Saudi Arabian Post-Script

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Hello everyone. Well, it’s been over two weeks since we got back from Saudi Arabia, and I figure it’s time I try to make sense of the whole experience and maybe give people a sense of what traveling a bit in the Middle East is like. We had a lot of people ask us about our trip, and I was never really sure how to answer that question. The general answer was simply ‘different’. How can you summarize a place that is literally worlds away from your own home? Although I’m still not sure I can fully illuminate everyone, I’ll do my best to shed a little light on this corner of the world. For starters, I’m happy to report that we’ve got all of our pictures posted now in a single collection. There are pictures from Jody, myself, as well as pictures Andrea snapped with her new fancy-pants camera that she got over the holidays. Feel free to check them out on flickr. As an added bonus, I even put up a whole set of videos you can check out and laugh at. After you’ve gotten a suitable sense of our travels, come back here and read on.

As an opening thought, I’d like to say that I’m extremely happy that I had the chance to visit Saudi Arabia. This is a corner of the world that many people never get the chance to visit, and we didn’t just sit on our butts in Riyadh, but actually got out and saw a lot of the country. However, by the same token, I’m pretty sure that I won’t have to go back to Saudi. I’ve seen it, and lived it for a couple weeks, and that’s enough. You have to keep in mind that this country is a very conservative Muslim country which follows Islam very strictly. Although you could say that there are some freedoms, there is not an abundance of it. Especially for travelers, and women in particular. This is predominantly a result of religious doctrine, but it’s amazing the impact that has on every little detail of life. As a very simple example, upon arriving in the country, Jody was obligated to put on an Abaya once on the other side of customs in the International terminal of the airport, and had to wear it for most of the time she spent in public.

Not only did Jody and Andrea have to wear the abayas anytime we were out in public, they also could never go out in public on their own. Or drive. Of course, those details are pretty well understood (or at least known) by most people, there are other, more subtle things that you probably wouldn’t know about the culture over there. The most remarkable part of spending time over there was learning that they don’t generally use toilet paper in the loo. In fact, a large portion of the washrooms don’t have sitting toilets, but squatters. Those who have seen them know exactly what I mean. Instead of toilet paper, they use a hose. Imagine the little hoses that are part of a lot of our kitchen sinks, because that’s essentially what these are like. They sit right beside the toilets, and the Saudis basically hose off, then air dry. You see, the men also just wear robes. Anyway, as a result of the lack of toilet paper, and the little hoses is that the majority of washrooms are complete flood zones of gross. Lets just leave it at that, shall we.

Another thing that you probably know about is the fact that Saudi Arabia is essentially a police state. However, there isn’t just one branch of police, but many, many different branches. A slight downside to this is that not all of the police branches are very well trained. In fact, it can be downright scary to see how some of them comport themselves, and their equipment. I think I mentioned at one point about one of the checkpoints we went through, where the soldier had an automatic weapon propped up by its magazine and the butt of the gun, with the barrel essentially pointed directly at our heads as we drove by. I doubt most of these ‘soldiers’ would even pass a basic firearms safety course over here in Canada . I don’t know how many times we saw people leaning against their weapons, or standing around with their hands over the barrels, etc. Not exactly the people you want to have as the first line of defence for your safety. As Patrick put it a few times. Imagine the guy dozing off at the turret of a large machine gun in an armored vehicle at a gate of the DQ . Now imagine something happened at the gate, and startled the fellow. He wakes up, disoriented, and just starts firing madly in all directions. Chances are, there’d be more than a few innocents injured in the wake of such an incident. Scary.

Speaking of police, the one place you probably won’t be cornered by them is on the road. Although you see them everywhere, they probably won’t be pulling anyone over in the near future for what you and I would see as reckless driving. Nope, people basically drive however they want, ignoring the most basic road markings as it suits them. Of course, that’s also nothing very interesting. However, when you see a 1982 Toyota Cressida drive by with 8 people in it, you look twice. Most of them are not wearing belts, and there is usually one or two little babies on the front seat, sitting on the drivers and co-drivers’ laps. No belts, not child seats, nothing. Yup, guess that’s why the death rate in car accidents is so high in Saudi Arabia, with an inordinately large number of infant deaths. Of course, you won’t actually read about it, as crime stats, or really any stats of any sort, are rarely released in this country.

This leads me to my next, and probably most disturbing aspect of life in Saudi Arabia that we witnessed. It’s as simple as what around here we’d call the wealth gap. The biggest misconception I think I had about this country is the fact that as an oil-rich country, I pretty much expected everything to be made of gold and marble. Although that is the case for the flocks of royalty that exist in the country, the same can not be said about the ‘backbone’ of their economy, which are all ex-pats. By ex-pats, I’m referring more to the south-east Asians rather than westerners. Again, although the country has probably 8 million of these people, you won’t hear about it, as there is no census. These are the people who have all the non-glorious jobs (like mopping the aforementioned poopers ), and keep the country running. These people work for very little money, most of which they send either home to their families in other countries, or kick it back up to their ‘sponsors’, to which they are essentially indebted servants. This results in fairly extensive ghettos, where poverty runs rampant. We took strolls through their neighbourhoods on a few occasions, to get a sense of the real Saudi Arabia.

If we’d spent all our time in the DQ and/or the fancy hotels, we probably wouldn’t have noticed all these differences, but we were lucky enough to have a great tour guide in my sister and Patrick (and Helena in her own way). They’ve lived here for over a year now, and knew where to take us to see everything. I’d like to thank them for all of their excellent ideas on what to do while we were there. The best part of the entire adventure was being able to experience it with family that we love. It’s been a while since they were gone, and we haven’t been able to see Helena starting to become a little person, so it was a lot of fun to get to know her a bit better. As you can see by the picture accompanying this post, she’s definitely got a few traits from her crazy Uncle Steve :-).

One of the things that I truly did appreciate about the country was it’s geography and scenery. In spite of all the admittedly little things that I’ve been pointing out about the differences, the most major visible difference is the kind of terrain there exists in Saudi Arabia versus most of the other places I’ve been. Sure, it gets super-hot in the summers, but while we were there, it was winter, and the temperature definitely drops at night. By the time we were getting ready to come back to Canada, the night-time temperatures in Riyadh were below zero! Yup, that cold. However, the days still get quite warm, and most of the time there is nothing but sunny skies. Andrea and Patrick have only seen rain twice since arriving in the country.

All that sun is definitely great for sight-seeing though. Provided there is no wind to kick up dust and sand, visibility is generally really good, so you can see for a long way. All of our road trips involved a good deal of gawking at various features like dramatic plateaus, red sands stretching off dune after dune, volcanic mountains, beautiful vistas of the Red Sea, and some amazing cliffs and mountains in the area of Al Ula (I felt like a cowboy in the wild west, if it weren’t for all the camels 🙂 Sure, I’ve seen most of these kinds of sights, but generally, you don’t get to see them all in the same country. I gotta say, I liked that a lot. Had the country been a different place culturally, I’d love to get outdoors for camping, biking, exploring, etc. But as it was, those activities just aren’t a great idea for a westerner.

I think I’ll leave it there now, and hope that the pictures and some of my thoughts have helped put this country into perspective. Should you have any specific questions about the country and our trip, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line! Adios, amigos.

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