Monday, 31 May 2010

Sound of Prayer Time in Saudi Arabia

Prayer Time in Saudi Arabia is also know as Salah.  Glenn was in Riyadh 18 months before he learnt the Arabic word for Prayer Time.  He learnt it a few days after I arrived because I asked the taxi driver 'What's the Arabic word for Prayer Time?'  Actually I asked Glenn first because I was fairly certain the locals had a term they used.

He didn't know, hence my directing the question to Mr Noor. Then I berated Glenn for living here so long and not bothering to learn some of the basic terminology.  He argued back...of course.

Glenn: I know 'arsalama lickem'
Me: Is that how they pronounce it? I don't think so.

(Ask the ever helpful taxi driver)

Me: Is he pronouncing that properly Mr Noor?
Noor: No mam'

(He calls me mam' and Glenn sir or Mr Glenn)

Me: How do you pronounce it Noor?

Noor: Salem alaykum, mam'.

Glenn: I was close.

Me: sounded like you're trying to say something rude.

Glenn: (grumble rumble not worth mentioning).

Me: You don't like it when people pronounce Maori words wrong.

Glenn: That's true.

Me: So why don't you pronounce the Arabic greeting properly? I'm sure Mr Noor will help you, won't you Mr Noor?

Noor: Yes mam'

Then follows a small lesson on greetings, how are you's, farewells and prayer time a.k.a Salah.

Salah occurs five or six times a day - the exact times change slightly each day with the movement of the sun - but generally prayer times are early pre-dawn, sunrise, mid-day'ish, mid-afternoon, evening and night.  Prayer times are preceded a few minutes before they start with the call to prayer.  Both the call and Salah are sent forth from Mosques which can be found every few hundred meters or so and each one has a minaret with loud speakers.

I'm glad we've both been blessed with the ability for sound sleep, but I feel sorry for light sleepers! 3am and 5am calls can severly disturb your dreamtime.  The minaret by our compound has 2 of its speakers pointed this way.....obviously lots of infidels dwelling here who need prayer.

Close up view - Note the two speakers pointed our way.

In Saudi Arabia everything closes down for Prayer Time.  Many is the time I have headed out the door only to hear the buzzing of a mosquito ambling up the valley.  Each mosque seems to follow the other for the call to prayer, so you can hear it coming.  I sigh, and go home.  Waiting for the end of Salah is much more comfortable in air conditioning at home than outside in the street.

If you're in some of the larger shops when Salah arrives, you're often allowed to stay.  We've found this is mostly the case with supermarkets.  You can't use the checkout, nobody is manning the tills and the place is a little dim cos they've turned the lights down, but at least you can walk the aisles and fill your trolley.  How do they stop people from coming in?  They lock the doors. How do you get out?  You don't. No-one comes in during Prayer Time and no-one goes out.  And security is on hand to make sure of it.  I'm presuming they would let you out in the case of an emergency - like Fire!

In restaurants and the larger coffee shops you can stay at your table but you can't order anything else until the staff get back, and even if you can order it, the chef is off duty.  We've often looked out the restaurant window to see the cooks sitting outside because they have to close the kitchen. It's always helpful to have your order filled just before Salah.  Are these doors locked too? Yes.

If you're in a mall, you can stay in the mall itself, but the shops close. Find a seat and wait it's only half an hour.  Most of the large malls have Prayer Rooms inside which means you can get into those malls during Salah, I'm guessing they presume you're going to pray.  Getting out is more of an issue because, you guessed it, they lock and man the doors.

I figured out early on that using the mall Food Hall as your salah waiting spot requires getting there early enough to 1.) get your coffee and cake before the shops shut and 2.) get a seat - because everybody else seems to be waiting there too.  Which begs the question (that Glenn got sick of hearing when I first arrived) "Why aren't they praying? Aren't they supposed to be praying?"
"I don't know Gae"
"Why don't you know Glenn. You've been here longer than me, you should've found these things out by now".....yadda, yadda, yadda....

To guarantee Salah free shopping it's best to hit the malls after the last Prayer Time of the day, that's what the locals do - they tend to keep very late hours.  More than once Glenn and I have been heading home to bed after a late night snack just as young families are arriving for dinner. (Is 10pm late? Maybe I'm just getting old.)  The problem with shopping at this time is that it's quite busy and parking can be at a premium (which is only a problem if you're stepping out with a husband who is taking his own car).  Without the husband you can get dropped at the mall door which can be a bit of a time consuming activity because you are queuing up behind every other husband-less woman who is getting dropped there too.  (Lots of Saudi husbands prefer to drop their ladies off than to actually go shopping with them - much like any other male I know really).

To live here happily it pays toaccept Salah as the way of life.  I've met people whose mental health and happiness seems unduly affected by the prayer times.  They view them as extremely irritating interruptions to the flow of their day and spend a lot of yadda yadda effort ranting about it....I smile and walk away.

It is possible to download computer and mobile applications that have Salah times for each day so no matter where we are you can be prepared.  The site I've found most accurate for prayer times while in Saudi Arabia is Islamic Finder.  The app is free to download and it gets used often because the first thing one gets used to checking before heading out to do anything in Saudi Arabia is 'What time is salah?'


Click on the's what Prayer Time in Saudi Arabia sounds like.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Invited to a Saudi Home

If you'd told me a year ago that I would be invited to a Saudi home to meet new Saudi friends I wouldn't have believed you.  Three weeks after arriving in Riyadh I was getting cabin fever -  it was time to get out and about meeting a few more people and finding new friends.

Glenn took my need for company to heart.  He bounced off to work one day and mid-morning he rang me.  Prior to my arrival, his Saudi work colleague, AA, had offered for me to meet his wife.  She was learning English and wanted conversation practice.  Given that since arriving I had started learning Arabic courtesy of Noor, our taxi driver, and 'Arabic For Dummies' it only seemed right that his wife and I should get together for some language exchange.  That is why Glenn had been so bouncy.  He was keen to put this plan into action.

I admit that his suggestion about meeting a Saudi wahine (Maori word for woman) for conversation made me a little nervous initially.  But, being Aquarian, my nerves were quickly calmed by the fact that this could be an interesting day.

