Friday, April 29, 2011

It's like I'm in a weather bubble

I'm from Tennessee, and our Springs tend to be a little violent. I remember huddling in school hallways throughout my childhood because of tornado watches, and it was usually during March, April, or May. Anyone watching the US news lately has seen images of the destruction in Alabama ( a state just an hour and a half away from my hometown) and I've heard about a few close calls in Tennessee as well. In May, Nashville will mark the one year anniversary of The Flood of 2010. I'm used to stocking up on non-perishable food items and candles at this time of year.

And then I moved to Saudi Arabia. Apparently the spring in Saudi is fairly calm.

And by calm I mean HOT AS HADES!! It's not even 9 am right now and it's currently 86 degrees and climbing. The projected high for today is 97. IT'S GONNA BE ALMOST 100 DEGREES OUTSIDE AND IT'S NOT EVEN JUNE YET!

Most of you are going to be saying, "Lady, you're the one that decided to move to Saudi Arabia. You knew it is a desert. Stop complaining."

To that I say I'm not complaining. Just observing. ...and yelling.

From what I understand, it only gets hotter and dryer from now on. The Mister and I arrived at the end of last summer, and I couldn't bare be outside for longer than a few minutes before I was sweating through my black abaya. Anyone who knows me know that I'd much rather be hot than cold but h'oh boy, I'm not sure if it's ready to be THIS hot THIS soon.

It's just so odd to me to not have to watch the skies for funnel clouds of have to review weather evacuation plans with my students like I've done for my entire life. My biggest weather concern right now is getting a hijab tan line around my face if I wait outside for the Mister too long after school. I empathize with my fellow Southerners cleaning up after the recent storms, and at the same time I feel like I'm trapped in some sort of bio-dome where the weather is controlled by some sort of Truman Show producer trying to punish me for escaping utopia.

Vicariously yours,

The Royal Wedding...not such a big deal over here

I keep seeing people's facebook statuses about their love/hate of all the royal wedding coverage, and each time I have to remind myself that Will and Kate's big day is coming up!

Well...technically it's already started...but bear with me.

Like Easter and Christmas, this holiday has escaped the marketing minds of Saudi advertisers. I understand the lack of elves and bunnies dancing across my television screen, but why haven't I seen more of that Welsh mug grinning at me?

I'm not Royalist, though, like most American teenage girls, I went through a phase in middle school. I'm still planning to watch the coverage on Dubai One (all 5 hours of it. Take that, E!) just out of pure curiosity. Plus I don't have to work today since it's the Saudi day of worship and we have no car so...what else is there to do?!

With the exception of the occasional commercial, I have seen nothing about this wedding at. all. I have had no hint of what The Dress will look like, I only just saw a shot of The Ring a minute ago on an ad for the coverage, and I just got the run down of the wedding party by reading a friend's facebook link. Nope, it appears that Saudis couldn't care less about this Royal Hoop-la.

There could be a few reasons for this:

1. All the coverage could be on the Arabic channels, and my head hurts when I try to watch those, so I don't do it often.
2. Saudis have their own royal family (with a similar gene pool compared to the Brits), so what do they care what Kate Middleton is wearing!?
3. The clerics that control television here probably frown on all the Royal worship, so the expats like me are left with a few hours on a UAE channel to get their fix.
4. The coverage is probably on the other satellite channels that you have to pay for, and the Mister and I are too cheap to pay for more than the 4 English channels we get for free.

Either way, I'm excited for the wedding today. Just like Christmas and Easter, the lack of media overload has really helped to make today a special treat.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The long trek to skinny-dom continues

I'm like a stinkin' Jenny Craig commercial. Since adolescence, my weight has yo-yo'd and I've gone through so many healthy phases, I'm sure my body just laughs when I declare that I've made a change in my lifestyle and I'm going to stay thin. For example, I dropped 20 pounds my freshman year of college (a nice anomaly in comparison to the usual reality), and by senior year I'd put the 20 back on and then some. Like every bride, I slimmed down for my wedding, and three years later I've put the inches back on and more.

Part of my motivation for starting this latest health kick is my location. At home, if a lady puts on a little weight, most people say nothing. They just sit in silent judgement as she helps herself to another round at the food table at the company Christmas party . There is always the uncouth co-worker who asks the newlywed if she's pregnant, but that often just causes your best friends to tell you what an idiot she is as they help you with your latest Ben and Jerry's therapy session.

