homeward bound

In about three hours I’ll be heading down to the hotel lobby to check out, and then I’m off to the airport to begin my trek home:
– 2 hour wait in the airport (international flight + strange airport + busy airport = Sue needs lots of time)
– 6 hour flight to Frankfurt
– 6 hour layover in Frankfurt
– 10 hour flight to Vancouver
– 2 hour layover in Vancouver
– 22 minute flight to Victoria

I just had an hour long nap and now I feel all groggy, plus I’ve been fighting some sort of stomach issue for the last week, so not really feeling up to the voyage ahead of me, but it’ll be well worth it just to get home. The kids and Greg will meet me at the airport, and I’m very excited to see them.

I’m off to pack and to eat.

i’ll remain a sloth

As I was checking in to my current hotel on Friday morning (that’s hotel #3 for anyone who’s counting), I was told there was a ladies gym in the hotel. This is unusual for the Saudi hotels that we’ve been staying in for this project (there is always a men’s gym), and I was briefly excited, until I realized I had brought no workout gear with me, specifically no shoes suitable for going to a gym. Upon further thought I decided that I do have one pair that might work, so I took the keycard for the gym so I could check it out. That was Friday evening. It is now Monday evening here, and I finally checked out the ladies gym. It’s actually not bad — it has a couple of elliptical trainers, a stair climber and a few free weights.

I stood in the room for a few minutes, looking around, and then left, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to go back. I mean who am I kidding? I’ve come this far without exercising one iota, why break the trend now when I’m three days away from leaving? I’ve got all sorts of things working against me, too: no workout clothes or shoes, I hate working out in a gym, um…I guess that’s it.

So…if I come home and complain to you that I wasn’t able to exercise for 16 days, you can gently correct me and remind me that if I’d come prepared and if I’d had just a little motivation, I could have exercised the last five days I was here.

last day in Jeddah

Written on Nov 25, first day in Jeddah.
2:36 pm
Last night the two guys were are traveling with (Mohammed, an IBM employee from Dubai and Phil, and IBM employee from Victoria) decided to go into Jeddah for dinner. Tracy wasn’t feeling well and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go without her, but I went ahead and did it. I wanted to see the actual city and Mohammed is a very easy person to travel with. So off we went.

We ate at a seafood place, my first seafood since arriving here, and when we walked in the restaurant we were greeted by a display full of ice and fresh fish and shellfish. You picked the fish you wanted, how you wanted it prepared, and then went to your table. Mohammed ordered for us – we had calamari, huge prawns and I had fried hamar (not sure of spelling). It was excellent.

We got back to the resort at about 10:30 and I slept soundly until about 7:00, then snoozed until 8:00. My first sleep in. It was lovely.

I ventured in for another snorkel this morning and got up my nerve to go in the deeper area. More fish, and more colourful coral. Mohammed came with me and he said the sea life was as good as the dive they’d done yesterday.

We have a few minutes before we are leaving the resort. The plan is to have dinner in Jeddah and then head to the airport.

I have really enjoyed the leisure time, but it gives me more time to think about Greg and the kids and how much I miss them. I’ve still got five more long days before I head home. This morning I pulled a hair elastic of Amy’s out of my pocket and it almost made me cry. It will be good to be home, no question.
This was the last post I wrote while I was away. The problem with posting after the fact is it seems like a long time ago, and with the time of year I’ve since got caught up in other things. I will see if I’ve got some content for a wrap up post.

I think if I go again (there is a tentative trip planned for March), I will post while I’m there.

the red sea

Written on Nov 24, first day in Jeddah.
6:49 am
It’s my day off, it’s not even 7 am and I’m showered, dressed, and ready for the day. I guess my sleeping schedule is still a little off. I am tired, I just couldn’t sleep past 6. I am hoping for a nap this afternoon.

5:38 pm
I just watched the sunset on the Red Sea. I took a couple of pictures, but I know they won’t do it justice.

It was a bit of a slow start this morning. The Saudis are a late-rising people. Things open late and stay open late. Tracy and I took a walk to the resort beach this morning at 7:30 and it was completely deserted. We had a breakfast of cold pancakes and eggs — all of the food was cold. Not intentionally as there were candles burning under the hot plates but there was one candle for each huge plate. Ah well, I was hungry and it filled me up.

