Sunday, 30 December 2012

The end of the year draws near.

As the year draws to a close, it seems fitting to reflect on my one-year-old blog, and therefore also the year that was 2012.
When January came my blog was less than a month new: a project inspired by an avid blogger and friend I met in Spain, to chart my way through Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. It's hard to believe now that this is where it all started. Stephen, in his ultimately intellectual way, baffled and terrified me through my first thirteen blog posts, He also travelled with me to Winter Camp in Korea (brrr... just thinking about the weather in Korea at this time of year makes me cold!)
This year was meant to be slightly less eventful than 2011 in terms of travelling around, but as it turns out 2012 was the year of 23 planes.
In January we left Korea for Bangkok, which ended after a few days in having a bag stolen. This caused some significant inconvenience, including having only one new shoe (poor Lee) and no Ode Less Travelled to write about. In some ways I was relieved, as Stephen Fry had been blowing my mind, and reading his book was extremely difficult.
From the ashes, my more honest and journal-like blog was born. It saw me go to Chiang Mai, ride on elephants and then put myself through a CELTA, a painful experience made good mostly because of the great people I met. I am now thoroughly glad we decided to do it, as it opened a lot of doors. At the time we thought we had a job lined up that didn't require a teaching qualification but as this year has shown, you never know what's around the corner, and definitely shouldn't put all of your eggs in one basket. I wouldn't have done most of the things I did this year if not for completing my CELTA.
After the end of the course we had some further adventures in Laos, tubing, meeting new people and going on crazy bus rides.
The news came then that our job was much less than certain and that we wouldn't be starting on the expected date. So when we arrived in Madrid, we didn't even leave the airport, instead booking a flight (or two) to get home and surprise everyone. Three weeks later we were back in Madrid, for the worst week EVER on some awful training that had me so happy when I was finally 'fired.' Even though I live in the strange country that is Saudi, I still count my lucky stars that Vaughan Systems did not take me on as one of their underpaid, overworked 'freelancers.' Screw that.
Determined to find a job in Spain somehow, we then bought ourselves some time by going to Sidges near Barcelona to help Val and Andrew with some odd jobs, through workaway. It was an interesting two weeks, in which we painted walls, cleared clutter and cleaned up a pond, in exchange for lovely food, lots of drink and some great company. I would recommend this website for anyone who wants to travel, needs somewhere to stay and isn't afraid of hard work.
Admitting defeat in Spain, we then went back home to re-think. Our sights became set on the Middle East, our only proviso being 'no way are we going to Saudi Arabia.' But as it turns out, most of the more desirable Middle Eastern destinations such as the UAE require higher qualifications and much more experience than we have.
And so, slowly but surely, our attentions turned to the KSA. After deciding maybe it was a good, and possibly our only option, we all know what happened. We went to my friends' wonderful wedding and decided (whilst under the influence of alcohol- isn't that when all the best decisions are made?) to go to Vegas and get married.
And so we did. If you missed it the first time round, you can read all about it here.
I was at home much more than expected this year, which was a bit stressful as it always is when you're unemployed. But also it was great. I got to spend lots of time with my family, most importantly with my two lovely nieces. I also got to celebrate my Grandparents 60 year wedding anniversary.
Desperate for money and a change of scenery, I ended up doing a summer school in Cambridge, a pretty hardcore job that I will hopefully not have to repeat. One positive thing about this experience, however, was that I met some nice new people and taught a multi-lingual group of terrific kids from around the globe.
The result of some f*ck ups from Saudi (the beginning of many, I can now see), I finally followed Lee here and started my job. Shortly after arriving I received the sad news that my darling cat Freddie had died. I think my emotions will have to deal with this all over again on my visit back home in January.
Then it was Eid and we went to Sri Lanka for a holiday, which I felt like I needed even though I'd only been in Saudi for such a short time! So far this present adventure has been a bit of a roller coaster, but happily it has only got better and I can now say I at least feel partly at home here.
In conclusion, 2012 was a year of uncertainty, adventure and new challenges. Looking back over the whole year and seeing how interesting and at times crazy it was, I find myself excited about what the next year will bring!

How was 2012 for you?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Don't mention Chr*stm*s

The thought police are upon us. Beware.
This week has been an interesting one.

At the weekend we tried to be cultured by embarking on an expat desert walk. We packed our bags with water, sunglasses and sandwiches, and arrived at the meeting spot. Rather than asking around and being pushy, we waited, as us Brits tend to do, until everyone else had found a driver. Finally a car pulled up and offered Lee a lift, so in we got. The guy, we soon found out, was a reckless driver and a general nutter (American of course!!). Oh yes, that's right, and it turned out he had not the faintest clue where we were going. A road trip ensued, with music, drinks and far-too-fast-for-comfort driving. After at least a couple of hours, involving many a camel sighting, some off-road bumpy rides and a wee behind a sand dune (I was desperate!), we finally admitted defeat and went home. Even though we never made it to the walk, it was a lot of fun, and really nice to be out of the city. Here is the one photo I took:

Stunning, huh?!
There were actually a lot of really beautiful sights such as valleys and layered rock towers, but it was hard to capture them when flying past at 110 miles an hour.

The reason I mention the thought police is because this week I've been firmly reminded of where I am, and therefore what I'm not allowed to say to the students. The list is long, and at times shocking. One of the things we are not supposed to mention is the C word. And no, I don't mean the one that you're thinking of (you rude people), I mean CHRISTMAS. Uh-oh, I went and said it.

After some deliberation on whether or not to act on my phantom stomach bug, I finally decided to go to the hospital, where I was thoroughly examined and given two days sick leave. It was so nice yesterday to sleep in past 5.30am (can you believe that's what time I get up?) and to just relax all morning. We watched Muppet Christmas Carol and opened some lovely presents from family. Then later we had a roast dinner with the people we live with, outside in the sun. We did a secret Santa and all in all it was about as festive as we could've made it.