But NOT in Saudi! H'oh boy! My co-workers are frank! Here's a for-instance: I was in the accounting office a few weeks ago, looking at the wall calendar and talking to the ladies about the holidays. The Mister and I will be arriving back just after Ramadan ends and I was lamenting the fact that I wouldn't get the chance to experience the yummy food at a real Saudi iftar.

"Well, that's probably a good thing. You don't need to go to an iftar, you're getting fat. I'm sorry to say it, but it's true," one of the accountants said as the other ladies in the office nodded in agreement.

Wow. She really put it out there. I've also had other Saudi co-workers mention that I'm getting a little hefty. This isn't news to me, I own a mirror, but the fact that so many people are pointing it out now definitely serves as motivation to get off the couch!!

I've decided to do the SELF Drop 10 challenge as my weight loss plan. It's really handy because they send you your workout and meal plans, and you don't have to be a member of a gym to get it done. I've only been on this ride for a week, but I've already lost a few pounds. The challenge isn't the getting up at 4:30 to work out before work--a personal decision, not a recommendation of the program. The challenge is the meals!

Because SELF is an American magazine, they've partnered with American food companies and have added things like Panera Bread and Dunkin' Donuts to their meal plans. There are also American-specific grocery brands, and those aren't easily found in the stores in Saudi Arabia. Add to that the fact that carbs are the Arabs' best friend and you can imagine my struggle to stay on the wagon. No problem. I'll just use a calorie calculator on the internet and tally up the calories myself...

Have you ever tried to look up the calorie count for an Indian dish you can't even spell!? It's really difficult, trust me.

I didn't think losing weight would ever be harder than it was in the States, but the obstacles have certainly found me! I'm getting to flex my culinary muscles and be creative with some of the SELF recipes, but I'm getting it done.

In the meantime, I'm just sticking with my workouts with my personal trainer (Kinect + Your Shape: Fitness Evolved), doing the SELF workouts, and trying to be a good girl.

MUCH easier said than done.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Calories Shmalories. It doesn't matter in Saudi.

This country seems to be a land of contradictions. Women have to cover up to go in public, but television is rife with sexual messages. Education is "valued", but students don't come to school on the first day after a break because "nothing important happens." The country's government is spending money on "green construction," but the citizens litter and waste.

Another contradiction that's especially annoying to me at the moment is the fact that Saudis seem to be so concerned with weight, but there are no stinkin' nutrition labels ANYWHERE!

The Mister and I are trying to lose weight. After binging and bulging since our arrival in September, we've finally come to grips with the fact that we need to get serious about our health and drop a few pounds. That and the fact that we'll be spending a week this summer on the beach with the Mister's svelte brother and his supermodel-proportioned wife. If I said the intimidation factor wasn't playing a part in our desire to slim down, I'd be lying.

As I'm sure any wife can understand, I hate my husband's metabolism. All he has to do is sneeze with a little gusto and he drops 10 pounds. He's just been running and doing a little strength training since we returned from Berlin and he's already lost a few inches.

I, meanwhile, am going to be taking a whole-body approach and really monitor my caloric intake and try to vary my workouts so I can get the most benefit. As a woman in Saudi Arabia, I'm already discouraged.

Unless I'm buying items imported from the West, I cannot find nutritional information on any food items in the grocery store. I can't go for a run without wearing my abaya and hijab and let's be honest, that just ain't happening. Joining a gym is very expensive and very intimidating, from what I've heard (think high school locker room, but with overly oppressed women and NO men).

I'm so frustrated already, but I'm determined to at least get back to my pre-Saudi weight. Through cunning use of the Google and a little clever math, I've found some calorie calculators, and I'm ready to tackle this challenge.

Here's hoping!

Vicariously yours,


This weekend, the Mister and I lived the compound life. I've made friends with a lady who lives on one of the compounds not too far from our house. She's British and her husband works for a British company. This weekend, they invited us out to celebrate ANZAC Day.

ANZAC Day is an Australia/New Zealand holiday the commemorates the efforts of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) military operation in Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I. I'd never heard of this holiday before, but I quickly figured out that it's essentially Australia and New Zealand's version of Memorial Day.