How to improve your Arabic? Talk to bananas!

Date was set and respective husbands passed on respective wives' phone numbers.  They were interested to see how this visit would go because they knew we were both beginner level language learners.   Glenn was totally impressed with the fact that my Arabic consisted largely of  'Hello, How are you, It's nice to meet you, What's your name and I'd like to eat'.  That should keep us chatting all morning.  

AA had told Glenn his wife only knew a few English words.  So few, in fact, he wasn't sure if we'd be able to communicate.   He had suggested a back up plan though - their Egyptian neighbour spoke English.  If things got too difficult we would go and get her.

The morning of my visit I sent Glenn to work with strict instructions to find out what I should wear. I  mean, what do you wear on your first visit to a Saudi home? 

Being a procrastinator allows one to put off worrying about things till the very last minute.  So as well as wondering what to wear this particular morning, a few other thoughts were crossing my mind:
  • What protocols would I be expected to follow?
    (I figured there would be some, every culture has them.  Perhaps I should have asked around.)
  • Should I take a gift?
    (Bugger, wish I'd brought some greenstone gifts with me.  Bit late to be thinking of that now Gae!)
  • Who else would be there? 
    (I'd heard Saudi families pretty much stick together.  This could be a whanau affair.)
  • What would their place be like?  Why does this matter?  Because the houses in our local vicinity are huge and perusing shops on the main shopping strips gives the impression that Saudi homes are decked out with rather expensive, large, lush furnishings.  I can't eat at home without dropping food everywhere, just imagine what I would do to OTT furnishings!
But mostly, my immediate concern was 'what to wear?'   On my reconnaissance to Riyadh in August I had been told, by other Westerners, that Saudi women dress beautifully in their own homes. Right now, this seemed both reasonable and problematic.  Reasonable because the malls are loaded with the latest fashion labels and trends.  Problematic because I don't own anything beautiful or fashionable.  Coming to a place renowned for its heat I packed mostly shorts and T-shirts.  Meeting Saudi's and visiting their homes had not been on my list of things to do.  Why not??  Recon conversations with expats regarding Saudi and western socializing suggested getting an invite to a Saudi home was so rare it might as well be impossible. 

What a load of nonsense that turned out to be!

Glenn called -
"He laughed and said wear whatever you want".
"Didn't you find out anything Glenn"
"Gae, I told you what he said.  You'll be fine"

Not particularly helpful - aren't men so painful on important topics like this!   Don't they understand it's not easy to make new friends if their first impression of you isn't favorable.  What to wear is important!

OK,  I'll have to resort to female intelligence - should've done that in the first place.  This is a Muslim country.  Modest clothing is recommended.  I fished out the only long sleeved summer blouse I own (truly, only 1) and a pair of trousers - not jeans, I figured that would be too informal for a first visit.

Taxi arrived and off I went.

This young Saudi couple live in an apartment block (no large house) in a new area outside the central city. Their apartment could belong to any one of my own children.  It isn't huge.  It's not decked out in enormous over the top furniture.  Apart from her baby girl, there was only her and I.  And she was wearing a knee length denim skirt and floral top - very casual.

I had my Arabic dictionary, she had her English one though she didn't really need it.  Her English was sufficient that we figured out, with hand signs, drawings and a lot of laughing, what we were trying to say.  My Arabic, on the other hand, ran out of usefulness fairly early in the visit.

Two hours after arriving I was just thinking about heading home when I was asked, "Would you like meet my family?"
"Really, when?"
"Now" she said, "in the family farm"

Running through my mind was the 'Saudi's only hang out with their own families, they stick to themselves' conversations I'd had on the compounds.
"Are you sure you want me to meet your family?"
"OK, I would like that, thank you".
What a Buzz.  Making new friends was proving to be a very good idea.

Forty minutes later I was carrying the baby out to a waiting 4WD with 3 women and a couple of their children already inside. All the ladies were in full niqab gear.  Only the driver was in the front seat, we all squeezed in the back seats.  (Females cannot sit in front with the drivers if they aren't related to them.)

About an hour after climbing into the vehicle it occurred to me that I was being driven off to a place in the desert I didn't know the name of, with people I'd only just met, whose English was limited and, what's more, I couldn't even see their faces.  Buzz is settling - now I'm thinking I must be mad!

The farm was about an hour and a half's drive out of the city.  We pulled up outside a fenced area, unloaded and headed into the guest house.  The guest house is a tent - picture Arabian Knights - big colorful Arabian tents, large cushions and magic flying carpets - that's the guest house. (The carpets don't really fly) .  Once in the tent all abayas and niqabs came off.  I was introduced to Mum, Dad and another sister and children.  I think allowances were being made for the fact I was western.  My understanding of Saudi etiquette is that a Saudi man would never see the face of another mans wife, but I'm a newbie - don't quote me. 

The tent was hot, so all carpets and cushions were uplifted and carried out to the shade of one of the buildings - much cooler. Then came the Arabic coffee and dates and chit chat. Followed soon after by tea and sweets and more talk - dismal Arabic does not keep you up with the conversation at this point. Then lunch came out.  Rice and chicken, salad and a milky desert.

After this we moved into the ladies building to relax and chill out. The younger girls bought out cards and we played a game that taught me colors.  Everyone just seemed to really open up in this room.  Lots of questions, trying to figure out words, laughing.   They laughed at and appreciated my attempts at Arabic (my dictionary got a workout).   I loved hearing them talk...trying to catch words and learning pronunciation.

The day was cooling off so next up was a tour of the farm.  It's a date farm.  How the palms survive is beyond me, even with irrigation it's so dry in the desert!  The farm buildings are relocatable - one for ladies and, behind a screen fence, one for the men - I got shown that too, it's exactly like the ladies one. There was also a kitchen shed and a few work sheds.   Two maids helped out in the kitchen and with the kids.

After the tour we moved the carpets behind the screen fence to sit outside the men's building (it was quite pleasant in the shade of the building and I think this whanau prefer the outdoors to the indoors.) My friends husband was due to arrive and he was not to see the other women, hence the need to move behind the screen.

