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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Travel, Apartment, & First Impressions - Day 1 in Saudi Arabia

Travel Thoughts & Arrival
There is something so strange about flying. You are up in the air, moving very fast, and when you land you are somewhere else. Unless you had a window seat and watched the ground most of the flight, it can feel like you just popped up in a new place. I love flying and I'm a veteran of long transit. When I went to Australia my total travel time was about 32 hours. This round it was just over 24 hours, if you don't count the immigration line and driving time. I have the issue that I can't sleep while in a moving vehicle - car, bus, boat, or plane. So I didn't sleep on my overnight flight to Amsterdam. When I arrived it was around noon local time, but my body said it was 6am and I'd just pulled an all-nighter. At least for me, when I'm that sleep deprived everything becomes very difficult to place in regards to when it happened. For instance, it felt like I'd left my house in Richmond several days ago instead of several hours. I made my connection and watched movies on the last flight, again unable to actually sleep. I've found it's actually better that I stay awake at that point because I can be a grouch if I've had unrestful half sleep. By the time I arrived in Saudi the memory of my overnight flight felt ancient, like it was a different trip. I had entered the strangely surreal world that happens when my brain has been awake too long. It almost feels like (I imagine) time travel. New place and no recent memory of how you got there though you were conscious the whole time. Luckily that surreal state is also usually when I get a second wind. To my body it was almost 3 in the afternoon (11pm locally) and I'd been awake for about 30 hours.

A guide from ISG met us before immigration and our little group of new teachers passed the time by talking to each other. After an extended period of time we cleared immigration, retrieved our baggage, and entered the fray that is International Arrivals. The airport was very nice, it almost felt like a hotel because there was marble tiling and columns. We met members of the ISG staff who'd come to greet us including our principals, assistant principals, superintendent, and drivers, and received our packets of important information. When we left the airport to load the luggage the Saudi Arabian night air greeted us, warmly. This was my first surprise because it was more humid last night than I anticipated - not sauna heat, but warmer and stickier than I imagined. Really it just felt like Richmond so I was used to it. Those of us driving up to Jubail piled in and talked as we rolled along the dark desert highway north. I got to my new apartment around 12:30am. That was my second surprise - I got the 3-bedroom with an extension*! After a quick look around, I washed the fatigued travel off me and crashed into my new bed around 2am.

Overview of My New Apartment
First, it is huge. I like having space, especially in my kitchen, but this apartment was clearly designed for a family not a single. I have no idea what I'm going to do with all the space.

My apartment is two stories. On the ground level there is:
- a large sitting room (total of 7 seats available on 2 couches and 2 cushy chairs)
- an open dining room / traffic area (full-size wooden table and chairs)
- a large kitchen (wrap-around countertops and cabinets, oven, dishwasher, fridge/freezer)
- a top-loading washer and front-loading dryer (across from fridge/freezer in an alcove, ironing board included)    
- an extension* room (This room was added by previous tenants who decided to have more space off the kitchen. It is a step lower than the kitchen and has a couch and a cushy chair. It is special to this apartment and is even more space than I know what to do with. It has a wood floor, so maybe it'll be a private dance studio?)
- a half bath
- a secret tunnel in the wall that wraps under the stairs (I didn't find a boy wizard living there unfortunately.)

Then there are stairs wrapping up to the second floor, where I found:
- a master bedroom (king-sized bed, dressers, side tables, lamps)
- a master bathroom (accessible only through the bedroom by passing through the closet)
- a pass-through closet (both sides of the wall are full-length mirrors that pull back to reveal a lot of closet space)
- a traffic area at the top of the stairs (doors open to this area, end table against the far wall)
- a full bath
- spare bedroom #1 (twin bed, closet, dressers)
- spare bedroom #2 (twin bed, closet, dressers)
- linen closet

I also have an outdoor patio that wraps around the kitchen from the sliding doors in the extension room. It is large enough to host a sizable garden of potted plants. The decorations and furniture in the apartment are a deep red or deep red and gold floral pattern. It feels very royal to me so I like it. The main apartment is all carpeted and the kitchen is tile. So in conclusion, I have space, more than I feel I can possibly find use for. But it does feel like home. I really like it and I'm glad to be writing that I have a lot of space rather than too little.
Note: If you are interested in seeing my place we can Facetime or Skype. :)

