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!