Saturday, September 11, 2010

Eid and Adjustment

Well, I've been in Jeddah for a month now.  I've experienced some highs and lows, as is to be expected, and I'm seeing glimpses of the trough of cultural adjustment on the continuum, though I am still in the honeymoon phase.  I had such a tragic entrance to Saudi that I wonder if my continuum will be different than usual.  I miss Hattie every day, some days painfully so, perhaps partly because living with the kittens is so different from living with my very well-adjusted, calm dog.  My daily routine is very different as I don't have to schedule walks and ensure I'm not gone from home too long.  Living abroad this time is different, also, because I still have a lot of the creature comforts of home (US mail, US work environment, logistical assistance) and because I have internet at home.  While it's not the best or fastest internet, it still allows me to skype and call home and watch Netflix. 

The two things that are starting to irritate me, signaling a downward phase of cultural adjustment, are the abaya and not being able to drive.  I've experimented a couple times not wearing the abaya (or wearing it open, or tying it around my waist) with no problems, though I'll have to continue to test the waters.  As for not driving, it's hard.  Even though I can almost always get a driver and car to go anywhere I need to when I want to go, there's less spontaneity in my life these days.  Every little trip requires at least some forethought and planning.  I also miss being alone in the car; that's always been where I've done a lot of thinking and reflecting.  There's nothing I can do about it, and I'll make the most of it and come to a happy medium, but I expected the novelty of having a driver to last a bit longer.  I'm not complaining, just commenting.  I knew what I was in for, but it's a bit more of a pain than I anticipated. 

Interestingly, because my work life contains a lot of long-range planning, two years seems very short.  In the past when I've lived abroad, six months feels like it could stretch out for years, but now I'm actually wondering how I'll manage to schedule vacations...  I'll manage, of course, but there's just so much to think about and plan for.

Today is day three of a nine-day vacation for Eid al-Fitr.  Ramadan is finally over, so I am getting a glimpse now of 'real' Saudi Arabia, not the modified Ramadan version.  You're allowed to eat and drink during the daytime, stores and restaurants have normal hours, and people are coming back from long summer holidays.  I received my residency permit and exit visa right before Eid, which means I can now leave the country; I do wish, though, that I'd known ahead of time I'd have travel availability so I could have planned a trip.  Oh well.  There will be plenty of opportunity to travel over the next two years.

I am making the most of the holiday and getting back into one of my favorite hobbies - diving!  I got certified in South Africa several years ago, but the last couple years have been devoid of any diving.  I did a quick refresher course the other day and then did a day-long boat trip with three dives yesterday.  Tomorrow is a half-day trip with two dives, and I may go for another day later in the week if I'm feeling up to it.  The diving here is wonderful, though at least for the few dives I've been on, it's not quite as spectacular as I thought it would be.  I think in some lesser-traveled places the coral will be more vibrant.  Or maybe diving French Polynesia spoiled me for life...  Still, I can't complain.  Abundant, accessible reefs with ample sea life, as well as many wrecks are all in easy reach.  Yesterday I saw a giant puffer fish and a blue-spotted sting ray, along with dozens of beautiful tropical fish species.  I am a sucker for rays, so I was thrilled. 

The dive conditions are wonderful.  I'm going through a company that was recommended to me by colleagues, and it has surpassed expectations.  The staff, crews, and instructors are professional, courteous, accommodating, and encouraging; the dive boats are well-equipped; the rental gear is in good shape; prices are reasonable; and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun.  The water is amazingly warm, almost hot, and a wetsuit isn't necessary.  The water is beautiful, though visibility is poorer than I would have expected. 

My kittens finally have names - Griffin (gray) and Callaghan (white).  Their lives have not changed a bit since this happened, of course.  I just don't feel like a bad pet owner anymore.  We're settling in to a nice routine, though I am still frustrated at not being able to keep them off of surfaces like tables and counters.  I need to get a water gun...  They're happy, cuddly, playful, and furry, so life is good. 

Anyway, time to get a good night's sleep before another boat adventure.  I love living next to the water again.  Maybe over the next two years I'll progress from pasty white to slightly less white.  A tan is too much to ask of my sensitive skin, I think, and the price of getting one (horrific sunburns) is too high.  So SPF 85+ for me it is! 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tropical Paradise and Balad Redux

It's vacation season here in the Kingdom.  Unlike most of my colleagues and neighbors, however, I cannot use the several long weekends as well as the upcoming one-week break for traveling, as my residency permit and multiple entry visa are still not ready.  I really shouldn't complain - I have a lot of time off in a fascinating foreign place - but I'm jealous of the far-flung destinations others are going to.

