Archive for September, 2013

English: Large image of toilet seat


Of all the challenges a traveller faces, one of the least talked about is also one of the most stressful. I’m talking about toilets. It’s really incredible that humans have invented such a variety of ways to do-do something so universal. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

The local toilet is unavoidable. At some point during your travels, you will have to go and you  will conform to the local custom. One of my fears about working abroad is having to use a squat toilet.  Especially while wearing an abaya. Fortunately, in Saudi Arabia, the restrooms I have encountered, so far, were my preferred porcelain throne. But I have found, in multi-stall facilities, both seated toilets and squat toilets.

Why both? I never dreamed I would hear these words uttered in English: “Actually, I prefer the squat toilets.” But, hear them, I did, spoken by a South African with such a lovely, lilting accent that I almost nodded my head in agreement. Apparently, my western preference for a seated toilet is not shared by the rest of the world! In fact, Asians will occasionally step on a western toilet seat to assume their preferred squat position, as evidenced by dirty footprints on the seat. The language school in the U.S., where I worked last year, posted signs in the stalls: picture a stick-figure drawing of someone squatting on a toilet seat, with a red circle and diagonal slash across it – the universal sign for DON’T DO THIS!

I sympathize with those newly arrived students, who want to plant their feet on the toilet, but are shamed into abandoning their old habits. Who would think that different cultures had so many ways to do the same thing? My first hotel room in Paris ,many years ago, contained a bidet. I wish someone had posted a sign, explaining its function. Instead I received a severe reprimand (in French) for using it to wash my clothes. I still cringe at the disgust on that housekeeper’s face.

The Saudi toilets have an added feature that western toilets do not: metal hoses with spray nozzles. Suffice it to say that there is nothing like a shot of cold water in the nether-regions to wake you up in the morning. Each stall is equipped with a small trash bin for the paper towels you will carry into the stall for drying yourself. For those of us who like options, toilet paper is sometimes provided, too. But you can forget about toilet seat covers. Instead, an attendant comes in and regularly sprays down the toilet and floor. Bathrooms are often soggy.  Drippy hems are no fun, so rolling the abaya up around your waist is a valuable skill. (I’m still working on it)

In Saudi Arabia, where international norms have not been adopted, I find the signage for restrooms charming. For females, a woman’s face in profile, her head covered by hijab (head scarf). The men’s room signage shows a man’s face in profile, his head covered by keffiyeh (the big scarf that is secured by a rope-like headband).

No skirted stick-figures signs here! Stick-legs exposed? No way!

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Sink or Swim

The Deep: 1 of 8

Why not jump in?

Some people have expressed horror at my decision to go to Saudi Arabia. I feel compelled to answer the question: Why Saudi Arabia?

I went through a painful divorce two years ago and found myself having to create a new life for myself. Having spent a good part of my adult life as a stay-at-home mom, I find myself playing catch-up. Both career-wise and financially. I went back to school to earn my TOEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) and began exploring opportunities around the world.

Living abroad, even short-term, has always appealed to me. It soon became clear that if I wanted to do more than just subsist, I would need to choose a country whose government was supporting English learning for its citizens. It also became clear that, because of my age, not every country would welcome me with open arms. (unlike in the US, employers abroad are quite frank about their preference for younger employees. In some ways, its refreshing…no wasted time applying for jobs you will never get!)

During this time, I began to work part-time at a language school and came into contact with students from all over the world, but primarily Asia and the Middle East. I also rented out rooms in my home to Saudi students from the language school. I developed relationships that helped me to appreciate the people of Saudi Arabia, as well as their culture.

Because of its wealth, Saudi Arabia is one of the better-paying employers for ESL teachers. Since my first priority was to save for retirement, Saudi Arabia seemed like the best choice. And because I am eager to boost my resume, a challenging position abroad will (hopefully!) make me more valuable to future employers elsewhere.

And, hey! It’s only 9 months. To be honest, I don’t intend to return for a second term. But I am at a stage in my life where I can do this and so I am ready for the adventure. I need to make some new memories. Why not jump into the deep end of the pool?

People’s reactions to my decision have been decidedly mixed. Bewilderment and fear from some, but also encouragement and excitement from others. I appreciate so much the concerns for my safety and well-being. I also appreciate those who are willing to let me go without guilt or regret.

I am hoping to tap into a vein of rich experience, to emerge from these months a changed person (a better version of me, I hope!)

Am I scared? Terrified.

Think of me the next time you’re tempted NOT to jump into the deep end.

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Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A monarchy is something Americans read about in history books. European monarchies continue to fascinate us because of their money, glamour and scandals. But what is life really like in a modern-day monarchy? Does the king really wield that much power?

Case in point: In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, those in power decided that the traditional weekend of Thursday and Friday was incompatible with international business practices. The king decreed recently that the new weekend would be Friday and Saturday. Done.

Now that’s power.

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Map of the territory and area covered by prese...

Map of the territory and area covered by present-day Saudi Arabia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


After being in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia just one week, I can admit that I am, indeed, a fish-out-of-water. In a land of immigrants, I am not the only one. But westerners are a minority. Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos are everywhere, doing the service jobs. Most of my co-workers are Jordanian. The teachers of English as a Second Language, like me, come from South Africa, Australia, Great Britain and last, but not least, the US.


As much as I’d like to get past the issue of clothing, I can’t. A simple stroll through the mall illustrates how significant clothing is in this culture. In America, many Muslims wear head scarves (called hijab here) but in Saudi Arabia, almost every female wears a scarf. I’m learning that the clothing you wear identifies, not just your religion, but your nationality. Syrians wear a white head scarf. Saudi women wear, not only the abaya and hijab, but also the niqab (the face veil that covers everything but the eyes)

As strange as the full covering seems in the US, it becomes much less exotic when almost everyone dresses alike. In fact, when a Saudi woman glides along in her beautifully embroidered abaya next to a Saudi man in his thobe (white, floor-length, dress shirt) and head scarf, their clothing seems regal and dignified.


I’m reminded of travelling in Austria many years ago. Some of the older people wore traditional clothing: forest green vests and jackets, small brimmed caps with feathers (picture  the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music). It was charming, but it also identified their cultural heritage. I suppose cowboy boots and cowboy hats serve the same purpose today in some parts of the US.


It’s amazing that the traditional dress of the Saudis has survived. Especially when the women have embraced western fashion with  a vengeance. Oh, yes. Under those modest coverings, many young women are wearing the latest styles. Mini skirts, tight jeans and t-shirts are for sale throughout the mega-malls. Stores like Forever 21 and H & M do a booming business right next to stores that sell nothing but black abayas. There is a disconnect in the culture that is fascinating. The store clerks are men and there are no fitting rooms but girls will be girls, so shopping is a popular activity for women.

Who can say what the future holds? Will the abaya eventually go the way of the hoop skirt and pantaloons? This is a country that has come crashing into the 21st century because of oil. Which traditions will survive and which will not? I, for one, would hate to see the men abandon their traditional dress. Give me a man in a thobe over pants-on-the-ground any day!


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