Friday, January 22, 2016

Woman Driver!

Normally this would be a sexist statement of frustration, but this time is different ... this is Saudi Arabia! As many people know, women driving in Saudi is not a common occurrence; some think that it is actually against the law. While this belief isn't quite correct, the culture is such that it generally maintains the same result.

It was just after 6:00 am on the first foggy morning in at least a year. We could hardly see 3 meters in front of us, but my boss was not deterred from driving a little faster than I would have felt comfortable doing on my own. We quickly came upon a car that was driving super slow, obviously driven by someone who either was just learning or couldn't see very well. As we passed them, I glanced over to see who was in the car (yes, I am nosy). The contents gave me a bit of a shock.

Woman driver! Behind the wheel was a teenage girl in a white hijab carefully steering the car with, presumably, her father in the seat next to her and two others in the back seat. I don't know if they were taking advantage of the weather which would allow them to not be seen, or if this is something this particular family was used to doing for whatever reason, but I found the dissonance to be quite in line with many of my other experiences here. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Leaving for and Arriving in Ethiopia! (Part 2: BAH - ADD)

There was very little time to wait in Bahrain. I went through the screening area required for transiting passengers and immediately set out to find my gate. It was relatively easy to find, and there was already a number of people sitting there waiting. I took off my backpack and set it in the seat and then sat in front of it. I placed my computer bag between my legs and used my phone to let people know that I was soon going to be on my flight to Addis Ababa (ADD).

In what seemed like almost no time at all (about 40 min at most), the gate attendant asked us to form one line. At the same time, the other gate attendant was doing the same thing on the other side... each of them saying that we only needed one line. The confusion created was short lived as they decided that two- one lines was quite acceptable for the boarding process. I grabbed my computer bag, got into one of the lines anxious to be as close to one of the first passengers as possible. (The sooner I can get on the plane, the better I feel.) In my haste, the most likely thing to happen when one is in a hurry, happened. I forgot my backpack!

I noticed my mistake, got out of line, and quickly retrieved my backpack which was left untouched next to a person calmly slouching and looking at his phone. He noticed me and smiled. I smiled back, nodded, and took my backpack and got at the end of the line. The gate agent saw me and asked "why did you get out of line?" I told him I had forgotten my backpack.

"That reason is good enough for you to get in line up here." So I followed the request to cut in line a bit behind where I would have been originally. I made it to the plane, found my seat, took a couple of deep breaths, and watched the others board the plane. It was like many of them were flying for the first time. They didn't know how to find their seats, and the constant questions to the flight attendants slowed the process down. I was very pleased that they were still very respectful in everything they were doing, which is not what has been my previous experiences in such situations!

Finally everyone was seated, and we were about on our way. They gave us the safety speech, and I decided to look at the safety card during this time. The person sitting in the seat next to me looked at hers as well. I then put mine away, and she did the same. I found out that she was just doing what I was doing. She had never flown before was taking cues on how to behave.

During the flight, we were served a meal. It was not a great meal, but as far as airline food goes, it was pretty good. And when one flies in economy, it is not a certainty that one is going to even get a meal these days. We soon landed at ADD, Terminal 1. I definitely wouldn't mind flying Gulf Air again. 

Leaving for and Arriving in Ethiopia! (Part 1: DMM - BAH)

My excitement was overflowing as I tried to figure out what to pack a mere 6 hours before I was to head to the airport. I figured I should probably take clothes and my computer in case I found time to work. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to meet up with my friend who was supposed to have traveled there a couple of days previously as he had missed his plane and decided not to go. This being the case, I had no idea what to expect or do after I arrived.

Finally I decided that I had more than I probably needed, and that it was time to just attempt to relax (something very difficult for me to do when I am about to travel). My mind was racing, my anxiety up, and my desire to leave growing by the second. Finally, it was time! I went to my coworker's room to both exchange some SAR (Saudi Arabian Riyal) for some USD and prepare to go to the airport. He had generously agreed to take me on the hour long trip to what is basically the middle of nowhere.

