15 May 2018

Top Five and Bottom Five of Riyadh

I always meant to do some posts like this while we lived here, but I obviously didn't.  I didn't blog about much of anything here.  But now that it's nearly time to leave, it seems I ought to do this.  These are in no particular order.

Best things:

1. The desert.  There is so much to explore in the desert here.  Slot canyons, cliffs, wadis, seasonal lakes, ruins, fossils, desert diamonds.  I just wish I could have done more. 

2. Diversity.  I get to talk to people from all over south and southeast Asia, the Middle East, and northeast Africa here.  I've learned about religious celebrations in India and weddings in Eritrea. I go to church with people from India, the Philippines, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan. And it's not just the diversity among expats, but also among Saudis.  We didn't get to travel to different regions as much as I would have liked, but there are many significant regional differences here that are really interesting.

3. History.  There is so much interesting history in this country, in nearly all corners.  It covers thousands of years and there are ruins, caves, castles, tombs, houses, and so much more everywhere. This is what I would come back for, if only on a tourist visa for a few weeks to travel around the country and see all the places I missed.  Our trips to Jordan and Mada'in Saleh were some of the best things we've ever done.  Even visiting the National Museum several times was a highlight.
4. Food. I can't imagine that I will ever find another grocery store that I love more than Lulu.  Being able to cook good food here made a huge difference, and it wasn't at all expensive.  Plus it's been fun to try food from so many countries and people have shared recipes with me in the grocery store, in cars, and at events.  And I would never, ever pass up a church potluck here.

5. Nice people. There are always nice people everywhere, but since so many of us are expats here, we're kind of in it together.  Everyone is always willing to answer my questions. And when I did get to talk socially with Saudis, it was always a very pleasant experience.

Worst things:

1. The environment.  So much sand.  This year has been particularly bad so far and it feels like there has been a sandstorm since February (with a few gaps in April).  You can't get away from it anywhere and I feel like the dust bothers me more than any pollution I've experienced.  If I were coming back here, I'd get several really good air purifiers and also insist the the house be sealed better.  I didn't even try to keep the house dusted.  There are lots of days when it looks dusty again a few hours later.

And the weather.  If the sandstorms hold off, the winter really is very lovely.  There are about four months when you can go out any time of day without being hot.  There are six months (including those four) when you can go out in the mornings and not be hot.  If you're willing to get up really early and are loose on the definition of hot, you can push that to seven or eight months total.  But it's really just hot here and so very dry.  I don't wish for hot and humid weather, but the extremely low humidity is soul-sucking. A heat index of 48 degrees is no worse than an actual temperate of 48 degrees with the humidity at 5%.

2. Discrimination.  There is discrimination everywhere, always, no matter what.  Yes, you'll find that everywhere, but it's so blatant here in so many ways.  Some things you just deal with, some things you try to fix, but some things never stop bothering you and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. The racial and sexual discrimination are systemic and entrenched.

3. So many restrictions on women.   Yes, the driving ban is ending so that will technically not be a problem in about a month.  But it will take years for this country to get to "normal" regarding women driving.  I had thought this one wouldn't be so bad since I don't much like driving in places I'm not familiar with, but when I also can't walk or bike anywhere useful, and when it's usually too hot to walk or bike anyway, driving is a necessity here.  There is no other way around so a driving ban very effectively limits what women can do.  I don't expect to drive much in Cairo, but I won't be trapped at home like I am here almost all of the time. 

Also, I hate that stupid abaya.  The western media has reported more than once recently that it's not required anymore, but that's far from true.  We're all still wearing it.  The gender segregation is still here too.  And even though some family restaurants have more open seating now, I still can't eat inside the vast majority of eating establishments.  The bowling alley did call a few days ago and said that they might be able to arrange a day when a mixed group of teenagers could go bowling without parents as chaperones or the girls wearing abayas.  Wild times.

4. Almost nothing to do in Riyadh.  Yes, Saudi Arabia has a ton of things to do, but Riyadh itself, which is where I've been stuck almost all the time because of that driving thing, has almost nothing to do that I am both able to do and that interests me.  There is plenty to do outside of the city, from exploring wadis to poking around mud brick towns to finding fossils and petroglyphs, but those are not accessible to me.  If I were staying longer, I would definitely be driving out of the city often.  And I would hope that we could do more exploring further from Riyadh (except even with the driving ban going away, women still can't travel far on their own because of the rules about hotels).  You have to come with a plan of something to do, and a backup plan if there's any chance your original plan won't work out, unless you have small children at home.

5. Zero freedom of religion.  This is often depicted as Islam being the only allowed religion, but even that isn't true.  One tiny subset of a small section of Islam is allowed here, and that's it.  Plenty of Muslims aren't allowed to practice Islam the way they would want to and they're forced to follow a different set of cultural aspects they didn't choose.  And then there are all the other religions that are banned which makes it very difficult to practice them, even though people find a lot of different solutions.  None are particularly agreeable though.  It does look like the country might loosen up a bit soon to allow some churches in, although almost certainly they won't condone synagogues, Hindu temples, different mosques, etc. anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how they decide who is allowed to practice.  

There are also the inconveniences of not having pork and alcohol available, but since I don't eat much pork and am used to having certain food products unavailable in different countries, that didn't bother me much.  And I don't drink.  Store schedules are inconvenient too, both for prayer closings and Ramadan schedules, but again, it's normal to have to deal with new schedules in every country.  I know that for some these are major problems, but they rate as minor problems for me.  They don't even come close to how much negativity I feel about the things I listed above.

So that's it.  I really, really wanted to like Saudi when I moved here.  But the bad things far outweighed the good, especially since they so often made it impossible for me to take advantage of the good things.  I would not want to come back here without some big changes happening first, but I think there is real potential for several of the above to change and I would want to come back, at least for a longer visit, to see all the things I missed this time.

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