Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Enjoying the Compound

Sebastian has discovered the joy of emptying drawers of their contents! Misha used to derive great pleasure from the same thing.

Backpack - check. Sunglasses - check. Misha's all set to go to preschool.

Family fun at the pool. Sometimes Sebastian swims too, but lately I've been keeping him out because he has a cold. Even then, I have to constantly chase him around the pool as he crawls up the ledge surrounding the pool and makes a beeline for the water!

Misha practices his paddling.

He has also gotten brave enough to jump in off the edge - no small feat considering that the water is deeper than he can stand up in.

He still loves playing in the sand. Our little park is perfect for that.

Misha was very proud of the crown he made at school.

Sebastian's new high chair has made mealtime much more enjoyable. Here he is chowing down on macaroni and zucchini chunks! If you look really closely (click the pic to enlarge), I think you can see one of his two new teeth that arrived last week.

Seb sitting contentedly, deeply engrossed in his task of grasping and eating .... The wonders of a high chair.

Enjoying the outdoors. The late afternoons and evenings are quite comfortable, and being in the compound means we have the luxury of sitting on hard-to-come-by grass.

This is our building in the compound. So green!

The kids in front of our apartment.

The kids inside.

Celebrating our great baklava discovery. Hyper Panda's baklava has proved to be the best we've found so far, very moist and full of honey. Mmmm.... (Hyper Panda, though it sounds like an overactive bear, is actually like a Super Walmart. Regular Pandas exist too. In total, there are some 65 Panda stores in Riyadh alone.)

We have been slowly meeting other people that live in our compound - we have recently met a really nice Russian/Egyptian family (the wife is Russian, the husband is Egyptian), and some people from Egypt and Lebanon. As we get into the rhythm of life here, we hope to spend more time outside mingling - and learning Arabic.

I've gotten a bit behind on my posting, but I do have more pictures to share. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two Worlds

While shopping for pool toys for Misha, we immediately noticed that the boxes featuring happy families swimming together were scribbled with black where any woman in a bathing suit once appeared. The men and children still smiled from the box, but the women had been painstakingly marked out with permanent marker, hiding any skin and sometimes the face and hair as well.

In stark contrast to this conservative tradition is the very strange phenomenon that all one has to do is turn on the TV or log on to the Internet to see plenty of women in short sleeves or less. Every family gets Cable, which brings Desperate Housewives, Friends, and MTV right into their living rooms. The Internet is monitored to an extent (Sports Illustrated, human rights sites, and adult sites are censored, for example) but for the most part, you can find anything online.

Saudi Arabia is both more strict and less strict than I imagined it would be, and both at the same time. As teachers, we are extremely limited in what we are allowed to discuss with our students. Anything related to music, Western movies, dating or relationships, or non-Muslim holidays is completely off-limits. The textbooks we use often feature these topics, which must be carefully edited or skipped entirely. One book dedicated its entire first chapter to discussing different kinds of music - presumably a fairly safe topic to begin an ESL book with - but of course, the whole chapter had to be skipped! Since music is such a wonderful tool for learning language, it is unfortunate that we are not allowed to use it.

The odd thing is that the students are perfectly aware of all the popular Western music, movies, and TV shows, which are filled with all things decadent about dating, love, and romance. It seems that the country has gone to great lengths to shield their culture from outside influences - but in vain.

However, the one thing that they have going for them is that, for the most part, the people believe in their customs. My students asked me what I thought of the abaya - "It is comfortable, yes?" they asked eagerly, hoping I would agree. I said it wasn't bad, but it was a little bit hot. At this they laughed and said it wasn't hot yet! I asked if they liked going to school with only girls, and they said yes, definitely - it was more comfortable because they could uncover and relax. In public, though, they couldn't imagine not covering. One girl explained to me that they cover because "women are expensive [meaning "precious"] and not for strangers to see." They think it's better that in a mixed environment the women are covered, so that the men's eyes don't wander and marriages don't break up. What I see as a lack of trust, they see as a safeguard.

