Monday, August 13, 2012

Jeddah: Five Good, Five Bad

The OTP for this edition of the FSBRU (thanks Jill!) is five good and bad things about your current post, in honor of bidding season.  Given that I am between overseas posts and that there are precious few NH jobs (hi Melissa!) and none where I live, I'll concentrate on Jeddah.  You can also see a previous post here about things to love about Jeddah.  I may repeat myself a wee bit. 

First, the good.

1. Quality of life:  It is possible to maintain a very high quality of life in Jeddah.  The basic infrastructure and consumer goods market is such that you never want for items in grocery stores, anything you desire can be found somewhere in the city, and electricity and water are extremely stable.  The roads are in pretty good condition, even if drivers are insane and traffic a bit chaotic, and they're well maintained.  Domestic help is plentiful, affordable, and dependable.  The sheer variety of stores means shopping for name brands is easy (and popular among locals). 

2.  Great professional experience/visibility:  This is especially true for people working in FSO reporting jobs - PD and P/E, FCS - who not only work on very high priority portfolios but spend much of their time out and about working with their counterparts.  (Plus, for untenured FSOs, this means mucho comp time as you work more than 40 hours pretty much every week.)  Your reporting gets the attention of high-level people, and you're working on current issues and seeing history in the making.  Internally-focused jobs have less visibility, but they are just as important and given incumbents the opportunity to see and do a lot during their tour.  It's a relatively small post - and a constituent post at that - so there's plenty to go around.  We had regular Cabinet-level visits and lots of other VIP visits in addition to our normal duties while I was there.  Particularly for first and second tour FS professionals, you'll see a broad spectrum of situations and problems and opportunities and gain a lot of experience in a very short amount of time.

3.  Recreation:  There is so much to do!  This is a great family post as every restaurant/mall/store has, at the least, a high tolerance for children and, more typically, diversions and amusements geared towards them.  Amusement parks abound (with varying degrees of safety), playgrounds and pools are everywhere, and there's always kid-centered activities going on at the compounds.  The Red Sea is right there with its beautiful beaches and inviting waters and coral reefs.  Superb snorkeling and diving, boating, fishing, waterskiing, you name it.  Lots of barbecuing - grilling is a year-round activity.  Lots of family-oriented events.  Jeddah is home to awesome restaurants from every ethnic and trendy persuasion, and you can be a true gourmand at post.  Everything from hole in the wall local food to high end hoity-toity hotel brunch buffets, with everything in between.

4.  Travel:  Millions of people pass through Jeddah each year for Hajj and Umrah, so it makes sense that Jeddah is extremely accessible.  This means that the source countries of pilgrims are also very accessible, which is pretty much every country in the world!  Flights to amazing destinations are plentiful and can be quite affordable if booked well in advance.  I visited numerous neighboring countries as well as a couple more far-flung destinations.  I made it a point to travel at least for a long weekend every 6 weeks to 2 months, which made my tour much more enjoyable. 

5.  Non-smoking!  Right before I left, Saudi Arabia announced that smoking of any sort will be forbidden in public, to include restaurants, malls, and stores.  Hurrah!  A similar smoking ban in airports took effect shortly after I arrived, and it made traveling oh so much more pleasant, even if implementation was spotty.  The new ban includes shisha as well as cigarettes/cigars, which will make dining out oh so much more enjoyable.  I wish this had happened earlier, but I'm glad it happened at all.

And, of course, the bad.

1.  Not being able to drive:  This only goes for women, but it will permeate the lives of everyone.  At first I thought it would be really cool to be driven everywhere, but it got old really, really quickly.  Our drivers were great, but I missed the spontaneity and independence and privacy that comes with being able to drive yourself.  So advice to all:  ship a car.  Single women - you can hire a driver if you want to have your own 24/7 person transport; I was close to wanting to fork out the money for this at some points.  Men and families:  the key to high morale is having your own car.  Seriously.  Don't rely on Motorpool.

2.  Culture shock:  Every post has a degree of culture shock, but KSA is very different in many ways.  Women will likely wear an abaya most of the time (I usually didn't, but I was the sole exception during my time there among Mission women), and even when you don't you always have to be conscious of conservative dress - long sleeves, long pants, long skirts, high necklines, etc.  For men - no shorts, modest t-shirts at a minimum.  This doesn't sound very difficult in itself (and relatively typical of the Gulf), but combine it with the following, and it becomes oppressive at times:  EVERYTHING closing five times a day for 30+ minutes at prayer time, the constant threat of running into the religious police (mutawwa), gender segregation in most public places, navigating the single vs family entrances to restaurants, etc., etc., etc. 