This particular trip took over that hour, however. We managed to make to the airport fairly easily, but getting into the terminal took a little more doing. While it shouldn't have been quite as difficult as it was, the signs were not quite as easy to understand as they first appeared to be. It said to take the first right, but the first right did not take us where it was supposed to. We knew exactly which road we were supposed to be on, but couldn't seem to find a road that connected. We even looked into parking lots to see if there was an entrance from that side with no success.

We did finally manage to find a connecting road and make it to the airport. Upon entering, however, there was a LONG line that seemed to be waiting to put their luggage through an x-ray machine. I had already printed my tickets, so I went to find the entrance to the international departure area and hoped they would let me through. Success!

Then it was time to stand in line for the next hour waiting to get through passport control. Then I waited for the gate to open. I lost track of time and was only thinking about when the plane left as opposed to boarded, and it turns out that the plane was continuing on to Delhi after it stopped in Bahrain, so the destination they called out was Delhi. I just ignored it. Fortunately, I decided to go to the gate and see if it was open and found that it was boarding. I quickly got on the plane (they almost didn't let me because they were looking for a visa for India, which of course I didn't have), and while I wasn't the last one, there were only one or two who followed me!

The flight was uneventful, save for a few bumps. We got a little container of water just prior to take off on this 25 minute flight. Hydration is good even on short flights!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Train Ride There and Back: Dammam - Riyadh (Camel Tour Part 1 . . . and 4?)

While it seems that this section should have been written first, it has taken me much longer to write as there just isn't much to say about a train ride in either direction. In addition to that, I neglected to take pictures, so there is really nothing to show...

It was a fight to get away from work in order to get back to the apartments with adequate time to properly prepare ourselves for the two day-ish journey that was to follow. What should we pack? What should we wear? What is or is not allowed? Normally these questions would not phase me, but with my unsureness in dealing with Saudi culture, I tend to over-think just about everything. Eventually we managed to escape, and with the generous help of a coworker, we made it to the train station with time to spare. Dammam
We entered from the front and went to the left where we showed our ticket and had it scanned. We then went through the "door" to another space where they once again checked our tickets and ids and put our backpacks through an x-ray scanner. We then pick up our "luggage" and proceed to the train bypassing the first class lounge we would have been entitled to use had we arrived earlier.

We exited through the back making our way to the train. We boarded and were led to our seats. The ones whose numbers matched the ones on our tickets were at a table, but a woman and two children were sitting there. We were shown to different seats. My seat was facing the opposite direction than the train was going, but I didn't really notice, even with the large window I had been fortunately seated next to. It would have been a great view if it wouldn't have been dark!

 As the train was pulling away from the station, they made an announcement over the PA system. Part of this was a recitation of a part of the Koran which is said for travelers. It was s very interesting thing to listen to (unfortunately, it was in Arabic, so all I understood was the description they gave in English before hand).

The 4.5 hour ride went fairly quickly. We chatted a bit, watched a couple of kids watch their movies and play their games, and had a nice unhealthy meal in the meal car: a cheese sandwich, two small bags of salt and vinegar chips (crisps for you British types), a can of Coke, and a Bounty (think Mounds).

The return trip was basically the same, though quite a bit more subdued. We spent a few minutes in the first class lounge before heading to the train, and we were able to get the seats we had been assigned. It was the last train of the night, and it wasn't overly populated. After the rather disheartening meal of fast food, and the long day we had spent on the tour, we were ready to sleep, and sleep we did... for a while at least.

When we arrived at the station in Dammam, we realized that we didn't know the name of the compound in such a way as to communicate it to a taxi driver without them thinking we needed to go far beyond where we need to. This leads to an extreme increase in price, unnecessarily. Thankfully, there was someone there who spoke both Arabic and English AND actually knew where we were talking about! He helped us negotiate a fair fare, and we were able to learn that the name people are going to know is quite a bit different than the actual name! Thank goodness for my bed!!!!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Actual Tour (Camel Tour Part 3)

White Camel at Festival
 We left the hotel early in the morning... around 4:45 am or so. Getting a cab was easy, and while negotiating a price wasn't as difficult this time around, I am still not comfortable with such necessities.

