Transportation, Miming and a Bit of Shopping

Because outside of work there isn’t a lot that goes on in Saudi, a trip to IKEA is a highlight, so let me share my trip earlier this week with you.

My boss was kind enough to let me leave work 3 hours early so that I could have time for the journey to IKEA and then do the actual shopping around prayer times. My goal was to get a sofa, which I would have delivered and assembled, and find some things to put up on the walls and shelves to help get rid of the warehousey feel at home.
The first step was to arrange for a taxi to take me there and wait while I did the shopping. EF used to have a regular guy that they called for this sort of thing, but he had to go back to Pakistan for some personal reasons. Luckily, before he left, he put us in touch with his nephew who also drives a taxi. The nephew tells me the guy who went back to Pakistan is his brother, but he’s also been introduced as a cousin. (Sound familiar, Jimmy and Jared?) Anyway, I called him up and asked if he could get me at EF and he said he could. At the pick-up time, he called me and said he was at my house, so I managed to communicate that I wasn’t there (leaving out that I wanted to go there later to avoid confusion). He came to the office.

So, we were on our way. Having worked with people from all around the world, I’m often told that whatever city someone is from has the WORST traffic in the world. I suppose it feels that way when you’re stuck in it, but my experience living in many cities is that they all suck. What changes is the attitude of the drivers. There seems to be a sliding scale of ‘cooperative’ behavior that can help to ease the stress if the level is high and madden people if the level is low. I’d put Riyadh on the low end of the scale.

Riyadh traffic jam

It doesn’t help that the police seem to add to the problem. (Yesterday I saw one playing with the lights at a major intersection – giving one side 10 minutes with green and the other 30 seconds – even when there were no cars coming on the green side.) Every onramp to the highway has a police car parked at the end just before the merge that leaves about 2 centimeters on either side. They seem to be checking for something, but it’s not clear to me what this could be. It’s not like they’re searching the cars or anything. The maniacal right turns from left lanes and vice versa don’t even get the police to look up from their smartphones.

Needless to say, the trip to IKEA took some time. The driver said “crazy” no less than 50 times referring to the road situation. According to him, EVERYTHING is better in Pakistan. I let that pass without comment. So we arrive at IKEA, and the driver helpfully directs me to the wrong door, but it’s ok since I have been there before (and can read “Entrance” in English). I think everyone reading this has experienced the ‘joys’ of IKEA, so no need to get into details here.

Waiting for my turn at the counter where you arrange delivery was kind of funny. There was one customer at the counter and two of us waiting. We had taken our numbers and I got the impression that the other guy had been waiting for quite some time before I got there. The number on the digital screen said 11 and I had number 20. The guy who had been waiting longer had 18. Now clearly we were the only two people there after the customer at the counter finished and they started calling out “12??!!” a number of times, then “13??!!”. The other guy and I just kept exchanging looks until he finally spoke up and said, “I have number 18.” The IKEA guy looked a little annoyed, but skipped calling the other numbers. After that guy finished, they spent a lot of time shouting for 19 even though I was the only one in the room. I couldn’t help myself and burst out laughing.

We made all the arrangements for delivery and assembly. I wondered why he never asked for my address (just the part of the city) but was still able to nail down a 1:30 delivery time, so I asked. It turns out they just give you a call and then you meet them somewhere to complete the delivery process. I’ll let you know how this works out after the delivery day.

So, it’s time to head home with the stuff I bought that wasn’t the sofa. I come out the store and find the driver sitting on a carpet between rows of cars with a bunch of teenagers and he helped me load the bags into the car. We head out and are sitting in traffic even heavier than what we experienced on the way to IKEA. I’m kind of dreading asking, but I know I need a hammer and some small nails because IKEA doesn’t see fit to sell what’s needed to hang the pictures that you buy there. (Side note: Taxi drivers don’t know where anything is here, reliably, except the airport, so I know that asking to stop at another store won’t be easy.)

My first task is to communicate that I need a hammer and nails. I don’t know how to say it in Urdu; he doesn’t know it in English; I’m not sure if he would know it in Arabic – even if I knew how to say it. Naturally, I mime ‘hammer and nail”. Pretty easy, right? You just hold a phantom nail in your left hand between your index finger and thumb and use your right hand to mimic pounding in the nail with the hammer. I do this for about 3 seconds and he yells, “Pen and paper!!” While suppressing a laugh, I try again a little slower exaggerating the pounding part before he guesses pen and paper again.

Eventually it became clear what I wanted to buy which resulted in a flurry of phone calls in Urdu to every Pakistani he knew in Riyadh who might have a good idea where to buy such things. Presto! We had a new destination. I’m happy that we got it worked out because in addition to the store selling hammers and nails were lots of little restaurants and other shops selling reasonably priced things that I can’t seem to find in my own neighborhood.

I made it home with my pictures, scented candles, hammer and nails and a small oriental carpet. All is right with the world (at least my little world…for now).

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Travels outside the Kingdom

With another few weeks (and about 11,000 km – almost 7,000 miles) behind me, it’s time to add to the narrative…
So, how did I accumulate all that distance? The first chunk of it was a week-long trip to London where I got to do a lot of research for my new role here in Saudi and – just as importantly – got to reconnect with some friends while I was there. Naturally I seized the opportunity to make sure all the taps at the local pubs were in working order. They were.

My position at work is one that didn’t come with a description – just the way I like it! We know that the potential for language learning is huge here, so I was lucky enough to be asked to join the team that will make it happen. My colleagues here are great – personable and professional. I’m already learning quite a bit including thinking differently about a lot of things – in a good way. Mixing what I learn with the experience I have will help determine how things unfold for me here at work.

I spent another week and half back in Riyadh which was a bit slow because the whole country was gearing up for one of the most important Muslim holidays, Eid al Adha, which was a week long holiday. During the same week our company had its annual kickoff in Phuket, Thailand. Great time!! It was my first time to Thailand and reminded me in many ways of what it was like in Indonesia – especially Java. You can see how the cultures have influenced each other over the centuries in music, traditional art and, more recently, these mini-buses for public transportation. Thai Bemo

The Thai people are not shy at all about trying to sell whatever it is they are selling. (Use your imagination to get an idea of the variety of what’s for sale.) One thing that I found pretty funny was the tendency for people to push you to buy what they have rather than what you’re actually looking for. You go into a shop and ask for laptop speakers, for example, and they’ll say they don’t have any and very helpfully suggest buying a pair of sandals instead. This is repeated everywhere. Hooker alley

Stay tuned and you’ll hear some actual anecdotes from sunny Saudi in the next post…

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In the beginning…

With around 3 weeks in Riyadh behind me, it’s time to commit a few thoughts and experiences in writing. It’s my first blog, so please bear with me as I feel my way through it and develop a style that is both entertaining and informative.

The first thing that struck me when I left the airport Continue reading

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