Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Job and Why It's Amazing

The primary reason why I came to Saudi Arabia was because of a job.  Many of you who know me on Facebook and see the pictures of me traipsing around Riyadh and my compound may be wondering if that’s really the case, but it is true.  I came here because I was offered a job that would provide an amazing opportunity to expand my career. What I didn’t expect I would get from this job was an expansion of my perspectives on work and career and how it affects my well-being.

Before I go in to what I mean by my changing perspectives I must preface this blog entry with some realities of the job I had back home.  I worked as a speech-language pathologist in the school system and I loved every minute of it.  I couldn’t have asked for better people to work with.  The support services office I worked out of was filled with supportive colleagues who knew the challenges that each of us faced with heavy caseloads and daunting tasks laid in front of us.  The teachers and principals I worked with were welcoming and gracious and understanding.  The assistants who helped me provide therapy to my ever-expanding caseload were hard working and dedicated to taking what they learned and applying it to the students’ therapy programs.  Most importantly every one of these people I worked with were fun-loving, kind, and in many ways my friends.  And then there were the students.  Oh my amazing and oh so entertaining students, or “my kids” as I liked to call them.  I had a lot of them to remember and get to know.  Somehow I managed, and I’m so glad I did because these kids never ceased to make me smile and keep me aware of the importance to fill every possible moment with a sense of fun.

My job back home was wonderful in so many ways and there are many things that I miss about it.  However, it challenged me in ways that I didn’t quite expect to be challenged when I first left school and began my career in the school system.  I came out of my S-LP program wanting to take on the tough cases, learn everything I could about them, and create programs that were thorough and complete.  But I soon came to realize that, with so many children needing my assistance, I felt guilty taking a bunch of time to develop programs for just one or two children.  So, what happened as a result? I began doing what I could with the time and resources that I had.  While this approach is typical of many S-LPs in both school settings and clinical settings, it doesn’t make it ideal.  Unfortunately, it is a reality that we accept and move forward with.  I must pause here and mention that one of the luxuries of my job in BC was that I had autonomy with how I designed my schedule and therapy programs.  If I wanted to, I could have taken on those few cases here and there and put the majority of my energy into creating perfect therapy programs.  For me, though, I couldn’t justify doing that.  So, as a result, I ended up putting band-aids on therapy issues that needed full-on casts.

With the job I have now, I have the opportunity to actually apply the casts because I get to work with just one child.  This luxury is beyond amazing and please note that I am well aware of how lucky I am.  Words cannot express how grateful I am to the powers that be for giving me this opportunity.  Even just typing those words fill me with such a sense of joy that I feel I could float away on a cloud of bliss.  Working with one child is allowing me to concentrate on his issues.  I have the time to learn about his needs and apply what I learn directly. I can try new therapy techniques and feel comfortable making mistakes in delivery because I can catch them right away and fix them without delay.  I have the time to develop and create high-quality therapy programs and the materials that go along with them.  I can collect oodles of data easily and efficiently.  And to top it all off, the best part of this job is that I get to watch this little guy learn and develop skills bit by bit every hour of every day that I work with him. 

As if these great circumstances for therapy aren’t enough, I’m feeling some awesome spin-offs as a professional.  I am re-learning what it feels like to actually complete a project to a level and degree where I honestly feel I put all of my abilities and energy into making it just right.  I am gaining a sense of accomplishment that I haven’t felt since I worked on projects in school.  I forgot how important it is to be able to work hard at something and see it through to completion and know that I did my very best.  I feel proud of myself for the work that I do with this little boy.  And this motivates me to work even harder.  I have a newfound energy that is directed towards my job and it’s allowing me to put extra hours in at work; to the point where I have to remind myself to lay off and rest.  I love my job, but it’s for different reasons compared to why I loved my job in BC.  I love my job here because I’m put in a position where I can prove to myself that I’m capable of providing optimal therapy and applying what I worked so hard (and spent so much money) to learn how to do.  I’m in a position to personally recognize whole-heartedly that I am good at what I do and that I am a competent and professional S-LP.  An added surprise for me in all of this is that I’m realizing that I can develop myself as an S-LP.  I am gaining confidence that I didn’t know I was lacking and this is putting me in a position to feel I can branch out and do more in my profession.  What this means exactly is a mystery for me at this point, but I’m happy to wait patiently and see where all of this flows.

