Monday, 16 July 2012

One Day

If you, like me, were an expat woman living in a Saudi compound, this is what your day might look like.
3.45 am
It’s the start of my holidays, but for some inexplicable reason I’m woken by the day’s first call to prayer.  I bury myself in pillows and pull up the sheets to try and block out the sound so I can get back to sleep.

I’m still wide awake. I decide to get up.  It’s mid summer, and the daytime temperatures are hitting the high forties. But right now, it's a pleasant 27˚C.  Perfect for walking.

Dressed in shorts, T shirt and trainers, I set out around the compound. Before me, my shadow stretches out long and thin.

By one house, the delicious smell of frangipani hangs heavily in the air, taking me back to when we lived in Fiji and Singapore. Beside a bin, compound cats forage for scraps. I gingerly step over a dead bird, which lies in the gutter, half in and out of a puddle. 

 Houseboys are up even before me, washing cars and hosing down terraces. I pass a maid walking a very large dog which is strongly resisting her grip on the lead. As I step off the pavement I almost tread on a small cockroach. It’s lying on its back, its small feet waving helplessly in the air.

I put on my abaya and head over to the compound admin block, to wait for the bus. Each day there’s a bus scheduled to visit a different mall. Since women aren’t allowed to drive here, this gives them a chance to buy groceries. This morning I’m going to Granada Mall.

I fall into conversation with a Finnish woman sitting near me. She tells me that she’s been in Riyadh for four years, but is returning to Finland for good at Christmas. When I ask her what she does each day she shrugs her shoulders. “Nothing,” she says. “It is very boring.” I shudder. Much as I find work frustrating, the prospect of endlessly doing nothing is a whole lot worse.

We arrive at Granada and I head to the supermarket. There’s a few unusual supermarket items I plan to take pictures of today, each of which says something about life here. Strictly speaking, photography is banned. But I plan to use my new iPhone, carefully hidden up the long sleeves of my abaya.

By the bread there’s a counter with an array of Arabic sweets. I take a photo but the man behind the counter sees and tells me off so I move on quickly. (So much for being covert.)

Beside the fruit and veges I see watermelons – lots of them. They’re in season.  But much as I love Nigella Lawson’s watermelon and feta salad, I decide this is not the day to struggle home with one of these.

By the meat section the camel catches my attention. I’m not buying any today, but I’ve promised myself that I will definitely cook camel before I leave Saudi.

Among the spices are small packets of white crystals. MSG. Just what every cook needs...

And you definitely know you’re in Saudi when you see his and hers washing liquid.

 But the best find comes last. Around the corner in a carton labeled pure distilled water are bottles of concentrated sulphuric acid.

The bus is almost at the compound when I hear an odd sound coming from my bag. I pull out my iPhone and realize that it's a very loud call to prayer.  Yesterday I put the Prayer Times app on my phone.  And apparently it comes with a sound component. Only slightly embarrassed (it’s hardly an unfamiliar sound, after all) I disable it as quickly as I can.

Home, groceries unpacked and lunch eaten, I head off to the gym and pool.  As I do my few laps I notice my Finnish friend opposite, lying in the sun.

Time to get dinner ready. I’ve recently been given a Lebanese cookbook and I’m experimenting with new recipes. Tonight’s special is chicken with sumac and walnuts. Yum.

We’ve invited a friend for dinner. His wife and family have gone on holiday and he’s leaving tomorrow as well. The compound is all but empty. During the long summer holiday, everyone who can leaves.

I settle myself on the couch to watch New Zealand Master Chef, given to me on a flash drive by one of my students. Tonight the contestants are tackling gourmet cooking at Huka Lodge in Taupo – a town I’ve visited myself. It’s a lovely touch of home – I even find myself even enjoying the Kiwi accents.  

I watch one episode but when we start a second I can feel myself falling asleep. “Some things never change,” my husband tells me as I head to bed.

Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

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