Sunday, September 12, 2010


Riyadh is undoubtedly a place of transition for most Westerners. It's generally not a place where people end up staying forever because essentially people run out of patience for the restrictive way of life or they go batty or they get depressed or their marriages collapse or their wild/outrageous secrets are aired and they get fired dramatically. Fortunately, my reasons for leaving are mainly tied to number one. Yes, you've read me right - my time in Saudi is officially over, though I will still be visiting occasionally. I knew one day that the light at the end of the tunnel would finally be within reach, and now that I am basking in the glow of freedom again, I can confirm beyond a shred of doubt, that freedom tastes like bacon covered brandy filled chocolates fed to you by a lesbian bikini-clad couple to the singing stylings of Journey.

Whether it's two years or twenty, everyone reaches a tipping point in Riyadh when they just know their time is up. There's a common saying that circulates in different forms in the expat community - that you come to Saudi with two suitcases: one for money and the other for "crap" (there are many variations on how to describe the contents of this second suitcase), and when one of them fills up that's when you know it's time to leave. Somehow our suitcase for money seems to have a hole in it, and our suitcase with the other stuff...well we've filled about five of them. But a double dip recession threatens to leave us with no suitcases at all if we leave without a plan in place. So basically hubster is staying, while I prepare the nest ahead of him. If we weren't so disgustingly in love, I would be worried...

I feel very flattered that some of you are still checking in here and there for updates from me, and so I must apologize for the long delay. Gee this is where I suppose I should write something articulate expressing my gratitude to all you faithful readers out there, but I just can't seem to come up with something wry and witty. So let me just say thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and thanks for giving me a reason to get out of bed in the mornings (ok it was afternoons) and to sneak pictures at malls. Thrill of a lifetime, I tell ya, sneaking around with that camera.

So this is my sayonara for now. I'm sure I'll be back with other observations next time I'm local again, so hopefully I'll hear from you all again sometime soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

abaya free zones

hello hello! Well I am back from a trip and want to thank any of you who were worried that I stopped blogging because I had killed myself. Besides. My preferred method involves a car and a closed garage, neither of which I have access to at the moment.

...okay ANYWAY. I've been meaning to post about this for a while because for me any time I get to take my abaya off, it makes me feel that much more at home. When I first showed up I thought that I had to wear it any time I was outside the compound walls. And actually even this was a little matter of confusion for me: what exactly constitutes "outside the compound"??? Compounds typically have an outer gate and an inner gate, and "outside the compound" generally means "outside the inner gate" - and if you choose to disrobe or fling your buttons open (you hussy!!) between the outer gate and inner gate, you may have to prepare yourself for some confrontation with the guards.

Out in public, it may surprise you to learn that you are free to take off your abayas at restaurants, albeit you have to be inside a booth in the family section with the curtains drawn. Although A/C is usually so powerful in this country that you may want to keep it on. One unwritten rule is that in certain ritzy hotels and their restaurants, you may be able to take your abaya off, but the safest thing to do is ask management first, though I would recommend keeping your shoulders and knees covered. For international departures and arrivals, there is also leniency. And if you are a golfer, you are also expected to leave your abaya in the car. Please don't quote me on these things as hard and fast rules, but these are just general guidelines, and if a muttawa shows up and asks you to cover yourself, I have a hunch that he will not be interested in hearing what you read on the internet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

so THAT'S why they don't fly Saudia...

I finally made a trip to the main Saudi Arabian Airlines office in Riyadh. The reason being that the flight I requested was not available as an electronic ticket, so I had to get a paper one. Lemme give you a piece of advice. If you find out you can't get an electronic ticket, do not bother with Saudia, because for the money you will save with the cheap flight, you will be paying out emotionally and with your time instead.

After being informed by the booking assistance Saudia guy on the phone that I needed to go to a travel agent or saudia office to get my ticket, I asked my husband's office runner to help make a booking. In the evening I proceeded to Saudia head office (the big one off King Fahad near Panda Supermarket). If you have never seen a typical Saudia travel agent work, let me paint the scene for you: a Saudia employee sits expressionless and motionless staring blankly at a computer screen while you approach the counter - he types so slow you have to double check whether you are in real time or whether you have slipped into a slow motion wormhole - he gives you a number that reads 87 while the electronic counter behind him reads 70 - ten minutes later he is still in the exact same position serving the exact same customer - you realize you could be there all night. The office was just stuffed with people, a total mess, and the men's section was a million times worse. After hearing that a friend had waited six hours at that very office, I decided to leave and tackle the task the next day.

The next morning, due to a lack of consensus on where I could pick up my ticket, I visited three different travel agencies and a Saudia office near the airbase, only to be sent right back to the Saudi head office. Finally I resigned myself to the fate of sitting in the pile and took a number from the front desk. Once I got to the counter, it took another twenty minutes to get my precious paper ticket.

My advice if you still decide you want to risk visiting this office is: 1)get the lady in your life to go 2)make sure you have your passport 3)make sure you get a number directly from the employee as they have stopped distributing them from the dispensers 4)go in the morning 5)bring a book or something to stab yourself with, anything to relieve the boredom!

I have heard really mixed things about Saudi Arabian Airlines. On the one hand, some people say the flights are on time and have good leg room. On the other hand, I've heard that VIP's and HRH's that show up last minute are given priority over proper ticket holders who get bumped off their flights, and the planes seem to have more unsoothed toddlers on them wreaking havoc. And now I have witnessed the abomination that is their head office...hmmm....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

You speak english?

So I think one of the good things about Saudi Arabia that isn't mentioned enough is how much English is spoken here. Many of the major road signs and signs in the malls are written in both English and Arabic. Even your trip to the grocery store is aided by bilingual signs and bilingual labels on products. You can bank in English, get your internet set up in English, basically live your life in Riyadh in English. My Riyadh readers must think I am a little insane suggesting this, but actually I feel quite grateful that enough people speak my native tongue here that I can get by in my day to day life without having too much difficulty with language barriers.

Don't get me wrong, it can definitely try your patience when you have a communication breakdown with your driver. Questions that you know for a fact cannot be answered with 'yes' or 'no' (e.g. 'where the hell are we?') can and will be answered with 'yes' in the car when a driver doesn't understand you. As far as I am concerned, this is the international test of English: ask a question that begins with who, what, where, when, or why. If the person answers 'yes', it means they do NOT speak English and though they may look nice, they will NOT be able to help you!

But on the whole I find it astounding how many people in this country are bilingual or trilingual. I am most ashamedly monolingual despite having two official languages in Canada. The truth is that we are only truly bilingual in pockets and the vast majority of us are English-speaking with an elementary school sprinkling of French stored somewhere in the back of our brains. Here is a random sampling of my French: je ne sais pas mon ami, mais ou est le gateau? Le fromage est dans la salle de bain avec le croque monsieur chateau frontenac louis riel decoupage cuisinart.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Luthan Spa

Ladies! I went to the Luthan Spa for the first time this week and it was more fabulous than I thought it would be and just had to share. I went with a very dear girlfriend of mine, which made it a lot of fun because we got to dissect the experience as it happened. Ok, so the first remark I have to make is that this spa was very nice. It had that mmmmm spa smell and it was decently decorated.

Here is the locker room where we took off our clothes and took pictures of each other. Now now, we had robes on. I know this might sound ridiculous to some of you, but my friend and I had a discussion on how much clothing we thought we should wear under our robes. In the end, it was no different than any other spa in the West.

The photo snapping came to an abrupt halt in the lounge area after we were told to put our cameras away, which I suppose should have been obvious. Due to my deep commitment to this blog and to you, my dear readers, I secretly took pictures anyway ha ha ha suckers. Check out the relaxation room! It had individual water beds where you could rest from all the hard spa work!

We got a tour of the facilities and there was an impressive collection of specialized treatment rooms for an array of therapies, like Ayurvedic treatments, Balinese massages, and Mermaid MRI. Ok, it wasn't a Mermaid MRI, it was a heated waterbed massage thingy, but the full body machine was in the shape of sparkly shell. I swear it on my life. They also had quite a selection of steam and sauna rooms in the pool area with different themes, like a Moroccan Hammam and an herbal sauna that smelled like heaven. None of the treatment rooms were set up for more than one person, so that's something to keep in mind if you go with a friend. You ain't gonna be yapping through your mud wraps unless you make good conversation with walls and ceilings (I admit this happens at home sometimes). You will also want to book in advance if you are getting a package done because even though the spa looked pretty dang empty when we got there, they insisted it was a busy day.

Anywho I had a wonderful massage there, a hair treatment, a facial, and a back mud wrap. They were all very nice, barring the painful bits during the facial, and it really was a wonderful day, made even better by the company I had with me!

Luthan Spa website

Monday, July 5, 2010

the curious case of cryptic closures

Crazy caption?