I now recognize that there were aspects of my work-life that I didn’t know I was missing.  I was happy back home, but not as happy as I could have been and working here in Riyadh has opened my eyes to this.  I’m glad I worked in the school system and I feel that it taught me a lot.  I’m also glad that I was given this opportunity to see my job as an S-LP from a different angle and to develop new and exciting career perspectives.

In Joy,

Monday, February 18, 2013

Driving in Riyadh OR Why I'm Happy I'm Female in Riyadh

(Unfortunately I don't have any good photos of examples of the driving that I describe in the following blog.  Instead I have pictures of some sights I've seen along my drives, so they will have to suffice for now.)

In an older part of Riyadh
Moving to Saudi Arabia meant a lot of changes in my life, a main one being that I wouldn't be allowed to drive.  I'm one of those people that drives A LOT.  For work, for general everyday errands, for travel, for shuttling when biking with friends...I could go on and on.  Essentially, much of my independence and convenience in life is the freedom I have from being able to drive whenever and where-ever I choose to go.  At least that was the case in Canada.  In Riyadh, I have to book a taxi from my compound, or ask the driver I have through work to make a quick stop here or there on my way home, or ask my male friends to let me know when they're going somewhere so I can hitch a ride with them (And this isn't really ideal as men who are not my husband or father technically aren't allowed to drive women around in Saudi Arabia either.  The men that offer to do this for me are actually taking quite a risk...they could be put in jail for it.  For some reason they don't seem concerned about this.).  Yes, I could look at this situation as being a pain in the ass to have to worry about how I'm going to get places, but I don't.  Why?  Because the driving here is freakin' crazy!!  It would take an awful lot of convincing and the promise that I'd be in an armoured vehicle wearing a helmet before you'd get me driving in Riyadh.  Let me explain...

One of the multiple grocery store chains

Not sure if this is a convenience store, but I thought it amusing that it was called Meed and back home the convenience stores are called "Needs"
Many company headquarters are this fancy

An entire new section of city (financial district) being constructed all at once.
One of the first things I learned after moving to Saudi Arabia one month ago was how SLOW everything is.  If you are in a rush to get something done you are essentially screwed.  It's a wonderful test of zen, and luckily I've been adapting fairly well to it (I'll probably go to more detail in a blog about this aspect of Riyadh-life in the future).  While life in general here in Saudi is slow moving, driving specifically most definitely is not.  On the highway, the speed limit is 120 km/hour.  And because Saudi's REALLY enjoy going fast in their cars (I swear, this is how they make up for being so bloody slow at everything else) the cars have been equipped with nice little buzzers and lights that go off on the dashboard indicating when they've exceeded the 120 km/hour limit.  Luckily, my drivers have actually listened to this signal, but I really think it's just cause the manufacturers made it nice and annoying.

A few weeks ago my cousin, Tracy, posted a note on her Facebook profile talking about an experience while driving back home in Canada.  She said, "Last night...I was about to pass a car that was driving below the speed limit. Then I noticed him swerve into my lane, thankfully before I was next to him. Then he veered back to his lane. Thought he might be drunk, really. While passing, I peeked over...there he is, with a car full of people, some of them kids, holding his cell phone up to the steering wheel and texting. I was so wild." She proceeded to talk about how dangerous this is and that the solution is simple, pull over to text or talk on your cell.  Sounds logical enough.  Not in Riyadh, however.  Oh Tracy, if you were here you would possibly end up going mentally insane.  It is common practice to text and talk on your cell while driving here, but not at slow speeds like your teenage friend was doing.  Oh no!  Because, you see, if you slow down to anything below the flow of traffic and create a gap larger than half a car length between you and the car in front of you, you will get chastised by the cars behind you via long-winded horn blowing.  No, if you're texting on your cell you'll quickly be reminded to speed up, so the men driving in Riyadh have learned to keep their foot firmly planted on the gas pedal while typing on their phones.
Road construction, Riyadh style

Speaking of teenagers driving...let's put a few things into perspective in that regard.  There have been a few times when I looked over into nearby cars while driving down the highway and noticed smooth baby-like faces in the driver-seat.  Keep in mind that Saudi men are dark skinned and not known for their ability to avoid the (in my opinion) oh so appealing 5 o'clock shadow or beard.  Suffice it to say that I was not surprised when I was told that it sometimes occurs when Saudi mothers really need to get somewhere.  If their husbands or fathers are not available who do they call for assistance?  Well, their 13 year old son of course.  Luckily, these boys-becoming-men are fairly well versed at driving on the highway at such a young age.  This is because many men allow their children to sit on their laps while driving.  

