27 April 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Compounds.

There are two options when it comes to  choosing accommodation in Jeddah, you can opt to live on a walled compound or chose to live ‘In Arabia’.  

The former is, naturally, more expensive than the latter, not least because the houses typically come unfurnished and when they say that they mean it.  Friends living outside have to provide their own kitchen units and white goods and even AC units as well as meet the more typical furniture expectations.  Houses in a compound cost more to rent but come furnished.  As well as meaning that new arrivals do not need to find a budget for kitchen units the costs cover provision of security, corner shops and exercise/relaxation facilities as well as all utility charges.  When we arrived we moved straight into Mr EE’s predecessor’s house to make things simple.  It gives us a base for the first 6 months which will allow us to look at the different housing options available to us.  We have since moved in to our own, larger, home complete with a bedroom for each child and a garden for the pets.

While I would normally prefer to live away from other expats in a private home in a more local district that choice is not really practical for our life here in KSA.  As I cannot drive I would have to take a taxi to and from school every afternoon to collect the children, I would need to wear an abaya just to step out of the house, could not send the children to collect last minute essentials from the corner shop and not be able to swim to my heart's content in a public swimming pool.  The latter issues are, of course, minor but the driving and transport was the deciding factor for us.  Most of our friends who live off compounds have no or older children and so are not limited in the same way.

Our compound is attached to Mr EE and the children’s school.  This makes for an easy 2 minute commute for Mr EE in the morning and means he can pop home for supper and to see the children before going back to work again in the evening.  Given the proximity of the school and home we also allow Master and Miss EE to go to and from school by themselves and one can do after school clubs while the other comes home and vice versa, they are not stuck waiting for eachother.  This independence is fantastic for them and it means that they are learning to be responsible for their own timekeeping.  Mr EE drops Mini EE off at her crèche every morning and I pick her up just before the older children get home.  The school run in our last posting took up a significant portion of my day, at one stage Master and Miss EE had different pick up times so I would spend 3 hours on collection duty just in the afternoon.  If Mr EE was away and unable to do the morning drop off I had another hour.  I find that I am so much more productive here because of this.

Our compound has a small shop, some exercise facilities, a library, recreation room and 2 pool complexes.  It also provides a shopping bus twice a day so that it is easy to go and get groceries or run errands while private lift share cars such as Uber and Careem are allowed onto the compound to drop me at my door.  Some of the other compounds have larger shops, restaurants, travel agents, beauty salons and hairdressers etc  (some even have a bowling alley and one a vets).  They are, to all intents and purposes, small villages in their own right.  Each has their own character but while it might be nice to be able to pick and choose the reality is that almost all the good compounds have long waiting lists particularly for family sized homes so most people go where their employers put them.  

Because there are heavy restrictions on mixed social activities in KSA the compounds, alongside the consulates, become the hub of expat activity.  A quick google will make Jeddah seem like an activities and cultural desert simply because no one posts anything online.  Once you arrive, however, and start to get to know where to look, there are things to do everywhere.

The greatest upside and the saddest downside of life on the compound is that we are massively insulated from real life in KSA.  We live a life of luxury cocooned from the outside.  I think it would be possible for someone to come to live in Jeddah (or any other Saudi city for that matter) and never really realise what life is like in the city.  Of course many of our friends and contacts are other western expats and most of the organised social events are arranged with these interest groups in mind so we have had to make a particular effort to connect and become friends with locals and long term expats, to read the local news and try to stay in touch with what is going on outside the expat community.  This means we catch glimpses and hear snippets of what life is really like at both ends of the spectrum, the grinding poverty of the sub continent expat labourers and the nonchalant opulence of life for the super rich.  There are times we regret that circumstances force us into our bubble.   Then pragmatic reality reasserts itself and I am thankful for the short commute and the swimming pool.

