Sunday, November 10, 2013

It's Not The Easiest Thing, Living Here

In a few past blog posts I mentioned that I would talk about why living in Saudi Arabia, especially the conservative city of Riyadh, is not the easiest thing to do.  I've actually been meaning to write about this for a while, but I have a major aversion to writing about negative stuff when I feel like I can't put a positive spin on it.  Something about putting a negative vibe out in the world just makes me shudder.  Words have vibrations after all.  Also, I didn't quite feel like I had a good enough grasp on this place to be able to describe what I was having difficulty with to any degree of understanding or detail.  I'm at a point now where I'm seeing the good alongside the not-so-good of Riyadh and I'm also feeling the fogginess of my transition period begin to lift, so here goes another blog entry, just for you, my curious friends and family and random readers.

Difficulty #1 - SLOW:
Everything is slow here.  And, if it's not slow then it just doesn't happen on time because of the rampant inefficiency of the place.  Also, most things that do get done aren't done correctly until the third try.  I have heard many theories as to why things happen slowly and are done inefficiently here.  The main theory is that there's a laziness factor amongst Saudis and the other nationalities that work here.  I don't like to generalize because I think that there are many awesome workers around here.  I believe there's something more to it that I would only be able to figure out if I was working amongst these people.  The bottom line is, if I need anything official done, like a travel visa or a mail order, I can be guaranteed that it will not be completed when I expect it to be.  It will, however, miraculously happen when the pressure is on and it MUST be done.  But, only if it is REALLY needed.  There is a saying here that has the acroynm "IBM."  When you ask a Saudi person to do something the first thing they say is, "Insha'Allah" (if Allah wills it).  This could mean yes, or it could mean no.  And the most frustrating part of it is you can never tell which one it is.  Never.  When what you asked for hasn't been done when it was expected and you ask the Saudi person again they will say, "Boukra" (tomorrow).  When tomorrow comes and it still hasn't been done the Saudi person will say, "Ma'lesh" (Nevermind; take it easy; no worries - in this context it basically means it's probably not going to happen any time soon, if ever.).
Positive spin:
This is a really good way to gain a sense of zen.  Bottom line is, you get taught pretty quickly here that you have very little control over how things get done, when they get done, and that there is no guarantee of them actually getting done.  You just submit a request and hope for the best.  What this does is teach you to sit back and let the Universe handle the rest.  If it is supposed to happen it will happen.  You learn that you won't die if something doesn't get completed within a certain time frame.  Sometimes you even recognize that the time frame within which something gets done is actually better than when you were hoping it to be completed.  And, if you don't relax and let things happen when they will you'll turn into a ball of stress and poor health.  That's not my scene.  I choose the zen route and I'm grateful for the intense practice that I get here.  Luckily, now that I'm making connections with "official" people, I'm starting to gain a sense of the ins and outs of things and am able to have things completed a little more quickly.  Not because I'm manipulating the system, but simply because there are more efficient routes that I wasn't originally aware of.

Difficulty #2 - Lack of Standards:
This kind of relates to Difficulty #1, and it is the lack of customer service here.  I often get the feeling that nobody in the service industry in Saudi Arabia really cares about the needs of the customer.  I know this isn't true and I know that there are places and workers who have standards of service and workmanship that they proudly stand behind.  I just have to look REALLY hard for them.  Luckily my friend, Munira, has an amazing repertoire of knowledge as to where these stores and people are so I'm doing okay in that department.  Before I met Munira, however, I was often appalled at how nobody really cared to help me get what I needed when I was paying them money.  I walked away from a number of purchases simply because I felt I was being treated poorly.  I've also gotten very angry, a few times, with some people who were in a position of power (security guards at my compound) who were being very unreasonable with me.  I felt terrible for getting worked up enough to get angry at someone.  I am the last person to even consider raising my voice in any circumstance and I pride myself in knowing when to stop talking and breathe when the pressure and frustration is high.  Therefore, this is a good example of how exasperating people who work in the service industry and/or public realm here can be.
Positive Spin:
I'm learning how to advocate for myself here.  I've experienced two extremes on how to handle situations where I could be "played"; one extreme where I am my typical polite Canadian self and allowing people to take advantage of the fact that I will let things slide simply to avoid confrontation; to the other extreme where I am riled up to the point of anger and using force and influence to get what I want (Westerners are often given more respect than other nationalities here and it is something that can be taken advantage of).  I'm coming to find a good balance now where I can be assertive while using warmth and kindness paired with strength and knowledge to stand up for myself and get what I am warranted.  I am coming to know the subtle ways of arguing my point while allowing others to feel like they are heard and understood.  I'm also learning when it is worthwhile to actually just let something go.