The celebrations were similar to Memorial Day in the States. The day started with a sunrise service commemorating the fallen soldiers. The ceremony was begun with bagpipes, followed by the laying of the wreaths, a reading of "In Flanders Fields", the anthems of both countries, playing of The Last Post on the trumpet and a moment of silence. Those who know me know I'm a total sucker for military heroism, so that combined with my sleep deprivation translated to me crying like a little girl. And I'm not even Australian!

After the ceremony was a true English breakfast: beef sausage, beef bacon, eggs (poached or scrambled), poached tomatoes, and white beans. Well, a true English breakfast probably would have incorporated a little pork, but you gotta work with what you can get. The breakfast was so yummy and made the early wake up totally worth it.

After a post-breakfast nap, it was time for the cookout--another obvious similarity to the American Memorial Day celebrations. This was clearly my favorite part of the day.

I told the Mister after we got home that the whole day felt like we had traveled to another country. This compound does not allow any Saudis through the gates, so we were completely surrounded by British, Scottish, Irish, Australian, New Zealand and American accents all day. We met some really great people, listened to great live music (with some serious Australian accents!) and ate yummy shawarma...hey, the whole day can't be totally Western, now can it!? It was very bizarre to just get in a car and drive back home as opposed to boarding a plane. The whole experience felt that non-Saudi.

I've never envied those who live on compounds until the weekend. This is a really great compound; it was only built a few years ago so everything's fresh and new. The people that live inside the walls were wonderfully welcoming and friendly. We instantly felt welcomed and at home. They indulged the silly Yanks that had never taken part in this tradition and explained the significance of everything in thick Aussie accents.

Compared to the Aramco camp, this is a much more inviting compound. Most of the Aramcons we've met have been perfectly friendly, but the compound is so big, no one knows if you're a newbie or not. This compound is significantly smaller and purely residential, so it's like visiting a small town. Everybody knows everybody and if you're a new face, the locals introduce themselves. It was so great. This is definitely a compound I would not mind living on.

The dancing and eating and fun times continued into the night and I'm happy to say I think the Mister and I have made some great new friends. There's a desert trek in a few weeks that we were invited to and I cannot WAIT to finally get some Saudi sand between my toes!!

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Touching!!

A word of warning for the gentlemen: if you don't like other people touching you or touching other people, do not come to Saudi Arabia. I've mentioned before how shaking hands here happens with such regularity that I have become totally awkward around westerners...but really, that's just the beginning.

The other day, one of my students went in for the cheek kissing greeting. I want to clarify that this is something they do to all the teachers, but have not done it with me because I have expressed my discomfort with it. For those of you that aren't aware of the mechanics of the cheek kissing thing, you shake hands (optional: bro grabs) then touch cheeks together and make the kissing noise. Those of you at home who know that I get uncomfortable even being too close to other people will laugh at the very idea of me engaging in this form of greeting. But it seems like it's something I'm just going to have to get over. One of the teachers that I've been working with here had to return home because his father-in-law passed away. When he got back I went to offer my condolences and went in for the bro grab/handshake that normally goes, but then I think he was expecting the normal greeting. I know he was fine with the not, but it turned my sharing of an experience with him kind of awkward. So I feel that I must overcome the weirdness. As I become better and better friends with my Arab colleagues, I need to adapt a little to make myself more open to them and this is one way I guess I can do that.

As another example, I went to get a haircut today. Getting haircut here isn't just a SuperCuts or Heads Up! kind of experience. It's like a for real barber shop. I opted to get a shave which was wonderful, but then after the shave comes the steam bath, the facial/scalp massage, and the shoulder/arm massage. I feel great afterwards, but the man-handling that I received was pretty brutal. The gentleman who was cutting my hair was also new and didn't really speak any English, so after an awkward moment when I learned his name through the other barber and some joking about the karate chops he was giving to my back, he kissed me on the head. Another form of greeting that is just...well...totally weird to me.

All of this together is just another thing that I'm getting used to about living in the Kingdom. Sometimes its okay, sometimes it makes me feel like this...

Sidenote: I shaved my beard off in a tragic accident at the barber's.

