Feeling a Sense of Belonging as an Expat living in Saudi Arabia

 

I arrived in Riyadh on May 21, 2015 and yet this feeling of belonging has only begun to manifest over the last few months. Anyone who knows me understands I am slow to transition. I’m not certain what event or combination of events led me to feeling like I belong in this community on Salwa compound. I didn’t even realize it was missing until I felt it.

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They say that home is where your heart is. Yet my heart has ties and bonds in so many places, with so many people. Since falling in love with Mister I’ve claimed that I could live anywhere in the world and be happy, if I was with him. That still holds true, but even an amazing relationship doesn’t replace all the other connections that create balance and a meaningful existence.

 

When Mister asked me how I felt about moving from Canada I had mixed feelings. I was anxious about leaving my children and grandson, my Mom and the rest of my family. I was uncertain about living in a foreign country, especially in the middle east, of which I knew little about other than from media and novels like Not Without My Daughter and Ten Thousand Splendid Suns. I had misgivings about wearing an abaya and not being able to drive. But the opportunities for growth and adventure, not to mention financial security for our up-coming retirement, were more compelling than my fears and I said yes. We agreed to give it a go and when asked what our long-term plan is, we simply say, “as long as we’re happy.”

 

So, I came, with few expectations and an open mind, never once imagining I would end up having so many fulfilling experiences nor meeting so many amazing people from so many different cultures. Here on the compound of Salwa I have met people from the UK, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Poland. I’ve interacted with service providers from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. I’ve met the odd Saudi Arabian too, but due to restrictions around the public conduct of women, that hasn’t been as easy.

 

 

Since everyone on Salwa are expats living in a foreign country, we can relate to one another and offer support. Most of the people I have had the opportunity to meet are positive, and I consider myself fortunate to have acquaintances from a broad spectrum. Some have likened the experience of living on Salwa to living in a fish bowl. Granted, it is a small community and when you work and play with the same people, it can get a bit too familiar at times. For me, the positives far out-weigh the negatives and I’ve come to view my life on Salwa as my sanctuary.

 

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Entertaining friends in our garden

Salwa feels like a sanctuary for many reasons. In the almost two years since I’ve lived here I still feel uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of our compound. When I need a service or product in the city, which is typically once a week, the first challenge to overcome is how to get there. As I’ve mentioned, women aren’t allowed to drive here, so if my Mister is at work, I must arrange a driver. Drivers are in a competitive business, and many times I have had my driver call to cancel or rearrange at the last minute. For a hard-core planner, such as myself, this alone can be challenging.

 

Driver arrangements secured, the next challenge is navigating the traffic of Riyadh to arrive at my destination safely. I have vented about this before in earlier posts, so suffice to say that the combination of being in a big city with drivers who are distracted and self-focused creates mayhem in one form or another on a regular basis. I often find my heart in my throat, or in my stomach. As my friend Rhonda so wisely advised, it’s best not to look. Going on adventures into the city with friends is a highly advisable distraction.

 

Clad in an abaya, I feel like an imposter. I have also berated this aspect of living in a Muslim country, but it bears repeating. The abaya is a tripping hazard. When a scarf is adorned as well, you lose part of your peripheral vision, and when you already suffer from coordination issues, it can cause one to bump into things. When it is hot, which is most of the time, or when I am having a hot flash, which is a great deal of the time, the abaya feels like the weight of the world draped over my shoulders.

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The physical constraints of the abaya, however, pale in comparison to the emotional discomfort. To say I feel like an imposter may sound like I’m being a drama queen, but the truth of the matter is, I’m not Muslim, and to adorn myself in a garment that is part of that religion and culture feels hypocritical. Furthermore, I am a liberal and feminist thinker, believing in the equality of all human beings. I don’t have the knowledge to make an informed comment, but when I see an entire family out and about and all the men and children are dressed in designer fashions whilst the women are kept covered in drab abayas, it feels oppressive.

 

Driver and abaya aside, there are still a multitude of challenges once arriving at the destination. There are prayer times, language barriers, and products that are unfamiliar with ingredients listed in foreign languages. With food allergies, this can be a big problem. I have had occasion when shopping for groceries and prayer starts and the produce weighing stations close and the cashiers close and I have all my items, including perishables, but have to wait the half an hour until prayer is over. I have had occasions when I’ve arrived at a store to find the blinds pulled, the shop closed from noon to four. It is a first world problem, I admit, but frustrating none the less.

 

Enough of the bickering and complaining, though, and back to the developing sense of belonging…

 

I failed to mention Canada when listing all the countries whose natives populate our fair compound. It has amazed me how leaving your country of origin can inspire such patriotic feelings of love and appreciation. Canada truly is a country to be proud of and my fellow Canadians have provided huge support.

