Posted in ex-pat confidential, livin' in the kingdom

transportation woes (again!) and other stories

It didn't quite go like this:

Dear Family Who We Didn't House on the Special Compound

In order to give our employees and their dependents the best-ever bus service between where we've housed you and the place where you work and your children go to school, we're eliminating the bus services at 3 pm, effective the week of those afternoon parent/teacher conferences. To make this the most convenient for you.

K. Thx. Bai. 

But it's not too far from reality.

It really is the week of parent/teacher conferences, and the the bus at three that I had counted on when I scheduled my interviews at the elementary school and the middle school has been eliminated from the schedule. 

So that the kids and I aren't stranded at the elementary school – which is near nothing unless you happen to live in that part of the Dharma Compound (because then it's near your house!) – for three hours until the next bus appears, Chris is going to pick us up in our rental car. 

We have a rental car, and it's totally a big deal! Sure, it's one of those Toyota Fortuners that I came to loathe during our time in Thailand because ours lacked any sort of feature to make it compatible with my children's car seats and the lap-shoulder belt loved to cut into my neck in the most uncomfortable way, but it's also given us a lot more freedom to do things on the weekend that we didn't think that we missing out on before! We zoom on over the causeway to Bahrain, and have bacon with our breakfast, see movies at the cinema, and shop in stores that stay open all day. We drive to Tamimi on Friday mornings and bring home a trunk full of groceries instead of lugging them home on the bus. Even going into the compound to do whatever – check email, return library books, grab a burger at the eatery that is actually good (but otherwise inaccessible) – is so much easier when we can do it on our own schedule. 

You all know where this is heading, right?  

Yes. Ten months after arriving here in the Kingdom, we bought a car. Well, Chris did. It's a cute little Hyundai with cranberry-red leather seats. We should have actual possession of it sometime next week. 

We aren't exaggerating much when we say that we bought our last car, our Subaru, over the internet. Our experience buying our desert-mobile has been nothing like that. The drive out to the car dealerships has been a bit harrowing, even early on Saturday mornings when the traffic is "light". It seems that the best time of day to buy a car is at eight at night when the traffic is the heaviest. Chris took a GM Acadia out for a test drive one night a few weeks ago and passed a seven-car pile-up. The rule-of-thumb on the road here seems to be "if there's half a metre between your car and the car in front of you, you aren't following close enough." You can understand how things get dicey so fast here.  

After several false-starts and plenty of fretting, a winning model emerged, and Chris drove the rental car to the Hyundai dealership. How would he like to pay for the vehicle? Bank wire transfer. "Sir, can't you pay with your credit card?" 

Yesterday, he returned to Hyundai once again to fill out more paperwork, and one of the employees led him to a place he called "Auto Chapeau" so that Chris could hand-pick out the window-tinting for his new car. First question, "Would you like legal or illegal?" For serious.

If we'd known that buying a car here in KSA was going to be such an amusing experience, we would have done it months ago!


Posted in ex-pat confidential

armchair realtors

For two people who've been living in rental accommodations for most of the last decade and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, Chris and I spend a lot of time looking at real estate listings. It used to be something we'd do to keep in touch with the home prices in our neighbourhood of Acadia in southeast Calgary, but now we're looking for a place to unload all of the furniture and artwork that we couldn't bring with us to Saudi Arabia. It's not necessarily logical, but it hurt me to leave those things behind; the Vietnamese lacquer painting of the little boy and a water buffalo, the pink dollhouse bookcase, and oh my goodness, all those books.

The solution that Chris came up with sometime last summer, when I was pretty heartbroken about having to leave things behind and live in furnished accommodation, was something along the lines of, "We'll buy a condo in Edmonton and you can spend the entire summer every year surrounded by our familiar stuff!" and it sounded fantastic. Edmonton's my hometown, it's where my mom still lives, and my head began to fill with images of spending July and August in a condo by the University of Alberta. My kids would ride their scooters along the pathways on campus on their way to STEM-centric girl-empowerment summer camps, and on Saturdays we could saunter down to Old Strathcona to buy veggies at the farmer's market. This scenario kept me going for many, many weeks. I figured that I could manage to live in an isolated apartment in a country where I don't have freedom of movement for ten months if I could pop back into my Canada Life for the other two. 

This bubble burst just after Halloween, if I remember correctly. Canadian Non-Residents technically can own property in Canada, confirmed our non-resident tax advisor, but we'd have to be able to convince the Revenue Canada folks that Edmonton is actually a vacation hot-spot akin to  Ontario cottage country or Whistler or else be potentially subject to tax penalties. So … scratch that idea.  If we step foot in Edmonton during the school summer holidays, it will once again involve exceeding the recommended occupancy limit of my mom's house. 

