Monthly Archives: October 2013

Houses, Houses, Houses

Riyadh is a growing city.  The city now has a population of about 4 million, and that number is going up.  There is so much building that you can hardly pass a block without a seeing a house or building going up, or one being torn down for a new and improved dwelling.

The country is enjoying an economic boom, and being the oil rich nation that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the boom has probably been going on for a while.  Not that there aren’t poor people because I’ve seen a number of young men walking through traffic and begging for money.  But, I haven’t seen homeless people occupying the fronts of buildings or hanging out at bus stops

I’ve been trying to determine exactly where downtown is, but haven’t yet figured that out (and yes to all of you cynics, if I could drive I’d probably know where downtown is by now).  I’m told that Riyadh does indeed have a downtown and it is as hectic as any downtown in any large city.  I’m not quite sure about that, as the person who told me had never been outside of Riyadh.

The houses are beautiful, and look like mini palaces.  There are usually two entrances, one for women and one for men.  There are also usually bars on the windows with heavy shading.  I believe that this is to help retain the modesty of the women and to keep potential peeping Toms from even attempting to peer inside.  But, I would love to have a peek inside one of these homes.  I’ve heard that they are lush and beautifully furnished.  Hopefully a bit differently than the furniture in my flat, if I am to believe that it is indicative of Arabic furnishing.

Since I am a non-citizen, I cannot buy or hold property, but you never know what the future holds.

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One of the sofas in my flat (I’m wiling to trade)

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The Roads of Ridaydh

The roads here seem to be very poorly engineered, but I’m told that there is a method to the madness.  In a word (or two): traffic control.  The streets here are so crowded, that the roads have been engineered in such a way as to try to cut down on traffic jams.  With all of the Camrys, Rovers, Civic, Hummers, hatchbacks, vans and buses clogging the road, I doubt that anyone could do much about the traffic jams here. 

It is odd to see only male drivers on the road; you only need to be 18 years old to get a driver’s license, and I would swear every male 18 and over in Riyadh is driving. There are no women drivers of any age.  No teenage girls trying to text and drive, no grown up soccer moms trying to get to the game, school or soccer practice.  Only men.  There is a gentle push here to get women driving, but it probably will happen later rather than sooner. It is not legally forbidden for women to drive, but no agency will issue a woman a driver’s license. I, for one, have no desire to drive, having driven more than 30 years in all kinds of horrible traffic, weather, bad drivers and bumpy roads.  I also have no desire to drive in the crazy traffic that is Riyadh, but I can see why other women would want to.

Driving represents a kind of freedom, unlike anything else.  To be able to get in your car and theoretically go where you want is very appealing.  Recently, I woke up one morning and had the impulse to jump in my car and explore, but I realized that I couldn’t and the impulse soon passed.

For me, it is a luxury for me to be driven to my errands, and I’m enjoying it. I don’t have to worry about car insurance, gas, potential accidents, or road rage – mine or anyone else’s.

Oh, what a relief it is.

A New City

Riyadh is a new city, with buildings and homes going up everywhere. There are many construction sites, with piles of dirt and bricks by the side of the road, and workers busily shoveling and erecting new dwellings. The freeways are lined with freshly planted trees that kind of remind me of Los Angeles. Riyadh is spread out and sprawling, with bumper to bumper morning traffic like LA. The drivers are very aggressive, and I am relieved that I am not driving.

These are desert people and they seem to love the sand. That love is reflected everywhere. Almost everything is the color of sand. Rich sandy reds, dark mahogany, and of course creamy caramel tans. When I look at the colors, I think of a box of sweetly sugared Mrs. See’s candy.

The exception is the obvious and heavy American influence here. McDonald’s, Burger King, Applebee’s and TGI Friday stand out in all their glorious and gaudy American colors. There are the golden arches, and golden crowns and, like the rest of the city, these symbols light up at night. When evening falls, the sand darkens, neon rainbows appear everywhere, and the city becomes a Disneyland of lights. The tunnels take on a golden glow, and Riyadh looks like downtown San Francisco at Christmastime.

Perhaps this is the Saudi way of telling us that there is simplicity in sameness, but real beauty in diversity.

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Daytime Riyadh

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Nighttime Riyadh

Getting Around Riyadh

The heat here is unbelievable!  I am told it is cooling off and that it will get cooler during the winter months.  I am looking forward to that.

I have spent the last few days getting settled in my new home, and my new culture.  There are so many places to shop that it’s mind boggling.  The malls, the supermarkets, the local markets, and the sook. 

When I first set off to shop, I was dreading it, thinking I would have to get a taxi and not really knowing my address, how in the world would I get back home?.  But when I stepped outside, there were two drivers from my school ready to take me wherever I wanted to go!  I gave them a name (Hyper Panda) and off we went.  The megastores here are called hyper stores.  They are very close to being like Costco, but without the yearly fee. 