So, that covers what happens inside the vehicles of many drivers in Riyadh, but what does it all look like from the outside?  Well, consider those times when you've driven down the road and some crazy person zooms past you at a ridiculous speed, then veers in and out of lanes weaving through cars like he/she is driving on a go-cart track.  Yes, as you might expect, that is a typical way to drive around here.  Once you get used to it, it's actually quite entertaining to watch.  Keep in mind that not every driver does this, but it's a very common practice.  What we consider to be "crazy" driving in Canada is actually the norm here.  What we consider to be "suicidal" driving in Canada is what would be considered "crazy" driving here. 

Bott's Dotts (from Wikipedia...not a picture taken in Riyadh)
A suberb, half constructed with the soon to be financial district in the background

More construction
As fun as all this is to witness (and yes, I say fun, because it's really the only perspective to take without risking having a heart attack from the stress that being amongst this chaos could cause), the most entertaining aspect of my drive is the lane changing strategies drivers have.  It's like they're playing a game of chess, constantly considering the neighbouring driver's next move, trying to make their own move before anyone else predicts what they're going to do.  Many never use turn-signals.  None do shoulder checks (apparently no one's ever bothered to explain to these drivers the concept of blind-spots).  Instead, a quick flicking of their bright lights or a honk of their horn when coming up to pass is all that's required.  Whether the other driver sees the flashing of lights or even cares to listen to it is a whole other matter.  And, when I say lane changes, I use the word "lane" with the loosest of definitions.  Yes, there are lines on the road indicating the suggestion of lanes.  They're even designed using painted bumps called "Bott's Dots" that are, I'm assuming, supposed to annoy the crap out of a driver who dares to drive over them instead of respecting the lane indicators.  They don't work.  Basically, if a car can fit in a space it will be there.  This compacting way of driving happens, for the most part, during the slow-moving traffic jams that often occur at the end of the work-day or on Wednesday evenings (which are the equivalent of Fridays in Canada, as the weekend here is Thursday and Friday).  Often, the reasoning behind jamming your car into a space that a Vespa would be lucky to fit into is for the driver to do his damndest to bully his way into a spot in the "lane" that he needs to get into in order to make it to his off-ramp in time.  Why he doesn't just plan ahead and get in the "lane" long before he needs to is beyond my comprehension.  I think there's something in the challenge and an adrenaline-rush factor involved in the last-minute scramble to get into a required "lane."

A Riyadh suberb
Finally, what about when we're actually not moving?  The car has to be parked somewhere.  According to Saudis, anywhere is just fine.  Just running in a corner store for a quick purchase?  No need to spend time looking for a spot.  Just park behind someone else.  If the driver of the car you blocked comes back, he'll be sure to let you know you're in his way.  See an open space on a downtown corner?  Go for it.  No worries that you're parked right beside the stop sign.  Oh, and a quick note about stop signs...they're really just reminders to look for moving cars in the intersection you're about to sail through.

When all is said and done, though, somehow drivers manage to survive quite well around here.  I'm sure there are fatal accidents, but with all the driving I've done in the last month, the only accidents I've witnessed or come across have been minor fender benders.  None of them involved myself and my driver.  I've been in close calls, but my driver always seems to know that it's coming and weasles his way out of it and they've always been at lower speeds.  Like I said before, it's actually pretty entertaining to experience the driving around here.  This is probably because I really trust the drivers, especially my driver from work.  They are professionals when it all comes down to it and I'm glad it's them driving and not me. 

