Out of the Bubble

I currently live in Saudi Arabia, and as an expat, it’s easy to find yourself living in comfortable bubble. My life in Jeddah feels that way in many respects. My main existence is a combination of apartment living on a compound, busing to school and back, all day at an American school that looks and feels like an American school, and then excursions to restaurants where most of the wait staff is from the Philippines. It’s not difficult to forget where it is I live.

Just for an evening, we decided to stroll the new corniche area of Jeddah, which buttresses up against the Red Sea. It was a Friday evening, and people were out and about EVERYWHERE! This is a beautiful and large new water front development complete with public beaches in the pristine water, children’s play parks, outdoor sculptures, and a terrific bike and walking path right in between the Corniche Road. But while here, I was unmistakably reminded of where I live.  Uncountable Saudi families brought their carpets and spread them out on the grassy areas to enjoy the evening air. Boys played soccer, while ladies in abayas and hijabs chatted in groups and strolled slowly through plethora of sidewalks. Children and a few men splashed in the water.

It’s good to get out of one’s bubble from time to time. You get to feel the flow of the culture. You get to question things you thought you understood, and you get a feel for the local people whom you don’t actually meet too often.

It was a pleasant evening strolling by the Red Sea. Here are a few photos.

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What I Learned by Attending a Desert Party

A while back, I was invited to a desert party. It was unlike any party I had ever attended, and it was such a unique and interesting cultural event that I ended up learning a lot about living in Saudi Arabia.

  1. There are farms in the desert. I thought of deserts being these endless sandboxes with nothing in them. Well, I was wrong. The party was at a desert farm. The owner owned “about as much land as you can see” – or should I say as much sand as you could see – but the sand and harshness of the climate doesn’t stop the farming. There were large pens of sheep, goats, and camels — all guarded by dogs — and they all seemed perfectly content to live their lives in the middle of the most deserty desert you could ever imagine. Who knew?
  2. There are more than animals in the desert. People live there too. This became evident at dusk when scattered lights could be seen in all directions. Before the giant ball of fire in the sky dipped below the horizon, there was nothing in any direction except for sand. And then suddenly, lights popped up everywhere. Where did all these people come from?
  3. Saudis know how to party. A large section of the desert was sectioned off by high wooden stakes and a thick, hearty fabric. Inside the walls which swayed in the wind were sections of carpet for lounging, bouncy house, sound system, camels and horses for riding, kites, and a huge spread of so many meats that my cholesterol level rose just by looking at it. One especially delectable dish was layers of mutton and beef ribs which were layered on rice and cooked underground. Delicious. The dancing started and men and women alike shared their varied moves on the dance floor. Arabian coffee and tea flowed freely and shisha brought its fragrance to the corners of the comfortable tents. Outside the walled structure were four wheelers to ride and high-end cars that a dealer brought in for test drives. All of this in the middle of the desert. To find it, one had to drive on the tracks in the sand of the vehicle in front of you. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
  4. Your view of Saudi Arabia is probably not accurate. I know mine wasn’t. This party once again ripped apart my pre-conceived notions of life in the kingdom. I’ve been realizing how wrong I was for the past five months and this just helped to seal the deal. Not one thing that happened that night would have been on my list of what Saudi Arabia is like before I came here. And you know what, it’s pretty cool to be wrong.

Perception

What is your perception of Saudi Arabia? (assuming you have never visited)

I’m sure there are certain images or preconceived notions which naturally bubble to the forefront of your mind. Where did your perception come from? Media? Friends?

Perception of a particular culture almost never turns out to true when one finally comes in contact with that culture. It’s been true in every country where I have spent a significant amount of time.

I remember when I first moved to Vietnam, I had all kinds of images in my head: Vietnam War, communism, oppressive heat and rain, etc… All of the stereotypes one by one came crashing to the ground once I arrived in the country, started talking to the people, and started learning for myself what the Vietnamese culture was all about. (I’m not going to go into the details of how my perceptions were wrong except to note that the coldest Christmas I have ever spent was in Vietnam, huddled under the thickest quilt I have ever seen in my life, shivering cold at a level I have never experienced again.)

It happened again (losing my perception, that is) when I moved to Malaysia.

Well, this week I moved to Saudi Arabia and guess what? Yes. The walls come crashing down.

I had a lot of strange and astonished looks when I told friends and family that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, which means to me that everyone had certain images of what to expect. Here a few items I’ve experienced this past week that just felt different from what I had anticipated:

Food. What terrific western food! Now, Malaysia is a food paradise for it’s blend of various cuisines, but, honestly, they’re western food was seriously lacking. Not here, I’ve been to incredible, immaculately decorated restaurants which serve terrific western dishes whether pasta, fish, burgers, mexican or whatever. I’m sitting in these places thinking “where am I?” The answer is Saudi Arabia.

Space. Jeddah is a sprawling metropolis which alternates between sandy open lots and immaculate malls and gigantic modern complexes. I was standing in a parking lot after dinner the other night and I commented to a friend that anyone standing here could have mistaken this place for any modern plaza in North America. I again was wondering where I was. The answer was the same.

Add in the spectacular views and promenades of the “Corniche” along the Red Sea with the terrific service everywhere and the wonderful friendly smiles of the Saudi people and I’m in the position to have a lot of my perceptions blown out of the water.

And that’s a good thing.

The next time you go some place, check your perceptions at the door and arrive with the attitude of a learner. You’ll be surprised. And while your at it, whatever you think of another’s culture right now, you very well may be dreadfully wrong. And that’s a great thing to discover.