I'm talking about this strange phenomenon in Riyadh where we find stores, restaurants, and retailers in general closed for no apparent reason. Y'all know what I'm talking about? With the exception of the 'safety' hours between 10am - 12pm, and 4pm - 6pm, I often feel I am rolling the dice in attempting to visit a retail space. I say this because even when you have the exact prayer times in front of you, sometimes you can arrive at a place to find it closed, and you will not have the luxury of an explanation.

Take for instance last night. Hubster and I came out of an appointment downtown at 7:45pm. We got into our driver's car and decided to head somewhere to eat. In the car we checked the prayer times on the internet, the next one being at 8:17pm. Perfect, we had just enough time to get settled and order somewhere. At a traffic light, we saw Tony Roma's and decided we wanted to eat there. So we jumped out of the car and raced across the street to it only to find that at 8:00pm all the lights were off, the curtains were drawn, the place was closed. We called our driver to make a U-turn and hopped back in the car confused. So we had the wrong prayer time?? Nope. Hubster double checked, it was 8:17pm, Tony Roma's just decided to close for god only knows what reason. At this point our choices were to eat an expensive meal at a hotel where prayer is not observed, eat cheap garbage quickly at a mall food court, or go home. So we went home.

We once visited a mattress store on three separate occasions deliberately trying different days and different hours to see if it would be open, but it never was. The last time we went, there was a single light on, taunting us, as if to say, 'wouldn't you like to know who turned this one light on? well he is in a place called Not Here.'

Well anyways, one reason why some stores are closed in the afternoon is because many retailers choose to have split hours that run from 9am - 12pm and then 4pm till 8pm-ish. The other closures I just chalk up to randomness. Coming from Canada where hours are clearly marked on doors and websites, and employees answer phones when you call them, I just can't describe the level of confusion I felt when I first moved here and began encountering this regularly. On the whole it just means you need to put some planning into eating out or visiting certain stores in the evening, but some days I miss the spontaneity of just being able to wing it and have simple things work out. One respite is that all the major grocery stores appear to be exempt from this random closure thing, so I am at least uber thankful for that.

You would think we should be used to sidestepping prayer by now. True, we've gotten much better, but as you can see, we are not always successful - even after a year and a half!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Riyadh Recipe for Spectacle

Whisk together in a large bowl:
1 cup waiting for hubster to finish work
1 cup driving through heavy traffic to pick up hubster
2 cups hunger
2 TBSP waiting for hubster to come out of office
1/4 cup driving to wrong restaurant
2 cups walking to right restaurant
5 cups simmering Saudi heat

Pour mixture into large pot & place on stove on high heat. Then pour in:
1 TSP miscalculation of prayer time
3 TBSP staring at closed restaurant
1/4 cup of restaurant remaining closed while everything else opens

Bring mixture to a boil. Pour out onto sidewalk.

If you have followed the recipe correctly, you should see a woman loudly and repeatedly knocking on the glass door of a dark restaurant with shades drawn, with hubster standing a ways back holding inner counsel on whether intervention is worthwhile or hazardous. Next, you should see the shades slowly pull up, watch the door unlock, and see the woman walk into a room full of quiet restaurant employees staring at her while she pretends nothing has happened.

You may wish to garnish this dish with hubster's chuckling.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You call that a mall?

Ontario's newest mall called "Vaughn Mills" opened out in suburbia a few years ago and at the time we were all quite excited about it. We hadn't had a new mall in ten plus years, and the pre-eminent mall experience was a toss up between Yorkdale and Eaton Center. We were thrilled with the 200 odd stores in it, a lot of them being outlet style stores of my favourite brands, it just seemed like a bit of heaven. Tsk tsk. I was so young and naive.

I'm afraid coming to the middle east has forever ruined my expectations of what constitutes a mall. The bar has been raised so incredibly high that it's such a let down to visit the old shopping haunts in Toronto. In Bahrain, the City Centre mall has a waterpark, brand spanking new cinemas and 350 stores. The Dubai Mall in Dubai has a full sized skating rink, a giant aquarium, a three storey waterfall, a full cinema, and a thousand plus stores. A THOUSAND. Brands carried in the Kingdom Mall here in Riyadh include places like Tiffany's and Burberry - stuff you would only see on the ritziest parts of Bay & Bloor in Toronto. Most of the malls in Riyadh are attached to full sized grocery stores too! It's effing brilliant! While the mix of stuff you find in the middle east clothing wise is not always to my taste, the malls are really incredible here and they are a huge relief for Western women. I myself am very grateful for having so many to choose from in Riyadh.

And by the way ladies, NOW is the time to shop till you drop. The summer sales are on and I know once you get into a mall and see those 50% off signs, the part of your brain that normally gives you the willpower to show restraint in purchases will completely shut down. Go go go!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Date me

I have a sweet tooth and I absolutely slobber when I see dates. It is the one of the few middle eastern treats that I adore devouring.

If you've never had a date, maybe you should try deodourant. har har har. I couldn't resist. Eating a date is like biting into a giant raisin, except instead of the grape taste, you taste something akin to maple syrup. They are delectable little things, though they are very high in sugar content. The locals will sometimes tell you it's a 'healthy sugar', which is probably baloney, but don't argue, just chew. If you argue, you might not get another one! Quick how many can you stuff into your purse while no one's looking? On our last trip to Dubai they kept an unlimited supply at the front desk of the hotel and I routinely made up excuses to walk by and grab them. I usually eat four or five of them at a time and typically stop one date short of feeling completely sick.

I should probably write something cultural about where they come from, about date factories and such and such, but then I don't really care - I only care about where to get more of them. The softer the better. Any suggestions out there?

exit re-entry visa. argh.

You've finally made it here, and now you can't wait to get out, so you've got two tickets to Istanbul and a big smile on your face. Not so fast buster. In order to exit the Magic Kingdom and to re-enter post vacay, you will need to shell out either 200SAR for a single exit re-entry visa where you are allowed to exit once and re-enter once, or 500SAR for the "multiple six month exit re-entry visa" where you may exit and re-enter freely within a six month period starting from the date of your first departure. If it sounds like it's straightforward, rest assured that there are many things that can go wrong.

Typically the office 'runner' will be the man in charge of handling the visa for you, and he will collect your passports, money, your sponsor's scribbly wibbly (i.e. written permission), and sometimes when the mood strikes him, passport pictures. In theory, the paperwork should only take a day or so to complete, but getting anything done quickly in the Kingdom is like putting a stick in the Red Sea and expecting it to part. If your name isn't Moses, then you better plan ahead.

The most important thing to remember after you get your exit re-entry visa is to bring it with you to the airport. That sounds simple enough, but the fact that the visa is typically a loose sheet of dot matrix A4 paper makes it easy to confuse the document, with say, a receipt, or to leave it behind with your airline ticket at the check-in counter, or for your well meaning maid to throw out for you.

Let's explore a hypothetical. Let's say you are now on your way back to Riyadh from a nice trip to Germany. As you are lining up to get onto the plane bound for Riyadh, you notice the flight staff checking visas. Has it been six months since you first used it?? Gee you've had so many Worsteiners you can't remember. You examine your visa, but can't read the dates on any of the stamps because they are in arabic(!), and not only are they in arabic, but they utilize the arabic calendar (!!!). The staff denies your entry on the flight to Riyadh (!!!!!).

Now what? Well remember all those documents you had to collect before you came to Riyadh in the first place? Yup. Resubmission time. Not to worry, your exile should only last a few weeks since the paperwork is already in place and all that needs to be done is for your runner to submit everything again along with the ever important letter from the sponsor. But as we have covered, you are not Moses, so expect there to be mistakes and delays.

happy travelling all!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

burning skin vs. frozen spine

So what would you rather live in? A country that is dismal and chillingly cold for about six months (Oct-Mar) out of the year with a three month summer, or a country that is summer all the time with about four months (Jun-Sep) of suffocating heat? We've reached the mid-forties celsius in Riyadh and the air is just right for whining. Going outside in Riyadh during this time of year is like getting a hug from a sumo wrestler, except the sumo wrestler is made of fire. Is it possible for your eyeballs to feel sweaty? I say yes!

Well I tell ya, even so, I like the heat and all the beautiful sunny days in Riyadh, and I do *not* miss the weather in Canada. You would think I might long for a white Christmas and skating and snowball fights, but the truth is that after coming here, I can't understand how I survived Toronto. Seriously there were times back then when I counted a full two weeks without seeing the sun! Canadians: now that it's summer, you can all congratulate yourselves for not committing suicide back in February when you were seriously considering it.

In Riyadh, things get hot, sure. And on certain days you really might be able to fry an egg on your car, sure. But the nice thing is that every enclosed space you encounter has proper air conditioning, and lots of it. I will take burning skin over frozen spine any day, because the reality is that your skin will only burn for the 30 seconds between a car and a door, but I found my frozen spine would last all day in Canada, and the heating systems were always too much or too little. It is also mean and unfair to make a woman choose between looking good and being warm.

