Thursday, February 27, 2014

Photo Moment: Too many temptations

The Saudis love their sweets and cheesecakes…and sadly so do I.  It's going to be hard to resist these.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

20/20: Advice for Expats Moving Internationally

So happy I decided to bring my cheesy collection of Starbuck's mugs.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and I agree. If I could take what I know now into a time machine and go back two months ago when I was packing, moving and frantically trying to sell stuff on Craigslist, I would do things differently.

First of all, don't listen to those people who tell you to sell everything and come with just your clothes. You'll find out when you arrive that they didn't do that and actually brought their stuff with them. Then they will look at you and ask why you didn't bring your personal items.

So here's the thing. If your company is paying for shipping, bring everything - or max out what they are willing to pay. If your new place is furnished (like mine is) still bring everything you can, including cheap things like Gladware and measuring cups. And definitely bring your rugs, artwork and all your little knick knacks.

Here's why. It took you years to collect that stuff to make your place look and feel like you. And even though you may be moving to a place that has great shopping, trying to replace everything you've collected over the years is not only expensive, but time consuming. Plus, what if you can't find anything you like?

I was speaking to another newbie like me who got rid of everything, and he agrees. Just replacing all the basics in the kitchen like measuring spoons, bowls, strainers, and cutlery takes a while and costs a hefty amount when bought in one go - and you tend to buy cheaper, crappier stuff than the items you practically gave away on Craigslist or to Goodwill.

Then there are the knick knacks like picture frames (they told me to just bring the photos and buy new ones here – expensive), table centerpieces, glasses, towels, sheets, the tray to put your utensils in and placemats.

I got rid of everything, but when I visit people's homes at KAUST and see these things, I realize that all they had to do to make their place “theirs” is to unpack. Me? I’m hiring taxis, running around the city on the weekend and spending money – and in some cases, I’m spending money on stuff I don’t even really like in order to turn my place into a "fake" home.

The other thing you need to bring is your sports stuff. If you mountain bike or road cycle, bring your pump, lights, helmet and everything else. I'm on my second pump here and the quality is not what I am used to (it doesn't fit properly so I have to hold it on). Every time I need to pump up my bike, I regret giving away my $60 pressure pump. I had asked people in advance and they told me I could get all this stuff here (wrong). You can kind of - if you just need a kicker bike to ride to the grocery store, but the true cyclists say they stock up on stuff when they go home.

The same goes for other sporty items. Bring your yoga mat, your camping gear, your hiking shoes and other things as you might not be able to find it as quickly as you think.

Another thing to throw into you shipment are any of your favorite brands. You might find them where you are or you might not. It's safer to just buy a little extra and throw them in a box. When they arrive 2 or 3 months later with the air shipment you'll be thankful for the care package you made for yourself. Stuff you might consider are toothpaste, shampoo, granola bars, and sports powders (if you’re into sports), hand sanitizer and anything else you normally use – especially if you are on a special diet. I also regret not bringing my Swifter as they don't have it here.

Again, the place you are going to might have this stuff - and I’m sure eventually I’ll find all this stuff here, but in the beginning, it’s good to have backup.

Of course none of these are life or death, but when you're already on a learning curve and trying to learn a new job, a new language and a new culture, sometimes it's nice to have what you know.

So this is my advice. Don't be foolish like me. My company was willing to airship up to 300 kgs of my personal belongings. I shipped less than 100 kgs – and that included my bike. I could have probably shipped everything I owned except my furniture and still have kilos to spare.

But keep in mind, I didn’t have that much stuff to begin with – and I wasn’t transporting a family. Pack rats and hoarders…you’ll be screwed, but if you aren’t, then take as much as you can. You’ll be happy you did.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

Learning How to Shop Saudi-style

The malls in Saudi Arabia are incredible – and gigantic.  I’ve only been to the ones in Jeddah, but I’ve been told the ones in Riydah are just as fantastic.  

They are multi-leveled and have interesting things in them like a full-scale amusement park, a snow village where it actually snows fake snow, tropical lagoons, go-cart tracks and more.  The only thing they don’t have are movie theaters as those aren’t allowed here.  

And then you have the shops.  One of my friends asked if they have any shops they would know. The answer is "yes." They have them ALL.   There’s Sephora, Guess, Bebe, Boots,  Juicy Couture, Zara, Applebee’s, Burger King, Baskin Robbins and more.   They also have a few local shops, a bunch of designer shops and some British shops.  You name it; they have it…or they will have it soon.  I saw a sign for a Tim Horton’s coming soon at The Mall of Arabia.