15 February 2017

Jeddah's Fakieh Aquarium

We often spend weekend’s enjoying the atmosphere on Jeddah’s corniche.  We usually go to the middle corniche park but a little further north and closer to home there is another section of the which houses some restaurants a planetarium and Jeddah’s aquarium.  I heard about the aquarium on my first day in Jeddah, I was introduced to a very staid and polite member of Mr EE’s staff who shocked me by saying something along the lines of ‘F*** You’.  Shocked for a moment I was relieved to hear he was telling me I should take the children to the Fakieh Aquarium.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

Miss EE had been to visit on a school trip a few months ago and raved about her time there.  I had been quite unwell and the older two children had really stepped up, making their own supper, cleaning the house and generally pampering me so we thought they deserved a treat.  They chose to visit the aquarium. 

There are three different types of ticket available, one for the aquarium, one for the dolphin show and a combined one.  The tickets are SAR50 (about £10/$13) per person.  Miss EE had been to see the Dolphin show on her last visit, Mr EE and I are against these shows because of the potential for cruelty, we spoke to the children about the issues surrounding the use of Dolphins and Seals in this way and they agreed that they did not want to go and see it.  Before going into the aquarium itself we took the opportunity to sit by the water and enjoy the sea breeze while eating some rather delicious cakes.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

The aquarium itself is small but very well laid out.  It concentrates on life from the Red Sea and the big tunnel (all aquaria seem to have them these days) is modelled on the environment around Elphinstone Reef off the coast of Egypt, a dive Mr EE and I had done a few (more than 10!) years ago.  Sadly, like most of the aquaria we have been to recently, there is not a lot of information about the fish themselves, the signs concentrating on one or two species per tank.  We should look out our old Red Sea Fish ID slate.  All the favourites are there, sharks (mostly Black Tips), Turtles, Parrot Fish, Clown Fish, Eels, Seahorses and Jellyfish.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

At 21/4 and having ditched the buggy completely Mini EE thought the aquarium was the most wonderful experience.  She walked from tank to tank taking in the different fish and watching with a huge grin on her face.  She has been to some before, the spectacular KLCC Aquarium as a baby and the offerings in Dubai last year but this time she really took everything in.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

Half way through you have to walk through a sweet shop, beautifully designed to maximise pester power.  After many years’ experience Master and Miss EE know that any requests are futile but we did see a number of parents succumb.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

After the shop there are some smaller exhibits including octopus, an eel garden and the (again now ubiquitous) illuminated Jellyfish.  There was also another huge shark tank with a number of impressive specimens including a rescued Bull Shark that looked like it had had a run in with a propeller. 

The aquarium tour over we took the chance to walk along the corniche and watch the sun set to the sound of the athan before grabbing a bite to eat when the restaurants opened up again.  

Jeddah Corniche

Please click on the picture for more information on life in Saudi Arabia

Ersatz Expat

Posted to Animal Tales 

19 January 2017

Senior Dogs

Our expat dogs have been with us a few weeks now and have settled back into family life very well indeed.  Our house is finally a proper home again. Given the rigour of their journey one of the first things we did was register them with a local vet and arrange for them to have a once over.

Finding a good vet abroad can be difficult.  I had spoken with a local animal shelter and some friends with dogs and they all recommended the same man.  We went with him; luckily given the state of Bessie's health, he does house calls.  We were a little worried when, on observing Bessie, he told us she did not have long left.  We knew this, we explained, and we wanted to make sure that she knew him and vice versa so that she was not put to sleep by a stranger when the time came.  Not to worry, we were told, she could have up to a year longer.  This cheered us up no end.

One of the things I have noticed is that, in many countries, vets and those who care for animals are much more reluctant to advise on euthanasia than those in the UK or Europe.  Probably because they see animals often treated as a commodity, more akin to a convenience or a working animal as opposed to a cherished pet and family member.  We have found it very hard to get good guidance on how to assess when the time will be right to make that very hard decision ie when it is best for Bess and not out of convenience for us.  It is not something that we want to do, nor is it a decision that we want to rush but we do want some guidance on what aspects to consider when making it.  It does not help that neither Mr EE nor I have been at home when parents' dogs have had to be put to sleep so we have not observed the 'tipping point'. Friends and family in Europe and Hong Kong who have had to make these sad decisions have advised us on what changed in their pet to make them decide that the time was right.  Memorably and kindly a vet friend of a friend took the time to write and reassure me.