How did I manage to complain about both countries in one post? It's a special Canadian skill. But Riyadh still wins hands down for me, weather wise.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tim Horton's fans

Without a doubt, every expat Canadian that goes abroad will at some point mention and lament their loss of access to Tim Horton's. Affectionately known as Timmy's, this is an affordably priced Canadian coffee & donut chain that has a fanatically loyal fanbase. The franchise was started by a much loved hockey player in 1965, and now has about 3500 locations across Canada. The chain dominates both the fast food and coffee markets in Canada and outcompetes both McDonalds and Starbucks by wide margins, so it is really beyond a word like "iconic" - it is *legendary*. Along with serving up a damn good coffee and a myriad of donut varieties, they sell their wildly popular "timbits" which are basically bite sized donut holes. In the mid-80's they expanded into soups and chillies, then sandwiches and bagels in the 90's, and have most recently been in talks with Satan to purchase outright ownership of Canadian souls with ads like these:

(This commercial has been known to make grown men cry)

The fanatacism has reached such heights that should you mention Tim Horton's to even the most unanimated Canadian expat, they will positively light up with excitement as they describe their favourite timbit to you (SOUR CREAM GLAZED!) or talk about their Iced Caps. You may even see some mist in their eyes as they mention the painful hole in their heart that Timmy's used to occupy before it was ripped out by moving abroad.

So I'm writing this post for all the Canadians expats who know what I'm talking about. Don't forget to check in with a comment and tell me what your favourite thing to order was ;)

Are those handcuffs?? Where am I?

I am in Jeddah right now! And I cannot resist posting the pictures I took of a lingerie shop at the Red Sea Mall. I heard that things were a bit more relaxed out here, but I didn't realize it was *this* relaxed!

While I was looking into the store making surprised remarks about it, hubster disappeared halfway down the hall to disassociate himself from the woman with the camera yelling, "they sell WHIPS in here! Come look! Where are you going?!" He is the first to sell me down the river whenever he hears the words, "look out for security, okay?" Honestly where is the loyalty? Curiously, there was no mall security chasing me down for taking pictures anywhere. Was it just good luck? Or is this Jeddah?

line up etiquette

Okay this is one beef that Canadians always have when they come to Saudi. In Canada, we are all very (ridiculously?) uptight about not cutting in line for anything in any situation. Whatever the line up, the attitude is always first come first serve no matter who you are. The level of personal insult incurred with a cut in is on the order of slapping everyone you have just cut in front of. We have a tradition of equality that people take really seriously even if you're just buying donuts and you are pretty sure the guy in front of you is drunk: if you are truly Canadian, you will still wait patiently behind the drunken man while he spills the contents of his wallet out and asks how much a single timbit costs in pennies.

Here in Riyadh, things are different. The culture here is hierarchical by nature and it is reflected in little things such as line ups. Whenever you go to the airport or pass through Bahrain, you will often see Saudi nationals jumping lines to pass through customs. Part of the story is that there are less documents to check and so they actually pass through very quickly, and another part of it is that there is sometimes simply an attitude of entitlement present that is tolerated far more in the Middle East than it is in Canada and the U.S. Even purchasing clothing, I have literally gotten to the counter after lining up only to have a local with her entourage swoop in from behind me and demand to be cashed out first. It happens at the grocery store too, especially when prayer is just about to hit and a scramble occurs.

So anyways, I'm sharing all this with you as a preface to a recent experience. I went to McDonalds and there were two Saudi women waiting for their food after ordering, busy chatting. I fully expected them to continue blocking the counter until they got their food and left. But not long after I arrived, one of them saw me and pushed her friend out of the way to make way for me. Yes actually, a lot of them (the majority of them!) are polite and respectful, but since line up etiquette is so very important in Canada, we really remember the bad stuff more than we notice the good. The reality is that for every one Saudi that cuts the line there are ten that will wait patiently just like you.

I mean, this doesn't change the fact that I've become obsessively territorial when I'm waiting in line and deliberately spread my bags out as far as possible as a preventative measure, but it is a reminder that there are a lot of Saudis out there who feel that showing respect and courtesy to others is just a part of our every day lives.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Walking in Riyadh *HONK*

For a number of reasons, Saudi is not a pedestrian friendly place. The most popular reason would be the brutal heat, which really does preclude walking anywhere in the daytime for a good five months out of the year. But another reason is simply a matter of urban planning - there is no consistent network of sidewalks in this region, so on any given road, you may be walking on sidewalk for a part of it, then the dirt part of a construction zone, then the road itself while you walk around construction barriers, and then back onto a sidewalk. Many of the smaller streets do not have sidewalks at all. Also with the exception of a few parks, a couple of nice streets, or walking around the souks, the lack of control in organizing the growth of the city has led to a disparate (read in: ugly) looking landscape that is not worth exploring on foot.

OK so for all the above reasons, there are pretty much no pedestrians walking around the city, and especially not the abaya-wearing delicate flowers known as women. But from time to time, you just can't avoid walking. Given all the information above though, any time a taxi driver sees a woman walking, they think "oh! she needs a ride. Why isn't she looking at me? I'm gonna let her know I'm here." *HONK* Then they slow down to see if you are looking, which causes all the cars behind the taxi to honk the taxi. *HONK* *HONK *HONK* You must make eye contact and shake your head or wave them away before they move on. Now this is the important part: repeat this fifty times, because THAT my friends, is what taking a walk in Riyadh is like!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

a hubster's guide to PMS in the Kingdom

Once a month or so, the floodgates of my soul open, and my emotional responses to normal stimuli become wildly exaggerated. Not sure if there's a Saudi equivalent, but the code phrase for this delicate female time in Canada is "the aunt has come to visit."

Unfortunately during my aunt's visits, there is usually only one hapless victim wandering around the house to be unwittingly disemboweled and eaten alive. Poor hubster. I'm dedicating this post to all the poor hubsters out there...sometimes the only true error on your innocent hands is that you were within a 10 yard radius of your lovely wife. If you really have screwed up during her aunt's visit, then may God be with you and remember the cardinal rule: never ever ever ever ask her if she is having PMS - it is the same as asking her to beat you with a chair. oooh yeah and the second cardinal rule: stop, drop and roll.

Here's a few examples of how you can outsmart her 'aunt', given that you have been smart enough to figure out that the aunt is on her way:

Situation A
A late driver and prayer messed up her plans to buy something
normal female response: she does it tomorrow
PMS response: she snaps at hubster when he asks where the item is
normal husband: shrugs and tells her to do it tomorrow
smart husband: volunteers to get it right now. hugs her & tells her he loves her.

Situation B
A friend's husband said something chauvanistic to her
normal female response: rolls her eyes and moves on with life
PMS response: rants for 20 mins straight to hubster about sexism
normal husband: asks her why she cares what other people think
smart husband: agrees with her. hugs her & tells her he loves her.

Situation C
A friend gushes about a fancy night out with her husband
normal female response: is happy for her friend
PMS response: asks her husband why he never takes her anywhere
normal husband: lists all the fancy places he's taken her last month
smart husband: makes reservations immediately. hugs her & tells her he loves her.

Situation D
She's suffering from cabin fever
normal female response: she books a driver and gets out
PMS response: she gets mopey and sulks
normal husband: tells her she needs to get out more
smart husband: takes her out. hugs her & tells her he loves her.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What's normal anyway, right?

So I don't know how to write this post without sounding like a complete snob, so I'll just begin by admitting freely that I can be a snobby judgemental poop from time to time and my comfy little circle of friends in Toronto included people who were considerate, non-confrontational, drama-free, working professionals, leading normal lives in a normal city.

Being plucked from my little world of sunshine, unicorns and all things easy (though I didn't know it at the time because I was a fool. a damn fool.) and dropped off in the middle of the arabian desert has sort of left me in a position where I no longer have the luxury of interacting with only the people that are basically clonal variations of myself. I know that sounds terrible but I was very happy hanging out with the calm version of me, the fit and active version of me, the five years younger version of me, the superstar version of me, the academic version of me, the male version of me, and so on and so forth. In Riyadh, if you are looking for that reflection of yourself in your friends, you will be Gilligan but without the other castaways, because this is the land of the unconventional and no two expats are alike.

In Riyadh, you might find a lot of people on their second or third marriages or on their fourth or fifth careers; in a row of houses on a compound, you might find military contractors, businessmen, nurses, and teachers from all around the world. Education levels will vary from high school all the way to PhD's, political views from extremely right to communist, religions from atheist to wants-to-convert-you. You'll have people who are happily single, people who are unhappily single, the happily married and monogomous, the unhappily married and mostly monogomous, the happily married and mutually not monogomous, and everything in between. You will be thrust into an environment where you will make friends with people you would not normally be friends with, owing to your uppity pre-Riyadh views on people you like and people you do not like. Basically what I am saying is that if you were like me and living in a happy bubble before you moved to a compound, the more you find out about your fellow compound dwellers, the more you will find yourself saying, "that's CRAZY!" And not in a positive wild and fun way, but like in a sociopathic issue-laden morally-questionable way.

