Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Saudi Air sums up the country (not a compliment, in case you were wondering)

This time last week I was so excited at work because we were about to go to Dubai! After planning a party then being told to cancel it, a few of my kids turned up anyway so we had an impromptu party complete with pin the tail on the donkey and a cake with my face on it! In a place where people are obsessed with technology and often shove their kids in front of an Ipad, it was so sweet/ sad to see how much the boys loved playing the old school party game. They really appreciate attention and a bit of simple fun.


We got to the airport late and were covered in sweat by the time we got there because the mini bus had no air con, so the 40 minute journey in the 40 degree heat was pretty hardcore. 
At the check in desk it was clear there was a problem, and we were told to go and see the manager. This 'manager' was one of the most unhelpful people I've ever met and simply kept telling us we didn't have a ticket number. He wouldn't even make a call for us or make any attempt to sort it out. I freaked out and wanted to punch him, but Lee stayed cool and let me sit down while he tried to deal with it. With less than an hour before the flight we had to go to the other terminal (not close by) to the Gulf Air desk to get our ticket number. At Riyadh airport you have to go through security even to get to the ticket desks, so Lee went in and I waited with our bags. Luckily, after fighting his way to get some help, he managed to get hold of the precious ticket numbers, and now with less than 30 minutes to go, he ran back to the first terminal to check in, with me attempting (badly) to run behind with two bags.
Somehow it all turned out alright and we got on the plane. I just couldn't believe the managers attitude towards us, he made me totally appreciate customer service at home. Even when we had the tickets and clearly not a lot of time, he insisted on giving Lee a lecture about how he was right about the ticket number.

The flight from Riyadh to Bahrain (we had to change to get to Dubai- seriously no flights come to Riyadh, I suppose because no passengers want to come here!) was only 50 minutes, but Saudi Air insist on putting on a full meal service. We were starving so I wasn't complaining, but when the seat belt sign came on for landing and the flight attendants had only just started cleaning the trays, we knew there was trouble. One woman dropped a tray as she tried to clear it away, and rice went everywhere. I've never seen a flight attendant do that before and I realised later that she must've been stressed. As the lights of the city came towards us, they were still frantically cleaning, then they gave up and made a run for the back, to try and secure everything and hopefully sit down. The last attendant - a  tiny Filipino woman- didn't make it before we actually came in to land. We were in the very back seat so we saw her brace herself against the back of the chair opposite and attempt to hold the very heavy wheely container thing to stop it rolling down the aisle. Lee helped her by holding it too. As the plane landed and put on the brakes, the trays began flying out of the holes, down the aisle, flinging rice and other leftovers everywhere. We were in row 48 and I heard a man say later that a tray reached him in row 32. By the time we stopped the flight attendant was crying. We asked her if she was OK, to which she replied, "no" and then said the heartbreaking words, "this is my life."
It's classic Saudi behaviour to expect totally unreasonable things to be done and to force 'lesser' people to do them. They don't care that their staff have to go through hell; they are determined to provide that meal at whatever cost. They are willing to risk their employees lives and also even put the passengers in danger. When we left the plane there were loads of trays on the chairs, which meant people had to hold them on their tables until we landed. Not to mention the fact that there was no time for a seat belt check.
It was all horribly undignified and embarrassing for the staff, and we heard them talking about how they had one hour to clean up and get the plane ready to fly again. We realised that they probably go through that shit at least once a day, every day. And all because the Saudi big men are too stupid to listen.

Monday, 20 May 2013


That's right, today is our wedding anniversary. We made it! I'd heard rumours that it's all downhill from tying the knot, but I have to say (soppy bit to follow) that I've really enjoyed being Mrs/Ms/Miss Rock not Barnes and I'm really happy we decided to do it.

It's weird to think how much fun I was having at this moment last year in comparison to right now. But it's not all doom and gloom- we're off to Dubai on Wednesday for a between anniversary and birthday celebratory mini break! So exciting. I've wanted to go to Dubai for so long, and now after living right next door for 10 months we're finally going there.
I'm not ashamed that the main reason I'm excited is because of alcohol!!! I've been wondering recently if I'm a small scale alcoholic; I think about alcohol a lot of the time and find things more boring without it. But then again, maybe It's just that things here are generally boring and alcohol being illegal probably makes me want it more.
It's not only the alcohol I like, it's all the stuff that comes with it. We're planning to go to a couple of bars in Dubai, and the simple idea of soaking up the atmosphere or, wait for it, talking to some people, fills me with complete glee.
Perhaps I'm not a proven alcoholic yet then. Thoughts on a postcard...

Plans for Dubai include:

The Burj Khalifa
  • Pick up duty free booze to drink in the hotel (one thing about the emirates is that you can only buy it in hotels, not shops)
  • Walk on the man made island up to the Atlantis hotel for a drink. We wanted to stay there but at 450 dollars a night it was a little unjustifiable.
  • Go to Wild Wadi waterpark.
  • Go to the top of the Burj Khalifa (the worlds tallest tower baby!)
  • Enjoy an infamous Dubai brunch, which includes all you can eat, and more importantly all you can drink, before flying home on Friday.
Atlantis Hotel- just look at it! It even has its own theme park.

