Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Depressed in Saudi

Being depressed in Saudi is not unusual.  Especially for women.

I can't speak for Saudi women, but there are more than a few expat women who sink into really dark places while living in Saudi. 

I've had expat women admit they feel useless here.
I've heard them say they feel their homes are closing in on them.  Or admitting they feel like smacking their heads on the wall to remind themselves they do exist.

I have some idea how they feel.

Some days I have to make myself pick up the phone and call women I met at a coffee morning but hardly know so I can plan Something to stop that dark sinking feeling from taking hold and turning into a smothering blanket of utter nothingness.

Some days the four walls of my one bedroom apartment threaten to become all I know. 
Some days my couch and I rarely part company.   
Some days I wish I could teleport to someplace else. 

Some place where I'm not hidden away covered in black, never to be seen or heard.
Some place where I can be my independent self not treated like some useless imbecile that can't change a lightbulb.
Some place where I can laugh and sing and run and jump and nobody cares.
Some place normal.  Not this archaic limbo-land.

Welcome to

Limbo Land

Today could be a good day, or not

Some days I wish the ridiculous men in this country who think they are God's gift to women and make pathetic rules would all bugger off so we women can live real lives.

Then my husband walks in the door after a long days work and I pretend I'm fine.  Life is great.  What did you do? he says.

Nothing in this country for a woman can truly mean nothing.
It is possible to spend days in Saudi doing not a bloody thing.
All day.
(Constantly sitting on your arse drinking coffee and eating cake is nothing with coffee and cake).

More than once I have found myself sagged into the couch, my head lolling on the headrest with the four walls closing in, nothingness dragging me down and a sense that helplessness has somehow made itself a home inside of me.  It is possible, in such a state, to begin to feel real distaste for this place and its ridiculous modus operandi.

I don't think our expat men really understand the Nothing Concept for women in Saudi nor how it affects us.
Not really.

Perhaps they believe the locals who describe life here for women as 'living like a princess''.
I call it draining your soul.

It pays, on my nothing days, to start planning something before nothing finds company with Negativity.  Nothing was bad.  But Negativity -  she's a bitch!  She's not happy with anything.  She picks fault with everything, including the broad looking angrily back at her in the mirror.  She's a pain to live with.

Did you go shopping? -   Nope. No car. No driver.
Did you go visiting?   - Nope. No friends. They all left. We went to their ma'salama parties last week. I don't know anybody.
The house looks nice. You did some house work? -  Nope. Maid did that.
Why don't you ask around for some work? - I did. There's no work in my profession for women. It's only for men.
Why don't you get a job at the school? -   I don't teach.
Why don't you join a club? - There's no clubs I like.  Women aren't allowed to ride bikes, or jog, or play cricket, or softball, or join gun clubs, or archery or race cars or do anything exciting.   And I don't play mahjong.
Why don't you get dressed and we'll go out for dinner? Don't need to get dressed, I just have to put on a black thing.

Eventually my Negative Bitch gets sick of snarking at my unresponsive self and starts telling my nearest and dearest in vemon filled jabs and stabs, delivered to make him think my state is all his fault, how she feels. Sometimes using words that used to get my mouth washed out with soap when I was young!

She calls me a few choice names as well - Oh the arguements we have inside my head calling each other Bitch!  (Sometimes, I swear living in  this country has given me a serious mental condition.  I met a lady who is a counsellor and works in schools for kids.  I told her she ought to set up shop for the adult expats.)

On the plus side my loud, unhappy and somewhat angry Negative Bitch has hauled my arse from under a settling blanket of depression on more than one occasion in my two and a bit years of living here saying things like, 'FFS, get over yourself', or 'FFS, you're boring, go find something to do', or 'FFS - FFS is her favourite phrase - if you don't like it here, give up and go home you silly cow'.   That one usually gets to me - I hate giving up and this country will not beat me!  So, though she can be mean, there are times I'm glad I my Negative Bitch.  Else I might actually become clinically depressed in Saudi.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 18 June 2012

Made'in Saleh

Made'in Saleh is quite a special place. 

We went to Made'in Saleh (also writtein Madein Saleh) as part of an expat group organised by Cora, a lovely lady who, we understand, is not a travel agent or tour guide of any description.  She started putting together trips for her friends and her friends then asked her to keep doing it for their friends - so that's what she does under the name C3 - Cora's Classic Culture Tours.

