Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rice and Beans

Last week was a bit of a down week for me. They told us in our general orientation that we would experience exactly that, right around this time, after the initial excitement and chaos of arrival started to subside. Of course, this statement was promptly pooh-poohed by yours truly. Homesickness is for the weak. Well, I was certainly forced to eat those words last week. Unfortunately, they were vomited back up into the porcelain bowl in the unit bathroom my first day of work.

***Saudi Lesson Learned # 1129: “Fresh” fish in Saudi is dependent on your frame of reference. When you walk into the “fresh” fish section at the grocery store and it smells the trash bin behind Save-On Meats on a hot summer day, the fish is probably not that fresh. Attempts to use this fish to satiate a craving for your Uncle’s famous West Coast BBQ wild salmon is like mixing
up a cup of instant coffee when you are craving JJ Bean…wait a sec…oh right. I do that as well.***

Yes, I certainly know how to make a fantastic first impression. Following a night spent with alternating orfices acquainting themselves with the toilet bowl, I woke up at 6am, peeled myself off the bathroom floor, rubbed the tile imprints off the side of my face, and applied a dab of concealer to the bags under my eyes. Sick days are for the weak. I fumbled into my crisp new white uniform, and queasily shuffled the 15 min walk in the 40C morning heat to start my first official day at work.

I met my preceptor (who is an absolutely lovely Finnish woman), and we promptly set off down the hall to the first room. Just as I was being introduced to the patient as the “new” nurse, my saliva glands started seeping, and the flickering fluorescent “fresh fish” sign from the grocery store invasively emblazoned itself in my mind. My gurgling stomach bile screamed “THIS FISH AIN’T FRESH”. I dropped my papers, stumbled out of the room and ran down the hall to the loo. I emerged several minutes later, face the colour of a stick of chewed spearmint gum. As we had not yet gotten to that part of the orientation, I first had to explain to my head nurse who I was, and then that I had to go home. Yep, great first impression I left that day.

The next afternoon, following the sub-death coma sleep I had sunken into for the previous 24hrs, the next day I decided that I should probably do a bit of grocery shopping (this time strictly adhering to Saudi Lesson Learned #1129). I moseyed around for a bit, filling my cart with rice and beans (safe for my stomach, but unfortunate for those around me afterwards). I was waiting in line for the checkout when all of a sudden, I felt something catch my heel. I turned around and came face to face with an irate one-shoed old man yelling at the top of his lungs in Arabic at me. Apparently my total moo-moo abaya wasn’t hiding enough of my “femaleness” and the distraction had caused him to trip over me and lose his sandal. Though I have no idea what he was saying (probably just as well), it was CLEARLY my fault. Sorry, sir – pardon my XX chromosome. He walked off in a huff, and I went home feeling more homesick than ever…

Anyhow, this week I am feeling much better, but I want to say that I really do miss everyone back in Canada. Being in the Middle East is super awesome, and I am so so happy I decided to come here, but it has also made me realize and fully appreciate (because of course I already knew this!) how super amazingly lucky I am to have all of you in my life. Miss you and love you all

Mafe al kher (goodnight)


Friday, August 22, 2008

Chop chop

Destination: Riyadh

Equipment: hair dryer, electrical outlet, dark coloured long sleeved shirt, dark coloured long pants

1) Put on long clothing. May also add scarf either around neck or head for extra authenticity, however head cover is not generally expected of Western expats.

2) Insert plug into wall. Hold hair dryer 1-1.5 feet away from your face. Do not turn it on just yet.

