Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: November 2014

Driving Saudi Style…..

1559728_10152854098061346_6751962598051372460_nHaving now visited many third world countries including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Guatemala to name a few; I can confidently say that drivers in Saudi are in the running for the worst.  Driving rules and laws are viewed as mere suggestions to be followed, and then only if one wants to. And really, who would want to given all the flashy cars and SUV’s that are driven on Saudi streets??

The last time I was here I hardly ever wore a seat belt (don’t worry mom I ALWAYS wear one now- that is assuming the car I’m in has seat belts.) Previously I think I thought I was invincible, but this time I’ve heard too many horror stories and seen the remnants  of some very serious accidents alongside the freeway. Ex-pats in Saudi are always saying its not a matter of “if” you’ll be in an accident, but when. Luckily for me I’m hoping I’ve already gotten the accident karma out of my system, because the last time I was here I was involved in a little fender-bender. I was in a cab with 2 other girls and the taxi driver was very busy perving at us in the rear view mirror and he plowed thru the security barrier outside our compound angering the security guards and losing his rooftop taxi sign in the process. We were unscathed, and he was about 50 shades of red getting a strip torn off him by the guards.

I’ve done a little research about how serious driving fatalities are in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here in the capital of Riyadh it estimated that 9 people die daily with almost 20 people dying in traffic fatalities throughout the entire country per day. So how does this stack up to traffic fatality rates around the world? The World Health Organization has tables that track road fatality rates and the world average of traffic fatalities per 100 000 people is 18 (please note these stats are a couple years old). Just to give you an idea, in Saudi Arabia its 24.8, Canada 6, USA 11.6 and India 19.9. Several countries did have higher road fatality rates than Saudi Arabia and included Iran, Iraq, Thailand, Venezuela, and several African countries. It’s interesting to note that these statistics don’t separate out road fatalities into pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, or vehicles. Here in Saudi Arabia there are very few pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcycles as compared to say Thailand for example. It’s also very interesting to note that here in Saudi Arabia where its illegal for women to drive these stats represent only male drivers as compared to other countries whose statistics would include both male and female drivers.

So really how bad is driving here? I have witnessed cars driving the wrong way down the freeway or off-ramps on many occasions. It is very common for a vehicle in the outer right lane to make a left hand turn and most times they won’t even signal their intention. I once saw a covered truck with several workers in the back set off firecrackers under the canopy while driving 100km/hr on the freeway, because hey, this seems like a super smart thing to do. Children are often unrestrained in the car and often hanging out the window. Car seats are not used. When I asked at work about what type of check off we did when discharging new born babies in car seats I was laughed at like it was the funniest joke ever. The reply was “honey, nobody uses car seats here.” Tail gating is frequent. So is being stalked by a car load of pervy men. I’m not making this up. Most of the vehicles we are driven around in have tinted windows making it difficult to see who’s inside. Sometimes if we are going out in a group one of us ladies has to sit up front. This is where the real craziness begins. Cars full of young men will drive very close alongside, block other traffic, follow you, hold up signs with their phone numbers on it. I always make sure to call these men back and critique their driving skills. Just kidding!! Its amazing home many times you can be quite certain you’re going to be in an accident just being driven across the city.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive. In recent years there has been media coverage and driving protests across the country to shed light on the issue and move towards allowing women to drive. Earlier this month there was talk of an advisory council to the King recommending lifting the restrictions and allowing women the right to drive. With this recommendation however came stipulations such as the woman must be over 30, wear no make-up, and be allowed to drive in daytime hours only. I guess you have to start somewhere. While I don’t dispute that women’s rights are a major issue throughout the Middle East, even if I was legally able to drive here I still wouldn’t. From what I witness on a daily basis I know my reflexes are not up to speed for Saudi roads. Unless it involves driving over sand dunes you couldn’t pay me enough to get me to drive on the streets of Riyadh!! On one of my next trips out I intend on taking some video footage to show Saudi driving skills at their finest. Since I don’t have any video to show you I’ll instead leave you with some picture of top-notch parking instead!