 

Me and Mister joined the Canadian Community of Riyadh, which offers members opportunities for socializing in a myriad of interesting ways. We had a wonderful time dressing up in Gangster attire for the casino night, then getting all decked out in ball gowns and tuxedos for the Red and White ball hosted at the British Embassy. The Canadian Embassy has been under construction since our arrival. Volunteers work countless hours and monies raised by such functions go towards supporting worthwhile causes, such as families of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom and humanitarian causes.

 

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Red & White Ball with Matt & Elizabeth Kingsman

A less formal but equally engaging organization has been the ladies known affectionately as the Canadian Chicks. Someone with far more technical skills than I created a handy What’s App for us to communicate get togethers, ideas, frustrations and celebrations. It has been a great way to stay informed and connected and I appreciate being a part of such a vibrant and positive group of women.

 

My fellow Canadians are not the only people who I’ve come to grow fond of here of Salwa. Many women are here supporting husbands who work for BAE systems and are unable or choose not to work, but are incredibly enterprising and creative. I have dabbled in a variety of clubs that offer a diverse array of opportunities, including Crafty Ladies and Book Club. There is a huge array of fitness classes on offer by people with talent and training and I have enjoyed practicing yoga and belly dancing.  And there are many casual get togethers too; ladies meeting up for a walk around the compound, for lunch at the Kingpin restaurant, for coffee at Costa, or to lounge by one of the many community pools.

 

On top of these incredible opportunities in our community are the deep and meaningful friendships that have blossomed. I have bonded with several women here whom I trust completely and would do anything for. I share openly with them my fears and my dreams, and I hope they feel the same ability to share their hearts with me. They’ve had my back and supported me through the tough times, the times when the differences felt overwhelming and the fishbowl too constrictive. The times when events in my personal life felt too challenging to bear alone and I needed a friend to lean on.

 

I blogged about the experience I had in Bahrain, of feeling a growing sense of belonging to a human collective. At the that time, I had thought that feeling couldn’t possibly manifest here in Riyadh. Then, a few weeks ago, a small miracle of hope was given to me in the most unlikely and unanticipated circumstance. I was in line at the grocery counter in Carrefour, when a little girl, likely around one year old, in the aisle beside me caught my attention. Her joy and innocence were infectious, and soon myself as well as the two Saudi women scanning and packing my groceries were enraptured, cooing and smiling away. It was a brief and beautiful moment, where our differences dissolved. There were no religions or cultures or languages, only the sisterhood of women, of mothers. We all felt it, and we smiled genuinely at one another in recognition of what unites us; our emotions and our love of our families.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling a sense of belonging as an Expat living in the community of Saudi Arabia.

 

Feeling Grateful for an Off-compound Adventure with Friends

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.

 

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City of Riyadh

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.

 

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Me in my 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.

 

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Me & Rhonda after our car accident

 

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.

 

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Alison, Forever Living Saleswoman

 

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.

 

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Kim, Julia & Rebecca at Ishbilia Compound

 

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.

 

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Kim & Julia at Starbucks

 

 

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.

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Feeling gratitude for an off-compound adventure with the support and comradery of an amazing group of women.

 

Feeling Nostalgic About the Glory Days of Travel

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Drinking wine at the Frankfurt International Airport 🙂

Since moving to Saudi Arabia in May of 2015 I have had the opportunity to travel more than I ever have. Before making that first long and arduous 20+ hour journey from Canada to Saudi Arabia I had a wide-eyed, romantic and somewhat naive vision. It has since been tempered by some hard doses of reality.

I don’t want anyone to think I don’t appreciate the gift of being able to go back to Canada three times a year to connect with all of my family and friends. Especially my children and grandson. I am truly grateful. Still, there is a dark side.

Air travel isn’t like it used to be. Back in my glory days, the airlines treated you like valued customers. You weren’t crammed in like sardines. Beverages and meals were a complimentary part of the service. There was more of everything enjoyable and less of everything uncomfortable.

Let’s face it, in the anti-terrorism age, the headaches of travel begin at the airport. Going through security can be a nightmare of travel sized liquids in plastic bags, laptops, belts and jewelry removal. My husband was once chastised for not removing an old tissue from his trouser pockets. I have been repeatedly hassled for my various medications, including extra insulin and ice packs to keep it chilled. And then of course there are the random pat-downs.

