Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Creativity and Secret Celebrations


The end of the year is drawing nigh and for we western types who wrote 'Christian' on our visa to get into this country, whether we are practicing or not, that means Christmas and New Year are also fast approaching.  If you're relatively new to Saudi Arabia you've likely figured out by now that Christmas is not celebrated here.  Not in public anyway.  There is no holiday.  No carols over mall sound systems.  No publicly decorated trees with decorative balls, fat santas or reindeer.  Expats, unless they have applied for a day off, are expected to be working on Xmas Day.

It's fair to say the festive mood is a little toned down in Saudi.  Seasoned expats staying in Saudi over the Christmas season will know that seasonal activities on December 25th will likely be private invites to private dinners, so if you haven't got any yet, go make some friends quick smart.

Decking out your compound home with festive decorations is not for the time management challenged expats who think they can wait till the last minute to deck their halls with boughs of holly.  Anything even vaguely Christmas looking begins to be removed from shops around about November, so you should have bought your red and green tinsel at the latest in early October.

Keeping your ear to the ground for notice of end of year compound bazaars will score quite a few nice decorations into December, many handmade by crafty expats.  But compound bazaars are pretty much over and done by the end of the first week of December - not good news for the last minute decorator!  I'm usually a last minute decorator.  It feels kind of strange tonight, though I'm also rather chuffed, to be sitting here looking at decorations that have been hanging from the tree in our apartment, an evergreen scraggly looking thing I bought at Sultan Gardens, since December 1st.

I don't like plastic trees much, so a real tree, even if not exactly a pyramid shape that doesn't fill the house with pine smells, gives me warm, fuzzy feelings when I look at the results of my creative garnishing and the lights are twinkling in the lounge.  Even the Hubster, who initially thought I was crazy, was suitably impressed.





My friend, Miss Margaret, could rarely make it to the Bazaars because she was a working woman here in Riyadh.  So she would make her own home made decorations out of treasures she'd dig out from a couple of local shops.  I would tag along because her enthusiasm was infectious and I thought her creative spark might rub off on me.  (It didn't!)


The first place she'd usually go for crafty bits is Al Sharq stationary shop in Al Owayis souq.  It may not look like much from the outside, but inside can be a treasure trove for the homemade craft decorator with creative flair.  She's walked out with styrofoam balls of varying sizes, glue and glitter, card making supplies, beads, star shapes and feather boas.

DMC Accessories Store, in one of the Circon buildings down Musah bin Nasser St, and the Ribbon Souq, located in small corner of Al Owayis, are two places with plentiful colorful, shiny and baubled materials to make decorations for any occasion, not just Christmas.  And you can get service with a smile.  Limited English, but a smile.





As an aside to this story, in one shop we found a couple of vintage looking sewing machines for sale.  There haven't been many sewing machines for sale in Saudi since 2009 when a rumour gripped the country that Singer Sewing machines contained a magical substance called Red Mercury that could turn you into a genie and grant you anything you desired (or something like that).  Sewing machines were being stolen left, right and center.  If you weren't into theft, the prices to buy a machine sky rocketed upwards of 50,000SR by some reports.

Of course, there is no such thing as magical mercury out of sewing machines.
That was a hoax for the truly gullible.
Though I do think people who can sew, particularly those who create garments from their own patterns, are brilliantly talented, and in that sense, quite magical, because I can't even sew a straight seam!



But back to our home made creativity.

Jariir bookstore has a fairly decent art section with bits and pieces that could easily be given a Happy Holiday flair.  When the grandkids were here I bought paints and boxes and let them loose expressing their artistic side.



If you have someone who can drive, you can do a run to Al Zamil stores in Al Khobar for a rummage through their party and art supplies.

Those are just some of the places you can go to find bits and pieces to turn into your own version of Christmas ornaments.  But really, the beginnings of creative pieces can be found all over this city.  Dirrah souq has loads of pieces that can enhance a Christmas scene, like camel candles. old lamps and Morrocan lanterns - just add your finishing touch to them.






Of course, those not wishing to spend this traditional family time in Saudi Arabia can always high tail it to places more tolerant of the Xmas season and get their decorating, carol singing, gift giving and family togetherness fix in various other parts of the world.  I'm doing that this Christmas.  I'm going home.

Best of the Season to y'all.



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Desert Bucket List and An Arch


It has been quite some time since we have taken to the desert in Saudi.  Largely because a good portion of this year has seen us travelling outside of the country.  A couple of weeks after returning from our most recent trip (to the UK) I was hankering for a spot of desert travel.  On my computer is a bucket list of places I'd like to visit in Saudi before we leave (Yes, believe it or not you can bucket list places in Saudi Arabia!).   So, last weekend Hubster was encouraged to hire the 4WD - encouragement being wifey with her hands on hips, bored of sitting around compounds while he has his head stuck in a computer working,  declaring she might leave for good if he didn't pull finger.

With finger pulled, he was directed to head west-ish.

"Where are we going?" Hubster asks as we head out of the compound a little later in the day than initially planned.  What he means by this question is:  'Do you have a map to get us where we need to go?'  Well, after a bit of Googling I have found directions to get us most of the way.  Although Google can not tell us how far into the desert we have to go because Google just can't do that in Saudi at this point.  But he doesn't want to know all that nonsense.  So I simply say "To find an arch"

"How far is it?" is the next question.  Naturally he presumes any directions I have in my possession will cover this little question with precise mileage and approximate hours of travel, give or take a few minutes for buying coffee, photo stops and general traffic conditions.  Given that I never actually checked any of this on a map before leaving I say, "Not sure.  Maybe a 200km round trip.  Not far".