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Saudi Changes Part 2……

Last week I wrote about the many things that have changed since my first contract in Saudi, and after giving it some more thought and spending more time out and about in Riyadh I wanted to add a few more things to the list. In Saudi Arabia the only recognized religion is Islam. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s ok for westerners to be any other religion (except Jewish or Atheist) as long as they are not publicly practicing said religion while in Saudi. While Christmas is not recognized as a holiday here, many ex-pats still celebrate it in one form or another. Personally, I love everything about Christmas- the music, the decorations, the food, and in 2010 I spent a miserable Christmas in Saudi. It was my first Christmas away from my family and home and I was really lonely and miserably homesick. This year to combat my past Christmas blues I packed some Christmas decorations, music and movies with me, and have really been wanting to decorate my apartment. I had heard thru the ex-pat grapevine that one of the local stores was selling holiday decorations (on the down-low) and was determined to find some. In my head I was preparing for a back alley drug deal type of scenario. I expected myself and my kiwi mate to enter this un-named store and give a guy a wink and then he would escort us out back of the store where the illegal merchandise was and we would come to some type of monetary understanding. Unfortunately, the actual event was much less exciting. We walked into the store and out of the corner of my eye I caught some flickering lights and some shiny material resembling tinsel. The lights and shiny material turned out to be……..you guessed it, Christmas lights and tinsel. And then out in the open right next to them were colourful ornaments, a wreath, and some tiny versions of trees. So we bought Christmas decorations and the only people surprised about how easy it was were myself and my kiwi sidekick. I guess Saudi has become more tolerant on ex-pat holiday celebrations.

Another major change that I have noticed in my 3 years away from Saudi is that you can now try on clothes in many local department stores. Now you’re probably asking what the heck we used to do when buying clothes in Saudi. Well typically women were only allowed to try on clothes in stores where women worked, and since until quite recent times women did not work in retail sales the only place I remember being able to try on clothing was at Kingdom Mall on the ladies only floor. So now I have tried on clothes in many other locations which is so much more convenient than buying something and trying it on in the mall bathroom, or having to take it home to try it on and then hire a driver to take you back to the store if your purchases didn’t fit.

In Saudi culture men are very affectionate with men and women quite affectionate with women. It is very common to see men kissing each other on the cheeks, hugging, holding hands while walking down the street and spraying one another with cologne, and equally as common seeing women being affectionate with one another. Affections between a man and a woman (his wife/wives) are considered to be of a private nature, and typically take place without an audience. On several occasions I have been surprised to witness Saudi couples holding hands while walking in the mall. It’s shocking enough that every time I’ve seen it either myself or whomever I’m with will comment on it in a hushed voice…”look at that couple holding hands.” I would never bat an eye at this at home, and here it always catches me be surprise. I think I would be completely stunned to see a couple kiss in public here.

I guess that the most encouraging part of all the changes I’ve noticed here is that things are relaxing in Saudi. If three years ago someone had told me that I could buy Christmas decorations out in the open, then try on jeans in a regular department store, AND see a couple holding hands in public I would have thought you were cray cray. Oh Saudi….how far you have come!!!

Saudi Changes….

In the three years since I first left Saudi I’ve noticed several changes upon my return. First, the Abayas are a little more bedazzled and modern looking, and on rare occasions I’ve even seen women wearing Abayas that were grey or brown (my oh my!!) That being said, being back in Saudi feels largely void of colour. Pretty much everything is a sea of black and white- you see traces of accented colour, but mostly just the staple traditional clothing of white for men, and black for the ladies. In 2010-2011 the only places women worked in retail was pretty much Kingdom Tower on the ladies floor, but now it’s quite common to see female workers in many stores that cater to women and at the family checkout lanes at the grocery store. Even though I’m saying it’s more common, I’m still a little dumb founded to be approached by a female store clerk.  This is a positive new development and personally, I’d much rather buy my panties from a woman, as opposed to a man who speaks next to no English and stares wide mouthed at my blond locks (which has been my past experiences underwear shopping here!)

There is a much more visible presence of Saudi police on the road- it seems you can hardly be driven a km down the freeway without seeing a police car pulled over on the side of the road. Sadly, this has done little to increase the safety on Saudi roads. Saudi’s are still terrible drivers. Seriously. Driving here makes Indian roads look sensible and I should know having driven an auto rickshaw 3000km across India earlier this year. Drivers in Saudi drive the wrong way down the road, turn left from the outer right lane of a 4 laned road, follow no speed limits and have taken tailing to a heart-stopping level. So just to reinforce- increased police presence on the highway does not mean safer roads!!

I remember on many occasions being chased thru the mall or grocery store by the religious police and being instructed to cover my blond locks STAT. In fact the phrase “Seestah, seestah, cover your hair” is engrained in my brain and is permanently tied to my past memories of my time in Saudi. I’ve been back for 3 weeks and have yet to have a religious police encounter- and oddly I’ve seen them quite a bit. And yes, my blond locks have been out on display. I’m assuming this is related to a recent incident in August where the Muttawa were filmed attacking a British man and his Saudi wife while they used the family checkout lanes at a grocery store in Riyadh. This event made international news (rightly so, but sadly many such incidents never get reported or receive media attention involving ex-pats from non-western countries.)