The trip was not without a minor hiccup.  The airline, Saudi Air, which does receive some bad raps but is cheap as chips so take the good with the bad, bumped most of the group off the scheduled flight.  Being paranoid about missing planes, Hubster and I (along with the only other couple to make the flight) were there in plenty of time to check in.

We were keeping our eyes peeled for the rest of the group, none of whom we'd met before so we were profiling people for 'western looking' and 'part of a group', but it wasn't till we'd landed in Medina - the airport is in the part where non-believers are allowed to set foot - that we received a message that most of our companions were still on the ground in Riyadh.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Cats in Riyadh, Open Paws

There are loads of cats in Riyadh.
They roam the streets and compound walls and fossick through the street rubbish or lounge atop the skip bin lips in between rubbish feasts.  They aren't in the best of feline health though.

Cats here, as in many countries the world over, are dumped and left to fend for themselves once the novelty of the cute kitten fades and the cat owner just can't be bothered being a cat owner any more.

Even in Kiwiland we have a bit of an issue with wild cats killing off local bird life, their population assisted by a known relative or two I'd like to knock on the head for getting yet another cat they don't look after bleating yet again 'O God, I forgot, I have to be responsible for this animal.  This one doesn't look after itself either!' 

Fortunately there are great forests in Kiwiland with lots of birds and other cat lovely edibles so the wild cats we come across look fat, if not somewhat matted and unfriendly.  We also have the SPCA - Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

In Saudi the conditions are a lot more harsh for turfed cats.

Now, I'm not a cat person myself and you won't find me feeding wayward cats because I feel sorry for them - there are enough cat lovers on the compound who do that - but it is somewhat annoying when certain expats, along with the locals, decide to get a cat for their kids then leave the cat in the courtyard when they upsticks and exit the country.

The ex-cat owners who release their cats out in the desert and expect they're going to survive are complete and utter nutters!  Who do they expect is going to care for the animal?  Oh, that's right, 'The one who sees and knows all'.

I'm quite certain ex-cat owners have no idea how hard it is to survive on the street as a cat.  We regularly hear cats scrapping outside - screeching, bawling, hissing and yowling.  It is not uncommon to come across beaten up, limping cats in Riyadh looking understandably mangy.  

And then, of course, the abandoned animal starts breeding because the previous owner didn't quite get round to getting the cat fixed.  Result - more cats with questionable survival rates.  The kind soul who comes around pleading for someone to please take a kitten is usually directed to Lana.

Lana is a vet in Riyadh who runs a not for profit charity called Open Paws.  It's an organisation dedicated to helping the hundreds of animals in need of care in Riyadh.  There are no animal shelters in KSA and although the religion says be kind to animals the law, apparently, is not quite so up with the play and when it comes to animals Saudi's have their own quirky (some may say warped) idea of what being kind means (refer back to 'turf me out in the desert').

Lana has been neutering and spaying street cats and those cats who have made themselves at home on compounds for some time along with improving their health status.  When she first started she was doing this all at her own cost and without much help. 

Now, a few animal lovers have got on board with her and are helping out with Open Paws.  She still requires volunteers to assist, and a few rich dudes with money to send her way would certainly be welcomed with open arms to build an animal shelter.

Open Paws runs a Trap-Neuter-Return program in certain areas.  They also attempt to re-home animals through pet adoptions and they always need foster carers for animals.  Visit their website www.openpaws.org to find out more and then give Lana a call.

The cat in this video is just one of many that Open Paws assists:

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Cheating Is Normal In Saudi

Cheating is normal in Saudi Arabia.  I'm talking about cheating on university or college exams.  (Men cheating on their wives is another story though also very common.) 

It's the end of term in Riyadh and teachers who aren't staying over for summer school are heading out to destinations with good wine and cold beer - well, the teachers I know are.  Whilst chillaxin they will no doubt tell the truck load of stories they have gathered over the previous term, some of which I get to hear before they wave goodbye at the airport, many of them having something to do with the recent round of cheating on exams.

I'm guessing every school in every in country has those who will cheat but Saudi, as in all things, has its own spin on the activity. Here's a normal cheating story told to me recently by our pool:

After the exams have been marked and the marks given to the students, one student calls in on the teacher.
You only gave me 45 out of 46.
You should have given me 46.
Because you gave my friend 46 and I copied off  him.

The teacher comtemplates his response then says
Perhaps you copied something wrong.

