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.