There are several changes I’ve noticed at the hospital I work at also. First- Starbucks finally got seasonal flavours from home. Yep- I’ve had several Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but I’m not holding out hope that they’ll be getting Christmas flavours in. So, no Eggnog Latte for me this year. Wifi is readily available throughout the hospital- this has made keeping in touch so much easier, and has helped to pass the time in several boring computer orientation classes.  “You call this funny hand-held thingy a mouse Sir?!” Also,  they’ve got security personnel at the main entrances directing traffic. Seems like this should’ve been a no brainer right?! Well I can remember cars driving into the one-way drop off drive way and stopping to park to run in and use the ATM, all the while blocking traffic behind them while they got cash. Yes- I witnessed that happen several times.

Even though there are many changes since I left there are still no bars or nightclubs, no alcohol or bacon, no movie theatres, women still are not allowed to drive, although many  believe this will be changing soon (the driving, not the other things people!) I find these changes encouraging and look forward to what else Saudi has in store…..

High Tea Saudi Style…..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the numerous things on my Saudi bucket list was to have High Tea at “The Globe” restaurant in the Al Faisaliah. Last weekend I organized a group of 10 other nurses from my orientation group and we went. It costs 180 riyals ($48US/$54CDN) which does seem a little steep, but I had heard good things about it and knew the view would be well worth it. I’ve never had high tea before so I have nothing to compare it to but I had envisioned teeny tiny little sandwiches with cucumbers and cream cheese. There was a good mix of western and Middle Eastern foods. I love seafood and there were lots of options with salmon, which was pretty much what I filled my plate with. There was sushi, hummus and bread, some Chinese dumplings, spring rolls, and a variety of other little appetizers and tiny sandwiches. There was a lengthy tea list which was included in the price. The food was pretty good, but the desert and the view were the real highlights. Chocolate fountain. Check. Desserts topped with gold flakes. Check. Too many tiny cakes to choose from. Check.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe view was Ah-mazing. A panoramic view of Riyadh. Unfortunately, the afternoon we went it was hazy (sandy) so visibility wasn’t at its best. We had a front row view of the sunset, which was beautiful. It was cool to see how enormous the hospital compound I work at is. The Globe is split into 2 levels with the level we were on being for westerners, so we were allowed to take off our Abayas. I almost fooled myself into thinking I wasn’t in Saudi except that there was no alcohol on the menu (no surprise) and a large bottle of spring water cost almost 2 glasses of wine back home. After filling our tummies and watching the sun set we went to the observation deck to take more photos of the Riyadh skyline. It was super windy up there, but such a great place to take photos and mix with the locals. Here are some more photos from The Globe….

Riyadh sunset

Riyadh sunset

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My hospital compound

View of Kingdom Tower

View of Kingdom Tower

Globe reflection

Globe reflection

My new Digs…..

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about what my living situation here in Saudi Arabia is like, and what exactly it’s like to live on a compound. Single women in Saudi are not permitted to live freely as we do back home. Part of my work contract includes housing and all female nurses are housed on the hospital compound. Essentially this means that we live on the hospital property. It’s an enormous area with several different housing complexes ranging from studios to 1-3 bedroom apartments depending on your pay grade. We have access to gyms and pools. Most of the accommodations are shared with another hospital employee. Some of them have in-suite laundry, others have laundry facilities on each floor. The accommodations here are a little dated . I think it has the feel of an 80’s all women’s rehab facility (which is kinda fitting seeing as Saudi Arabia is an alcohol free country). Men are housed in only one of the complexes (which is separated by a fence to prevent male and female mixing) or else they live outside of the hospital compound. Men are not allowed into our housing areas. In fact when returning from running errands its not uncommon to have the trunk of the car searched (I’m unclear if this is for security reasons or to make sure there are no men stowed in there!)

So what exactly is a compound? Well, pretty much what it sounds like- a walled secured housing area. Some of the compounds around Riyadh are huge- with their own schools, stores, and restaurants on them. Often security is very tight to get in, with armed guards and specific security procedures. Other compounds are much less nice and much less secured.

The hospital I work at is completing several different construction projects, so parts of it are like a construction site with road closures and construction workers a plenty. There are some growing pains, but when its all finished there will be some 1200 patient beds in it. This is the largest hospital I’ve ever worked at. With this growth comes the need for some 500 more nurses and with the growing need of nurses comes the issue of where to house them. One of the current construction projects includes another all women housing complex.  They are currently building/digging some type of project eerily close to the building that I live in. So here are some photos to give you a better idea!!

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The walk into work.

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“The Shining.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The beautiful pool area.

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Pool Rules….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My bedroom.

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The lounge

 

 

 

 

 

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The Kitchen.

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Home sweet home.

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