So what do I do instead?  Explore!  This past 3-day weekend, several friends came to visit from another KSA city.  Their expectations were quite low (all they asked for was beach and Al Baik, the local KFC-like chain), so we started from there.  As you might expect, Saudi laws and culture do not mesh with beach culture, so public beaches are not really available.  Instead, and ingeniously, hotels and private clubs buy up beachfront property, wall it off, and only allow entry to an exclusive group of patrons.  You can buy membership (at a high price), ou can pay entry at the hotels and share the beach with tourists, or you can be invited by beach club members as guests.  We did the latter.  We still paid an entrance fee (a relatively steep $25), but it was well worth it.  Once you enter the gates, you're transported to paradise.  The beaches are sandy and pristine; the water is deep aqua and heavenly; and there are plenty of palm trees, loungers, and umbrellas.  Plus there's even a snack bar operating during Ramadan!  One of my colleagues and her husband own a share in this particular beach club, which also gets them use of a cabin.  So we had a kitchen, bathroom, and covered deck for lounging.  There was even a man-made island covered with palm trees that you could swim out to.  I felt like I was in the Caribbean or somewhere similar.  It was amazing.  The water was VERY warm, even hot, but it felt so luxurious to just float in the Red Sea.  We played beach volleyball and petanque, listened to music, and grilled all afternoon/evening.  A perfect day.  Amazingly, the humidity was kept at bay by a sea breeze, so the weather was tolerable - enjoyable, even.  I knew about the private beaches before getting here, but this one exceeded all of my expectations.  A little slice of tropical paradise, only 30 minutes north of Jeddah.

The rest of the weekend was filled with lots of relaxing and napping, a bit of textile shopping (apparently thobes and abayas are cheaper in Jeddah), eating, and exploring.  A couple of my colleagues arranged for some friends/contacts to take use around Balad, this time in the evening.  We started out with a hotel iftar and moved on to the famous Nassif House for a private tour.  Nassif House, detailed in a previous post, is fascinating inside as well as out.  It's several stories high, with winding staircases, mazes of rooms, and plenty of amazing artifacts.  The stairways on the first few levels are very wide and have short, long steps - to accommodate camels of course!  It was great to see the mashrabiya from the inside, to experience where King Abdelaziz lived in the beginning of KSA's modern history, and to marvel at the architecture.  We ended our tour at the top of the house, where a wooden room (akin to a New England widow's walk), open to the elements with windows all around, offers perhaps the best view of the city.  We arrived at the top just in time for the adhaan for isha, the call to prayer for the evening prayer.  From that vantage point we could hear dozens of mosques, and the eerie but beautiful sounds echoed and beckoned to the city's faithful.  We relaxed and had tea - a beautiful evening.  Following that, we toured another older home in Balad, visited a 500-year old water cistern, and experienced this area of the city at night.  One of my favorite scenes was observing a sleeping butcher, sprawled out on the counter so he seemingly lined up with hanging slabs of meat.  My photos are blurry, but I'll try to post anyway.  (We also had iftar at Nassif House last night, so I was able to get some daylight pictures of Jeddah as well.)

Hot, exhausted, but satisfied, we all slept well that night.  The final day was a chance to relax, eat Al Baik, and bid farewell to our friends.  Several of us ended the evening with yet another iftar, this time at a hip downtown restaurant.  It lived up to its reputation with amazing food and even better ambience.  We relaxed on low couches and chairs piled with pillows.  Every meal should be that comfortable!

I'm now halfway through a short work week, with nine days off to look forward to.  I plan to unpack, settle in a bit more, relax, do some shopping, and go diving!  I am so excited to get back into one of my favorite activities; the diving here is affordable and extraordinary.  I am hoping to go 2-3 times next week. 

In other news, one of the cats now has a name!  Gray kitten is now known as Griffin.  No name yet for white kitten; I feel I'm close to deciding, though.  Stay tuned...

(One of these days I'll learn how to properly load pictures and arrange them in posts.  Until then, bear with me.)