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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Settling In

It has been almost a month since I packed up my 2 bags, said goodbye to some of my best friends in the world, and was delivered to the airport by Valerie and her kids. The goodbye was unceremonious. She has been my friend since we met in a coffee shop in Davidson just before I graduated. I was there to read and write poetry and she was a barista who made a delicious Glacier Gulp. (Breyer’s Vanilla Bean Ice cream, espresso, and chocolate blended into a caffeine treat).

I grabbed my bags from the back of her car, said goodbye, and realized that once again in my life, everything was changing. It was a short parting absent of tears, but full of emotion. We had spent so many afternoons or late mornings sitting at either Common Market or Amelie’s bakery enjoying coffee and conversation. There was also the occasional trip to Smelly Cat and the artsy NoDa charm that I had forgotten how much I missed while I was gallivanting around SE Asia for almost 4 years.

Two flights and a change of date later, I arrived in Riyadh. My first impressions of Riyadh were somewhat bleak. The landscape is terrible at best. In recent times, Saudi Arabia has been one of the most peaceful countries in the Middle East. There is no Arab Spring happening here as the royal family has a firm grip on the political state. In addition, having the holy sights of Mecca and Medina gives the place a certain feel that is missing from other areas in the gulf region.  Yet despite the peace and holy nature of Saudi, any drive around Riyadh baffles the senses as there are equal parts new construction and fields of debris and rubble.

The traffic is maddening with its lack of order and the noticeable disregard for rules and regulations. It is not uncommon for highway exit ramps with only one lane to be filled with 3 cars at the same horizontal position as you make your way up the cloverleaf. Everyone is in a rush. This is the traffic of a desert metropolis awash in money, cheap petrol, imported American, Japanese, and Korean cars, and only male drivers. Insane. The senses become baffled because despite the obvious modern nature of Riyadh, every 5th or 6th city block is a field of broken stone and debris. It is as though while you are sleeping, someone comes along and bombs a few buildings into smithereens; a silent, sneaky, invisible war zone.

In truth, I cannot tell if the debris is from former buildings or dug up from the ground. Riyadh is growing at an alarming rate but they have yet to experience all that comes along with rapid growth. There is no concern for the environment. If garbage is left in the desert long enough, it gets covered with sand and is eventually out of sight. Of course, this mentality doesn’t work well in a city with paved surfaces and extreme development. The casual act of tossing one’s waste out the window remains and ugly reminder of what poor environmental planning means.

Like I was saying, this is the desert. I have been here about a month so far and there has been exactly 0.0 cm of rain and this trend will continue for many months. Without rain, the settling dust does not get washed away. On the one hand, you don’t have waste water run off problems. On the other hand, you don’t have ample fresh water. The buildings in Riyadh are covered by a thin layer of really fine dust that has settled and caked on over the months since the last rain. It is sort of like make up. In fact, it closely resembles foundation. I often wonder what this dust does to the lungs?  But then I have a cigarette and realize that I have bigger fish to fry.

As I settle in, I have found a bit of a routine. My students are awesome and it is dirt cheap to live here. 1 USD is equal to 3.75 Saudi Riyals. But the good thing is that the Riyal has the spending power of 1 dollar.

For example:

  • ·         20 liter jug of water = 5 riyals
  • ·         Pack of cigarettes = 9 riyals
  • ·         Lunch of salad, rice, hummus, bread, juice, chicken quarter, fruit, and soup = 10 riyals
  • ·         Laundry service for 6 shirts, 3 t-shirts, and 4 pairs of pants = 16 riyals
  • ·         Pepsi in a can = 1 riyal
  • ·         Iphone 4s = 1000 riyals
  • ·         30 minute taxi ride = 25 riyals
  • ·         Driver to and from work for 1 month = 500 riyals
  • ·         2013 Kia sedan, brand new = 32,000 riyals
One can easily live on less than 3000 riyals a month and live well. Since the average salary for a University teacher is north of 11,000 riyals a month, it does not take long to see the value and draw of working here in Saudi, at least for 1 or 2 years.

When I first decided to come here, I was thrilled about seeing a part of the world that I had never seen. But I quickly found out that there is not much of Saudi culture to explore. As a single man, I am segregated from women and families. In addition, there are not many things that are truly Saudi. Everything is imported except for chicken, rice, and dates. That is a bit of a disappointment. Luckily Riyadh is more than 60% expats from various Gulf States and Africa. So I am learning a lot about Pakistan, India, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Oman, The U.A.E., Oman, Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey and Jordan from the people I meet on a daily basis. This new knowledge comes with an almost unlimited amount of new foods to try and fawn over. I will save that for a future post.

For now, this is Marcus in Mesopotamia and I am settling in.