5 bizarre feelings I’ve had during my travel in Saudi Arabia

What is it like in Saudi Arabia? My week-long business trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve experienced so many feelings, often mixed feelings. I’ve had bizarre dreams many nights, a sign that my brain had a lot to process during the day.

A few (bizarre) impressions from Saudi Arabia:

  1. The plane to Jeddah: a 40,000 feet high changing room

An international flight to Jeddah is hilarious because almost the entire plane changes outfit halfway. Men dress down, women dress up.

Men flying to Jeddah are often pilgrims on the way to Mecca; at some point during the flight, they swap their shirt and trousers for the ihram, a sort of big white towel they wear as a toga.

For women, arriving in Saudi means adding layers, and in particular an abaya, a dark, plain, loose, full-length over-garment, which it is recommended you get before you board the plane so you can arrive in a Saudi airport wearing the perfect attire.

And whilst this means, as a female, that your body is completely hidden, I’ve seen quite a few men really embarrassed that the ihram was showing their bellies and love handles, and were constantly trying to pull the towel down to mask their forms.

What a bizarre feeling, to see pilgrim males embarrassed to show their curves!

  1. The rhythms of daily life

Navigating opening hours in Saudi Arabia is a real struggle. Places like museums typically have different opening days for women and men, so you really need to plan ahead to make sure you arrive somewhere at the correct moment.

Al Masmak fort is a museum that celebrates the exploits of King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia. And because it would be really, really terrible if women entered in contact with unrelated men whilst absorbing the country’s national propaganda, the fort is open on different days for each gender.

Another challenge is the regular interruption that prayer time represents. Five times a day, life pauses for up to 30 minutes. I was in Saudi Arabia for market research, and we had to offer a break in the middle of the group discussions for the ladies to pray.

Many shops and restaurants close, but interestingly, they won’t kick you out if you’re already in; so the challenge is to arrive at least 10-15 minutes before prayer time.

I was in a supermarket during the afternoon prayer; the music and some of the lights were shut off, the staff completely ignored me, the store went quiet. It felt as if I had been locked inside the supermarket after hours.

What a bizarre feeling, to be left alone inside a supermarket several times a day!

  1. The femininity and nuisances of the abaya

Life in Saudi Arabia for a woman means wearing the abaya all the time, which is a pain in the neck, really. The weather is way too hot to add an additional layer, the abaya prevents you from enjoying the refreshing breeze of the wind, and the fact it is constantly touching the floor, in a desert country, means that it’s getting dirty pretty quick.

When the wind blows hard, the abaya gets trapped between your legs and makes it difficult to walk. In escalators, I’m always worried that the abaya will get stuck and tear apart.

But indoors, what a feminine feel to wear a long robe, which is large enough to flow around you as you walk and turn. It sometimes gave me the feeling of being a princess from another era, when women used to wear petticoats under their long dresses.

What a bizarre feeling, to experience a boost of femininity whilst hidden under an oppressive garment!

  1. The constant segregation of the genders

If you want to freak out a conservative Saudi cleric, just mention the possibility that a woman may have speak to, or even see, an unrelated man.

Layout, architecture, operations, everything is designed to maintain a precise segregation of genders.

The hotel lobby; all males.

Businesses typically have a backdoor (I call it a shame door) for women and families to enter and stay in a space that is hidden away from the public, so men cannot see them.

But all service-related jobs, including waiters and shop assistants, are male, so the opportunity for women to enjoy full privacy are really scarce.

Many restaurants even separate booths closed by a curtain or screen, so women can uncover their face when enjoying a meal; and the waiter has to knock and ask permission every time he enters with a new dish, meaning women can have the time to put their niqab back in place.

I crossed the terrace to enter the store. What a mistake… Females are only allowed through the separate door, on the left.

Two days ago in Riyadh, spotting a Starbucks right when I was in need of WiFi, I made a terrible mistake and entered the coffeeshop through the main door. I didn’t realise it immediately, because as a female in Saudi Arabia you are used to be surrounded by nothing but males.

But as a female, I was supposed to use the other door, the one that’s on the side, the one that’s reserved for women.

What a bizarre feeling, to be told off for entering a store through the main door!

  1. More than ever, my white privilege

I am a white European person; all my life, I’ve been witnessing what white privilege is about. I grew up in a multicultural environment, and the concept of white privilege made me really, really angry when I was younger.

Over the years, I’ve learned to admit it, if not accept it; but it’s still something I am really not proud of.

Many women wonder what it’s like to travel as a female in Saudi Arabia; is it even safe to travel to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is, it depends on your religion.

Time to debunk some of the myths: many of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslims like me. I didn’t need a male guardian, I didn’t need a male to pick me up at the airport, I didn’t need a male permission to leave my hotel, I didn’t even need to cover my face and hair.

A snapshot of daily life: 29 men, 1 female who is accompanied.

And as a white European, none would question whether I am Muslim or not.