More construction
In Joy,

Saturday, February 2, 2013

My 95/5 Principle

Back in high school, when I worked at Two Rivers Wildlife Park, it became very clear to me that the people you're surrounded with dictate 95% of the enjoyment you get out of any situation.  Part of my job there was to take in roadkill and cut it up so that the cougars, lynx, and bobcats had some meat to eat.  It wasn't just my job, the other people I worked with at the park did it with me.  A miserable job in many ways, especially when the corpse had been out in the sun just long enough before being picked up to become ripe and rank.  It could have been a job that I hated, but it wasn't.  And it wasn't because I managed to get a handy-dandy noseplug.  And it wasn't because I found learning the anatomy of the animals I was butchering interesting.  It was because the people I worked with at the park were fun and positive.  We managed to put a happy spin on the task at hand by having great conversations and just plain enjoying each others company.  So, as a result of the people that surrounded me while butchering smelly and decaying roadkill, the task was 95% enjoyable, and 5% miserable.

I've also been in situations where everything about the circumstances was amazing.  The physical surroundings were superb, the food was amazing, the day was sunny, the opportunities for greatness was abundant, but the people that I was experiencing all this with were miserable company.  These experiences were 95% crappy, and 5% awesome.

As a human being, no matter how introverted or extroverted you may be, the people that surround you play a huge role in your enjoyment of life.  Your attitude plays a big role in this as well, yes.  But what I've found is that, no matter how positive your attitude, the people around you will eventually wear you down, drain your energy, and zap you of your stores of positivity if they hold negative energy in some way or another.  And, if they are positive and happy people, they will lift you up and carry you to places of joy that you never thought possible.  This is exactly what I've experienced in the past two weeks of living in Saudi Arabia.

As you read in my previous blog entry, "Day One - And So It Begins," I met Michel and Johnny.  The two most incredibly kind and generous men I've ever had the pleasure to call friends (comparable only to Dad and my "West Coast Dad," Ken).  As a wonderful spin-off to meeting them I was introduced to a slew of Lebanese and Syrian expats (with a touch of American mixed in there) that live in my compound.  People like Sabrina, a sweet and gentle dietician who makes you smile the moment she walks into a room no matter what your mood and who is giving me daily reminders to practice my Arabic; like Walid, with whom I've met my match (and then some) in the realm of philosophy, realism, and outdoor adventure (although, I will admit, he's a tad more extreme on the physical/outdoor adventure side of things than I may ever be); like Dany, who can charm (almost) any girl with a flash of his smile and who has become my chocolate-fix savior;  like Mofeed (please excuse me if I destroyed the spelling of your name) who introduced me to a side of Saudi Arabia that I never expected existed and who has revealed to me that I won't be leading an overly conservative life in Arabia after all if he has anything to do with it (yes, I've found my "party-happy" friend); like Alli who is my North American ally in promoting the use of English amongst our Arabic speaking friends and who has become the treasured female entity that balances out the testosterone-filled spaces that constitute my new home; and like Rab who is determined to introduce me to any fellow (and oh so elusive) Canadian that he may be able to find at his workplace or in the compound in order to help me feel more at home. 

It is because of these people that I had shoulders to cry on (or at least to vent to) when I thought I was going to strangle someone, possibly myself, due to the effects of jet-lag.  They are the ones who explain to me that the slow-motion way of life is the norm and tell me to not get my knickers in a knot.  They remind me that chilling out and letting life flow as it will is the optimal way of living, especially here in Saudi Arabia.  They are the people who assure me that they too had been in my situation(s) and that it gets better.  They are the people who explain to me the different cultural aspects of the Saudi people and how best to adapt my Canadian sensibilities to their exotic attitudes.  They show me that what I'm experiencing is not a crazy and confusing dream, but is in fact the reality of my life and that I need to open my eyes and welcome it in as the amazing adventure that it most definitely is.

Most importantly, my new Lebanese and Syrian friends (consider yourself automatically included in this group, Alli), have welcomed me into their world with wide open arms and have graciously included me in any and all of their social activities.  They've helped me feel normal in this abnormal space (at least it has the potential to feel abnormal for me) and managed to show me that everyday living including laundry, grocery shopping, sipping coffee in a comfy armchair, good days at work, bad days at work, and the odd barbecue does happen around here.  They are my social medicine when I need to be uplifted and need my positive energy to be recharged.

