Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: December 2014

Mada’in Saleh

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMada’in Saleh is one of 3 UNESCO heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. It’s located about 20km from  Al Ula and was part of the Nabatean Kingdom, with Petra in Jordan being the capital. It predates Islam and is believed to be from the 1st century AD. Tha Nabatean’s were believed to control vital trade routes and were a nomadic people. It’s hard to compare Mada’in Saleh to Petra. When you visit Petra you wind your way through the rock walls and the suspense builds up until you walk into an opening and are awe-struck by the Treasury. The entire area is walkable although you need a couple days to really do it justice. Mada’in Saleh is quite different. First off, you drive into the site, and you can park right in front of the tombs. A few have designated parking areas, but the majority you can have front row parking. Much of the actual city has yet to be excavated, as it remains covered by layers of sand. It is thought that the tombs were the only permanent structures of the kingdom, and that the actual homes were more of an adobe style.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you first drive into the site you pass the remnants of the Hejaz railway that was constructed in the early 1900s to connect Damascus to Medina. It was designed by German engineers but the line was never completed after a portion of it was damaged during the 1st World War. It’s interesting to see the German architecture of the remaining buildings and know that not far from there are the tombs from the Nabatean Kingdom. We of course stopped, and took photos of each of us climbing on the restored train that is there. If was fun to watch other Saudi tourists (mostly men wearing thobes) also climbing onto the train and taking seflies.

From here we drove on further and came to the first set of tombs. Tombs from the Nabatean era bare hallmark signs. They are carved out of a rock face. The front of the tombs are quite plain in nature with strong geometrical lines. Some of the tombs were adorned with wings and what I can imagine would have been an eagle or falcon were the head of the sculpture still attached. The tops of most tombs were cared with a series of 5 steps, while the inside of the tombs there were shelves carved out where the dead were housed. The tombs ranged from commoner, to upper class to royalty with some of the tombs having burial chambers outside for slaves. There are several different tomb sights to visit. Some house several tombs that encompass huge rocks. My favourite and I’m sure most people was Qasr Farid which is the largest single standing tomb. It’s visible from quite a distance.

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The last place we visited were the temples in the area of Diwan. This is the site where cult practices took place and the area is made up of unique rock formations that very much reminded me of prehistoric times. There’s a narrow passageway that opens into a open area surrounded by towering rocks with a dam at the far side. We hiked to the top of one on the rock formations (not the easiest of feats in an abaya.) The views from the top were spectacular.

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Mada’in Saleh is well worth the trip. Go in the winter months when the temperatures are tolerable. The guide books have it right- if you only do one thing when you’re in Saudi Arabia this is it. I regretted not seeing it on my first Saudi tour of duty and am so glad that I went. So go. Go now while you have the chance!!

 

 

Happy Holidays from Saudi….

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!! This time of year is always hard when you’re away from home and those you are closest with. The previous Christmas that I spent in Saudi in 2010 was simply awful. Back then the word Christmas wasn’t uttered outside of the ex-pat circle. It was hard to find anything even remotely Christmassy and I didn’t have a single Arabic staff or patient wish me a Merry Christmas. That Christmas I had to work, and up until that point it was my first Christmas away from home. To say I was miserable was an understatement. I remember skyping family and friends back home and crying because I was so homesick.

Returning to Saudi this year I expected the holidays to go much the same as I had remembered, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I came armed with some small Christmas decorations, but as I previously mentioned its not been very hard finding decorations and Christmassy things here. I channeled my inner Martha Stewart and made a fake paper Christmas tree to put up on my wall and hung decorations that I bought at a local store around our apartment. Friends of mine have Christmas trees with lights that they also were able to easily and legally purchase. Last week we had a “Holiday” themed party at work complete with Christmas lights and a secret Santa gift exchange. I had to work Christmas Eve and I had several Muslim co-workers wish me a Merry Christmas. It was very heartfelt and I really appreciated it. A family tradition of mine from back home is that we do a cheese fondue and seafood meal on Christmas Eve. I love everything about Christmas and this meal on Christmas Eve is something I especially look forward to. Since my dearest friends in Saudi were not quite as jazzed as I was about Christmas I wanted to try and include the fondue dinner tradition back home into a night here. But alas, fondue was not in the cards for us. So we went to a French restaurant which was ok, and then we went next door to Tim Hortons which I was super pumped about…..until I found out that they were out of coffee. Well the coffee of the takeaway variety, as I was looking forward to making fresh Timmie’s coffee every morning before work. The guy that worked there told me that they were waiting for the coffee to arrive from Canada and that they had been waiting about 6 months for that to happen. So that’s Saudi for you!!

