Monday, September 22, 2008

Letting off Steam - sorry no pics!

Last night we went with a friend to go car shopping. Actually, we are SUV shopping. Before you raise your voice in protest on behalf of the environment and everything green, let me assure you that we are not just going this route to satisfy a whim. The size of the vehicle has more to do with safety than the manliness of the car. The problem with Saudi driving is that it is not only chaotic, but it's chaotic at insanely high speeds. Truly, you must witness the madness in person to understand, so I will refrain from describing what we see on the roads here on a daily basis.

Anyways, we began shopping at 9pm, because of the Ramadan hours. I think we ended up hitting 5 or 6 dealerships, but the GMC dealership was by far the most crowded with white thobes everywhere. We capped off the night by test driving a Hummer, which was quite fun. I don't think I'll ever visit another country where we are test driving cars at midnight - it seems surreal to experience such things. Aside from the outlandish appearance of the car, it was actually a very good ride. We are still deciding what type of car to get.

Switching gears here, we've been encountering a curious thing here in Riyadh, particularly retail type stores and restaurants. People go to such lengths not to offend you that they often give misleading information when they cannot understand you. The other day I called a bookstore to check their hours of operation and I asked what time they were open until. They mentioned 4:30pm. When I got to the store at 3:30pm, there were men standing outside the door. I stated that the store was open until 4:30 and they said, "yes ma'am" and so I began walking in. They seemed uncomfortable with this so, I asked again what time they were open till and they said 4:30pm. Suddenly one of them shouted, "closed!" This is when I realized that none of the staff understood the word "until", and that everyone had thought I had been asking when they opened and all of them refused to just say they did not understand my question....I threw my hands up in the air and returned to the car.

You might think this is a minor annoyance, but when it happens twice a week, every week, you develop an appreciation for the general honesty that occurs on a day to day basis back home. Let me add that this is beyond a language issue - it's a cultural preference for giving a positive answer, whether or not it's correct. It's not malicious or even a bad thing, it's just hard for westerners to deal with. Every expat living here has a story about how they were told "yes yes, fine fine" to a question and found out later that the answer should have actually been "no, no, you're out of your mind"

"Out of your mind" - they don't tell you this, but this is actually where you are sent after you arrive in Riyadh. It's a direct flight. Yesterday I found out there was some decent sushi here at a restaurant called Tokyo, and got very excited because sushi is my favourite food. This afternoon I instinctively called the restaurant just before we planned to leave for it, to go grab that glimmer of shining hope, only to find out that it has closed for the entire month of Ramadan.

Al Hamdu lillah!

(that's me being sarcastic in arabic)

Friday, September 12, 2008

golf and other random stuff

I wanted to show you guys some pictures from our weekend. Yesterday we went to the Hotel Intercontinental to play some golf. Though I should not mislead you - I went to the driving range, and the *other* people went to play golf on the green. It was still a great time though. I caught up with the rest of the group once the range closed and took a few pictures. During Ramadan the golf course is empty at night, and it's extremely peaceful. It's almost like an oasis in the middle of the city. You would forget that you're in the middle east, except for the constant religious chanting coming from mosques around the hotel.

We were so disappointed yesterday with our performance that we went to another range today to see whether we could improve.

These are pictures from the Arizona compound, which boasts a driving range, golf course, and a ranch with horses and goats. Lots of goats.

The horse's name is Pearl. Pearl and I would have gotten to know each other a bit better, except when I extended my hand to say hello and give her a little sniff, She got this hungry look in her eye and almost snapped my fingers off. The chickens were eyeing me too, so it was a very short barnyard visit.

And switching gears now, I just wanted to show you an example of some censorship on the sale of an item in a Canadian Tire type store here in Riyadh. You can see the blonde woman is probably wearing some kind of scandalous bathing suit under the black marker. Shame on the Sauna Belt for producing such a lewd ad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I'm sure you all know that Riyadh is a very conservative city. One of the foreign concepts that is a little peculiar and difficult to grasp is the segregation between single men and women. Restaurants all have a means of creating a physical divide between the sexes. There is often some combination of sections for single men, single women, and families. For example, here's a picture of us entering the "family section" of Starbucks after being refused entry to the "singles" section. And in my prior blog about IKEA, you can see a picture of a typical family section in a restaurant.

I find this whole concept to be totally confusing, because in eating establishments and banks (for example), the segregation is present, but in grocery stores, malls, and shopping areas, it's impossible to enforce. So I often forget about the whole concept unless I'm confronted with a panicked employee when I go into the wrong sections. For instance, I was shopping in a souk the other day and got extremely thirsty. I spotted a takeout restaurant with an orange juice fountain and hurried into the shop only to be horribly shocked by half a dozen men yelling at me to leave. I was surprised (and a little insulted) by the commotion and accidentally backed into a man carrying a coffee who spilled it in a neat line down the entire front of his white thobe. After apologizing profusely, I realized that they had all been pointing to a window on the outside of the shop that women were supposed to order through.

