Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: October 2014

ATVing and Camels……..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past weekend the Social Club at the hospital I work at organized an outing to the Red Sands desert to ATV in the sand dunes. I’d never ridden an ATV and since it was on my Saudi bucket list, myself, my kiwi mate, and my American roommate all signed up. We took a bus out of Riyadh with about 20 other employees and luckily this time the driver knew where he was going!! We left the hospital around 7:30am Friday morning (Fridays are the Holy day here) so traffic was very light. On the way we passed some wadi’s that were super green with vegetation and then a couple minutes later we were passing rocky canyons. It was very distracting trying to take pictures from one side of the bus while there was something equally as beautiful on the other side. After about an hour we reached the Red Sands and it was pretty cool seeing the sand change from an unexciting beige to the hue this part of the desert is known for. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We paid for an hour of time on the ATVs and had the choice between a smaller one and a larger model with gears. Being a chicken I picked the smaller one, but next time I’ll be sure to get a larger one. A small group of us set off over the dunes and it was an absolute blast. The only downside was that people throw their garbage all over so what should be a beautiful desert actually resembles a landfill as you drive over water bottles, soda cans, old pieces of clothing, and various other debris (including a full sized couch). Don’t get me wrong, it was still beautiful, but would be more so if people respected the environment. The ATVs didn’t have a ton of power so if you didn’t gun the engine there was a decent chance you’d get stuck on the way up one of the dunes. Trust me. It was pretty easy to get stuck. Coming down the dunes was a little unnerving as you couldn’t tell how steep it was until you actually crested the top. Some of the dunes had broken off so you’d end up coming up over the top only to find that the backside of the dune resembled more of a step than a dune. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way and scraped open my shin on the starter. Oh well, it was still a great time. When we originally booked this trip at the Social Club I asked the organizer if they had helmets for us to wear. He laughed and replied “The sand is soft, so no need.” I guess it wasn’t as soft as he thought since one of the girls on the trip got thrown off her ATV and broke her collar bone. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An hour on the ATV was plenty of time because even though it was still relatively early in the morning it was already heating up into the 30’sC. We shared a Saudi breakfast as a group and sat on mats in the desert shaded by a mostly bare tree. After a bit of a rest we walked a short distance to a nearby camel farm. This was where the term #camelselfie was coined. These camels appeared in an absurd amount of selfies and group photos. There were camels photobombing other camels, and camels quite literally smiling for the cameras. They were the friendliest group of camels I’ve ever seen and I’m pretty confident none of the people in our group got bitten or spit at (which with camels is saying a lot!) Anyways…..here’s some camel photos with a bonus camel toe. Your welcome!!

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Out and About in Riyadh……

So as of today I’ve officially been in Saudi for 10 days, and to be honest it feels like its been a month. Between getting over jet lag, acclimating to the heat, and completing hospital orientation, there has been a ton packed into these 10 days. There were a bunch of things that I had wanted to do the first time I was in Saudi, but there never seemed to be enough time. This time I made a bucket list of activities that I wanted to do during my 3 month probation period. For those of you who aren’t aware- my first 3 months in Saudi are spent in what I like to refer to as “lock-down” in which we can’t leave the country while we wait for our permanent residence cards (Igamas) to come in. This seems to be the most sensible time to knock out my lengthy list of Saudi activities before I’m free to jet set the world!

One of those activities was to visit Najd Village which is a traditional Arabic restaurant. It just so happened that a group outing was organized during our first week of orientation so I signed up. As I previously mentioned, going out in Saudi Arabia is often a challenging endeavor. First, women can’t drive, so we’re left to rely on a driver (or in this case a bus driver) to get you from A to B. Second, Saudi time is kinda like Island time- so things often don’t actually start when they’re supposed to. Third, Riyadh traffic is crazy. Seriously. It’s absurd, and trust me there will be a whole other post on this topic in the next few weeks. Fourth, you’ve ALWAYS got to be aware of prayer times and plan accordingly, Anyways, back to the Najd Village adventure…….so a group of maybe 25 of us meet up to take a bus driven by a “new” driver who doesn’t speak English to the restaurant which is supposed to be a 15 min drive away. The traffic was quite heavy. After maybe 45 minutes traffic appears to get better and things are looking promising as the organizers keep telling us that “we should be quite close.” Clue #1 that things weren’t going to plan was the bus doing a U-turn on the highway and us back tracking in the direction we’d just come from. Luckily one of the organizers spoke some Arabic and asked the driver if we were close.¬† Driver nods and shows 2 fingers which naturally one assumes means two minutes (but now in hindsight might have meant 2 hours). We continue driving and we’re now clearly heading out of town. Its suddenly apparent that since we’ve been on the bus for well over an hour the driver has no idea where he’s going, but true to maintaining gender roles in this part of the world he’s not about to tell a bus full of ladies that. The only sensible option in his head is to just keep driving. By now we’re all growing a little concerned. One of the organizers rings the people in charge of the bus booking. It takes her several minutes to get the dispatcher to understand that no we are not calling to be picked up from the restaurant, but that we haven’t even made it to the restaurant. We’re still on the bloody bus! The phone is passed to the driver. Another U-turn is made and we head back in the direction that we’ve just come. Close to an hour and a half after we set out we pulled up to the restaurant, and I’m sure the bus driver was not too impressed by the round of applause and cheering that erupted.