Two hundred and forty kilometers later, we arrive at the arch.  (We found out later that we'd come the long way, a discovery made while going home the short way via an early sign saying 'Riyadh' and a gas station man who said 'Go that way').

Despite its unexpected length, it was a nice drive out.  With the iPhone playing our favorite 80's hits we sang our way down the escarpment, past Muzaymiyah and then turned off toward Ar Rayn.  Beautiful red orange sands rippled in waves beside the highway and wiggled their way off into the horizon.  If we had stopped to take photo's there would be one here ______ , but we didn't as I presumed our return journey would give us ample time for sand dune photography.  Tip to self - never miss a photo op!

Eventually the silky looking red sands gave way to a hard, flat as a pan dusty plain and the Hubster started wondering where we might find a gas station as it had become quite obvious by this point that I'd misjudged our travel distance and, apart from grumbling that we would have to be paying extra mileage on the vehicle, gassing up was starting to sound prudent.   We also noted that there weren't many cars on the road although obviously that isn't going to be the case for long.  Construction is busy widening the road and, after turning off towards Al Hariq, the single concrete blocks used in Saudi Arabia to indicate real estate plots can be seen set out and waiting for the expectant housing developments.



Just as Hubster was despairing that I had any idea where we were actually headed the dust pan turned back into red sands and the shapes of hills could be made out in the blurred haze that a desert seems to throw up as one looks into its distance.  As we drew nearer and the haze began to clear and the hills slowly solidified, their color shifting from murky grey brown to layered stripes of cafe au lait and wine, their ridges sharp and clear against the vibrant blue sky, not a hint of haze around them.  We slowed to crawl and I wound down the window searching for something arch like atop a hill.

It wasn't long before the arch was spotted, a tangerine outcropping standing clear against the rest, and we turned the vehicle off road.  This is what I love about jaunts into the Saudi desert - you can go anywhere.  The easiest track seemed to be down in a wadi as the rocks littering the embankments were sharp and large enough to do damage to the vehicle if one wasn't careful.  As we had failed, yet again, to tell anyone exactly where we were going, having a breakdown was a situation we would rather avoid.

Keeping the arch in our sights we stuck to the wadi until the sand started looking a little damp.  Damp sand in wadi's make me nervous, so it was time to exit the wadi.  A track was visible among sharp rocks on the wadi edge making it's way toward higher ground.  The well worn trail it joined led us straight to the base of the The Arch.  Hubster was impressed.

The afternoon was ticking on so we grabbed our gear and walked in search of a route that would take us to the top of the hill.  Part way up we came across a track of sorts that someone has taken the time to construct, pouring sand and rubble between the hillside rocks, making the ascent easier than I initially thought it would be for someone whose fitness is, ummmm, waning.




The arch is not really an arch.  It's more of a circle.  (Hubster thought is was shaped like a Kiwi. I thought Australia).  It's also a circle that won't last forever as it is slowly but surely crumbling.  Its promontory position is exposed to butting desert winds, extremes of temperature and seasonal rains.  The activity more likely to expedite the collapse of this arch, however, is people attempting to break it down.  Hubster pointed out the evidence of chipping and hacking on the structure by previous two handed brain defunct animals who have been visiting.

After posing for a couple of selfies out front, Hubster decided to head back down to the vehicle.  He wanted to get the campsite set up and fire started so he would be cooking dinner while there was still some daylight.  On many of our jaunts he ends up cooking in the dark with only the firelight to assist.  That might sound romantic but the reality, according to him, is less so.  







I took a few more photo's and sat on the ledge looking out over  the valley surveying, on this day, our car lone among the scrabbly rocky terrain below while the sun was going through its range of end of day color changes.  As the desert was claiming the last vestiges of heat from the orb, wrapping its hazy clutches around the waning fireball and threatening to drag it behind a distant hill, it was time to leave my perch.


My preference was for descending in as lady like a fashion as possible from this spot while there was still some light, else I could imagine a misplaced step creating a rockfall, chinking and scraping its slide downward with me screeching unbalanced atop it, followed by a pitiful cry for assistance.   Knowing the Hubster as I do, assistance would less likely be a knight on white horse with shining armour extending roses and more likely be him calling out, 'Watch what your doin?  Told 'ya to come down earlier!'




At base camp the fire was crackling and dinner was well under way with steaks and chicken breasts on the bar-b.   After dinner when the dark had descended, we drank coffee and talked about how nice this place was.  How quiet.  How perfect.  We rearranged the cushions and lay back on our Arabic carpet, wrapped up in blankets against the chill, and watched the night sky, talking about this and that, pointing at the plane routes made clear by flashing tail lights and simply enjoying the peace that came with being there.  It seemed a shame to have to pack up and leave the Arch much later that night when the cold became too much for our thin coverings.  To tick it off the bucket list.



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Yay, Everyone Can Keep Their Passports.


New Labour Law putting employers, aka sponsors, in their place indicate that, though it might be slower than some people want, Saudi is changing.  Breaking news this week - employers are not to keep workers passports anymore.

Not that employers were legally allowed to keep their employees passports anyway, but they did it out of habit and because there was no law stating, quite obviously, that they weren't supposed to.   Now Saudi sponsors are going to have to change their ways or risk getting fined if they continue in their wicked ways.  If I was a worker bee, I'd head off today and get back what's rightfully mine!

A couple of years back I wrote about the issue of employers keeping worker passports in the post, That Passport Is Mine, Thanks.  In it I explained how the passport issue was linked to Saudi sponsorship.  It's nice to know at least a part of that post is obsolete.