My students are also firm believers in their system of arranged marriages. When I broached the subject, they were extremely eager to tell me all about it. The mother and sisters of the man who wants to get married are responsible for finding a suitable wife for him. The choice is not made lightly - they carefully consider what the man is looking for and what kind of woman will suit him. The man and his family then meet the woman and her family briefly, giving her a chance to accept or decline. The girls love to talk about weddings! The weddings here are segregated - the women dance and party by themselves (in stunning outfits, of course), and the men talk and socialize by themselves. Quite a different type of event than the weddings I am used to. As always, the girls asked me eagerly what I thought of the Saudi marriage system. I responded neutrally, saying that I like the freedom of our way; however, Americans have many problems with divorce. In some ways, the Saudi culture puts a more serious and committed effort into the process. They whole-heartedly agreed. They asked me if I wanted to attend a Saudi wedding while I'm here. Of course I said I would like to, and several of them said they have siblings who will marry soon, so maybe they can invite me.

I find it a bit disappointing that I cannot share any photos of my Saudi co-workers at the university. Last week, I got to know some of them a bit better because the students were on spring break and we had a low-key work week. On Wednesday, the last day of the week, I brought Misha and Sebastian with me to work and everyone absolutely adored them. Misha insisted on wearing his suit for the occasion of coming to my work, which made everyone coo over him, and Sebastian just makes everyone melt. All the ladies wanted to hold Sebastian and dig out lots of toys for the kids to play with. One other woman also had her 14-month old son at work, so Sebastian had a little buddy. I tentatively asked about taking pictures of the women with the kids, but they were quite hesitant and said only if they covered. (Which kind of defeats the purpose of taking their pictures.) So I had to content myself with taking photos of the children only. So, voila!

Misha all dressed up, ready for work!

Checking out the nice spinning chairs in the resource room.

Sebastian and his new friend, little Abdul Aziz. They call him "Azuzi" for short.

Doing some "work" at the office.

Playing with some toys that working mothers pulled out of nowhere.

One lady took Misha to her office and let him sit at her desk. He loved that!

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The quirky, bizarre things that astound and amuse us are among the best parts of living in a different country. I will give you lots of examples of interesting quirks in this post, starting with Josh's new cell phone. His phone came with a prayer-time app, so he activated it, as it is useful to know the prayer schedule. However, we didn't expect to be jolted out of bed at 4:30 in the morning by his cell phone blasting the Call to Prayer at maximum volume!

Here I am in front of the Faisalia Tower.

Saudi driving gives a new understanding to how bad driving can get. I have seen a car pass my taxi by running two tires up on the curb to get around us. We have also seen (more than once) a driver decide to turn left from a right-turn lane IN FRONT of us. Drivers do not stay in their own lanes; rather, all the rows appear to zig zag back and forth. Drivers will regularly create their own lanes by simply driving at full speed down the middle of a lane until the cars on either side scoot over to make way. And even Misha noticed how they make parking spots wherever they want – on top of cement islands in the mall parking lot, for example. “Why do they park on the sidewalk?” Misha asked, his face wrinkled perplexedly.

Even more mouth-dropping is the Saudi youths' habit of "drifting." You really must look it up on youtube - it's flabbergasting. We discovered that the squealing sounds from out of our hotel window were not from drivers taking the turn too fast. The squealing sounds are from drifting; that is, when a speeding car suddenly and deliberately turns the wheel 90 degrees and goes skidding sideways down the lane (empty lanes are preferable). This has been happening all day every day in front of our very hotel! Josh asked his students if they do drifting - and every one of them said yes. One even admitted that he doesn't do it anymore, after crashing his brand new Toyota.