As the days have gone by we have become more and more confident of our decision which we are basing on a combination of gut instinct and the following points:
  • She is not in pain;
  • She takes pleasure from her environment;
  • She takes pleasure from her food;
  • She takes pleasure from her family;
  • She is not passive in those pleasures, she seeks them out.

In her first week home Bessie gave us a lot of scares.  She was getting stronger and then, suddenly, one day she became incontinent, unable to move at all  on her feet and crawled into a corner. With tears streaming down our faces we decided that, should we not see any improvement the following day, we would call the vet in.  The next day she was better.  This week she is better still, she can't get up on her own and needs support to walk on the tiled floor but once up she can manage a wander around the carpet and choose where to curl up.  She needs support to get out to the garden but once there the support straps (improvised from wide, soft leather belts of mine) are a back up only.  Her bedsores have also healed enough for me to allow her to spend some time asleep in the garden without worrying about her getting bothered by flies.

She is still very much a key family member.  A few days ago Miss EE had a bad argument with her brother while they were out playing and stomped home, tearful and upset.  She went to sit with Bess, stroked her for a while then told me she was in the wrong and was going to apologise.  Master EE spends a lot of time sat with her, just talking and petting her head.  As Bess can no longer come upstairs to bed she sleeps in the hallway.  The first thing everyone does when they come down is to greet her and pet her.  During the daytime and evening we lift her onto a sofa in the living room so she can be with us all, there is enough space for Perdie or some humans to join her, or for her to be on her own and snooze if that is what she prefers.

Bessie's co-ordination has improved enough to allow her to wag her tail and she actively nuzzles for attention now as opposed to just looking doleful when a hand is removed from her head.  The other pets still defer to her as 'top dog' and Perdie is returning the care and love she was given as a puppy by grooming Bess from time to time, even, on occasion, trying to entice her to play.

We are facing the joyful reality that she may be with us for a while.  As we had resigned ourselves to a few bittersweet weeks only this is a great relief and very much worth the back pain we have both developed from having to help her move around. We will have to make a few adjustments to our daily lives. It may mean that we will not be able to travel abroad as a whole family for the moment, we certainly could not kennel her, it would be too cruel and I would worry about getting someone in to look after her, firstly she is hard work.  We have to lift her and walk her outside four times a day and she is a heavy dog.  She is less coordinated than usual so she has to be cleaned every day to catch the stuff she misses, her medication is extensive and confusing.  I know how I would feel if someone's pet died while they were in my care and I had to dispose of the body (there are limited options here in Jeddah), I would feel awful.  No matter how much we would reassure someone it was ok and expected my guess is they would feel terrible and we could not do that.  We will have to see what happens and how things go but we remain so grateful that we have the chance to make these decisions.

Click below for more posts on Expat Pets and how to care for them

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets

Posted to the wonderful Animal Tales

11 January 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Driving And Getting Out And About!

Driving is a big ticket issue here in Saudi, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.    Many locals and residents protest the status quo which is a real problem for families.  Women have to either use taxis or hire a foreign driver to take them places which is expensive, particularly for those on lower incomes.  It also means that women have to plan their lives around the availability of transport.  Arguments against allowing women to drive include that it would leave them vulnerable to attack if they broke down and that male drivers would seek to intimidate them. I have also seen claims that the driving seat acts as a vibrator and gives women guilty pleasures, I can't say I have ever noticed this but perhaps it only applies to cars in Saudi.  It may go some way to explaining the distracted driving we see on the roads!

 I know some expats, mostly women and some men who say they would never feel comfortable driving here.  I disagree, I love to drive, I love the freedom it gives me and I loathe being dependant on others.  With the exception of Mr EE and some other family members I hate being driven.  Even when the roads and other drivers are bad I prefer to rely on my own skill as opposed to those of people who may never have been taught to drive properly.  Nevertheless the situation is what it is and my opinion will not change anything.   I always think expats should be careful when commenting on local issues, at the end of the day it is not my fight to fight, and there are many Saudi women (and some men) advocating for the end of the restriction. 