It's funny that this new law was announced this week because just last week I was having a chat with our new compound manager (we'll call her the CM), answering a few questions she had about how the place operated.  Not only is she new to compound management, she is also fairly new to Saudi (she's been here about four months).  While chatting, one of our security guys came in to the office.  He walked over and handed his passport to our CM.  She looked at him quite blankly and said, 'What is this?'
He said, 'I back my vacation.  This for you'.
They looked at each other for moment, both almost as still as statues, she not comprehending what he was saying, while he was most likely wondering if there was a problem.  She turned and looked questioningly at me.

I said, 'It is common practice for employers to keep employee passports, though it isn't a legal practice.  You can ring Head Office and find out what to do or you can decide here and now what is best'.
She turned to the security guy and said, 'Keep it.  It's yours.  I don't need it'.
He looked rather surprised.  He hesitated a moment.  She waved him away and he walked off pocketing his passport.  (I'll have to check later if she gave him back his iqama).
'Do they really do that?' she asked.
'Yep', I said.
'Oh my god.  I don't believe it', she exclaimed in utter disbelief.
Like I said, she's new here.

Here's a write up by Saudi Gazette on the new law - SR2000 fine for keeping workers passports.
My initial reaction to the news was a double take - I had to read it again just to be sure I'd read it right!  Then I was like, 'Wow, OMG, Yes, fist pump, high five, Whoop Whoop, Party Party'.  (Ok, so I may have been in the sun too long).  As I said, Saudi is changing.  Here's hoping if any Saudi sponsors don't heed the new law, the Saudi judiciary will do exactly as the new law claims.



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Saudi Anthems and Orchestras


National anthems from 20 countries are being sung with pride and tears most days here in London, just before kick off for rugby games at the Rugby World Cup 2015.  I've even learned a couple of the ones with catchy tunes.  After belting out the Kiwi anthem prior to an All Blacks game it occurred to me that I have never heard the Saudi Arabian National anthem, not in the entire six years I've lived here.

Does Saudi Have A National Anthem?
I had to turn to Google to find out if there was a Saudi National Anthem and was surprised to find there was.  When the religious peeps go around telling folks that music is forbidden this expat finds it a little contradictory for the country to have a national anthem, largely because anthems need music and they are usually played publicly.

Perhaps if I watched soccer (aka football) I might hear the Saudi anthem more often as it's boomed over loud speakers prior to the international football matches that national team participates in.  I made that discovery while trawling YouTube looking for the lyrics to the Saudi anthem.  The mass of male spectators at football matches are enthusiastic in their rendition of the anthem.  It's quite heartening to see as I have always found Saudi's quite a fun loving bunch although the Saudi's public face is supposed to be so emotionally reserved.

But I don't watch Saudi football, not because the Saudi hierarchy, in their wisdom, won't let ladies in to stadiums to watch the games (which makes me wonder how many Saudi women know the words to their national anthem? ) No, it is simply that rugby and rugby league are my spectator sport of preference and if there is a Saudi national team for either of these codes, I haven't seen it, or their anthem singing, in action yet.

North Queensland Cowboys NRL Premiers 2015...that's my team.
The Lilting Royal Salute
Yes, Saudi has a national anthem and the instrumental version, called the Royal Salute, doesn't sound the least bit Arabic (to my very uneducated musical ear).  In fact it sounds quite fan farish and, well, lilting.  But more surprisingly, it is orchestral!  Why be surprised?  Because I have no idea if Saudi Arabia has an orchestra capable of playing the song!  If there is a National Saudi Symphonic Orchestra, or anything vaguely similar, they don't seem to make many public appearances.  There's no advertising for Season Tickets or a monthly event Calendar that I'm aware of.  Heck, I don't even know if there's a concert hall in which the orchestra could play if they do exist.

Apparently the Royal Salute is only played at very formal kingly type of occasions, presumably using a recording given the apparent lack of orchestra, though I'll never know because, being a mere femme expat, invitations to Saudi formal functions don't often come my way.  (If a Kingly type is reading this a royal invite would be gratefully accepted.  Just saying.)

Anthem Origins
According to Wikipedia Saudi officially adopted their National Anthem, called Aash al Malak, in 1950 although it was first composed in 1947 by an Egyptian composer, Abdul Rahman Al Khatib, at the request of King Saud when he was visiting Egypt.  It has been adapted three times since that original composition.  Once in 1958 when lyrics were written by Muhammad Talat though, for reasons I can't find on Google, apparently they were rarely heard.  Again by Seraj Omar who arranged the brass instrumental version.  And finally in 1984 when new lyrics written by Ibrahim Khafaji were added.

Saudi National Day has recently come and gone and there were loads of festivities planned, but I am wondering whether or not the Saudi National Anthem was ever played publicly for people to sing loud and heartily on the day.  (Unfortunately I was out of the country for this Saudi National Day but on previous days I don't recall hearing an anthem, though to be honest, I may not have recognized it if I did hear it.).

So here it is, the Saudi National Anthem with lyrics and including transliteration, so you can sing along, and translation, so you know what it is you're saying.




Now I have no excuse not to know the Saudi National Anthem though, as I still have problems getting into soccer games or receiving invites to fancy receptions where I could sing it loudly with gusto, it makes me wonder whether it's worth learning it.



Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Sunday, 20 September 2015

Computer Souq Full of Gaming


Visiting the computer souq on Olaya in Riyadh is almost becoming a normal experience for me these days.  Almost.  Except for the staring.  The other day after dropping off my computer for a spot of repairs I decided to hang around and see what else there was to see.  Most noticeable was the increase in the number of gaming shops since my last visit.