We waited a long time for the dive shop to open. We were told “9 or 10” in typical Saudi style, but the guy didn’t show up until well after 10 and then he couldn’t find his key. I finally had all my snorkeling stuff ready at about 11:15. And then I started to lose my nerve. I was the only one of the group snorkeling and I havent done it for years.

There is a pool dug out of the coral that looked ideal for snorkeling, but the access to it is awkward. And there are signs everywhere warning people of the extremely venomous sea urchins, stone fish and scorpion fish. Couple that with my general fear of doing anything remotely exciting and I realized I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

There was a German guy sitting near me with snorkel gear so I asked him if he’d snorkeled here before. Turns out he’s a flight attendant with Lufthansa, he comes here all the time, and he was scared the first time he went in. He gave me a few pointers and then we went in together. And I was fine. I didn’t go too deep, but I saw some beautiful fish. Not the kind of volume we saw in Mexico, but amazing variety. I think I saw at least 15 different kinds. And I can’t put in words how beautiful some of them were.

I ventured deeper a couple of times, but then I’d turn around and there’d be 20 fish right on my tail and it freaked me out a bit. Not sure what I thought they’d do to me, but like I said, I wasn’t in my element. But I’m so happy I had the courage to do it.

The sun has now gone away and it’s getting dark sitting here by the Red Sea. Plus I’m hungry so I’ll sign off for a bit.

adventure to Jeddah

Written on Nov 23, en route to Jeddah.
5:22 pm
Sitting on a plane (my favourite thing to do), waiting to take off, on my way to Jeddah for the Saudi weekend. It’s freaking hot on the plane and I’d love to take my abaya off.

I hate flying, and I feel even more uncomfortable when I’m surrounded by people who don’t speak my language and who are so…foreign. I have spent so little time in other countries and I’m not used to mixing with other cultures. In my own defense, the Saudi culture’s a hard one to crack. They are very private and I am so obviously Western. I am very aware of doing something culturally incorrect. (I am flying with Tracy and a couple of IBM folks, but we are all sitting separately.)

Anyway. I’ve got a book, I’ve got my music and I should just sit back and relax.

It’s a huge plane. I’m in row 46 and I think there are at least another 25 rows behind me. 10 seats across. They started boarding 45 minutes before scheduled take off and I can see why.

Now to my book…

9:51 pm
Survived the plane ride. Had to stop reading my book because there was a plane crashing in it. As I said, easily the biggest plane I’ve ever been on and we off-loaded directly onto the tarmac.

Jeddah’s more humid than Riyadh. We arrived at about 7:30 pm and the temperature is perfect.  Well, perfect if you are not wearing a black polyester cloak. We are pretty sure we don’t have to wear the abaya within the resort compound, so Tracy and I just had a late dinner on our patio, abaya-less. It was beautiful.

It was a bit of an adventure getting here. We took a rickety old shuttle to Avis, where Mohammed (one of the IBM-ers) rented a car and we made our way using his GPS. But the Sheraton has no sign out front. Just a wall and a gate. We ended up phoning them and we were told to find the brown and white gate by the line of six trees. We found it after counting sets of trees as we drove by each compound gate.

The resort is beautiful, at least by night. The rooms are separate ground floor villas with patios. It’s walk in access and the walk way is lined with short palm trees and lights. Very nicely manicured. My dinner was delivered to me by a guy on a big trike with a basket at the back.

Tomorrow I’ll see the Red Sea for the first time. I really cannot believe I’m here.

no shortage of kleenex

Written on Nov 22, almost half way through my trip.
Well, today I peed in a hole in the ground, so I can cross that one off my bucket list. Most of the Ministry bathrooms have conventional toilets, but Tracy had me try the one that was the traditional hole. It was a bit tricky with the abaya, but I managed. In general I’m a bit mortified at the state of women’s bathrooms. They seem clean, but they all have a strange smell, there is rarely toilet paper, and rarely paper towel. If you’re lucky there will be a kleenex box, which is an okay substitute for toilet paper, but not for paper towel. Oh, and the permanent sign on the IBM washroom has a misprint, and it’s labelled “Ladles bathroom”, with an ‘l’ instead of an ‘i’.

Speaking of kleenex, I’ve never seen so many boxes of kleenex. At restaurants, instead of napkins, there is kleenex. When you have a meeting, people will bring in bottles of water, tea and boxes of kleenex. It’s everywhere.