3.  Weather:  For eight months of the year it is difficult to enjoy outside activities.  From mid-March to late October the weather is oppressive.  Highs well above 110 and averaging 100+ with varying levels of humidity.  It can be likened to constantly walking in the path of a hair dryer or sticking one's head in an oven.  Pools are unbearably hot during the day unless they have chillers, which are expensive and infrequently found.  Playgrounds during the day are abandoned because the equipment is too hot to use.  I loved to walk outside in my compound, but even at midnight during the spring/summer it was unbearably hot and muggy still.  Outside events are impossible without multiple concentrated fans/misters.  Walking even from your home to your car to your office will leave you soaked by sweat and uncomfortable for the rest of the day.  Keep in mind the public dress code of #2 and it's even more difficult to stay cool.  That said, the weather during the winter is quite pleasant and conducive to outdoor dining and outdoor pursuits, especially in the evenings. 

4.  Safety concerns:  This one really runs the spectrum.  There's a constant high level of threat (Consulate General Jeddah was attacked in 2004), which I don't need to detail.  This doesn't generally impact one's day-to-day living, but it's something that needs to be taken into consideration.  On a more applicable level, my biggest pet peeve about KSA was the nonuse of seatbelts and car seats.  It's unusual to see anyone belted in, but it's disturbingly common to see infants and toddlers riding on laps in the front seat (sometimes steering the car from the driver's lap) or older children careening from the front to the back to each side of the car.  I never ever ever saw a child secured in a car seat - occasionally sitting in one, but never actually strapped to the seat nor the seat to the car.  It's even worse because traffic accidents are frequent (rules of the road are anything goes, and drivers are generally self-centered) and traffic fatalities common.  It hurt my heart to see all these children unrestrained.  Beyond that I question the safety of many of the amusement rides that are everywhere and other little things that now escape my mind (ah, the bliss of home leave!).  However, you can get a sense of some of the concerns from these items.

5.  Smells:  (This may just be me, but I am running out of things...)  I am extremely sensitive to strong scents (they cause headaches, migraines, and nausea) - I can't even have scented candles burning in the house or wear fragrances.  This can be difficult to navigate in everyday life anywhere in the world, but I found it particularly challenging in Saudi.  Most people wear strongly-scented perfumes and colognes most of the time, and I constantly had to hold my breath to avoid the onslaught of smells.  Oud and incense are very popular and omnipresent, and one whiff of these have me running for fresh air and an Excedrin constantly.  The strong cardamom-infused coffee served EVERYWHERE actually makes me physically sick, and it's impossible to avoid.  I actually hated going to millions of meetings each week just because I knew I'd have to somehow dodge the coffee.  At the time, smoking of cigarettes, cigars, and shisha was rampant everywhere, and smoke from these sickens me quite quickly.  The sweet smoke of shisha is particularly potent.  I felt I was never free from these heavy scents except in my own home, which got tiring after a while.  I know this may seem a petty thing, but it significantly impacted my life for two years.

Overall, Jeddah and KSA are what you make of them, like most posts.  You can be insanely happy and fulfilled professionally and personally, or you can be bitter and negative and count the days till R&R and PCS.  You can make mountains out of molehills or embrace simple changes in the pace and pattern of life.  I enjoyed my two years there, but I think I would have enjoyed Jeddah more if I had a family there.  It's a difficult post for singles, particularly women.  But in the grand scheme of things, how many people can honestly throw out the line, "when I lived in Saudi Arabia..."?  It's a guaranteed conversation starter for the rest of my life!  Happy bidding!


Fields of Heather said...

Wow. Just wow. I give you much credit for sticking that one out. Especially the smells. I'm with you on that one!

Daniela Swider said...

I enjoyed reading this post, Sadie! I've wondered what it would be like to live in Saudi - it's been on my husband's bid lists. It sounds very interesting. But I agree with you that it would be hard for a woman, especially a single one. Good for you for making the best of it and hope you have a terrific tour in Kampala! Look forward to reading your posts from there...

docreport said...

Nice write up! I think another thing on the pro side is that the housing compounds usually have a restaurant and store that are easily accessible (some deliver).

While I was there I had never seen so many stray cats in my life!

The hotel beach was nice, but costly : (