I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about gaming.  I hail from an era that was just coming out of Pin Ball machines and heading into Pac Man and, quite frankly, my skill level at both was fairly dismal, so I never really kept up with the development of video game entertainment.  My children, the poor souls, had to make do with visiting their friends and waiting for a turn on their Atari machine because we decided playing team sport was a better way for our kids to spend their time and our money.  Given that their friends were better at the Atari games because, let's face it, they got more game time in, my kids often had a long wait for the console.  The day my son stopped begging to go up the road to play on his mates Atari made me feel like I'd helped him dodge a child development bullet.   My view of gaming didn't change much over the years as the graphics improved and the popular games just seemed to get more violent.   Watching my nieces and nephews attempting to blow things up with heavy artillery in futuristic battles just isn't my thing.  Candy Crush, however, is.  (Yes it's sad I know but remember, I'm old).

While wandering in and out of little shops at the Riyadh computer souq somewhat astounded at the number of luminous green and black boxes dedicated to gaming in all of them, I came across Ashraf who was more than happy to talk to this gaming clueless expat about the equipment being sold in his shop. And apparently they sell a lot.  Here's a video wrap up on what I learned about gaming components.  (As you can see Ashraf was not shy of the camera).


Although there is a technician on site to put components together as required, Ashraf says quite a few Saudi's like to build their own gaming computer systems.  That surprised me because, lets be honest, I still think most Saudi's prefer to pay someone else to do everything for them.  Perhaps where gamers are concerned I'm going to have to shake that idea.

Given there are few other avenues for recreation in this country it's no surprise that Saudi's have taken to computer games en masse.  Apparently gaming in this country is a huge revenue earner for game developers because so many Saudi's not only play but are prepared to pay to progress to upper levels (why doesn't that surprise me!)

It occurred to me after waving goodbye to Ashraf, that I forgot to ask  how many females head through his shop door who like to put together their own gaming consoles.  It is no secret that gaming is popular among Saudi females given there is bugger all else for women to do here.  In fact, so many Saudi girls are now into video games that, a couple of years back, a motivated young lady ran a female only gaming conference.   I got a a bit excited to hear that 3000 or so women went to a gaming conference that was not only for players but also budding gaming developers.  Here's an interview from the event in 2013.


After watching this interview I headed to Google to find out what else gaming women in Saudi were up to.  It seems not much as there are only a couple of other mentions re: women and gaming out in cyberspace and both of them are articles about Saudi men developing games for the Saudi female psyche.  I find it quite bizarre that, with the extreme gender segregation in this society preventing the mixing of genders and discouraging the exchanging of ideas between both groups, Saudi men presume to know the Saudi female mind.  But then, Saudi men are brought up to think they know exactly what Saudi women need, and are entitled to dictate as much, so I guess the idea of them presuming to know what games their women ought to be playing isn't so weird after all.

First up was this interview: 'As Saudi Arabia's Love Of Online Gaming Grows, Developers Bloom' which is about a group of guys developing 'strong female characters' in Arab based, Saudi relevant games. I love how it says
"We wanted to present a non-stereotypical lead female character [who is] smart, intellectual and plays an active role in the game."
Perhaps this quote was the result of a terrible edit.  These guys can't really be saying that the typical Saudi woman is not smart, intellectual and does not play an active role in Saudi society?  I'm guessing they actually meant its ridiculous how Saudi girls just aren't allowed to do things over here like treasure hunt, drive, bike ride, participate in physical sport or contribute to matters considered too important for women to worry their pretty feminine selves about.  (The game they are talking about in the interview, by the way, has a recently released new version called Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta - Episode 1 - Gold Edition in case you want to go check it out).

What I wanted to know after reading that interview was whether or not any Saudi women join these group developer sessions above Chuck E Cheese.   If a few, (or even one), Saudi women were involved in the development of this game it would have been nice for them to rate mention.  On the other hand women helping men in gaming development above Chuck E Cheese would likely be akin to women walking on the wild side in Saudi and the Joy Stealers would probably decide they have something to say about it!

At the end of the interview the Saudi government gets a mention for supporting a female gaming developer in creating a driving game, of all things.  Is this really a precursor to women driving in Saudi? (Personally, I would have thought allowing husbands, fathers and older brothers to provide driving lessons for their female relatives a more relevant forerunner to women driving.  But wait, no, a few have tried that and gotten into grief though I do query why in my post Arrested For Driving.. ).  Perhaps my pessimism is running rampant as I write this, but it occurred to me that with a government endorsed driving game available for the girls to play, it's far too easy for the blokes in charge to say, 'You ladies don't need to really drive - just play the game of driving'.  (Perhaps they'll throw in a toy steering wheel while they're at it!)


The second article  found making waves in cyber space re: gaming and Saudi femmes is about a Saudi prince whose company is creating an upcoming game called Saudi Girls Revolution.  An interesting name don't you think?  More interesting is what the game is about:
"In this post-apocalyptic future, women are placed in concentration camps with conservative men ruling the land and controlling resources," he said. "It is the story of the girls breaking out and liberating the Arab empire by replacing its leaders."
It should be noted that Mr Prince's company is based outside of Saudi and his games are mobile based specifically so they can't be shut down by the conservative half of Saudi hierarchy who, I'm quite certain, wouldn't be greeting the name of this game or its summary with open arms and a welcoming smile.





Ka Kite,
Kiwi




Thursday, 27 August 2015

Looking For Schools in Saudi Arabia


One of the searches that expat parents do before they leave their country of origin to relocate to Saudi Arabia, is to find schools, and preferably good ones, for their children.  It used to be a daunting task because not much information was out there.  Your best bet was to become a serial expat forum member asking loads of questions that had been asked before and being sent to numerous links for answers hidden in their depths if you could be bothered scrolling that far.  The other day I came across Kurrasa.   Kurrasa has made the job of finding schools in Saudi so much easier.  Not only does the site provide a comprehensive list of all schools in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and other cities in Saudi Arabia, they are also working on providing a wealth of information about each school

Kurrassa lets you know the grades taught at each school, their location and contact details, whether the school is an international or national school, and a co-ed or single sex school.  You can delve further into each school and find out mission statements, admission policies, school facilities, school fee costs and, for most, photographs.