Salah, prayer time, came up three times during my visit. The women took turns to use the prayer mat and shawl. They prayed right next to where we sat. The first time I tried not to watch...that's rude. By the end of my visit I hardly noticed. Funny how you can get used to things.

I also met my friends older brother (I'm presuming this is another allowance they made).  He'd driven out from the city and came out back to spend some time with his sisters, his wife and his mother before having to entertain his brother-in-law in the tent.
Prior to dinner was more Arabic coffee, followed by tea and sweets. As one of the girls said, 'it looks  we eat and drink coffee all day'.  Dad cooked some meat on a fire Bar-B (wire grill set over flames ) and I sat with the girls and ate my dinner while the men entertained their 'guest'.  It's funny to think that your daughter's husband is a guest.  Given that he's not allowed to mix with the rest of the family (ie the ladies) unless they are covered up I guess he will always be treated as such - one of the many cultural differences I don't question  (much), just acknowledge.

Around 10 p.m. it was time to go. It was a great day, very tiring.  My view of Saudi families has broadend considerably because of it. 

I have since met other Saudi women and been invited to their homes, and accepted those invitations.  Meeting new Saudi friends is so easy, I'm amazed that there are expats who have been here for much longer than me and have yet to experience visiting Saudi homes.

And I visit AA's wife, my new found friend, nearly every week - her English is racing ahead.   My Arabic?  What is one level up from dismal???

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The New Zealand Embassy Do's

New Zealand Embassy in Riyadh: Location, Diplomatic Quarter

On Sunday evenings we play tennis with some of the New Zealand Embassy staff stationed here in Riyadh.  Wonderful people.

Any expat who comes to live in Saudi should register with their relevant embassy.  I know that some Kiwi's don't register with the NZ Embassy as they believe that Mr Tax Man back home can get hold of their information.  A fair enough worry, but rest assured, they can't.

The real reason for registering is just in case something goes very badly awry.  If Embassy staff know you're here then they know who to call if, for some reason, it may be a good idea to leave.  To date I have not felt unsafe in Riyadh and, having lived here trouble free for five months, I was beginning to think KSA is a safe country?   However, as this story about Expats attacked at Kingdom shows it's not a good idea to forget where you are.

As I said, so far I haven't had any problems and, though one can get upset about what goes on here (you know what I mean - the no woman driving, must wear an abaya rules and chop your head off punishments), it pays to remember that even back home we have 'issues'. For example, being known as a country that kills its children is not something New Zealanders should be proud of.

To make living in Saudi Arabia a bit more bearable and fun for their countrymen and women, some embassy's put on events every month or so.  That is the second reason for registering your residency here.  They can put you on the contact list and send you invites.

There isn't a lot of recreation here - no disco's, no movie theaters, definitely no pubs, no sport (none for women anyway) and definitely no 'fraternizing' - unrelated men and women mixing socially. So the Embassy Do's are a chance to mix and mingle in relaxed fashion.

To date I have been to:
- A 60's night organised by the Southern Cross ladies

Not sure that the sunglasses are 60's but Glenn insisted.

- Anzac Day Breakfast - a combined NZ/Aust occasion.

I had blisters so took my shoes off.

- Was sick for the New Zealand Tui Club Embassy do (bummer)

- Coolibah Club Australia Embassy - no cameras allowed, so no photo sorry, but it was a good evening.

NZ Embassy staff provide these events on a voluntary basis - I understand it is not part of their job description.  I'm presuming other Embassy's are the same.   It's annoying when expats start to expect events and then whinge about them or abuse the events with bad behavior.  If expats aren't careful the Embassies will say enough is enough - find your own fun at your own risk.

If any fellow Kiwi's out there would like to get on to the NZ Embassy social list, then here is their contact details.  (Any non-Kiwis who would like an invite will just have to get out and meet a few Kiwis).

NZ Embassy Riyadh, Contact Details
P O Box 94397
Riyadh 11693
Saudi Arabia
+ 966(1)488-7988

For you peeps from the rest of the world, hopeful that your Embassy is as sociable as ours, here's a link to a list of embassies world wide.  Give yours a call.

Glenn and I enjoy ourselves when the Embassy occasions arise - the food is excellent, the atmosphere convivial and there is always someone new to meet.  We are looking forward to the next New Zealand Embassy Do.  Perhaps we'll meet your there.

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Saudi Detoxing, Exercise and Health Shops

We Need to Detox
We've put on a bit of weight lately because Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh especially, has loads of restaurants.  Far too much eating out has been going on.  I thought it might be nice if we looked good for our daughter's upcoming wedding in September.  So, I bought a Detox program.  Look up Icon Herbs....that's the one we did.  Basically eat fruit and veg and take a few herbal combinations.

It was an easy program - Glenn thought it was so it must have been.  The problem is the program has finished.  Do you think I can whip up a vegetarian dish now that I don't have to?  In fact, do you think I can whip up a meal at all when we live in the middle of Riyadh and there are so many eating places we haven't tried yet? 

Our frig....not very inviting

We could eat somewhere healthy but signs outside eateries in Riyadh proclaiming healthy dishes within mostly has fried food on the menu.  And salad making is an art form that hasn't quite caught on here yet (sigh).

Oh, for a halfway decent Soul Food cafe with vegetarian menu.  Detoxing wouldn't be needed then.

What about Exercise...?

Women aren't meant to do anything physical (apparently), so a woman's gym outside of the compounds is hard to come by.  Rumour has it that a short while back all public women's gyms were shut down in Saudi Arabia because nothing in the Quran indicated that women should have gyms.
Men can have them though (what the?)

I have no excuses....we have a gym onsite. So I can treadmill to my hearts content and stationary cycle my little heart out.  There are a few weight machines too, though I prefer the free weights to machines.  But our gym is a reflection of society at large meaning it caters mainly for males, so there are no in between weights for ladies.  I was contemplating buying some one day...will let you know when contemplation moves into action.

