Sunday, February 28, 2010

Saudi houses

So what's it like to be rich in Saudi Arabia? Well everyone lives in a castle. Don't believe me? See for yourself:

Hubster and I took a walk the other day. Prayer time rolled around and we weren't fast enough to get a coffee and sit down somewhere, so we went for a stroll instead, and it was so much fun! After you have circled your compound for the one hundred thousandth time, a walk outside when you're not being boiled alive is actually a lot of fun. The houses all look very different, as opposed to the entire communities in Canada that have basically the same house. We watched a bunch of people walking to their neighbourhood mosque during prayer, and then coming back to their homes afterwards. You'll notice that every house has a wall around it and the windows usually aren't terribly big. The style is reflective of the desire that this culture has for privacy. As you can see, no expense is spared when they are building their castles.

While we were out and about, a Saudi pulled up to us and asked us a couple of times if we needed any assistance. When we told him we were just out for a walk, he asked where we were from. Once he found out we were Canadian, he got all excited and gave us his phone number, telling us to call him if we ever need anything. It was nice to see a bit of that famous Saudi hospitality.

Hope we get to squeeze in a few more walks before it gets unbearably hot here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Another day, another sandstorm

We had a decent looking sandstorm pass over our way yesterday. I am so glad that when we left the house at noon we left all the windows open. That way, when we came back at four, we could enjoy the beautiful brown dusting of dirt covering everything we own. I am pretty much still typing on dust. It's a special kind of dust, though, somewhere between dust and dirt.

People say that you can smell a sandstorm. My olfactory nerves must be shot or something because I can never really detect the smokey smell that people say appears. The one thing that does happen to me, though, is coughing. It only takes a few breaths of that air to begin hacking away. My throat usually starts to burn or feel parched if I am in it for very long, so needless to say, everyone stays indoors.

The house arrest continues today (not to say that I'm not under house arrest *anyway*) as the sand clears up.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What are you supposed to do with that hose?

So continuing on my bathroom theme....I can feel your excitement, reader. I feel it right through the computer screen....I thought it would be of interest to westerners to learn that most upscale bathrooms in a lot of the malls / hotels / restaurants you will frequent here in Riyadh have a hose in each stall perched daintily on the wall.

I've never touched one, because I'm working on the assumption that the probability of people using the hose prior to doing their business is far outstripped by the probablity that people are using it afterwards. Being Canadian and thus squeamish about anything that could remotely be theoretically dirty, I've often sat and pondered the hose issue. More than once, I have been washing my hands, asking my reflection, "what are you supposed to do with that hose?" But inevitably, once I leave the bathroom my curiosity moves onto other things, and out back in the open air the hose and its mysteries are left behind in the stall.

Well well well. Now we are covering it on my blog. Why? Because yesterday the heavens opened up and all my hose related questions were answered. Now my best guess was that you use it as you would a bidet. You know, to clean your nether-regions. I don't know why I thought it was a good guess...maybe because it was my only guess, because my imagination limits what I would do with a stream of water in a bathroom stall. Looking back, this doesn't make sense, because I've happened upon more than one stall where there was water *everywhere* - all over the seat, the toilet, the floor - everything. Now you are thinking "water gun" right? Well that's not totally off the mark.

Ladies and gentleman, it turns out people use the hose to clean off the toilet!!! After certain people do their business, we shall say...remnants are sometimes left over in different places.... So basically, the hose can help you be confident that the next user will not be shooting you a dirty look as you exit the bathroom.

Anyhow expats, hopefully this will save you from an embarrassing conversation somewhere in Riyadh. **edit - see comments for clarifications from the locals**

Sunday, February 21, 2010

the horror...the horror...

OK ladies and gentlemen be warned that this post is going somewhere that not all of you will be adventurous enough to follow. It's a scary scary place, and I want everyone to turn your nausea centres off, because we are going to the depths of depravity, a place that has not been touched by sunlight, goodness, or a mop in centuries. That's right, we are going to a gas station bathroom on the side of the highway, halfway to Bahrain.