So Christmas day we went for breakfast at a highly recommended restaurant called Paul’s. It was lovely. In fact, you could almost convince yourself that you were in a European cafe- except for the fact that there were abayas and thobes as far as the eye could see. If you’re in Riyadh you should go. They have a nice outdoor seating area, and delicious baked goods to take home for a treat later. After breakfast we did what any normal person would do on Christmas Day in Saudi Arabia. We went shopping for masquerade masks for a New Years party we’re going to. Then we opened gifts. I got some lovely things from my friends here, and some friends back home. And then later we went to a Christmas Party at a compound here and I ate turkey and listened to Christmas tunes. Then I skyped home for a while. And I didn’t even cry. Because although I wished I could be there, I was actually ok with being here.

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So a belated Merry Christmas to all of you from inside the Kingdom. And all the very best in the upcoming year!

Love, Kristine

Security Envoy

So last week I told you about how I visited Al Ula, and that part of our tour included a security envoy. Let me just say this was a first for me. It’s not everyday that I’m escorted places by a 17 year old Saudi cop, or a pair of 17 year olds and their police cruiser. (I’m not for sure that they were 17 as I didn’t think to check their ID but for the sake of this story we’ll say they were.) The reason for the security is that in 2007 French tourists in the area were targeted and 4 Frenchmen were killed,  so ever since security is required for western looking tourists. The morning of the first day of our tour the 17 year old cop stood guard while we visited a scenic overlook of Al Ula. By stood guard I mean he stood watching us with his mirrored aviator sunglasses unarmed. Which is odd because if we did run into trouble at best he could call for back up via his mobile phone. I mean lets be honest…..what was he going to be protecting us from? So we had a security escort that first morning. And then apparently the coast was clear because he was no where to be seen for the rest of the day.

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10-4. Copy that.

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Making sure the coast is clear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our group of 4 girls paired up with an Australian guy and a group including 3 Americans and a guy from Lebanon for our tour of Madain Saleh the following day (more on this to come.) Oddly, our security detail was MIA. To be fair we did start our tour at 8:30 am which by Saudi standards is far too early to get out of bed. After we toured Madain Saleh we parted ways with the other group as they had to drive to Hail to catch a flight back to Riyadh. This is where the real fun begins because apparently it was a bit of a no-no for them to drive the 4 hours back unescorted. Later that afternoon we were pulled over by the police and once they realized that the entire group was not together they started to sweat. Phone calls were made, voices were raised as they tried to track down the other group who was off the radar. From this point we had a full police escort until we flew out of Al Ula. I tried to convince them that it would be ok for me to sit up front, or to take fake photos of us being arrested or to drive everywhere with the lights and sirens going, but no, these kids were by the book. This was the first time in a long time that my blond locks failed me. We later heard from the other group that the cops did eventually track them down. They received a phone call while they were passing time at a local mall awaiting their flight. The officer requested they come immediately to the airport as he “couldn’t bear not knowing where they were any longer.” This I found very sweet!! So that’s the rather uneventful story of that one time I traveled with a security escort.

