Saturday, February 21, 2009
EXPERIENCES OF A CANADIAN WOMAN CYCLING IN SAUDI ARABIA
“The first rule of riding in the desert is to make sure make sure you approach camels from behind. If they get freaked out, they start running, and God help you if you are caught in front of them – they go like the wind and plow into anything in their way”. Rodd Taylor, my friend and fellow Canadian expat was cruising beside me on his brand new Pinarello, the vibrant red/white/black paint job of the carbon frame a stark contrast to the harsh, dusty desert-scape that surrounded us.
I rolled warily past the hairy, hulking creature standing in the centre of the empty road we were riding along as it sized me up me from under its long, feathery eyelashes. I eyed it back doubtfully, thinking if this thing could run, there was still hope for Mama Cass to compete in high jump. Nevertheless, I rode the next 50m like Mario Cipollini in the final kilometer of a pack finish - muscles tensed and senses alert ready to stamp my pedals and sprint if this gangly long legged creature proved it could challenge the established laws of inertia…
When I first accepted my year-long nursing contract in Saudi Arabia, I resigned myself to the fact that any “cycling” would be a serious act of desperation as I would be resorting to the clunky, La-Z-Boy-like recumbent bike in the dark, stuffy basement gym of my all female housing complex. In a country where women are required to cover themselves from head to toe in an abaya (a long black loosely fitting garment) every time they step out the front door, my life as an elite cyclist was no doubt going to slip into the distant past.
Luckily, I was wrong.
Soon after my arrival, I heard about the Riyadh Wheelers - a bike club based out of Riyadh, run by several dedicated expat cycling enthusiasts. A mere 3 weeks into my stay, following a few emails and a visit from one of the women in the club who had heard there was a new cyclist in town, I had a brand new bike on the way from Bahrain, and a number of new friends eager to help me get back on the road.
The Riyadh Wheelers are a 70+ member Middle Eastern establishment – a 25-year legacy of enthusiastic cyclists of varying experience and ability. With representation from the Philippines, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, South Africa, Syria, Denmark, Austria, Canada, USA, and Saudi Arabia, the pack is enough to make the European pro Tour look ethnically drab. The club is as rich in its range of athletic abilities as it is in its cultural representation. There are Ironman triathletes, members of the Saudi Junior National Team, an ex-European pro, as well as a number of “weekend warriors” who come out to happily ride a few laps before dipping into the coffee and cookies offered at every race, and taking to the sidelines to cheer on the leaders.
The race season runs from September to April so as to avoid the unfathomable peak summer temperatures, which often reach 48C in July and August. The races take place in various sparsely inhabited locations on the outskirts of Riyadh, and range from short 10-mile time trials, to true tests of attrition such as the new 160km road race slotted for March of this year.
The most notable aspect that makes racing in Saudi so unique, is the influence of the culture. For example, the holy month of Ramadan is one of the keystones of the Islamic religion, during which time Muslims engage in a daily dawn to dusk fast. The purpose of the month long custom is religious cleansing, sacrifice, and to learn self-restraint and humility. Our first race, which happened to be a 10-mile time trial, fell within the month of Ramadan. One of the top finishers was a Saudi man, who, determined not to lose any points for the season, came out despite his fast. The man not only finished in 4th place out of 60, but did so with no water or food to fuel him. For those of you thinking this is no great feat for a 10 mile TT, it must be further considered that upon finishing his race at around 9am in the steadily rising 40C+ heat, he still had almost 12 hrs left before he could re-hydrate or even think about nibbling a Power Bar. This gave me a whole new perspective on what devotion and commitment meant, both religiously and athletically…move over Lance!