My bladder was full when we pulled over to refuel. The three men in my car all took turns going into the men's bathroom while I tentatively stepped up to the open door of the ladies' loo. The smell hit me 3 feet away. I closed off my nasal passages and gingerly stepped in. Okay, it was dirty and the floor was wet, but I figured it was do-able. I looked into the first stall with its squatting bowl and there was litter everywhere. And I'm not talking office paper twinkie wrapper litter, I am talking no-man-woman-or-dog-should-be-seeing-this litter. Two words. Blood. Streaks. I can't describe the panic. The other two stalls were a similar blur. And I know this is a bit dramatic, but I actually let out a high pitched squeal and a "no no no!" inside the bathroom. When I emerged suddenly back into daylight, one of my friends was standing in front of the car. He asked me, "did I hear screaming in there?" Needless to say, we left. Travelling with men, they of course didn't understand at first. They made comments like "it didn't look that bad." and "what was so bad about it?" and "you just plug your nose." All I had to do was say, "There was blood..." and all three of them visibly shifted in their seats and decided I was completely justified in failing to do my business in the bathroom. The line of questioning came to an abrupt halt and the conversation changed to how high a sand dune needed to be for me to be comfortable taking a whiz.

The answer is about four feet.


the maple leaf club

So this past weekend we attended the Terry Fox charity event at the Canadian embassy. It was a fun night. I always enjoy the Canadian embassy events because I love the set up of their parties with the dance floor out under the open sky, and the food is pretty good. As always, the crowd is polite and nice - and it is fun for people watching as I think singles gravitate towards them. Women are in such high demand that you could be wearing a garbage bag and still receive compliments and attention.

Unfortunately, the only way to get to these events is to know someone who works at the embassy, as the maple leaf club holds events only for embassy staff to help them adjust to the Riyadh environment. No point in calling and asking about these events or parties because you must be a personal invitee of an embassy employee to get invited, and each employee only has a certain number of tickets they are allowed to purchase for friends and family. There's no email list serve you can tack yourself onto, it's just plain and simply who you know. We only go when we're invited by friends and have no way of getting tickets ourselves, so let me pre-emptively apologize for not being able to help you, dear readers.

Where, you ask, are the events for all the Canadians who don't work for the embassy who need assistance adjusting to Riyadh? *shrug* I hear crickets?? ha ha, listen people, if anyone decides to start throwing parties for Canadians, you just let me know and I'll help spread the word ;) I think it's a real shame that our embassy doesn't hold regular events for all Canadians. They have the space and they could make a lot of money, but they just don't have the staff, and I suspect they don't have the inclination to do it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

(mis)directions in Riyadh

So like many locations all over the world, Riyadh is a city that does not have numbers on all its buildings and doesn't have names for all its streets. Riyadh also boasts multiple names for some of their roads, which in the extreme case can have an English nickname, an Arabic shortname, and a full length Arabic proper name - which usually sounds something like "King Abdulaziz Mohammed Fahd III blah blah blah Road" When you have a population of fifty thousand, I suppose that doesn't matter very much. But when your city has millions of people in it and grows at a substantial rate every year, directions become a kind of complicated thing.

There's no such thing as "237 Bloor St West" here in Riyadh. HA! No, the way it works here is you have to describe the landmarks around the building you want to get to. Say you want to go to Jarir Bookstore. That's fine, there's like five of them, so here's your conversation with the driver: "It's off the highway, North Ring. You know North Ring? No? Okay, It's near Le Mall. You know Le Mall? No? Okay, it's across from Duo, that Italian restaurant. No? Great. What did you say? Exit 5? Hmm...I dunno is it off Exit 5? Where is Exit 5? Carrefour? Hmm... I dunno if there's a Carrefour there...WAIT there's a Carrefour IN Le Mall. Yes, that must be the one, it's where you have to get off the highway and then loop around, right? Yes yes, that's the one."

If you get in a car and don't know your general directions and major streets (hello, me) and are not talented in the way of having the above type conversations, it is very easy for you to say something like "Faisaliah" meaning that you want to go to the mall 5 minutes away, and then have the driver take you to "Faisaliah" the compound half way across the city. And then when you are almost at Faisaliah *compound* you might realize what has happened and unfortunately not have time to make it back to Faisaliah *mall* because prayer will be starting by the time you go all the way back. So instead, you just go home, aggravated, but now educated and enriched by the fact that you now know a compound called "Faisaliah" exists...TRUE STORY.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

baby grabbing

I was out at a mall the other day with a friend who had an infant with her. While we were sitting and waiting for our bus to show up, two Saudi women walked straight up to the baby and began cooing at her, inches away from her face. The first one was so excited she kissed the baby through her face veil. The second one did the same and went in for a grab. Unfortunately, the baby got scared and resisted, so that was the end of that. The women waved goodbye and happily went on their way.

