Monday, September 30, 2013

What to Wear?

One of the things that people asked a lot about was how I would feel about wearing an abaya, the long black robes that are required in Saudi for all women.  In Saudi, the abaya is black, although I have seen some with black lace and a colored underlayer, or a very dark blue.  The bling comes on the trim--lace, beading, embroidery, etc. that can make them more interesting.  I saw an Asian woman wearing one with obviously Hmong trim, and I've Indian women wearing them with distinctive trim as well, so I think you can customize them at a tailor.  I wish I had some Chinese silk or weavings to add to mine!

The truth is, it's really not that bad.  If the choice is to cover up by wearing pants and long sleeved shirts, or wearing shorts and a tank top and throwing on an abaya when it's 100+ degrees out, the abaya wins.  Think of your graduation robes, but longer, since they have to brush the ground.  I spend time wondering how I'm supposed to survive the escalator (or stairs) without raising the hem too high, or remembering to not hike it up over my knees when I'm sitting in public.   It's also a constant challenge to keep your sleeves out of the food at a restaurant, since you can't just roll them up!

There is a verse in the Quran that says,  "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them."  I'm not sure what "recognized" means in that verse--maybe recognized that they are in fact women--but you do feel invisible.  Little black ghosts floating through the mall.  Foreign women do not have to cover their heads, but the Muslim women do--and many (most?) do cover their faces.   Given that shopping seems to be an Olympic sport here, I assume that many of them are tricked out underneath, but it's impossible to even tell someone's age, let along what they might be wearing.

Saudi men also wear robes, called thwbs (thobes). It's eye-catching to walk into a bank or a store and see every employee wearing white robes and a red head covering!  I've seen so many Arabic-looking men wearing Western clothes and wondered if it was just a preference, but I was told that Saudi men are supposed to wear the traditional clothing, and the men that aren't are likely not Saudis.  

Children can wear Western clothing--girls start to wear abayas about the time they become teenagers. 

The mutawa are the religious police, charged with making sure that everyone follows the Islamic laws.  That covers everything from how you dress and behave, shop closings during prayers, watching for banned food, drink, and media products, and preventing the promotion of any other religion but Islam.  Even Saudi men can be stopped for not wearing the traditional clothing.  Foreigners are not exempt, although all my colleagues say they have never been stopped, although some have had a man tell them (or actually, they tell the husband) to cover their heads (I carry a scarf in my purse, just in case).  There seems, then, to be an understanding that it's generally OK for non-Muslim women to leave their heads uncovered.  Western men, of course, romp around in (knee-length) shorts and t-shirts.  They're lucky, I guess, although to for me to go out wearing my regular hot weather clothes, surrounded by women in abayas, would make me feel uncomfortable! At work, on our compound, and on the bus to and from school, we don't have to wear them (and the bus has curtains to prevent us from being seen).

Monday, September 23, 2013

First Days, First Impressions

Day 4 in Saudi and you may have noticed that there is a dearth of interesting photos of our new home.  That’s because…well, I haven’t really seen that much.  And I’m finding it hard to see what to photograph.  Of course, people are the most interesting subjects, but I’m very hesitant to photograph anyone.   I’ve been out and about a bit each day, and have some very early impressions.

Clothing—Yes, I wear the abaya, and it’s really not that bad.  You can wear whatever you want   Mine is still a tiny bit short, so my next one I’ll get so it actually drags on the ground.  I don’t have to wear a head covering, but I do bring one in my bag, just in case someone would make an issue of it.  It is interesting how the black abaya (and often covered faces) make people invisible.  Today I was in the older part of town and saw a woman wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and already she stood out in my eyes!  Women are indistinguishable, so you don’t notice them (so I guess, mission accomplished, men).  Men wear either Western clothing or the white robes, often with the red headscarves.  In the compound and at school I can wear whatever I want, although at school there are no uncovered shoulders. 
A decorative version of face masks worn at weddings.

underneath and when everyone’s doing it, you’d feel strange if you didn’t have one on!

Weather—Yes, it is HOT.  And surprisingly humid, although I’ve noticed it most in the morning and after the sun goes down, so that would be fine.  You definitely want to get most of your things done before noon and after 3.  But even wearing the abaya, I’m not overly hot and not sweaty.  The pool is like a bathtub, but I’m able to lay out for a bit and not sweat.  They say that by November the pool will be too chilly to swim in.  Hard to believe—I guess the weather by November to April is very nice.

Activities—Hmmmm…no idea.  The heat does factor into outdoor activities.  It’s strange to live on the coast, but not be able to be at the beach and swim.  There is a private beach, I guess, and for $60 or so per person, you can use it.  Yikes.  I expect I won’t see many locals running (although I guess some teachers do), the abaya prevents women from running on the roads and I haven’t seen any bikes (women are allowed to bike here, but not for a specific purpose, such as shopping).  Desert camping is a popular activity here—Mark and Ava are crazy about camping, and it’s something we can do as a family.

Shopping—THIS is obviously an activity!  If there were any anti-Western sentiments, it doesn’t extend to things you can buy.  My biggest surprise was a real Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids!  Additionally, Gap, H&M, and Ikea can help you stay looking good and living well.  Malls are   There is also an old-town that looks a little like Dar es Salaam or Arusha—little storefront shops with metal grates, streets that sell hardware, streets that sell computers, etc.  Some haggling is permitted there.  Prices are higher than in China.  Some things might be worth spending the $ on, others you can tell the quality is not great for what you’re paying.  But you can get it all here—including very fancy lingerie—although some of those sections are hidden behind frosted glass.
shiny and new and not “off” like the big glitzy EMPTY ones in Beijing.