Then you hit steady state and go "what's normal anyway?" ha ha. Ok I am not saying throw all your standards out the window and welcome crazy into your daily life, but I am saying that maybe re-evaluating your preconceived notions on what types of people to include in your social network is a necessary thing to do here. As long as you find people who are mature and loyal, it's okay if you don't have everything else in common, and who knows it could expand your horizons or some sh*t like that.

And for the set that are resistant to expanding their horizons in defense of their identities...well I am right there with you too. That is what blogging is for.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

the compound run-down

Another long information post. Here are my general impressions for those expats in the planning stages.

I've blogged about this one before. I think most people agree that this is the most attractive looking compound to stay in, with its lovely 'ranch' style decorations, a beautiful resort style central pool, and its golf course and driving range. And its horse. It's really one of the best compounds with a pleasant atmosphere, but it has a matching price tag for pockets that run deep.

Cordoba & Al Hamra
Sister compounds with a common owner, Cordoba and Al Hamra are very large compounds. Cordoba is supposed to have some of the most spacious villas in Riyadh, with beautifully maintained grounds and a very good maintenance team. Cordoba can sometimes feel a bit cold as there is less of a community atmosphere there than on other compounds and it has a truly terrible compound restaurant.

Kingdom is famous amongst women for its coffee mornings. It has a wonderful looking central pool with fake rocks and boulders everywhere, a nice cafe area and restaurant, and even has a birdcage on display full of parrots and budgies. I've never been in a villa but they are supposed to be quite nice. This compound has the longest waiting list in the Kingdom because its prices are reasonable for the quality of accommodation.

This is a smaller compound in comparison to others on this list, but still sizeable. Grounds are well maintained, and Eid boasts a wavepool and a fairly decent restaurant. Villas tend to be on the smaller side compared to other compounds in this price range, but what people tend to like about Eid is the friendly atmosphere.

Jadawel is supposed to be another nice compound that has very spacious residences. I've never been there but I hear it's great. One drawback about Jadawel is its location twenty minutes from the edge of the city.

Arab Investment Compound
A smaller compound near the diplomatic quarter, this one is quite nice and cozy. The villas we've been able to visit are comfortable and residents seem content with it, but you don't see the same kinds of sprawling set ups as in the luxury compounds. A lot of people like its location, that is relatively central for a Western compound.

Al Yamama
There's actually three Yamama compounds now, but I've only been to Yamama 2. These compounds are large and seem to have a decent number of amenities too. The villas I've seen in Yamama tend to be fairly simple bungalow type houses made of concrete blocks but they are generally spacious enough.

A smaller compound, this is a decent looking place, and has enough amenities to make your stay reasonable. As with others on this list, this compound is well kept with all the amenities you would need and our friends there seem content with it.

Arabian Homes, Nadj, and Villas Rosas are also smaller compounds that are well maintained from what I hear.

Seder Village
Ahh...Seder Village. This is a compound that everyone knows and talks about and you'll see why when you get here. Housing is bungalow style, but it's a notch below Yamama; the construction of homes is nowhere near the Luxury compounds. The thing that sets Seder apart from others is its fun & social reputation - it is supposed to have a solid community of expats that are plugged into events in the region, and is a popular choice for singles.

Ranco's residences range from motel-style apartments to larger villas. Not much to say about their rec center or amenities, just that they're there, and they get used. Their prices are fixed at very reasonable rates.

I understand that Fal is a military facility that has been converted to a compound. The rooms are very small and sterile, however the place is cheaper than most.

HERE are some recent prices of some of the compounds that I've mentioned.

In a luxury compound, you can expect resort-style surroundings and extra amenities on large compounds, beautiful villas, ever-increasing prices, and lengthy waitlists. To get into these highly sought-after compounds, you usually have to have a friend living at your preferred compound that is willing to vouch for you and introduce you to management. Many long-timers have left them in recent years because the pricetags have doubled within the span of the last 5-10 years.

Mid-range compounds usually have most of the necessary amenities on their compounds to make living there comfortable and easy, well manicured grounds if not sprawling ones - maybe no wavepool or bowling, but a hairdresser and a nice gym. On the budget end, you'll have the basic amenities that are convenient in a compound, but not necessarily the nicest looking houses or grounds.

When it comes to demographics, each compound is different, and you have to make a visit to the compound in question to really get a feel for what types of people live in each one. Many Westerners feel uncomfortable in compounds that have large arab populations because of the cultural clashes that can occur. If your housing is not provided by your employer, the best thing to do is to take colleagues & acquaintances up on their offers for you to go visit them at their compounds, and plan a stop at the manager's office. Phone calls and emails will generally not get you into any of the higher end compounds.

Good luck to you all, and hope this helps!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

night swims night sky

Okay, one of my most favourite things to do on the compound is take swims at night in the pool. Right now, the weather has gotten a little too hot for afternoon walks, but being outside at night time is heavenly. Bonus - no sunscreen needed.

When my husband and I are out in the pool floating and looking up at the evening sky, it's a different colour from the night sky in Canada. I know some of you may think black is black, and the sky would look the same, but it doesn't! In Saudi Arabia, the sky has purples and reds in it from the glow of the city, whereas in Toronto the black leans more towards an indigo blue-black. The crescent moon here looks like a smile, and all the constellations are in a different position from where they are in Toronto, when you can make them out from a campfire in the desert.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is Riyadh Dangerous?

The answer to this question is "it depends on your definition of dangerous."

If you are asking whether it is dangerous in the sense of whether it is likely you will be kidnapped by a terrorist and have a toe chopped off and sent to your spouse in an envelope, then no, it's not dangerous. Ever since the bombings in 2003, the country has cracked down on terrorist activity and I am happy to report that I have never felt unsafe here. I am told things did get bad for Westerners just before the bombings and there was some harassment going on, but these days I would be very surprised to hear of something like that happening.

If your version of 'dangerous' entails lashings by angry bearded arab men yelling infidel at you because a button is broken on your abaya, then the answer is also no, it's not dangerous for Westerners. The Muttawa once roamed free in this land, travelling in packs, some say carrying sticks, and when there was a full moon out they would grow fur and claws and howl while they feasted on the flesh of... oh wait wait...I'm getting mixed up here. It's hard to separate myth from reality, past from present, rural vs. urban with the things you hear about the religious police. For the most part the main kind of trouble they will currently give a Western woman is for not having her head covered. I believe locals and muslims are under more scrutiny, but that being the case I would still not recommend Westerners to be alone in public with the opposite sex if they are not married or related to them.

If your definition of 'dangerous' is petty crime, then yes, Riyadh is dangerous in the same way Toronto, LA, New York, and other countless big cities are dangerous. Add the high proportion of youth and their matching unemployment rate, you can sort of get an idea of what type of trouble brews here. People occasionally get carjacked, and muggings occur, though they usually target working class Filipino and Indians who have no recourse. If anyone tells you that the benefit of coming to a holy land is that the cities are very safe, you have my permission to laugh a little. I say this because hubster told me that before we moved here and we now have a good laugh from time to time about it.

Lastly, if your definition of "dangerous" is the most insane and violent road rage you've ever seen in your life, then on very rare occasions Riyadh also fits the bill. I'm only gonna say this once: if the other driver looks crazy, he probably *is*. In this specific circumstance, resist the temptation to get out of your car to engage the angry man who has just cut across three lanes to slam into you, because although he may look like a skinny nothing, he probably has a lead pipe under his seat saved for special occasions like this.

Though the majority of the country is perfectly fine with Westerners being here, there's still a segment of people who resent us and what we stand for, and it's best to remember that when you're out and about. They all speak English and can understand disparaging remarks, so save your frustrations for your house or car. I've never felt unwelcome or truly unsafe here - but if you go looking for trouble in Riyadh, you can find it. As a woman and Westerner, I am out and about regularly on my own and do not think twice about it. Riyadh is as safe as any other metropolis, so don't worry too much about it!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

where is the rest of my $10 magazine?

Okay, so I'm sure many of you have heard that there are censorship laws here in Saudi Arabia. Just to give you an idea of how it plays out in real life, my recent People Magazine in which Bret Michaels says he's "lucky to be alive" has about ten pages ripped out of it. Pontificating on why these pages have been taken out is sometimes more fun than reading the magazine itself, because let's be honest, who cares about Bret Michaels?