To a western woman, the interaction was a bit strange because we have such a notion of personal space for infants that we rarely ever see strangers walk up to kiss and touch our children on their faces. Hands and feet are a little different for whatever weird reason and are deemed 'touchable zones', and before people pick up babies they always ask permission from the mother. Alarm bells immediately go off for most of us when this sort of ritual isn't followed, to be honest, because we aren't used to seeing anything else, and I reckon there's some notion buried somewhere that the only time people grab babies suddenly is when they want to steal or eat them. But I think it goes to show how babies and children are so cherished here in the middle east. Certainly, Riyadh feels built for them (though not for teens). I don't know how many castles and giant playgrounds I've passed in this city, not counting the elaborate play areas in all the major malls. It's sort of eye opening to see a little glimpse of affection come out of the local women here, because they seem so mysterious otherwise...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day Not!

Happy valentine's day to all you lovers out there. May your day be filled with romantic poems, red roses, kisses and all that jazz.

Here in Riyadh, this week merchants have been warned against selling red roses and anything red and/or heart shaped for Valentine's day. Celebration of this pagan holiday is really frowned upon, especially since the romantic theme inevitably sweeps young unmarried men and women together for a wild night of raunchy trysts at rendezvous points throughout the city. These sordid affairs usually consist of non-wining and dining at a nice restaurant, followed by going home (recklessly!) and sleeping (recklessly!) I jest but it doesn't bother me that much being a married woman. Hey, it ain't my country.

As I understand it many of the devout here in Riyadh, which I must underscore is very conservative, really believe in only celebrating the two Eids - a month of festivities at the end of Ramadan and a shorter one at the end of Hajj, the annual pilgramage to Mecca. These two festive periods are celebrated in relatively close proximity to each other on the calendar. In comparison, we have Christmas and New Years, Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween and I'll throw in birthdays because I've heard that the religious in riyadh don't celebrate them. I'll also throw in Canada Day and Victoria let's just say we've got "excuses to have parties" kind of covered over the year. I can see how it might look a bit excessive. But man oh man if there's one kind of excessive I don't mind being accused of it's having too much fun! The good thing is that because we live on compounds and have access to the diplomatic quarter, we don't have to miss these celebrations as long as it stays respectfully on the down low and within our own communities - well hey, that's a compromise I am willing to take.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Faisaliah Friday Brunch

I think I can pretty much let the pictures do the talking here, but if you get a chance to go, or if you are in the mood for a real treat, I highly recommend the buffet brunch on Friday from noon till four at the Faisaliah. No need to reserve, just show up hungry. It's quite pricey - around a hundred USD per person, but absolutely worth it for an amazing time. The pictures don't really do the buffet justice, as there are more food stations than this... I think this is really a must for every expat to do at least once while in Riyadh, because you might not get a chance to see something like this again. Labour and food costs are just too expensive to do something on this scale in Toronto. Kingdom also puts on a similarly lavish brunch on the weekends.

Alright I couldn't resist editing this post. How can I not comment on each of these pictures? They're magnetic! Okay... so in this pictures, I highly recommend the caeasar salad with bacon bits and shredded cheese. I know, you are thinking, "salad at a buffet? what a waste!" But seriously, it's high quality cheese, crispy bacon, and just the yummiest dressing on those leaves.

You can't see it in this picture, but don't miss the souffle. They bake it fresh for you on the spot!

There's this red and cream shotglass with white chocolate wings coming out of it in this picture on the lower right. The server said something like "mumble mumble spicy mumble" and pointed at them. It's delicious!! And, yes, it's spicy, but so good!

I'm a sucker for mussels. They were great. Make sure you get some of the different seafood sauces.

This Chinese noodle station was simply fantastic. I don't know how they make their broth, but it's pretty authentic chinese soup. It's a must.

Other highlights included fresh orange juice upon entry, and a man that walks around with a giant stick of grilled prawns. His job for the entire afternoon is to walk around and put prawns on people's plates. Also, there's a fresh grilling station that has beef tenderloin and seafood. It's all good, I guess, but I couldn't help commenting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The jetlag the JETLAG!

