Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spare a square?

Well, it’s been a while! I had every intention of writing weekly, but sometimes it goes by so fast, I feel the week is like a rug that is being snapped out from under my feet!
Regardless, the benefit to you is that I now have several interesting and laughable (though not necessarily at the time!) events to share. For this week, I will start with my first KSA bike race:

Many of you have probably seen most of the pictures already posted on Facebook, so I will only re-post a couple here. We arrived at the race course – a site far outside the city and away – at 6:30am. There were already people in the parking lot when we arrived. Equipment varied widely from brand sleek new Trek Madones, to old school fuschia colored Brikos, to TT helmets with mirrored motocross goggles (which were perpetually lopsided).

I have a message to anyone who has ever arrived at a Spring Series Race, sighted the blue Porta-crappers and launched into a self righteous tirade of self-pity. You know the expression about the grass being greener on the other side? Well, having now hopped that fence, I can reveal to you that the greener grass is a hallucination brought on by the self centered Western illusion that every toilet should flush, that every stream should be delivered with bulls eye accuracy to the centre of the hole, and that one should never have to view the unwanted roughage of someone else’s intestines. I have included a picture of the facilities at the race start (above). Please, don’t waste your energy trying to imagine there is anything more luxurious on the inside than would appear from the exterior. The only thing missing in the picture is the steady stream of Filipino and Western men proudly yielding their rolls of toilet paper they so resourcefully remembered to bring with them. Anyone remember a toilet seat? A shovel to dig a hole? Did I use the facilities? Absolutely not. The only further piece of information I will reveal to you in order for you to better fine tune your imagination to my experience is that I had eaten a moderately large bowl of Weetabix, Cornflakes, All-Bran and Museli for breakfast.

The race was a 16km TT, and in keeping with one of my teammates pledges to avoid race reports on his blog, I will spare you the finer (boring) details of the course and my feelings during the race. The only thing different about the race here was that you had to dodge the occasional camel turd (like baseball sized rocks, and deadly if they clump in your chain), and in my oxygen deprived state, I had to be sure to avoid drinking if there was a car going by due to Ramadan (outlined in last blog). I was also amazed at the number of people who showed up – about 50 starters! Competitors were mostly Filipino, although a moderate number of Westerners as well (4 women including myself). I have also included a picture of the parking lot scene and a shot of part of the course (above). I knew only 2 people when I first arrived, but quickly met many others – I am happy to report that the camaraderie amongst cyclists in KSA is much the same as that in Canada, possibly even tighter as the community is so much smaller. It was almost a little disconcerting how many people already knew who I was and that I had just ordered a new bike from Bahrain…! Regardless, it was just really great to meet some people outside of King Faisal Hospital, talk about something other than nursing, and learn about where other expats are working in Riyadh.

By the way, the results for the race are posted at www.riyadhwheelerscom for anyone who cares.
Got another great story about a desert adventure (I have included one pic as a taster), but I will save it for next week - and I promise it will only be a week this time!

Thanks for all the emails, wall writings, Skypes, etc. It is so great to feel so connected with everyone back home! I am trying to reply to as many as I can in a relatively timely manner, and I must apologize that sometimes I take a while to get back. I have also been known to forget, so feel free to send me a nasty reminder if you don't hear from me and I will remedy the situation
Love Fi

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A quick clarification to ease uneasy minds

I seem to have caused a bit of an uproar regarding my last post. I feel the need to clarify several things to put everyone at ease:

1) The cycling group is all expats

2) We were really and truly out in the middle of nowhere - I am talking outside the city, away from everything, down a bunch of dirt side roads on a dead end road with nothing on it. We were in no way close to anyone who would take offense in any way to our activities.

3) On occasion, there has been incidents where there has been an "encounter" with authorities, and generally the women are just told to cover up (ie put on leg covers).

4) I am not going to wear the jersey again without covering up the logo (teehee).

I would never purposely do anything to insult Saudi culture, which, in most cases I have great respect for (and the cases I don't I know my place and keep my mouth shut). I am so sorry if I in any way impressed the contrary on anyone.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In the doghouse

I know you have all been waiting for a story about my first language blunder. First, I must give you a quick bit of background:

Today, we are going to learn about dogs in Islam (“Islam” is the proper way to refer to the religion practiced by Muslims. You can also say “Muslim culture”. Never say “Muslimism”). There are no dogs in Saudi Arabia. Though the Qu’ran (holy book containing the words of the Prophet Muhammed…kinda like the bible, but not really) emphasizes kindness to all animals, dogs are considered “dirty” in Muslim culture. Touching a dog voids “wudu” or the washing of one’s self with water prior to each of the 5 daily prayers (salah).

Since I have started working on the ward, I have immersed myself in learning the Arabic language. Throughout my day, I write down all the new words I learn, and every night, I practice what I have learned that day. I am proud to say that I can now ask any Arab if they have moved their bowels today, yesterday, or the day before yesterday, whether they have had any diarrhea, whether or not they are constipated, and if they would like any medication to assist in whatever dysfunctional bowel pattern they may be experiencing. Unfortunately this wealth of knowledge does not transfer well to communication with general public (e.g. at shopping malls, with cab drivers, etc). I should also make clear that while I can get a basic point across, I generally speak either in very short sentences with devastatingly poor grammar, or in single words punctuated with animated gesticulations to get my point across (the latter method was not always well received before I learned all my bowel-related Arabic).

Last week, my proud new word was “kolb” which means “heart”. The “K” sound in Arabic is quite soft, and to a Westerner’s ears can almost be mistaken for a “G”. That day, I was happily doing my morning assessments in my patients’ rooms, and when it came time to use my newly acquired vocabulary, I would point at their chest and say “kolb?” as in “can I listen to your heart?”. By the third patient (though I was telling myself that it was a cultural thing that I was no doubt misinterpreting), I could not shake the feeling that I was getting a little bit of hostility. It wasn’t until later on that day when I was practicing my Arabic with one of my Lebanese co-workers that I realized my embarrassing blunder. Apparently, I had been pronouncing my “K” sound TOO softly, and it was coming out as a fairly audible “G”. While “kolb” means “heart”, unfortunately “golb” means “dog”…in case there was any doubt as to whom I was referring when I uttered the insult, I must remind you that I was pointing at my patients’ chest while saying it. As an aside, I also found out later that pointing at someone in any capacity in the Muslim culture is also insulting. Penalty box for the Canuck, eh?

Next we are going to have a quick lesson about Ramadan. Ramadan is an annual month long dawn to dusk fast, the purpose being religious cleansing, learning sacrifice, self restraint, and humility. Eating and drinking is permitted from dusk to dawn only. There is increased time for prayer, and the general feel of life in Riyadh is even more conservative than usual. Mobs of Mutawa (religious police) are on every street corner forcing even Western women to cover up completely, and there are serious consequences for interactions between single men and women. Though foreigners are not expected to fast, we are expected to respect it, and we cannot eat or drink in public.

I will now mischievously report to you that 9 days into the holy month of Ramadan, I have ended my 2-month “fast”. Bike fast, that is. I had not been on a road bike since my mildly demoralizing experience July 18th at the Tour de Gastown. I was actually quite happy to be off the bike for the first month, but the feeling quickly abated and I have been dying to get out ever since I found out about the bike club in Riyadh. I have ordered myself a brand new bike (a Trek Madone 4.7 WSD for those of you who care) from Bahrain, and I have a loaner bike for the month of September from my Irish friend who is back home getting married (thanks, Em!).