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Al Ula

So this past weekend a Canuck, a Kiwi, a Yank, and a Czech went on a Saudi style adventure. One of the things I regretted the most after I left Saudi the last time was that I didn’t take advantage of traveling much within the country…..mostly beacuse I couldn’t wait to get out. One of the places I regretted not getting to see was to Madain Saleh, which is coined the Petra of Saudi Arabia. Since a person can’t just get a tourist visa to come and tour Saudi Arabia this was seriously at the top of my Saudi Part 2 bucket list. We organized the tour through the social club at my hospital and a kind man there booked our airline tickets, hotel, tour guide and security escort. Yes. You read that right. We had a security escort. I’ll fill you in on that later.

If you know me at all you’ll know 2 things about me. The first is that I love to travel. I would remortgage a home (if I were responsible enough to own a home) to travel. The second thing is that I’m terrified of flying. As in my stomach is upset the entire day before I fly and the only way I fly is highly medicated. And even medicated I might cry. And if you’re unlucky enough to end up sitting next to me you’ll likely have to hold my hand. And tell me stories to distract me from the crazy voices in my head. I don’t feel like I’m going to die on a daily basis, but get me on a plane and I’m convinced this is where it all ends. What I do love about flying is the security. Security gives me the false sense that everything is going to be ok. So when I’m running thru the likely scenarios of why the flight I’m on might crash I can cross bomb and terrorist off the list and focus more on the fact that that noise right there means we just lost engine one or that the pilot might fall asleep. Anyways, we arrive at Riyadh airport for our domestic flight and head over to security. Nobody asks to see my boarding card. No one asks to see my ID. Huh?. So we go through security, which involves going into a Ladies-only room where I get complimented about my blond locks and we get the security wand (you know the ones they use at concerts) and I’m starting to stress. Because I really want there to be one of those security machines where you plant your feet on the ground and the thing moves around you and if a person had breast implants you’d be able to see them so the crazy voice in my head knew that no one was getting on this plane with anything they shouldn’t. (Don’t get me wrong I think breast implants should be allowed on planes, but if you can see implants you know there’s no sneaking anything dangerous on.) But that didn’t happen. Because I never pulled my passport out. And there was no liquid limit enforced which I also find strangely comforting. So I medicated and we boarded the plane. And I didn’t die!!

IMG_3540Al Ula is a stressful 70 minute flight from Riyadh. Stressful for me- likely no biggie for you. Al Ula is in the northwest of Saudi Arabia about 400km from Jordan. Our guide told us that the population was around 70 000 and that they get around 100 000 tourist a year. The city is surrounded by rock formations that reminded me a lot of Jordan and was kinda like Sedona Arizona on a smaller scale. Every direction you looked there was some interesting mountain or rock to point out. Our guide Fayiz met us at the airport and we went back to the hotel. There are only 2 hotels in Al Ula and I was told that only one of them is suitable for western tourists so we stayed at Al-Ula ARAC Resort. It was a perfectly fine middle of the road hotel. Don’t expect luxury, but it was fine for what we needed it for. After a bit of a rest Fayiz picked us up in his slightly beat-up Chevy Grand Marquis. He then took us on a bit of a tour of Al Ula as the sun was setting. We visited a local “path” where women and children go to walk and we wandered there for a while and got chatted up by some local girls who shared their Arabic coffee and sweets in exchange for having their pictures taken with us. We then went back to the hotel for an enormous buffet dinner and retreated to our patio for non-alcoholic beers and a game of Cards Against Humanity. If you don’t know what this game is you should buy it immediately. Unless you don’t have a sense of humour in which case you will hate it and might also hate this blog.

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The following day 4 other people joined our tour- oddly enough they ended up being contractors who worked at our hospital in Riyadh. So our car, their car, and our 17 year old Saudi police man’s car (our security escort) drove to this amazing overlook with views of Al Ula and the entire valley. Unfortunately there was a lot of smoke in the valley so the views weren’t super clear, but it was still really lovely.  From here we went for a hike to see a rock that looked like a dog. If you haven’t been hiking in an abaya I would highly, highly recommend it. Because climbing over rock isn’t dangerous enough until you do it in a full length mu-mu. I’m clumsy enough as it is without having to worry about my abaya trying to break my ankle. At the end of the short hike there was……you guessed it…..a rock that looked vaguely like a dog. So we took our photos on it. We then visited the old town. Which is partially in the state of being restored and partly in the state of complete ruin. As with most places in Saudi there is garbage tossed everywhere. Here was no exception. There is a castle overlooking the old town smartly named Al Ula Castle with great views. Its a great location for #selfies FYI. We then checked out elephant rock which…….you guessed it……is a rock that looks like an elephant. Well, vaguely like an elephant from the back side and quite a bit like an elephant from the front. Then we headed back into town and visited the Friday vegetable market.