The driving in Jeddah can only be described as ‘fruity’.  While it is not the worst place I have ever seen (Lagos wins on that count) drivers are very aggressive, probably because they are all male and the roads seem to run on testosterone.  The roads are generally wide and well maintained but, because of the lack of public transport, there are a huge number of cars using the roads at any one time (the photograph above is a quiet Saturday afternoon, in rush hour the same road is blocked). Most people drive the biggest car they can afford to ensure that they can see and be seen.  We have seen the odd Kia Picanto or similar but they must be a very uncomfortable drive.  Light cycles on junctions are long.  There are a few roundabouts to ease traffic flow but roads are generally managed by legal U turn lanes.  These are few and far between so you can find yourself driving a few kilometres in the wrong direction in order to get where you are going to.  Main roads will have a parallel access road (you can see one above), most of these do not filter onto the main road as such, there are access/egress points at regular intervals and it is not uncommon to see two cars racing, one to get on one to get off waiting to see which one will give way first.  

 Fines for infractions are high and have recently been pushed up, a friend told us he was caught going through a light as the amber changed to red.  He now chooses to stop on amber and will prefer to be shunted than fined. Mobile phone use while driving appears to be obligatory, while use of indicators is optional.  Weaving in and out of traffic, standing on breaks, jumping into a stream of fast moving traffic from a standstill, filtering into a 'lane' without looking and of course undertaking are all expected.  Less common, but not unusual, is for the driver to hold a baby or toddler on their lap.  While it all looks rather chaotic I suspect, as with all places, that there are local conventions that make driving easier which you only find out when you are the driver, like flashing  your lights to someone to go ahead in the UK or making eye contact with a driver to be let into traffic on a main road in Kazakhstan.

In terms of  our own transport practicalities I don’t need to take the children to and from school as we live in compound that is connected to school.  Mr EE has a (very good and extremely competent) driver for all work related travel and we can use him for the odd private trip as well.  The compound runs a bus to various destinations twice a day and I can take that for free if I want to.  Alternatively if is very easy to hire a taxi through the Uber or Careem apps on my telephone.  The app tells me how long I will need to wait, directs the driver to my exact location by GPS and then tracks our journey home.  It is safe and the cars are all very well maintained, most drivers speak some English but it is a good idea to learn directions in Arabic just in case. You do get the odd very poor driver and as the law here does not require seat belts in the back and I can't sit in the front with a 'strange' man I do feel vulnerable at times.  If they are really bad I stop the ride and order a new cab.  We book 'executive' cars when we travel with the children as they are more likely to have functioning seatbelts.  Whether or not these apps will continue to work well is not certain.  There is a move to restrict the right to drive an Uber or Careem to Saudi citizens only.  This will, at least in the short term, reduce the number of cars available for hire as many of the drivers are expats.

We hope to be able to buy our own car as this will allow us to explore further afield.  The real pain for us will be that as I will not be able to take over when Mr EE is tired we will be restricted to shorter distances than if we had two drivers available.

How to get about in Jeddah:
  • There is no public transport.
  • Street taxis are plentiful and identified with a standard livery, I rarely use them.  Negotiate a price before setting out and if you are a woman alone be very obvious about texting the number plate to a friend (I do this as a matter of course with street hails in many countries).
  • Install Uber and the local (better) equivalent, Careem, on your 'phone.  These are tracked apps and therefore safe, you do not need to carry cash or if your card is not registered to the app you can pay with a large note and have it credited to your account.
  • Buy a car (and hire a driver if you are a woman).
  • Walk!  Obviously this is more difficult in the summer when the temperatures get very high and it is not really common to see women out walking on their own as you can be hassled but it is fine for short distances or with your family or a group.  Jeddah is not pedestrian friendly, there are very few designated road crossings and traffic is busy.  It is difficult to walk and cross roads with a pushchair.
  • If you are buying a car be aware that expat ownership of the larger 4x4s is restricted, only expats with larger families may purchase them.
In other words there are plenty of options but you will need to plan.

