Thursday, September 25, 2008

Empty Streets

A couple of times I have looked out of the windows in our hotel suite. Obviously the windows are not there for views - far from being French windows, the sill is chin-height for me, and they are heavily curtained. When I touched the glass it was really hot, and it took a couple of minutes for my pupils to recover from my quick peek outside.

Well, there really isn't much of a view out there!

We are having trouble getting used to the idea that we can't walk anywhere. And not (just) because it is very hot out there. We have been told very definitely that it is "unseemly". That applies to any time of year, but especially now because it is the fasting month of Ramadan.

(This also means we can't carry food or drink with us, nor purchase and consume any when we get there.)

So here we are doing the unthinkable. That is Amani, the only other teacher who has so far arrived and who lives in the hotel suite next to ours. As her husband and kids are still in the UK, and women really can't 'go it alone' here, Peter has to look after the two of us.

The bright green building behind me is right next to our hotel. We are standing by a service road - on the other side of the fence is the 8-lane northern ring-road with vehicles ripping past at much more than 110 kph.

We were trying to walk to the Carrefour shopping centre, only about a 9 minute walk away (in theory). There were a couple of high speed roads for us to nip across to get into the air-conditioned coolth of the shopping centre. Most of the shops (other than Carrefour itself) were of course closed because of Ramadan. They would mostly open around 8 or 9 pm until 3 in the morning.

DAU University

This is the main front gate of the University where we work. There is a lot of green tinted glass, it's all very new and very shiny, and makes an interesting picture when you see it reflecting the surrounding landscape!

Here are Amani and myself outside again - can you imagine how hot that is! We had to go into the women's side of the building, and we walked there from here without anyone noticing. Later in the afternoon when it was time to return home they wouldn't allow us to walk the 10 or 20 metres from the Women's gate to the main gate where the college van was picking us up, someone gave us a ride in a car for those few metres.

The Kingdom Tower

The streets around the hotel are an unsightly mess with road-works, building sites, and rubble, and we figured there must be a more up-market side to Riyadh. So, come the evening, we grabbed a taxi and instructed the driver to take us to the famous Kingdom Tower in the centre of the city.

It was night, and sparkling with lights - making photographs impossible, especially as the taking of photos is generally frowned upon anyway.

The 3 lowest floors of this remarkable structure are a shopping centre. I'm not sure what the rest is (although I'm sure there is a hotel there, among other things). And it was basically your slightly-better -than-average shopping mall, very flash ... but I really wished that I could've taken some photos of the men and women strolling around. The men were almost all in their 'thobe' s (long white robes) with their red and white,or plain white, tea-towel-like cloths ('ghutra') on their heads. And the women were all in black. Although I have heard heard that coloured abayas have started to become popular, I have yet to see any. About half of the women had chosen to have their heads uncovered - as is permitted in these malls - but the rest were totally covered with only their bright eyes showing through the slit in their veils. I used to think the women covered because they were forced to do so; but I have observed from the women I have talked to so far that it is very much of their own choosing. Or so they say.

There were a number of restaurants in the mall. But each one had two separate sections. The main eating area (unmarked) was for men and boys only. Nearby, off to the side, and screened off, was the 'family section'. Even the food serveries, which were no more than an open counter, had a screen halfway along where 'families' could place their orders.

On the third floor is a brand new concept - a Women Only floor! There is a guard on the lift to make sure no men enter. We didn't go up, but we have heard that the attendants are all women (elsewhere all shop assistants are men, even in women's clothing stores) and there are even changing rooms in the clothes shops up there ...


We wandered around the shops, made a few small purchases in 'Marks and Sparks', and then felt drawn to Starbucks for a cuppa before finding a taxi to take us home. Starbucks looked familiar and inviting with it's big comfy chairs and range of coffees and other treats. I noticed a number of white-thobed men relaxing there ... uh oh. The man behind the counter pointed next door to the 'family section' behind some screened glass doors. In here there was the usual counter service but the floor was cracked vinyl which grabs at your shoes when you are trying to carry a try of drinks to the grubby little curtained-off booths, each of which contained a wobbly table and some old wooden chairs. It was not quite the plush homely feeling we are used to in Starbucks!