In the section titled "Sizzling Stars of Summer", "Sexy couples, super stunts, and ripped six packs galore," I am missing two pages of scantily clad celebrities. Apparently there is such a thing as too hot for Saudi Arabia! All I get to see of Jake Gyllenhaal's presumably unsheathed body is some whispy strands of hair. To the Censor who defaced my magazine: I have a womanly entitlement to see Jake Gyllenhaal's sun-kissed muscles, and I find it appalling that you are robbing the female population here of this God given right. Keeping us apart will only bring us closer together.

Ok ladies, for those of you wondering why I bothered to pay $10 for a People magazine, let me just inform you that this was actually a thoughtful gesture brought to you by the one and only hubster. He knows I read all kinds of tabloids and sh*t back home and can't get any recent copies here - he just didn't know that the trash factor had to be much higher for me to maximize my enjoyment. Yes, I am "that woman" that wants to read about Heidi Montag's addiction to painkillers after ten plastic surgeries.

Hubster has also had copies of the Economist censored in the same manner - there are often pages missing from the magazine any time there is coverage on Saudi Arabia. My reaction? I just shrug my shoulders. This is all part of what we signed up for ;)

alone time = verbal incontenence

It happens to the best of us. Living in a closed society can make it unusually difficult for people to make the same kind of connections that they have at home with their friends and family. A lot of expat women end up spending a lot of time at home cooped up with their kids or even by themselves, because the heat levels, the abayas, the lack of public entertainment sources, the prayer closings, the drivers, the blah blah blah million and one barriers to doing the things you always did at home result in it being ten times easier to stay home than to get out and go somewhere social. A lot of women fall into a pattern of inertia, a bit of a black hole in time, and I am just as guilty as the next. For instance, if I walked out of my home on any given afternoon to go to the compound store, and someone asked me what day it was or what time it was, I would not know. As a general rule, time stopped somewhere a year and half ago for me, and I therefore cannot make a distinction between Sunday and Tuesday. Those details slowly become filed in the brain as "not relevant"

As a direct result of all that isolated time-stopping quiet time, I find that when I call my friends and family back in Canada, I literally cannot stop talking. It's the kind of flood-talking where the person on the other end of the line could put the phone down, watch Seinfeld, come back, and you would still be talking, not because anything particularly earth shattering has happened, but because you've gone into withdrawal from the lack of human interaction and this is the rebound effect.

I know this post makes me sound like quite the fruitless loser...what can I say? it's not completely untrue........ha ha..oh well, that is what candy is for!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Top ten things to do on a compound

I get the impression that what goes on the inside of a compound seems quite mysterious to outsiders, so I've put together a little list of common activites.

1. swim or sunbathe or tend your requisite sunburns.
2. have bbq's or attend bbq's
3. walk in circles around the compound and try to spot which residents have nicer furniture than you. On your walk, you run down your mental tally of what gossip you have heard about what people living at what houses. You also get extra points if you see anyone naked in the windows.
4. if you have young kids, you spend time with your young kids and with other people who have young kids.
5. if you're an empty nester, you play bridge, tennis, squash, go on the shopping bus, go to the ceramic cafe, tend your garden, and chit chat quite a lot about those activities and everyone else on the compound.
6. if you're a single man, you watch a hell of a lot of movies, DVD's, and spend quality time with your Wii or Playstation.
7. take lessons in some kind of hobby that will likely never be useful in your day to day life
8. you cook alone in your house, staring blankly at the clock, while you fantasize about owning an Ironman suit. Ok maybe that one is just me.
9. go to compound parties that will be good if you have a good rec director, and bad if you don't
10. you spend an unreasonable amount of time trolling the internet in your pajamas

Saturday, May 15, 2010

getting a job...or not...

I've been meaning to write about this for a while but it's just oh so serious. I promise my next post will be about pixie dust or puppies or something.

For you ladies out there moving here for your hubbies, let me just say that if you like teaching, tutoring, being a secretary, or are a nurse, boy oh boy you are totally in luck! Riyadh is full of these jobs for expat women, and even if you have no experience teaching, the international schools and other tutoring opportunities abound.

If you don't like children and are not a nurse, and you don't have a job set up before you arrive, well come a little closer so I can stick my trusty pin in that rose coloured bubble above your head. The reality is that even if you find work in your profession here (a feat on its own due to your gender and the Saudization program), you will likely be paid next to nothing for your efforts for the simple fact that you own a couple of boobs and a hoo ha down there. Before you get here, if your husband's friends and colleagues say, "oh she'll get a job no problem" just be aware that 90% of the time the people who say that are full of sh*t; if it was that easy, why haven't you been recruited too?

When I first came to Riyadh, I thought I would be able to find work in my profession because it was in healthcare. For months I dug around, called, and showed up to hospitals, and actually I did manage to secure an internship at a hospital. As a job offer was extended to me, I was appalled by the pay they offered and turned it down. I am pretty sure our maid has better pay and hours than what I was given. It was at that point that I decided to choose early retirement. I was sort of unenthused about my chosen profession anyhow, so it was a good time to re-evaluate things on my end and I'm not really bitter about how things turned out.

Now now, before you get all depressed and disgruntled, let me say this as well: in time I'm pretty sure I would have found a decent job in my line of work. A lot of it is about making connections, getting names, and just showing up. Just be prepared to do that for the better part of a year, less if you're lucky or speak arabic, and more if the cosmos are not on your side.

Hope this is helpful!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

not religious? what do you mean?

A while back I did a very short internship in my trade here in Riyadh where I got to mix with expats from all over the Middle East and Africa. Being the only non-muslim at work and starting during Ramadan, I covered my head to be sure not to offend people, and then felt weird about uncovering after Ramadan was over. This made people at work curious about my religion, and I had a few people ask me whether I was Muslim or Christian.

When I first answered that I was neither, and that I was in fact not religious at all, the looks I received from people were of complete and utter dismay and confusion. I felt like I had just told everyone my mother was a dolphin, and that's why I have flippers for hands. When I tried to explain myself, it only caused more confusion, so I gave up and just decided to tell everyone I was Christian and that I just hadn't been to church in a real long time. This calmed everyone's feathers down, except maybe God, who might have been offended by my hypocrisy. I came home and told hubster what happened at work and he nodded his head. He said that he found that certain groups of devout people here view Christianity as an acceptable alternative to being Muslim, because at least Christians are still people 'of the book' so to speak. But to not believe in God or to not be religious at all is just seen as catastrophically poor are basically a lost soul. What kind of person would choose to be a lost soul???

Obviously that was a select group of fervent believers that I was working with, but I think it's very interesting that at home in Toronto in my circles, I am the norm, and it's the people who are religious that are 'misguided.' I've been on both sides of that fence, and I really don't think either side is right or wrong, better or worse - it's just a matter of personal preference. Whatever you choose, as long as you are happy, have love in your life, and are at peace with the world, then you have my personal approval. Just don't be surprised if you show up here as a staunch atheist and are met with double takes from a local who goes to mosque five times a day ;)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

dress code in compounds

Well, it's not a secret that you don't have to wear abayas on Western compounds. But something that people might not know, is that many compounds ban Saudi dress. That means you and your guests are not allowed to walk around in thobes and abayas. Some compounds, like ours, even have a policy about restricting head coverings in public spaces. Hands up - who wants to tell our lovely soft-spoken Syrian-Canadian friend that she can't wear her headscarf to a compound party when she's never had to remove it to attend any kind of party in Canada? I see there are no hands up.

You might ask just what is the big deal? If someone wants to wear a thobe or abaya on the compound, can't we just let them be? One long-timer here in Riyadh has told me that once management allows the dress codes to slide to please certain residents, disputes begin to appear. From what I understand, the problem is not so much the clothing itself, but the perceived type of person that tends to prefer wearing thobes and hijab style dress - i.e. religious conservatives. The general sentiment is that if you have a compound full of Western people doing all kinds of secular Western things, with a lot of women jogging around in their sports bras and shorts, there is just too much potential for animosity to develop if the value systems are too variable from one resident to another. It only takes a disapproving stare here or there for a snowball effect to occur. The system is flawed, because wearing a thobe doesn't necessarily mean you're religious, and covering your head doesn't necessarily mean you're going to chastise Miss Short-shorts for mincing around in her itsy bitsies. But to prevent headaches, and select for residents (and guests of residents) with similar lifestyles, rules like this are imposed, and to some degree it makes a sense.

On top of the enforced Western dress code, some compounds also restrict the presence of Saudi nationals, even as guests. For instance, our compound has permitted residents to have Saudi visitors only if they are not in public spaces. There have been many problems in the past with locals getting out of hand, or offending women at compound parties, so they have just banned them entirely. I recently attended a play on a compound that enforced a strict no-Saudi policy - and the manager who imposed the rule is actually a Saudi himself! I feel really awkward and disappointed sometimes about having to abide by these policies...however I also understand why management takes these steps. I just can't help feeling that it's unfair that all Saudis be put in the same basket just because some of them can't behave themselves...but I also recognize that I have no better solution. Hello inner conflict!!