To illustrate, I shall regale you with the details from my husband’s and my most recent trip.  As we stood at our gate waiting to board our flight from Florence to Rome the screen suddenly changed to show a delay from a 12:10 departure to 1:00, making our connection in Rome tight but doable. Moments later it was revised once again, due to thunderstorms in the area, to 3:00, making our departure in Rome at 4:00 impossible.

We had to switch gears and accept our fate. We walked over to the Food Court where we thrilled to discover that in Italy even food courts serve wine. Sipping wine and munching on Caprese salad while engaging in interesting conversation with one another seemed a civilized way to pass the time.

Back at our gate, there were further delays. We got chatting with a lovely couple from Virginia. Somehow the conversation turned to politics and Donald Trump. Some Trump supporters in the line behind us overheard and it all got a bit heated. But that’s a whole other long, controversial and emotionally elevated story.

Back to our travel woes. They finally boarded us. I conked out immediately. David dozed off for a few minutes and informed me later that he woke up to discover our plane still parked on the ramp with the stairs leading up to the open cabin door. We never did get an explanation, or perhaps we just slept through it.

We arrived in Rome around 5:30 and upon deplaning and entering the terminal we were greeted by the sight of a massive throng of people in the same unfortunate circumstances as us, lined up at the Alitalia transfer counter. It took five and a half hours, standing in line with impatient and occasionally hostile passengers only to be told that all flights out the next day bound for Riyadh from all transfer cities were fully booked.

We were given instructions to board a shuttle bus to the Ergife Palace Hotel, which was most definitely non-palatial. A half hour bumpy ride later we arrived. Our adventures in Rome is another story for another day, but just let me remind you that I hadn’t packed my insulin in my carry-on and my checked luggage was still at the airport. Apparently in Italy, as a non-Italian, you cannot purchase insulin at either a pharmacy or the hospital. So I had to cross my fingers and hope I had enough. We spent two days in our palace in Rome and then it was back to the airport to start over again.

We had been advised to arrive at the airport three hours earlier so we arrived with three and a half, just to be safe. Of course, the Aegean ticket counter, our new airline, wasn’t open until two hours before the flights departure. But my quick-thinking husband suggested we use the self-check-in machines. Tickets in hand, we went through security (where David’s study notes binder caused the traditional open your suitcase for a search routine). We used our handy Lounge Key App and located a lounge to wile away the time until boarding.

Upon arrival at our posted gate,D3, we found the gate had been changed to D7. We walked to D7 where the plane was then announced delayed for half an hour. Really? Another delay? Then the gate was changed again, to D2. I tried not to feel frustrated and impatient. I tried not to worry. Secretly I felt that if I had to spend a night at a hotel in Athens I might lose it.

Finally, we boarded our flight. I was disappointed to find the configuration of seating even tighter than usual. And no TV screens. I buckled into my cramped quarters and peered out the window at the pouring rain and felt despondent as I noticed we were in a long line of planes awaiting take-off. My ears were accosted by the loud, obnoxious and constant laughing and shouting of a group of overly-enthusiastic young Greeks. Eventually we started down the run-way and lifted off into a dark and ominous-looking sky.

We arrived in Athens and our plane to Riyadh was already being boarded. An Airport Ambassador corralled the group of us destined for Riyadh and guided us through the fast track at Customs, but then abandoned us at security where they still felt compelled to rummage through our luggage. Frustrated, I wondered, not for the first time, how we could possibly have procured an inappropriate item since going through security last in Rome. Grr….

We made it! We boarded our plane and despite the same cramped quarters as always I was thrilled to finally be on the last leg towards home. I was given the extra bonus of an airline meal I could actually consume, that did not consist of wheat products. Did I mention I have a wheat allergy? Well, I hadn’t eaten anything for twelve hours, since lunch, other than a few bites of chocolate. It was midnight and I was starving and exhausted, so the otherwise mediocre rice and chicken tasted heavenly.

The fasten your seat belt light came on. It was time to descend so David retrieved my Abaya from my carry-on bag and I draped it over me. We deplaned and turned the corner and beheld the spectacle of a next to non-existent line-up at customs! Hooray! I almost clicked my weary heels! It felt like a silver lining, but alas, it quickly turned to grey. All of the luggage from our plane was dispensed and the belt stopped moving and there was no luggage belonging to us.

Off we traipsed to the Baggage Claims counter where a porter led us to a different terminal where apparently our luggage awaited, having arrived ahead of us from Jeddah the day before. Mine was there, and I almost hugged it, but thought better of it seeing as how David’s was still missing in action. It’s been three days and it is still missing.

Suffice to say, the ordeal was draining. Even I, who scored 23/24 on a Test Your Optimism quiz sound like a Negative Nancy. It’s like I said, I’m feeling nostalgic about the glory days of travel.