3) Close your eyes. Envision reddish, sandy dirt beneath your feet, date trees scattered around you (aside: date trees look like palm trees with grape-like bunches of yellow, oblong fruit growing from where we are used to seeing coconuts), men in white, long sleeved ground-length robes (“thob”), and women in long black abayas and face veils (“niquab”). The buildings around you are all unique: Complex modern architecture comprised mostly of mirrored glass, bearing both English and Arabic signage. The modern masterpieces like the “Kingdom Tower” (think giant mirrored bottle-opener) are starkly contrasted by a few remaining crumbly-walled traditional clay brick low rises nestled in the back alleyways. Scattered regularly like cacti in a desert landscape, the mosque towers (“minarets” – they look like bishop chess pieces) spike up over the roof-tops . There is a group of young boys laughing and kicking around a soccer ball in a nearby dusty field. The air is slightly hazy, and the sun is steady.
Suddenly, the breeze picks up…you are thankful momentarily, as you wait for the cooling effect to hit your sweat-drenched skin…then you remember that is it 48C, and you are forced to turn your head away from the heinous torch blast that is singeing your eyelashes.

4) turn on hair dryer on highest heat setting (ensuring it is pointed directly into your face) and hold for 15 sec, or until nose hairs burn dry and eyelashes shrivel.

5) don’t you feel like you were right here next to me?

Variation: Find a sauna. Repeat steps 1-5 inside sauna. This promises a much more accurate simulation.

You will all be happy to learn that 2 days ago, I finally bought a new abaya. It is being custom made with long sleeves and long body, but sans “moo-moo” waistline. It has a beautiful dark brown swirly design on the bottom of each sleeve, and on the back. There are a few little amber-coloured stones embedded in the brown swirly bits. This is all being done for 200 SAR (about $50!), and I pick it up Tuesday. Now...let me tell you about where I bought it:
One of the senior nurses took myself and another orientee under her wing, and drove us (well, her driver drove us) out to the “Dhera” Ladies’ souq (aside: a “souq” is kind of like a flea market where there are many different and extremely pushy vendors selling various goods for super cheap, cash only. The buyer generally bargains with the vendor for the best price. I am not very good at this yet.).

Once we were all shopped out (actually, once we were just tired of getting harassed), we left the souq, and sat outside in a huge outdoor plaza where a group of about 15 young boys were hanging out riding bikes, playing soccer, and joking around (remember when North American kids used to do that before computers and video games came along?). We laughed as the boys tried out their English skills on us with impish grins….”Hello!”….”Welcome!”…”I love you!”.

As I looked around the plaza, I turned to our co-worker/tour guide and inquired if there was any particular purpose to this plaza (Mum, you might not want to read this part!). She lifted an eyebrow, and replied in a hushed tone…”it’s ‘Chop-chop’”. In response to the blank look on my face, she offered a blunt elaboration: “ This is where they decapitate people convicted of drug crime, murder, adultery, etc”. All of a sudden the cement blocks in the centre of the plaza upon which we were comfortably perched seemed a whole lot less cozy. My response was a brief comment which Allah would have viewed with deep discountenance…as an afterthought, I asked her incredulously “how long ago did they stop doing THAT?!”. She eyed me in amusement: “They haven’t”.

Here are couple of pictures from the "social gathering" at the Australian Embassy a couple of weeks ago. The picture of us in our abayas is just as we are getting there. I think it goes without saying that the other pictures are later on in the night, following copious sampling of some of Australia's finest wares...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Getting a date in Saudi

As-salamu-alay-kum (hello)…or…assalamuale-kuum (also hello)…or…assale-mu-ale-kum (also hello)…

Yes, just to throw a little more confusion into the pot, it just so happens that Arabic is a “phonetic” language. This means that things are spelled as they are heard - no right or wrong. Wouldn’t that have been dreamy back in grade 6 when you were hit with that spelling quiz covering “rough, drought, and through”?

This week has been spent mostly tying up loose ends (and replacing ill fitting clothing) in terms of acquiring ID badge, medical clearance to work, internet, gym pass, etc. I have learned that in Saudi, one should never expect to get something done upon first visit to said errand destination. It takes at least 3 visits, with three separate and increasingly prodigious (and often somewhat contradicting) explanations from those working the front desk positions as to why one must come back tomorrow. Once one is able to breathe through the sphincter-clamping, aneurysm-inducing rise in blood pressure brought on by this loss of control us North American women are so used to having (yes, yes, ok – and perhaps over exercising at times), one may actually find that it is a good opportunity to get to know some locals.