Being from such a small city has made adjusting to Riyadh rather interesting – especially in terms of how long it takes to get places. I hate spending so much time in traffic. Complicating things further is the fact that it is very hard to know where you are going unless you have personally been there before. Streets often have a nickname, a short name and a long name (like “Prince Mohammad Ibn Abdul Aziz Road”) or sometimes, no name at all. Buildings don't have addresses or even numbers with any consistency. Describing to someone how to get somewhere is done almost exclusively through landmarks, followed up by real-time, step-by-step instructions on the cell phone. I would truly be lost in Riyadh without my cell phone!

Misha at Chili's, where we went one evening with some friends.

Downtown Riyadh: At night, the palm trees' trunks glow with what look suspiciously like Christmas lights.

Adding to the confusion of being new in Riyadh, the lack of addresses in the traditional sense, and the fact that nobody can locate themselves on a map, is of course the language. One morning, two other teachers and I took a taxi to get to the women's campus. We thought he understood where we needed to go, but after a considerable amount of driving, he stopped in front of the Women's Mental Health Institute and gestured that we had arrived. Hmmmm. Did we look that far gone? We said no, no, no, King Saud University – Malik Saud. With a sigh, he hit the road again, driving us this time to the men's campus. Again we said, no, no, saying in Arabic that we are girls - “bint.” It was obvious he had no idea where the women's campus was. (Making everything even more confusing is the fact that KSU has several men's and several women's campuses scattered around the city.) At this point, I called our director and asked him to explain to our taxi driver how to get us to work. They talked in Arabic, and our driver started off yet again, only to drive down street after street, stopping and asking several people on the way. Just as the frustration level was getting ridiculous, our driver started laughing. At least that broke the tension! At long last, we came to the university, and even though it was from a different gate than we were used to, we cheered and told him this was it. Because we had been in the taxi for nearly an hour and a half, we paid our driver a hefty 100 SR (just under $30) and chalked it up to experience.

My other fun taxi experience was when I had to pick up the boys from day care after work. After several days' worth of paying attention to the route, I felt confident that I could direct a taxi. The directions go something like this: go to exit 2 ("mahraj itnin"), pass between the men's preparatory year and the Hyper Panda grocery store, continue past the Global Colleges building, go over the highway and turn left onto the service road, drive down the service road past the shining green lights to the end of the villas, turn right and then immediately left, until you come to the villa with two big palm trees in front. Armed with this knowledge, I exited the university, found a taxi, and hopped in the back. As we started driving, I quickly discovered that the words “good,” “U-turn,” and “I love you” completely exhausted the extent of my nice Yemeni driver's English. Nevertheless, we made it all the way across town to pick up the kids and even had a little conversation about where I was from, my husband and children, and the rain. I learned the words for right, left, and straight from him in Arabic, and I taught him the same in English.

Commuting is getting easier now because of two things: First, we are getting a general feel for the city, and second, we moved from our hotel! Now we live in the Sahara Towers compound right in the heart of the city, between the two major landmarks that I posted photos of, the Kingdom Mall and the Faisalia Tower. This means that I am much closer to the women's campus, a mere 20-minute drive as opposed to 45.

Luxury: Eating at a real table in our new apartment!

There are advantages and disadvantages to living in a compound, but after visiting another American couple's apartment in Sahara, we decided it would be a very comfortable place to live with kids. It's one of the smaller compounds in Riyadh – walking across it is like walking about a block. Inside the gate, there are eight 6-floor apartment buildings, a little pool, a restaurant, a convenience store, a tennis court, and a little park. The furnished apartments are great – we are in love with our big green bathtub, our real dining room table (no more eating standing up!), the shelf and closet space, the big fridge, the stove, the spacious living room, and the balcony that faces Kingdom Mall.

The kids on the balcony.

The view: You can see Kingdom Mall peeking out from behind a building.