Despite wishing I could be at home, I still had a really rather good day.
My only grievance is in relation to chocolate, and I will tell you all about it now.
The other day we bought a tin of Quality Street, in the hope of inspiring the festive mood. When I opened the tin, however, I immediately knew something was wrong. There were far too many purples and yellows. I have no idea why, but the tin only contained six different chocolates: the purple one, toffee penny, toffee finger, caramel swirl, the green one and some random one that I don't even know, "chocolate hazelnut crunch". What the F? Where's my orange crunch, my strawberry delight, my VANILLA FUDGE? This may sound insignificant and petty to you, but when even that promise of a little taste of home gets pulled from under you, it's pretty damn annoying.

 Anyway,  that's about it for now. I hope you all ate and drank your own body weight yesterday and generally had a very merry time (and that it is continuing well in to today)!


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Laws, lines and ludicrousy

There's been lots and not a lot going on in my world this week. Here is my ramble about it all.
At school they've put tape along the floor in the hallways- one red line and one blue line. Can you guess what it's for? That's right, it's one line for girls and the other for boys. It goes all the way through the school including up two flights of stairs and the best part is that it stops in two places and then the lines swap over (unintentionally I'm guessing). So if the kids were to walk next to each other in the 'appropriate' lines there would be complete pandemonium when they had to cross over, and someone would surely end up pregnant. Wait, is that not the worry here? Oh, maybe I over-reacted.
On the plus side at school we only have two weeks left with the kids and then I face the moral dilemma of whether to fail the bad boys and consequently have to spend an extra week teaching them (very painful) or give them a B grade (which is what the parents and Principal want) and send them off to enjoy the holiday. What would you do??
Last weekend we ventured out to a bazaar at the diplomatic quarter. All of the embassies are there and it's generally considered OK to take off your abaya. And I tell you what, it's scary to say it, but it felt weird. Like, a little bit naked. Especially when there were Arab men around. It's funny how quickly you can get used to something so alien. A woman in a car was filming us at one point, pretending to be just filming a house next to us. But that's what we like to do to them- how the tables have turned! Maybe we're not as subtle as I think we are, seeing as we noticed straight away when it was being done to us.
I have also been reflecting on some rather serious things this week, due to conversations that have come my way and events that have taken place. It goes without saying that the school shooting has been on my mind. Really there are no words to describe how appalling it was, so I won't even bother to try. Other topics have been arranged marriage and the death penalty, neither of which I can find it in me to agree with.
I've had someone at work tell me plainly that she's married to her cousin (who she doesn't like) and a fourteen year old girl telling me matter of factly that her Mum married her Dad 'becuase he is her cousin,' as if that not only explained it but justified it. Some arranged marriages I'm sure work out quite well, but to me marriage should always be primarily about love. And Vegas. Haha.
As Lee pointed out, all we can say is we hope this fourteen year old girl doesn't hate her little boy cousins...

The death penalty, as we all know, exists in Saudi Arabia in the form of public beheadings. Whilst doing some research today I came across a picture of someone kneeling about to be executed, with a man running at him, sword raised. The picture made me feel sick. Thinking about it and actually seeing it are two very different things, and I find it truly fascinating that people go to 'chop chop square' to witness these events. The idea of actually watching someone carry out such an act- regardless of the crime- is just horrendous to me. 
I found an interesting Guardian map displaying capital punishment statistics worldwide in 2011, with Saudi Arabia coming in at 82+ for the year. I was quite shocked to see that Iran had 360+ and that China refused to release any figures but that they're estimated to be in the thousands (we do have to bear in mind that China has a massive population, but it is still amazing that they could refuse to partake in official statistics). I was quite proud to see that there is only one remaining country to abolish the death penalty in Europe (Belarus).
The thing about Saudi Arabia is that there are a disproportionate amount of immigrants from Asia and Africa being beheaded. The racism that we have seen here makes it only too easy to believe this. It's also possible for people to be pardoned of their crimes if they know the right people or have enough money, and thus evade execution.
Another country that we all know has the death penalty is the USA. I think it might be the only western country in fact, other than the aforementioned Belarus. Coming in at 43 deaths for the 2011 year, it is definitely not the worst but still well and truly getting involved. I think Saudi seems worse because they do it in the open, but I guess you could say at least they don't try to hide who they are.
I don't mean this to sound like an anti-America rant or anything, using the USA here is purely circumstantial here. It's just I've just been thinking this week about the shooting in Connecticut. Another school shooting? The thing that's crossed my mind is that with all of Saudi's faults, at least they don't have fucked up young people open firing on innocent children. On the other hand, they don't have freedom of speech or equal rights. I guess every country has its faults, although some perhaps more than others.

Not exactly a festive post, but hey you gotta write about what you gotta write about!
Happy holidays!!!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Keeping the Sexes Separate

My school- kindergarden to Grade 3- has both boys and girls in it, which causes some problems in a country where this is not generally allowed. Rather than just making a blanket rule saying that schools must be split, they allow young children to be together but then make unreasonable rules for inside the school itself. For example, the playground here is a subject of much controversy. Boys and girls playing in the same place at the same time? This can't be! So the teachers are instructed at break times to keep the girls in the sandpit and swings area and the boys on the football pitch. OK, so to me this is pretty weird, but if it needs to be done then I guess it's just about manageable.
But it doesn't end there, and I'm sure you will be as amused/shocked by what happened in the Chapter called, "The ministry of education come to visit."
The grade 3 class here is mixed because there aren't enough boys or girls to make them into seperate classes. But when we heard the ministry were coming- Action Stations!- the kids were spilt into boys and girls and everyone pretended this is always the case. A small issue here is that it meant the boys were taught for the day by their assistant, because obviously there was no teacher. So you could say their education suffered. But the main thing that is unbeleivable is that the children were briefed on what was going to happen, and what they should say if they were asked any questions. Um... I know you're 9 years old, but could you just lie to the Ministry of education to protect the company? Thanks very much.
I still don't even understand why we did this, because if the ministry had found out the boys and girls were in the same class then maybe our bosses would be forced to hire a new teacher.

