Monday, November 28, 2011

Life in Saudi Arabia ... some observations - Part I

I am going to divert a little bit and share with you some of the experiences I have had over the past ten days … stuff that is too inconsequential to include in a diary, but which adds to the sense of what Saudi Arabia is all about. I will highlight most of the things I have seen and experienced in a sort of bulleted list, and will try, whenever possible, to provide the readers with additional input in the form of thoughts, ideas and suggestions of my fertile mind. I may also digress to compare what I saw with the way similarities or differences exist in respect of the same things in India.

  • ·        The Saudi Arabian air hostesses were dressed elegantly, with a dupatta going around their neck and over their heads, over which they wore a semi-Gandhi cap that looked pretty, actually. The male stewards were young, polite and spoke broken English, but were adept at what they did, namely serving their passengers.
  • ·        The aircraft was a large, international airline with a total of 11 seats per row, (3 + 5 + 3), and it was a bit cramped in the economy section. My co-passengers were a worker with some level of English on my left, and a completely illiterate young fellow on my right. The latter was obviously on his first overseas journey, so intimidated was he. He simply looked around to see what the others did with their food etc., before imitating them.
  • ·        The arrivals section of Riyadh airport is quite well-organised - and then you reach "Immigration". Here, there are huge crowds, and I saw Asians waiting for as long as six or eight hours in a queue to get themselves photographed, fingerprinted and so on. There were skirmishes, but they never escalated because the cops and airport staff were everywhere, and they kept the people on a tight leash. I tried to speak to some of these people to explain to them that I had a connecting flight after a few hours,  and it was only after repeated requests from me and several others like me that the airport staff created a separate queue for us and began to take us for our check as a priority. I cleared my own self just a few minutes before eight p.m. My next goals were to take my luggage and to proceed to the domestic terminal to catch my Riyadh to Ta’if flight, scheduled for departure at 9:35 p.m.
  • ·        Most of our luggage had been cast off the carousels, and I had a tough time searching for the three pieces of luggage that I had sent into the cargo section at New Delhi. After locating these, it was another task to load it all on to a single trolley along with the two pieces of luggage that I had in my hand - the overnighter and the laptop bag.
  • ·        The box of tablets and medications was taken away by the customs guys for a thorough check, and it was after nearly 20 minutes that they brought it back, saying there was no problem and I was free to take it with me.
  • ·        At the domestic terminal, I stood in the wrong check-in crew for almost ten minutes before I was guided to the right one, which was nearly 100 meters away on the opposite side.
  • ·       The flight to Ta’if was in time. I had about half an hour to spend at the waiting area, and I bought myself a bottle of water for SR 2 before settling into an available chair in the waiting area.
  • ·        The problems I faced after getting off at Ta’if are part of the main blog, but it is only later that I learned that the “Airport Health Post” is not an office but an ambulance that is parked outside the airport. I should have reached that ambulance and presented the occupants with my documents, instead of doing all the silly things I did. However, it is because of those silly things that I spent some nice afternoons and evenings in the Children’s Hospital, a place where I saw not only a good load of patients but also met and got help from several doctors and others. It is also the place where I got shelter for a night and a day, something that is not so easy in a foreign country where you know hardly any people and hardly any of the language they speak.

  • ·        At this place, I began to assimilate information about the ways of the people of this country. The personal observations, combined with input from Drs. Sophy and Raid (from Egypt and Syria respectively), led me to understand the Arabs in general, and Saudis in particular, bit by bit, much as a builder creates an edifice brick by brick.
  • ·       The house was very well furnished. It was wall-papered all over, and its floors were tiled with floral or geometrical motifs. The ceilings had cornices, mouldings and elegant floral designs that gave them a sort of beauty one sees in older, heritage structures. The living room had sofas in a very good state of repair and a large LCD wall-mounted LG TV. The set top box listed over 500 channels, and showed nearly all the free to air channels. The channels that I saw, for the most part, had content in English, either exclusively or for the most part, including BBC World, Al Jazeera International, Dubai One, MBC 2 and MBC Action. CNN was not available. All the popular Hindi and linguistic channels  are available only on subscription. This included Zee, SONY, Setmax, Colors, NDTV etc.
  • ·        My room had two beds, both with two mattresses each. I kept both my suitcases on one of the beds and slept in the other. A long side-table with a bank of drawers helped me to organise the stuff that I brought outside my big bags for daily living, such as the soaps, cosmetics, etc. I think I must have hardly removed 10% of my luggage over the entire 8 days or so of my stay here.
  • ·        I washed  my clothes manually, as there was no washing machine, and I had to buy an iron as there was none at the house. The electrical appliances work on a different type of connection here, and one has to plug in a three -pointed plug into a two-holed adapter which then goes into a two-holed wall socket. This is the norm all over this country, so I had to buy a few of these adapters for myself. The kitchen has a microwave, a tea and coffee maker and a cooking range that works beautifully. As Sophy cooked, I observed, and over the eight days, I have picked up tips on how to cook in an oven. It should serve me well.
  • ·        Hot water through large storage water heaters was available, both in the bathroom and in the kitchen. As the days progressed, winter brought in even more cold temperatures, and it was a delight to be able to wash hands with hot water, or to heat the water to even higher temperatures before going in for a bath.

In the next part, I will discuss more about these things …

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