A Blonde Eastern European Travels to Saudi Arabia

It was early in the morning when I got on the plane in Budapest.  Excited, but already tired, knowing that I have a twelve hour of journey ahead of me.  I was traveling alone(like usual), which generally does not make me feel worried or anxious.  However this time it was a completly different story.

I am an Eastern-European blonde and blue eyed women looking forward to be reunited with her American husband in the Kindom of Saudi Arabia, where he worked instructing new Saudi firefighters.

I had to change planes at Frankfurt airport, where the culture difference became crystal clear. It was amazing how different the crowd getting on the plane was from my last flight. This was my first time seeing a man in a thobe, the traditional Saudi attire, and women wearing the abaja, covering their whole body and head in black fabric, though not all were dressed like this.

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During boarding I found my assigned seat occupied by a Saudi man. No problem I thought, it is alright and happens fairly often. I will just ask him to move.

Oh if I had only known…

The man immediately called a hard-working Philippino stewardess to his rescue, explaining to her that he wanted that seat and refuses to sit next to me so they will have to find me another seat. I felt a bit embarrassed, but was ready to find myself a new seat and avoid this rude man. Here I came across some more difficulties and learned a bit about their culture, as more and more Saudis refused to sit next to me, regardless of their gender or age. At the end, as the outcast of the plane, i found peace next to an old Indian man who was more than delighted to have me as his traveling companion for the hours to come.

After listening to the “Prayer of the Travelers” from the Holy Koran, which played on the monitors, the plane took off and I was finally on my way to the amazing Kingdom of sand, camels and terrible coffee…which all deserve their own story.

Photos – Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

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On the Threshold
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The Three Mushroom Tombs(My nickname)
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One High Doorway.  Ready for a flood of biblical proportions.
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Three More Rooms
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Such a Good Use of a Hill
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I Could Have Done Better
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Too Bad There Is No Scale Here, as This One Is Massive
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King of the Tombs.  Just Two Thousand Years Too Late
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The Beautiful Surrounding Countryside. 
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Alone with 131 Tombs
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I Once Caught a Tomb This Big

Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

That fine and mysterious Muslim month of Ramadan is upon us. I very rarely claim to be an expert on anything, and Muslim holidays are no exception.  I have not read any books about this special month but have discussed it with the Arabs that I work with and seen it for myself.  

For this turn of the moon, as the Muslim calendar is based on the moon, the followers of Allah must fast while the sun is showing.  This means no eating, drinking, smoking, or pretty much anything else you can think of. Expats and Non-Muslims have to hide to eat, drink, and smoke.  Most work sites and compounds put up a “Non-Muslim Break Area” sign for rooms where these things are allowed which appears to be well tolerated. Getting caught in the open doing any of these things is severely offensive and not recommended. Not in your car, hospital, or anywhere in the open. Shops and restaurants are closed all day and the streets look like a ghost town while there is daylight.  Very few cars on the road, all shops shuttered, trash blowing through empty streets like some Arab Western. They claim the purpose of this is to show every person the suffering of those that are doing without, so they can better understand the difficulties of the needy and be appreciative of what they have.  

This all sounds very nice and I approve, but there have been some doubts raised in my mind the past few days as we have have gotten into this holiday.  The night brings out a different and crazy animal. Roads become clogged, which is a good thing, as any open tarmac will have youths in Toyota pick-ups, Landcruiser’s, Hyundai’s and Kia’s drifting.  Sometimes missing your car by a hair and sometimes losing control and spinning around to flood your face with their headlights before laughing and carrying on. Restaurants and shops change their hours to be open at night. Locals feast as soon as the sun disappears under the horizon and go to cafes to smoke and converse. Companies change their work hours for observers from a normal four hours to perhaps two hours so they can sleep during the day.  

Now it is true that my worries may be unfounded or incorrect but this sounds a bit like just changing everything 12 hours and becoming nocturnal.  Sleeping during the day and doing all manner of normal human activity at night does not make a fast or sacrifice.  Especially when the the air is like an oven during the day. Night is the only bearable time to be outside. I leave it for the reader to decide. 

A beginners guide to Kabsa

Kabsa is the national dish of Saudi Arabia and a main meal of many Arabs.  It consists of rice with many spices and a topping of meat.  Goat, camel, and chicken are popular choices.  While I enjoyed it my first time I quickly tired of it.  Eating the same dish for every dinner as is their custom is not enjoyable to me as I tire of doing anything repetitively.