Today was busy. We had a workshop this morning demo-ing part of the system to some family doctors and public health practitioners. My job was to take notes, and one third of the meeting happened in Arabic. I only know how to say thank you, so that was a bit difficult. Then the higher-ups had a whole bunch of meetings so I went to the ladies section of IBM and worked on my own for a bit. It’s very anti-social, being a women here. At least in a professional sense.

We are heading to Jeddah tomorrow evening for the weekend (work week is Saturday to Wednesday here). We are staying in the Sheraton Resort there, and we can wear whatever we want while at the resort. I must say, the abaya gets a bit cumbersome. And I don’t know why I bother doing anything to my hair, as wearing a headscarf even just for five minutes flattens it.

It was very cool today — about 15 degrees, and it even rained a tiny bit. I just looked at the forecast and there are cooler temperatures forecast for a few days. But Jeddah will be high 20’s, so that’s good. Apparently the Red Sea is about 30 degrees celsius. I can’t even imagine that! I am planning to go snorkelling.

It’s really quite amazing, this experience. I’m thankful that it’s turning out okay for me, thankful that Greg seems to be managing with the kids, and thankful that I was given this opportunity.

I’m off to read for a bit before bed. I’m skyping with the kids and Greg tomorrow morning so I’ll have a nice start to my day.

frogger and food

I appear to have done a lot more letter writing than blog post writing while I was away. The following is part of a letter I wrote on November 21.
I’ve talked about the driving here…well coupled with that is crossing the street. It’s like a game of Frogger. Even if you have a walk signal, you have to be 100% aware of your surroundings, because people do u-turns ALL the time. And not only do they do u-turns, but it seems normal to do a u-turn from the right lane, i.e. so you’re cutting off all the cars in the lanes to your left. I’ve decided that the driving here is a bit like a dance, with constant honking as music. And drivers (all men…it’s illegal for women to drive) don’t honk for the same reasons we do. It’s more of a “I’m right here, right behind you, two inches away from you” kind of honk. And no one gets visibly mad (it’s illegal to flip the bird). I say dance because you’ve got cars changing lanes, making unexpected turns, stopping, all without signal lights and all within inches of each other, and no one seems to crash. It’s quite amazing, really.

My eating experiences have been quite varied…from really bad Western fast food to an amazing meal tonight at a Lebanese restaurant — we had the meat grill and an appy platter. The appy platter had humous, tabuleh, an egg plant salsa that I don’t know the name of, grape leaves, tzatziki, tahini and a couple of other things I didn’t recognize. We ordered the meat grill “for three” and I think there were 15 skewers served to us — way too much food. In general I find the servings very large, and the food’s pretty cheap (apart from the hotel). There are a lot of kabobs, delicious humous everywhere, and
good bread. A couple of nights ago we went to an Indian place that had the best naan bread I’ve ever had. All the restaurants have a men’s section (no women allowed) and a family section (no single men allowed), always with separate entrances. Even Starbucks has separate entrances. The family section is also the non-smoking section, thank goodness. The fast food joints have two line ups, one for women, one for men.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been home for a week. It all feels like a long time ago. This trip was such a big deal for me, and it’s already fading in my memory.

random thoughts

Another excerpt from a letter to my family, written on Nov 20.
I’m writing this from the 23rd floor of the Kingdom Centre. I’m in the “women’s only” section (no men allowed).

Last night we ate at a really good Indian place, although I have to admit my appetite isn’t what it usually is. The food’s pretty cheap, especially outside of the hotel.

I’m struck by the state of disarray the city seems to be in — it’s like it’s in a perpetual state of renovation. The ministry building is brand new, all marble, but there is renovation garbage everywhere. And the restaurant we were in last night had this beautiful entrance and a beautiful lit ceiling, and then these really run-down dividers separating the tables.

Driving continues to be a thrilling experience. I’m inclined to take a movie from inside the car as we’re driving just to show you all how close the cars come to each other…but that would probably freak Mum out. 🙂 Car accidents are the leading cause of death in the city. (Sorry, Mum.) But I have yet to see a car that’s smashed up. They all look to be in one piece.

first day of work

The following was written on Day 4 of my trip, describing Day 3.
The Saudi work week is Saturday to Wednesday, so yesterday was my first work day. I was a bit nervous, but I knew I’d just be following my Canadian co-workers around, so it wasn’t concerning me too much. We went to the Ministry of Health building, which is a brand new building with lots of marble and white. The room we were in was the brightest room I’ve ever been in (bright with fluorescent lighting), and I felt like I was going to be interrogated at any moment. I have no pictures of the building because it’s illegal to take pictures of government buildings.