3 January 2017

The Best Gift In The World

Readers who have popped by this blog more than once will know that when we left Malaysia to move to Saudi Arabia, our pets were not able to follow on immediately.  They stayed with our vet, a good friend who took on their care for us and we blithely hoped that our two dogs and the cat would be able to join us in a few months time.

Home at last
Sadly the import process was beset with delays, none of which were anyone's fault really but were intensely frustrating.  For example the first permits were issued within 6 months but did not get to us until they only had 3 days validity to go, so not enough time to sort export protocols in Malaysia.

Bessie, our older dog and Kismet the cat got their permits in late August and were due to join us in September.  Bessie, who at 15 years old is most definitely a senior dog, became very sick in KL and I had to fly back to Malaysia as we thought she would have to be put down.  Our wonderful vet drove all the way down from Ipoh after work, took her back home and nursed her better for us.  We will never be able to thank her enough.

No longer an only pet... and annoyed to boot.

Kismet, thank goodness, made it home OK and has enjoyed her status as a solo pet for the last 4 months.  In December we got the news we had been waiting for, the permits had been issued and we started export procedures in Malaysia.  Given our previous experience our vet decided that it would be better for the dogs not to board in KL but for her to do all the export permit work in Ipoh with the documents couriered to our handling agents in KL to arrange translations and shipping.  We had a few false starts but on 23 December the pets were put in a truck and taken to the airport, scheduled to arrive in Jeddah on the morning of the 24th.

On the way...

Given all the delays and problems we could still not quite believe that the pets would arrive in Jeddah and, of course, nothing quite went according to plan.  Delays and scheduling issues meant they did not land until the early evening.  We spent the day tracking flight paths on our phones, desperately worried about what the delays would mean for their connecting flights and checking in with the cargo office in Doha.

The flights did land of course, and as soon as they were taken from the plane into the pet handling area Mr EE got them out of the cages for a walk and some water and they were overjoyed to see him.  Bessie, however, was so weak that she was unable to stand; this obviously gave the handlers some concern and they expedited the dogs' release into our custody.  30 minutes later, at about 10.30 at night, the dogs finally made it home, 1 year and 22 days after we left them.  Mini EE had fallen asleep at her usual time but Master and Miss EE had stayed up to greet them.  Perdie launched herself back into family life with an ebullience that was a joy to watch.  Bessie, sadly, was so tired from the journey that she could do nothing more than lie there.


When I had last seen Bessie she was very ill indeed so her condition was no real shock to me.  The others, however, had left her as an old but healthy dog.  As she tried, and failed, to nuzzle and lick us all they started to realise just how very old and sick she now was.  Her back legs, cramped from the crate, would not support her, she had no control over her tail, for years our reunions with her had been dominated by a wag that started at her nose and shuddered through the length of her bdy, now she could only twitch the very tip of her tail.  Her long and beautiful fur has been cut very short in order to help keep her clean and she had bedsores from the crate.  We worried that we had put her through too much stress, had been too cruel and brought her home for our own reasons.  Had we seen someone else with a dog like this we would have counselled them to put her to sleep.  As we sat there with her, however, her head nestled in each lap in turn we realised that she was happy to see us.

Getting stronger
We gave them a quick wash and some meat and then let them roam in the garden, Bessie supported in a sling under her hips.  She quite obviously enjoyed being outside sniffing the grass and her legs started to remember they could walk.  Back inside Mr EE and I settled her on a fluffy bath mat laid on a thick foam playmat, sent the children to bed and sat with our pets, their return the best gift we could ever hope to have received and knowing that our family was complete once again.

For more posts on Expat Pets please click the picture below.

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets

Posted as part of the Animal Tales Link Up hosted by the wonderful Rosie of A Green and Rosie Life/ Eco Gites De Lenault