Saudi Arabia: First Impressions

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I landed on the 18th December, after 31 hours travel, feeling shattered and worried I’d made a big mistake. I’d been told I would be met at the airport by someone who would have a sign. I interpreted this to mean an English-speaking rep from the ladies college that has hired me, and possibly another settled teacher.

But it was an Arabic driver who spoke almost no English, and another new arrival. She was from South Africa and learned in a the first few minutes that she would not be going to the Compound, where she had opted to live, but to the small town that I had chosen.

Being winter, it was not terribly hot but of course the sky is always high and clear and the air feels different. Most cars are covered in a thin film of red dust and once we’d cleared the low-rise sprawl of Riyadh I saw why. Between the capital and our town is a considerable stretch of desert, flanked on the west by some formidable red cliffs.

We saw camel farms that had no fences, no barriers to the highway, not much in the way of trees, and everywhere patches of indistinguishable rubble. It’s hard to say if these piles of rocks and stones and bricks are destined to be something, or if they’re remnants of something. And you see this in vacant lots throughout the town too: it’s hard to tell if a block is under development, or in the throes of dilapidation.

Even in the town centre, the roads are several lanes wide with large median barriers so that if you want to go somewhere on the other side of the road, you have to drive several blocks to the nearest major intersection and then do a U-Turn. Traffic lights seem to be a suggestion. On the highway, the speed limit is 120 and in town they seem to drive around 80. Fast cars frequently weave between lanes with no indicators.

Does the lax approach work? In the last few days I’ve seen three accidents but there are a ton of cars on the road so perhaps that’s not a bad stat. I still can’t get my head around the price of gas. It seems to be 30 cents, or perhaps 3 cents, a litre. It’s very cheap anyhow.

Of course women can’t drive and so are driven around in the back seat with tinted windows, though you do see women riding shot gun if they’re fully covered. A full body cloak (abaya) is compulsory but the face veil is not, yet most women wear it. Some even have a veil over the eye slit so they are seeing the world through fabric.

Also in the front seat you might see a pile of kids wearing no seat belts, peering out the windows like happy dogs. On the subject of dogs, I haven’t seen any. Only a few surly looking cats that I wouldn’t dream of trying to pet. Today I saw a few boys playing football on a side street and they laughed and laughed at the sight of me. “Arabic?!” they screeched. “Englishee?!”

“English!” I shouted back and they broke into fits of laughter again. What exactly was so funny I couldn’t say. Maybe they were excited to see an exposed face. Indeed even an open face feels quite naked here, though you’re head to foot in black. Perhaps it was just the sight of a woman walking alone at dusk (I was right behind my building, having gone to the shop for mobile credit – not wandering into uncharted waters).

The sidewalks are largely empty except for people ambling in and out of shops but at prayer time they stream with men leaving their homes and jobs for mosque. They greet each other affectionately – a quick hug and hand shake – and march purposefully to their chosen place of worship. I seem to have a mosque in every direction, no more than a block or two apart.

Their microphones all project plaintive song and chanting for around 15 minutes five times a day, starting at 5.30am and ending around 6.30pm. I haven’t seen an official programme but this seems to be regular. At prayer time, the men lock up the shops and there are seats for the ladies to sit on outside, while they wait for them to come back.

I like this because it’s an acceptable reason to sit street side, under an awning, and watch the world go by. Otherwise it would be strange to just sit down. Sunset seems to descend in 360 degrees, rather than light up one side of the sky. The quality of light is lovely – soft pink and peach.

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All the buildings are also peach or pink or cream. At first they’re indistinguishable and don’t look very impressive, but then your perception adjusts and you see they’re different. Some are quality and embellished and traditional; some cheap and plain.

Despite the fact you can’t see the women’s faces, and men and women are forbidden by law from mingling with the opposite sex in public (unless it is your family), the people are friendly and kind. They try to help but in a no-nonsense, disinterested sort of way.

I went with a colleague to a branch of Western Union and this was an experience. There were long lines of immigrants waiting to send money home: it was hot and noisy and I was grateful for the ladies counter, behind a screen. There I met a bunch of Filipino nurses who were merry and relaxed – such a contrast to the Saudis. Still, I opted to wait till I could send money from the comfort of my laptop.

In contrast to the women’s uniformity, the men wear all kinds of dress. Some classic Western, some modern Western, but most of the older ones are in some form of flowing national dress. They seem to like headwear: scarves, caps, or the traditional Keffiyeh.

It’s hard to comment on the food because we can’t eat in regular restaurants and so I’ve mostly cooked for myself. But what I’ve tried is tasty skewers of meat, and nice cucumber and tomato salads. Like my experience in Japan, though, Western food has made significant inroads here so that there is an overload of carbs on offer: bread, fries, pizza, cake etc. A patisserie had a delicious variety of baklava, plus cheese cake.

That’s my first impression. I’ll write again when an event of significant merit occurs!

 

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