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!

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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.

You Would’ve Loved Her Too

Elegant, enchanting and well-spoken.. most called her “Bernie”, some “Queenie”. All of her qualities fit the perfect description of a “Lady”. So that’s what I called her.

Prom queen, Bernadine Kelley, of Morehead Nursing Home.

As a child, Lady’s house was the last place I wanted to go. Her place was filled with fancy white chaise lounges and plenty of breakables that she teasingly had out on display.  I was a 5 yr old who simply knew not to touch anything! This included the decorated marbled eggs, chiming capiz shelled chandeliers, and the life size asian doll made of fish bone.

At age 8, we packed up and moved to NC, with Lady in tow. At that moment, all I could think of was how I’d be constantly force-fed and assigned endless chores. Little did I know how critical she would be to hold our family together.

Lady knew how to intrigue and made an excellent teacher. How do you get kids to memorize scriptures of the Bible? With a challenge, a deadline, and a dollar. My little cousin and I were in such intense study mode.  Still to this day, Psalm 23 is the verse I recite when I’m anxious.

Her sister, son, and grandkids

Lady could strike up a conversation with anyone. As an introvert, I studied her fluidity. If your conversation lasted longer than 15 minutes and it happened to be around the holidays, you can count on her gifting you a lemon bundt-cake for Christmas.

In my pre-teen years, when everything was measured by how cool you are, I thought it was so un-cool when she’d randomly burst in song at church. She’d make her way to the front, hand someone a tambourine, and get the whole church into a Jericho march. Lady knew how to get a crowd going. Secretly, I wanted her courage.

I always thought of my Lady as brave. My bedroom was nestled safely in the center of the house. But I constantly worried of how her corner in-law suite had 3 doors that led to the outside. I asked her one time, if she was scared of someone breaking into one of these doors. “Well baby, if they get me, the Lord got me!” was her response.

Me and my Lady

I’d hear stories of her younger days, when she’d pack up her family and travel the world at the drop of a dime. And how she never returned without a collectable. Slowly, our house turned into a museum; a museum that she painstakingly taught me how to polish every Saturday morning. I grew to hate the smell of lemon “Old English” oil. Its thickness acted as a tattle-tale, letting her knew if a spot was missed. She’d start taking stuff off tables to reveal hidden dust and say her patented phrase, “Don’t be nice/nasty!”.. and then tack on another hour of polishing. I did polish some interesting pieces, though. All of her unique décor and travel stories played a huge part in how I saw the world. Whether it was wanting to be a cruise ship worker or moving 30 minutes from the North Korean border, she supported and bragged on all of my dreams.

Lady stretched out with her sister, in Jamaica

She filled the house with gospel music and threw her own personal service before church on Sundays. This was always the reason why she was the last one ready… that … and her picking out the right feathered hat to match her heels. Lady knew how to piece an outfit together. Even at the nursing home, Lady remained fancy; having her outfits matched up for the week, getting her nails and makeup done. You wouldn’t catch her in a hospital gown in the middle of the day!

Her advice was never really deep. But sometimes a simple “pray about it, baby” is all the advice you need. I always admired her prayers. I silently prayed at night that I could make mine flow as easily, filled with thankfulness, with such care for each individual, and never rushed.

Lady was one of a kind.

She spent her final 4yrs in Morehead Nursing Home. Her constant questioning of when she’d be able to come home was heart breaking. But the care that they provided, the genuine love that she got from nurses and volunteers, and the friendships she made was more than we could hope for her. With every visit, there was a new gift sitting on her desk. Each morning, my grandmother would thumb through her devotional and pick out a scripture to be posted on her door. Random strangers would stop by to read her messages and then she’d make yet another friend. She made her mark on that nursing home as the lady with “The Word of the Day”.

That’s the kind of person my grandmother was. Loving and loved.

Brother showing his grandma some love

She comfortably passed away in the peaceful setting of the hospice, August 29, 2012, with the most diverse cluster of family and guests visiting every 15 minutes.

The family supporting Lady’s “Rock-a-thon” (rocking chair, instead of walking) to raise money for cancer awareness

I am comforted with God’s timing of it all…

These last 2 weeks kind of came as a surprise to us all.