As Rodd and I rode on, I thought about the contrast between our chosen route today (which was to be our next race venue) and the environment I had left behind that morning. It had been only one hour since I had hastily buttoned my abaya over my obnoxiously colorful lycra, thrown a flowered silk scarf around my neck, and walked my bike to the heavily guarded front gate of the hospital compound where I was to be picked up. I took in the details of our current surroundings - the promise of brand new luxury suburban dwellings in this abandoned subdivision was feebly stated in the miles of new, paved roads laid several years before, but now eerily empty without the hustle and bustle of any further active construction. The unattended, dehydrated palm trees lining the house-less streets drooped in the arid heat like the tails of giant prawns. To me, however, it was beautiful: Here, I could be abaya-free, and we could safely ride in our colorful lycra kits without challenging any gender laws, or offending the bulk of the ultra-conservative Saudi culture.
For the most part, the only real hazards of desert cycling include roads being blocked by packs of camels herded by Bedouin (often nomadic desert-dwelling Arabs), the scattered rock-hard piles of camel dung the packs leave behind, and the occasional pack of wild, howling saluki dogs. Special care does have to be taken in slightly more populated areas as road rules generally seem to be optional in Saudi – the speeds and the daringness of the drivers here is enough to make the notoriously famed German Autoban look like a scene from “Driving Miss Daisy”. Until you have actually seen a car full of shebabs (young men) rowdily try to pass your taxi on the inside of a single lane right turn, you cannot appreciate just how important it is, cultural customs aside, to be in an area away from traffic.
As it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi, and that a ride alone, even in the quiet desert would be seriously putting an uncovered female at risk if discovered by the wrong parties, I am consequently nowhere near the strict 6-day a week training regime I followed while living at home in Vancouver. For the most part, my riding now consists of the bi-weekly Wheelers races. On the days where desperation sets in and withdrawal becomes overpowering, I have however been known to call up my favorite taxi driver who takes my bike and I out into the desert, then follows behind me for 50km while I ride, grinning from ear to ear, and completely thrilled with my 2 hrs of “accompanied freedom”.
Now, 6.5 months into my contract, and an active member of the Riyadh cycling community, I am happy to say that though I miss being able to step out the door and ride the North Shore or climb Cypress Mountain whenever it strikes me, I am grateful that I have not had to abstain completely from my favorite sport. Not only this, but I feel honored to have had the chance to be a part of a community which is every bit as friendly and supportive as the cycling scene back home in British Columbia.
Wheelers website: www.riyadhwheelers.com
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, on a rare shared day off, my good friend Emily and I decided that we were going to visit the National Museum in Riyadh (Em and I work on different teams and thus normally have completely opposite schedules).
We set out early as we had heard that the exhibits are extensive enough to warrant several hours time to wander through and absorb the contents. Areas of interest include Arabian Kingdoms, Jahiliyyah (translation “period of ignorance”, referring to time before Islam), The Prophet’s Mission, Islam and the Arabian Peninsula, 1st and 2nd Saudi States, Unification, Hajj, and the 2 Holy Mosques. We were looking forward to a very educational day!
We wandered through the museum grounds – mazes of tall palm groves, intricately designed ceramic mosaic pathways and fountains of bubbling water. This little oasis was sheltered from the street din by tall modern structures making up the different buildings of the museum. We entered through the heavy glass doors into a rather starkly empty but bright high-ceilinged lobby and made our way towards the entry kiosk on the far side of the room. We felt a slight, nagging sense of vulnerability as our footsteps echoed and we did our best to avoid the dark leering eyes of the armed guards lining the perimeter. We approached the counter, and were quickly sung the theme tune of our Saudi endeavor to date: “It’s men’s day today. Women and families can come tomorrow night.” Darn my XX chromosome.
Not to be discouraged on our day off, we decided to go abaya shopping at Dirah (the ladies’ sook). Em’s abaya had 3 broken clasps and was starting to look more like a showgirl evening gown - her jeaned legs were scandalously revealed with each step through what was now a hip high slit up the front! Haram! Now, one may think that the purchase of a long black drape is a pretty straightforward business, but let me tell you – the purchase of an abaya is as personal as the interior decorating of a new downtown condo. Different lengths, widths, straight sleeves, princess sleeves, not to mention enough variations of intricate sparkly bling to appeal to the tastes of any woman. When you consider that this is the only garment through which you will be able to express any sort of individuality when out in public, getting something that reflects your personality and tastes becomes paramount.