I was on my 4th visit to the “Employee Social Club” trying to gain access into the gym that was directly below me in my building. After a quick chat with the man at the front desk, I was told that I would have to come back in an hour. They had to look into things, as the computers had been on the fritz all afternoon, and sometimes the online applications get lost (yesterday I had been told that the online system was totally reliable, and no, I couldn’t apply in person). Anyhow, just before leaving, I was offered a small flexible branch full of little yellow fruit-like appendages. It was explained that they were raw dates, and that I should try one. I knew that dates were a symbol of Saudi welcome (though I had never seen or heard of raw dates), so I graciously accepted, and popped one into my mouth. I assumed the giggles which ensued were in response to the look on my face as I tried to think of something constructive to say about the sweet chalky grossness encroaching upon my offended palate. I was encouraged to eat another. With effort, I pulled back the corners of my mouth in what I hope passed for a smile, and compliantly choked back one more. Then, in his thick accent, one of the men grinned impishly and piped up “do not eat too many as they will keep you up”. A round of gut splitting laughter, punctuated by strings of Arabic that I thought perhaps best I didn’t understand. A little flustered, I smiled uncertainly and thanked him. I assured him that I would avoid nighttime nibbling and eat them in the morning instead of my morning coffee. Another round of laughter, and a few little waves goodbye. I left feeling rather like a champ - I had really broken through a barrier and been accepted and respected by these men.

Epilogue: I later found out from someone much more versed in Saudi culture that raw dates are considered an aphrodisiac. Ha.

The other story I will tack on to this post is of our shopping trip to Riyadh’s newest super-mall. The shopping here is utterly ridiculous. Imagine, all the same stores with REGULAR priced items at HALF the price of those in Canada. Then the sales come…50% off…75% off…seriously - I was giggling like a kid with a whoopee cushion at her parents fancy dinner party. The crazy thing is, you are not allowed to try anything on! No fitting rooms. It is completely forbidden for women to uncover in public, even behind closed doors in a mall fitting room (all the stores have great exchange policies so you can bring things back if your guesstimate was off…).

Anyhow, we arrived on our nightly ladies shopping bus (provided by the hospital as women are not allowed to drive in KSA) and tittered into La Senza (ha). We strung along past the thongs, and bust into the bra section (ha - sorry, I can’t stop it). So…have you ever been checking out a little red lacy number, turned inquisitively to the saleslady, chest thrust out for assessment, only to find that the “saleslady” is actually a hairy little Persian man (who just so happens to be “little” enough that he is face to boob to your thrust out, expectant chest)? Well, ladies and gents, unfortunately up until 3 days ago, I too could say NO. As it so happens, women don’t work sales jobs in the Kingdom, so it is men running EVERY store in ALL the malls. Now. In a country where sex is COMPLETELY taboo, and women are expected to be completely covered up at ALL times, does it not seem odd that men are working shops selling g-strings and teddies (that’s teddy BARES…ha…ok ok, I’ll stop).

Heading to a party at the Australian consulate tomorrow night. The word “bar” WAS on the invitation. Should be a gonger. Stay tuned for details next week.

Tesbahh Ala-Khair (Goodnight)


Thursday, August 7, 2008

I found my abaya. Well, 2/3 of it, anyway.

I can't believe it has been a week since I touched down in Riyadh. Thanks so much for all your kind words of encouragement!

Today will be a quick post as I am studying for my final exam for my UBC psych course. I can't go into too much detail as I become quickly embittered at the thought of all my new friends shopping their hearts out (aside: thurs/fri is weekend here) while I am stuck in the prion- refrigerated morgue-like confinement of my dark little apartment, studying erectile dysfunction and dissociative somatoform disorders (aside: abnormal psych).