Difficulty #3 - Prayer Times:
Running errands isn't a simple task of getting into a car and heading to the grocery store or mall.  Saudi Arabia has times when everything is shut down for Muslims to practice their prayers.  I'm all for giving people the chance to practice their religion, so I don't begrudge them this at all.  I think it's great that they don't have to worry about leaving their post to go pray.  But I can't deny the fact that it is uber inconvenient for me that at approximately 12:00, 3:30, 6:00, and 8:00 everyday all stores and restaurants are shut down for 20-30 minutes.  This means that I have to calculate the best time to head off to go shopping and rush through a purchase if I want to finish up at a store before prayer is called.  I've had many times where my shopping trip was extended by a good 30-45 minutes simply because I miscalculated how long it would take for me to finish up.  Many times I've also been locked IN at either a restaurant or a grocery store because I decided I was done and ready to go during the period of prayer (restaurants and grocery stores don't kick you out the way other retail establishments do...they simply allow you to remain inside to continue shopping or eating while the clerks and waiters go off to pray).
Positive Spin:
I love the call to prayer or Adhan.  It's so ethereal and beautiful to hear the Muezzin sing out the announcement that it's time for the Muslims to close up shop and get themselves situated for praying.  You can hear it wherever you go because it's announced over loudspeaker throughout the city and in all buildings.  Here's a cool recording of it I found on YouTube:

Difficulty #4 - Not Allowed to Drive:
 I'm not the type of girl to spout feminist debate and rant about the inequality of women, but not being allowed to drive?  In the 21st century??  Come ON!!  I knew this was something I would be dealing with when I moved here.  I figured I would just roll with it, and I have done so.  The thing is, the longer I stay here the more not being able to drive irks me and wears on my patience.  It really is incredibly hard for me to not have the freedom to just get up and go whenever I want.  I am an extremely independent person and, while I have amazing male friends who are generous with offers to drive me to get groceries and do other chores, it kills me to have to rely on them.  I can get drivers, which helps in the independence department, but they need to be scheduled.  If I don't plan far enough ahead there's a good chance I won't be able to get one.  If I can get a driver, many of them have no idea where I want to go either because they can't speak English very well or they simply have no clue how to get to the place I am aiming to go to.  So, a simple desire to just get something done, for example, like a picture custom framed, turns into a big mess because I'm not sure of an actual place to go get this done and my driver has no clue what I mean by the word "frame."  Along with this, some drivers scare the crap out of me.  The driving here, in general, is scary.  Add to that a driver who has no sense of what defensive driving is and seems to think that weaving in and out of traffic is the best way to get somewhere and you've got a girl who's almost in tears wishing that she could just drive her own frickin' car.  Going back to the many drivers who never know where the place is that I want to go; I would gladly tell them how to get there but I don't typically know either.  If I could drive my own car, however, I would happily go exploring the city and get familiar with the place.  A friend once said to me that she has been here for over a year and still doesn't feel any connection to the city.  She said that, when she leaves her compound, she feels like a visitor to Riyadh.  I've been here for over nine months now and I completely agree with her.  I know that there are some amazing places to see here, right in the city, and I have no way to truly get to know them.  It's not like this city is walking/biking/public transit friendly.  The only way to really explore Riyadh is to drive around and I can guarantee you that, unless I have my own private driver, I am not going to be able to do this.  Bottom line, the not-being-allowed-to-drive situation makes me sad.  I live in such an exotic and interesting place and I am likely never going to get to know it the way it deserves to be known.
Positive Spin:
This is a hard one for me to put a positive spin on.  Probably because the sores created by being prevented from driving are always so raw for me.  One thing it does is make me more organized when it comes to what I need to do and when I need to do it.  When my fridge is almost empty, I schedule a good two hours for a trip to the grocery store and stick to that schedule.  When I have supplies for therapy at work to buy, I research where I have to go to get them before I even call a driver (which means, yet again, relying on someone else to help me because the stores here have crap for websites).  And, when it comes down to it, I am learning to simply take many deep breaths and recognize that I may just not get things done that don't desperately need to be done.  This, essentially, means that if it isn't getting groceries, buying therapy materials, or getting to the indoor climbing wall then it probably won't happen.

Difficulty #5 - Language Barrier:
Oh my gawd, I am so ridiculously bad at learning a second language.  Combine that with the fact that almost everyone here can speak at least a little bit of English and are always wanting opportunities to practice and you have one horrible Arabic learner.  Plain and simple, I'm a lazy English-language speaker.  I am not proud of this.  Yet, this fact still does not motivate me to learn Arabic.  I will admit that, even though I have learned how to say left, right, straight, and stop in Arabic I can't for the life of me remember what those words are right now.  And these are words that I need to direct my drivers (see Difficulty #4 above)!  I am well aware that I make life more difficult for myself here because of my lack of Arabic language knowledge.  I really can't give any insight as to why I am still not motivated to work harder at learning Arabic.  The simple fact of the matter is, I just have no desire right now to put the energy into this task.  If anyone has any tips on how to get my ass in gear in this department, please feel free to share them in the comments below.
Positive Spin:
I have very quiet and peaceful drives to and from work because my drivers speak basically no English.  When they do try to speak to me in English and I try to speak to them in Arabic it often turns into a hilarious mess and we get a good giggle from it.  And, for some odd reason, when I do try to speak Arabic the people I'm speaking to absolutely love that I try and seem to find me endearing because of it.  Then, forgivingly, they break into speaking English with me to put me out of my misery.