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By this point in the day it was siesta time (and Friday prayer time for our guide) so we had buffet lunch at the hotel which was super yum and then had kitty-cat naps. Then we visited a tomb site dating from the Dedanite Kingdom. These tombs were built into the side of a huge rock. We happened to arrive just as the afternoon prayer was starting so it was a really cool experience hearing the call to prayer as we were walking amongst the tombs. Our guide Fayiz took us to visit his brother’s farm where he keeps camels and grows oranges and lemons. We took turns driving an ATV around the farm at sunset. It was a pretty great day. Next week I’ll blog about our security envoy and Saudi’s version of Petra……Madain Saleh.

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If you fancy a tour of the Al Ula area you can contact Fayiz at 0557647773 or fayizoh@gmail.com

The Security Situation Part 2…..

First off, I’m not expert on security, even though I tend to be very aware of my surroundings at all times. I even carry a whistle with me, which thankfully saved mine and my Kiwi mate’s asses one time with a pack of stray dogs in Burma, and which I’m equally thankful I’ve never used regarding my safety being threatened by another person. But that’s not really what this post is about. When I was here in 2010/2011 things were far from what I would call “safe”. At that time demonstrations and protests were taking place throughout the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Springs. The majority of these protests and the violence that ensued took place outside of Saudi Arabia, however; during this time Westerners were warned to take precautions especially after the noontime prayer on Fridays. Then there was the Florida preacher Terry Jones who threatened to burn the Koran which lead to protests and deaths in Muslim countries around the world. And then there was the killing of Bin Laden. If memory serves me correct embassy events in Riyadh were cancelled during the week Bin Laden was killed. There were always rumors of incidents against female hospital employees while off the hospital compound. Warnings passed from nurse to nurse regarding assaults in taxis or at markets. I recall an incident making the news regarding some western women having stones thrown at them outside of Kingdom Mall.

DSC_0644One of the biggest fears I had about returning to Saudi Arabia this time was that events in Iraq and Syria would start to spill over. One only needs look at a map to see how close Saudi Arabia is to the action. It shares some reported 900km border with Iraq. Canada updated their travel report related to Saudi Arabia last week and currently advises travelers to Saudi Arabia to exercise a high degree of caution. The US Department of State urges its citizens to carefully consider the risks while traveling in Saudi Arabia. In October, an American was killed in Riyadh in an incident that reportedly stemmed from a workplace incident. A couple weeks ago a Danish man was shot in the shoulder in an attack that prompted the cancelling of embassy events in Riyadh. His attackers have since been arrested and its been reported that they have ties to terrorist organizations. Then the following week a Canadian man was stabbed in another part of Saudi Arabia. This was also deemed a random incident although the attacker was apprehended. Then, just this past week was the murder of an American woman in a mall bathroom in Abu Dhabi. The female attacker in this case is being dubbed as a lone terrorist.

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Al Ula is the red dot

This past week fighter jets could be seen and heard flying over the city. I’m not certain that this means anything in regards to the current security situation (for all I know they could be practicing) but the noise is hard to ignore. On Thursday I flew to Al Ula and to my amazement I actually boarded a place without my ID even being checked. Went thru security and no one asked for ID or even to see my boarding card. So security is in place in some cases and not in others. Over the weekend I spent 2 nights in Al Ula visiting the area and getting to see Madain Saleh and while we were there it was required that we have a police escort. In actual fact this consisted of very young unarmed Saudi policemen who sometimes escorted us and sometimes were no where to be found. It was hard to believe that in the unlikely chance we might find ourselves in need of security what exactly these teenagers would be able to do to protect us.

