Remember our Lebanese friend in the hotel? We made the mistake of asking for his advice on where to go for dinner one evening, and he took us to a Lebanese restaurant he knew, ordering an enormous quantity of food, and then paying the entire bill and leaving before we realised what he'd done. During the ordering stage, he took us through to the singles' section so we could see all the food, and it was pretty awkward. We could tell from the reactions of the other customers that they just weren't happy about us being there, but Mhamed insisted it was ok. He likes to be in charge. It was admittedly very kind of him, but we hadn't wanted it. The following day Mia and I invited him to join us for breakfast so we could at least try to return the favour, but he refused to eat anything and snatched the bill before we could get hold of it, and insisted on paying, despite our protestations. However, we then felt less bad about the dinner the previous evening.
We then went abaya shopping, which was entertaining. We went back to the market we'd been to with Leah, and I managed to get a nice new abaya in more comfortable fabric, with nice floaty sleeves and a little bit of decoration. Black decoration, but decoration nonetheless. I bargained the price down, and got them to sew the front up so that it was closed rather than having poppers all the way down. There is a fairly bewildering array of different styles of abaya, and I can see myself getting quite into it. Might get a sparkly one for Eid. I later on also managed to get a hijab which has a bit of decoration which pretty much matches the decoration on the abaya.
We climbed the Kingdom Tower. When I say climbed, I clearly don't mean that. We took the lift. Or rather, we took 2 lifts. The first to the 77th floor, and the second to the 99th, where there was a covered walkway going from one side of the Eye of Mordor to the other. Pretty good views! Photographs were technically forbidden, but blind eyes were turned and we got some good ones.
The following morning, we asked Mhamed where Mia should go for a cheap handset (we reckoned this really couldn't go wrong), so he gave us directions. "Go to the end of the street, and then when it becomes a T, turn left. Then there is a big market. Look for the Indian man with six fingers." The directions were infallible until we got to the market, which was just a big supermarket with some independent kiosks attached, but then there was no sign of an Indian man with six fingers. However, we did find a kiosk selling relatively cheap handsets, run by an Indian man with a normal number of fingers. Success. From there we'd planned to walk a bit further to a bookshop we'd been told about, but realised it was prayer time so everything would probably be closed for 40 minutes, so we pretended to be terribly important and have a business meeting, and sat in the lobby of a rather swankier hotel than ours, drinking Perrier and trying to look sophisticated and terribly busy. It worked. We did a subtle watch-check as we walked in, looked purposeful and focussed, and then Mia paid for our sparkling water with her credit card, and we think we had them fooled. The bookshop was pretty good, Mia managed to get a couple of books to help her with learning Arabic, and we had a fun time poking around through everything else they had.
That evening Mhamed once again recommended a restaurant for us, but this time thankfully we managed to persuade him not to come with us or order for us or ring them and tell them we were coming or even pay for us, but he did insist on getting his driver to take us there. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation - it was a really luxurious Chinese restaurant, with impeccable service, and really good food. The soups were particularly good.
The next day, Mia was picked up by her new manager's driver, and taken to Al Kharj, which is a small town about an hour and a half south of Riyadh. I felt a bit aimless for most of the day, but in the late afternoon took myself off for a little walk and ended up back in the bookshop, where I bought a book in the sale and even made a friend, who I actually met again yesterday evening, and we went to the National Museum, which was pretty interesting. Dinosaurs and fossils and plate tectonics featured quite heavily, evolution was clearly accepted. It was well put-together, there was about the right amount of information for my brain, and it followed a logical order with little arrows on the floor to show you where to go next. I might go again sometime, at a time of day when my brain is more focussed.
This morning I went to meet a new contact called Christina, who works for the same company and has been here for about a month. She gave me good directions, and I was unfortunate in having a thick taxi driver who couldn't understand the simplest of sentences, despite Arabic clearly being his first language, and I KNEW I was saying it right. When I finally gave up and got out to walk, I found the right place pretty easily, and it was exactly as I'd described. Anyway. That's not why we're here. Christina met me out in the street, and as we walked back to her flat we heard some disturbing noises coming from a parked car the other side of the street, with the windows down. We both ignored it until we were round the corner, at which point Christina said, "was that what I thought it was?" Yes, I thought so too. Then the car drove slowly past us, with the driver doing his best to make sure we knew exactly what he was doing. Christina shouted at him. He turned round and drove past us again, still being obscene, and it was my turn to yell at him. Thankfully, before he could drive past again, we reached her building and hurried inside.
From there we were picked up by a British guy who's lived here for 12 years, who took us to a restaurant for a lunch group of expats who meet every week. There were 8 of us, from all over the place, Christina and I being both the youngest and the only girls, but the others were friendly and interesting, and we had a pretty good time. We're invited back next week, if we're around.
I'll finish with 3 little snippets, starting with the least positive and working up so we end on a happy note. Because we all like a happy ending.
Saudi being a rather closed society, young people find it quite hard to meet each other and form relationships. Dating practices, therefore, are creative. Young men will drive up and down past girls' schools and universities, doing stunts and looking cool, to catch the girls' attention, and will either have their phone number displayed somewhere on the outside of their car, or will write it on pieces of paper which they throw out of the window in the hope that girls will pick them up and call them. Bluetooth is also popular, as you can connect with anyone in your immediate vicinity who also has it, without knowing their number. Liaisons in the backs of shared taxis are popular, particularly if the girl is wearing a niqab, because she can't be identified by an over-zealous taxi driver at a later date. The Ministry of Education apparently checks the attendance registers at the schools and universities every day, and every student has to sign in, but teachers here have told me that students will often arrive and sign in, but then leave so they can meet their boyfriends or girlfriends without anyone knowing. More seems to happen than you might expect of Saudi, but it's all fine because you can pop over the border and get stitched up again. Or use chicken blood. The sad thing is that even though many of them do manage to have relationships of a sort, most of them will end up being abandoned when they get pushed into an arranged marriage.
Mia had a great story from the airport. She'd been reliably informed before coming that it's really difficult to buy tampons in Saudi (true story) so she'd come prepared, with 4 boxes of tampons emptied into the inside zip compartment of her suitcase. When she arrived and went through customs, her case was searched. The man looking through her stuff had never seen tampons before and was highly suspicious of them, but spoke only very limited English. And Mia spoke no Arabic at this stage. So she had a fun time trying to explain what they were for. I find it bizarre that no one else in the area stepped in to help, but hey ho.
Pretty much everyone I've had any interaction with here has been foreign of one sort or another, and while this was something I already knew from previous adventures, I've found it really touching how foreigners look out for each other and go out of their way to look after other people who are unfamiliar with the country. I'm sure the Saudis are wonderful too, I just haven't met any yet. Really. Even the people in charge at the company are all foreign. Whether Jordanian or Lebanese or Sudanese or Somali or Bangladeshi or European or American or anything else you can imagine, you meet someone foreign and they do everything they can to make sure you're ok and know what's going on and having a good time. I suppose because they were new once too, and they know how isolating it can be.
That's it for now. I still have no idea when I might be moving on to actually do my job, but I'm not complaining about having a paid holiday and meeting some pretty awesome people and having a few adventures along the way. I'm getting good at finding my way around the city, either on foot or by taxi (women aren't allowed to use busses), and the main thing is that 99% of the time I feel completely safe.