So Saudis, if you are reading this and have wondered why you've never been invited by your nice Canadian friend to a compound party, this might be your answer. Delivered with reluctance. Or the compound parties could just be embarrassingly bad and they don't want to invite you to witness it...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Is she? Or isn't she?

Six signs you may be in close proximity to a "working girl" in Bahrain...

1. There's a nightclub in your hotel, and the base from the speakers passes through concrete walls and floors
2. Said nightclub employs a filipino band whose female members are clad in outfits that may or may not be taped onto their bodies
3. In the morning, you watch a pretty young thing come out of the elevator in club wear (e.g. a ridiculously short skirt), full make up and four inch heels
4. There seems to be a suspiciously large age gap between the mixed race couples going to and fro in the hotel
5. At breakfast, a couple fitting the description of above #4 seem to be eating their food in an awkward silence.
6. You watch a really old white guy hug a really young asian girl on a street corner right before they walk in opposite directions, usually with the man heading towards a hotel and the girl walking towards a taxi.

ha you'll all think Bahrain is very seedy. It's generally not, but you definitely get certain types congregating around the hotels that have nightclubs in them. If loud music or sketchy characters are not your scene, don't skimp on your hotel in Bahrain, or else choose a dry hotel.

Latest trip to Bahrain

This past weekend hubster and I ended up in Bahrain, so I thought I'd share some travel tips even though this is a Riyadh blog, because let's face it - Bahrain is where everyone ends up when they need to take a quick break from Saudi.

We flew Bahrain Air, a discount airline, instead of driving this time. The schedule is definitely not as flexible as the other major carriers, and the planes are not new, but we ended up paying about $300USD for two roundtrip tickets. For that suspiciously low price, as long as we didn't crash, we couldn't really complain. Both flights took off and landed on time, so we were happy with that and actually expected more to go wrong.

We have always stayed in the Juffair area because that is where all the action is. And by action, I do not specifically mean filipino singers, alcoholics, prostitutes, and alcoholic filipino singer/prostitutes. Yes, they are there, but I am referring more to the restaurants popular with the expat community and many of the decent hotels.

We visited Bambu, an asian restaurant, in the Adliya area for the second time and were really happy with the all-you-can-eat-and-drink meal for 15BD. We were so happy, in fact, that one of us may have ended up babbling and giggling hysterically all the way home after a very modest (pitiful?) amount of wine. You know you're drunk when you suddenly genuinely believe you are the world's funniest person. Other restos to mention are Ric's Kountry Kitchen and Jim's for brunch. Ric's being a local dive of a watering hole that serves up greasy spoon American food in the morning, and Jim's being its polite British cousin minus the bar and band. For something more lavish check out the Friday brunch at the Gulf Hotel or the Banyan Tree. And if you truly want to be fleeced and knitted into a sweater, there's always the Ritz Carlton. Trader Vic's on the Ritz resort is a popular spot to sit and have a drink outside.

Other mentionables: this past weekend our friends introduced us to City Center, and it's the nicest mall we've been to in Bahrain. It even boasts an indoor waterpark.

City Center has a slew of nice restaurants on their upper floors and has a cinema as well. Seef and Dana mall also have movie theatres for those inclined. We rented a car while we were there at the airport. Traffic was a mess at certain times of the day. We only got lost once when hubster thought he saw a guy with a cane riding a donkey down the road and took an "alternate route" to prove to me he wasn't hallucinating. With all the traffic restrictions on U Turns and stuff like that we ended up in some shanty town somewhere, but got out pretty quick.

And yes, he was right, there were in fact donkeys on the road.....

Monday, April 19, 2010

Where to buy a formal dress in Riyadh

Sooner or later, an expat will have a reason to dress up here in Riyadh. Whether it's a ball at an embassy or an arab wedding, at one point, it's imperative that we ladies get dressed to the nines or risk embarrassment. After attending a few formal events and asking around, I have come to the conclusion that we don't actually have a ton of options for Western style gowns.

Arab style gowns are another matter - they are absolutely everywhere. You'll find plenty in the secondhand souk, and almost every major mall has at least one or two stores that sell glitzy dresses. Little known fact: Saudi's second largest national resource behind oil is sequins. The general fashion rule that I see in stores is that if it's small and shiny, you put in on a dress. If it's large and shiny, you put in on a dress. There's no such thing as too much sparkle! Occasionally when you step into these shops you can still find one or two that aren't covered with bling. Those dresses will almost never be on the mannequins so it might be worth poking your head into the shops to gloss through their racks.

I would say the place with the largest selection of Western style formal wear is Debenhams. Then another store you might try is Coast, a UK chain that has lovely high quality dresses(and prices to match)at outlets in malls like Granada and Hayat. Debenhams carries a number of Coast dresses, so you'll see repeats if you go to both stores. Be forewarned that if you buy a Coast dress within a week or two of a major embassy event that you can expect 'twins' to show up on the night of. Be mentally prepared to compete with your 'twin' in the Riyadh version of "Who Wore it Better?" A friend of mine suggested BCBG in the Faisaliah as well, and Monsoon in Kingdom.

I recently went shopping at Hayat on their ground floor and found a few stores selling pieces of stuff that could pass for formalwear here and there. I have pretty simple tastes when it comes to dresses, and found some nice ones at Femi, a French store there. Hayat boasts a decent selection of mid-range Western brands like Le Chateau, Esprit, Benetton, Guess, Zara, Aldo, Nine West, Club Monaco, etc. etc. So you can usually find semi-formal dresses easily there. Formal wear is always a bit trickier...I feel it involves a lot of trial and error if you don't find something from Debenhams. In Riyadh you have to pay for your clothing and try it on in the nearest bathroom because there are no changerooms in stores. If you don't like the style or it doesn't fit you just return it. Sounds crazy, huh? But it's the norm here and like everything else in Riyadh, you get used to it!

The best thing you can do for yourself is to shop around whether or not you have an event to go to, because things do go on sale, and like I said - you'll for sure get invited to something eventually. If you hit Desperationville a week before your event, expect to shell out big time for a dress you don't hate.

If anyone has some tips for formal wear shopping, I'd love to hear from ya!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

dirt cheap cell phones

OK, so I've been living here for what...a year and a half now? And in that span of time, I've managed to lose two cell phones: one the maid threw it out with the trash (not really my fault), and the other abandoned in a taxi in Dubai (completely and utterly my fault). Unfortunately you CANNOT be without a cell phone in Riyadh. There aren't a lot of payphones around, and as a woman, you can't go anywhere if you don't have a phone to call your driver to pick you up afterwards.

I've always been under the impression that cell phones are very expensive in Riyadh, because any time you walk into a cell phone store at mall, the ones on display are all in the range of 1000 Riyals or more. I found out yesterday that I couldn't have been more wrong. For whatever reason, I've never actually spoken to an employee at one of these stores before. When I approached the counter at Axiom and asked for their cheapest cell phone possible, the guy responded with "we have a hundred" and sent a minion to the back to retrieve phones. I asked, "a hundred what? a hundred phones? A hundred dollars?" The manager clarified, "no, a hundred riyals!" The minion came back with four phones in the 100-400 riyal range. I was totally gobsmacked. I figured there must be some major inconvenience in a 100 riyal phone and asked, "oh you must not be able to send text messages with them or something, right?" And he shook his head, saying, "m'am you can send and receive texts with all of them, there's just no camera." ...well that's not really inconvenient is it?!

In Canada, we pay insane monthly rates for our cell phone coverage compared to other countries. And if you want to use Pay-as-you-go, Rogers - the Canadian kingpin of legal extortion - charges $40 for a freaking SIM card! I have to control myself here, because I could go into a lengthy diatribe on the morally reprehensible activites of the evil Rogers Empire, but I'll spare you the details.

When I got back into the car, I was pontificating on my discovery to the driver, who told me his cell phone cost 85 riyals. And that he has to buy cheap ones because his daughter likes to chew on them. I guess the reason I never knew was because all our friends have iPhones or brought their cell phones with them from home!

Well now we ALL know!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Paradise awaits you, two hrs from Riyadh

Hubster and I just got back from a weekend at the Shangri-La in Oman, a two hour flight from Riyadh. We didn’t get to see much of Muscat, though what we did see of the city looked very simple/quaint and surprisingly clean. And coming from a Canadian, that means that you can pretty much eat off the pavement. The big shocker came when we realized all the drivers were staying in their lanes! We really only drove through Muscat on our way to the Shangri La which was located about 30 minutes from the airport and outside of town, but the resort was just fabulous.