Day 1 in Saudi Arabia
Today I woke up in Saudi Arabia. That was really cool. ISG makes sure the apartments are stocked with some foods when we arrive so I had a breakfast of yogurt, peanut butter on bread, and banana. One great thing about living on the compound is that it's like I'm back in the dorms at La Trobe (Australian university where I spent a semester). My fellow teacher friends are just a few doors away and we are all learning each other's apartment numbers and often stop by to say hi. One of the other teachers who lives across from me came over while I was having breakfast and we chatted about the landline phone and determined we'd figure out how it works. Later today he figured it out and now we can call the others very easily. :) It also feels somewhat like orientation at La Trobe because we all piled into a bus this morning, clutching our important paperwork, and let our very helpful principal, assistant principal, guide, and driver shepherd us around. First stop was the medical clinic to get the blood work and chest X-ray that are required for the processing of our Iqama, the residency card. Before leaving the bus, us ladies donned black abayas (spares that were brought for us by the ISG staff). The clinic was a bit crowded so I was glad our guide told us where to sit, where to go, and chatted with us through the quick and almost painless process (ouch, needle in my arm). There were women working as nurses and they wore full-length pants and jackets, with their hair covered or uncovered by a traditional scarf. Just like nurses everywhere they were kind, quick, and helpful. Our group of 6 left about an hour later and headed to lunch. We drove through the new area by the beach where several western restaurants are springing up and there is a nice touristy boardwalk.

Lunch at Chili's in Saudi Arabia wasn't much different than lunch at Chili's in the US, other than the specialty cocktails don't have alcohol and there were women sitting at other tables also wearing abayas. The menu was almost exactly the same and the food was very good - I had chicken tenders (satisfied the 5-year-old me). My specialty drink came in a colorful martini glass with fruit on the side and was delicious - all the mixers none of the alcohol. Our little group chatted about travel, conferences, other food spots in Jubail, etc. One new surprise was that we could watch the kitchen preparing our food on the flat-screen TVs in the dining area. The kitchen looked very clean and all of the staff we spoke with were kind and had no problem packaging several of our meals to take home.

After lunch we went to visit our school! The school looks like it does in pictures, but also doesn't. A lot of work is being done right now to make it more amazing and the walk-through gave me a good idea of what updates I'll probably be here to see. Right now the library and gymnasium are under construction but they are going to be huge and great when finished. My classroom was locked, but I peeked inside and it looks nice. I also really like my room number (message me to find out why). I can't wait to be in there teaching my first graders! :D I also found out that all primary teachers have a full-time aide in their room. That is going to be so wonderful and I look forward to meeting my aide. Returning from our tour of campus, we got our new MacBook Airs that are for school use. Unfortunately there were some setup issues so after about an hour of fiddling we called it a day. Better tech luck tomorrow.

Since we had time, we made the decision to stop at the grocery store Panda for some house supplies and food. One interesting thing was that the call to prayer for muslims happened during our shopping trip. This was not a problem for us because you can shop during those 25 minutes, you just can't check out. No transactions allowed. So we wandered the store looking at all the new brands and interesting foods. Panda reminded me of Walmart in size and Coles (Australian grocery) in selection. There was a large produce area, aisles of toiletries, canned and packaged products, a deli, and frozen aisles. We found towels, dish trays, paper products, and there were even men's ties and shirts. I sampled dates at the well-stocked nuts, seeds, and dried fruit counter. (I like dates, they are sweet.) Converting prices was a fun little math exercise because you feel like you are saving a lot knowing that 46 SAR is just 12 USD. Plus the conversion is fixed so you don't have to check the exchange rate daily. Once the checkouts reopened we passed through, though my friend and I made the rookie mistake of not getting weight labels for our produce. (The US has weight scales at the register but in most countries you weigh it yourself and get a printed label - like when you make a salad at Martin's.) The cashier somehow saved our transactions, and continued ringing other folks through while we waited for another staff member to return with our newly labeled fruits. I like that the cashier continued moving traffic. I've waited behind people in Walmart before and it is much better to push customers aside than to halt the line. We left and our driver cleverly organized our 6 different hauls in the back of the bus then returned us to our compound.

At this point it was hot and we were done with work for the day (minus unpacking groceries and any other unpacking we decided to jumped into) so a few of us decided to check out the pool on our compound and relax. I met up with the two other single female teachers and we enjoyed a few laps in the warm water as the sun dipped low against the horizon. (It was decided that we try the water some morning to see if it is cooler.) We chatted and swam and it was a perfect way to end the first day. At one point I was floating in the water, looking up at the sky, and just thinking, "I'm in a pool, in Saudi Arabia. I live here now." It was a happy thought.

Happy teaching and traveling!

P.S. I wrote a lot. Oops. Haha.

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