The most important part of the site for parents though, is its parents review segment.  The site is still relatively new on the Saudi information scene so the reviews are in the throes of being built up, but I think it's still possible to get an idea of the running of the school from the information currently available.  The reviews would be aided by a star system if there weren't a few minor glitches to the set up.

The site also offers a section for potential teachers to provide their CV's and, from what I could tell, this is one of the drawbacks of the site at the moment in that, those looking for work are putting messages regarding their intention to teach in the parent review segment.  The other people messing up the star rating system are parents with questions who, instead of contacting the schools directly, are posting their queries on the website review area.  It appears that, in order to complete your message, you have to offer a star rating.  This means a number of schools are receiving single star ratings possibly where they shouldn't be.  So if you use the site, read the reviews carefully to weed out the schools suffering a low star rating because teachers looking for work are using the wrong section, (and, quite frankly, the inability to read and correctly use a  website would make me immediately cross them off my 'potential teacher' list), or parents with queries are doing the same.  Despite this minor, though irritating drawback, (I think it's irritating),  I can see the Kurrasa website very quickly becoming a valuable resource for parents searching for schools.

Of course the quality of education available in this new and foreign land is just one of the concerns confronting expat parents intending to uplift their offspring and move them overseas.  A number of other considerations are just as important especially if you have children who are not that excited, or are perhaps nervous, about the move and have a few ideas of their own about what is important regarding their schooling.

The language in which the classes will be instructed can be a major issue.  Your child may be less than happy to be sent to an English speaking school when they aren't very good at the language.  I know one family whose older son is at a French school while their younger daughter is at the American School because their son did not want to have to learn English to complete his senior years.
If you are looking for a specific curriculum, such as American, British, French or even Australian, Indian, Filipion or Pakistani, that will influence, and in some cases limit, your choice of school.  And if you don't find a school with a similar curriculum to that at home, your children run the risk of being bored or feeling overwhelmed.  We found this an issue when we first moved overseas to Australia.  Our daughters spent the first year repeating work they already knew because of the difference in curriculum between New Zealand and Australia.  On the one hand the class work was quite boring for them, on the other they could spend more time being social and still get good grades.

Whether or not all subjects are available in the school is especially important if any of the children are in higher levels and doing specialist subjects because they are looking at admission into specific international Universities further down the track.  In such cases, I always think its a good idea to talk to the school and the teacher of the subject, to make sure what you're getting is exactly what is required.

The cost of the school fees is important to know up front for your budgeting purposes because, contrary to popular opinion not everybody who comes here is on a megabuck contract and schooling, especially at international schools, can be expensive.  Make sure to ask the school about additional costs like uniform, textbooks and extra-curricular activities as well.   Some companies are happy to make school registration a part of your employment package.  It always pays to ask if your company is one of those.

What sort of after school activities are offered is a question parents often don't think to ask.  If your kids like to keep themselves busy and active with sports or chess clubs they may be disappointed with what is available here.  Unlike western countries, Saudi Arabia doesn't have a lot of out of school clubs for children to join - this is especially the case for girls.  So, if your daughter is a budding waterpolo player she may have to find some other recreational activity while here - unless she starts her own girls waterpolo competition.

Another consideration is location of the school from where you live.  The traffic in Riyadh at busy times can be horrendous.  Having to get your child up in the wee small hours just so they get to school on time is stressful for everybody.   If you live in a compound, especially one that is a fair distance from the school, compound management may not be happy to provide a bus run to your school of choice across town.  In this case you will have to sort out transportation yourself.  As women can't drive that job is left to Dad or a driver.

The larger international schools offer education from Pre-school through to Grade 12.  Having your younger children attend the same institution as the older ones can be an issue if you live a fair distance away.  A number of families on our compound found that the mothers were constantly in the compound vehicle taking children to, and retrieving them from, school.  This is because school hours for younger children end a few hours earlier than for their older siblings.  The parents made the decision, and I can understand why, not to leave the collection of any of the children solely to the driver.  So mothers, who are not allowed to drive in Riyadh, and tired youngsters would make the trek each afternoon back to school to pick up the older children.

Those are just a few of the things parents have to consider when it comes to the schooling issue for children in Saudi Arabia.  If you want to know more about your school of choice I suggest you contact the school directly as early as possible to ask all your questions.

As there are a large number of expats here, demand for the more popular schools is high, so I also think you should apply to register your child as soon as possible.  I understand the registration fee is non-refundable in most cases.  Best of luck in your search for schools in Saudi Arabia.




Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Monday, 3 August 2015

Optical Adventure in Riyadh

Reading Run Fat Bitch Runby Ruth Field

It had become glaringly apparent a few years back that my eyesight was not quite as good as it used to be.  The  first indication that I may require optical accessories was when I kept getting headaches while at work some years ago. The idea of having to wear glasses horrified me, largely because for a gal who usually has 20/20 vision, glasses means only one thing - I'm getting old?  So I quit that job and all was good till I eventually got another role that required me to look at computer screens a lot.  Of course the headaches came back.  This time, however, I kidded myself that the wearing of glasses while looking at computer screens was not an age related thing - it was a technology issue.

"I can honestly say I love getting older. Then again, I never put my glasses on before looking in the mirror." 
Cherie Lunghi  - Read more at Brainy Quote

Eventually I had to get glasses and they were a very funky, modern looking pair because I wasn't over the hill just yet.  Things ticked along quite well for quite some time till I misplaced my glasses somewhere and they decided to stay misplaced.  A new pair of spectacles was required.  So off I went to the nearest spec place in Riyadh.  One of those little shops along the road that I've always thought just ever so slightly questionable.  But it was close to home and Hubster was happy to walk up there with me (mostly, I discovered afterwards, because there was a shoe shop nearby that he likes).