As it was after 11 pm, things were just hotting up in the shopping centre - it was beginning to be almost crowded. We went outside and thought about walking down the street to do a bit of window shopping. But it was out of the question as the traffic was horrific and there was no one else walking around. I figure this is how these big malls are designed, so people just go to the one mall to shop around, and then get back into the car and drive home. There are no outside community areas, parks or whatever, just malls.

The taxi driver wanted to charge us twice what it cost to come into the centre, so we walked away until he brought the cost down a bit. But when we drove back to the hotel he took us to the wrong ring-road exit and had to go miles around to get back.

These cement barricades are everywhere, blocking off roads and redirecting traffic. If you come down our road on the other side you then come to a T-junction and you have to turn right for about half a kilmetre, do a U-turn and go back the other way for another couple of kilometres, do another U-turn and come back to the T-junction, and then you can turn right into our street and go down the one-way service road next to our hotel. Fortunately petrol is very, very cheap!

Monday, September 22, 2008

I THINK I'm gonna like it here

It was our first day at work today.

We were picked up in a minibus from our hotel and taken to the Dar Al Uloom University.

Dar Al Uloom

I have my very own office! (In our previous university jobs we had to "hot-desk" in an overcrowded staff-room.)

Everything is so big and sumptuous, and brand new. I have a brand new laptop computer, and the phone on my desk still has plastic on it, and they said my printer is coming soon. I have a big empty desk and bookshelf/cupboard with glass doors and a big gold key to lock it with.

My window looks out over the front of the University:

There is the gate where the women come in, and then a courtyard.

Not much greenery because everything is so new, and ...well, this is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!

And then, when I go out of my office door the corridor stretches away past the other faculty offices ...

There are lots of (big, empty) hallways.

And this impressive skylight that goes down through all floors.

No students yet - not that I would be allowed to take photos of them - and lots of empty hallways.

And then there are the big, echoey classrooms

Bright - no curtains or blinds - and bare.

And then there's a bigger hall.

Actually it's really big! And then there are the other facilities - these are all in the girls' college (a mirror image of the boy's side, I'm told).

Here is one of the three gyms - bear in mind that Saudi girls can't go outside to exercise.

There is a playing court ...

and a lovely big swimming pool,

and a spacious area for billiards and table tennis.

And then there are language laboratories and computer rooms,

a restaurant and a cafe, and, of course, the mosque.

You can see the university mosque past the (men's) car park. There are also prayer rooms in the girls' university because they can't exactly walk across to the mosque.

At this stage it all seems so exciting and full of possibilities, and at the same time a little alarming and overwhelming.

I think it's going to be good. I hope so!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Time to go

So here we are in Riyadh! ... and, yes, things are just a little weird. (i.e. different from anywhere else I have ever been). But not a lot weird, just a little.

Moving Day

We got up at 3am, the taxi was coming at 4. We put our sheets and towels, the toaster and the kettle and all of our spare food in the bin (because we were not allowed to leave anything in the rental house and there was no one to see us off and take our stuff). Then we turned off the power, slammed the door and left. That all felt slightly unreal.

It was quite cold at the bus station, and there were a lot of people standing around waiting - the bus was a few minutes late. We weren't too worried because we had allowed ourselves heaps of time before the plane was due to leave.

Daylight Robbery

At Heathrow we found the check-in area for "BMI", and found there was a choice of internet check in (which we couldn't do because we had already packed our printer) or self check-in. The first step was to have an attendant weigh our bags ... which he did and declared us to be way over ... We argued a while saying it hadn't been so on the bathroom scales at home, so he reduced it a little and then sent Peter down to the cashier to pay excess baggage. He said we would have to pay 56 pounds, so we weren't too upset - but in the end it turned out to be 172 pounds.

THEN the attendant looked at our tickets and said we were at the wrong check-in - the Riyadh one was way down the other end in the corner of the airport. We eventually found it - not actually clearly marked as BMI, a spare check-in area with temporary signs. They weighed our bags and said they were OK ... but we couldn't get our money back!

Safe Travel

But that was the only "bad" thing that happened. The plane was only about half full, and we had two seats by ourselves near a window (not in the middle section). As we got close to Riyadh, sure enough all of the women on the plane started slipping on their invisibility cloaks, so I did too. One western woman who didn't have one (and was wearing a strappy top) was peering around with alarm or amazement (?) on her face. As we got off the plane the hostess commented that she really liked my abaya, saying it was better than hers!