The ride took about half an hour. Finding the meeting spot wasn't as easy as it should have been, but we arrived safely and relatively quickly. We boarded the bus and commenced with the waiting. They pointed out the tea and coffee that was available for us to make should we desire. I should have known then that it was going to be a rather odd day!

The bus ride took forever! It wasn't really uncomfortable, just long. It was basically long stretches of desert with occasional camels and/or goats dotting the landscape. We also passed through a town/city every now and then as well. Somewhere along the way a couple of the other passengers decided that we weren't too odd to actually talk with a bit. Eventually we arrived!

We were a little late for the festival, so we apparently missed some cultural performances. As I am not sure what exactly we were supposed to have seen, I really don't feel like I missed out on too much. After we had offloaded the bus, we were taken to a place on the opposite side of the ring as the rest of the spectators. I felt like we were being given VIP treatment. This feeling was supported by a person in an SUV who upon exiting stopped to say "Hello. I hope you enjoy the festival!" Not very profound words, but the "guide" informed us, as the SUV pulled off, that the man was one of the high princes. An early morning greeting by a high prince of Saudi Arabia while being led to an exclusive viewing area at a camel festival? Yes, definitely VIP experience!!

We didn't get to see all of the camel judging. It was a typical tour at this point in which it was a bit rushed as there was a schedule to keep and such. But what was to come was as much of a joy! We made various stops where we had tea, Saudi white coffee, dates, and were given gifts of hats and trinkets. (I now have about 4 or 5 hats that I will need to give away.)
One of the many cups of tea!

Amid all of this hustle and bustle, we also had lunch. I was under the impression that it was going to be Subway as that is what one of my traveling partners was told. It turned out to be a huge spread of pita bread, various hummus dishes, chicken, kebab, lasagna, fish, fruit, and whatever else I may be forgetting at the moment! There was no way to go hungry here!

While the food was wonderful, I was even more pleased by the discussion. Our tour guide was a Saudi woman who had earned her PhD in Special Education from the University of Syracuse! The topic of women driving came up, and she informed us that many women were actually opposed to it because of the responsibility they would have to take on if they were allowed to. She also told us about the body of 100 people that advises the king: 30 of these are women.

Off we went again. We saw a camel up close, listened to a man play a Saudi instrument (I wish I could remember what it was called, but it escapes me at the moment), and just relaxed.
Camel, man playing instrument, and
child from tour enjoying herself.

There was also a stop at a Wildlife Society station where we watched a video while sitting in very comfortable chairs. Again, included in all of these stops was coffee and a date! I think I had more coffee and tea in this one day than I did previously in two or three months!

Then we started home. To make up for not being able to stop at the souq (shop), we stopped at a store on the way home. Here there was a place one could buy dates, one that sold homemade cheese, butter, milk (cow and camel apparently), and large convenience store where they sold just about anything you could possibly want.

Family centered doll set. 
 The toys they sold surprised me a little. They had your everyday toy AK-47s, cowboy hats, and rocking horses, but they also sold dolls. These dolls were not covered; they were your standard dolls that one would find in stores across the western world. For a place that says they censor tv, movies, magazines, and the like, allowing such things as these seems a bit on the odd side. Of course after having seen the magazine selection they have here, I am of the impression that things aren't as heavily censored as people have made it sound... at least not in this area.

Then it was time to head home again. The women who had allowed themselves to be subjected to my tea induced giddiness were kind enough to continue talking with us. My tendency for puns/word-play having been greatly increased, I commend them for not throwing me off the bus any number of times!

It was quite the diverse make up, our group. There were the two of us strange Americans (plus the other who was sitting across the aisle), a South African of Indian decent, a Maori woman from New Zealand, and occasionally a British woman. It was great meeting them, and I am hoping that it isn't the last time for such an honor. As it was, they exited the bus early, and not too much later my group was at the shopping center finding a place to eat before heading off to the train station for the long ride back to Dammam!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tulip Inn Riyadh (Camel Tour Part 2)

After the train ride, we had to negotiate with a taxi in order to get to our hotel: Tulip Inn Riyadh. They wanted to charge us 50 SAR, but we were armed with information from the hotels website: they were only five minutes from the rail station! One of my traveling companions called the hotel in order to get directions. He gave his cell phone to the driver in order for the desk worker to give him directions. The driver listened, gave my friend back his phone, and said that we didn't have a reservation at the hotel.