So what does all this really mean? I still feel safe within my limited knowledge of the security situation. I don’t feel unsafe when I go out in public. I do believe that random incidents could happen here and just as easily back home. I’m not changing my behaviour, or isolating myself inside, but I’m more aware when I go out. I’ve put “just in case” numbers into my phone. And I’ve accepted that my being here is subject to a variety of circumstances that are beyond my control. I’ll keep you all posted……

Brunch at the Ritz…..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past weekend I had the chance to go to Friday brunch at the Ritz Carlton. Friday and Saturday are considered the weekend here, so most of the fancy brunches take place on Friday after the noontime prayer. The Ritz Carlton was built 3 years ago so it wasn’t open the last time I was here. The hotel is set on 52 acres of land right next to the King Abdul Aziz Conference Centre. The hotel is, as you can imagine, a very magnificent building. It’s very, very fancy. Our driver Shahbaz dropped us off and we met up with our group in the lobby- which was huge, and open, and naturally being Saudi Arabia there were meeting areas for single men, separate from the meeting areas for families and women.

So we check in for brunch just after 12:30 and the place is mostly empty, which is perfect because all the food is beautifully displayed! There was so much food. An entire section dedicated to all things smoked salmon, and another one full of seafood (prawns, octopus, lobster tail, mussels). Are you hungry yet? There were tons of salads to choose from, an Asian section with noodles that you could have freshly cooked and a sushi bar. There was a fresh pasta bar, delicious prime rib, cheese plates, and then the desserts. Literally tables of desserts. Including an ice cream sundae bar and my personal favourite…..the chocolate fountain. Fresh juices are included in the 325riyal price ($86US or $100CDN.) Now brunches are always a little stressful because there is so much to choose from I never quite know where to begin, and am always afraid of missing out. I want someone to hand me a map or tell me what the game plan is, but this never happens. So I filled a plate with smoked salmon and seafood. Then I followed that up with some sushi and a piece of prime rib. Then I left room for dessert. We were finished around 2:30, but you could easily sit there until the brunch finishes at 4pm to really get your money’s worth. I however, had other plans for us because I wanted a guided tour of the hotel.

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So we asked could we have a tour? And the response was “yes mam” and a bubbly Filipino guy named Jaime took us around. First stop was to see the pool area which sadly, is only for men. Same goes for the spa and hair dresser. The pool was empty which meant we could go down and have a looksie. The pool area is indoors and surrounded by large windows and the ceiling is painted to look like the sky which gives it a really relaxing natural light. The pool is surrounded by upholstered baby-blue chaise lounge chairs which seems a little odd given that if you’re lounging near the pool you are most likely going to be wet, but its all very opulent. The pool area is over looked by the 2 other restaurants in the Ritz- an Italian restaurant and and Asian one. After we finished taking photos of ourselves relaxing in our abayas on the poolside furniture we toured the hotel rooms. The hotel is designed in an “X” with great care taken into ensuring the security of its guests, as members of the Royal Family stay here, as do diplomats and neighbouring countries royals. Basically this means that floors or wings can be blocked off if need be. So the basic rooms are nice- pretty much what you’d expect from a high-end hotel. Then there are the executive suites and 40 some-odd Royal Suites. And these suites are fancy- like you definitely have servants if you’re staying in a place like this, kind of fancy. It costs 25000riyals/night for the Royal Suites- more than my current monthly salary (around $6600US or $7600CDN.) So its unlikely that I’ll be glamming it up there anytime soon. These suites only sleep 4 people, but have a huge dining area, office, kitchen, enormous seating area, and wall to wall marble. The square footage of these suites is over 4000 sq ft so larger than many peoples homes.

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The gorgeous pool area

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The marble lobby

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me. Being a boss.

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Sitting area of Royal Suite

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Royal Suite entry way.