Jogging isn't an option for me.  Our compound is too small and both jogging and cycling outside is frowned on (for women anyway).  I tried jogging around the block a few times in the early days after my arrival.  Seriously.  I figured if Saudi's slept in till late it would be OK and it would be nice to join the husband on his morning run.  The only people up early in the morning are drivers or workers (and most of them don't care what anybody else does) or the occasional  fellow jogging expat.  The abaya is a bit of a nuisance when jogging and, though they never bothered me, the husband was less than happy with the workers staring.  So I no longer jog Riyadh's back streets in the morning.

We also have a lovely pool and a squash court on site -  the husband has deigned to play me tonight which means I'll get to run around a bit but him, not so much.  And the tennis court outside our door isn't getting much use in the 40 degree heat these days.

I've been searching for a health food shop here in Riyadh.  Unfortunately the only place I've found mostly sells protein powder for weight lifters.  The other products this shop stocks are organic skin care for women....if I succumb to their marketing I might be bulked up but my skin should be beautiful.

I mentioned to an expat nurse that I was having difficulty getting health food products.  Her response 'health isn't really a concept the masses here have managed to grasp yet'.  Hmmmmm.  Maybe I should look at health food and detoxing as a business building opportunity here in Saudi Arabia because with the obvious increase in girth of both expats and locals, I'm guessing weight loss and detox will be huge future business.

Ka Kite,

Friday, 21 May 2010

Can I Have a Pink Abaya?

Can I Have A Pink Abaya?
It's compulsory for women to wear an abaya when out in public in Saudi Arabia and if you look pretty in hot pink, you are plum out of luck thinking you can wear an all pink abaya around town without attracting a lot of attention.  Black is supposed to be where it's at.  I'm presuming non-compliance of abaya wearing by western women results in a serious talking to at best and deportation back to the homeland at worst.

I think pink abaya's would look fabulous.  I can see these abaya roaming Saudi malls.  Can't you?

One can get tired of black clad ladies, white clad men and dust colored everything else.  One expat even said he can't believe how, in Riyadh at least, all the color is stripped out of people, and because there are so many people, the environment looks colorless.

A couple of weeks after arriving I admit to getting a bit tired of the 'one color fits all' policy  for women, so turned to Google to find reasons why the abaya had to be black.  The internet has lots of blogs and websites on the topic.  What I deduced from all the korero (Maori word for discussion) I came across is that my abaya actually doesn't have to be black.  It just has to cover my arms and legs.

It seems other women have deduced the same, as just lately I have noticed color sneaking into abayas via bright colored trim, embroidered patterns or what I term the 'semi-gloss' variety.  That is, abayas have a light colored lining covered by a sheer black material so from a distance you still look dark, but up close there is a hint of color.

I love the semi-gloss idea and am contemplating getting one although the idea of being sucked into abaya buying for the sake of it is one of the things holding that plan up at this point.  I heard you need to get these abayas made but that's not a problem. The souqs (markets) here have plenty of material for sale and, apparently, there are numerous places in Riyadh that would make such an abaya.

Until I actually talk myself into spending cash on a new abaya, I'm happy adding a splash of color to the local scenery my own way.  With accessories.  Namely headscarves and, for winter time, long sleeve arm warmers like these Raspberry Charcoal Striped numbers from KDNY because though winter here is short it is quite cool.

I've headed out on the town with pink sleeves on my arms ...

Pink sleeves

...and variously colored headscarves.

White shayla

Every abaya is sold with its own matching shayla (aka headscarf), usually in matching black but, as far as I can make out, your headscarf does not have to be black.  There are a number of shops here that sell head scarves in all manner of colors, patterns and textures and I have bought a few.  In my cupboard I have silk scarves that are green, pink and blue.  Two pashmina - one yellow the other tan.  And a couple of multi-colored cotton beauties.

The silk scarves, though bright and pretty, are harder to keep on my head so I've learned to go for something slightly thicker if I don't want my headscarf slipping off all the time while out and about.  And, though most of the headscarves sold here are large enough to cover head and shoulders, it does pay to check before purchasing.

The shop assistants here are quite used to women littering their shop bench tops with packets of scarves, opened, tested and often never purchased.  Grazing their way through shops is how many ladies here spend their day.

I figured that buying a few scarves to make myself feel less dour from all the blackness out on the streets was a better option than spending money on tailor making a pink abaya.  For starters, I don't know I far I would get in a brightly colored garment before being stopped.  Secondly, I cannot think of anywhere else in the world I would wear an abaya other than here.  But headscarves?  They can be worn again, anywhere.  In fact, fashion is such a cyclical thing, that I can see scarves coming back into vogue again.  If the cork shoes that I use to own when I was 17 can make a comeback (and I couldn't believe they did), then so can headscarves.  And when that happens  I'll be ready.

Honestly though, even if colored abaya do happen to make it to Saudi shores before my permanent departure, I doubt if I will go all out on decking myself out in bright pink.  I'm getting a bit on in years for that.  Though a shimmering iridescent paua abaya might be nice, or a deep and mysterious pounamu green.  Oh, to dream of a New Zealand colored abaya!

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Not The Edge of the World

Is This Not the Edge of the World? That's a question we asked ourselves on our very first ill prepared trip into the desert.   

The gloss of doing not much is slowly fading.  Plus, it's making us put on weight - seriously!  So we decided that every weekend we would do something.  I mean why live in Saudi Arabia if you don't get out to see it. Right?   But, What to do Pounamu?

We decided our first trip would be into the desert, after all there is a lot of it here.  Acquaintances had told us about  'The Edge of the World'.  It's a sort of mini Grand Canyon and we'd heard good reviews   Plus it's only an hour or so out of Riyadh.

We don't own a vehicle and in order to hire a car Glenn needs to have a Saudi license - he is still working on that.  So we asked our taxi driver, Noor, to hire a vehicle and be our driver for us, which he agreed to.

Everyone we have spoken to has said, quite clearly, the following: -
- Don't go out into the desert on your own, go as part of a group of vehicles
- Take a four wheel drive
- Take plenty of water and...
- Let someone know where you're going.

I would add,' find co-ordinates and directions to your desert destination from someone who's been there'.

My husband was never a good Boy Scout and I just trusted he would do the right thing....I should know better.  Long story short, we took a Camry (not a 4WD) and there was only us 3 (no convoy) and the only other person who knew where we were going was Noor's friend, a fellow taxi driver, who had given him directions to 'The Edge of the World".  We did have plenty of water tho...and lunch.

