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!