IMG_2877Najd Village rrestaurant is beautiful from the outside with palm trees and ornately painted window shutters. The inside of the restaurant is divided into many private rooms¬† which are decorated with old antiques, rugs, and cushions. You start off being served Arabic coffee and dates. Dates are hugely popular in Saudi and they are super sweet. I’ve been told that Arabic coffee is an acquired taste. I have not yet acquired it. IMG_2876It’s strong and potent, and tastes very strongly of cardamom of which I’m not a fan. I am however, a fan of the super cute little cups that it’s server in. Sort of like tiny shot glasses for coffee. After dates and coffee the table is prepared by the servers. By “table” I mean floor, as meals here are served in the traditional way where everyone sits on the floor surrounding the food. The food is a mixture of rice with chicken, lamb or prawns, delicious Middle Eastern breads and laban which is a type of Arabic yogurt. The food was good, less spicy than I would’ve liked, but still good. The atmosphere though is what makes the restaurant such a great experience.

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I’m happy to report that we made it back to the compound without incident. The drivers internal GPS seemed to work and there were no U-turns involved!!

My Abaya is trying to kill me……

So I’ve already spoken about how when women are out in public they must wear an abaya (aka Little Black Dress.) I didn’t love it the last time I was here, but besides it being hot in the sun it wasn’t that big of a deal. Either that, or I have selective amnesia from the 15 months I spent here and completely blocked it out. My experience this time is a different story. I firmly believe that my abaya has made several unsuccessful attempts to kill me.

IMG00147-20110703-2035First its a little bit too long so she likes to try and trip me, pretty much all the time. Then she conveniently tangles herself in the wheels of the grocery cart or gets herself caught in the door of vehicles. When I try and sit down she pulls herself tight on my neck nearly choking the life out of me, and then she makes a fool out of me as I have to stand up several times to get her in the right position so I can comfortably sit and also be able to move my arms. The other day I was at Ikea and she was taunting me with the idea of getting herself caught in the escalator. Her only redeeming quality thus far is that I spilled half a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte down the front of me and she soaked it up like a professional and no one could even tell apart from the fact that I smelled delicious. The End.

The Security Sitch………

So the events of Canada this past week have left an ache in my heart. For those of you who maybe aren’t aware I’m specifically referring to the event outside of Montreal where 2 soldiers were run over, and the shooting of soldier Nathan Cirillo outside the Canadian Parliament. Last week the Canadian government raised the terrror threat level (for the first time in 4 years) after increased chatter regarding attacks on Canadian soil. It’s believed that these attacks are meant as retribution for Canada committing to assist the US in an air offensive of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.) What I find most concerning is that in both cases the perpetrators were on the governments radar. In fact both men had their passports pulled which points to a much larger issue of what should Canada do to people who are suspected of having terrorist ties, and the larger human rights issue of where/how to you strip someone of their Canadian citizenship.

Its a strange feeling to be in living in the center of Islam and have targeted attacks on Canadian forces back home conducted by radicalized individuals. Don’t get me wrong I’m not lumping all Muslims into the same category, to do this would be like assuming all Christians are like the Westboro Baptist Church (which couldn’t be further from the truth). Nonetheless, its unnerving since my life in Saudi Arabia seems quite safe. Maybe naively safe given Saudi Arabia’s close proximity to Iraq. Daily life here is lived within the walls of a mostly guarded compound. I guess this all bodes to create a false sense of security.

My thoughts are with those directly affected by these targeted attacks. During the time of writing this post I came across this article about a suspicious incident at the Canadian consulate in Istanbul. We are living in scary times.

Saudi Arabian Overview…….

DSC_0640I safely made it to Saudi Arabia and thought I’d take some time to talk about Saudi Arabian geography, culture, and a little about what its like to live here as a westerner. Some of you may know a bit about Saudi Arabia and some of you may have no idea where Saudi Arabia is located on a map (this is for you Cousin Amber!) Saudi is located on the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by a bunch of countries including Yemen, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, and Jordan. Most of the country is covered by desert, but the Red Sea is super popular with scuba divers, and there are reportedly mountains in the southwest although I haven’t yet seen them with my own eyes. Its hot most of the year. By hot I mean melt your mascara to your face kinda hot through the summer months. Temperatures into the 50C/120F are not uncommon. Its now starting to cool down and in December and January it can get quite chilly at night. By chilly I mean long sleeves or a light jacket.