Customs and Immigration

We've heard that getting through customs can be rough, they sometimes go through all your stuff. But we had also heard that wearing an abaya can help.

As it turned out, customs was fairly quick and painless. There was just one moment after we'd had our passports checked, Peter was walking on a little ahead of me, and I got called over to another counter. The chap looked at my visa (Business Visa) and raised his eyebrows and handed my passport to another chap and they frowned and chatted a bit. Then Peter came across to see what was going on, and showed them his too. Then they smiled and waved us on. We wondered whether they just thought I was on my own which might be strange ... dunno really.


Anyway, we popped out at the airport looking for the all-important card held up with our names on ... no one.

We waited, we walked up and down, we said 'no thanks' to dozens of taxi drivers ... still nothing.

After about half an hour Peter remembered that he did have our recruiter's phone number stashed away somewhere, so we dug in our bags and found it. And Peter managed to use his British phone to make the call. Sure enough, he was "on the way" thaving just picked up another teacher who had come via Air France and her luggage had all gone missing! Off-loaded in Paris.

A few minutes later he phoned us, he couldn't find us. Well, he was looking in the Domestic terminal, wasn't he?

Boudl Hotel

They brought us here to this hotel. We have a suite of rooms, including two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a lounge / dining / kitchenette. Quite nice really.

There was a HUGE bed (ahhhhh! at last.) I was soooo tired, and (being diabetic) feeling rather hypo having not eaten since lunch on the plane. But they (the French chap who recruited us and the Arab "rector" of the University) had a little welcoming ceremony, we had dates and green coffee, and they gave us a book about Riyadh, a letter of welcome, a mobile phone each, and 1000 Saudi Riyals (about $100) to get us started.

Fish Dinner

Then we went out for dinner at a fish restaurant - it seems weird in the middle of the desert! It was already about 10 pm. We had a huge delicious feast, and around midnight the rector guy suddenly looked at me and said "she's tired, we need to go". I guess it was pretty noticeable!
(We really hadn't thought much about the fact that it was the fasting month of Ramadan, and this would have been the normal eating time.)

First Shopping Trip

Then there was the problem of breakfast. They said someone would take us shopping in the morning, say 10 or 11 am. I pointed out that as a diabetic I would likely need something to eat earlier than that. So they agreed someone would drop some food in around 8 am, then take us shopping later.

At least that's what we thought they said. So about 8 am, I had been pottering around since 6 (restless as ever) and Peter was still asleep, when a chap who spoke no English knocked on our door. By means of a phone conversation with the rector (whose English is mumbly at best) we worked out that we were shopping now. So the other lady, Amani, grabbed the clothes she had arrived in the day before - still waiting for her bags to arrive from Paris - and we all went to the shops.

Most things had English writing as well as Arabic. Our problem was, what could we cook with a stove-top and microwave, one frying pan, no microwave dishes, a few melamine plates ... you know what I mean. We had a teeny tiny fridge - well it was one of those hotel mini-bars, full of over-priced drinks (which we pulled out and stashed in a cupboard. We wanted to buy enough for a couple of days.

And we didn't know how long we would be here before we got to our apartment, but I thought he had said it might be three weeks.

More Shopping

So as I write mad-dog Pete is out there with the Englishmen, trying to walk to the nearest shopping centre, a Carrefour. It's very close, 100-200 metres I would guess (and I'm not good at guessing!) but the temp is 40 something degrees at least. And it will be harder carrying stuff back. He really wants a toaster. Give the Aussie some toast and he's happy as a pig in mud! I fried some bread in the pan for breaky, but it's just not the same. And the microwave didn't have a grill like the ones we had in China, Turkey, and the UK!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Invisibility Cloak

It feels like it should be magic!

So you want to see my new abaya?

It has a hood, with a point and a tassel - if I flick my head just right I can make the point stand up for a moment ...

Or I can wear it with my neat little pull-over-your-head scarf, my hijab.

What I especially like is that it's made out of nicer fabric than the other ones I tried on. It's sort of cottony, and (according to the label) was made in Damascus. The other ones I saw were thinner and lighter - but nylon.

