A Suburbanite in Jeddah

They say it’s good to be an adventurer from time to time but when you’re a chicken it’s best to stick to what you know and ease yourself into adventure.

I went to Jeddah to take my application to renew my passport. In an attempt to be adventurous, I decided to spend the entire weekend in Jeddah. Problem is, I was raised in suburbia and was perfectly happy to remain in my quiet life of snobbery. I’m not really a snob but some people think that people from the suburbs are.

So, I set out on my journey which began with my driver barely getting me to the airport on time. Fortunately for me the boarding times on your boarding pass mean nothing. You will board at best, 15 minutes before takeoff. I said at best. It isn’t common for it to be less, especially at the airport here in Yanbu. In any case, I still made it on time. I got to the airport in Jeddah, got my bag and went to look for the driver from the hotel. I saw the man with his sign which read, “Mr Amal Ibrahim.” Come on! I’m in an Arab country where Amal is a pretty common name so they should have known better. Yada yada yada, I reached the hotel safely and the first thing I noticed as the car was pulling into the lot was this sign.

I laughed so hard inside. I had to try to control it since I didn’t want the driver to think I was nuts. And I knew that he might not appreciate the humor in it. All I could think about was getting a picture of it which I would tweet, email and spread in as many ways as possible to people I knew would appreciate it. Every time I thought about it I laughed. But then it was time to get serious. I had an appointment at the consulate at 2pm the next day and I needed to prepare myself mentally, reminding myself that I cannot slap anyone, no matter how tempting.

Wednesday morning I was up bright and early still trying to relax. After all, my last experience at the consulate wasn’t a pleasant one. I headed to the concierge desk around 1pm to arrange for transportation. I got in the car, prepared. I had left my phones and anything I had of value in the safe. All I had was my teeny, tiny, wallet-sized purse which had my money, passport, iqama and about a million passport photos.

When you arrive to the US Consulate you feel like you are in a war zone. It’s the only one that looks that way. I walked. in, jumping through the hoops they have ready for you. When I got closer I was asked why I was there and then it was time to go through security. I was asked to lift my abaya, show my face and put all the contents of my gigantic purse into a brown envelope. “You can’t take this. Big bags are not allowed.” I thought she was joking so I asked, “Is it big?” I kept saying to myself, “Patience, Amal, patience.” I had to remember that I was there on a mission, to get my passport renewed. I followed the yellow and white striped road to get to the actual office. It felt like I was on the yellow brick road. What is this, the Wizard of Oz? I wondered. There’s no rhyme or reason for this silly trail we have to follow to get inside. But, what to do? I got inside, took a number and sat down. When I was called, I went to the counter and told the lady I was there to renew my passport. I gave her my application and a photo. “Oh no, this is too small,” she said. So being the prepared person I am, I pulled out my backup photo and then she said, “Oh no, it has to be closer to the hairline.” Oh my God! I was told I could go across the street and get photos taken. I left and crossed the street with a fair amount of ease. Of course it was closed. Great! I found the driver and told him I needed a photo studio. Never mind the fact that I had been sweating like a pig. We got to the studio and I did my best to wipe the sweat off of my face with tissues. I looked in the mirror and I thought it was okay. Not wonderful, just okay. And let’s face it I didn’t really have time to worry about it. But when I saw the pictures, I was frightened. “Good God! Is that me?” I thought. Then I remembered that this horrible picture would be with me for ten years so I opted to try again. It was too late. I only had till 5pm to get them another picture and giving them the other one quite simply wasn’t an option. So that meant I’d have to go out on Thursday to get more pictures.

To be continued….

Neighbors…..Serenity Now!

In Arabic they say…

اختار الجار قبل الدار

My loose translation, which doesn’t sound as nice is, “Choose your neighbor before your house.”  Why would they say that?  Prior to my time here in Saudi Arabia, I don’t think I ever really thought about it.  I lived in my parents’ house until I went away for college. If I had annoying neighbors then, I assumed it was because they were young and didn’t know any better.  I know that my parents must have thought of such things when buying our house but as a spoiled, but nice, girl growing up I never thought of all the reasons why they chose the neighborhood they did.