Thus, Chris and I have to look elsewhere for our home-away-from-home-away-from-home, and he was interested in hearing what spot outside of Canada's borders I'd be content to spend pretty much every summer and winter holiday. It wasn't hard at all to suggest London. We've spend a lot of time there, I can speak the language, and the public transportation is awesome. I had to stop championing the London vacation home concept when it became clear from my real estate searches that flat prices weren't dropping at the same speed as the kilometres outside of the city centre were increasing. Sigh.

The second-most popular location for Chris's real estate searches is Edmonton. The very same Edmonton mentioned and dismissed a couple of paragraphs ago. His reasoning is that the company he works for here has gone a bit overboard hiring ex-pats and just might decide to send them all home, so we might as well continue checking out what kinds of homes are on the market. (He found a cute one with a mudroom (!) last night).

The MLS listings that Chris peruses the most are for Austin, Texas. He spent a week there last fall, and became quite infatuated with the place. We're now thinking of spending our winter holidays there to see if maybe the kids and I can also fall a little in love with Austin. It's funny – Texas is one of those places I've said that I'm not really interested seeing. I said that about Asia. I said that about the Middle East. It's a good thing that I don't really mind being proven wrong. 

Posted in ex-pat confidential, livin' in the kingdom

little miss cheerful

It's been brought to my attention by a handful of the very lovely ladies who live in my building that for a newcomer to Saudi Arabia, I seem way too upbeat about living here. I have to admit that I'm not sure how to react to that accusation, so I usually shrug and say, "Well, this isn't the hardest place that I've lived." 

I am guilty of declaring that my abaya is awesome after realizing that I don't have to dress up at all to go out (sidenote: you might have to come here to understand why; I'm not slovenly, I promise). I think that it's cool that my kids can choose any fancy beverage from a restaurant menu to have with their lunch instead of having to hunt for the non-alcoholic offerings. I am quite happy to read a book while in rush hour traffic rather than navigate through it. 

My family is in a minority here because this isn't our first overseas assignment. We are also unique because we've repatriated once and then moved across the ocean again (albeit a different ocean). I know to expect that many of my frustrations about KSA won't go away, but that I'm going to find that many of the things that I love are going to outweigh them. And I know not to idealize life in my home country (thank you very much, repatriation reality-check). That last point is probably the hardest thing to let go of. 

When we first left Canada and moved to Thailand, I know that it took me months – at least nine – before I emerged from my deep funk enough to even realize that I had been in one. Maybe this is why I don't know what to say when my friends and acquaintances tell me that I seem bizarrely happy with life here; I could be fooling everyone right now without the self-awareness to realize it!

Posted in ex-pat confidential, livin' in the kingdom

how to weekend

When we first arrived in KSA, weekends were my least favourite days of the week. Our family had to choose between these three not-necessarily-appealing options: long bus ride into the compound followed by a long walk in the heat, bus ride to a shopping mall where we spend more time locating shops and restaurants than we spend actually visiting shops, or staying in our small apartment where it is likely that the tv and radio will be on in the same room simultaneously and the three people that I live with will be getting on each other's nerves by doing largely age-appropriate things. This still happens sometimes, but it's getting better. 

We have a bit of a routine now. This past Friday, as usual, we went to one of the large grocery stores. We've been to Danube twice and I am still a bit confused by the layout (it's a large retail space and suffers from sprawl, alas).  I am happy to stop off at the small grocery store on the compound during the week to pick up small items to bring back on the bus, but it's nicer to go on Fridays in a car to bring home large and bulky items like cases of drinking water. Sidenote: Danube has an incredible number of varieties of Cheerios, but none of them happen to be the plain old ones in the yellow box. Weird.

For the second time ever, we went out to dinner. And by "out to dinner", I mean eating someplace that is neither our apartment (obviously) or one of the dining options on the Dharma compound. We went to the Steak House in Al Khobar, and had a lovely time sitting in a real restaurant eating nachos (that looked nothing like the picture in the menu), burgers, and sandwiches. 

Both the grocery store and the restaurant are public spaces, so I wore my abaya while we were out, and it occurred me that it was kind of awesome because I spent the entire weekend wearing yoga pants and a tee instead of having to change when we went out. 

We've headed out to the malls for the past two Saturdays. This past Saturday was good because Chris found what he was looking for, I found what I was looking for (stationary supplies!), we took the kids to the amusement park that is the top level of Rashid Mall, and we managed to order our lunch shawarmas before the food court restaurants closed for mid-day prayers. Same thing last week, except that our shopping mission was to check out the newly-opened Old Navy at the Mall of Dhahran to score some warmer-weather clothes for M. 

It always feels good to feel like you've finally figured something out. 

Posted in ex-pat confidential, livin' in the kingdom

two monthiversary

Of course it feels like we've lived in sandy Al Khobar longer, but it's only officially two months. Amount that I miss living in Calgary? About zero percent.