On the way we passed through a couple of little towns that you could almost imagine being the Oasis in the Saudi Arabian desert because as you come across them the roadside turns green with trees and plants.  Clusters of corrugated iron huts were scattered about the desert too.  In their midst were large Arabian tents and fenced just outside the settlements were the camels.  Camels aren't used much for transportation any more but for meat or milk....I haven't experienced that yet!

We made two stops on our way to The Edge of the World.  Once to gas up and buy batteries for the camera that, once I'd plugged them in, didn't work hence the lack of desert trip photos.  And just outside one town were a number of road side fruit and vege stalls where we bought the tastiest watermelon I have had in ages.  Both stops Noor instructed me to stay in the car, both times I thought that was just ridiculous  so didn't.  How can you possibly experience rural Saudi Arabia in the back of the car?  And what better place to practice my Arabic than rural road side stalls where English is fairly limited?

But I digress.  Back to our desert trip.

As The Edge of The World is well known, or so we thought, we presumed there would be a well signposted turn off which just shows what desert newbies we are.  The 'sign post' to our  particular destination was a couple of old tires dug into the dirt 100m or so off the road with a fence line off in the distance, just before you drive between two identical looking hills 15 km from the last town.....the name of which I have forgotten.  Signs very easily missed by those who don't know where they're going - which is why we missed it and had to come back to find it.  Thank goodness for mobile phones and the Pakistani taxi network!

The desert surrounding Riyadh is very rocky, something I hadn't expected.  But it's definitely not your smooth pounamu type stone.  No, this stuff is harsh!  I was expecting major sand dunes....didn't get any.  They are apparently in the other direction.

Once we got off the highway we decided to park under the nearest tree to have lunch.  The trees aren't your thick, lush variety either.  They are pretty sparse and thorny and when you take a seat on the ground make sure any thorns that have fallen to the ground don't prick you in the butt.  They hurt!  But the shade these trees provide is welcome in the afternoon heat.  
Don't you just love the view!
After lunch we continued on to find The Edge of the World. It became very obvious that Noor, an awesome driver in the city, is not used to off road driving.  He was going soooooo slow.  I was thinking 'We're in the desert - put your foot down'.  That's what the 4WD's were doing that went racing past us.  Then I was thinking 'Glenn when are you taking over the driving'.  He never did.

The weather has been most unusual just recently in Riyadh.  There has been thunderstorms, rain, hail - the works - so the desert was a little soft the day of our trip. Very exciting in a Camry.  Though mostly firm underfoot, or under car, there were a number of soft, sandy spots in the desert.   And it is in one of these sandy spots that we came to a stop.  The front wheel sunk and we were going nowhere.  What to Do Pounamu?

Fortunately we had ground to a halt close to a Saudi family who were picnicking under the trees.  As soon as I hopped out of the car one of the young women called me over to sit with them, and the young men came to help sort out the car.  Glenn asked if they knew The Edge of The World.  As we had no idea what the Arabic term for our destination was, they couldn't tell us how much further we had to go or even if we were on the right track.  They did ask us where the rest of our group were...???? hmmmm....and then they told us we were crazy being in the desert in such a small car.....hmmmm.  They also invited us to stop off on the way back to have lunch with them. 

We continued on our search for the Edge of the World, still at snails pace.... It's interesting what's out in the desert.  Mans presence is everywhere.
We passed what looked like the beginnings of a damn.
We passed a couple of large diggers next to temporary huts. What for?  Collecting sand maybe??
We passed what could have been an enclosure for animals - lots of barbed wire and corrugated iron.
We came across what looked to be a fence, white poles stuck into concrete.  The whole thing was a couple of hundred meters long, but there were no wires.
We also passed a guy herding goats (aha...the animal enclosure).

Eventually we came across a gateway with a security tent.  Noor slowed to have a word...and no-one was there.  So we just kept going.  A half our later, after seeing only 2 other groups of desert visitors resting under trees, was another gate with a military vehicle blocking the way and a military gentleman resting behind the wheel.  This time I stayed in the car - he had artillery.

After a bit of discussion Glenn and Noor came back and said we weren't to go any further because it was army territory and Military Man had no idea what 'The Edge of the World' was.  I admit I had been dozing a little till this point.  As we back tracked I was looking at the scenery.  We were in a narrow valley.  On either side were rather large canyon walls.
Me - "Glenn, isn't the edge of the world a mini Grand Canyon?"
Glenn - "Yeah, I think so.  You drive to the edge and get out and the view is meant to be canyons as far as you can see"
Me - looking around at steep canyon like walls on either side of us "You don't think we are in The Edge of the World do you?"
Glenn - "No way"...

How funny is that.  We'd left home over 3 hours ago to visit a place that's an hour out of town and we weren't certain we'd arrived yet. (We discovered later that we had missed it by a long shot.  Much as I love the Pakistani taxi network, an investment in GPS and co-ordinates to the Edge of the World would have been very helpful).

Glenn decided it was time to go home.  He also decided we wouldn't take up the lunch offer that the Saudi family had extended.  He hadn't counted on us getting stuck, again, in exactly the same place as before on our way out of the desert. Two hours or so later, after much Saudi hospitality, (excellent way to test your Arabic) we headed back to the highway and home.  We intend to go back to try and find The Edge of the World, but in a 4WD and with some one who knows the way.


PS.  NZ Pounamu, being a good kiwi that eats roots and leaves, has found the co-ordinates to The Edge of the World.  Thanks to Mohammad Nowfal and his website Splendid Arabia.   He has great photos and detailed directions to a number of 'Must See' sights in Saudi Arabia.  Click over and take a look.  (For other desert trip ideas take a look at Desert Treks From Riyadh, by Ionis Thompson)

The Edge of The World Co-ordinates N: 24 56' 31.9" : E:045 59' 31.2"

For those who have yet to make an investment in GPS, here's directions to The Edge of The World.