The shop guy said, 'yes, I can test your eyes', and directed me to a back room with a rather antiquated looking piece of eye testing apparatus.  After the test he declares, 'There is nothing wrong with your eyesight'. 'Do you want to buy these very expensive sunglasses?'  Ummmmm.....no.


A few weeks later (because I am an avid supporter of procrastination) the taxi I was in screeched to a halt outside Eye World on Tahalia St.  It seemed a good idea to stop there given we were driving past.  Up the stairs I went into a shop floor loaded with the latest fashion, and somewhat expensive, eye wear frames.  However, Eye World isn't just about frames.  Oh no.  You can get eye corrective surgery on the floors above, so the gentleman who came to serve me said.  And you can get an eye test.

So in I went and met a man of Arab extraction with a bit of a mumble and a very heavy accent that required asking him to repeat himself for my comprehension.  He sat me down behind the very modern looking eye testing apparatus.  For those of you who've never had an eye test with the latest modern gadgets, this machine houses a number of lens of varying sizes, thicknesses and strengths and to find the one right for your eyes, they swap them around and ask for feedback on whether or not you can see the pretty picture at the end clearly, through one or both eyes.  Once behind the machine Mr Ophthalmologist said...

...I  don't know what he said. Between his mumble and heavy accent and my not being able to see his lips move because my eyes were staring through a very hazy lens that was in the machine, I couldn't understand him.  So I said, 'What did you say?'

And down dropped another lens.

He mumbled something else...
'No, no wait, I didn't hear you,  What did you say?'

And down dropped another lens.

I took my head out of the machine and said, "I don't know what you're saying?"  And two things were quite obvious in the glance that he returned to me - one, he was very focused on the job at hand and two, it was going to be one of those days.  Days when lots of communication in a cross cultural exchange is going to be lost in translation.  On those days I really need to learn to talk more slowly.

He simply said 'Go back '. (With a 'Why are you not focusing on the task at hand?' querying look on his face).

My jaw set and one of those sighs escaped my lips (you know, those 'Sure, fine, this is going to be one of those days' kind of sighs.)   I returned to the hazy lenses, this time determined not to respond till I was absolutely, fairly certain what he was saying.  It was a long slow process because it took a while to tune in my ears.
I had the beginnings of a headache by the end of it.
He seemed quite happy with the result.

Photo credit: Not my photo.

Once out of the chair Mr Ophthalmologist was walking away and talking.  I have no clue what he's saying because I've turned off my tuned in ear - my brain needed a rest.  He turns and hands me a packet.  A square, slimy, foil wrapped, squishy packet.  I look at it and wonder to myself, 'Why have you handed me a condom packet?'  Because seriously, the only small, square, foil wrapped, squishy packets I have ever seen like this in my life, are condoms.
I say, 'What the heck is this for?'
He says, 'Blah, blah...eyes...reading, blah...Put it in.
'Ummm....what?'

It turns out the squishy pack is a contact lens.
Really, it feels just like condoms.  (Me and scientists in Australia must be on the same wavelength because in 2014 Wollongong University got funding to make condoms out of contact lens material).

'Put it in', says Mr O.
'Ummm....how', I say.
'Just put it in your eye', he says.

Obviously Mr Opthomologist had not bothered to read the extensive paperwork I filled out before the eye test which at no point said, 'I wear contacts'.

I have no idea how to put a blessed contact in.
I look at the tiny thing on the end of my finger, I lean forward and look in the mirror at my eye and go....nope, can't do it.  He was a bit exasperated at my lack of contact wearing knowledge.  'I've never worn contacts before', I say looking at him innocently with raised, contact atop, finger.  Can you do it?'  In this land of Man Must Not Touch Woman, Mr Opthamologist had to go and get a nurse to put the contact in my eye.

The instant that thing hit my eyeball water started gushing down my cheeks and my eye went into spastic blinking.  Gush, gush, blink blink.

'Just wait, it will be ok', the nurse says.
'Really?'  Blink, blink, tears streaming.

Blink, spastic rapid blink.  Gushing tear drop waterfalls.
I can't flaming see and feel around for the tissues noted previously on the shelf.
Wipe the tears off my cheek but they won't stop coming out my eye.

I blinked and cried so much the contact moved and I could feel it dropped down off my eyeball.
'Take this thing out,' I say.  Of course, by this time the nurse had left he room.
'Just pinch it out', he says.
At this point I'm thinking less than complementary thoughts about Mr Opthomologist.  For goodness sake, if I don't know how to put this thing in, ya really think I know how to take it out!

I close my eye, holding the tissue on to it trying to ebb the teary flow, and look at him out of one eye like Stuart the Minion, which, though the grandchildren may think it hilarious, I'm fairly certain is not a flattering look for me...



'Where's the nurse', I say.
The nurse is busy and Mr Opthomologist still doesn't want to come near me.
So I have to wait, tissue in hand, eye closed and contact feeling like it's down around my cheekbones, till the nurse could come take the contact out.

Thank goodness for that.
Suffice to say, I will never be trying contacts again!  That doesn't mean contacts are bad.  I know a number of my friends and family swear by their contacts - reading contacts, one day contacts, colored contacts and so forth, but given my eyes water with the application of eyeliner or mascara on the extremely rare occasions I feel I ought to try self-beautification of that sort, it is no wonder that a full assault on my eye ball by a contact lens caused the reaction it did.