At the store, there are employees who place your items on the conveyor belt, cashiers, and baggers.  After my purchases were bagged and placed in the cart, one employee pushed my cart outside, and waited with me until the driver came.  Sweet.  Shopping life can’t get much better than that.

On another occasion, I went to a mall, among many malls here in Riyadh.  The mall was huge.  But the most striking thing for me was the absence of music.  The mall was fairly busy, and … quiet.  There was a calm pace where no one was in a hurry and shopkeepers were available and very helpful. 

The pace of life here is very different.  No one rushes.  There is no frenetic pace.  No pressure to buy.  No pushing and shoving. No Halloween pressure.

I only needed to remember that when prayer time came, I would be locked in the store until prayer time was over, usually only 20 minutes or so.  But that was okay – I was not in a rush. 

So far, life is very good.

 

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Near Beer at Hyper Panda

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The Food Court at a Mall

The Beauty of It All

On the flight from Istanbul to Riyadh, I noticed that two or three Saudi women were not covered.  They were dressed in skinny jeans and shirts, and had apparently been doing a lot of shopping in Istanbul, ’cause their arms were filled with bags from different designer stores.  What struck me was their beauty.  They all had insanely long, thick black hair, beautiful long lashed eyes, and figures that I can only wish for. 

By the time we landed in Riyadh, they had covered themselves.  Disembarking from the plane, I was greeted with “Welcome Back.”  I only replied thank you.

In the line at the airport were the most gorgeous men I have ever seen.  Tall, short, different hues of brown and black but with a symmetry in dress.  Mostly all of them wore traditional Arab dress.  An ankle length shirt in white, tan, or a very light brown, and sandals.  Some wore the traditional head dress, and some did not.  I had to force myself not to stare at them, and pretended to look straight ahead.

As I’ve moved around Riyadh over the past few days, I’ve noticed that more often than not, both the men and the women wear the traditional dress.  I’ve also noticed that many speak English.  I’ve seen some visitors ask “Do you speak English?” to the various shop employees.  I don’t ask, I just speak. Maybe that’s impolite, but 9 times out of 10 they respond to my question or comment in English, and don’t seem at all offended that I did not ask. 

I think I could sit all day and look at the beautiful men,  very pretty children, and women who seem to glide effortlessly in their abayas.  They are a striking people who are polite and patient. 

I am feeling a calmness that I haven’t felt in a long time.  But, I still need to learn how not to trip over my abaya as I’m walking, and how to properly wrap the scarf around my head.  Nevertheless, I think I’m gonna like it here.

 

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One of the Gorgeous Guys

From Lira to Riyals

I boarded the Turkish Airlines flight for Riyadh, and immediately noticed that upon sitting, the men took off their sandals.  My first culture shock: men who casually and comfortably displayed their feet.  At first, I squirmed a bit, but later relaxed and watched a movie.  The flight was half-empty, so I could move around, as did others on the flight.  Since it was 1:00 a.m., many people lay down across three seats to catch a snooze during the four hour flight.

I catnapped, and all too soon we were landing.  Even though the airport was air conditioned, it still felt hot.  I checked my phone for the temperature.  It was 6:00 a.m. and already 75 degrees.  Before the day’s end, it would climb to 100.

I stood in a long line of mostly men waiting to be processed as a newcomer.  When the customs officers noticed me, I was pulled out of the line and processed.  I don’t think the men from Europe fully appreciated the gesture of the Saudis.  My second culture shock: this was the first of many instances where being a woman in Saudi Arabia appears to be an advantage. 

I did not have to pull my bags off of the carousel.  I did not have to notify the driver I’d arrived: the airport assistant took my driver’s phone number and called from his cell phone. I only needed to walk to the entrance and wait. 

The driver arrived very shortly, took my bags to the car, and handed me an abaya.  He opened the car door for me, turned on the air conditioning (thank God!) and off we went. 

The first thing I noticed was the sparsely abundant landscape.  Everything, even the walls on the side of the freeway, were sand colored.  There were palm trees lining the sides of the freeway and, because I was told that this day was a holiday, there was very little traffic.

I needed to stop and buy a few supplies.  At the small neighborhood market, I only had to point at what I wanted, and there were store helpers there to pick it up, and bag it for me. 

We arrived at my new home: an all female compound made up of flats (or apartments) with a security guard posted in front.  The driver took my bags to my new flat, unloaded my supplies, and there I was in a new home and a new city, about to begin what I hoped to be a new life.

