Sunday, January 11, 2015

Initial Impressions of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here's a not-so-brief summary of our first week at our new posting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our family of four, two pets (in crates), and something like 12 bags (not including car seats) departed Washington, D.C., transited Frankfurt, and arrived without incident in Jeddah this past Sunday evening.
It took two vehicles to carry everything & everyone to the airport.
We deplaned in Jeddah around 6 pm. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-70's, and believe it or not, almost brisk. The flight was scheduled to continue on to Addis Ababa, so we were listening attentively for our dog's yelps in the cool night air to ensure that he was getting offloaded. Considering that we could hear him while we were still inside the plane, it wasn't hard to hear him once he got outside.

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The air was also relatively dry, kind of like what you'd expect if you landed at McCarran in Las Vegas (but without all the ridiculous Vegas casino lights). Kacey had changed into her black abaya-like outfit on the plane and blended in with the other women getting into the shuttle bus. Consulate staff met us immediately after getting off the shuttle bus and ushered us through immigration and customs. It felt a little weird to be invited to the front of the line, and I'm sure we got some glares from the folks who were next up, but I guess that's part of the whole diplomatic deal.

Minor Pet Drama
Our cat and dog crates came up the luggage conveyor belt (in that order) just like regular luggage, but I was able to run around the carousel in time to retrieve the cat's crate to keep it from being crushed by the dog's. And yeah, the dog did not like that last little sliding drop down onto the carousel. Kacey stayed with the kids and the animals by the luggage carousel while I loaded our bags through the X-ray machine while the airport guards looked for contraband. Our kids' music CDs got a bag pulled for inspection as we were told to expect, but we didn't have anything get confiscated.

After the bags went through, the consulate staff took them out to the car on a half-dozen little airport carts while I stayed inside with Kacey to clear the pets through customs. As expected, it was a non-event: The Saudi customs officials looked at the stamp from the Saudi Embassy on our paperwork and waved us through. We had to use three or four carts to get all of our bags and pet crates out to the curb where my boss/sponsor was waiting for us and our stuff with two vehicles. Sorry I don't have any pictures of our stuff on the mini-carts at the airport...even though I thought it would make a funny picture, the Saudis highly discourage photography in certain places, airports included.

Our new home
After loading up everyone into a van and most of the bags into an SUV around 7:15pm, we convoyed to our new residence where the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) and her family were waiting to welcome us, and everyone helped us move all of our stuff inside. Considering that I can measure how long it took for us to go from sitting in the plane to laying in our long-term beds in minutes and not days, this was the fastest I've ever gone from landing to being in my new digs for any PCS I've had. Usually, there's some time spent in temporary lodging limbo before getting to move in. Bonus: The CLO had stocked the fridge and pantry with enough food for a couple of days and provided us with some local currency.

Our compound, like many compounds in Jeddah, is guarded a little more assertively than gated communities back home. Which is to say, the concrete barriers and guards aren't particularly welcoming. But once you get inside the compound, it's really quite peaceful. Except, of course, when our dog barks at people walking by our backyard. Fortunately, he doesn't bark at any of the half-dozen or so cats that roam freely within the compound (except for that one that decided to sit outside our glass door the other night). With all the roaming cats, the proximity to a calm body of water (the Red Sea), and pleasant (at least right now) weather, Jeddah feels quite a bit like Greece. It's also a lot greener than we had imagined, but that's likely due to Hollywood's depiction of the Kingdom which are more likely from Riyadh instead of Jeddah. While I'm not going to identify our compound or post pictures of it for security reasons, I will say that most of the compounds I've visited this week remind me of the set of Melrose Place crossed with a nice resort-hotel.

This is Melrose Place, and it is stylistically similar to several compounds in Jeddah.
We're adjusting to compound living fairly well. The State Department provides so much furniture to us that we actually had to go through and identify stuff to send back to the General Services Office (GSO). We were joking that the reason for this is that, as representatives of the United States, it's incumbent upon us to buy stuff we don't need to fill the furniture we don't want that required us to have a place larger than we actually need. Kids run freely around the compounds well into the night, like some sort of 1950's Norman Rockwell small town.

In some ways, the new place feels like a camping cabin right now in that everything is just different enough that there is a learning curve. The first morning, I discovered that there's a switch on the wall for the water heater and that the water also takes several minutes to get warm if the switch has been off all night. I'm still trying to find the light switches in the dark without turning off the water heater. Another way that things are "different, but the same" is that most of the same familiar foods are available either locally or through the commissary in Riyadh, but the locally available brands & flavors are just a little different. The block of Kraft cheddar cheese we got crumbled upon cutting it, probably due to having been frozen for transport.