It turns out he did copy something wrong, hence the loss of a mark but unconcerned that he has admitted to cheating the student then asks the teacher,
Can you give me the 46 anyway so I can show my parents how hard I've been working in class.

The kids, by all accounts, know the western teachers aren't happy about the note passing, the texting (if they happen to sneak in phones) or the blatant copying but as one friend says reporting them is oft times pointless as the heirarchy of the school will usually cave in to a storming relative blaming the school for the childs poor results so the kids get away with it anyway. 

And besides, I get the feeling most Saudi students don't really consider turning round to look at the answers of their fellow exam takers as cheating. It's getting help. It's ensuring a good mark no matter what and if caught asking the bro in the chair next door for answers there is usually a weak excuse accompanied by a mischievious twinkle in the eye.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps teachers in Saudi should change their views on students giving themselves success advantages and schools should develop a system that embraces the culturally influenced practice of students helping each other out with test answers. Whose to say the western method of examinations is the best way?

The Ministry of Education has made no secret that it intends to improve education in Saudi and they build nice schools and develop relationships with some of the best education organisations in the world, but Ministry efforts mean sqaut diddly when the attitude of the student masses to being educated is somewhat different from the western model.

Ask any teacher and they will tell you that the majority of Saudi, male and female, consider school and university more of a social outing than education.

Attending school is also a fabulous venue for sussing out suitable potential marriage material for your brothers/sisters/cousins as the ever decreasing gene pool from families inter-marrying is becoming a bit of a concern.

Saudization, the latest move to employ Saudi's, is not yet helping education. Saudi teachers, I've heard, tend to teach as they were once taught.  Mostly by rote learning. Mostly without appreciating a questioning mind.   That is not really promoting learning.  Perhaps as well as building schools the Ministry could look at teaching local teachers how to teach, how to encourage and support learning, how to embrace and inquiring mind.

The students themselves have an uphill battle - I have no idea why all university subjects are currently taught in English. If you have not spent a lot of time exposed to English, being expected to pass your diploma or degree in it after a few months of Preparatory Year study is asking a bit much.  This, I gather, is a large contributing factor to why students at Uni cheat.

The pressure to look successful
 + a language they are unfamiliar with
 =  find someone else to do this for me

Last years decision to introduce English language into public schools at an earlier grade as this story in Gulf News outlines, might help tackle the language problem, though I have to wonder if that is the right answer. 

However, the expectation is that you will pass a course delivered in English and expectations in Saudi must be met by any means possible.  Cheating in that case is not a problem.  Cheating (or borrowing someone else's answer with his/her complete approval) is a means to an end. 

The western trained expat teachers I know that work here want to teach. They want students with inquiring minds. They want students to love learning. When a gem of a student is come across 'oh', says one of my friends, 'it is so refreshing'. And there are gems. And they are so different to the norm you cannot help but wonder, 'How the hell did that happen?'

But gems are rare when the progressive part of the Ministry has to answer to the conservative half who find inquiring minds just a lot too threatening. Gems are like needles in the haystack of students subjected to years of rote learning and discouragement of anything remotely inquiring.   And then, of course, there is the culture of having no clue what it means to give 100% effort.

The majority of students here could be bright enough to pass if they tried - they just find trying is quite, well.., hard.   Is this their fault?   Not if this story is as common as we're told.  Cheating habits start, it seems, in nursery school.

Nursery teachers tell us about parents who demand their toddler be given more stars than the other kids. WTF! Their request has little to do with the child learning the ABC's and more to do with not losing face by having a 'non-succeeding' child. Not losing face is big in KSA.  Lying, cheating and bribing are top of the list of accepted behaviors to prevent such loss of face. 

Yep, reward for honest effort in education starts taking a dive at a very young age in Saudi. If the Ministry could nip that bud maybe cheating would not be the norm in KSA.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Le Baron

Le Baron on Sulamaniyah street (turn left at the T-intersection) serves very nice Middle Eastern food.

The family section is upstairs, take the lift if you don't fancy exercising on the stairs.  The dining area is fairly roomy but the large wooden dividers around the tables (there is no open space) does give a sense of heaviness to the room.  Some of the tables also have a TV attached to the wall - not really my idea of dining in peace though if you can snag a table next to the window it feels much more light and airy.

Le Baron has a lunch time special which is quite substantial - I had difficulty getting through it.

The service at non busy times was very good.  At busy times you sometimes have to go flag someone down.   Despite this the food is nicely cooked and tasty and I have dined at Le Baron Restaurant more than once.