Vicariously yours,

When did grocery shopping alone become such an ordeal

Before we went to Berlin, our car broke down. Normally this wouldn't be such an ordeal, but we live in Saudi Arabia, so we haven't gotten our car fixed yet. This means we're dependent on other people for our transportation. Normally this wouldn't be such an ordeal, but we live in Saudi Arabia, so nothing isn't an ordeal.

I'm not suggesting that people haven't been helpful. Our neighbor is giving us a ride to school everyday, and he hasn't complained once about how he always has to wait for us in the mornings. But since I've got such an odd schedule, not having a car has made things even more complicated. For example, today I stayed late because I have my PLC on Mondays. I caught a ride with a colleague that lives a few blocks away, thankfully. I cancelled my Arabic session on Sunday because I wasn't sure how I'd get home. Dangit, why I gotta be such a go-getter?!

Anyway, that's not the point of my story.

Because we just got back from Berlin, we were running pretty darn low on groceries. What's the point of going grocery shopping when you're just going to be out of town for a week, right? So we put the house mates on notice and asked them to let us tag along if they went to the store. The opportunity came tonight.

Well it just so happens that my healthy husband went for a run right before the ride pulled out of the station. I had two options: abandon ship and continue to eat green beans out of a can and frost bitten frozen strawberries, or take the risk and go to the grocery store with a man to whom I wasn't married.

I realize what a massive eye-roll that last sentence just caused for those students of mine that read this blog. I understand that it's not illegal for me to be in a car with a man that's not my husband. I realize that no one is probably taking the time to worry about who I ride to the grocery store with. But I know what I've been told by the other teachers at work and I've been advised against traveling without my husband.

So I was a little paranoid. I even sat in the backseat, Driving Miss Daisy style. As soon as we got to the store, we separated.

Perhaps the paranoia was showing on my face, because I felt like I was being watched the whole time I was wheeling my cart around. At one point I was trying to exit the produce section when a deep, Indian accented voice from behind said, "You're not supposed to be out without your guardian!"

My heart stopped. This was it. I should clarify that the grocery store we frequent is aimed at the Indian Subcontinent demographic, so the managers are all Indian or Pakistani. I was sure that one of the managers was going to ask to see my husband to make sure I wasn't breaking any unwritten rules.

It turned out that it was just a friend of ours from the Aramco camp. He is, in fact, Indian and he was just joking around with me. He had no idea what an ordeal and source of anxiety this simple trip to the grocery store was for me.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, April 18, 2011

Saudi Arabia is one giant Small Town

Before we moved:
"We're moving to Saudi Arabia."
"Really!? ....why!?"

After we moved:
"We just moved here from the United States."
"Really?! ....why!?"

I've always found it so funny that we've gotten the same reaction to our move on both ends of the line. People at home were confused as to our relocation choice and most assumed we were leaving to become missionaries. Why else would anyone voluntarily move to Saudi Arabia?

When I got here and started introducing myself, my new co-workers gave me the exact same perplexed expression when I told them I'd come to live in their country--and that I wasn't the wife of an Aramcon. Why else would anyone voluntarily move to Saudi Arabia?

"You mean your husband doesn't work for Aramco?! He works in the boys school!? What are you doing here?!"

This wasn't exactly the reception I was expecting. I guess being that I'm from America, land of opportunity, I'm used to people just nodding their heads as if to say, "Of course you moved here. Why wouldn't you?" But the Saudis have been asking us "Why would you?!"

Initially I answered with, "Why not?" I got answers such as:

  • There's nothing to do here.
  • It's not really fun here.
  • America is so much more free.
  • It's so beautiful in America.
  • You don't have to cover up in America
  • Life is really hard here, especially for women.
  • You can't drive.
and more.

Eventually I stopped asking "why not" because I was getting depressed with the answers. I was getting the impression that people are really miserable here! You'd think this country is a prison, but most of the women I work with have gone to college, and a lot of them went to college outside the Kingdom. So they left. A lot of them went to North America. So they REALLY left.

...So why'd they come back!?

I was muddling this question over after seeing a colleague on the way out the door this afternoon. She happens to be the mother of one of the Mister's students and she is wonderfully sweet. She always stops to talk to me and compliment my husband whenever I see her.

