It has been said by many that some of the best things in life are the simple things and it’s true. Living as an expat in a foreign country that is so different from my native Canada has me more aware of that than ever. I am far more appreciative of so many things I often took for granted. I’ve had to let go of many of my expectations. Sometimes, I have been pleasantly surprised.
I have lived in Riyadh since May of 2015 and yet somehow I have failed to participate in one of the common rituals offered to ladies living on the compound – coffee morning excursions to other locations in Riyadh. These opportunities are offered once or twice a month. To be included, one only need sign up before the cut-off date and arrive at the market meeting place on time the day of, then load up onto a bus. Yet somehow I have always managed to miss out on the first step, signing up. Until yesterday.
Several Canadian ladies that I am acquainted with here on Salwa compound informed me that they planned to attend the Ishbilia coffee morning and that signing up was easier than ever with a new on-line application form. I bit the bullet, deciding it was high time I investigated and stopped being such an insular hermit. I signed up successfully, got ready on time and walked up to the bus stop clad in my required body-covering abaya.
It was a short half hour drive to the Ishbilia compound, but I can not continue without going off track for a bit to explain the transportation situation to those of you unacquainted with life here in Riyadh. It’s a rather large can of worms to open, and likely a politically incorrect can at that, but needs to be addressed nonetheless. The best way to introduce this segue is to take you back to one of my first experiences heading into town shortly after moving.
I was heading out with a dear friend of mine, Rhonda. It was our first adventure together into the city, and we were simply planning a grocery trip. We were in Rhonda’s vehicle, using her driver. Did I mention that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia? Well, it’s true. Anyway, we were happily engaged in conversation when out of the corner of my eye I saw a spectacle unfold in a matter of mere seconds. A small white hatchback flew across the four lanes of traffic, in front of a semi-truck, which hit it and sent it spinning towards us. Being in the far lane against the cement median, her driver had nowhere to go and the out-of-control vehicle slammed into our front passenger side with a tremendous impact.
We went from travelling at 100 km/h to standstill very quickly. As tends to happen in such situations, we were stunned. Her car wouldn’t start so her driver couldn’t move it onto the shoulder, despite the impatient and offended howling of passersby and policemen to do so. Instead of being offered sympathy and possibly help, as would happen in Canada, people were angry with us. I was shocked. To make matters worse, it was a toasty 44 degrees Celsius. Lucky for us, Rhonda was able to contact her husband on her cell phone and he came to our rescue. We sat in the comfort of his vehicle’s air conditioning and a few hours and considerable negotiations later we were back on the compound, scrunched vehicle in tow.
Now, although this was apparently Rhonda’s first accident in eight years of living here and you might assume I am a curse, this kind of thing is not at all uncommon here. The driving is absolutely awful. People speed, talk on their cellphones, change lanes without signalling, drink coffee, eat pastries, and typically don’t wear seatbelts. In fact, the man whose car hit ours was driving down the freeway with his two-year-old child on his lap. Without a seat belt. There are often eight or nine lanes of traffic where clearly the roadway was designed for a maximum of six. There is a definite lack of traffic lights, a plethora of traffic circles with vehicles merging from all directions, and many times one need travel several kilometres past their destination in order to find a suitable U-turn.
Just having the courage to leave the compound and enter traffic is a feat itself. And when we arrived at Ishbilia completely intact, with no damage or near run-ins, I was thrilled. In my mind, things were already off to a fantastic start.
At the gates to the compound we had to disembark from our bus, handover our Iqamas (residency documents) and walk to the market square which was our destination. It was a modern facility and bustling with men and women from all over Riyadh looking to purchase or sell a variety of artifacts and wares that were on display in stalls ranging from jewelry and trinkets to abayas and art to Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations.
The first stall I came upon belonged to a lovely lady I know who lives on our compound who sells a product line called Forever Young. It is a fabulous product and my friend Carolyn, a loyal client, took a few moments to check it out. I bought a few things and then on we went. There were so many beautiful items on display, I could have easily strayed way outside of my budget. As it was, I had a specific goal of purchasing my first abaya, the two in my possession having been given to me by friends who have returned to Canada.
Abayas, like any article of merchandise, range in quality and price. You can pay as a little as 100 SAR or as much as 1000 SAR. Which roughly translates into $35 to $350 Canadian. The very first stall I came upon had a unique selection on display, with interesting details and colours to contrast the traditional solid black. I fancied one that had denim pockets and detailing, but it was a wee bit tight. Then I found a red and white adorned abaya with my sought-after design of a zipper versus the typical snaps that are always coming unsnapped and pockets to boot. I tried it on, and not only did it fit perfectly, my friends Rebecca and Carolyn exclaimed enthusiastically that it looked stunning on me so how could I resist? I asked the price, and the retailer said it was 500 SAR, but for me, only 450. I didn’t even have to barter to get a discount and I was thrilled.
My purchase complete, I was free to wander the stalls and take in everything on display while my friends looked for the items on their wish lists. After awhile the group of us felt ready for a coffee and some connection. Breakfast was being served in a large room reminiscent of a hotel conference room, but entry required purchasing a breakfast for 45 SAR and none of us were interested. On our way to the Starbucks we passed a vendor selling homemade healthy snacks of granola bars and nut butters, as well as offering organic coffee samples. It was amazingly good coffee, even without milk as is my preference. We had the audacity to claim a group of chairs in the Starbucks toting our freebie coffees. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Kim and Julia while Carolyn and Rebecca returned for more browsing.
Soon enough it was time to make our way back to the bus. I had the idea planted that I would be writing this post and asked my friends if I could take some photos. They agreed, and to our good fortune Jamal was outside the entrance, a very friendly man who drives for me occasionally. He took a group photo for us and then we had to dash to make our bus on time. On the journey back to Salwa compound I engaged in further scintillating conversation with my Canadian friends.
Feeling gratitude for an off-compound adventure with the support and comradery of an amazing group of women.