Perhaps the biggest initial adjustment has been related to the water supply. Back in the US, the water from the faucet is generally potable. Here in Jeddah, there can be a higher level of minerals in the water due to the kind of pipes they use (and I'm conjecturing that it also has something to do with the desalinization process), so we've been advised not to drink the water straight out of the tap. It also feels somewhat more slippery to me, what you might call "soft water." Additionally, we have been advised that locally-purchased vegetables and fruits should first be washed in a mild chlorine bath to disinfect them and then rinsed off. While it is more labor-intensive, it doesn't really affect the taste that much (especially if it staves off a stomach bug). Over-chlorinate fruit (or just those that didn't get washed and dried off very well) have a faint white dusting on them from the chemical wash. However, if you approach it from a risk perspective, the US also has occasional food recalls and alerts, so this method is really just putting more responsibility onto the consumer.

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Driving
We were picked up Monday morning by one of the motorpool drivers that supports our project staff's needs. I guess you could say that we have our "own" driver and company car, but they really are a shared resource. Less than 14 hours after touching down in-country after two inter-continental flights, our older daughter was in her new classroom. How's that for tough love?

Anyways, my overall impression of the traffic on the road was that it is like a herd of wildebeest running through a canyon. Lane lines are merely recommendations, changing lanes occurs gradually over a minute or so, and it seems that U-turns are more prevalent than stop signs or stop lights. It's not particularly aggressive, but any space you leave in front of you will be filled by a car angling in from another lane. Totally my kind of driving environment, and I can't wait to get my license. But I have to get my iqama, or national identity card before I can get the driver's license.
Hakuna Matata, Inshallah
The other thing I noticed is that car seats aren't really all that common here. I've actually seen several kids who were probably 3-4 years old sticking her head out of a moving car window on the main highway roads, a mere accidental door-handle pull away from falling into the street. I think that we're going to keep our kids in the car seats regardless of the hassle. This makes me feel like the locals will view me like that parent back in the U.S. that won't let their kid go outside without a helmet and knee & elbow pads.

Out and About
If you've never been to Saudi Arabia, you're probably wondering about the whole prayer time thing. The short version is that five times a day, a call to prayer goes out over the city. The daily times are published and I keep a copy of the schedule in my wallet, but this is how it's working into our daily schedule so far:
  • Fajr ~ 05:45 am. I've actually found that this prayer works well as a back-up alarm clock.
  • Sunrise ~ 07:00 am
  • Dhuhr ~ 12:30 pm. This is the one that requires scheduling lunch around.
  • Asr ~ 3:40 pm. I think this is the one that I don't hear most often.
  • Maghrib ~ 6:00 pm. This might only impact me if I need to stop somewhere shortly after work.
  • Isha ~7:30 pm. When we hear this one, the kids should be getting ready for bed.
The call to prayer is pretty hard to miss if you have your windows open. That said, when the windows are closed, you might not hear it. Why is that important? Because you need to be aware of when businesses close their doors, turn off their cash registers, and dim their lights (they don't kick you out, but you're just kind of stuck there). If you're inside a store you probably won't get to leave until prayer ends, and if you're outside you'll have to wait. I haven't really seen any mass exodus to the prayer rooms, but that may be because there are so many everywhere that the rush isn't obvious. I guess it might also be relevant to mention here that the work week is Sunday to Thursday, with Friday as the observed holy day (like an American Sunday) and Saturday is the other day of the weekend.

And what about the famous abaya (the iconic black dress) that women wear in the Kingdom? Yes, the vast majority are un-ornamented and solid black, but I was surprised to see several versions that had some sort of decoration on them. Some were black-on-black (like a glossy and matte all-black checkerboard), others have bold flashes of reds or yellow detailing, but the most common decoration is to have embroidered cuffs. The choice of shoes seems to vary as well, with anything from sandals to day-glo sneakers. I'll let Kacey go into more detail about her initial abaya experience  as an ex-pat woman in Saudi Arabia. In the interest of full disclosure, about the only wardrobe change I really have to consider is to not wear shorts outside of the housing compound...which is validated in this article about shorts by The Art of Manliness.

One more thing about the iqama (national identity card): You pretty much need it to do anything. It is the administrative blockade between us and getting our stuff through customs, getting a driver's licence (well, technically this is only a problem for the guys since women aren't allowed to drive in the Kingdom), purchasing a SIM card for Kacey's smartphone, or internet service for our residence. Fortunately, our compound has a Wi-Fi hotspot so I'm writing this while hookah smoke wafts across the patio.

And lastly, it rained this week. First time since a few months ago, and I've heard that the last time it rained before that was years ago. The kids in the compound were running around excitedly, much like kids in Florida when it snows. So yeah, there is going to be a lot of "it's the same, but different."

If you're interested in the official messages from the Consulate General in Jeddah, might I suggest:
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