Saudi Arabia: Chapter 3

by Phoebe Blyth


There are some experiences which are universal: making friends; enjoying a good book or a well cooked meal; sharing stories. Some experiences are exclusive to expats, like the frustrations which come with dealing repeatedly with government bureaucracies, or the immense privilege of getting to experience a second, third, or tenth culture. Then there are some experiences which are unique to being an international teacher in Saudi Arabia...


Like today, where there were only about a third of my students in attendance. Mass (or sometimes coordinated) absences are bound to happen every now and again in any school: ditch days, flu epidemics, the day after school trips, and, in Chicago, days when students couldn't get to school because of heavy snow or extreme cold. Here, in Riyadh, student stayed home because of the dust. Riyadh is listed among the top ten most polluted cities in the world in terms of both harmful micro-particles and dust particles per cubic meter. That's higher than Beijing, New Delhi and and any Western city. The cause of this pollution is primarily the sand and dust which is blown through the city from the surrounding desert, and during a severe dust storm, visibility can be reduced to almost nothing. For the majority of the year, you would never notice, but during the winter months, the dust is omnipresent.

Or, there was that time we got as far as the Starbucks before I realized I didn't have my abaya and we had to turn back and get it. American fast food chains are ubiquitous here in Saudi. A recent Vice article claimed that the obsession with American fast food outlets is behind the rising obesity crisis in countries like Kuwait, and that American companies are increasing their investment in the Middle East, as US consumers become more health conscious. The contrast between the cultural (and legal) expectations of wearing the abaya, and the ability to order a grande soy vanilla latte within three minutes of our home, are sometimes hard to reconcile. 

Road trips are a pretty universal experience, but you haven't really road tripped till you've done it through the Saudi desert in a 4x4. One of the best day trips from Riyadh is the Edge of the World - a surreal geological anomaly where the Tuwaiq escarpment drops off to the desert plain below, and you really feel like you're standing on the edge of the world. To get there, we drove out of Riyadh and passed through a shock of bright green date plantations, and several small towns which reminded me strongly of rural Victoria. We had to veer off the highway onto a faint desert trail (which split into infinity other equally faint desert trails as we went deeper into the sand hills). We followed the cloud of dust which was the friends driving in front of us (who supposedly knew where they were going); and stopped along the way to admire the camel herds ambling through the scrub. We may or may not have made friends with the camel herders sons and their friends who wanted to practice their English skills, and we may or may not have been tempted to kidnap a baby camel. We drove through surprisingly green Acacia valleys, and traversed ancient, dried up creek beds which threatened to break an axle and leave us stranded out there. It was one of our first, true, desert experiences and it completely changed our perspective on this city which we now call our home. 


Visiting home is one of the singular "expat" experiences. Sometimes it's difficult to really gain perspective on how you feel about a place until you leave it (the old "don't know what you've got till it's gone" conundrum), and we discovered this when we travelled to one of our many "homes" for Christmas. With family scattered as far apart as ours, there are many places where we feel at home, and England is one of them...especially England at Christmas. It was so beautiful to be enveloped in nostalgic familiarity after months of "newness". We relaxed into the comfortable routines of the holidays, and enjoyed a few days of overindulgence in those things deemed unsavory in the Kingdom. When people asked us "what is it like" living in a country so shrouded in bad press and conflict, we didn't think to talk the about the dust, or the abayas, or the awful roads. Instead we talked about how much we love our jobs, all our amazing new friends, and our beautiful house. After a while, the bizarre becomes familiar, and you start to become accustomed to the incongruities of living here. Riyadh certainly wouldn't have been our first choice, given the option to live anywhere in the world (or even anywhere in the Middle East), but despite the inconveniences and culture shock, it's finally starting to feel like home. Well, one of our homes anyway...