Route: At Kingdom Tower, Olaya, Riyadh, set your odometer at Zero. Take the Uruba Road (west) and watch for the signboard 'King Khalid Eye Hospital' (KKEH). At 3.7 km you will get an exit to Madinah/Qassim at the KKEH. Follow this road which after 10 km leads to Salbouk. At 34.5 km you will get an exit to Sadous/Jubayla. Take this exit and head to Sadous. You will pass by Jubayla, Uyainah and Hegra. At 66.5 km (which is 24.5 km from Jubayla) turn left to an off-road. After entering this path, on your left side is iron fence, and you may follow the track (towards west, turning slightly to your right) until you reach a fenced area with a gate at 7.5 km from the main road. Enter the gate, turn right and follow any convenient track for 22 km heading towards west. Best time to visit: October thru March. 

Edge of The World Location

This should make our next trip, and yours, to the Edge of the World a whole lot easier.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Abaya Shopping in Riyadh

Buying an Abaya in Saudi Arabia 

No women in Saudi Arabia should be without an abaya. Today I decided I needed to go shopping for a new one.  This would be my very first abaya shopping experience.  The abaya I currently have Glenn bought in Dubai.  It's very light with a bit of trim on it and only three buttons which, I learned quite quickly, is not anything like Saudi abayas.

The reason I needed a new abaya was that, because it only has three buttons, I have to hold my abaya closed when I go walking.  Why?  The culture here in Riyadh has an issue with women showing almost any part of their body to men. 

Being new to the country I would like to respect their cultural practices....Actually I was totally freaked out about what I could and couldn't do because you hear how totally different things are here, and how you get your head chopped off for not towing the line....

So, back to my story....I wear jeans when I go out walking in the evening so I don't have my bare legs showing.  However, the acceptable practice is to have your abaya hide everything - even the jeans.  Women are supposed to be shapeless so as not to attract the attention of men and my abaya doesn't really do the job properly which is why I hold it closed when I go walking.

During the day I wear shorts which causes a few problems with Abaya No.1...

                                                                        Oooops it's time to go shopping for a new one.

There are abaya shops everywhere in Riyadh - finding an abaya isn't a problem.  Mr Noor, our trusted taxi driver, had a couple suggestions on locations for abaya shopping.  First was the malls where most western ladies prefer to shop such as Hayatt Mall or Granada Mall, though he said their abaya's might be expensive.  Second was the souqs where Saudi ladies like to shop such as Al Awayis Souq.  He said those will definitely be cheaper.  

We decided to take a look at a local shopping center just up the road because I'm not after anything expensive and because I didn't feel comfortable roaming around a local souq inappropriately dressed.  People here have no issues at all with staring at others.  Akaria Mall has a number of abaya shops.  After sifting through the racks of abaya's one thing became abundantly clear - whoever designed Saudi abaya's never had to wear them, and I'm guessing that means a bunch of blokes with very little fashion sense and even less consideration for female comfort.

Finding an abaya that will cover you as per the cultural or religious stipulations is easy here.  Finding one that keeps you cool in the Saudi heat is virtually impossible.  Men get to wear white thobes made of cotton.  Every single abaya on the shop racks in Saudi is made of  heat holding, sweat producing, synthetic.  Sure, there were some pieces with a bit of bling but honestly, a bit of bling does not make the garment more comfortable to wear in this particular environment.  And of course you can have any color you like, so long as it's black!

I eventually found a little abaya shop fun by a very friendly man from India.  His English was good too.  Mr India explained that the sizing on the abaya has to do with your height, not your girth.  He also had a little mirror hidden in back.  Apparently, those are frowned upon in abaya shops.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall... 
What The Heck is Going On!
I discovered that trying an abaya on can be a tricky business.  To me, it makes sense that you disrobe out of the abaya you walked into the shop with and re-robe with your potential purchase to properly assess for fit around the girth, acceptable hang to the ground and general prettiness.  There are no change rooms in abaya shops but that made perfect sense to me.  After all, you wear clothes under an abaya, right?  It's simply a matter of taking one off and trying the other on.

Disrobing is totally frowned on in abaya shops, so I discovered at the horrified gasps and stony glares of Saudi women shoppers who stopped rifling through abaya racks while I was casually disrobing.  Who would have thought that seeing someone actually wears clothes beneath their abaya is a horrifying experience!

I guess if you're an experienced abaya purchaser you'd just know the darned thing fits you.  Or you could take it home, try it and return it later.  We inexperienced types, who feel we have to test the garment in store, are expected to put our potential purchase on top of our current abaya which, in my case, just serves to make me hot and makes me look rather large.  Suffice to say, after the first round of negative reactions from fellow women, the husband was engaged to hold my handbag and keep an eye out while I disrobed a time or two down back of the shop between the racks of hanging garments in front of the secret mirror.

Mr Indian gave us a price on an abaya that I decided would do and, though the husband was keen to purchase, I did a stalling act so we said "we'll think about it".

I'm not a good shopper at the best of times.  My preference is to shop for 30 minutes, visit a cafe for 45 minutes.  Basically I was sick of looking at abayas for 3 reasons - my time limit had been exceeded, there isn't that much of a selection - all black or all black with embroidered trim.  Buttoned to the ground or.... no that's all.  And if I get right down to it, although I knew that wearing an abaya is mandatory here, that doesn't mean I was totally sold on the idea.  Stalling was my little inner rebellion.  I was also hoping that, somewhere, there would be a shop full of abaya's made from more user friendly material.

Yay....Coffee :)

The idea of traipsing through numerous other abaya shops in search of that elusive perfect piece wasn't really turning me on.  What to Do Pounamu?  We had an 'aha' moment!  Go ask the locals where to get the best abayas.  Out in the mall were a group of Saudi women, complete with niqab, resting from their shopping.   A simple question got a wonderful result. "Excuse me, Do you speak English?"

Perfect English was spoken in response from beneath the niqab face coverings and the women were, contrary to what I'd been told before my arrival in this country, very friendly and quite chatty.  We got told that the little shop we just came out of was the best place in Riyadh to buy abaya because they are a reasonable price - between 130 - 150 SR (Saudi Riyals).  If you are paying more than that you are paying too much.  And, as far as the range of Saudi shop bought abaya goes, that place had a good selection.