Things that I like about living here:

  • Mint lemonade and shawarma
  • My kindergartener is in class for more than 12 hours/week!
  • Unlocked contract-less less expensive mobile phone!
  • There's a library. I think that it's a little smaller than the Fish Creek branch that we borrowed from in Calgary, but they have a fantastic selection of magazines and I've made a lot of good finds there!
  • I can get on a plane and fly for six hours and land in one of several foreign countries (instead of just the United States – or frankly, I could still be in Canada)
  • I get to wear my favourite combination of jeans, hoodies, and sweaters all year long because here, modesty trumps dressing sensibly for the weather 🙂
  • This store that we went into to buy a few small gifts at, and walked out having bought a cute little corner desk. I miss having the lovely carpets and decor items that we bought in Bangkok and Saigon with us here, but I think that I could happily decorate my entire apartment from Desert Designs.

 Things that could use improvement

  • Transportation! A couple of my friends here keep small cars parked in the compound (where it's not actually illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to use their foreign driver's licenses) , and I am quite envious because they can pick their kids up from the elementary school and then drive to the middle school and pick up the other kids and then cruise onwards to the big park after school. If I tried to do that, I'd end up arriving at the elementary school thirty minutes early, and then after I'd collected Sadie from kindergarten, I'd have to wait two hours for a bus to come to take us to the middle school to pick up Madeline, and we wouldn't get home in time to do homework, let alone visit a park! Nothing about that is practical.
  • Similarly, location. Life here would probbably be more varied for my family if we lived on the compound and our kids could participate in after-school activities and schedule playdates with their friends.
  • Our apartment is one bedroom smaller than promised, and the kitchen is a window-less ugly brown rectangle with a poor layout. Also, my stove is not level! Weird.
  • The weather is already approaching intolerable levels of hot (for me), and it's only the beginning of April.
  • The women's gyms here have exactly zero squat racks, zero kettle bells, and bar at the bench press station is frequently AWOL. 
  • The ban on changing rooms in clothing stores keeps me from supporting that particular part of the retail sector.
  • Sandstorms aren't fun. Sand somehow gets onto all the surfaces in my apartment, and now I'm kind of panicky that my kids will get stranded at school or on the school buses during one. 
  • No chai lattes at Starbucks. This is criminal …
  • My apartment building does not have enough elevators to deal with the school rush-hour that happens twice every weekday, and dealing with the school rush isn't particularly great for my nerves. 
  • To be filed under School, Transportation, and Location: My kids have to be up int he morning by 6 am to catch their bus at 6:35. They don't get home until between 3:30 – 3:45 in the afternoon. Madeline has said that she "doesn't have time to have fun anymore" because the hours in-between that and bedtime are taken up completely with homework and dinner. I feel really sad about that. 

Things that have surprised me:

  • The weather was quite mild when we arrived in February; it was chilly enough to actually need to wear a sweater and long pants
  • Don't really miss eating bacon, ham, or any sort of dish with pork, actually, though sometimes I wish that I had a meat to add to the dinner rotation besides beef and chicken.
  • Most of the things that I believed about life in Saudi Arabia – as reported by the western media – have to be taken with a grain of salt. Just a few days ago I read an article from the UK that stated something to the nature of, "of course, women in Saudi Arabia can't leave their homes without their male guardian" and I had to close my browser immediately. There'd be a lot of unemployed taxi drivers here if that was actually true.

What's upcoming for Month Three and beyond? We're supposed to be moving into our permanent housing (which won't be on the compound, ugh). Our sea shipment from Calgary should arrive and clear customs, so there will hopefully be a happy reunion with our bedroom and living room furniture. And figuring out where we'll travel for a long weekend in June – Chris's latest suggestion is a resort outside of Abu Dhabi to check out the sand dunes, and I'm already imagining the photos that I'd be able to take.

Posted in Dharma Initiative, ex-pat confidential

how to do it all wrong

Today, we bought a desk. This is a good thing (albeit an impulse purchase) because our air shipment from Calgary is supposed to be delivered on Tuesday, and there's a dearly-missed computer and printer in it. There is nothing in recent memory that I've looked forward to more than the arrival of the air shipment. It's about 6-7 weeks late, which is far too long to be living out of suitcase. I really would like to be reunited with my clothes. And my kids would like their books and toys. And that computer is anticipated by all. 

Moving here, if I'm quite honest, has been an awful experience, at least in terms of actual logistics.