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A bedroom fit for royalty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if 5 star glam is your thing- The Ritz won’t disappoint!! If like me, your tastes are more simple, or less extravagant than you should go to the brunch. Like this Friday. But, have a game plan so your stomach isn’t full before your eyes take in all the food options. And lastly, many thanks to Jaime for our top notch tour!!

Fat Shaming Saudi Style…..

So, I’ve never been a skinny minny (well except for maybe in high school) and I was in no way skinny the last time I was in Saudi. Maybe a little skinnier than my present weight, but not skinny. I’ve always been more of an average (could lose a few pounds) kinda gal, and I’m perfectly ok with that. Several of the staff I worked with back in  2010/2011 are still working on the unit I left and have since returned to. On my first day on the unit a Sudanese house keeper who I remember came up to me and was excited to see me and my kiwi sidekick. She looked us both up and down and then puffed out her cheeks at us and held her arms out from her body to give us the universal sign for “you got fat.” But we were never skinny to start with lady. As we walked away I said to my kiwi mate- “was the fat face really necessary?”

In many parts of the world telling someone they need to lose weight is not meant, or taken the way we do in western countries. Its just meant as stating a fact. Not meant to be cruel or mean, just a mere exchange of info. In February while in Nepal with my American bestie I have a vivid memory of taking a bicycle rickshaw and the man trying to demand more money than we had originally negotiated on account of our size. He made an amazing display his disappointment grunting and wheezing as he shuttled us around Kathmandu like he was hauling a truck load of cattle. He likely, has a future in Nepalese soap operas based off his acting skills!! Anyways, back to Saudi…….a couple days after my fat-face encounter I ran into another housekeeper I knew from before. He is from the Philippines. He exclaimed “sister you came back!!” And I said yes. And then he said “last time you skinny. Now….(and he paused to find the appropriate words)……not skinny.” I was at least thankful he didn’t make the fat face to me, or any other type of sign language to indicate my size. It doesn’t really help my case given that I’m an average sized 5’8″ gal working with mostly Asian nurses who hardly break 5’0″. I’m like a giant. I couldn’t be more acutely aware of my size.

So last week I was walking briskly down the hall and the housekeeper that originally made the fat face at me saw me. She stood in place and started pumping her arms up and down and as I got closer she yelled “exercising, exercising!!!” with great excitement. So that’s my current life. I’m getting cheered at while I walk. Maybe I should bring her to the gym with me?! I want to leave you with a photo to give you an indication of how I feel at work. This is from 2 years ago when the Seahawks were visiting patients when I worked at the University of Washington Medical Center. Here in Saudi I am obviously the football players, and my teeny tiny Asian co-workers are me. Thanks for reading!!

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Where to even start about the Riyadh Zoo….

I never had a chance to visit the Riyadh Zoo the last time I was in Saudi so this past week I had a day off that coincided with a “ladies day” at the zoo so my kiwi side-kick and I decided to check it out. As with most activities in Saudi the sexes are separated and the zoo is no exception. “Ladies days” often mean women and families, but it was a nice surprise to find out that in fact only women and children were allowed. Women were free to roam the zoo unaccompanied and even free to remove their abayas (little black dress) and let the stress of the day fall away. Years ago I read a blog post about another ex-pats experience of visiting the Riyadh Zoo, so I can’t say I was completely in the dark about what it might be like, but even with this bit of knowledge the zoo was a very disheartening experience. The first clue that it probably wasn’t going to be up to my western standards was the entry price. It cost a whole 10 riyals ($2.50US) to get in. Where in the world can you go to a zoo for the price of a coffee people? Just as a guess I’d say most North American zoos will cost between 80-100riyals entry ($20-30US). If it costs you a coffee to get in you can rest assured that none of this money is likely going into wildlife preservation, or public education of any sort. More on that later…