So, yes, many aspects of living in Saudi Arabia could make life miserable.  Many aspects of moving oh so far away from home and the people and places I love could make life incredibly miserable.  Many aspects of taking on a job that very few people can ever say they've done (and therefore cause me to have very few people to coach me on how to handle it's challenges) could make life very miserable.  Instead, I have people who surround me that are allowing my life in this strange country to be 95% awesome, and 5% challenging.

Thank you, my dearest fellow expats.  My gratitude to all that you do is immeasurable.

In Joy,

Friday, February 1, 2013

Day One - And So It Begins

I woke up on my first morning in Saudi Arabia with a mind flooded with thoughts of what I need to get done, questions on how to do them, feeling out of my element, and constant reminders to myself to take deep breaths, stay in the moment, and take things as they come.  I thank the powers that be for the gift of meditation (and, as pop-culture-cliched as this may sound, Elizabeth Gilbert for sparking my interest in meditation...and while we're playing the thanking game - thanks to Maree for recommending "Eat, Pray, Love" to me four years ago).  Essentially, if it wasn't for me being able to resort to the basics and concepts of meditation, I wouldn't have gotten through my first day in Arabia.

Really, think about it friends.  Here I am, a Canadian girl raised in a small town with a great family living wonderfully predictable lives.  Here I am, a Canadian girl with a couple of degrees under her belt to demonstrate some semblance of dedication to hard work and a big fat move across the country to another small town indicating that there is some inkling of an adventurous spirit in there somewhere.  Beyond that, this Canadian girl has no experience in world travel.  And what do I do to get that experience?  Travel to a place with a culture that has almost no relation to anything I've ever experienced.  And, for the cherry on top, I do it all alone.  Yes, I've always done things to the extreme in some sense or another, but this is a bit much.  Funny how I only just realized it the morning I woke up in Saudi Arabia.

First things were first.  Get online to tell my parents and friends that I made it safe and sound.  Unfortunately, the Internet was not set up in my apartment.  I was, however, pretty sure that my compound would have a cafe somewhere that may or may not have wifi.  I got myself dressed and ready somehow.  It was a bit of a feat considering I was basically running on adrenaline at this point.  Being completely out of your element and traveling via four flights over 21 hours does not bode well for a good night's sleep.  More deep breaths and off I went to wander around my compound, laptop in tow, looking for the cafe.

I walked out the big glass doors of my apartment building and down the wide flight of concrete steps onto the sidewalk.  Mr. T had mentioned the night before which direction to head to find the mini-market and the pool, so I took his suggestion and headed straight.  I was surrounded by simple three-story beige-coloured stucco buildings, shaded by palm trees, and bordered with nice green bushes.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I thought my surroundings would be lacking in greenery.  Turns out that I had something to make me feel a little more at home after all.  I walked down the sidewalk, greeted by another friendly neighbourhood cat who insisted I stop and give him a little scratch behind the ears.  Okay, maybe he didn't insist.  Maybe I stooped down and called him over.  But still, he was really happy about it, as was I.  I walked a little further and discovered, to my left, a kidney shaped pool with diving board in the centre of a lovely pool yard with lounge chairs and patio tables.  The pool yard was essentially the back-yard of a building called "Recreation Building A."  I figured this might be promising and walked towards the building's back wall which was a mural of glass windows and doors.  I saw a man enter through a glass doorway and as I neared that passageway I noticed two men sitting on stools at a high counter with espresso cups in their hands.  My, my, looked like I was in luck!

I stepped through the doorway and asked the men, "What is this place, exactly?" in a shy, diminutive voice.  Yes, I know, not the most polite of greetings.  I will remind you of the detail that, at this point in my mind, I very well could have been sleep-walking and experiencing a very lucid dream.  They, however, didn't seem to mind and obligingly told me that it was a cafe.  I asked the server for a latte and a chocolate croissant.  I really didn't want the croissant, but it was staring me in the face on the counter under a glass cover and it just made sense at the time to ask for it.  I will admit, though, it was actually quite delicious.  I then asked the most crucial question of my day, well actually that particular moment, as many more questions tend to come up on your first day living in the Middle East.  The question I asked was, "Do you have wifi here?"  Followed by a mild bit of begging, "Please tell me you have wifi here."  They laughed and the one with white hair said, in an accent I couldn't place, "Yes, of course. Look for Red Lounge on your network list."  Eureka!  I had contact!