Nursing orientation in Saudi Arabia has proven thus far to be only marginally less boring than that in BC...this is a direct result of the amusing accents, political incorrectness, and direct translations from the presenter's native language to english. For example, during a fire and safety presentation, the thickly accented Philipino fire officer told us how to use a fire extinguisher to save our "fat ugly husbands". Ha. This presentation was secondary only to the flat monotony of the housing officer who gave a thoroughly un-rousing hour long presentation showing pictures of every single hospital hospital residence (there are about 15, and they all look pretty much exactly the same!). The absurdity of just how drab it was, coupled by his limited English (and thus ability to elaborate or describe in detail) tipped the scales and consequently resulted in absolute hilarity. The presentation went something like this: "here is a picture of the living room...a of building". This was repeated for each residence, with a long pause on each picture so we could admire the archaic paisley on the mis-matched love seats...

So, have you ever gone into a store on Robson street and confidently purchased an expensive pair of jeans that were way too small? Think Miss Sixty flood pants. Then, you put on your little sister's long sleeved shirt (which comes to mid-forearm), have a look at your reflection in the mirror, and think...DAMN I am hot. Of course you haven't. I could say the same up until about 3 days ago when I learned that the abaya I was wearing was meant for someone about 5'0". I thought the sleeves were supposed to be mid forearm, and the fact that the hemline touched mid-shin allowed my fashionable Oqoquo black pants to be admired from underneath. My fashion blunder became the centre of hilarity on the orientation bus (aside: there are about 30 orientees, including several hot Jordanian and Lebanese male nurses), and was quickly compounded as my friend from Dallas, TX (a fellow tall lady) loudly assured me that I could go out and buy a "Moo-moo" sized abaya (so it is long), and have it tailored for a very good price. Thanks, y'all.

Back to erectile dysfunctions. More to come in a few days.

Love Y'all


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Where's my abaya?!

Well, I made it.

My journey started at 4:30am on Wed July 30th and mercifully ended at 11:00pm on Thurs July 31st following 8 hrs of stopovers, 3 soggy, processed airplane meals, 19hrs of sub-prime seating in economy class, 2 wailing kids, 1 rickety, rusty winged plane, and several incidents of cultural taboo.

Upon arrival to the Riyadh airport, I did my best to stay as low key as possible…then I remembered that I was a 5’11” single white woman with no abaya (aside – the black cover-up/veil dress that Saudi women wear) and absolutely no knowledge of arabic. As I stood in the international customs line across from a hoard of 20+ Saudi men, I feigned nonchalance (and failed miserably as my starkly naked ears burned scarlet) at the 20 pairs of dark brown eyes boring into every square inch of my uncovered skin.

I needed to escape. The bathroom. I walked with controlled urgence towards the doorway crowned by a bunch of dots and squiggly lines, translated underneath in English – “toilets”. Praise be to Allah. Get me out of here. Thankfully the English translations were written under all Arabic signs to date. I had just enough time to formulate this comforting observation before I realized that no track record was perfect…my stomach dropped as I faced 2 separate doors with what appeared to be slightly different squiggly lines and no English bail-out. I desperately looked for a clue in the squiggles…a skirt? How about some squiggly breasts? Well, I had a 50/50 chance, so I ducked into the door on the left. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t buy a lottery ticket that day. I very near lost a whole lot more than a bit of urine into the bowl as I watched the hem of a white robe sweep by outside the stall door (aside – the Saudi national dress for men is a white robe with a white/red checkered head cover). I waited until I heard his stall door close, then hauled ass back into the main airport.

I was met by one nursing representative (Nerissa) and a driver to accompany me to my new digs. We wove through thick thurs night traffic (aside – Saudi weekends are thurs/fri), past the Kingdom Tower (think giant can-opener), and dozens of shopping malls the size of cruise ships. When Nerissa got out for a few minutes to show another new arrival to her apt, the driver and I had a short conversation. He knew 6 words of English: “beautiful”, “single?”, “how old”, and “call me”. Conveniently enough, he could also adeptly print his name and phone number in perfect English characters. Apparently (he actually got this across quite clearly), he was going to take me to Dubai and Bahrain on my vacation. Right, dude. Allah would love that one.
The rest of the evening was relatively uneventful – met my roomie briefly (her name is Tonia, she is from New York, but currently living in Atlanta). I crawled into my stiffly starched sheets tattooed with the hospital logo, and slept until 11am the next morning!