Centro on Tahalia is much nicer to eat in than it looks from the outside,

Its decor is red and black and there is a large television down one end that tends to play the latest football matches, so I can only presume it is a sports diner with class.

There's a mix of dining tables and more relaxing coffee tables all with very comfortable seating.  The boothes in the family section are divided from the open tables by black string curtains though it is also possible to close the very thick red brocade curtains for even more intimacy under the minimal lighting. 

The tables are always nicely set with a small but lovely floral arrangements. The menu is mix of Italian and general western. The other night our group had Calamari starters and a rack of lamb, chicken stuffed with spinach and cheese and a pizza for our mains. All very nicely cooked. The coffee also meets my exacting standards.

We have always found Centro, on Tahalia, to be a pleasant dining experience.  Mayhap you will too.

Ritz Carlton, Riyadh.

'Puttin on the Ritz' in the Ritz Carlton, Riyadh is a coffee date not to be missed.  The place is rather spectacular.

My friend phoned me one day some months ago. 
Would you like to go for coffee at the Ritz? she asked. 
Yes, said I
Excellent, she said and a date was set.

Such an occasion calls for dressing up a little - wearing my 'going out' abaya, the one made of shiny satin with gold coloured embroidered trim and a headscarf to match.  Name dropping, or in our case position mentioning complete with 'We're with an important company' business card, got us a personal tour of the premises.

We were shown through the restaurants (some weren't open for business yet as The Ritz in Riyadh had only recently opened its doors).  The largest of these is the buffet.   It was put on my list of places to try.

The pool area is quite large with its lovely loungers and stunning mocaics overlooked by the smaller more intimate dining areas.  Can women swim here?  The managment may well consider women only swimming days.  In case you're thinking you will be eating while watching some bloke in his bathers, don't fear - the pool is closed during busy meal times.

The smaller restaurants that look out onto the pool include an Italian, a Chinese (not yet open), a 'piano bar' which welcomes (so I hear) any good pianists who would like to entertain fellow guests and a 'clubroom' where, if you pay a fair amount of SAR's, you get to enjoy the facilities within. 

There is a bowling alley downstairs open for women only on Tuesdays.  We were also taken to a wing of the hotel and shown the rooms - Mr Key and his entourage would be very happy with the apartments should he ever have cause to head this way with the blessing of the tax payer footing the bill.  The security rating was emphasised on more than one occasion on our tour.

We even got to gate crash a medical conference. 

'Come in', said the women in their last year of medical school to our question, 'What's going on in there?'. 
'We haven't registered', we said. 
'That's ok', they said and showed us to our seats and brought us orange juice so we were nicely settled just as the speaker was about to begin.  I found the topic under discussion (spinal surgery) quite fascinating though my company was a little lost, so we excused ourselves and headed out to the cafe lounge - there are four of them on each side of the entrance foyer, one offering an al-fresco option for dining.

Everything in the hotel is very plush.  Not ostentatious - which some furnishings in the country can be - but definitely opulent.  The stone arched gateway, the lengthy palm tree bordered drive terminating in fabulous fountains, men in uniforms to open your door and, once past the security screen, the grand open foyer with beautiful flower pieces taking center stage beneath a dazzling display of glittering lights is exactly what one would expect of a palace hotel in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

We enjoyed playing ladies that day at the Ritz Carlton, sipping our coffee and nibbling our light lunch seated in the lounge and promised to come back to spoil ourselves sometime.  My chance came sooner than expected when my husband said to me last week, 'Where would you like to go for dinner for our wedding anniversary?' How about The Ritz , I said.

Hubsters receptionist rang and booked a table in the Italian a la carte' restaurant.  He mentioned the occasion we were celebrating and on arrival we were greeted outside the resatuarant by the head waiter and shown to our rose petal decorated table.  How sweet.

The meal was superb.  The service very attentive.  The scene was very pretty seated beside the pool and the atmosphere very relaxed.  Perfect for a 31st wedding anniversary.  And the price, I have to say, was not as exhorbitant as I imagined it would be.  Ekky yes.  Ultra ekky, no. 

It is obvious that The Ritz has a very good training programme.   On our way out, when we were standing around admiring the decor a young man from guest services took the time to introduce himself and explain the facilities and services, all in a very professional and friendly manner.

If you ever fancy coffee, lunch or dinner in palatial surrounds fit for a King then throw on your best abaya and head to The Ritz Carlton in Riyadh.

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