And in other 'the way children are treated here' news, I found something out about the girls middle school (grade 7 and 8), via another teacher that I live with. She told me that the other day there was a random spot check to search for forbidden mobile phones. The students were lined up against the wall and checked with a metal detector, then their bags searched. Apparently what had happened was that a girl was texting her 'boyfriend' (someone she met on facebook) and someone else had posted pictures of the girls at school on twitter. In their school uniforms! How scandalous. These girls, aged 12 and 13, already have to wear full cover, to the point where they are not allowed to leave the school in the afternoon until their hair and faces totally covered up. So it follows that them being seen not in an abaya in a photo on the internet would send everyone concerned into a frenzy.
This got me thinking about a very interesting modern problem regarding the laws here. Technology has moved on, but the rules have not evolved. Therefore the cinema and concerts are banned, but facebooking any random person from anywhere in the world and posting photos of yourself on the internet, is not. For now, anyway.

Oh yeah, and the phones that were found in school were apparently smashed in front of the students. That'll teach them!  

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Toys, toys, toys.

Last week, in a mad quest to find things to occupy our time, Lee and I went a bit toy mad. Of course I place all of the blame on the fact that we discovered Toys R Us. I got some amazing light-up juggling balls, which came with a CD to help me better my skills. So far I haven't looked at it though as I know it'll require a lot of hard work to master any tricks, and I'm just not sure I'm up for it. But the lights are very pretty though, so for now I'm content just to juggle and watch them change through all the colours of the rainbow.
I also got a hoola hoop. At first I thought it was broken, but then realised it was just my rusty hoola hooping ability. After a lot of practice I managed to do 90 in a row (yes, counting makes me happy). But I woke up the next day with an massive ache in my side, which went on for 3 days, so I haven't touched it since. I think these things should come with a health warning- "Not a Toy. Danger of Injury."
Lee is now the proud owner of a remote control Ferrari, and has been literally driving me crazy playing 'I've just been to the golf club' in our living room, which involves going through security at the mansion (our coffee table) and parking in the garage (the table). He's also taken to following me around flashing the lights.

I found a game that I liked but wasn't sure it was the right Sunday afternoon fun for me:

Maybe it means to say, "The Only Game ever made for Muslim Children"?

On the back I was further enlightened as to what 'The Path' involves.

Whilst some of these are worthy things to ponder on, I'm not sure 'Cars to Own' or 'Shopping Trips to Take' really qualify as moral dilemmas. Should I get a BMW or a Mercedes, God? Please Help!

And our final toy buying extravagance was a bit crazy but also a perfect way to use the spare room:

A little frivolous you might think, but I figured it only cost as much as about two nights out at home for the two of us, and seeing as that privilege is denied us here, I thought 'why the heck not?!'

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A Potential New Hobby

I don't know if I've mentioned before how crazy the roads are here and how bad the driving is, so I'll say it again just in case. The roads are crazy here and the driving is very bad. A lot of main roads are dual carriageways or bigger and extremely busy. Life as a pedestrian here is not easy, partly due to the big roads but also because the drivers generally act as if walking is an alien concept.
Out on the streets and indeed in our apartment, we constantly hear the screech of breaks and the skidding of tires. People drive fast, brake fast and relish skidding and handbrake turns.
It's funny to me that women are deemed unsuitable drivers, yet young boys are not. I have seriously seen boys that look as young as twelve behind the wheel. The other day I saw a little boy driving along with his door open, watching the floor instead of the road ahead as he went. At least when they're older they just look at their phones whilst driving rather than the ground.
The price of petrol is extremely low here, I believe it to be less than one Riyal per litre (approx 17p) and I think you can see that in the way they drive, and in how many cars are on the road. People are also not afraid to bash their cars, and it appears that vehicles are almost never deemed unroadworthy. I've seen bumpers hanging off, smashed bonnets, and cracked and even smashed windscreens, but none of this seems to matter. 
I don't know if this made international news (I think it should've really) but in the Eid holiday there was a massive accident where an oil tanker crashed into a flyover, exploding and killing around 26 people. It happened in our area of the city, but we were in Sri Lanka at the time, although we saw the aftermath on our return. It was pretty scary to look at, as several nearby buildings were completely destroyed and ones further away had no windows. From what I've heard, this was an accident caused primarily by lack of care taken on the roads.
The other day driving home from work I also saw an accident where a car had gone into a huge lamppost. The lamppost had fallen, landing on top of the car and crushing it from front to back. I think these things are quite regular occurrences here.

On a lighter note, it is entertaining to see what happens to a car when the driver has finally had enough of the state it's in. There are 'car graveyards' dotted around, where people dump their wrecked cars for good.

Other than driving recklessly, another popular pastime here is playing with the abandoned cars. So here we have it, if we get really, really bored here, we might just take up a new hobby- burning out cars!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Meeting the Mothers and Achieving Greatness

Last week we had a 'mothers meeting' at school, which is Saudis answer to a parents evening. Of course I was grateful there were no men, as this would've resulted in me having to wear my abaya for the whole thing, but it still seemed a bit one sided and unnatural to me. You'd think one of the perks of a man-free meeting would be that the women could uncover but actually there wasn't a single one who took their abaya off. One woman even chose to discuss her children with me whilst wearing a full burka, which meant I couldn't really hear what she was saying.
But abaya or no abaya I was still struck by the glamour and glitz of the occasion. I've really never seen so many women doing their makeup and sorting out their hair in a childrens' bathroom. Also there were some people who brought their girls in pretty party dresses complete with blusher, eyeliner and lipstick; miniature doll version of their mums.
Another odd part of the 'no men' set up was that I spoke to one lady who is divorced and doesn't live with her child. Her boy is quite naughty and a bit of a handful, but it was impossible to discuss strategies for improving behaviour with someone who a) doesn't see the child and b) was nearly crying in front of me.
Some women found it impossible to comprehend that their children are badly behaved. There seems to be a general consensus that the boys are just 'babies,' which accounts for a lot really.

In other news it actually rained last week and the kids went crazy. When we arrived to our private tutoring the two boys were running around in ponchos, screaming and playing in what can only be described as a bit of drizzle. Exciting times. I just wish the rain would happen in the morning next time because apparently so many people stay at home that the King has to call it a national holiday.

There were two main highlights of the last school week. Firstly, I did a mini award ceremony with my boys class, for the winners of the most stamps. It was very cute.