 The ladies went on to critique the abaya I was wearing - obviously not bought in KSA and more expensive than those I was just perusing in store - right on both counts.  Apparently, if I want to purchase something along similar lines here I would have pay a tailor privately which can be a costly exercise.  Using one of the tailors that can be found along the local streets, I was told, would not be a good idea.  They have to make the abaya as per religious guidelines.  If caught doing otherwise they can get into strife. 

Akaria Mall Location

I'm glad I spoke with these ladies.  Apart from learning the best place to shop for to buy an abaya in Riyadh is in Akaria Mall, I also learnt that when I smile at women in traditional Saudi Arabian dress they are more than likely smiling back.

Ka Kite,

Friday, 14 May 2010

Shopping Experience Riyadh Fish Market

What to do on the weekend?  Go to the Riyadh fish market.

We woke early this morning so Glenn could experience the Riyadh fish market in Batha.  The fish market, or fish souq, is near Diirah.  If you get there before 10am the fish still looks in good condition, the smell is not ripe and the flies are few.  It's not a big market, but it gets busy and the fish is brought in fresh each day from Jeddah, apparently.   (Given Jeddah is a nine hour drive away I'm not sure how fresh that makes the fish...but let's not quibble over minor details).

The first time I visited the fish market was last weekend with another kiwi lady from our compound.  We noted we were the only women around so early in the morning which could have been a bit unnerving if we let it, but we were bolstered by each others company and there was no way I was going to come all this way only to leave without looking around.

The market was swarming with male fish merchants mostly from Bangladesh and Egypt.  They were all vying for we westerners to buy their fish, mostly so they could put the price up.  Haggling is acceptable in this market and if the price is too high, just walk away.  However, when comparing the prices to back home the fish in Saudi Arabia is sooooo cheap.

There's quite a range of fish and a lot of it we didn't recognise.  Fish guide pamphlets would be helpful, but are nowhere to be seen.  Most of the fish merchants don't speak, or have very limited, English, so our conversations with them went something like this:

Us - What kind of fish is this?
Them - 30 SAR (price per kilo)

What to do Pounamu?  We try again,

Us - Name of fish?
Them - Hamour.
Us - OK.  And this fish (pointing to completely different fish)
Them - Hamour

We eventually found Abdule, from Egypt, who spoke fairly good English, had a sparkle in his eye and even knew something about New Zealand.  He was also able to name the fish.  Needless to say, we bought our fish off him on that occasion.

All fish are whole and you can take them home to gut, scale and fillet yourself or, once you've decided which one you want, it can be cleaned and filleted by the guys working in another part of the souq.  You pay a few extra riyals for this service.  They will give you back the head and bones if you ask for them, otherwise there are a few cats hawking about waiting for any fishy morsels that may be tossed their way.  We discovered it is also a good idea to ask for ice to be put in the bags with the fish, because by the time we left last week with our red snapper the sun was high in the sky and the temperature outside was starting to get hot.

Abdule and Glenn

Our husbands came along for the ride to the fish market today - one because he was the driver, the other as company so two wives didn't have to suffered by one man.

It was quite funny to see that the conversation we had with the Riyadh fish merchants last week is exactly the same for Glenn and Paul this week.

Glenn - What's this fish
Them - 40 SAR
Glenn - Yes, but what is it
Them - 40 SAR
Glenn - What's the name? Is it Tuna
Them - Yes
Glenn - And what about this fish
Them - 26 SAR
Glenn - What's it called
Them - (Something in a foreign language)
Glenn - (gives up, walks away).

We bought our fish from Mr Abdule again this week.

Our shopping expedition included a stop at Jariir book store where I bought a copy of Arabic For Dummies so that, hopefully, the next time we visit the Riyadh fish market, I will have learnt Arabic for 'What is the name of this fish?'

Riyadh Fish Market Location

If you are in the mood to rustle up a fish pie or some other exquisite seafood cuisine, or just want to spend a morning looking at fish and trying out your Arabic language skills, then by all means go visit the Riyadh fish market.

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Let's Recap: Two Weeks In Saudi Arabia

Here's a Recap of My First Two Weeks in Saudi Arabia.
Glenn gave me a 2010 Calendar Diary that I've been using since my departure from NZ to keep a few thoughts on living in Saudi Arabia. I've been reading thru my first impressions and the things I did. Here are entries from my first 2 weeks.

December 31 2009
Flew from Auckland to Melbourne to Dubai. On the way to Melbourne I realised I left my purse at the Auckland Airport. Duh! Got a message thru to home to pick it up. Just as well I didn't need any money because I had nothing - no card, no cash. Had to borrow a mobile phone from an air hostess to phone home.

So tired I slept thru the New Year while in flight so if peeps were celebrating, I didn't hear it!

Jan 1 2010
Glenn met me in Dubai. He didn't want me to fly to Saudi on my own because he thought customs in Riyadh can be daunting for the uninitiated. Spent the day in Dubai. Did the 'Big Bus' tour. Had a complimentary room at the Meridian Hotel - very nice.

Flew to Riyadh. My first time having to wear the abaya - it's not so bad I guess. Asked a young Saudi lady at the airport how to put on the shayla (aka head scarf). She introduced us to her family - Mum, Dad and younger sister.  Very nice people. Very good English. They showed me how to wrap the shayla - I am going to have to practice.

Our compound is looking quite nice. Very tired. In bed by 9.30pm.

Jan 2 2010
Woke at 3am - prayer time. We have a mosque just over the back.

I heard the prayer call for the first time last night as Glenn was carrying my bags to the apartment I'm to now call home. It sounded like a fog horn being blasted over the loud speakers. Glenn assured me there were words. I also thought the call was a recording, but then the guy calling coughed....

I unpacked today. Re-organised Glenn's wardrobe to fit my clothes. Wondering when it will sink in I'm here to stay!  Have to get a laptop, internet connection and a mobile or I have this sense that adapting to my new digs will be more difficult than necessary. Almost had withdrawal shakes handing my NZ mobile to my sister before departure.  (We have a business in NZ that she will be overseeing - hence the need to hand over the business mobile).