Westerners might have difficulty with Kabsa even before eating it.  It is served on a giant saucer on the floor, and diners must sit around the edge of this plate.  Those with bad knees will have difficulty.  Once everyone is seated the dining can begin but do not waste your time looking for a fork.  This meal is eaten by hand, and be sure to only use your right hand, for hygiene reasons.  While extremely difficult at first the locals will take the time to properly show you how to roll the rice into a ball with your fingers so you can get it to your mouth without making a mess.  Now that we have gotten to the point of getting the food into your mouth let us discuss what you are eating.  th

On the top of this giant bed of rice is most likely a goat.  Those that are squeamish will have trouble as the head is probably there as well.  Being used to only hot dogs and other processed meat you try your hardest to avoid touching the head but the locals will have none of it.  Considering it the best meat they will tear pieces of the head and hand it to you.  Putting on a brave face and fake smile as you look at the goats eyeball staring your way, you choke it down with extra rice and take a big gulp of soda.  Have no fear if goat is not your meat of choice as you might luck out and get camel, which truly isn’t a bad meat.

The presentation of this meal for special occasions is spectacular.  For weddings, holidays, and other such gatherings multiple giant saucers are placed around and hundreds of people, perhaps eight per platter sit down to eat.  Each platter holding more rice and meat than fifty people could eat there are always massive amounts of leftovers.  I believed this to be waste until a friend told me that the leftovers are given to poor people.  I have not verified this but I like to believe it.kabsa-mandi

These photos are from the internet and not my own. 

Mada’in Saleh – Part 2

As soon as Davis and I arrived home we turned on my laptop and looked at the map. It was easy to tell where we had been driving as there were only a few roads crossing in the middle of the desert. Two cell towers also helped by making perfect landmarks. The road we needed to take was the only road we hadn’t tried off of the badly damaged tank road.

Furry Camel

Early morning the next day we again set off full of high hopes and absolute certainty that we would see our destination. We make it to the familiar tank road and turn onto the correct road.

Total time to make it further than we did the day before, less than twenty minutes.  We drive on, enjoying the scenery and confident in our route. After an hour and a half we stop in a little village for fuel. This village is comprised of a gas station, a tiny market, a police station, and a few houses. I would estimate the population as being made up of a large family. All villages in the Kingdom are identical. So we pull up to the fuel pump and the Indian worker asks “how much?” in Arabic. Here is a man that comes from a beautiful lush country of a billion people, and leaves his family and friends, to work alone in a speck of a village in the middle of a desert. I want to talk to him, to ask him why. What are his motives, his dreams, his desires. But alas, we are unable to communicate. So I hold up all my fingers to signify how much fuel to pump and then wave goodbye to this sad lonely wanderer and leave him to contemplate his decisions and being.

Down the ribbon of pavement we continue, enjoying the ups and downs and tight turns the hills offer us to break up the monotony of the desert. When my eyes start to close from drowsiness I just reminisce about the utter wastes of Utah’s Salt Flats or Nevada’s deserts and I snap awake with the understanding that this isn’t bad. It could always be worse.

But this time I seem to have awoken to a mirage, for there looks to be a giant mountain covering the road.  Surprisingly Davis sees the same. There truly is a hill of dirt covering the road. Stunned we stop for a moment until I realize a dirt trail with construction equipment littering it climbing the left side of this unexpected roadblock. Against Davis’s wishes I drive up this makeshift road to the top. From the top we are greeted with an fabulous view. High up on the mountain are heavy construction trucks moving dirt around. I secretly hope for one to go tumbling down the mountain since the precipices they are working on don’t look like they could support a man let alone a solid block of metal. Down below us on the opposing side of our roadblock is a beautiful road weaving through the mountain pass. I feel sorry for it as it looks so lonely without any cars.

Now we were at an impasse. I feel that we had driven too far to give up so easily but Davis feels that we have no options. I offer up the idea of driving down the side of the mountain but Davis is a safety minded individual and so is against it. I then offer roaming around the desert looking for a way to bypass this problem. Again Davis is against it saying that we only have a small front wheel drive sedan. I can see that Davis just wants to go home since he is making excuses about my easily executable and perfectly safe ideas, so I humor him and we return to Tabuk crestfallen.

Mada’in Saleh – Part 1

To travel from city to city in Saudi Arabia may appear to be a simple task for the uninitiated, since there are very few roads and long distances between the urban areas, but it is a false belief.  There is a wonderful invention called Google Maps that destroys the need to ask locals for directions or consult a map.  I believe everyone knows how it works so I will skip the dry lecture.  I researched the way to drive which seemed very simple.  Five and a half hours, two turns, and passing three intersections once outside the city.  That was it.  Very straightforward and simple.

Davis and I get in the car and head off to the South of Tabuk.  We have never gone this way before but there are few major roads so our chances of error seem minimal.  We drive on chatting and enjoying the scenery as everyone seems to do when seeing new places.  Soon enough we intersect a road that we do recognize.  It is the main road to the West and Red Sea.  Obviously we had missed our turn.  Being completely honest with ourselves we said we knew exactly what was wrong and that we had missed our turnoff at the last roundabout.  So we happily backtrack and take a different road to the South, or mostly South based on our sun reading skills.