I got my first taste of the Saudi work culture as people came and went as they pleased, didn’t show up for meetings, answered cell phones, etc. It’s par for the course. Internet connectivity was an issue (has been ever since this project started) and so I didn’t get much work done while at the office. Tracy and I eventually bailed and went back to the hotel to work, as we knew we’d be able to access the internet from there.

I’ve got so much to say and I don’t know how to organize it…so I think I’ll just spew out things…

I can’t say I’m feeling culture shock as I just get little snippets here and there, but some of the actual snippets are shocking. Such as the HIV posters at the Ministry. A picture of a beautiful Arab boy, with the quote “I got my brown eyes from my father, my curly hair from my aunt, and HIV from my mother”. And the fact that I’m writing this from the Saudi IBM office in the “women’s only” section, where men are not allowed. There are about 40 men working here and I’ve seen only three women.

I’ve noticed a vast difference in the way men interact with women, and I’m not sure if it’s class related or not. Some men are openly friendly and joking, others won’t even look you in the eye. I don’t actually think it’s class related because I’ve seen the range even amongst the cab drivers.

I’m sleeping horribly and having terrible nightmares. Last night was the worst sleep-wise — I was up at 2:00 wide, wide awake. I eventually got up to work but after an IM conversation with Greg he convinced me to go back to bed. So I was up from about 2:00 to 4:30. No wonder I feel like shit right now.

I’ll end this here and get back to work — I’m writing this from the Saudi IBM office, which is on the 23rd flour of the Kingdom Centre. In general I find Riyadh a bit ugly, but the view from here is pretty amazing.

letter home

The following is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to my family the day after I arrived in Riyadh.
We arrived in Frankfurt at around 8 am local time, and I was feeling okay. We had a quick stopover so there was just time for a shower and a quick snack, and then it was on to Riyadh. We again had lots of room so I was able to actually lie down. Unfortunately I had two glasses of wine right before I did this (but no drugs this time) and when I woke up I felt totally hung over. The whole flight is a bit of a blur so I think I slept for quite a bit of it. We arrived in Riyadh at 5:30 pm local time, and I felt like I was in a total time warp.

The hotel is okay although I have a room on the street side, which is very loud. Tracy’s right across the hall from me and her room overlooks the pool and the courtyard. And it’s much quieter. There was one room available that had a partial view of the pool but it was on the corner and you could still hear the street a bit. I could keep asking for a new room, but I’ve unpacked and I think I’ve decided to just stay put. The noise is in a way comforting and I do have ear plugs.

There’s a high-end mall attached to the hotel, and we went there last night for a little walk and a not-very-good food court dinner. Last night (Thursday) was Saudi’s Saturday night (the work week is Sunday to Wednesday). And apparently the mall is a popular thing to do for families. The food court was pretty busy. I was struck that as a toddler losing your mother, it would be difficult to find your mother again, as every woman is dressed in black and many have their faces covered too. You’d have to be really familiar with shoes!

I slept quite well last night — woke up at about 2:30 feeling a bit too awake so took half and Ativan and that seemed to do the trick. I also napped for about an hour this afternoon. We’ll see how tonight goes. Tracy says she finds nights two and three the hardest.

Today Tracy and I went to another hotel and played golf (!). The idea being we could get some sun and help our bodies adjust to the time difference, but also we don’t have to wear our abayas on the course. Bizarre rules in my opinion. We did have to be in long pants and long sleeved shirt, but it was nice to be outside without being covered in black. I’m so glad I’m travelling with Tracy because she’s been here so many times. I just do what she does. We don’t have to cover our heads when we’re in the hotel, but we do when we’re in the mall. Women are not allowed in the hotel pool or gym — which I knew about but it’s a real bummer.

The weather’s quite gorgeous — low thirties. The sky today was apparently a lot bluer than normal. Usually it’s so sandy it looks brown. All the architecture is the same colour — the colour of sand. And it was funny seeing the dirt at the golf course. A lot lighter than our dirt!
The weather didn’t stay nice. The first week was great, but the second week was mostly rainy and much cooler — about 5 or 6 degrees at night and 12 to 15 degrees during the day. I was cold, as I’d packed no jacket. And the hotel room had no heat. I turned the a/c all the way off and wore my hoody. Brrr!