Well, enter my new apartment.  I live on the second floor.  There’s a family below me and there was a family above me.  Before I moved in, I thought that being between two families would be a good idea.  And who asked me to think?  Thinking sometimes leads to the wrong idea or conclusion, as in my case.  I had seen the kids from downstairs, and they seemed normal.  And you know how the saying goes, things aren’t always what they seem.  Who knew that such sweet, innocent looking kids would turn out to be my nemesis?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I do believe that they are Satan’s offspring.  Maybe that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.  They screamed at the top of their lungs, apparently in an attempt to see who could scream the loudest before their voice boxes exploded.  Unfortunately, the contest is ongoing and they still scream though it is a little less than before.  Their other favorite past time was banging on walls.  What makes it really fun is that they usually start at night.  Maybe I was wrong.  They’re more active at night.  Hmm, could it be that they are in fact, vampires?  It remains a mystery.  Anyway, one day it was so bad that I decided to go speak to their mother.  Lucky me she speaks neither English nor Arabic.  I knocked on the door and asked her again to be sure, “You don’t speak any English?”  She shook her head and I proceeded to complain about those demons they call children.  My arms were flailing right and left, up and down in a futile attempt to tell her to do something about her kids.  When I think about how ridiculous I must have looked, I can laugh about it.  But only a little.  As if that wasn’t enough, the neighbors upstairs had a baby who literally seemed to spend his/her every waking hour crying.  I thought to myself, “They’re lucky they’re here or I’d report them to Children’s Services.”  The husband downstairs apologized to me on more than one occasion, and I believe he was sincere.  But you know what, buddy?  Your apologies don’t mean crap when I still have to listen to your psychotic children day in and day out.  Do I sound a little angry?  I’ve done my best to remain calm even as I wish I could throw them off the balcony.  But don’t worry, I would never do anything like that.  But in the movie I’m going to write, I will. You know what’s funny?  He actually asked me to teach them English.  As if.  He’d send them to me and never see them again.

My neighbor downstairs finally came to me with good news a few weeks back.  He said the family upstairs would be leaving and that would cut down on the noise because his kids wouldn’t have anyone to bother.  So I kept telling myself to be patient.  They’d be gone soon.  Things were looking up until…

Someone opened a karaoke bar upstairs.  And I probably wouldn’t have noticed except I could hear singing, loud and bad singing.  The first time I let it go even though they were singing Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.”  That’s right, “Heal the World.”  The next time I heard them, it was Barry Manilow.  I asked, “Dear God, what did I do to deserve this?”  They went on an on singing, “Do you lo me like I lo you?”  WTH?  I finally decided to pay them a visit.  I went upstairs, knocked on the door three times and waited.  No answer.  Of course.  How could they hear me when it was karaoke night in Yanbu?  I went back to my place and wrote a note.  I slipped it under the door and I can tell that they did read it because it has gotten better. Thank God!!!

So beware of psychotic children and karaoke-loving maniacs.

Ah, just another adventure, here in KSA.

Saudi Generosity

If you’ve ever had Arab friends, you know that Arab generosity and hospitality is unmatched.  I’ve known or had Arab friends for many years, but my time in Saudi Arabia has shown me not only the generosity and hospitality that is so embedded in Arab culture but that there really are kindhearted people who will help a person in need, even if it’s not a family member or someone they know.

When I came here six years ago I remember going downtown on the bus provided by our employer so that we could do some shopping.  There was a grocery store in the area where I live but downtown you can buy from the fruit and veggie market where you get a lot more for your money.  The idiot I was with at the time insisted on going to the fish market.  I hate fish by the way and he bought a lot.  We were late, thanks to his insisting on buying so much fish at once because the Red Sea was running out of fish.  But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the bus ended up leaving without us.  Walking back toward the main market, a car stopped and asked if we needed a ride.  We got in with no fears.  It wasn’t like being in America where at times you may be afraid to get in the car with someone you do know.  Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.  Either way, he took us all the way back to the Royal Commission area which can be a 20-30 minute ride depending on where you are coming from in the city.  He asked nothing and refused to accept any payment.  Where can you find people like that?

Something else I will always remember is spending Ramadan, the month of fasting, here.  During the month of Ramadan, everyone tries to be more generous.  How can a people who are already generous be more generous?  During this blessed month there’s the usual like feeding others, donating your time and money.  But try traveling during Ramadan.  I should point out that you are not required to fast when traveling and must make up the days you missed after Ramadan and before the next one.  But for shorter trips like from Yanbu to Medinah which is a two hour drive at most, many feel that there is no need to break the fast.  So, you get on the highway and you hope that you’ll be able to make it to your destination before maghreb (sunset).  But in reality, there will be times when you simply cannot.  What if you don’t have anything to break your fast with in the car?  It has happened in the past, and I’m pretty sure it will continue to do so.  Well, along the way you can find people who pass out water, dates, yoghurt and other things to travelers.  There’s even one area I remember on the way to Medinah where these men set up a place for people to stop and pray as well.  It warms my heart every time I see something like this.  They do it seeking blessings from Allah and it is just wonderful.