Me and my new abaya
Me and My New Abaya

Entry to my new home
Entry to My New Home

The Last Day … in Istanbul

On my last day in Istanbul, I felt very quiet and contemplative.  I mostly stayed in my room, going out only for breakfast and lunch.  I packed my bags and tried to make sure that I didn’t leave anything.  I watched CNN world news, checked and re-checked my email, and read a little.  My computer and iPhone are the last items that will be packed.  I am hoping I don’t forget either of the plugs, adaptors, etc. for each.  I am almost certain that I will forget something, but am trying to be very, very careful.  I irritatingly realize that CNN “loops” programs.  There seems to be one set of programs, maybe 8-10, that are 30 minutes to one hour long, and they are basically replayed.  The only thing that is fresh are the weather reports, and the list of world temperatures.  There are many commercials for tourism, and to countries that are on the U.S. State Department’s “Travel Alert” list:  Nigeria, Qatar, and several others.  For the first time, I feel a little afraid to go to Saudi Arabia.  It is Hajj, and my employer has warned me that the compound will be fairly empty.  I am hoping that someone is there I can talk with.  If not, I will busy myself with becoming aware of, and familiar with, my surroundings. 

A part of me is reluctant to go.  This has become my neighborhood.  People from the different shops recognize and speak to me on the street.  I have my favorite places to eat and shop.  I have a park that I love to frequent and urban trails that take me to the hub of Old Istanbul.  I have learned how to mentally convert dollars to Turkish lira.  I know the coins.  Turkey does not have one cent coins, so if a total is 4.99 or 3.97 the total is rounded up in favor of the vendor.  Maybe the U.S. should get rid of the penny; but we are so stuck on money precision that I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. 

I have almost become acclimated.  I rarely break out in sweat after walking for 10 minutes, it now takes me 15 or 20 minutes to begin sweating.  Autumn is approaching, and the weather is feeling more like Bay Area weather, with temperatures hovering around 65 degrees.

I have to say goodbye to my neighborhood and the hotel staff who have been so great to me.

I don’t know what I will face in Saudi Arabia, besides the heat.  The adventure and the uncertainty begins again.

Suleyman and Mahmoud Two Great Guys
Suleyman and Mahmoud
Two Great Guys
Attilah, Manager
Attilah, Manager
The Best Chicken Kebap!
Ousman, a hard working Ottoman (his words)

Leisurely and Lazy

I absolute adore Sundays in Old Istanbul.  The weather on this particular Sunday is almost perfect: a little bit of breeze, a little bit of sun.  Everyone is relaxed, and no one is in a rush to get anywhere.  I love the park with the benches encircling the water fountain, and I love that drops of water are sometimes lightly dusting me.  There is hardly any traffic, and when a car or van appears, it glides through the cobbled streets almost effortlessly.  I am amazed by the competing colors of green in the trees, and how they remind me of the wonder of nature.  Just looking at them fills me with fascination and relaxes my entire body.  It’s great just to sit and watch the children run in the fountain, play and laugh; everything I see is precious and beautiful.  

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A Different World

I must admit that I love waking up to the sound of the call to prayer.  I love eating breakfast on the enclosed terrace looking out on the Sea of Marmara.  This city is very alive, buzzing and vibrant. Istanbul is ancient, sensual and appealing – even to me, a small town Texas/provincial Bay Area girl.  The contrasts are sometimes staggering.  I see a woman in skinny jeans, a clinging knit top, with hair flowing, then a woman covered so completely that only her eyes are visible, and also a woman in an ankle-length trench coat, with only her head covered with a scarf.   I see a man in traditional Arab garb, another in a traditional western business suit, or wearing jeans and a sweater.  The ancient, the old and the brand new.  That is the appeal of Istanbul, that the allure of Istanbul.

 

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The Sea of Marmara

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Three Women, One Block

The Train and Teksim Square

A couple of days ago, I took the Metro at Teksim Square.  The Metro and the square are on the “modern” or new side of Istanbul, and I had to take a Taksi to get there – $7.00 – not too bad.  This square has been the site of many protests, demonstrations and rallies.  The monument there is a testament to the new Republic of Turkey.  Teskim Square is also a very busy tourist and business area.  It kind of reminds me of where the financial district and Union Square meet combined with the foot of the Embarcadero circle. 

The Metro is pristine, colorful and clean.  The people and the Metro attendants were very helpful.  But it was the cost of riding the Metro that was amazing!  It was only 3 lira or $1.50 to go ANYWHERE on the line.  Coming from the Bay Area, I again realized how unreliable, expensive and dirty BART is, and why people from other countries are shocked at the dirt, inefficiency and expense of BART.  The Metro even has ATMs in the station!

I got on the train and thanked the woman I’d asked for directions.  Then I met Bruce, who’d overheard me speaking English, came over and introduced himself.  We talked for a bit, and I learned that he was from the US (Chicago area) but had not lived there for more than 30 years.  He’d lived in China and was now in Turkey to learn Turkish.  He warned me not to get married in Saudi Arabia, because I’d basically be trapped there and would not be able to leave without my husband’s permission.  I explained that I was going to KSA to work, not get married.  He smiled, offered me his card, and asked me to please stay in contact with him.  No, I did not offer a card, but I did give him my (first) name.

 

 

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The Monument and Part of Teksim Square

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McD is never too far away …

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A Metro Walkway

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Colorful Metro Cars