So we pay the entrance fee and walk into the zoo and there are ladies in fashionable Middle Eastern attire as far as the eye can see. Since mostly I only see covered women around the hospital I was unaware of the trend of super dark almost sharpie markered on eyebrows that the ladies in Riyadh are sporting. Personally I’m not a fan, but each to their own. Also as a side note, stilettos are a completely reasonable footwear choice for a trip to the zoo. My kiwi mate and I were a little self-conscious in our flipflops. Anyways, there is a cement path that winds around the zoo property, with women having picnics on the grass alongside the path. We took a left at the flamingos and came up on the monkey cages which kinda resembled cell blocks. The cages were quite small and the first thing we noticed was the garbage that was inside the cages- water bottles, chip and candy bar wrappers, and whatever else people were too lazy to put in the garbage. The monkeys were very cute- especially the ones from the Amazon, but they were in very small enclosures. Further along we could hear quite a commotion and came to some larger monkey cages. There was a crowd of Arabic women and children outside the cage who were yelling and throwing popcorn into the monkey cage. A woman and a couple kids had even climbed over the barrier to get closer to the animals. Secretly I hoped one of them would get bitten by one of the wound-up monkeys. Sadly, I did not get to witness this.

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So from here things only got sadder. The animals we saw were either listless and uninterested or completely agitated. There was a bear who tried to do tricks for treats, and a gorilla that was being aggressively yelled at by some teenage girls. There was a tiger enclosure where 2 tigers just paced back and forth, back and forth. There were double humped camels in a exhibit with reindeer from North America which seemed a little odd. Many enclosures for the larger animals were also littered with garbage. I can only imagine how hot the animals get during the summer months when the temperatures are very high. I can’t say I saw any airconditioning, although many of the enclosures did have shaded areas. Watching the way the animals were treated by the girls and women made me thankful to not have to witness how teenage boys and men behaved with the animals on the all-men days. I can only imagine if the women were being aggressive with the animals how groups of men likely behave and it makes my heart cry. I could have easily left after 30 minutes but we had arranged for our driver to come back in 2 hours. So for the next hour we wandered in a state of shock. My emotions ranged from sadness, to annoyance, to anger, and then to complete disappointment. I scolded children telling them not to feed the animals candy or throw garbage into the cages. I swore under my breath and held back the urge to punch people in their faces. My kiwi sidekick cried. It was awful. The entire experience felt like a massive fail for humanity.

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So the real issue for me is how do you teach people to be compassionate for animals in a country where many families don’t own or take care of animals as we do in western countries. For me to watch how women and children treated caged animals felt ironic as women here have far fewer freedoms than we do back home, and often I feel caged here as a woman. Where was the kindness? Where was the compassion? Missing was the part of the zoo experience that many of us cherish- that of seeing these amazing animals up close. Missing was the  education that most zoo experiences offer. The entire time we were at the zoo we did not see a single person working there apart from the ticket person and the worker selling the popcorn and chips. Maybe it was because they weren’t allowed to be there as it was a “ladies day” and it would’ve been improper to have zoo employees mixing with unaccompanied ladies. My point is that there wasn’t a single person watching out for how the animals were being treated, or trying to educate the visitors about why the bear doesn’t eat potato chips because in real life bears eat small animals, berries and fish ect.

When we left I asked to speak with someone who worked with the animals, but the ticket man told me that the person I needed to speak with had already gone home for the day. The gentleman who runs the zoo is Australian (as per the person we asked). I did not get a chance to speak with him. In saying all of this I don’t know what conditions those animals faced prior to coming to the Riyadh Zoo. Maybe they came from worse conditions. This I do not know. Maybe the people who work there feel as awful as I did and have tried to change the way visitors to the zoo treat the animals. This I also do not know. What I do know is that the experience there left me feeling numb and disheartened. So if you love animals I’d take a pass on going to the zoo here. I’ve done a little research about animal rights groups within Saudi Arabia and all I could find were groups pertaining to domestic animals and some information about a petition regarding a different zoo in Riyadh a few years back.

Also- as an ironic little souvenir of my visit- look what toys they sold at the zoo. Aren’t they sweet, and very appropriate. I imagine some kids have even gone so far as to shoot these toys at the animals.

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