But my absolute favourite moment of the week has to be the pride I felt in my teaching ability after doing a plural nouns worksheet with the girls class. This girl clearly didn't get it, as she decided to take off the last letter of each word and and replace it with s.
Please note number 13:

I really am so impressed with myself. Maybe it was some sort of subliminal messaging that she picked up on? Pat on the back for me.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Getting Christmassy (in November!)

Sorry guys at home, I know you're probably saturated by Christmas adverts etc by now and could do without a Christmas related blog too, but for me it's a bit different so please be patient! As I prepare to miss the third Christmas in a row, sniff sniff, I find myself really being regretful I won't be there. When I lived in London I took for granted the Christmas market, mulled wine with friends and all those trips to outdoor ice rinks with the young people I keyworked (once actually whilst it was snowing!) And all the lovely things about being at home like massive games of Cranium involving a school-sized flip chart, opneing all the presents too quickly and therefore making a total mess in the living room, and always watching A Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. I think this year I'm also more sad because of a certain two nieces who will be really excited by everything this year.
But hey, no point dwelling on it too much: it is what it is. And so I've been thinking of ways to bring that Christmas spirit to me, in a country where it is not exactly welcomed, to say the least. I know it's a little early- in fact the weather here says it's still August!- but I watched two Christmassy films at the weekend (that's Thurs and Fri to you, if you've forgotten) and curled up on the sofa, something who's joy is a little lost when it's not cold in the slightest. I've never seen before The Santa Clause and whilst I found it entertaining, I also thought it was a bit creepy and won't watch it again in a hurry. Vice Versa, not exactly Christmas themed but set around the festive period, is fun but not a patch on Freaky Friday if you ask me. On a side topic it was weird that we spent 50 Riyals (about 8 quid) on a bag of pick n mix to eat whilst we watched the films. Clearly that is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on sweets, but I wasn't at all bothered. Weird? I realised it's because those sweets make up the whole evening- in the absence of actually being able to go to the cinema, or go for a quick drink before/after/before and after, the sweets are the only thing we can actually buy. So it still works out cheap.  
Anyway, I also started work on some decorations for my tree, which are definitely going to involve glitter and will most certainly be totally tacky. Then on Friday morning whilst relieving my overly hard pillow of some of its stuffing, I had a genius idea. You guessed it- I'm going to make a snow man!
I tell you what people, the fun here never stops.

Any Christmas related suggestions are very welcome...

The ghosts of snowmen past?
I'm also going to set to work soon on making a certain something involving a big bucket, oranges and lemons, lots of sugar and a dash of yeast. Do you know what that might be? In my opinion no Christmas would be the same without it :)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A rather long Ikea outing

I feel I must report to you about our weekend trip to Ikea. Everything here is such an ordeal- popping to the shops simply doesn't exist, and that's how a visit to Ikea ended up taking six whole hours. I kid you not, we set off at 4pm and finally arrived back home at 10. A combination of factors contributed to the length of time it took: the roads are so massive here that when we missed the exit it took fifteen minutes to get back on track; there were two prayer times while we inside, during which there was no one to ask for assistance and no way of paying; and we had to wait over an hour for our driver who kept lying in his almost non existent English about how long he was going to be.
But anyway, the silver lining is that during this almost whole day stuck in Ikea we got to see some hilarious sights. Saudis can be pretty entertaining when they want to be.

Let's do a countdown.

5. Children were rollerblading round the shop- it's sad but true that shopping centres are their playgrounds.
4. A woman got her abaya trapped in the wheels of her trolley.
3. A showroom set of shelves just wasn't quite right.

2. There was a full on scrap (primary school kids eat your heart out) in the car park between two groups of Saudis. We're not sure what they were fighting about-possibly parking spaces-but it got so heated that a woman in one group actually took off her sandals and threw them at a blokes head!

1. A man next to us tried for more than thirty minutes to get a package into his car that just was not going to fit. First he tried the boot, then the back seat. We were lucky enough to catch some of it on camera:

Eventually, after some guidance from an Ikea employee, the man had the genius idea of opening the package and putting the really quite small pieces of sofa comfortably into his car. 

Despite its moments of hilarity, I won't be rushing back to Ikea in a hurry. It's fair to say that every time I go out it ends in me having a mini internal crisis along the lines of "what the hell am I doing here?" and having to spend a good few days in the house, pretending I'm somewhere else. Sigh.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Mini Film Thingy

I've been thinking of getting a camcorder so figured I'd give movie maker a go with some photos and stuff from Sri Lanka (with a lot of help from Lee).
So here it is, our movie debut:


Friday, 2 November 2012

The Real Joy is in the Making of the List

These days I try not to make goals and lists for myself, as I find they can often lead to disappointment and a sense of under achievement. For example, new years resolutions are a big no no for me- if you want to do something, why not start now?
Coming back from holiday, however, is one of those times when I just can't resist a nice juicy 'things I want to do' list.

Here it is:
  • Review the books I've been reading, for my poor neglected 'reviews' blog.
  • Review hotels and receive Agoda points (then actually find out how to use them next time I book something)
  • Try to use DVD maker (for the first time) to showcase holiday photos
  • Put some effort into planning school work
  • Find an unsuspecting innocent at work to teach me Arabic once a week
  • Skip more
  • Cook Soup and try out Phil's wonderful recipes
  • Decorate flat, starting with a trip to Ikea!
  • Work on Spanish
  • Write the next chapters of Map Mysteries (and maybe finally give the story a proper name)
  • Learn a new musical instrument
  • Find out where on earth to buy a musical instrument from in a country that pretty much forbids them.
  • And last but never least, say a post-holiday hello to my family on skype.
I think that'll do for now, I feel exhausted just thinking about it all. Maybe its time for a mid morning nap! 

Do you have any plans or goals? I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Clouds over a Setting Sun

So as our holiday draws to a close and we sit watching the rain fall into a beautiful swimming pool in a five star hotel (end in luxury- why not?!) I thought I'd write a little something about what we've been up to since last time.

 Cinnamon Citadel, Kandy- like this but overcast and raining!