And that's about all we can pack into the two day, two night visit. Bring it on.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Oh the Wonderful Things Mr Brown can do!

On Tuesday and Wednesday after weeks of waiting and worrying (for teachers), the students finally did the performances for the mothers. I played camera man on Tuesday, taking videos of the girls, although I kept having to cut whenever someone walked through the shot. The principal had told the mothers that they weren't allowed to take any photos or videos, because women don't want their skimpily clad selves caught on camera. And of course what I mean by skimpily clad is wearing something like a long sleeved shirt and ankle length skirt. One woman was about to enter the auditorium (late for your child's end of year play, how Saudi of you) when she caught sight of me filming and jumped back out the way, hastily putting on her headscarf and covering her entire face with a veil.
This is fine by me if it's really how these ladies feel- each to their own and all that, but I found it slightly contradictory when they then all wanted to take photos of me. Seriously, after the boys performance I felt like a celebrity. Everyone took my photo with their kids, and sometimes with themselves, and by the end I was standing with about twelve boys infront of an army of abaya wearing paparazzi. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't care who had a photo of me, but in a place where men never get to see women it makes me a bit uncomfortable wondering who's hands these pictures might fall into. Better not to dwell on that one I think.

I was proud of the boys and what they achieved in their little performance. Sure, it wasn't Oscar winning, but I thought they did really well at speaking in English on stage and in speaking in front of all those people. I was planning to upload it for your entertainment and delight, but after 24 hours of computer torture the exercise has been deemed impossible.
Sorry folks!
One day I hope to not be such a computer spaz.
Anyway, last week I told the students that I'm leaving at the end of the year (big fat yippee!). In the boys class this caused a wave of shock and horror. Here are some snippets of conversations we had re: my departure.

Student: You not in Grade 3 teacher?
Me: No
Student: (look of pure confusion) Why?
Me: I'm going to go somewhere else. Maybe Dubai.
Student: No problem, I come Dubai.
Me: Or maybe Spain.
4 students: No problem, we come Spain!

We made some folders for them to put their English work in. They decorated them with crayons and pictures and glitter, which the boys enjoyed more than I expected.
One boy came up to me and said:
"Teacher, how spelling 'teacher Rachel is the best teacher?'"
Trying not to crack a smile I replied:
"Well, Teacher and Rachel are both on the board, you work the rest out."
He nodded and went back to his desk. About five minutes later he came back:
"Teacher, how spelling best?"

He's written teacher Rachel is the best teacher on the inside of his folder. The next day another boy opened it and read it out loud, to which the first boy got all embarrassed and slammed his folder shut. Ah so sweet.

My vain hope for these lovely eight year old Saudi boys is that they will grow into good people, not disrespectful bigheaded teenagers who drive around wearing thobes (the white dress and red and white tea towel, for want of a less racist description), thinking they're the biggest, best men in the world, swerving about the street like maniacs and shouting insults at foreigners.
But alas, I fear for most of them their path is already set. Still, a girl can dream can't she?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Time for a Change... of blogger

This is my first ever guest post, from none other than Mr. Lee Barnes!

Facebook. A place that you can choose to pass your free time whiling away the minutes chatting to old friends, new friends, people you can hardly remember meeting (if you’re that type of user). A place to play games with or against people around the globe. A place to let people know what you had for dinner with a photo to prove it.  A place to talk, frape, network and the like. Lolling and using swear words in abbreviated form (that’s alright then!) like we are computer geniuses because we use the computer 23 hours a day but in fact don’t do anything else other than maybe type a crappy word document for some crappy thing that is taking up valuable time from being a computer genius. I speak here for myself of course.
Facebook. I don’t actually like it that much but it is akin to Pringles. But I think it may have changed my life or at the very least opened my eyes wider than I think they have ever been. Considering matchsticks were as necessary for me at school as a pen and pencil, that’s saying something! For I often receive videos on my newsfeed of various interesting and banal things, not all of them I bother to watch as it takes some time to load due to the lightweight internet we have been provided. Seriously if this internet was a person, you could take it to a bar (obviously if this person wasn’t in Saudi Arabia) and order it a half a shandy and it would be on the floor retching its guts up on its first sip of the watered down beverage. So, I chose to download this video that appeared on my newsfeed, make dinner, wash up, drink a non-alcoholic beer and satisfy Rachel… way of washing up, and then finally I watched this video.