"What did you do for the break?" she asked. I explained that we went to Berlin and had a great time. I said we were a little sad to come back to the routine and wanted to stay in Europe instead.

"Did you cry? On the plane? Did you just cry the whole way back?" she asked, totally serious.

If the Saudis are so miserable here, why don't they leave? I've always thought this behavior is so bizarre, and then I realized, Saudis are no different than small town Americans. How many people from itty bitty small towns have said, "One day, I'm getting the heck out of here!" only to move right back home after college. And there are other similarities.

People in small towns entertain themselves in much the same way the youth of Saudi Arabia do: cruise around town with the music up, smoke cigarettes, go to the mall (if there is one), go on the internet. I'm sure if Saudis had Wal-Marts, they'd be hanging out in the parking lots just as much as the kids at home. One thing that my students have all said is, "It's SO boring here!" Just like the kids in small towns.

So what is it that keeps kids from small towns and the average Saudi from picking up and heading to the big city (or the West, in the case of the Saudis)?

For the most part, the answers are obvious: this is their home, their families are here, moving is hard and stressful.

In the case of the Saudis, family fidelity is extremely strong. When I think about my family, I think of my husband, the kids we'll eventually have, our parents, grandparents, and our siblings. We've left most of the people on that list behind, but the wonders of technology make the distance seem small.

When a Saudi thinks about her family, she means her husband, her kids, her parents, her grandparents, all her aunts and uncles (on hers and her husbands side), her cousins, nephews and nieces, second and third cousins, and more. It could literally be over a hundred people. If a Saudi were to move away permanently, she would have to bring a small town with her in order to be happy.

There's also the cultural aspect of moving out of Saudi Arabia. In case you haven't noticed, this country is unlike any other in the world. The culture shock of being removed from your family and being thrust into a whole life (not a pretend life like college) has got to seem daunting and totally intimidating to a Saudi.

So see, we're not so different after all. We all want to be surrounded by familiar faces, places, and the comforts of home.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Stuff Arabs Like #12: Using the "Hey, flight attendant, I want something" button on airplanes.

We just returned from a vacation in Berlin (which is a totally lame excuse for our ridiculous absence from the blog. Sorry about that). This makes the third time in one year that the Mister and I have been on a plane on which the majority of the other passengers are Arabs. On each of these trips, we've had at least one leg on a plane with mostly non-Arabic people, so I feel we have a good basis for comparison. And on each of these trips, one leg was filled with exponentially more noise.

I don't mean idle airplane chatter. That award goes to the Germans who have prevented me from sleeping on more than one trans-continental flight.

I'm not even talking about the socially-unacceptable thumping of someone listening to their iPod so loud his headphones can't handle it. That award goes to the Americans.

I'm talking about the constant "bing" of fellow passengers pressing the flag-down-the-flight-attendant button repeatedly throughout the duration of the flight.

I think my favorite move was the one that the fellas 3 rows in front of me yesterday on one of my 2 Egypt Air flights pulled over and over: 1). Punch the button, it makes the noise. 2). The flight attendant is in the middle of serving dinner and is trapped behind the food/drink cart, so she can't get to you right away. 3). Punch the button again approximately 2 minutes after step 1. 4). Repeat every 2-3 minutes.

I've seriously never seen this behavior before moving to the Middle East. I've also held the personal policy of only pushing the flag-down-the-flight-attendant button in extreme situations: you have violent air sickness, your neighbor has violent air sickness, a medical emergency is in progress, etc. Apparently that tenant of personal behavior hasn't been taught to the Arab travelers of the world.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rugby, beer, and tanks

Last night, we went to Bahrain. A colleague was flying out for spring break, so we offered to give her a ride. On the way, we simply had to stop off for a drink. We went to the Bahrain Rugby and Football club. It took us forever to cross the border, so by the time we finished our drinks, it was well after 1am.

"I hope we don't have any problems because of the curfew," my colleague said.

There weren't problems, per se. Just tanks.

Because it was almost 2 am on the first day of spring break, I was sleeping in the car. I woke up long enough to see the road blocks, tanks and soldiers with machine guns. Friendly soldiers, but there's certainly an air of "don't mess with me" when the friendly soldier has an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder.

Just your typical trip to the airport in a revolutionary country.