There is a lot I’ve been doing in the past week, such as walking around, visiting restaurants alone, having a conversation with a male shop assistant, shaking hands with a local man, exchanging a laugh and a high five with a male taxi driver, etc., that no local, Muslim woman would even dream to be able to do.

My white privilege means I can do that… (Al Masmak Fort, Riyadh)

I have travelled in other Islamic, conservative countries before, and was typically experiencing the same treatment as local women, which was extremely tough. Nowhere like in Saudi have I had the chance to enjoy a different treatment than the locals, for not being Muslim myself.

What a bizarre feeling, to enjoy my white privilege to make my travel richer…

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24 hours as a solo female traveller in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

I’ve done it; took the opportunity of a business trip to Jeddah to spend a free day here. I came once last year already, but for a 15-hour long working day. Now, finally, came the occasion to take the time and explore a little.

That’s me by the old mosque of Al-Balad historical district

My impressions:

No, it’s not North Korea

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the reputation to be female-friendly, as confirmed by the reaction of my two female collaborators last year, when I told them at the end of the day that I would go to a shopping mall to find a restaurant for dinner. “No, no, no” they shouted, one looking puzzled (a Syrian), the other properly terrified (a Saudi).

They made me go back to my hotel and order room service. Was this a sort of North Korea for women? Was I going to be stranded in my room all weekend?

View from Jeddah just before landing. I was flying from Dubai.

No, no, no, I assure you. I’ve been absolutely fine. Partly because things are not as strict as we might think; partly because Jeddah is “liberal” by Saudi standards; partly because some of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslim women.

I still can’t drive a car, although this will soon change, but I have been free to walk and move around (I’ved used Uber), enjoy a meal out, admire sights, and do some shopping.

Having a melon and mint juice at a shopping mall’s food court.

I didn’t have to be escorted from the airport by a male guardian, unlike what some websites still say, but instead found a taxi ride to my hotel, like the big girl that I am.

I was often the only woman on the streets, except at the family-friendly areas of the corniche, but never received any unwanted attention.

At the North Cornich by sunset. Can you see me? I stand between the two Ds!

No, it’s not Dubai either

I thought oil had made Saudi a rich country. Surely, it has made some families rich – but the overall impression from Jeddah is rather that of an emerging city, like one could see in India or Egypt.

Views of Jaffali Mosque and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seen from across a lake.

There are a lot of palaces and luxury shops in Jeddah, but also a lot of ruins, wastelands, and abandoned sites. I saw beggars, litter, and quite some misery on the streets. Traffic is dense and chaotic, accidents are common, cars are typically covered with dents.

Jeddah is not a town for pedestrians. Sometimes there was a sidewalk, yay, but it was usually in a bad shape. Locals don’t seem to ever walk.
A common sight in Jeddah.

Navigating around prayer times

The first thing you do when you arrive in Jeddah, is to check the prayers timetable. Shops and restaurants close during prayers, and that’s five times a day, so it’s better to know in advance what to expect.

8.20 pm, dinner time? No, prayer time! But there’s still some people inside, and as soon as prayer time is finished, it re-opens.

What’s good to know is that some restaurants actually have a back door for families (and as a woman, that’s where you belong) and they can let you in. You still have to wait until the end of prayer time to order food, but at least you don’t have to wait outside in the heat!

That being said, not all shops stop during prayer. Cars still drive, strollers stil walk; life keeps going.

Gender segretation is a true part of Saudi life, and as a female you’ll always be stuck in the “Family” section of restaurants and public places. But this also means privacy and being able to get rid of men sometimes, such as in these Family Only shops…

What to wear as a female in Saudi?

First, imagine it’s very hot. With almost 40 degrees Celsius at this time of the year (that’s over 100 in Fahrenheit), I prefer a fluid and light dress, but I still suffer from the heat.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because you have to cover it all with an abaya. The abaya is a long, dark robe with long sleeves that goes down until the floor (and sweeps all the dust, yes), and I have never seen a woman in Saudi not wear it, apart from Michelle Obama on pictures.

This is me, in my abaya, on the Jeddah corniche. I bought it before I came, in a souq in Abu Dhabi.

There is no obligation for non Muslim women to cover their heads however, and, unlike when I travelled in Iran where I had to be covered, this time I enjoyed the refreshing feel of the wind in my neck.

If you see me with a headscarf on some pictures, it’s nothing religious, it’s rather to protect my head from the sun.

The Arab hospitality

Ah, the Arab hospitality; overwhelming by Western standards, and yet so delighfully cheerful.

It started at the airport already. Seeing that I am French, the immigration officer said a few warm words in my native language. Searching for my visa, he spotted that I’ve been in Russia and also spoke some Russian. Once my passport was stamped, he gave me a large smile and said “Welcome in Saudi Arabia”.

Many more people have greeted me this past day. Regularly, someone comes my way and says “Welcome”. Those amongst the Uber drivers who speak some English wished me to enjoy my stay; one even called me “sister”.

Local man taking selfie on the corniche.