  1. Our relocation advisor neglected to request the moving company that they use in Calgary to get in touch with us to schedule the pack-out, until about two weeks before our scheduled December 29th departure. There was no way to make this happen on time – over the Christmas/New Years break, so the flights were rescheduled for me and the kids, Chris went off to KSA alone, and I was left to deal with the moving company alone. 
  2. The moving company. When we moved to SE Asia, the company that packed and shipped our household goods was the MI Group, and they were fantastic. This company, not so much. A few days prior to pack-out, I sent our assigned moving coordinator an email just to check that they had silica gel packets ready amongst the packing material because our belongings would be in long-term storage for a long time due to relatively new policy by the Dharma Initiative company the Chris works for. The guy first wrote back that he's never heard of moving companies using them (despite my personal experience with two), and "they actually cause damage". But he'd look into it for me, and check on the storage conditions here in KSA, but he never actually did do that. Also, this company didn't give us some paperwork that would become crucial later in the story.
  3. So, Chris landed at the Dammam airport at the end of December, was met by a company representative as expected, and discovered that no actual arrangements for our housing had been made, which is not how the situation was advertised. This was straightened out a day later, but it absolutely shouldn't have happened, and we're thankful that our children didn't have to experience the big hunt for a place to spend the night in the wee hours of the morning right after they would have walked off of a transatlantic flight.
  4. A "welcome package" containing pantry basics, dishes, cutlery, and pots and pans was supposed to be delivered ASAP to new arrivals. I think that it actually took about ten days, so Chris ate a lot of take-out with no proper utensils for a good while. 
  5. Meanwhile, back in Calgary, I had to reduce the amount of stuff that we shipped by about half, so that meant putting a lot of furniture into storage and donating away an insane amount of books, and clothes. I was shocked to realized that I'd reduced my wardrobe by half, but it's the books that I will miss the most. Though, we put all of our bookcases into storage, so I wouldn't have had anywhere to put them here, anyways. But it's not really missing stuff that I'm still frustrated about – it was the sheer amount of work this was. I was solo-parenting, and didn't really spend any time with my kids for a whole month because I had to organize every single thing that we owned into the toss/donate/keep categories, and it was a giant undertaking. I felt awful. I should have been helping my six year old practice her articulation stuff, her literacy stuff, and such. Instead I let her watch My Little Pony on Netflix because I had to pack my car with goods to take to the hazardous waste depot. 
  6. We did arrive in KSA at the beginning of February. About a week past when we thought that our air shipment should have arrived (within fourteen days per company policy), we discover that it and the sea shipment are still hanging out in Calgary, because there were a few forms that we needed to submit that we were not given before departing Calgary. I think that Chris was actually more livid than I was, but I still spent the better part of a day and night filling out the longest one. It honestly took that long. 
  7. More form fun: "Please provide receipts and authenticity certificates for artwork valued over $2500, for insurance purposes." We did this. New memo to us. "We no longer insure artwork." Head desk.

But the air shipment is in the kingdom now, and I assume that the sea shipment is floating along somewhere. New desk arrives in the next day or two, and I am really looking forward to our lives here feeling less temporary 🙂


Posted in Dharma Initiative, ex-pat confidential

route talk

This is my sixth week living in Saudi Arabia (and it's actually raining here today, in the desert, which amuses me greatly), and one of the things that I've been doing a lot of is riding on buses. Obviously. 

For the most part, I like this aspect of life here. I get to sit and knit or read or chat with the other ladies while someone else deals with the predictably unpredictable traffic. The buses are unfailingly clean. They play music I like over the speaker. Some even have wi-fi (and it's much faster than in our apartment, so a wi-fi bus is the best place to download podcasts).

This is my sixth week here, and two problems with the buses have become apparent.

1 – The buses aren't quite frequent enough. My kids go to school on a private compound, and I had a meeting with Sadie's teacher after school last Tuesday to discuss how she's been doing and what to expect for the rest of her year in kindergarten. To get to her school by the appointment time of 3:15 pm, I had to leave my apartment at 1:50 pm, and then wait around the school office for about 45 minutes, because there no later bus that would work. Then, my kid and I had to wait around her deserted school for about an hour, so that we could catch the 5 pm bus back to our home. We walked in our door at about 5:50 pm. One bus every half-hour would go a long way to make life off-compound a lot smoother. A meeting with a teacher shouldn't be a four-hour undertaking, you know? 

2 – The buses don't follow the route they're supposed to. It's maddening! I've taken it to the compound (which is oddly like the Dharma Initiative from Lost, but that's a story for another day) in the evening, and it's skipped going past the middle school because no one was getting off there, but what if there were people needing to be picked up? This past weekend, the four of us were taking the bus to get lunch at the Mexican restaurant by the golf course, and from prior trips, I knew that the golf course should appear out the left window. Except it didn't. We got off the bus at a completely unfamiliar place which turned out to be on the wrong side of the golf course, and 5 km away from the restaurant. So,  we all got our cardio in that day, and I also got a pretty bad sunburn on my lower neck! Last night, I pulled out the "official" map of the bus route, and discovered that on Saturday, it drove up the completely wrong road! Yes, the golf course should have been on the left after all …