We spent another day in Unawatuna, swimming in the sea and in the evening drinking with a Greek girl and Norwegian guy to celebrate his birthday. On recommendation we then headed up to a 'romantic' spot called Tengalle, but were sadly disappointed. The area consisted of a horribly busy road, a tiny   town with nothing in it but traffic, and a rocky beach. Realising our mistake as soon as we arrived, we left the next day despite having planned to stay there for three nights and caught a 7 hour train from Matara in the south up to Kandy. The train was quite entertaining and full of locals, with plenty of people going up and down selling food and curious children leaning over Lee's shoulder to watch him play on computer games. The scenery was great too and I enjoyed the open window, allowing me to hang out of it and take photos. We arrived at our family run guest house at 9pm, and went straight out in search of something to do. Sri Lanka is an early to bed nation so when we arrived at he Slightly Chilled Bar at 10.40 we were a bit worried. But hooray, the party came to us! The English owner invited us to go with them to a Halloween night at another bar. I was worried at first for being given free entry for being female (I wouldn't go near a place like that at home) but it turned out to be really fun, like a techno school disco. A lot of men came and talked to us, but half the time I wasn't sure if they wanted to dance with me or Lee, as just like in Korea there was a definite air of homosexuality (sorry Koreans but it's true!) The guest house was a bit weird , a little like staying with your Grandma- when we got up the next day the land lady said 'you were out late last night, weren't you,' then proceeded to tell us off about leaving the lights on. Needless to say we are making the very most of the Cinnamon Citadel hotel and drinking as much beer as we can before returning to Saudi. Annoyingly (for us) yesterday was the Buddhist full moon holiday, so we got to the hotel to find the bar was closed for the day. Sometimes I think the world is trying to tell me something...

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Greetings from Sri Lanka!

Dear Readers,


I'm having a great time in Sri Lanka. The weather has been mostly very sunny, except when we had a massive rain storm and had to hide inside the hotel. We stayed for 4 nights in an amazing hotel in Hikkaduwa (west coast Sri- Lanka) called Coral Rock, where we had a beach front balcony and the most amazing shower I've ever been in. We spent a lot of time on the beach, swimming in the clear but choppy sea, and fed some huge sea turtles one morning. Lee also made friends with a baby monkey. Since leaving Hikkaduwa we've found out that it was a popular hippy destination in the 70's but now it's considered somewhat sad and old, especially the 'coral sanctuary' which is mostly dead from boat pollution. But nevertheless, it was fun.
Now we are further down the coast in Unawatuna. There is a long beautiful beach with lots of places to eat and drink along it. Theres quite a lot of remaining evidence of the Tsunami in 2004, such as half eaten walls in restaurants.  It was interesting to find out that afterwards the people rebuilt their hotels etc way too close to the water, which is why there is pratically no dry sand any time of day or night. We stayed in a creepily massive hotel where we were the only guests, but now we've moved to a cheap and cheerful guest house on the beach. 
Yesterday we went to the city of Galle, which has a the ruins of a large 'fort' made by the Portugese. It was interesting to look round and the views were spectacular. We found ourselves a little tour guide (or should I say he found us) who explained some history and told us how the fort walls protected Galle from the Tsunami. Unfortunately, after being cajoled by said tour guide into going on a long tuk-tuk ride to places we didn't particularly want to see, we had an argument over money and things were left on sour terms. But at least we got a massage and a rather lovely carved wooden elephant from our outing. I must say, when the massage guy made me take off my t-shirt and then undid my bra I felt pretty embarrassed. I think this is in part due to having been in a place where to show an ankle or wrist to a man would be considered a bit too much. On a related note I can now check off one sight to see before I die: a burka on the beach.

Gotta go, beer to drink!

Wish you were here,
Rachel x

Monday, 15 October 2012

Cover your head!

I'm sitting here sipping my ice cold non-alcoholic beer and finding myself asking the question, why? If it's non alcoholic then what's wrong with juice or pop instead? Since being here I've been comforted by the beer bottles and the recognisable brands such as Budweiser, feeling happier with one in my hand on a Wednesday night (that's a Friday night to you lot) than with a glass of lemonade. I've been through a vast array of flavours- apple, pineapple, pomegranate and classic. The one I've got right now is a classic Bario and I'm pleased to announce it tastes like an ever so slightly watered down Corona.
It's funny how not drinking comes with some big highs and lows. I have to say that I really and truly enjoy never having a hangover.
But on the other hand, I am overly aware that it is approximately 115 hours until we get to the bar in Bahrain airport on our way to Sri Lanka...
Anyway, enough about (non) alcohol. On Thursday I went back to Granada Mall to do some holiday shopping. Keen not to be caught during prayer times again, we headed there at 7pm. Unfortunately for us, the Saudis are also wise to this plan, so it was mega busy. Damn.
When we were finished shopping, we headed up to the food court for the delivery of a bribe called 'we can have a McDonald's if you come shopping with me' (a win-win for me). I had my first, and then second, experience of being told to cover my head  by the mutawwa *the religious police, known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia, Customs and Culture, Nicholas Buchele). I have to say it wasn't as scary as I'd imagined, but rather made me feel somewhat initiated into the ways of this land.
I was highly amused at the McDonald's counter, where Lee took the decision to queue in the 'singles' section, rather than the bustling 'family' section. Whilst waiting at a distance I pondered these titles, wondering why they aren't just called men's and women's sections (as this is pretty much what they are). Then it dawned on me: the names give men the option of going to either one.
Once we had our food we entered the concealed family area of the food court. And my goodness was it packed. Apparently, as we found out later, 9.30 is prime eating out time for Saudis. As we fought for a seat we were appalled by how incredibly dirty the place was and by how many children were running riot, rolling around on the floor, screaming and shouting and sitting on the  tables. Nobody was cleaning up after themselves, but seemed instead to be going out of their way to throw their rubbish on the floor.
One thing's for sure, the experience gave me a mega insight into how the children come to be so badly behaved at school.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Me and My Shadow

Thought I'd give you all a quick laugh today by showing you exactly what my life has become!

The headscarf serves only to create a double chin and accentuate my innate pea-headedness. What a look. 