After a short recovery period post gasping laughter following the discovery of a sparkly horse head design (reminiscent of the ubiquitous tourist souvenir t-shirts in Canada with the painted wolf heads and “Vancouver”, or “Prince Edward Island” in cursive writing…), Ems found one that was meant for her. Following a 15min wait while the original muumuu abaya was
whisked off to an unknown location and tailored to fit Em’s tall, slim figure, we set off on foot, looking for our next adventure.
We walked 30 mins in a random direction away from Dirah, rounded the next corner, and stopped in awe…there ahead of us, as far as the eye could see was a wide street swarming with hundreds of men wearing every variation of traditional Saudi dress imaginable. Many were walking hand-in-hand in a show of typical Arabic male companionship, and the steady din of day-to-day greetings and business dealings added color, warmth and character to the otherwise dingy, run-down setting. The dusty street was lined with crumbling buildings wielding colorful shops ranging from butchers, to bakeries, to leather shoe shops, to random household goods. This was Batha - we had heard about it – a sort of traditional commercial market centre in the old area of Riyadh. We glanced at each other and smiled, knowing we were going to keep walking. We pulled our scarves up over our heads so as to be as discreet as possible and smiled at the futility of the gesture – 2 sub-6ft tall Western women walking down the sidewalk of a busy traditional Saudi market centre…maybe we can blend in? Ha.
We gleefully haggled with street vendors (and still got ripped off), warily eyed the dried blood splashed up the alleyways outside the butcher shops, and deeply inhaled the rich Middle Eastern aromas of various tiny restaurants wedged in between the commercial stores. We stopped and bought flat bread (for 1 riyal!) from a baker whose display consisted simply of 2 worn, rickety wooden trays. The huge clay ovens behind him were encased in white tile, and 2 large round holes yawned open to reveal the coals next to which our bread was tossed in to bake. A steady stream of regular customers exchanged typical loud Arabic male pleasantries with the baker as the bags of pizza-like bread were bought up as fast as they came out of the oven.
Next, we visited a small leather shop with rows and rows of Saudi-style sandals lining the walls. A small, smiling, white bearded “baba” was sitting cross-legged on a dusty prayer mat, sewing a pair of tall leather boots. After the typical “where are you from” conversation, I had an apparent willing escort back to Canada…my Arabic speaking friends can correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think there is any other way to interpret “enti/ana rooh sawa sawa Canada? Canada kwayes!” – “you and I will go to Canada together. Canada is great!”. Sometimes being able to claim ignorance is the best way out…and that is exactly what I did to escape that one! “Malesh, ana mafe malum Arabi, baba” – “sorry Baba, I don’t speak Arabic”.
After 45mins or so of walking, we gradually neared the end of the market district. We started to notice that there were an increasing number of “shebabs” (young men) passing by in the opposite direction. Most of them had several textbooks wrapped in colorful prayer rugs, and we figured that we were near a school that had just gotten out for the day. The novelty of this intimate look into the day-to-day routine of these young boys was quickly lost as our presence was suddenly realized: The tendrils of unease quickly crept up and prickled the backs of our necks as several cars circled around us, and “I LOVE AMERICA” (Em is Irish, and for those of you who don’t know, I am Canadian) was yelled from boys hanging out car windows. The boys passing us on foot had just begun taking notice and slowing down when we decided that this was a great time to end our little adventure and hopped quickly into one of Riyadh’s many cabs to make our getaway.
All in all, despite the disappointment of missing out on the museum, it was a fantastic day. We finally felt as though we had gotten a glimpse of the “real” Riyadh, and had the chance to venture into an area not seen by many Westerners.