One other exceptional event took place two years ago when my mother came to visit me.  She spent a month here in the magic kingdom.  Unfortunately because of when she arrived, I wasn’t able to do much with or for her.  The semester had started so I didn’t have a lot of options for going places either.  My students, per my instructions, each wrote her a paragraph about Saudi Arabia.  It was sweet how they told her about places she should go.  They didn’t know that she wasn’t Muslim so some of the advice was not quite for her but she liked it anyway.  She took every last one of those paragraphs with her when she returned.  And even though she didn’t see much or experience much, when she left and returned to the states all she could talk about was how nice my friends were to her.  They invited her for dinner and she got a taste of some traditional dishes as well as Arab hospitality.  She was treated so well that she asked, “Now who’s going to do this for me when I go back?”  I tried to convince her to stay longer, telling her that it wouldn’t happen and she could only experience it here.  Well, obviously that didn’t work because she decided to go back home, but she did say she’d like to come back.

Those are just a few of many stories.  But today, I experienced something so unexpected that it literally brought tears to my eyes.  Even as I’m writing this I can feel my eyes welling up again.  So here it is.  Those who know me know that I’ve been struggling with some personal problems for the past year.  And being in a foreign country with no family makes the struggle that much more difficult.  Sure people have tried to say words of encouragement, but in all honesty I believe it has been impossible for them to relate.  Due to these changes in my life, I was forced to move out of my apartment.  But, being that I’m a woman trying to do this on my own, to say it’s been hard would be the biggest understatement of the year.  I started this venture four months ago and I’m still not done.  Yesterday, I spent two hours in the old place while a driver and two other workers emptied a lot of, excuse my French, crap out of the place.  It was hot and I really felt for them as they worked.  Even after that, there is still much work to be done.  I needed and need more boxes.  The place needs to be cleaned.  So many things.  So I started asking around about where I could get some boxes.  I asked wherever I could. Honestly, only a few people responded and two of those few were people I don’t really know.  One individual asked what size I needed and how many.  So I explained what I was looking for.  To my surprise, this amazing person, who I’ve never met by the way, offered to send a driver with some boxes as well as workers if I needed them to move things.  I sat and I cried for a bit.  I experienced a whole range of emotions at that moment. I was surprised, overjoyed, touched.  I will never forget this.  And I wish there were more people like this in the world.

Kindness and generosity still exist today and they can be found right here in KSA.

Buying Medication in KSA

Today I took a trip to the pharmacy and a few things came to mind.  For one I have to go to a pharmacy to get any and all things medicine.  Sure we have pharmacies in America but you can also find a pharmacy in all grocery stores.  You can also get non-prescription drugs in a grocery store.  But here, even if all I want is aspirin, I can only get it from a pharmacy.  I suppose it’s a business at the end of the day and they don’t want to share business with grocery stores. But for me, it’s a pain in the neck to make so many stops to get things done in a day.

The next thing I noticed, which isn’t new, is that I can buy anything I want from the pharmacy without a prescription.  It’s good for me and a for a lot of people.  In America, you have to have a doctor’s visit to get the prescription to begin with.  And let’s face it, even if you have insurance chances are you still have a co-pay so there’s no such thing as a free office visit.  A couple months back, I needed an antibiotic for a sinus infection.  No need to see the doctor.  I walked in the pharmacy and told the pharmacist the name of the medicine I wanted.  And he gave it to me, no questions asked.  I remember thinking, “This is awesome.”  I don’t have to waste my time waiting for a physician to ask me a bunch of questions and write me a prescription.  It’s great, but it can be scary as well.  Imagine someone asking for medication without knowing the risks and just being able to buy it like candy.  I’ve never heard of any problems like that, but it is a possibility.  I went to the pharmacy again today and said I needed xy drug because I was having adverse effects from a similar drug.  “You can use this instead,” he said.  Well, okay.  I paid for it and left.

Just a day in the life of someone living in KSA.

Riding in Cars with……Drivers

“Wow. You get driven around like a princess.”  That’s what some say about not driving in Saudi Arabia.  Well, that’s fine for my mom who we like to call “Miss Daisy.”  She never liked driving and always opts for letting someone else do the driving.  For those of us who don’t have that option, we may have to depend on a driver.

I know I touched on this a bit in a post about women driving, but riding in a car with some of these drivers is an experience all in itself.  For one, some of them quite simply can’t drive.  I may as well be in the car with Toonces the Driving Cat. For those of you unfamiliar with Toonces, here’s a clip.