I'm having a little trouble adapting to life like this, I have to say. On Wednesday, I tripped at least three times, once going up the stairs to my flat, and the rest whilst walking to the shop. The kerbs are really big here and if you don't remember to hitch up your skirts then before you know it some pesky flapping piece of material's hooked under a flip flop and you're away. Thankfully I haven't fallen flat on my face as yet, but there's definitely still time. Men here drive like complete twats which makes crossing the road a bit of an ordeal anyway, but if you add to that the inability to run for fear of tripping, it can be quite terrifying. And my Abaya is actually fairly short (saucy), which makes me wonder how on earth the other women manage.

The heat plus Abaya is obviously a recipe for disaster, as I am prone to being a bit of a sweaty betty at the best of times. But one good thing I've found is that I can just walk around in very little clothing and no one knows about it! A small victory I feel, but a victory nonetheless.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

No Men Allowed

Gentlemen, if you ever want to really punish a lady for some wrongdoing they have commited  towards you, just deposit them for a couple of hours at Bushra Mall, Riyadh. I went to this 'Ladies Mall' with two friends recently with the hope of being able to shed our Abayas and be free to shop in a trendy, relaxed environment.
Oh how wrong I was.
Going in to the carefully covered entrance, we were greeted with an area like a cloakroom at a club. Our bags were searched, my friends lighter was taken hostage and we were told to leave any phones or cameras there for the duration of our visit. What did they think we we're gonna do- take photos of these women in real clothes and spread them around for all of mankind to see? Shock horror.
Actually I did see one girl undo her Abaya when she walked in to reveal what was basically little more than a bra. Apparently it's quite a trend here to wear sexy underwear underneath and not a lot else.
So in we went to Bushra and I have to say I think it is a place that Allah forgot. I can only describe it as being made up of shops from the worst parts of Peckham: far too many sequins and unprovable 'discounts' in the windows. There was not one single shop I wanted to go in, and in fact we did only go in an Abaya shop the whole time we were there. I realised also that when people say 'Ladies Mall' it actually means 'Ladies and their 5000 screaming running kids, Mall.' There were so many children that it felt more like a daycare centre than anything else. People were having picnics on mats on the floor, like it was some kind of trip out to the park. And the weird thing was that at least half the women didn't take off their Abayas anyway, so we still got stared at by people who obviously weren't happy with our infidel uncovering.
I experienced a little bit of Saudi logic whilst trying to flee the dreaded place. We had to exit out of the same door we came in, past the cloak room. But there was no one stopping the incoming floods of traffic (seriously people, are you flocking here for real?), causing the entrance room to get more and more full. After about ten minutes we realised that the only way to get out would be to push for our lives, the thought of dying a slow and miserable death inside Bushra spurring us on.

The following weekend I went to a far better mixed Mall called Granada. There were shops like New Look, H and M and Topshop, but looking for work clothes proved rather futile as they stocked the same clothes they do in the west. What's the point, I ask you, in trying to sell tank tops and mini skirts and other things that no one is allowed to wear? Very strange.
Our shopping was interrupted twice by Salah (prayer time), during which the shops shut and everyone was booted out. We went up to the food court to quickly try and buy something to keep us occupied for the half an hour before we could resume our shopping.
The food court was absolutely heaving with people who clearly had the same idea as us. But my question is this: if you are all here, then what are all the shops bothering to shut for. Are you not supposed to be praying?

I have become accustomed to the call to prayer that blasts out from the Mosque loudspeakers five times a day. It can be strangely beautiful and eerie, apart from of course at 4.30 in the morning when it is just plain annoying.

A song that is in my head a lot at the moment. I wonder why....

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sadness and Stress (the happiest post in the world)

I was in the middle of writing a blog post on Sunday when I received the news that my beautiful cat Freddie had suddenly died. I would like to say I held it together but truth be told I was devastated. Freddie was lovely and I was very attached to him from the moment we brought him home six years ago. He was so much smaller than his brother and didn't even know how to drink milk properly at first. He was such a curious and sociable cat and would often follow me wherever I went round the house. While I've been at home recently he watched me play on the Wii a lot, his head going back and forwards, trying to figure out what on earth I was doing. I never once saw him remotely angry or vicious (except of course when he brought in mice).
He was found under a neighbours garden bench, and just looked asleep.
I know he was just a cat, but he was my cat and I loved him. He will be truly missed and the Rock house won't be the same without him.

Anyway, that's that. This is what I was writing before about my new job:

A combination of spoilt children brought up by maids and lack of organisation in the school, meant that on my first day I stepped into a classroom that was worse than any I have experienced before (that's right SEV people, they were in fact worse than aloysius). The principal's warning that morning that I should be strict, in no way prepared me for the running on the tables, the water fights, the actual fights and the screaming and shouting that were pretty much constant through my first and second day. I know I'm not the toughest person in the world and I don't claim to know everything about classroom management, but I really did try. When you've been given no reward or discipline system, however, and no pencils, paper or even teachers desk, it is basically impossible. I asked the principal if I could send students down to her office if necessary, to which she just laughed and said, "no we don't do that here." So what then? Eventually, after a few instances of taking children by the arm and hurling them out of the room (not my proudest educational moments) I finally found someone to call on in times of crisis. A non-English speaking intern who by goodness knows how to shout. By the end of the week, just the threat of bringing her in was enough to make most of the boys at least sit down, if not be quiet.
One week in, I think I'm going to be OK. Yes, the boys are still naughty and loud and one in particular is completely defiant and refuses to do anything- he lay on the floor, plumping up other people's bags to use as pillows in my last class- but they are also really sweet and hilarious. And it's amazing how a seven year old can be bought with the promise of a smiley face stamp on their hand.
And tomorrow, after I introduce the magical all controlling star chart, my students will finally be powerless to resist my rule. hahahahahahaahaha (evil laugh).

I can now tell you, after my second week, that things are getting there slowly. My star chart is up and running and I've also been to talk to the big bosses to vent my issues. They've agreed to give me a learning support assistant, so things are looking up!