Once I'd managed to compose myself and collected the piece of paper regarding the results of my eye test, I was certain things would be plain sailing from here on.  I forgot though, I was living in Riyadh. All those tears for my new glasses was just the beginning of my "Get New Glasses" optical excitement as I traipsed Riyadh from EyeWorld, to Magrabi and other random places for specs so I could see.  But we'll leave the rest of the story for another day.




Ka Kite,
Kiwi





Monday, 27 July 2015

Nairobi By Motorbike


A  few weeks back we suggested to Mr Finland that we visit him in Kenya for the Eid break because we discovered, via his Instagram, that he is now living in Nairobi.  Naturally he was so excited to hear from us that he said, 'Of course, come.  Would love to have you here'.  (He's very polite). So tickets were booked and a week out from our arrival I did a perusal of Things to To in Kenya via Google (as you do).

A number of activities I had to take off the list immediately because The Husbands idea of an Eid break is to do as little as possible and not travel far.  So Masai Mara will have to wait for our Kenyan return.  However, I did find a couple of ideas he liked the sound of, and  a few others he was doubtful about but I knew he'd come around.  He always does.


Mr Finland, bless his heart, decided that riding of motorbikes was a must, so he arranged a rental bike for us.  It was a 180cc bike (the best Mr Finland could find for motorcycle renting in Nairobi) and I have to say, we probably looked like a couple of elephants on a pimple riding the thing, and it did struggle a bit on the hills, but we loved it!

Our first day we walked to a local place for breakfast.  The walk required crossing a brown colored stream while balancing on a sewage pipe (granted, it was a short pipe but at my age still rather challenging!).   I was thankful that gymnastics was a sport I did in my youth and with arms outstretched imagined walking along a balancing beam (minus somersault at the end).  The action was also helped by the thought that landing in that water would be ikky!

Breakfast was pancakes and coffee while Mr Finland and his lovely lady, Miss Milly, filled us in on life in Kenya.  It sounded both interesting and frightening.  The idea that white people do not go to the city center because it was unsafe, that nobody walked anywhere after sunset for the same reason and that car doors should be locked and windows kept up to prevent thieving while you are traveling in the vehicle were the frightening parts.  Everything else was interesting.

That afternoon our motorbike was dropped off, so we donned bright reflective gear (regulation riding gear in Kenya apparently) and followed Mr Finland and Miss Milly through the busy outer city streets for our first experience of Nairobi sight seeing.  The roads are rough as but the driving is much more orderly than that in Saudi. The scenery cannot be described as picturesque.  Some areas are extremely poor with shacks housing either people or businesses.  Roadside stalls are massed along the main roads atop the red Nairobi dirt selling furniture, clothes, plants, food, car washes and doctor services.


You could be disheartened by the ramshackle look of the place.  Or you can be amazed at the beehive of activity, the skills on display in the open air - wood being hammered into beautiful furniture, sparks flying from grinders on metal creating everything from gates to lamp shades.  The entrepreneurial spirit of Kenyans, doing what needs to be done to care for themselves and their families, is everywhere.  We noted, with interest, that though obviously life was a struggle, in most areas of Nairobi there wasn't the same level of rubbish and garbage that can be found around many areas of Saudi.  Kenyans, we decided, were a proud bunch.  Kenya struck me as a place just waiting to take off....all it needs is a government interested in helping the people, not themselves.

Mr Finland rode us through some of the richer areas of Nairobi with their razor wire atop compound walls.  The complexes seemed rather lonely looking relatives trying to be posh while surrounded by whanau (Maori word for family) from the back blocks who aren't the least bit interested in poshness because they are too busy getting through life.  New construction development towers over the local housing and everywhere are tracks, worn into the dirt and through the broken concrete by locals whose main mode of travel is walking.  And security is everywhere.

After a bite to eat we headed back to the apartment.  Being out on bikes is not a good plan as the setting sun makes way for the mysterious activities of a Kenyan night where unsavory types, who tend to run around the streets, would relish the chance to hit up a couple of white people who've fallen off their bikes because they ran into one of the huge pot holes that are plentiful on the road.


The next morning it was raining so we waited till the afternoon to head out for more sight seeing - this time to a couple of tourist spots, namely the Giraffe Center and Karen Blixem House.  We enjoyed both.  It was cool seeing Giraffes up close and personal,  And the tour of Karen Blixem's house was more interesting than we originally thought it would be.  Hubster must have liked the tour because now he wants to watch the movie "Out Of Africa".

The following day Anthony, Mr Finlands trusted driver, picked us up early to take us to Naivasha, a couple of hours drive away.  His car is one that melds nicely into the local surrounds. It's a rough, rattly old Toyata but manages to get from A to B every day.  And the inside is very clean and rather comfy with it's maroon colored velvet covered seats.


We went to Naivasha to visit a school.  Kitendo Children's Charity school to be exact.  Marcus, a fellow Kiwi, helped to set up the place and I am teeing up the whanau to travel there one day to help out in this project.  Given we were going to be in Kenya anyway, I decided to go up for some recon.  Hubster, who was initially skeptical, (he gets lots of those "...I'm a millionaire living in Nairobi..." scam emails), was only coming along for the ride to humor me.  After our visit, seeing the school, meeting the kids and talking with Marcus, he's decided my idea isn't such a crack pot one after all. (I told you he'd come around.)  If you'd like to know more about this project visit their website www.kccprogramme.org


The next item on our Kenyan agenda was a Safari at the Nairobi National Park, just outside the city limits.  It is possible to self-drive through the park and Anthony was keen to do just that but, after a spot of discussion with Hubster, it was decided to spend a few extra Kenyan shillings and hire one of the parks four wheel drive vehicles complete with driver/guide.  It was, we decided part way through our three hour drive, the best way to see the park.  The vehicle is high off the ground so you get a better view past the long Kenyan grass to the animals grazing.