The resort is actually a complex of three hotels of varying classes, and it sprawls across quite a bit of land. We spent the weekend sipping cocktails at their bars and outdoor lounges, strolling down the beach at night, soaking up the sun, falling asleep on their comfy loungers, kayaking, watching fish swim by our ankles in the ocean, admiring the extensive grounds and beautiful spa, floating down their lazy river…the list goes on.

The absolute highlight of the trip was getting a chance to watch an enormous hawksbill turtle lay her eggs on the beach at night! This was the last place in the world we expected to catch such an amazing event. The Hawksbill Turtle is on the critically endangered list, and we felt a bit bad that a resort had been built on some of their prime nesting beaches in the area. But at the very least, they seemed to have pretty dedicated turtle ranger on the resort looking out for them, and nests marked off on the beach to prevent trampling.

The lowlight of the trip was watching hubster’s light pink sun kissed skin turn a deep shade of red coming out of the shower, regret in his eyes. It’s always the same story. He goes,“ohh! I wanna go out in the sun *right now*! Let’s get this sunscreen over with!” And then four hours later, “what happened to me??!” with complete and utter shock, as if it hasn’t happened a hundred times before.

I totally recommend that expats try to take trips on the weekends to break up your stay here. It’s something we wish we had been doing the whole time we were here. We booked through an Oman Air package that had a special deal going for Riyadh and picked up our paper tickets at their Riyadh office. We had a very good experience with the airline – planes with adequate leg space, decent food, good service, punctual, etc. - so we would fly again with them without hesitation. Here's the link!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Udon noodles in Riyadh

So, I was in a pissy kind of mood in the car one day while the hubster was looking for a knife store. That sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, but rest assured no one got hurt...this time. Ha ha, no no, it never came close to that, but it can just be frustrating to try to find specific locations in Riyadh, land of the streets-with-no-signs and buildings-with-no-numbers.

Being the great guy that he is, when we couldn't find the knife store, hubby tried his best to remember where he had last seen the elusive Asian grocery store. Even a lot of asians don't even know about it. It was like the Lochness Monster for a while in our conversations - you know, mysterious unconfirmed sightings, people thinking they've seen it but not remembering where it is, people denying its existence... He insisted that he once "discovered" it with his driver. As we drove around different sidestreets, I got more and more impatient with being "zero for two" on our mission and began to press him to go home. On the last turn, just as I was demanding that we all raise the white flag, lo and behold. The asian grocery store. Seriously folks, I'm not muslim, but this is what I imagine it might feel like to see Mecca for the first time. Don't get me wrong, it's not a nice looking store, it's just that I miss chinatown shopping in Toronto terribly, and it kills me some days to know that my apartment was walking distance to the best five dollar pho on the planet. And now, that five dollar pho is more than an ocean away.

Here is where I pause to fill you in on my secret obsession with Udon noodles. Again, not the beginning of a bad joke. I used to live above a great little japanese restaurant that I began eating at in 2003. It was a bit on the pricey side, and when I was a student, I used to pick the cheapest thing on their menu to eat for dinner as a reward of sorts - their beef udon noodles. So I associate udon noodles with times of contentment, and I've enjoyed them with so many people, including sharing them with my hubster-to-be on cold winter nights, while we would try to identify which poor pedestrian walking by looked the coldest.

To my complete and utter surprise, udon noodles appeared in the Carrefour near our house all of a sudden. I was overjoyed and initially bought insane stocks of them. But gradually as time wore on, I settled into buying more reasonable quantities at a time. And then one day, about 8 months later, they unceremoniously disappeared. The stockboys knew nothing. The manager knew nothing. They were just gone, and I was heartbroken.

Fast forward to about 3 months later, in the Asian grocery store. There's not a lot there, but freezers & fridges line one of their walls and they are fully stocked with frozen dumplings, edamame, red bean buns and scads of really decent kimchee. And just as we were about to cash out, hubster sauntered up to me with a frozen pack of udon noodles!!! It was like Christmas! Like the dilapitated supermarket version of Christmas! I was so excited that greedy old me went into hoarding mode and picked up loads of the stuff.

Needless to say, hubster had pretty much hit the emotional jackpot with his wife. My hero!

I do not know where to begin to describe where this place is. But we did manage to get the store owner's card, which says "Oriental Supermarket" on it. It's somewhere off Olaya street - down towards the bottom of the city, near Makkah. Here's the phone number on the card 050-793-1114. Good luck if you decide to go, and post back here if you manage to find it, especially if you can share some proper directions.

Amore Pizza

Okay guys, if you have been living here for 6+ months and have not treated yourself to a meal at Amore, you have just done yourself an unjustifiably bad disservice. Shame on you! Don't cry, you can still save yourself. This restaurant is located on Tahlia, next to another pizza shop that I have never been to, and have no plans to visit because I know I will only be disappointed after Amore.

Amore's family section has a nice open area and then booths in the back. It has a modern vibe going on and I dig it. I don't like sitting in booths because I feel all cooped up. And I already deal with that all day on the compound so... thumbs up for open spaces. When I first got here, I thought, "wow! private booths everywhere, how cool!" and I took pictures of them. I know I know, it's sad, but it seemed so VIP-ish back then.

Amore's specialty is thin crust pizzas, baked in wood burning ovens. The service is attentive without being intrusive. For appetizers, they serve up a delectable spattering of breads, and the most awesome skinny breadsticks I've ever had. As an aside, I told one of the waiters once how much I loved the breadsticks and he came back to the table with gobs of it. They have a fantastic selection of blended drinks that don't taste like they came out of a can. All the pizzas are just scrumptious, but I have to also mention the spinach ravioli and seafood soup (yes, really!) as standout choices too. Special shoutout goes to the calzones that are the size of your face. Order it, you'll see what I mean. I'd tell you about dessert, but I can't remember ever having room left in my stomach for them. I have absolutely positively nothing to complain about when it comes to this place. One of the best things about Amore is that I've never known them to have an 'off night'...the food and service are just consistently good all the time. It's a safe bet for a good night out. My god...what have they drugged me with that makes me gush like this?! It must be addictive because I always go back for more.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Does this game look fun?

I was at the Toys R' Us the other day and found this game on the shelf:

I thought you guys might get a kick out of it! Interesting huh?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A drive through, a la Saudi

Ok, so last weekend, my hubby and I were being driven home from a late night out by our friends when we all collectively decided that it was the appropriate time to get ice cream from McDonald's. I know, high class all the way - that's how we roll.

When we pulled up to McDonald's at around 12:30am, it was packed! There were cars *everywhere* as we rolled up to the menu board. As we were waiting in line, an employee came up to the driver's window and greeted him personally, saying it had been a while since his last visit. Apparently, our friend is a regular at this location. They continued to chat for a little while and the man waved goodbye. Weird, I thought... but then it got weirder.

As we passed the menu board, we came upon another McDonald's employee standing on the curb. Meanwhile, I was thinking, "who's this? another VIP greeter?!" Nope, I was wrong. This is apparently how ordering is done here in Riyadh at midnight. No talking into the machine, no crackling voice coming out of half broken speakers, an actual person stands beside the board to take our orders! Our friend, the driver, began to break down how to construct a quadruple decker hamburger while I laughed hysterically in the back at the whole situation. After the orders were taken by the employee, we rolled on to pay at one window and then pick up at another, as per usual. We then capped it all off with another exceptionally happy looking McDonald's employee stationed at the end of the line to direct traffic in and out of the parking lot.

In our discussion of the five star McDonald's drivethru service, I found out that they do this in the UK as well. Well well well. It seems the whole man vs. machine debate has been not been unequivocally settled as far as drivethrus go!...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tokyo Restaurant

We went to this Japanese restaurant the other day, and it was great. I thought I'd never see sushi again when I moved to Riyadh, but I was dead wrong. They offer all the main dishes that you would expect of a japanese restaurant, but of course with their own spin. Not all the dishes will taste authentic (.e.g noodles), but many of them come close and are still tasty in their own way. They have fresh sashimi, and they do a really good tempura. It's also priced reasonably in comparison to places like Shogun.

Tokyo used to be a teppanyaki place, but they said they closed down that service because of complaints about the smells (!??!). Do not get too excited if you see a teppanyaki table - that knife show is not gonna happen for you. The family section is entirely sectioned into booths. I'm not sure about the singles section, but in general it's definitely not the fanciest looking restaurant in Riyadh. Like Diamond, it also has mirrors plastered all over the ceiling for some unknown, unholy reason.

My raving review must unfortunately come with one strong caveat. Tokyo is inconsistent. If you happen to be there on a day when their fish arrive, you will be extremely happy with your sashimi. If you happen to be there on a day where their stock is a few days old, you will taste it. So like shooting a dart blindfolded, but still worth a go if you're really missing your sushi.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Okay guys, I just came back from Batha...sorry I've got no pictures because I was running errands while I was there.