I said that we just wanted to get there and deal with that upon arrival, so we asked the driver to take us there. He didn't know how to get there! We re-called the hotel so he could actually get directions! We then were able to negotiate a 30 SAR price. As we were riding and getting closer and closer to the hotel, my other companion informed us that we were in the bad part of town. It was crowded, loud, and looked like many busy south Asian locals.

When we finally arrive at the hotel and find the entrance, we are greeted by a sign that says reception but with no indication as to where it is. We decide to walk up the stairs to see if we can locate it. Fortunately, it is there. Unfortunately, they state they don't have my reservation. I show them my confirmation email. The receptionist tells me to forward that email to their home office and proceeds to check me in. He confirmed with me that I had already paid for the room and gave me the key. My two friends and I go to our Executive Suite!
Main Room

 The Suite is made up of the main room, which includes a television, and three bedrooms. The main bedroom also has its own bathroom. The beds are a bit hard, but I slept mostly on the couch anyway!

The view from the hotel, while in no way what I would call beautiful, gives one an idea of how things are going outside. In this case, one can see the extremely busy Riyadh traffic! The noise that found its way into the room matched the traffic on the road below.

After a good night sleep, or rather five hours of tossing and turning, I got up and took a shower. I was partially sleeping, but I was still a bit surprised to
Used Soap in Shower
find the bar of soap in the shower that looked as if it had been used no more than twice. It would have been a nice addition would it not have been used.

I turned on the shower and realized that I hadn't put the curtain inside the tub. I dismissed it with the thought "what is the worse that could happen? A bit of water on the floor isn't a big deal." As it turned out, it could be a big deal! I had to use the hair dryer to dry out some of my clothes that I was going to wear that day.

After my shower, it was just about time to go out and catch a cab to the mall in order to catch the bus for our day long tour!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Negotiating Meaning with My Students

The discussion somehow turned to Arabic, and I was left wondering what was going on. I finally figured out they were talking about masoob. My students quickly remembered they were in English class and started to explain what masoob was: bread, cream, bananas, and .... something else. They said the word in Arabic, but I didn't quite recognize it at first. Then they discussed it among themselves for a few moments. It was then I recalled the word.... but I didn't let them know!

The students decided to act it out: "what is animal that bzzzzzz?" while using a finger to move in a spiral toward the ceiling.

Me: A bee?
Students: No! Different animal!
Me: Hmmm... A fly?

A student went to the board. "This," he said as he drew a picture.
"That is a flower." I was really interested to see what he came up with next.
As he was finishing filling in the stinger on a crude but recognizable drawing of a bee, "What is this?"
"A stinger."
"Noooo!" His earnest reply made me smile.
"A bee." Noticing there puzzled looks, I continued, "bzzz! It stings you; it swells; and you go to the hospital." The gestures to accompany this were being readily used throughout.
The students smiled. "Bee goes flower ..." one brings his fingers to his lips to mimic eating something thick like noodles, "then goes back home."
I draw a box on the board and try to make it look like a passable hive and write next to it "hive" while saying "hive. A bee's home."

The students try to gesture some other word. It doesn't really come across as much of anything, but I decide to have mercy on them and not play stupid. "A bee makes honey."
"YES!! Honey!!"

The students are ecstatic. They are proud to have finally figured out the word. While it would have taken far less than the 20 minutes it took us if I had used a dictionary, we would not have learned the words 'stinger', 'bee,' 'hive,' and 'make.' And even more importantly they wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn the process of negotiating meaning. This is a skill they will need when they go to Texas and need to talk with some of the other students who may not know a lot of English or any Arabic. Hopefully this is something they have learned from and will retain!