Saudi CountryNow would be a good time to point out that Saudi Arabia does not get many tourists and does not believe in road signs.  So what road you are on is a complete guess.  It adds to the mystery of the culture but can be quite interesting when you have no idea where you are headed and there isn’t a town or crossroad for a thousand kilometers, or thereabouts.

We catch a new road off the roundabout and again head in a generally Southern direction  We continue on this road that runs with military bases on either side complete with tanks and artillery making imposing silhouettes on the hills against the horizon.  Soon enough the road gets rough beyond anything a human being should be able to stand.  To our best guess it is a road for the military’s tanks.  I feel as if I have been transported back a hundred and fifty years and am riding a Wells Fargo coach across Nevada.  It turns out our guess is spot on as we come to an Army gate.  Dead End.  So we turn around and enjoy the free bone rattling massage while retracing our route.

We go back a little ways and turn off at an intersection to a road we have not yet used.  This road goes on for about 20 kilometers and dead ends at another military gate.  So we back track again and choose yet another different way.  This route takes us for another 10 kilometers and then dead ends at a, well, you know the answer.  It felt like we were stuck in some sort of trick.  Every road we chose ended up going to a military gate.

Davis and I do not give up easily, but seeing as we were not soldiers and had no business on a military base we decided to retreat, go home, regroup, come up with a plan of attack, and assault Mada’in Saleh at a later date.

Again we back track, heading this time not for the South but back North to the city.  After two hours of driving we had made it a total of ten minutes outside the city, but at least now we are back to the, what is this, a military gate?  Perhaps it is time to invest in a GPS.

How to Fit in Saudi Arabia

American-Saudi

Being a spy would have suited me as a life calling, as I fit in almost perfectly everywhere I visit. I adapt to different cultures with ease. Only my lack of language skills holds me back.

Being adopted by the Saudis is a very simple feat to accomplish. Given to the fact that they are extremely and genuinely friendly. Always ready to share their food with strangers, give a ride in their car to any in need, and just be helpful in any possible way. A simple showing of understanding the culture, genuine interest in their beliefs, and most importantly, joining them in cafes smoking, eating, and talking, is all that is required.

When I first arrived here the first question was always what religion did I follow, and I had to provide to worst possible answer, as I abhor lying, except when it suits or helps me. Agnostic is not an answer Muslims like to hear. It is a worse answer than Christian, Mormon, or any other religion, except perhaps Jewish. So I would get the usual information and books about the religion and long talks about the Prophet Muhammad and the good that Muslims do. I took no offense to this conversion effort and listened with open ears, as I have done with everyone that tries to convert me. When they finish I thank them for the information, tell them my beliefs and why I don’t follow organized religion, and then state that I would not like to discuss it anymore. So far everyone has honored my request.

The discussions following religion always follow the same line. What do you know about our country and customs and what do you think of them? I would tell what little I know about the customs, and then listen to their explanations and try to see it from their point of view instead of a Western or foreigners point of view. They are protecting their women, not repressing them. They used to be Bedouins and would leave all their trash in the desert and so continue to do it. They hire foreign workers because they can. They drive the Arab way, and not the Westerners way. All these things seem perfectly normal to me.

I told my friend and co-worker, Saud, that I like their clothes. He wasted no time in taking me to a shop and purchasing everything. I do not wear it out when I am by myself but I like to dress as an Arab when I go out with my Saudi friends. And boy how I do fit in. Even the people I live and work with mistake me for an Arab when I wear the Thob.  We go to a cafe at night, smoke the wonderful narghile, eat food and ice cream, drink sugary tea and coffee, and talk. I must take a moment here to say something regarding Arabic coffee. It is the greatest insult to the coffee bean that has ever been devised by man. Burnt orange in color, it smells strongly of spices and tastes absolutely awful. There is no hint of coffee taste in it. Granted that the West has also decided to cover the taste of the coffee bean with caramel, chocolate, vanilla, and other such flavors, but they have not done the injustice to it that the Arabs have done.

The secret of fitting in is not truly a secret at all. It is merely being able to drop your preconceptions and accept the local beliefs and customs. Arabs drive where ever they feel like on a road. On the shoulder, across two lanes, sometimes not even being bothered to look at the road because they are fully involved with their phone. They consistently go through red lights and make left turns across traffic from right lanes. A visitor should expect this and drive following a similar style. Honking a horn and yelling at them whenever they straddle a line, as an American did here a few months ago, is not recommended. His car was shot three times for his troubles. He did not fit in.