Monday, 17 September 2012

One Shade of Black

Hmm where to start.... Probably in a place that isn't too overt and at risk of getting me thrown in prison. Joke! Or is it? Who knows.

Highlights so far have been as follows:
1. Being with Lee again (aww)
2. The vast selection of chocolate (sorry Korea, but what you have to offer chocolate-wise is truly pitiful)
3. The people we live with.

And now for the low lights, which I don't think I could simply list. I guess I'm just struggling to get to grips with things I already knew. It's not like I wasn't warned, but still, it's quite a shock to experience for real. 
On my first day, a man who didn't even acknowledge me came to pick me up to take me to the admin building. Madly trying to keep my ever slipping headscarf in place, I walked into a huge office, everyone averting their eyes as I walked past. I then sat, almost ignored, for an hour and a half while the men 'sorted' some of my work stuff out.
After that I was whisked away to the school, where I had to just walk in and introduce myself, as no one was expecting me. When I left home I was unaware that I would be going to school so I didn't have the regulation long black skirt on, meaning I was stuck wearing my abaya for the rest of the day. After a brief five minute introduction, the headteacher opened a classroom door to reveal a room full of kids running wild, and actually said the words 'would you like to start now?,' to which I replied a hasty 'no'  (adding a 'hell' before it in my head). I was then deposited in the staff room to talk to people who were too stressed to talk to me.
 After finding out that the students don't have all the books they need and that the school are understaffed and therefore I have to teach 6 of 7 lessons from the first day, I then had to wait ages for someone to sort out a driver for me to get home. When I finally did get back I was pretty much a wreck.

My hopes that maybe the kids would be nice and make it all worth while were sadly crushed the very next day when I started for real. But that, my friends, is a story for another time...

Ps dont worry too much because things have vastly improved already-I can't imagine what this post would've said if I'd written it yesterday or the day before! 


Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Recently I was reminiscing with a friend about Letterland, (do you remember it?) a magical place where every letter has its own personality. What a wonderful world it was! As you already know, I've been uncovering old books of late, and you'll never guess what I found-none other than the Letterland ABC. From the Hairy Hat man (homeless) to Poor Peter (depressed), it was a pleasure to re-read and re-live. I did notice that some of the characters are better than others, both in design and in characteristics. And it is with this in mind that I've decided the world of Letterland has a lot to answer for.
Yesterday, whilst at the self service check out of Sainsbury's, I had a little trouble self serving myself an avocado. The damn reduced sticker just wouldn't beep. So... rather than 'seek assistance' and be there for all of time, I imitated a BEEP of my own (Peter Kay would be proud) and popped the avocado casually in my bag. Just like that. And who do I blame for this instance of guiltless petty thievery? Robber Red, that's who!

My earliest role model, I quote, 'is a real trouble-maker in  Letterland.'
Everyone hates him and wants to see him locked up. Well thanks.
If only I had a name beginning with G, making the wonderful and flawless Golden Girl my mascot, maybe things would've turned out differently. But, as it is, I was destined from an early age to be the kind of person that steals reduced sale vegetables.

And as if Robber Red isn't bad enough, check out the personality of the letter 'X.' Thank goodness my name wasn't Xena! What on earth is this about?

It's the Kissing Cousins!

Now if that's not an advert for marrying within the family, I don't know what is.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Discovering old books

Nothing makes me happier than leafing through old childhood books, so you can imagine my joy when my sister brought two boxes of books back to me from her attic. I absolutely love my kindle and think it's really taught me the value of being attached to the words and not the pages on which the words are written, but regardless of this I will always have a major soft spot for children's books. They're so beautiful! Roald Dahl (and therefore Quentin Blake) or an illustrated Disney treasury, I'm not fussy; I just love it.
Another type of book that can never be acceptable in kindle form is that of the 'coffee table' variety. And so, in my boxes of books, I found PostSecret. Have you ever come across this phenomenon either in a book or on the Internet? I know it's pretty widespread so maybe I don't need to explain, but just in case- PostSecret started as a blog where people could send their innermost secrets, anonymously, of course. The postcards are supposed to be succinct and arty and truthful, but those are the only real rules. The result is amazing: a mixture of secrets that make you laugh and cry, feel hopeful and hopeless, all at the same time.
Today I went on the PostSecret website (check it out) for the first time ever. I've always been wondering if/when I would see a secret that related to me, and today, out of the blue, there it was. And it didn't just relate to me, it was the exact one I would write, down to the word and feeling, if I was ever able to tell. It was so precise it made me cry, even though it's a secret long buried and almost forgotten. But that's the absolute beauty of PostSecret I suppose. It's raw and rough and tells it like it is, no tip-toeing, no messin'.

I'll leave you with one PostSecret that made me laugh out loud, bearing in mind my soon-to-be-new-life.
Do you think this will be me??

P.S On an unrelated note have a look on story stuff if you feel like it :)

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Weird and Wonderful Imaginings of Many