The hubster once told me that travelling West to East is often worse than travelling East to West. After hearing his explanation pontificating on the difference between losing hours and gaining hours, I filed his statement under "ridiculous" in my brain for about a year, along with the notion that delayed planes can "make up time in the air". Notably, I was wrong on both counts to accuse my poor hubster of talking nonsense. First of all, planes CAN make up time in the air as I've witnessed this very phenomenon take place, and secondly, the trip from Toronto to Riyadh is much much worse than the reverse. It's not just because the Korean food in Toronto is so much more awesome than it is in Riyadh so you're more excited. Wikipedia sort of explains the whole thing, and I can tell you from multiple trips crossing the Atlantic that losing hours completely screws up your circadian rhythms.

For me, the only thing that really works is waiting it out. Taking supplements and sleeping aids make me no less groggy during the day. The trick is to not succumb to the Nap Fairy - she is an evil succubus.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Google earth frightens me

Okay, so does anyone else feel slightly alarmed that you can now float down to "street level" view on google earth and basically get a 360 degree view of any chosen spot in any chosen city as if you are standing right there?

yes yes, it's very cool, and my first reaction to it was that it was totally awesome that I could see my friend's car in her driveway as if I in the middle of the road in front of it. That happy feeling drained into dismay when I scrolled over to my high security compound in Saudi Arabia where I could see the exact layout of the inside of my compound and view pictures posted by random people on the internet of our swimming pools, restaurant, buildings, etc. etc. It's not a 360 degree view, but it's clear enough to make me feel threatened and paranoid that any random person can download Google Earth and pinpoint the perfect place to throw a "gift" over the wall.

You all know what I mean by "gift", right? RIGHT?!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

the obligatory expat meltdown

Okay guys, now that I am over being stressed in Riyadh and have sunken into my relaxed retired stage, I can laugh about this.

A while back, probably on my second trip to Riyadh, I had a little incident at a grocery store that shall remain unnamed. The day had gone by quickly and I had gotten wrapped up with something I was doing at home. Suddenly, the prospect of cooking dinner was upon me but we had no food in the fridge and I had promised my husband a nice home cooked meal in the morning. (note to self: never promise anyone anything ever) I called the driver and asked him to come as soon as possible to take me to the nearest grocery store. And of course, when you need them to come quickly, they come very very *very* slowly. Fine and dandy, I said, as long as I get there. Well I got there, and began speed shopping. Part way through, there was some kind of muffled announcement that I couldn't understand. I was so focussed on my shopping that I didn't notice the doors to the grocery store closing. At the checkout counters, it finally dawned on me that prayer was fast arriving, so I rushed to try to find a short lineup, but at this point there were so many people lined up in each line, and cashiers disappearing by the minute, that I became panic stricken. I frantically chose a line. When the cashier cashed out the person before me but refused to do my groceries as well, I saw red. The hourglass was empty. I had lost.

For whatever reason, that day my neat bale of frustration collapsed in a heap with that last straw. Irate, I yelled at the cashier to cash me out while I slammed my groceries onto the conveyer belt. CASH ME OUT! Tomatoes. CASH ME OUT! Onions. NO HALAS! F*@K HALAS! Beef. IT ISN'T PRAYER YET!

Of course, no amount of shouting or cursing was helping. Instead, I was attracting security guards, which is always a great sign that your heaping public pity party has been a magnificent success. When I saw them coming, I knew it was time to cut my losses and I slipped out the last open door empty handed, still seething, with many sets of eyes boring into my back. To sweeten the humiliation, while I was waiting for my driver, the cashier and his buddies came out to laugh at me.

In retrospect, this whole situation makes me laugh quite a bit. I made such a scene over what? Over taco night??? The whole assumption that I would be able to get away with shopping last minute is just ludicrous in Saudi, especially given that I can't drive. I actually find it quite funny that I yelled at people and then couldn't drive away from them.

I'm writing this not because I want to lash out against Riyadh. It's just that I want you all to know that if you have a meltdown at some point because it seems like the city is deliberately sabotaging your plan to be happy with life - I understand, and it's okay. We've all been there. And if you haven't been there, you'll get there...and then you'll get past it.