Jan 4 2010
Tried out the gym today - it's OK. I don't really feel like socialising yet, but I need to go shopping, Glenn has no vegetables in the house - typical bachelor diet - baked beans and tuna. Yuk! Wonder if they have health shops here in Riyadh?

Glenn came home with two books that were given to him today. Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia and a book about Islam.  The islamic book has been put on the shelf.  Maybe I'll get to it one day.

Jan 5 2010
Went shopping on my own at the local market. Somewhat freaky experience. Jazeera market is very busy and lots of things are....foreign (funny that). Ladies in black everywhere. Men in regular clothes or thobes. Kids underfoot. The produce area was bedlam. At one point I had to stop and take some deep breaths. But now we have real food in the house.

Can't keep my shayla on my head - I wonder how the Saudi ladies do? There were lots of ladies, Filipino and other expats I presume, who didn't wear shayla.  Glenn says it not really necessary for western women, unless you're asked to.

Jan 6 2010
Had dinner at Al Khazarma Hotel tonight. Met Eric the GM. He paid for dinner - so nice of him.  Must've liked me. Walked through Faisalia Mall. It's just like any other flash mall, except all the ladies are in black. Have to stop staring at the women with the niqab. Not sure if I should be smiling at them or not. I hope they are smiling back.

Glenn bought me a guitar tonight. I think he realises that in order to find my feet I need something to do.  Plus he is trying to spoil me so I don't decide to go home. Wonder how long one can take advantage of that :)

Jan 7 2010
Weekends in Saudi Arabia are Thursday and Friday. We walked into Glenns office so I could see where he worked (it's 15 minute walk) and to Skype the kids. The sooner we get internet connected at home the better. Now that I'm not sleeping most of the day (can't believe how tired the body is after this move) I'd like internet on tap, not once a week!

Walked around Tahalea tonight. Found 2 coffee shops that do not cater to women. Not good! No women are enjoying the outdoor cafe experience - only men. Women are shafted indoors, out of sight, to eat and have coffee. Wonder what would happen if I just go sit at a sidewalk cafe? Wonder what they would do?

Jan 8 2010
Glenn took me to Akaria Mall. It's an older mall, I think the oldest in Riyadh. I like it. It's more homely than the big malls and there aren't many expats - they mostly frequent the big malls. And it's local - just up the road.

There's a very nice shop that sells Italian crystal and it's so cheap.  I bought a fruit bowl. Before leaving here our kitchen cabinet may be graced with a whole set of crystal ware.

Jan 9 2010
Off to hospital for a physical today. Nice guy that took me from Innovations. They are a company that do all sorts of stuff like organise visa's, Iqama's (residency cards) etc. Apparently Saudi red tape is not easy to deal with so Glenn just hires the people from Innovations to do all that because they have connections.  Riyadh is all about who you know, apparently.

My physical is so I can get my Iqama, aka Residency Card.  I'm so glad Sahid took me because the hospital is big and busy and I can't speak Arabic.  He did all the talking, I just followed him around.

They have sqaut toilets in the hospital...couldn't believe it.  What to do Pounamu?  Should I back in or not?  Decided to back in.  And there were three ladies working in the toilets.  One was folding towels, one went in to clean the cubicle before and after me and one was asleep in a corner. I guess if this was my employment from morning to night I would try to make it go faster by catching a kip as often as possible too.

Jan 10 2010
Sunbathed today. Our pool is wonderful. I realised that no-one else sunbathes now cos it's the middle of winter in Saudi Arabia.  Hard case - me in a bikini because the weather is just like NZ summer and everyone else in winter woolies.

Jan 11 2010
Walked by myself to Glenns office today. There are no pedestrian crossings and I don't think there are many road rules either so negotiating crossing the road was nerve wracking the first few times. Its especially dangerous at night dressed all in black! We've been walking most nights so I'm getting used to the traffic and I gotta say, it's a lot easier crossing the road in daylight :)

Met the staff at his office. Nice people. Will hopefully meet a couple of wives. I'm needing something else to do and someone else to do it with.  After two weeks of living in Saudi Arabia I'm starting to feel like more than my own company during the day.  Me thinks this whole 'don't have to work' idea is going to get very old, very fast.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Living in Saudi Arabia: What to do?

What to do While Living in Saudi Arabia
I came to the conclusion that, since I moved to Saudi Arabia, I spend hours wasting time on the internet. Mostly on Facebook. Mostly playing games. I also decided that such time wasting has to stop but then what do I do? I have to do something.

Being a kept woman in Riyadh, one of Saudi Arabia's larger cities, has it's good side - I don't have to go to work.  But after living here for 3 months, I've discovered that filling ones time with meaningful activity can be challenging. Stories about Riyadh being the most boring city in the world have, to date, kept my butt sunk into my chair.

I don't have young children to run around after - my 'baby' will be 25 this July.  I don't have family to go and annoy - it's just my husband and me.  And I'm not sure that making new friends from the myriad expats in this city can be classed as a real activity.  Granted it's a necessity if I don't want to wallow in complete isolation, but when the husband comes home at the end of the day and says "What did you do today?"  Does "had coffee with some new peeps" qualify as legitimate activity?

My laptop looks at me everyday.
Our internet connection is excellent. It seems a waste not to use it. But sitting on my derriere for 5 hours straight playing Zoo is not good. So I decided to limit my dose of Facebook and do something else.  (Actually, I contemplated deactivating my zoo....but decided that was a very desperate measure and would only happen as a last resort).

So, what to do?
Blogging of course.
What about?
Living in Saudi Arabia of course! That's not time wasting is it?

I can let friends and family know what I'm up to. I can let wannabe Riyadh expats get an idea, from a Kiwi non-working female perspective, of what life is like in Saudi.  And as I currently keep a diary of sorts anyway, why not move my 'what I did today in Riyadh' notes to a blog spot?  And if you want to contact me about my new lease on Middle Eastern life, drop me a line via the Contact Kiwi page.

So, welcome to my new lease on Saudi life. I hope you enjoy my future posts about a Kiwi Living in Saudi Arabia: What to do?

Ka Kite,

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