Toonces the Driving Cat

I find myself praying a lot when I’m in a taxi or with the driver.  They literally drive like they’re in a video game, dodging other cars and weaving in and out of traffic.  For some of them, okay all of them, they’re probably in a hurry so they can pick up another customer.  But why do they risk their lives and ours with their psychotic driving?  I guess no one really knows.

As if the driving wasn’t bad enough, then there’s the “communication” issue.  Once again, because of the way I’m dressed, they assume that I speak Arabic, which I do.  But they don’t know that.  The problem is, what they’re speaking can only loosely be called Arabic.  It’s some sort of mix of their language with some Arabic.  My favorite is when one of them says, “Fayn rooh? Fayn enta?” The driver’s trying to ask where you’re going and where you are right now.  Enta, is the masculine form of “you” which all females must endure.  We’re all “enta.”  Then there are those who I really want to strangle because they don’t understand anything I’m saying.  I say go right, he goes left.  I say straight, he asks, “Right or left?”  It’s exhausting.  Since neither Arabic nor English are working for me, I think I need to learn whatever they’re speaking.

For a little more than a month I had an Arab driver.  That didn’t work even though we could actually communicate with each other.  What was his problem?  He was too darn nosy and he proposed to me, or perhaps he was proposing to my passport.  Once I guess he was trying to see if I’d be jealous and told me he was getting engaged.  I couldn’t have cared less.  How many times did I have to ask, “Are you gonna be here at 7 or what?” Then he would say he could take me somewhere and later he couldn’t.  Why was I paying extra then?  So he could get on my nerves?  These nutty drivers can really drive a woman nuts.

There’s one driver who likes to play music from time to time.  Sometimes it’s Indian and sometimes it’s Arabic.  I don’t want to hear either.  I just want to get to my destination safely.  If his head’s bobbing to the beats, how can I be sure he’s paying attention?  Not only that, his car is a stick shift and sometimes he’s trying to shift while talking on the phone.  I love being in a car with a driver who can yell, “Look! No hands.”

God help us!

Dana Mall, a Shopping Experience You Won’t Forget

You would think that going to a shopping mall would be about the same no matter where you are in the world.  You would think.  Let me be the first to tell you that that is NOT the case here in Yanbu at Dana Mall. There are shops a plenty, relatively speaking that is.  It’s a one-level mall which in itself is strange.  Usually one-level is reserved for strip malls and/or plazas.  But walk inside and you will be amazed, and not really in a good way.

Let’s start with the entertainment.  There’s a place called HappyLand which is great if you have kids and want to keep them occupied for a while.  But why spend money in there when the entire mall is HappyLand?  You have kids driving around in little battery operated cars, on roller blades and whatever those skateboard/pogo stick with wheels things are.  They zip through people like nothing.  And I gotta say, they are dangerous.  Walking through the mall is scarier than being on the road, especially after isha prayer and weekends.  At least when I’m in a car there’s a buffer between me and the other vehicles on the road.  These kids will run you down like a hit and run.  So when you see them coming, get out of the way!  And quick!

Something else I so love about the mall would be the security guards.  Some of them look like they’re about 12 years old.  Maybe they are.  Hmm.  Do their parents know they’re out of the house?  Anyway, what do they call themselves doing?  Well I guess they do man the doors to keep teen boys out on certain days or at certain times.  I don’t really know which of the two it is.  I guess no one really cares, including me.  But there are a couple who I’m really impressed with.  And by impressed I mean not impressed.  The only thing they know how to secure is a seat since that’s all I ever see them doing, sitting.

One of the more fun experiences would be the food court.  If you recall, I talked about wavering between using Arabic and pretending I don’t understand.  Well, it’s funny how I speak English and they speak something that’s supposed to be Arabic.  Then there’s the oxymoron question that someone will ask.  For example, I asked for soup and the man asked, “One?”  I looked around and thought to myself, “Well buddy I don’t see anyone else, so I’m gonna go with, yeah, one.”  Did I ask for two?  And then you might ask for pizza and they ask if you want Pessi.  Which is, Pepsi?  Good times.

The last thing I’d like to mention is maneuvering shopping carts.  Perhaps some people have mastered the art, but I have not.  I don’t know if it’s the wheels or because of the marble floors, but for the life of me I can’t make the cart move straight.  I find that I’m putting all my weight on one side trying to get the cart that has a mind of its own to move forward and not to the right or left.  I talked about kids on wheels being a danger, but these carts are also a danger.  I’m waiting for the day that I crash into someone or someone crashes into me.  That oughta be fun.  I can just see the headline: “Crazy foreigner attempts to bring a class action lawsuit against Dana Mall for its dangerous carts.”  You read it here first, folks.

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