Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Art of Participation


I had heard rumors that ex-pat communities are welcoming and tight-knit, but I did not expect our second week in country to be as socially active as it was. That probably has something to do with our approach to getting involved early: If someone asks us to join, we will. Those first couple months in a new place are critical, because that's when people decide whether or not to keep asking you to join them.

Now, to put the weekend in context, the work week in Saudi Arabia is Sunday to Thursday and the American Consulate decided to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Sunday instead of Monday to give everyone a three day weekend. So, on Thursday we picked the girls up from school and headed to the American Consulate for the International Day community potluck and soccer match. The match was between the Consulate staff and the local guard force, and Kacey helped keep the game close enough to be decided by penalty kicks while I chatted on the sidelines while watching the kids running around nearby. After the game, we all headed over for an international buffet. My plate was a delicious combination of Filipino fried rice, Arabic bread, and a spicy Ethiopian chicken sauce called doro wat.

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At International Day, the CLO invited us to join her family and a few others on Friday morning on an excursion to the Trio Ranch. It was primarily to get the girls out and active, and I'm glad we said yes, since there were so many kids in our group that the ranch didn't have enough small horses for everyone to ride at the same time, but everyone still got to ride.
Are we in the Southwest or the Middle East?
On Saturday, we we a bit slow getting out of the house because we were still recovering from all the fun riding horse. But we'd decided that this morning was all about getting connected. We went to the malls to acquire our internet and mobile phone SIMs now that we had our iqamas. But even getting to the first mall at around 10 am, it seemed like 50% of the stores hadn't opened yet. Fortunately, the one we wanted was open. The purchasing system reminded me a little of how the Circuit City used to do things (before they went out of business):
Starting at the STC kiosk in the Jahrir bookstore, I ordered the 4G wireless internet router, then took the order slip to the bookstore cashier, then took that receipt to the hardware desk to claim the router, then finally took the router back to the kiosk to register the SIM card.

With the 4G router in hand, we went over to the Red Sea mall to get Kacey a SIM card for her phone and also do some quick grocery shopping at the Danube supermarket to fill in for what didn't come in our commissary order. Now, before we left the US, I had done extensive research to find out whether Kacey's smartphone would work internationally, but I had also assumed that all three SIM card sizes (standard, micro, and nano) would be available from the service provider. The STC kiosk we bought the router from didn't have nano, but we found another carrier that did. Actually, the card provided was nano and it came with SIM adapters to fit the larger form factors. And due to a lack of foresight on my part, I'd forgotten to charge Kacey's phone to see if everything worked while we were still in the store. Not to leave you in suspense, yes, Verizon's US version of the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx gets signal and data in Saudi Arabia. Kacey's now connected!

By now, the girls were getting into that "wild & hungry" mode, so we headed for the food court around 11:15 am. That's lunchtime back in the US, but only about half of the food court stalls were actually serving food. So we ended up getting McDonald's. Given previous experiences with segregated seating in Saudi Arabia, we were looking for the family area to put our trays down. Actually, it was more like we were looking for the men's area so that we didn't put our trays down in the wrong area.

It was a little after noon when we finally arrived at the supermarket, and we were well aware that prayer time would be at 12:30. So we either had to rush a bit to make sure we got in and out before they locked down the gates, or plan to be there through prayer. With the girls on the pre-nap verge of melting down, we really had to make it out before the call to prayer. I was the last person to get some deli meat sliced before they turned off the lights in the deli, and also one of the last to get the vegetables weighted & marked in the produce section. We got to the register and were rung up quickly, all the while the store's roll-up gate was halfway down and threatening to close all the way and trap us inside the market. Fortunately, we got out into the mall space, and then into the parking lot before everything got locked down.

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Lounging around the house while the little one napped after our morning shopping expedition, one of our fellow compound residents rode up on his bike to invite us to a BBQ around one of the other small pools on the compound. It was kind of like a semi-organized block party, and several other expats were participating. Lots of food, lots of kids (several of whom really enjoyed playing fetch with our dog), and lots of new and interesting people to meet. There were a few Brits (as you might expect), but also folks from Denmark, France, South Africa, and even Serbia. I even got some leads on the local rugby scene,

So, yeah, quite the warm welcome from the ex-pat community in our "neighborhood." We even got an open invitation to participate in later events. And it never would have happened if we'd told the guy on the bike "Thanks for the invite, but no, we're too tired from our busy weekend running errands."

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