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,


  1. Way to go Bonnie. We knew you would be off and running in record time. Go get 'em girl.

  2. I love it! I am so proud of you for being so adventurous!


  3. Happy to see you are fitting in kiddo!!


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