So why so are the malls so amazing?  I think it’s because it’s hot here and the malls are air conditioned so people go there as a family and hang out.  And I mean they really hang out because they stay for hours.

The website says the malls are open from 10 a.m. until midnight, but with the prayer times, many of the actual shops close in the afternoon and reopen in the evening.  Then they are packed from 6:30 p.m. to closing. When I say packed, I’m talking Black Friday shopping packed. 

But while the shops are the same, the way you shop is different.

My first time in the mall, I picked out a bunch of clothes and wanted to try them on. Apparently you don’t do that as very few of the shops have change rooms. Surprise!

 At first I thought Saudi women simply guessed their size, then tried them on at home and brought back the ones they didn’t like.    

This wasn’t going to work for me.

First of all, I don’t enjoy shopping with crowds of people. Secondly, going to the mall is big endeavor as I take the bus from KAUST from 5 p.m. It takes an hour to get to the mall and then it only picks me up again at 11 p.m.  That’s a long time in a mall for someone who likes to get in and be done in 30 minutes.  And thirdly, I didn’t understand the return policies and some of the shops only give you 2 days to do exchanges. 

Not knowing how it’s done, I didn’t buy anything my first time to the mall. Instead I vowed to never go again and just buy everything online. Yes, that sounds drastic. But keep in mind, I just wasted 5 hours in a mall.  

It turns out there my drastic measures won't be necessary.  There is a secret to shopping in Saudi that nobody told me.  

Yes, you have to buy the clothes without trying them on in the shops.  But there is a place to try them on.  It’s in the restroom! 

I was wondering why the restroom was so big with these bare stalls on one side.  I thought they were for private praying or something (really, I knew nothing).  Nope, they are where you try on your clothes. 

So in summary…you buy the clothes, try them on in the restroom, and then return the ones you don’t like.  

PS  I haven’t bought shoes, so I don’t know how that works yet.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A warm welcome from old town Jeddah

Wednesday was my first day at work and already I got to visit Jeddah, which is the nearest city to KAUST and the second biggest one in the country with 4.1 million people.  

Jeddah is currently having its first cultural festival in the city’s old Balad area and I went to check it out with my co-workers.

So imagine me in my abaya – without the veil (so glad I bought this before I left Phoenix or I wouldn't be able to go) trying to follow a group of other women dressed in black through the busy streets of the city. 

Keep in mind that I'm not only new to the area and my Arabic is limited to "thank you" and "yes" -- or if I'm being fancy, I can say "Yes, thank you," but I'm also without my guardian techno angel -- aka my iPhone.

That's right.  I learned when I got here that my cell phone no longer works because I have an iPhone 4 so can’t get a Sim card for it -- and to buy the new iPhone 5 will be $800. So I've been walking around old school -- pre-smart phone.

In other words, I have no idea how to get back to KAUST if I did get lose my co-workers in the crowd, I can't talk to anyone, and I don't have GPS, any translation apps or a way to call for help.

Little did I know that I had nothing to worry about.  My group was also afraid of getting lost in the crowd so they basically were following me (the only blonde in the streets) to make sure they weren't left behind.  Guess I stood out a bit.

The Jeddah Heritage Festival they took me too was the first of its kind in the city and thousands of people were attending that week.  

I know it sounds strange that heritage festivals are a new thing, but some of Saudi co-workers said it’s because in the past, the country really focused on the future.  This makes sense as there are so many gorgeous modern skyscrapers and other architectural buildings in the city.   

However, this is about to change.

According to Prince Sultan Bin Salman, head of SCTA, this 10 day festival was a “turning point for cultural heritage in the Kingdom.” He told the media, they (meaning the government) are starting to focus on national tourism in Saudi Arabia.

Yay for me!  This works out perfectly because when I’m not at work, I’m basically a tourist.   

And it seems like I'm not the only one excited about this new cultural trend.  My group at work had arranged a private tour of the festival so that we could learn about the buildings, history and the stories behind the structures. 

My favorite one was the house with the tree (yes, it is actually known as that because it’s the only house with a tree).

I loved this house because the owners had stairs specially made so camels could walk right in the front door with the packages and food and take them up to the top floor of the home where the kitchen was.  Smart thinking!  The stairs were shorter and wider to make it easy for the camels to climb up and down them.

So was I shunned walking as a westerner in the streets?  Not at all.

In fact, there were countless times when I would walk past an elder and hear say in a quiet voice meant only for my ears, “Welcome, daughter” and then nod as they made eye contact.

It was humbling, touching and very much their culture to be privately welcomed by strangers like that.