practice and find importance in fasting. By knowing the of similarities that we have, perhaps individuals wouldn’t be as quick to judge. With that being said, any disrespectful comments/responses against any religion will be deleted**

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.