And ... it only cost me 25 pounds.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

All over London

When we first got to London it was rush hour, and we weren't confident about finding our way through a crowded hurrying Underground system, so we hopped into one of those famous London cabs for the ride to the Saudi Embassy. Traffic was slow, and - not surprisingly really - it cost us 20 pounds. Of course, had we known we didn't need to be there until 10 we would have waited till 9.30 to get an off-peak all day rider and spent some time studying Tube maps.

Playing on the trains

So after the Embassy business - it was about 12 noon when we were done - we headed down to the nearest station and invested in an all-day rider ticket. These little beauties cost 5 pounds 30 (just one regular single trip ticket is 4 pounds) and you can go anywhere - trains and buses - all day. So we decided to play on the trains.

Lunch in the park

We went all over the place, until our early morning start caught up with us and then we checked into our little hotel and flopped down for a bit of a nap. Then we got up and did some more gallivanting.

River Thames and the London Eye

Australia House

One of the quirky things about going to a country like Saudi Arabia was that all of our documents needed to be "authenticated". For Brits living in Britain it means a trip out to Milton Keynes. But our qualifications are from Australia in the '70s, so in the morning we got up bright and early and went to the Australia High Commission in "Australia House".

Australia House

The last time I was here was back in 1970 when my family emigrated to Australia!

After yesterday's Saudi Embassy experience, this place was a breath of fresh air! In no time at all we had all our necessary papers stamped and signed, and for very little cost.

They're Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace ...

Buckingham Palace

Peter ... went down there with Ruth ...

(You might remember A.A.Milne's: They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.)

Seeing the changing of the guard was one of the items on Peter's "to do in Britain" list - along with lying in the heather, seeing a genuine old castle, and drinking a pint of Guinness in an Irish pub. So, this was the last thing on his list.

There were crowds and crowds and crowds of people,

and a heavy police presence!

There was music, and marching, and horses.

And it was at least as tiring and aching on the legs standing there as I remember from when I came here as a little kid.

I don't think anyone actually had a really good view of all of it.

Playing on the buses as well

We had one more thing to do ... I needed to find a place where I could buy an 'abaya' - the black cloak I would need to wear like the other women in Saudi Arabia. (While, yes, I was sure that I could buy one when I got there, I had been warned that getting through Immigration in the airport would be much easier if I was wearing an abaya.) The day before I had been to a little shop I saw recommended on the 'Net - a place you wouldn't know about if you hadn't read it on the net because I had to access it through an Internet Cafe where they sold abayas in an unmarked room at the back. But although this lady had a full range of different lengths of gowns (the advert said 'all sizes') she only had one width and they were all a tad too tight for me.

I had heard that you can get them at Shepherd's Bush Markets - which hadn't been open on Monday. So we hopped on the Tube and headed to Shepherd's Bush ... just to realise one stop before that the station is closed while they are building a new one which would be opening in October! So we had to hop off and try the buses.

Actually it's all remarkably easier with all the signs being in English ... this stuff was so complicated in China and Turkey!

My Big Fat Visa Application

We didn't seriously expect it would be simple, I suppose!

The website told us to put our passports and visa applications into the Embassy in the morning, b tween 9.00 and 11.30, and then we will be able to pick up our passports (complete with visa) in the afternoon (or possibly the next day) between 2.00 and 3.00. Well, that sounds simple enough.

So we booked tickets on the 06.10 train from Norwich to London in order to be there in time for the doors opening, and we booked an overnight in a hotel so that we still could be there the next day. And so there we were on the steps of the Saudi Embassy a few minutes before 9 am!

We stared long and hard at the sign on the door. It explained that during the fasting month of Ramadan the hours of opening are 10.00 till 12.00. OK. Didn't think of that, and it wasn't mentioned on the website. It wasn't so surprising, and we could (would have to) wait - along with the other ten or so people who were also apparently taken by surprise.

The start of the queue at the Embassy door.

New System

On the stroke of ten o'clock, the doors were opened and we went through the security check one by one. And one by one we discovered that (since three weeks ago) it is no longer possible to put in individual visa applications, it has to be done through a travel agent! Fortunately we didn't have to go and find an agent, one would be presenting themselves at the embassy to help us out in just a few minutes.