Saudi Arabia officially became a country in 1932. It has grown quite rapidly in the last 80 years, mostly from the discovery of oil in the 1930’s. Prior to that many people in this area lived a nomadic life in the desert. It is a Muslim country and as such doesn’t recognize any other religions. For westerners having a religion (apart from being Jewish) is allowed, but it isn’t recommended that you bring religious materials into the country, and you won’t find any types of churches or places of worship here apart from mosques. Saudi Arabia is where the prophet Muhammad was born and holds for Muslims the two holiest cities Medina and Mecca. Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit these places.

Religion governs most aspects of people’s lives in Saudi. People pray 5 times a day and shops and restaurants close during prayer times. These prayer times change throughout the year. As a westerner it is important to plan your outings according to when prayer times are, because if you arrive at your location during prayer time you’ll be waiting outside until the workers come back. If by chance you happen to be in a restaurant or a grocery store you’ll get locked inside and be allowed to eat your meal or continue shopping but you can’t leave until prayer time is over.

Loads of things we take for granted are illegal here. No alcohol, pork, movie theatres or dance clubs to name a few. You could be arrested for not covering your hair when told to or being in the company of a male who is not your relative. Homosexuality is illegal. Women can’t drive, but to be honest the driving here is so crazy and dangerous I doubt my reflexes would be fast enough. The sexes are segregated to avoid single men and women mixing. When you go to a coffee shop, bank, or restaurant for instance there is a single men side and a family side where women can eat. Often the family sections of restaurants have privacy curtains surrounding the tables where women can comfortably eat without the watchful eye of leering men.

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Just doing a little Ikea shopping…

People dress very traditionally in Saudi Arabia. Men where the white thobe with a head covering that is either white or checkered red and white known as the ghutra. Women are required to wear an abaya at all times. This applies to ex-pats as well and anytime I’m off the hospital compound I am also required to wear an abaya (otherwise known as a LBD- little black dress.) While on the hospital compound I can freely roam in my scrubs or loose fitting appropriate western clothing. In addition to the abaya you must carry a head scarf (Hijab) in the event you have a run in with the religious police. Many Saudi women wear a niqab to cover their entire face, and some even wear a draped veil over their heads and gloves so that no part of their body is showing. Being out in public in Saudi Arabia is like being in a sea of black and white.

Most westerners live in a secured compound. My housing is provided as a condition of my contract and I live on the hospital compound. The hospital compound is huge. There are numerous housing complexes, most are for single women. I live in a large building in a 2 bedroom apartment with my American roommate. There is a gym in the building and a pool out back. It has the feel of an 80’s all women adult camp. Sometimes I feel like I’m in rehab- and I guess in a way it sort of is since alcohol is illegal!

I hope this helps to paint a bit of a picture of what Saudi Arabia is like for a westerner.

 

 

 

In Transit……

I’m currently in Frankfurt International airport waiting for my connection to Riyadh and to meet up with a couple of American nurses that will be in my orientation group. Leaving Kelowna and saying goodbye to my parents was hard. Really hard. Petrifying actually. Its amazing what your brain does when you’re overwhelmed…..I actually for a split second thought “you don’t have to go.” And that’s the truth really. I didn’t have to go, but a big part of me wanted to go. Wanted to have the unknown adventures that I’m sure to have over the next year, wanted to go because I know that the future me in a years time will be glad I did, wanted to go because I am a free spirit. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t take everything in me to get on that plane. Get on that plane as a crying sobbing mess who was going to miss her parents and was momentarily scared of the unknown. That’s the thing about being brave- you have to reach really deep and trust in your own strength. So here I sit as the world moves around me and those feelings of doubt and fear have passed and excitement and jet-lag have started to kick in. In a few hours I’ll be Riyadh bound. More to come….

Leaving on a Jet Plane…..

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of planning and paperwork. Moving and packing. Goodbyes and “see-ya-laters.”In the last month I’ve wrapped up a job that I didn’t really love, but that I loved those I worked with. I’ve moved, sold some stuff, cancelled phone service, banks accounts, and heroically tried to fit in as much bacon and alcohol as one person can before I enter the land of illegal alcohol and banned pork products.

In less than 12 hours I’ll be on my way back to Saudi Arabia. It seems almost surreal that I’m going back. My memories of the 15 months I spent there in 2010-2011 are mostly good, but some are difficult and returning there is a mix of excitement and trepidation. I’m excited to see my Kiwi partner in crime who I met while in Saudi and have shared many adventures with. I’m looking forward to living in the same country as her, and planning some more amazing trips. I’m excited to see people from my Saudi past and be in the midst of such extreme cultural diversity. At the same time I’m sad to be leaving the comforts of home and of people that I love dearly. I know from past experience that life moves on both for me and for those that I leave behind, and that this distance can change relationships both for the good and bad.

As I finalize packing I’m trying to be brave and believe that this next adventure is the right step for me. My next post will be from inside the Kingdom, likely jet-lagged and delirious from the heat. If you are curious about life in Saudi you could peruse my previous Saudi blog here.

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