The driver is also a guide and can answer any questions but, best of all, he is in radio contact with the other rangers so has a better chance of finding Four of the Big Five that the park houses. (The Big Five being Lions, Buffalo, Leopards, Rhino's and Elephants).   On this trip we saw three of the big five - rhino's, buffalo and a lions, not to mention all the other animals that call the park home.





As an added bonus our guy was driving over the rugged terrain at pace, which made the rough and bouncy ride all the more exciting.  The vehicle is open sided, and I did wonder initially how the heck we'd get away from wild things on the prowl, but brushed that thought aside to enjoy the ride and views of the wildlife seeming quite content against a city backdrop.


After our wildlife spotting ride and a dish of local lunch we decided to do the Safari Walk which is basically a walk round a Zoo like setting looking at animals that, after recovery from the orphanage (also housed in the park) cannot be put back into the wild, and met a very friendly security man, complete with automatic rifle, who told us to slow down our walk because we were missing so much.  To drive home his point, he asked if we'd seen the lions in the tree.
"The what?' we said.
"In the tree.  Look in the tree"
And sure enough, in the trees, near the male lying tanning himself, were two rather large females balancing on a not so large branch.

Friendly security man then took us back so he could call out the hyena's we had also missed and then he showed us the leopard and cheetahs.  It's probably just as well Mr Security had been watching us and decided these tourists needed a sight seeing hand, else we would have thought there wasn't much interesting to see on this walk.

That night we headed out to dinner to a restaurant similar to Terrazzo's back home in Saudi.  On the skewers making the rounds were delicious lamb, various cuts of tasty beef, crocodile, pork (Hubster was hoping it was warthog...but no) and chicken.   We went to bed that night rather full and happy with our day.


After a bit of sleep-in the following morning, Anthony picked us up and took us to Bomas of Kenya, a place with replica's of tribal villages from all over Kenya.  On arrival we met Alice, a young lady studying tourism who was on placement at the village.  She was our guide.  If you ever go to this place, get a guide.  Wandering aimlessly through villages can get a little ho-hum without someone there to tell you the differences between building structures, village set ups and tribal customs.  Each village also smelt like smoke because the staff go around and light the fires in the homes to give the villages a realistic, smoky, lived in feel.


After our tour we bought a few things from the market and then headed in for the afternoon show.  The auditorium was filling with school children and their excitement and real enjoyment of the music and dance, not to mention their excellent behavior, was a pleasure to see.


Mid-morning the next day we headed off to Karura Forest.  I was determined to get some cycling in.  Hubster and Mr Finland were a little nervous about that idea but I'd given the Friends of Karura a call and they confirmed cycling was possible, so cycling we were a-going.  Anthony came too.  He decided he may as well get n some extra training for his future as a Nairobi tour guide, a career path he decided would be quite lucrative after spending time driving us around.


We discovered there are two fees to pay for cycling, one at the entrance to the forest for the pleasure of entering and another at the bike hire stand, for the bikes.  There was a little confusion initially because this hadn't been explained during the phone call or at the gate, and Jackson, the bike guy, got the brunt of our 'What? Why do we have to pay twice?', indignation.  But soon enough things were explained, apologies made (and accepted), cash handed over and soon we were off on a leisurely two hour cycle through the forest.  The track was very easy and there were stops to see a waterfall and  Mau Mau caves as well as the odd bit of wild life.


After our ride, we headed to the National Museum for a rather late lunch .  I was looking forward to trying another Kenyan dish and after opening the menu exclaimed, rather loudly apparently, 'O shit, it's all white food'.  Yes, the cafe at the museum caters to the tourist palate. Not a Kenyan dish in sight.  Anthony had a bit of difficulty finding something he was used to.  We managed to wolf down our food with a spot of Kenyan beer (that was local), and then, as time was ticking, decided to give Museum and the nearby snake pit a miss in favour of perusing the nearby curio shop.   That afternoon we took home our purchases, borrowed an extra suitcase from Mr Finland (yes, that's how much shopping we did), and spent the evening quietly at home talking about how much we like this place.

Friday was our last day.  It was also the day Obama was due to arrive in Kenya.  We weren't quite sure how his visit was going to affect our travel time to the airport.  Over the week we had noticed roadside curbs being freshly painted and roadside stalls being removed on his travel route.  Notices of roadside lock down's were being reported all over the TV.  Emirates was called and informed us, to their knowledge, our departure flight would be on time.

We walked to the Mall that morning, for breakfast at Nairobi Java House (we liked their Kenyan coffee) and to spend some last minute time with Miss Milly.  Mr Finland had gone to work on his bike, though I reckon he was really in search of Obama's Beast.  He came back to report that the main roads were empty because most people had decided to give themselves a day off.   Anthony had arranged to pick us up early and so, after packing our bags and waving our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts,  our final view of Nairobi was being driven through the town center and the main streets of Eastlands, a hectic, heaving mass of humans living and working in poverty conditions held together mostly by old, rusting, corrugated iron.  Even on this dry day, the smell of sewage from the stream running through Eastlands was putrid through the open car window.  This, we said to each other, is what Obama should be seeing.  I doubt he ever will.


As we neared the airport people were beginning to line the streets for a glimpse of The Man in his Beast.  His visit is a beacon of hope for them.  I hope they got to see him.

Hubster really enjoyed this trip.  I know, because he bought a heap of stuff from the little stalls.  Usually he doesn't buy stuff on our holidays.  We bought so much I'm going to have to start an African corner at home.  It should look good with my Saudi salon.  Kenya is also one of the few places he has said, 'I'm going back there'.






Ka Kite,
Kiwi





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