Batha is a sprawling collection of shops and markets, so it's very easy to get lost there. The part I visited today was marked by a post office in the middle of a parking lot. Mental note: this is the first post office I've ever seen in Riyadh. It was empty. I didn't see any stamps. I don't understand!

Anyhow, the first thing you'll notice about the demographics here is a lot of Indians but also a lot of Filipinos. As a result, you'll find a ton of Filipino grocery shops and bakeries with delicious bread in them. The male to female ratio seems a bit higher at this souk than at Deira or Kuwaiti. That's just an anecdotal observation so I can't say it for certain, but if you get uncomfortable having too many sets of eyes on you at one time, this might not be the market to go to alone.

I believe I was wandering around in the electronics section of the Batha market, and consequently had nothing to buy. There are a couple of malls that are just full of computers, DVD players, TV's, clocks, etc. etc. Lots more back-of-a-van type stuff.

Batha also has a sizeable fish market and you can smell it from a mile away. I won't lie, it's pretty nasty looking, but I'm from Toronto where the closest thing we have to a fish market is Kensington, which is about ten notches up on the sanitary ladder to God, but then again, Canada is cleaner than most parts of the world. I know people who buy fish in Batha and they love it; they go out of their way to go there. So don't let me sway you either way.

Batha also has a fabrics section and many tailoring shops. We've accompanied a groom to help him choose material for a suit before, which was fun. This souk is definitely geared towards men, so there are a lot of men's clothing stores and shoe stores. Also, they have your usual cornucopia of junkyard sh*t - like a tower of duct tape next to a bin of socks, things like that.

They also have a row of uniform shops there, so you can buy yourself any kind of service industry outfit you need. Mechanic jumpers, maid outfits, waiters and stuff like that. If you're wondering why you would need anything like that, well I don't know. I'm just telling you what I saw!

Regarding safety, people recommend that you cover your head there and at Dira as well because there are supposedly a lot of Muttawa nearby. I know a woman who got her boob grabbed at Batha. And there are rumours of people getting stabbed in the Kuwaiti Souk. People have also talked about being mugged too. Well my only advice is to be alert, don't get lost, and try and bring a friend with you if you can. I've gone alone against common advice because I don't have any friends ha ha ha. I'm kidding (sort of). That being said, I didn't see too many other women there walking around by themselves. Riyadh's already restrictive enough without all the fear-mongering chatter, so do make a visit to Batha if you're curious - I, your internet friend - think you'll be fine. Just watch out for your boobs!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

picnic under a bridge

Okay, I have been wondering about this ever since I came to Riyadh. I think I'm going to have to ask you readers to enlighten me because I can never get a respectful answer out of an expat about this.

Why do I so often see Saudi families parked by the highway having a picnic? The bridge thing I see a bit more when it gets to summer, but right's not that hot in the daytime. And just today, we were driving home from the mall, and I saw it with my own two eyes - a family with a van parked right off the road, happily sitting in lawn chairs in a neat row on rocks and dirt beside their car, having a picnic! I don't really buy the whole idea that families are by the road just for the breeze they get from the cars whizzing by cuz as I said, it's a good temperature this time of year. I know there's a sorry lack of green space in the city. Perhaps because I live on a compound which is relatively lush, with grass everywhere, I don't quite "get it" - but I still don't think I completely understand what drives families to partake in this roadside ritual...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Deira Souk

Went on the bus today to the Deira Souk. The souks are all a little bit different, so I thought I'd do a post on the ones that expats frequent the most.

The Deira souk goes by a bunch of different names - some people call it the Clocktower souk, because of the clocktower right near the large square. It's actually a beautiful square, built in classic Saudi style. The square is known to Westerners as "Chop Chop Square" because this is where public executions are held. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, but there's no punchline because it's not a joke and they actually happen(!). Rumour has it that if a westerner happens to be at the square during an execution, they will get pushed to the front to ensure the guest has a proper view. **edit - I've been informed that the public executions are now held in the areas where crime actually takes place, and that they've stopped holding executions in the square in the last four or five years** Deira is also known occasionally as the gold souk, but both the Kuwaiti and Deira souks have jewellery sections, so referencing the "gold souk" could be either place. Who knows, there could be other gold souks in the Riyadh too?

Next to the square is Al Musmak Castle.

It literally looks like a sandcastle you might build on a beach. It's actually been converted into a nice little museum and I definitely recommend a visit there to snoop around.

The history of the castle is recounted through displays in arabic and english, so don't be shy. It's like a maze inside, but you won't get lost as there's huge arrows everywhere, so don't worry you have nothing to be afraid of. Just be careful you don't fall down the well because there's all kinds of dead bodies down there.

OKAY this is turning out to be a long post. I guess I'll get to the stuff you actually care about, as in - what can you buy there? Well, let's see. You can buy gold and jewellery, abayas, some "saudi" decorations for your house (which won't be Saudi, they will be from India), maybe some kids's about it on the list of things that you might realistically purchase in this souk. I made a map for anyone interested to get an idea of where things are. It's not to scale or pretty, it's just to give you a general idea of what to expect, because I know it's easy to get lost in the souks. I think you should be able to enlarge the picture by clicking on it.

In the square near the parking lot is a man who sells honey, and it's very good. He has honey from Russia, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, all over the place, and he is happy to give you a taste if you ask for it. It's not a big shop, a bit of a dive really. If you get there and go, "whoah, hold on, why is the honey in gasoline containers?" I have no answer for you. I try not to ask questions like that when I go to the souks.

So there you have it! Deira in a nutshell

Saturday, March 6, 2010

child drivers

One peculiarity of Riyadh is that there seems to be no minimum age where Saudis deem it acceptable for one to begin driving. As such it's not unusual to see young boys behind the drivers seat in a vehicle - it's a daily occurrance to see them on the road. And let me stress that the correct label to apply is indeed "boys" as it is questionable as to whether even half of them have passed puberty yet. This whole post was prompted by a picture I took of a boy in the car next to us at a traffic light (decided not to post it). He had no seatbelt, and his little brother was sitting next to him in the passenger's seat, also with no seatbelt, and barely able to see over the dashboard. Oh yeah, and big brother also had a lollipop sticking out of his mouth. Nice touch.

Needless to say, I cannot fathom what twist of logic brings a society to the conclusion that a Y chromosome makes little boys more fit to drive than me. But here we are. >blah blah blah angry angry arghh!! blah blah blah<

Blatant sexism aside, what of the question of what age a person is deemed old enough - mature enough - to drive?? Is 16 a logical and fair number, or is it arbitrary? A lot of countries have a minimum age of 18. But I understand in parts of the U.S. that have a lot of farmland, some people have to learn how to drive in their early teens out of practicality. Here, where only men can drive, the policy cuts into the number of drivers in a household; does it necessitate that men learn at a younger age in order to keep everything running?

You know, I think I can see people debating age, but I can't see them debating seatbelts. Seatbelts won this debate a long time ago. Back to that picture, it just totaly riles me up for a mulititude of reasons. And every time I look at it I just want to rip that lollipop out of that boy's mouth and knock it on his skull till he put his seatbelt on! I should probably just delete it...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Diamond Restaurant

Of course I have to blog about Diamond now that I've mentioned the Localizer. Because why? Because Diamond restaurant is located in the Localizer mall. One of the entrances is located inside at the end near the Second Cup, the great and hallowed Canadian landmark.

We went this past Thursday night with a group of people to eat around nine and boy were we glad that we had reservations. This place was hopping. The decor was Asian, reflecting the menu, and some of the booths had those Chinese style roofs jutting down from above. There's also a porn style smattering of mirrors on the ceiling, which I had a good laugh about. But the best part of the layout is that the entire section in the middle is quite open instead of sectioning everyone off into booths, and it makes you feel like you're at any other restaurant in any other city.

I cannot resist going into detail about their Happy Birthday serenade. At Diamond, it is not singing, it's drums and chanting. And when I say drums, I don't mean little toy drums, I mean loud, booming, conversation stopping drums. After the seventh time it 0can get a bit old. And I'm not using poetic license here - I literally counted seven Happy Birthday Beheading Jungle Chants.

Anyhow, onto the thing you actually care about, the food. The food was good. I would describe it as Asian fusion rather than real Asian food. Spoiled little me from Toronto will attest that none of it is really how true Chinese, Thai, Japanese or Korean food is prepared, but Fusion has its own rightful place as a type of cooking style, and they do a decent job of it. I'm sure it depends on what you order, but everything we had was satisfying. The Noodle House in Centria Mall is probably a level above this in their fusion food - but Diamond's not too bad as long as you are not expecting expert Schechwan cooking from a Master Chef. I guess ditto goes for Mirage and the Gulf Royal (or is it Royal Gulf?) that are all part of the same chain and therefore have the same menu.

The day a true Chinese or Korean man sets up a proper, quality shop in this city is the day they decimate the competition. And that is the day I will show up expectantly, holding a pair of chopsticks and a camera.