Eating—Again, welcome to the mall!  Outback, Fuddruckers, Red Lobster, Hardees, McDonalds, Burger King, Popeye’s, KFC, Chilis, Applebees, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme…all right close by.  All of the workers here seem to be Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, etc., so there must be places where they eat, but I haven’t seen too many.  One of the issues is that there has to be a family section in the restaurant or women can’t go in, so that may limit a bit of where we can go.  Maybe Mark will run out and get stuff—it’s strange to think that we don’t have to make that crazy commute into Beijing for things we want anymore!

I love the name of the grocery store near our compound—Hyper Panda!  There is a supermarket called Tamimi, which is a Safeway (and pricier), and at either one you can get just about anything you want.  You do want to watch the labels, though—I saw a bag of Dole salad for $12 because it was organic and imported!  The one thing that seems to be missing is tortilla chips (which people get from Chilis).  There’s much more Western and American food here than in Beijing.   There’s tons of olives, yummy soft cheeses, interesting crackers, and decent bread.

Living—We have a gated compound with reinforced gates and armed guards.  The compound is quite small, only about 36 houses, and the houses are big, much bigger than our house in Beijing (I think maybe 3,000 square feet).  We have 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and 2 living rooms.  The furniture right now is minimal (and pretty ugly), but it’ll do.  I have a real washer and dryer that work great so that’s wonderful!  We have a backyard that we share and the grass is terrible—one of the things that can keep us busy is working with the gardeners to keep some things whipped into shape.  We’ll have a housekeeper, but not full-time.  Some people have a full-time live-in help and I think you have to pay for their visas and sponsor them that way.  We will hire another teacher’s live-in, or find someon 
This pool and I will be best friends!
e to do bathrooms, floors and iron.

Driving—People drive big American SUVs…Explorers and Expeditions, Tahoes, Suburbans, etc.  Gas is…get this, $10 to fill a tank for one of those babies!  Women can’t drive, of course, and while I think that will be annoying, it will be more bothersome for Mark, who will have to chauffeur me around along with the children.  Taxis can be called, and once I have a phone (I need my residence card to get a SIM card) I’ll feel more comfortable going out on my own.  It’s not as crowded as Beijing, but drivers are much more aggressive here.

Family—Mark is hoping to apply for his visa this week.  He needs to make sure his blood levels are within the normal range and get some boosters for vaccinations.  With any luck, he will be approved quicker because I’m already here!  The kids will hopefully come with him as well (they can come when I get my iqama).  I will start the iqama process this week as well, and hopefully within a month that will come through.  Until then, I’m flying solo…and not liking it too much!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

2013...truly an annus horribilis, to quote the Queen.  We were going to spend our last year in China traveling, spend spring break in Paris or Rome for our 25th (and first) wedding anniversary celebration, and thoroughly enjoy those last months with Cameron and our friends before moving on to the next phase of our lives.

Here's what happened.

Mark had a wicked appendicitis attack that knocked him off his feet for several weeks.  His eventual appendectomy found a tumor that turned out to be an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  Of course, that whole appendix thing turned out to be what alerted us to the fact that he had cancer.

Mark needed a LOT of chemotherapy, meaning he was sick for most of the spring.  We were so fortunate that the chemo could be done in Beijing where we could be together and have the support of so many friends!  And he bounced back enough to be able to be at Cameron's graduation!

Changing jobs meant a stressful and frightening coordination of multiple insurances and the uncertainty of how our new school would react and support us.  We had such great care and assistance from both ISB and ISG as well as the insurance reps that negotiated all the challenges for us.

Mark needed a stem cell transplant and we needed to be together.  We had wonderful care at the University of Iowa hospitals and the overwhelming gift of being able to spend the summer with family so that we could be together.

I was set to leave August 19th with the kids for our new jobs and schools, leaving Mark behind and hopefully joining  us by Christmas.  Embassy bureaucracy meant that we were/are delayed indefinitely, leaving us unsure about what to do and eventually enrolling the kids in their first American schools, where they started 2 weeks late.  I was able to take Cameron to college and get him settled in.  We had over a month together as a family with Mark, and the kids have found that they are very well-prepared for school, thanks to their time at ISB!  We've been able to follow Cameron and send him care packages as he settles in to college, too.  There are doctors in our new city in Saudi who can do the checkups that Mark will need for the next couple years.

Now I'm set to leave for Saudi tomorrow night...alone.  The kids will have to wait until I get my work permit and then come.  Mark will be applying for his visa shortly, hoping to fly by the end of November.  It will be so hard to adjusting on my own, away from my family--but it does allow me time to get settled into a job that I'm a month late for, so that whenever the family does show up, I can spend my time and energy helping them get adjusted.

I don't know why all of these things have happened.  I would not wish this year on anyone.  It has pushed all of us to the breaking point over and over.  I'm sure that the recovery will be much more than Mark's physical health.  But there has never been a time in my life where I've seen the rough places made plain like they have been for us.  I'm a slow learner, but I have more peace about going alone and Mark's potential visa issues than I could have had in the past (which is not to say that I'm not worried, because I will ALWAYS worry), but to those who wonder...God does have a plan for us.  I don't know what that plan is, and I can look back and see all the intersections where things could have thrust us into a much darker place...but the path has been cleared for us as we've needed it.  And the things that have tested us have yielded other blessings and opportunities.

I will continue to plan, and continue to worry, and continue to not trust fully, I suppose.  Everyone has their weak spots, or their sins, and these are mine.  My goal is not only to seek out the blessings in life, but to seek more peace with the unknown.  After all, that's what's ahead of me!