Difficulty #6 - Friendliness Being Taken the Wrong Way:
I'm a friendly person.  I like to smile and make the people around me comfortable.  I am not someone who gets her way through being forceful or blunt.  "You catch more flies with honey" is my motto.  This has gotten me into some uncomfortable situations with men who have been assigned to help me with various tasks at work and who also happen to be single.  For me, simple conversation and small talk that occurs amongst business tasks is just that, simple conversation and small talk.  I've come to realize that, for a single man in Saudi Arabia who does not live on a compound, this type of interaction indicates that I must be aiming to marry him.  For example, mentioning that I love animals and talking about my past equine endeavors when a particular single man asked about the picture of my horse on my computer screen turned into me receiving about 20 pictures via text of this man's family farm's animal residents.  Later, after watching a movie in which an actress reminded him of me, I received a YouTube link to the theme love song to that movie.  I've also had a driver call me outside work hours to tell me, in extremely broken English, where he lives in case I care to visit.  These are just a few examples of the uncomfortable and mainly amusing situations that I've found myself in as a result of being friendly to the men here.
Positive Spin:
This has forced me to recognize a cultural divide and to shift my perspectives rather than to simply get annoyed.  There was nothing creepy about these men.  The movie-theme-texter was, and still is, a great person to work with and very reliable.  He simply isn't used to dealing with women.  A friend of mine explained that these guys live in apartment buildings that only house single men.  They are only allowed in the "singles" sections of restaurants where no women are allowed.  Men are not allowed to talk to women in public unless the women are their sister or mother or daughter.  They, essentially, can only ever associate with other single men.  And, if they happen to be living in Saudi Arabia but aren't Saudi, they may not even have the opportunity for a marriage to be arranged for them.  So, when they get the chance to talk to a woman and she's single their brains shift into a gear that resembles a thirteen year old boy who went to a boy's only boarding school all his young life and suddenly is given a chance to study with a girl.  These men have no clue what to do and how to read signals.  I, of course, forgive them this and have learned to be more clear and precise and less "friendly" when I work with them.  I've also become an expert in dealing with the awkward let-down, even though some of my friends seem to think I'm still too friendly in these circumstances.  Regardless, it has made for some funny and innocent stories. 

Difficulty #7 - The Caste System:
I have a really hard time with this one.  In this country it seems that the only way to get respect here is to come from an affluent country and to have an embassy that will back you up when you're in a bind.  Equality for all is certainly not an aspect of the mentality of the typical Saudi Arabian (keep in mind that there are many Saudi Arabians that are respectful and kind to all people no matter where they come from).  I have worked amongst some amazing and capable women and have dealt with some very sweet and helpful men from countries like the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, as well as others.  These people, more often than not, get paid much less than a westerner would get paid in the same job, get placed in housing that is far below the standard that a westerner is placed in, work hours much longer than a westerner would ever be expected to work, and are manipulated in ways that a westerner would never ever experience.  It kills me that I get weekends to do as I please while the people I know from these countries are lucky to get one day to themselves every 10 days and then still have to get written permission from their "sponsors" in order to leave their apartment building.  This is just one small example of how much better I have it here compared to the people I know from less affluent countries.
Positive Spin:
I am so utterly aware of how lucky I am to be from Canada.  The gratitude I have for the opportunities that I have been given just simply for being born in Canada is immense.  I am also so glad that living in Saudi Arabia has opened my eyes to the ridiculous acts against human rights that occur in this world.  I know that I still don't even know the half of it.  Knowing what I do know, however, makes me want to help in ways that I am capable of doing so.  I'm still learning and beginning to recognize where I can play a part in this huge issue of inequality.  In time, I know I'll figure out what I can do that gels the best with my abilities.

On that super bummer, yet interesting, note I will end my list of "Difficulties in Saudi Arabia."  I'd like to say that this list is comprehensive.  It isn't.  I could go on, but I fear doing so would put me on a road to depression that I really would like to avoid experiencing.  All in all, this place is an amazing learning experience and I know that personal evolution is happening at a rate that I can't even come close to comprehending at this point in time.  I've come to learn that, if you want to grow and become a better person, challenge yourself and place yourself outside your comfort zone.  I am definitely doing that by living in Saudi Arabia. 

In Joy,


  1. Okay ~ there is an app that can certainly help you communicate. Go into the Playstore app and then type in "translate". With my translate app you type in the English, ask it to translate into any language and it does it ~ in word and in voice.You can see it and hear it so that you can just hand the person your phone and they can hear what your request is. It is fabulous. It will also translate back for you from that language to english. Don't know what you are capable of downloading is Saudi but you could maybe do that when you are home.
    Your beautiful open mind and loving heart will see you through the multiple changes you are enduring this year (and next?) Looking forward to December when hugs will be handed out randomly and freely. Love ya baby girl.

    1. Sue, I actually have that app but never used the voice output option. Silly me for not being more resourceful. This could open up a whole new world for me! Can't wait to see you and WC Dad and my beautiful BC bathed in white. Love you too!

  2. Shelley MacIntyre :)November 10, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    This was an excellent read Bonnie! Really enjoyed your perspective thank you so much for sharing! :)

    1. My pleasure, Shelley. Great hearing from you!


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