We are in a one-bedroom place, meaning the kids sleep on the floor in the corner, but it's working well. And the best part is that our employers give us a housing allowance that completely covers the cost of living in the compound. Hooray! Since moving in last Tuesday night, all Misha wants to do is go swimming – so we have gone three times already. The pool is heated, so it's nice for Sebastian too. Misha just loves swimming back and forth with his water wings and floatie toys. Since the weather and the water are both so warm, it's very easy to swim in the late afternoon and evening, where there is no risk of getting sunburned. It's a great way to relax!

Seb at the pool!

Misha and Josh enjoying the water.

Night swimming is fun too.

The living room.

The kitchen.

It's great having places to store things. Misha thinks so too!

The bedroom - with a soft area for the kids. Usually though, at some point during the night, they both end up in our bed.

Within the compound, people are free to dress as they please, meaning I don't have to wear the abaya and I can wear short-sleeves, shorts, and, yes, even a swim suit. It felt a little odd declothing by the pool after a month of hiding every inch of skin from public eyes. Now imagine a Saudi woman who has been doing that her entire life - it's not a habit you change easily.

Getting into the compound is a story in itself. The only way to get anything done in Saudi Arabia is with “wasta” - that is, connections. You can call and add yourself to the waiting lists for each compound in Riyadh, but the list is merely a formality. Nothing will ever come of it. When we visited our American friends, they took us to the compound's office to meet the staff and show them our wonderfully adorable children and tell them we were English teachers from America working for KSU. We tried to be memorable. They put us on their waiting list as a formality, and we were told it would be no problem. A week later, I called, without identifying myself, inquiring if they had openings. I was quickly told that they were full and there were 100 people on the waiting list. Josh decided to call back, saying we were the American family from the previous week wondering about vacancies. Suddenly everything was different. He was transferred to several different people and finally told that we could come in two days and look at an apartment that had just been vacated. We did just that and moved in two days later. Wasta! We lucked out because the compound currently has a large population of Asians, Egyptians, Syrians, etc., and they are looking to bump up the count of Americans. As far as we are concerned, it's better without too many Americans - we didn't come to KSA to be surrounded by Americans. Plus, we actually may be around more Arabic in the compound than if we lived somewhere else!

We are so happy to have a bathtub now.

Park time with Daddy.

On the swings.

Having a comfortable place has really helped us feel like we can relax at home now - and we can get back to normal activities like SkipBo.

Through Misha's Eyes:

Everyone asks how the kids are adjusting, and I can tell you they are doing very well. When you think about it, as a child in Saudi Arabia, what's not to like? Everyone loves you, gives you high fives, asks you your name and how old you are, pats you on the head, gives you free candy and presents, and picks you up. They think it's adorable if you say “al-hamdilula” or “as-salam-aleikum.” On top of that, you get to wear whatever you want and go swimming whenever you want, and every time you go to the mall, you get to ride a roller coaster. You interact with other children at preschool, and whether they speak English or Arabic or something else, kids are still kids.

Misha is teaching Sebastian how to color.

Just give me the $1000 right now, because I'm sure I just won the Cutest Baby contest.

Here are some funny things Misha has said lately:

The dress code was a little strange at first, but now he is mostly used to it. He said, “Why do girls only have to wear black? I think girls should wear white, and boys could wear, like, green."

He's eager to learn Arabic. It's so cute how he comes home from preschool excited to show me the letter he learned that day. Last week he was drawing the first letter, alef, (with the sound of “ahh”) for me. At the store, when we let him pick out a toy, he chose a chalkboard and said, "It's a good thing you got me this chalkboard so you can teach me Arabic!"

Easter went by rather uneventfully, but Misha was happy when another teacher gave him a chocolate bunny she brought from America. He has been asking about Christmas now: "Can Santa still bring me presents in Saudi Arabia?" I said yes – if he can make it through customs! ;-)

He is surprised at all the American foods we can get here. "How come SA has such good ice cream and such good yogurt?" However, he is a little bummed that he can't have his beloved sausage, since pork products are forbidden by Islam. "How come Saudi Arabia has the same things as America? But Saudi Arabia doesn't have some things, like pigs, because they're too muddy. How come they don't wash them off?"