The Saudi authorities take the whole thing seriously and take measures to enforce it that would seem bizarre in Canada. The latest rule that has been passed was a ban on the sale of dogs and cats, and on walking them in public, lest the younger generation use it as an excuse to get to know each other. No joke!!

My confusion has been exacerbated by reading the book "Girls of Riyadh" by Rajaa Alsanea. The book was published in 2005 and banned here when it first came out. It documents the story of 4 upper crust Saudi women looking for love. In the book, single men and women mingle and exchange phone numbers at malls, at certain schools, on the road (!)... and they have dates in restaurants and cafes, and even at each other's houses in certain situations. I suppose they pretend they are married when they go on such dates and hope they don't get caught. Much of the torrid love affairs are spent on the phone and through text messaging with little in-person contact, but from what the book says, it seems young lovers end up meeting each other one way or another, regardless of all the rules that have been imposed on the population. It is pretty clear from the novel that there are many young men and women who hope to meet their life partners on their own and do a form of dating before getting their families involved in a marriage, though the traditional arranged marriage is more common.

Here is a very interesting posting on how youth are using bluetooth to flirt with each other:

...and I thought it was hard to meet people in Toronto!!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Grocery shopping at the Danube

I know that I've already taken you guys grocery shopping with me, but I couldn't help but post a few more pictures. Every time I go to one of these enormous grocery stores, I feel like I am Gary Coleman walking through the aisles because I can't reach half of the things on the shelves.

Here is a wall of soap. I've never seen so much soap in one aisle in my life. The selection at these stores is not actually that large, it's just that they put 100 of everything they have right on the shelf for us poor sods to pick through.

And here is a wall of toothbrushes... I trust you see where I am going with this. You must wonder about how much time I spend in grocery stores. Let me explain. There are buses that take us to malls and grocery stores almost every day here at the compound, so if I don't go, then we are essentially paying for the bus drivers to drive *other* people to the malls. And we just can't have that, now, can we?

Here's another picture of the children's section in Hayat Mall. It's an ice rink! I wanted to go skating but my man told me that it was only for kids and gently refused my invitation, pressing us on for the groceries. I can only say this: I am in touch with my inner child; are you?

And along that vein, I am posting this picture for you children out there to snicker at. I found some biscuits:

I'm in touch with my inner Gayelord; are you? I realize this is only funny to a small segment of the adult population, but sadly, that segment includes myself.

Ok and all jokes aside, I want to share this last pic with you. It's not a reflection of Saudi culture in any way, it's just plain weird to find something like this in a grocery store in any part of the world:

Predator, Storm troopers, and Lobsters - watch out!

Well I promise you guys that haven't gotten too bored with all the domestic topics more exciting pictures in the future...eventually when it less hot, I will take you out into the beautiful desert.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sorry friend, come back when the lights are on

One of the downsides of living in Riyadh is that things can close unexpectedly, for unexpected periods of time. This is mainly due to the prayers 5 times per day. They usually occur somewhere around sunrise, at noon, at 3pm, 6pm, and 8pm. The times change on a daily basis, so these times are different every single day. 5 to 10 minutes prior to prayer time, supermarkets and shops and restaurants tend to close their doors and dim the lights. And they'll stay closed for anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour. To be fair, I should mention that one of the perks of living here is that everything is open until late, because the locals like to do everything at night, and that includes shopping. So that extends shopping hours beyond what we are used to at home. Most malls are open till 10pm and some all the way till midnight. In Ramadan the hours change so that people can shop till they drop at 2am. It is a surreal and unique experience to be at a grocery store at 10pm, lost in a sea of black abayas and white thobes, clinging to your cart for safety.

Anyways, back to the closing times...someone asked me before I left whether they have signs on the doors to tell you when they will reopen after prayers. Wouldn't it make sense if they had those signs with the little plastic clocks with the movable hands on them? This is the part where the expats laugh hysterically at your question. What do they need signs for when they have lights they can turn off and blinds they can close? And when that fails, there is always the classic man peeking out from behind the curtains and waving you away like a fly.

Ramadan has also added to the confusion, with most stores completely closed during the morning and opening in the afternoon. The schedules have shifted but it seems we are still in the dark about when exactly things are open for business. It becomes a kind of horribly twisted guessing game for us expats, especially the newly arrived. This means that getting more than one errand done in a day is a sugary fantasy dream that involves the cosmic fortunes smiling down on you that day, such that traffic, queues, and prayer times would all be working in your favour. Ha! Fat chance!

Anyways, the frustration melts away with a night swim in the compound swimming pool. It's not so bad, really ;)