I was technically not supposed to receive a vacation this summer, but I did. I originally wasn’t going to vacation in the U.S., but I did. I wasn’t supposed to be on vacation throughout all of August, but with a few mess-ups from my company, the Visa expeditors, AND the Embassy.. I did. I was supposed to fly out this weekend, and once again, my time was extended. God allowed me to be by her bedside all the way up until her final passing. He’s allowing me to attend her service and reconnect with family members that I haven’t seen in years. Just like her placement in the nursing home, I believe that we all are where we are, when we are, for a reason.. whether we like it or not. And for that, I’m thankful that He dismisses a lot of our plans.

 

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.


I’m Leaving on a Jetplane

So at the end of the day, I ended up packing the “Baby Blanket”. I figured, I might as well have one comfort items (no matter the size). When checking my luggage, I hit 56 lbs.. SIX pounds over the limit = $200!! So after quickly ditching 2 pairs of shoes and 1 pair of jeans and jacket, I came out at 49lbs. Note to self: this is why you weigh yourself naked…

Of course, I had a few items pitched while going through security.. I kinda wonder what damage I could’ve done with a stick of deoderant.. shrug. But outside of that, everything’s gone pretty smooth! I’ve finally learned to walk around a chaotic airport, and look as if I know what I’m doing 🙂

I’m now waiting on my second flight, which is somewhere between 13 and 21 hours long (time changes get me every time), but we will see. I’m excited to see if it will be as luxurious as I hear, with a lot of leg room, and different foods. I’ve yet to try a Middle Eastern dish, unless you count lentil and rice, that I happen to cook on the regular. Oh, and lamb.. that was interesting

What’s in your Suitcase??

I have adjusted my 2 suitcases and 2 carry-ons, once again.. and I think 3rd times a charm! I’m packed for one year in the desert, and praying I stayed under the 50lb weight limit. But I find myself wanting to take everything from my race medals to my baby blanket, which could double as a grown man’s quilt. And I’m facing the fact that something must go.. But there are a few items that I have always found to be essentials (at least for me).

1) Medicine!

The most frustrating thing ever is to come down w/ ______ , know exactly what it takes to treat it, but not being able to read the labels in the medicine aisle of your new country. After playing charades w/ a passerby to describe your ailments *fingers crossed*, they point you to the right one. Or you can avoid all of this by packing a your own specialized first aid kit.
2) Haircare and makeup

This is mainly for those who have different hair textures/complexions than the country they are going to. For example, if you have darker skin or curly hair in Asia.. Basically, if you tend to have a hard time in the U.S. finding the perfect combination of products, stock up for abroad.
3) Feminine products

It’s easy to assume that since every woman, no matter the country, has the same set of “issues”, and that we’d all handle them the same way. Wrong! Tampons can be a luxury, in some places. Either adjust to their method, or bring your own. Tampon tip: take everything out of the boxes and squeeze them into ziplock bags.. it saves a lot more room.
4) One week’s worth of clothes (per category)

(for work/going-out and casual/workout + a pair of shoes for each category + jacket) 

This is the hardest one for me! I start thinking of all of the ‘what-ifs’.. what if I need my salsa dancing shoes? What if I need both swimsuits? In a conservative Muslim country, I’m guessing these would be at the very bottom of the ‘must-have’ list.. So, I have convinced myself that I will buy what I need, there. Plus, I guess it could make a good conversation starter. “Where’d you get that sweater??”.. “Well, actually..”

5) Many will disagree on this one, but my last must-have = my fave BOOKS!

I’ve had friends who took their collection overseas (when Kindle was less popular), and didn’t open even one! They’d end up giving a good portion away. As an avid reader, this hurts me! Because I barely let folks even borrow a book. But if you can’t afford one of these e-readers, and reading is the way you spend your downtime, pack your faves in your carry-on (w/ wheels). Many countries have a foreign book section, but may be limited certain or lack restrictive topics. Often this carry-on bag isn’t weighed, so it doesn’t count towards the 50lb limit. Just make sure you (or a kind gentleman) can lift it into the overhead bin.