Here are some clips of Misha swimming in the pool and Sebastian walking around Payless in the mall. :)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Photo Catch-up

I'm getting behind in my photo posting, so here are some images of Riyadh, the malls, and life at "home" in our hotel for you to enjoy.

Out and About in Riyadh:

Somewhere downtown in Riyadh.

Another busy street.

The towering Kingdom Mall is in the heart of Riyadh. It features a women-only third floor, where women shoppers can walk around without abayas and buy items from women-only staff. We have not been here yet, but it's definitely on our list. Kingdom Mall also has hotels, restaurants, and offices inside.

A bit south of Kingdom Mall is another famous Riyadh landmark, the Faisalia Tower. It is also - you guessed it - a mall. The globe is actually an extremely fancy, extremely expensive restaurant that serves high tea with hors d'oeuvres, creme brule, and a chocolate fountain, as well as the much more expensive dinner entrees. (We have not been here either, but I use it as a landmark to find out how far away everything else is. "How many minutes from Faisalia?")

For my collection of multi-lingual stopsigns. Stop is pronounced "Keef!" in Arabic.

Downtown Riyadh at night. (It is pure coincidence that it happens to be prayer time. It just always seems to be prayer time.)

Shopping and More Shopping:

The Saudis are so used to foreigners and so centered on their own culture that it seems that they ignore us for the most part (except for smiles and pats on the head for the kids). So, what really made our day last week was when one family introduced themselves to us and exchanged phone numbers. The father, a laser-eye surgeon, had very good English and talked to both Josh and me, and then his wife came up (fully covered) and talked to both of us as well. They had their children and nieces/nephews with them, and they let me take their picture.

We let Misha pick out a cake of his choice for his birthday. On the weekend, we took him to the mall to do lots of rides!

All the kids have these strap-on two-wheeled roller skates that they cruise around in at the mall, so we got Misha a pair for his birthday. It will take a little practice!

We explored another mall recently - the Sahara Mall. It makes the Granada Mall look tiny! These pictures are from several mall trips over the last week or two.

Misha and mom in the mall.

This mall has great rides for Misha's age group.

Perhaps the best ride of all - a giant slide!! Pay once and slide as much as you'd like. Best of all, parents go for free! (The parent can accompany the child for free on all of the rides - it makes the amusement parks quite cheap and easy.)

Me and Misha after a race down the slide.

Daddy and Misha cruising down!

And on video:

A kids' show on stage attracted quite a crowd at the mall one day. Black and white everywhere!

Sebastian leaning on the window of Payless. Yes, we came all the way to Saudi Arabia to buy Misha's sandals from Payless ...

The Saudi Arabian version of Mickey Mouse.

The fun of juice bars! We let Misha pick out a drink from a menu of all kinds of juice blends - he went with the "rainbow" - a blend of watermelon, mango, and avocado. Quite good, actually!

Josh and Misha make sure Sebastian gets a taste of the guava juice and the "rainbow." He loved both!

Another great feature in the mall - a play station filled with tunnels, ladders, and slides.

Bumper cars!

A Saudi couple - man and wife in the mall.

Misha with his helium balloon in front of the carousel.

These are the really fun bumper cars - more kid-friendly than the jolting big-kid cars. Yes, women can drive bumper cars - I have done it!

Pet bunnies for sale.

These chicks look suspiciously ... dyed?

A vendor let Misha play "balloon man" for a moment. :)

"Pizza Hut."

At "home" in our hotel:

Osama and Sebastian. Osama works at our hotel and is a great help to us whenever we have a question or a problem. He's from Egypt, where he lives very close to the pyramids!

Sebastian gets into the soccer spirit.


Some things never change - Legos are still the greatest toys!

Sebastian has fun wrecking Lego buildings.

Misha helps me make a "toad in the whole" for lunch on our little hotel burner.