I have heard about culture shock, and in fact, I was told I would experience when I made the decision to move. I thought it was probably some psychobabble rhetoric that wouldn’t really affect me. I have always considered myself pretty tough and determined enough to survive most anything. Culture shock can be described in stages: honeymoon phase, negotiation phase, adjustment phase, and mastery phase. These phases can be described essentially just like you might think from the name of the phase.
I arrived, obviously in the honeymoon phase. Everything was magical, fascinating, different, and exciting. In the negotiation phase the differences between the old and the new culture become more apparent and can create anxiety. Language barriers, extreme differences in public hygiene, traffic safety, differences in types and availability of food all lead to a heightened sense of disconnection and ultimately a sense of frustration.
After much deliberation to include gnashing of teeth I decided I really need to have a car. I have been very blessed by a couple that barely new me and loaned me their car for a month while they were back home in the States on holiday. It has been wonderful having a sense of freedom even though I can only drive as far as the main gates of the compound. Buying more than a handful of groceries or running home at lunch becomes very simple with a car.
I carefully reviewed the classified ads on the company intranet page and ruled out all cars that were over 15 years old, had more than 285K kilometers, or cost over 15,000 SAR (approximately 5,000 USD). I also had several people looking through word of mouth for me but I also ruled out large vans and makes of cars I knew to be unreliable. This obviously meant that my choices were limited. I found a relatively new car (2006) with low mileage (26,000 miles) in my price range and decided that was the one. A nice Filipino man was selling the car and we agreed to meet so I could view and test drive it. I decided it was perfect: small, peppy, clean, well maintained and best of all BLUE!
This is where my story really begins. You must remember that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi. The company I work for is the ONLY company in the country that allows women to drive on the compound. No other compounds allow women to drive and women are forbidden to driveoutside. To buy the car, I would have to go with the Filipino man and his brother (who really owns the car) into Khobar to a used car dealer who would complete the paper work and make the title exchange. I already understood that I would be buying this car on faith – I didn’t have my husband here to give it a thorough once over, I couldn’t reach a mechanic that might check it over…I was assured that Filipinos take great pride in their cars and so this car had probably been very well maintained. I would also have to go to a strange place in a car with a man I don’t know – something I would never even consider doing at home!!
Khobar is a fairly big city by Saudi standards. There is a lot of traffic especially at night and we were headed into the beginning of the weekend as well. Driving is Saudi is an experience unto its own. Imagine being live in the game Grand Theft Auto. Cars flying by you in all directions, speed is not a consideration, and traffic rules don’t exist! I couldn’t watch – I was so terrified that we would be killed by another car I wasn’t even concerned that this stranger might harm me in some other way. We were driving fast, tailgating, dodging in and out of lanes, slamming on breaks, and the crazy thing is that is normal.
We arrived at the car dealer in a terrible part of town, burned out buildings, rubble all around and I realized, I am somewhere very strange to me and I am not sure I like this. The owner of the shop, a large Saudi man with a straggly beard, wearing a dingy white thobe and gutra greeted us by announcing “women are like snakes, they should all be killed! I have had 2 or 3 wives and none of them were any good”. I looked at the 3 other Saudi men behind the counter, they were not smiling, and I just laughed to myself. I thought, “how crazy is this, I can’t believe he just said that!”. Some paper shuffling, a little shouting, and a few hundred SAR(money) later I left with the two Filipino men having signed the car over to me. Back into the crazy traffic for the ride “home”.
Morning came very early. I was heading to the desert to see camels and have a picnic and after my night I really wanted to be headed to the airport. I called my husband for a quick word of reassurance and burst into tears. As I climbed aboard the bus that looks like a giant green and white caterpillar, the tour guide asked me, “Are you crying?” I said “no” and put my sunglasses on.
We stopped at a coffee shop to use the toilets and get coffee or tea or water. I had to remember that the entrance for women is at the back of the shop and I could see from the door it wasn’t a place I would be ordering anything from. It made my worst Waffle House experience seem like 5 star dining. I decided I would just use the toilet instead. To say it was a typical gas station bathroom is an understatement. I didn’t see any way I could maneuver my abaya, slacks, personal garments and take care of business over an open trough. But, as they say, “you gotta do what you gotta do”, so I did.
Our first stop was a camel market. Camel reigns, camel saddles, camel blankets, camel bags and camel milk. It was most interesting. Here I was reminded of why I don’t run screaming back to the US. The souks are filled with sights and smells never seen before. The fully veiled women are warm and kind and inviting to talk with Western women. I have learned about 20 Arabic words so far, enough to say hello, how much, thank you, I am new here, and good-bye. I feel a connection and am reminded that these are women not so different from me. They have families, husbands, children and they are all doing a honest day’s work to help support those they love. They are very proud of their crafts and anxious to show anyone that will take a look. The men speak more English and are enjoying the sight of Western women with their hair and faces exposed. They want us to take their pictures and to tell them where we are from. They are also selling such things as dates, spices, goats, etc. The spice souks are filled with fragrant, sweet, exotic smells that remind me of the kitchen when I was growing up. There are stalls filled with beautiful fabrics: silk, linen, cotton in vibrant colors of yellow, red, purple, orange, green and many shades of blue. I use this as a chance to practice saying my colors in Arabic.
With our camel prods, camel bags, carpets, tea pots and other treasures stowed safely under the bus we head off to our next stop. A quick stop at a restaurant in Nyria to pick up lunch and we arrive for what is supposed to be a brief 15 minute visit at a camel farm. There are camels of all sizes and colors and camels are really interesting animals. They are very curious and were not afraid at all to come close to be petted or photographed or fed. Some camels would be sold to be butchered and eaten and some would be sold to produce more camels. They were priced as high as 150,000 SAR (approximately 40,000 USD)! The Saudi farmer that owned the camels was proud to show us the father of the entire heard. This camel had free reign to roam the area as he pleased. The herd was surprisingly well maintained and appeared to be well fed. And by now I was settling into a rhythm that yesterday seemed totally strange and in some ways frightening, but today is another day that is equally as strange in many ways.
Our trip concluded with lunch at some type of governor’s building. I really wasn’t able to figure out what the place was but we had a place to wash our hands with soap and running water so I was happy! The toilets were no better than the first stop but I had also learned to manage my personal needs by this time!
Shoes off, lunch in hand, I enter a big hall with Persian carpets on the floor and understand this is the table. We all sit along the carpets and enjoy our lunch of hummus, muttabol, grape leaves, tandoori chicken and beef, and Arabic rice with flat bread. After lunch we move to another hall for tea, coffee and dates. Three young Saudis arrive with their falcon and the room is buzzing as we all get a chance to have a photo taken of us holding the falcon. These birds are used for hunting and I enjoy learning about this using my new female Saudi friend to translate my questions and introduce me to new Arabic words. A coke and a bottle of water mean another trip to the loo but by now I am resigned. Sufficiently full of both food and culture, I climb back on the bus for the long ride to the compound.
It’s hard being somewhere new and strange where people don’t speak your language and nothing makes any sense. Time has no meaning, what could be done at home in 30 minutes sometimes take hours here, and every day is filled with ambiguity. My son reminded me that much of the world operates more like this than the US. I chuckle and think about how uptight I can be when time and structure are not perfectly in place. I feel this is a journey filled with ambiguity and I am learning to embrace it.