Sure enough a pretty little blonde thing (Swedish, I think) showed up, and we all trailed off after her through the streets of London to her newly-rented, unmarked office on Piccadilly. The only clue as to who we were dealing with was a hurriedly printed business card with hand written phone numbers and the business name "Able Can".

Our visas would cost 96 pounds each, and for another mere 59 pounds (each) these people would carry our passports and application forms back to the Embassy, and pick them up in a couple of days and mail them to us by special delivery.

So we would be staying in Norwich, waiting in hope.

(The next day we had a phone call from the travel agency to say that they had our passports and were sending them by special delivery so they should reach us the next day. On our way!)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What will it be like?

We are not "there" yet - we'll moving next Saturday week, as far as we can tell. So I am trying to find out as much as I can before we go. Photos - especially of people - are really scarce, in fact photo taking where people are included (especially women) is generally forbidden.

Here are some bits from an article I found in The Guardian - you can read the whole article here. Although it was written in 2002, I believe things in Riyadh change very slowly:

The deeply traditional kingdom has tentatively opened to tourists, but in a very controlled and restricted way. So, no independent travellers; no tourist visas for women under 40, unless accompanied by their husband, father or brother; a list of subjects that must not be photographed, including all women; no alcohol, of course, and a compulsory dress code. While male visitors must remember only not to pack their shorts, women can't get away with just loose and modest clothing. So on our first morning in Riyadh we were whisked to the nearest shopping mall to be kitted out in black abayas.

Sajjad, our Pakistani guide, held up larger and larger tent-like garments, explaining that men must not be able to discern the outline of our bodies: for their protection and ours, it is the law. But as foreigners we need only wear a headscarf, not the burqa, the full head covering and veil with only a slit for the eyes that is compulsory for Saudi women outside their homes. For 100 riyals (£20) I bought a wide, all-enveloping wrap-over with poppers at the neck and tasselled cord ties on one side. I also bought a short burqa for £4, which turned out quite useful - dispensing with the need for sun block, less sweaty round the neck than a scarf, and staying firmly in place.

We left the air-conditioned shopping mall and drove to the outskirts of Riyadh, to Direyah, the remains of the mud-brick capital of the first Saudi state founded in 1466. But dizzy with the scorching sun beating down on my black-nylon-covered head and constantly stepping on the hem of my abaya trying to keep up on the rough paths, I am afraid the sophisticated level of architecture and Sajjad's talk about its history passed me by.

The reason we were out in the midday sun on our first day in Saudi Arabia was that the nice cool National Museum where we were going to have our orientation is 'men and school parties only' on Monday mornings, and we had to wait until late afternoon for 'family' time to begin. And so it was that our odd 'family' (it was by being classified as a family that our motley group of seven tourists - two couples, a single man and two single women - were allowed to travel and eat together) embarked on a sightseeing tour where we turned out to be the curiosities in many places we visited.

Saudi Arabian society is so strictly segregated that men and women are forbidden to work together, shake hands, converse or even catch one another's eyes. Women cannot eat in public, travel on buses or drive. The all-powerful matawwa - religious police, recognisable by their fearsome long beards and above-the-ankle hemlines - enforce the law.

That first night in Riyadh I had another taste of the challenges to come. Walking blithely through the door of a recommended restaurant I and my two companions were greeted by a waiter rushing forward to shoo us round to the 'family' entrance down a side alley. In a gloomy windowless room we were shown to a screened-off table where we ate our meal in purdah. Another thing everyone needs to remember when looking for something to eat in Saudi Arabia is that restaurants (and shops) shut for a good half-hour for prayer time around midday, sunset, and again when darkness has completely fallen.
(article by Caroline Hendrie, 2002)

So what does the place look like?
It is hard to find out much, as I said, because pictures are not very plentiful. Here are some pictures I got from the site Trip Advisor - although most of the pictures on that site are of the inside of people's hotel rooms.

This is the Kingdom Tower - iconic Riyadh skyscraper.

There is still a lot of construction work going on near where we will be living, so I guess it will be a bit like this.

The Dar Al Uloom University is brand new and going to open in October. However there is already a boys' high school and a girls' high school there. As we understand it, our apartment block is freshly built and about to be furnished.