I hopped on Facebook right away, seeing as that is the easiest way to let everyone know I was still alive and functioning at a reasonable level of cognition.  Then, while typing a few e-mails to my supervisor and my parents, the man with the white hair and kind eyes introduced himself as Hanni and then looked over at the man with the dark hair, teddy-bear stature, and a huge smile and introduced him as Michel, "...or Michael as you would say in English." He added.  As is typical for me, the conversation did not end there.  I discovered that these men were from Lebanon and had been living in Saudi Arabia for a number of years.  They discovered that I was from Canada and had only just arrived the night before.  Hanni offered to show me around the compound after I had completed my e-mails.  An offer which I gratefully accepted.  We were soon off for the tour during which I was showed the "Family Pool," the tennis courts, the squash courts, the indoor lap pool, the hot tubs, the saunas, the steam rooms, the fully stocked gym.  I realized that, while I may not have mountains to ride my bike on, I will not be lacking in ways to fulfill my need for physical activity.  He also showed me the DVD library (with a limited stock), and the library (which was locked up), the bakery, the mini-market, and the laundromat.  When I told him that I needed the internet in my apartment and that I didn't have bedsheets or towels he guided me to the administration office.  Hanni took me directly to "The Man in Charge," who was a tall and kind looking man of Indian'ish heritage (because, while I'm learning, people from that realm of Asia still look very similar to me), and left me to ask for what I needed while he chatted with some other people working in the office. 

Upon leaving the administration office we saw Michel walking with a tall, dark skinned man with grey hair and the most amazing hazel eyes I've ever seen.  We went over to talk with them and Michel introduced me to Jean (or Johnny, as I've discovered is how the people who call him a good friend refer to him).  They told me that they were going to the super-market for groceries and asked if I needed anything.  I told them that, yes, I actually needed groceries.  So I went off to get my abaya and as I stepped back out onto my apartment building's front stairs I saw Johnny and Michel waiting for me in Johnny's white jeep to head out on my first trip outside the compound since arriving.

I thought it would be odd at the grocery store because I would see women in their full black "suit" of abaya (black cloak), hijab (head covering), and niqab (face-veil)  and I would not be allowed to speak to Michel and Johnny.  Turns out, at the grocery store, I didn't have to worry.  Yes, there were many women walking around with only their eyes, feet, and hands sticking out indicating that there truly was a human being under all that black.  But it didn't feel strange at all to me to see this.  I guess I was just prepared for it.  It felt normal.  Probably because, for everyone else in the grocery store, it was.  They acted like regular, everyday, grocery shoppers who happened to be wearing a lot of black material.  As for not talking with Michel and Johnny, that wasn't an issue either.  It may have been different if the muttawa (religious police) were roaming the aisles, but since they weren't we just roamed around like a few friends getting groceries together.  If Michel and Johnny weren't worried, then I felt no reason why I should be.

It turns out that Michel and Johnny are best friends.  It was easy to tell by the way they constantly teased each other and, at some points, tortured each other to the point of causing one or the other to raise his voice in the most sarcastic of tones and say, "Shut the F*&$ up!"  They were incredibly kind to me and Michel came with me through the aisles of the grocery store asking me if I needed this or do I like that and promptly adding the item to the cart if I said yes.  Items included things such as two pieces of cheesecake, hangers, 1kg of kalamata olives, a proper chef's knife, cans of tuna, Egyptian feta cheese (YUM!), goat cheese...hmmm, now that I'm writing this I'm noticing a cheese theme happening for this grocery order.  You get the point.  And the kindness didn't end there.  While I was organizing my bags of groceries into the shopping cart I noticed that Michel was handing money over to the clerk.  I then realized that all of my items had been scanned.  Michel had bought my groceries for me.  I asked him, to be sure, "Michel, did you just pay for my groceries?" To which he replied, in his Lebanese accent filled with trilled r-sounds, "Of course I did.  You just arrived here.  You have no family here.  I must do this for you.  You are an angel."  Well, I guess I couldn't argue with that.

And so began my friendship with Michel and Johnny.  Which also turned out to be the catalyst for  friendships with oh so many wonderful people at my compound.  Whom, I can honestly say, are the reason why I survived, and actually (when all is said and done) enjoyed, my first two weeks in Saudi Arabia.

In Joy,