On the never ending quest to improve my writing and gain inspiration, I've recently joined the website You Write On. It's quite a basic set up, but I really like the idea behind it. You upload the opening chapters of a story you're working on, then review other people's stories in exchange for having your story reviewed. It's really a two way thing, as 1 review you write rewards you with a credit, which you use to get another review for your story.
I've been finding great joy in this part all on it's own; feeling a wonderful sense of smugness at 'banking' my credits, much like in The Weakest Link. The aim of all this, the real pinnacle of the adventure however, is not to bank as many credits as possible (note to self) but to get the most good ratings and make it into the top ten charts. The excitement! Actually it is quite, as the number one spot gets a real review by publishers at Random House and Orion.
The small matter of how on Gods earth you make it to the top spot is a bit of a mystery to me, as the competition starts afresh each month and therefore surely the stats must be wiped. How many reviews can one girl realistically do in a mere thirty days? So far I've managed four and bearing in mind it takes 8 to even rank in the charts, it's a little alarming how exhausted I feel!
I must say it's been good for me to be reviewed, as it's something that easily slips into non-existence as a writer, your work becoming to you like the ring to Lord of the Rings' Gollum. My precious! Being reviewed/critiqued is a tricky business though. However much I prepare for it and attempt to be 'cool' it's still hard not to feel pissed of by the STUPID F*CKING COMMENTS!!!!
Ha ha only joking. Sort of. No, generally it really is useful and very interesting to get feedback, I guess I just object to someone called Betty lecturing me on my inability to replicate real teenage speech. 'Maybe you should consider getting a job that involves working with them.' Only what I've been doing for the last seven years! 'Or see how they interact with each other on facebook.' Doesn't that constitute stalking?
Anyway, enough of that. I promise you I'm striving to become less of a baby and actually listen to my peers.
I'm very much enjoying the complete randomness of the entries I've reviewed so far. It's great that whether I like or loathe a piece, I can always learn something from it, be it in the realm of plot, dialogue or description. The extracts are only small (between 5 and 7 thousand words), so can be read fairly quickly, which has had the effect of sending my head into a whirl. The four extracts I've read to date are so different, but have begun to intertwine and merge in my brain. What an interesting story that would make for! Imagine the scene: A battered and deflated housewife in 1920's far reaching Scotland, working for the FBI and hot on the heals of a bloodthirsty mass murderer. But as she waits for the killer, her work is interrupted by an explosion in her block of flats, which merges her brain (in her body) with a Polish builder. And all this during the stress of an impending visit from Ofsted....
I think I have a best seller on my hands.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

An entirely different tongue

My new language venture (which will inevitably end in failure and disappointment but hey I'll give it a go), is Arabic. I know it'll be exceptionally hard, but it has more use potentially than learning say, Korean, so hopefully my motivation will be higher. Especially now that my new favourite book's been delivered from Amazon.
Ladies and Gentleman I introduce to you, The Usborne, First thousand words in Arabic!
How amazing.

We had the English one of these at home when I was little- and I love this version because it's exactly the same, complete with western faces and British scenarios, just with Arabic words instead. I particularly like that there's a page devoted to 'the fair ground' but in the whole book there is no mention of a head scarf. Nothing has been altered to be culturally or socially more appropriate. I guess that's why I love it.

On a related note, I recently found an old dictionary from school. This is no ordinary dictionary, mind, but one that me and a friend compiled for our secret language, Flugen. Not content with back slang as a way of communicating- it being an entirely crackable code, we decided to make up our own language, word for word. This was serious business; hours were spent sitting in a bedroom or even up the ladder in the loft for added privacy, writing page upon page of Flugen words. And practising speaking to each other. In the end the project was short lived and we gave up, but looking back at the book made me laugh a lot, especially seeing what our priorities were in terms of important words or phrases. The main reason for Flugen’s existence was to allow us a forum for talking about people, especially boys. Perusing the Flugen dictionary, I discovered a definite trend towards a certain theme. Some favourites included: myben (fancy), ib (kiss), zlig (love) and zlup (vagina!). I think this last one is certainly a contender for a new addition to the Oxford English Dictionary.
And more important than even all that, the Flugen dictionary included a list of code names for all the people we wanted to talk about. Perfect.
The best phrase I remember practising was Le geebe tof gi funkle. I think you are fit. On reflection, however, it seems a bit of a silly one to learn, as if I said it to anyone I thought was 'fit' then they simply wouldn't understand and my efforts would be wasted.  
Apparently Jimba (my friend) and Jamba (me) had way too much free time as fourteen-year -olds. You gotta hand it to us though, it was genius. I wonder where we'd be now if we'd kept it up... Probably in a mental hospital somewhere jabbering rubbish at each other.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

There and back again- a taxi mans tale

In the last two weeks I've been to Heathrow Airport three times, to drop off and pick up students. Hanging around in airports is a familiar concept to me, but waiting to collect unknown children-who don't know you from Adam either- is weird. I've always liked arrivals, as it's a place where people are reunited, but after the first hour or so it loses its charm.
The 'unacompanied minor' situation involves children being passed on from one adult to the next, each hoping that the others will do their job properly. Some parents, understandably enough, come to England for a visit so they can accompany their children on the journeys. I think I would do the same, rather than putting my ten year old on a plane alone. The set up I witnessed on Saturday, however, was nothing short of ridiculous. I had to wait at the terminal with a German girl for her Mum's 'man friend' to arrive on a plane from Dusseldorf, to then take her off my hands and fly straight back. Madness. Not only was it totally over the top (I mean, if you are so worried about your child, maybe you shouldn't be sending them away at all?) but it was also risky. What if his plane had been delayed? But then again buying a new ticket is not a problem for the rich.
Anyway, the main inspiration for this post is that as a result of these airport trips, I have spent around 9 hours in taxis, with taxi drivers who wanted to tell me everything and learn everything and generally chat shit for the entire journey- there and back. Saturday was a classic. Shane-I'll call him that to protect his identity-talked so much that I think I could give you at least 30 facts about his life. Like that his long term girlfriend left in March, taking the kids and leaving him with nothing but a blow up bed. Now is that really something you share with a stranger? Also that he hasn't seen his kids (13 and 16) since then, but that he pays his child maintenance. And that he's been having various online and text conversations with women, some of which 'he just simply couldn't repeat.' Thank God for that. And that he's going on holiday to meet a woman 'probably just for friendship' and then moving to Australia. Then there was the conversation about the psychology behind the text kiss. And the smiley. At what point is it right to start putting a kiss, and should it be one or two? What would you do regarding kisses if a bloke was texting you? How should I know? I'm bloody married! At one point I was reassured 'I'm not looking for anything serious right now, Rachel.' Great, really good to know, cheers.  
And then there was also the incessant questions. When are you going to settle down? What are you doing after this? What is the pay like here, and in Saudi. So many questions, forcing me to talk more about myself than I would ever choose to do with someone I'd just met. But in the passenger seat it's exhausting trying to deflect or ignore direct questions. The real high point of all this was when he asked me if I'm thinking of having children yet. Not knowing how the hell to respond, I told him I thought it was a strange question, to which he replied, 'Well, that body clock's gonna start ticking soon.'
I know being a taxi man must be a boring and lonely job at times, but is that really my problem? You're paid to drive, damn it, so leave me alone to read my book/sleep/stare at the road in peace!