The video is a TV interview for Russia Today, for those who don’t know it’s a news channel that expresses views that the mainstream channels wouldn’t even consider. The interview starts with the news headline ‘No Money, No Problems’ underneath the newscaster. The newscaster begins by talking about the economy and relaying the view that many people consider it broken. She then continues to say that big problems need big ideas then she picks up a fistful 'o' dollars and says ‘Here’s one, money. Throw it away!’ and she throws the green stuff on the floor.  She simply follows this action by saying ‘Crazy right?!’ then she introduces Peter Joseph.
Now I won’t tell you blow for blow what he said, that’s the fun part because you can watch it for yourself just YouTube Peter Joseph: Moving Beyond Money  or  it's been handily added as a link above! But his main point is to change the economic system that we presently use into a resource based economy. Now this guy isn’t a Tree hugging Trevor or a Pothead Paul but a lot of what he talks about is the absolute wastefulness our current system and the pressure to perpetually consume and use and then of course the pressure to have the money to consume and use. With machines doing more and more of the work, jobs are becoming fewer. The monetary system is innately corrupt and only serves to keep us in the ‘rat race’.

For me, Peter tells some truths that I think are important to quote: ‘The current economic model is stuck in time and is not representing what meets human needs, we have to get back to what supports human life, what we’ve learned from nature...... We can easily feed everyone on this planet. And the more you step back and look at how technically you can provide for the population, eliminate war, eliminate famine and eliminate crime, which is 95% money related, it begins to become clear an entirely new approach can be taken….’

It’s interesting to note all the while when Peter is talking there is a scrolling news feed at the bottom of the screen that mentions public fury at cost of foreign military campaigns, austerity cuts, EU bailouts, radiation spike at a nuclear power plant, No fly zone over Libya because of airstrikes, clashes in Bahrain, police fire at demonstrators in Syria…..the list goes on.
The main point I guess is this, if we are to survive, we simply cannot continue in this way. When profit is more important than people, we cannot say that we live in a civilized society. When we reward greed and punish poverty, we cannot say that we live in a just world. When we continue to plunder the worlds finite resources instead of using the technology that we already have to harvest the clean, renewable resources, we cannot say that we live in a wise world. If we want to change that and I for one certainly do then we need to try something different and from the research I have done, getting rid of money is sounding less crazy and making more and more sense.


Fancy a game of chess?
If you're struggling to envisage a world where money is a thing of the past, then take a look at this link. The video is worth a watch. So take a look and see for  yourself. I challenge you to disagree with any of the 10 principles! 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Dressing Up

Yesterday was school photo day. Now I know things have probably changed a lot in the last 20 years, but when I was seven a school photo involved smart school uniform and a formal levelled line up with the teacher. Here in Saudi the ideas are a little different. The girls were dressed up like dolls in these pink frilly things that would've had me in tears as a kid (I do actually remember crying once when my Mum made me wear a dress to my sisters birthday party). There were bows and sashes galore and even floppy silk hats and hoods. All of my girls except one-who's not Saudi- came to school with their hair straightened, because 'straight hair is good in Saudi Arabia.' I'm not sure I like the idea of changing your seven-year-olds natural appearance to create a supposedly more beautiful look. Again I know times have changed and straighteners weren't even around when I was their age, but I can't help finding this all a bit scary. The kids are already taking on their parents views and ideals of how they should look.
Perhaps I'm not being fair. I was, after all, a tom boy who had a bowl cut and was pleased when my teacher referred to me as a boy (it took me a long time to realise it was a joke). Maybe other girls of my era were just as conscious of what they looked like as the students are in my class. Maybe nothing has changed, and this country is normal.
No, that doesn't sound right.

For me the fact remains: whether this dressing up of young girls like dolls has been around forever or not, I dislike the way it prematurely prepares them for a life of preening and altering and generally being overly self-conscious.

Modelling one of the more understated numbers 

The admin staff had the job of getting the children dressed up and ready. You'd think this could be a fairly easy affair, like give the children their dresses and let them all put them on, then go round and help with zips. But oh no. Adults here encourage prudishness, teaching the children to hide from each other and be embarrassed about getting undressed. I've actually had a student before push a bookcase forward so she could get changed behind it. The girls yesterday were brought one by one into the office where I was working. The teacher signalled each child behind the door, then turned the light off, which made hardly any difference at all, as if to hide the children's modesty or something.

It's the end of the year, and as well as the silly photos, we also have a 'graduation' next week. All the mothers are coming (no men allowed, obvs) and they expect to be wowed with the cuteness of their offspring. My boys have been working really hard to put together an extract from Mr. Brown by Dr. Seuss. Unfortunately it's a bit of a mess and we've practiced up till now with me on the stage too, counting the boys in, passing them their posters and generally helping them to stay in time. I was also going to do a little intro speech, thanking the kids for being good and wishing them luck in their future endeavours etc. etc. But now, a week before, I've been told I'm not allowed on stage. So it's up to the kids to figure themselves out. I had a dream the other night where they got a quarter of the way through, got out of time from each other, forgot their lines, then gave up and just walked off the stage. I fear this could be a premonition.

In other news, it's raining hard. Day off methinks?