The Arab hospitality primary rule is to take care of guests. Even a policeman did it: seeing that I was struggling to cross a busy road, he simply stopped the cars to let me go.

The Arab hospitality is also wat Muhammad demonstrated, a friendly Yemeni (although born and raised in Saudi) whom I met Saturday afternoon and insisted to take care of me, driving and showing me around, and even buying me a meal and ice cream.

Well educated, speaking perfect English, Muhammad is a soft and warm man who dreams to move out to the West (which isn’t easy with a passport from Yemen) and claims he prefers the company of Westerners than Arabs.

From our conversations, I learned a lot of insightful details about daily life in Saudi, and people’s struggles and aspirations, which made my stay so much richer.

His overwhelming sense of hospitality also meant that I’ve had to slightly adjust my plans to what he thought it to be a good host, which frustrated me a little – but hey, if I’m all about living and doing like locals, then why should I admire a sunset contemplatively walking on a sea promenade, when I can do the same driving around in a car…

My Jeddah pick: Al-Balad historical district

Jeddah has a few sights that guidebooks can tell you about, and a newly renovated North corniche that’s pedestrian and family friendly, but my favourite place has been the old district of Al-Balad, so full of Oriental charm.

Alas, with the exception of a few restaured houses, the neighbourhood is not in a good shape, with many decrepit facades and unsanitary ruins.

The renovated houses are beautiful. You can see the mashrabiyas, key element of traditional Arabic architecture.

Saudis, please don’t demolish them! They are your heart and your soul. And plus, they’re the authenticity we seek when travelling in your country.

But I guess Saudis prefer to build new stuff elsewhere, and abandon the old, rather than renovate it.

Luckily, some of Al-Balad is still there, and I enjoyed a lot to aimlessly stroll amongst the narrow streets filled with smells of cardamom and patchouli.

The Russian butcher who moonlighted as a dentist in a Tatar food market

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is Unlikely.

Unlikely, like this snapshot of daily life in the food market of Kazan, in Tatarstan (Russia).

Many of us enjoy visiting and taking pictures of markets, I know, and whilst it can be interesting to make colourful shots, it is far more challenging to create pictures with a narrative.

I’m still not entirely sure what this one’s story is…

I am a black belt in travelling

I was approached by a Japanese man tonight, in the Shinagawa station, who seemed to fancy a chat in English.

He wanted to know if I live in Tokyo.

No, I said, I’m just here for a few days, for work. What made you think I may live in Tokyo?

The fact that you look very much at ease, as if you’d been here for a long time, he said.

I smiled.

I explained that I am well-travelled, visit many countries, and do all I can to understand rules and behave like a local.

In that case, he said, you are a black belt in travelling!

Made my day… 🙂

Why travelling is an anthropologist’s job

I just arrived in Japan!

I don’t like knowing too much about places before visiting them, so I don’t get a distorted view before setting foot there. And thus, my knowledge of the Japanese life and culture is fairly virgin, and now is the time to figure it all out.

How do things work? What am I expected to do? What do people want? I have absolutely no idea. But as a well-travelled person, I want to know, so I can do the same as locals – to experience life as a local.

It is all about observing behaviours, and understanding the rules and codes. It is the work of an anthropologist!

No matter where I am in the world; in Mumbai I’ll use the local railways to commute to work, in Kazakhstan I’ll mingle in the crowd of a busy passenger train, in Caucasus I’ll spend a day exploring Tbilisi’s residential suburbs.

Always with the same goal: playing anthropologist, to become a good traveller. Understanding the codes so I can conform to them.

I haven’t seen much written in Latin alphabet in my first 24 hours. Everywhere shops and restaurants that give me absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what they are all about! I wonder how much time I would need to be able to seamlessly navigate in them 🙂

In the few hours that I’ve been here, Japan has already been a fabulous experience for the anthropologist in me. I have absolutely no idea of what I’m doing and what’s going on, which is baffling and hilarious at the same time!

A man told me to go to the second floor, but I don’t know the floor numbering conventions here. I also don’t know why I need to stay here, and am not entirely sure I’m queueing at the right place.

I was looking for an ATM this morning. I can’t say that this sign helped me a lot!

I smile politely at people but I have no idea what they’re telling me or want me to do!

The train system seems quite complex and doing a bit of research would have been a good idea. Without any prep, I did take the Shinkansen bullet train, Nozomi variant, from Osaka to Hiroshima as soon as I landed in Japan. Haven’t understood if Shinkansen and Nozomi refer to company names, brands, technology types, etc. If you travel in Japan, you’re better off getting a JR rail pass, which you can only buy abroad apparently, and is valid on all Shinkansen, except Nozomi. Go figure out!

But I’m making progress. I’m mingling with locals at the bar of tiny restaurants, I’ve figured out that I should stand on the left in escalators, and I take a nonchalant look, as if I’d been doing this for years, when paying my streetcar fare as I get off.

Even using the toilet can be a puzzling experience. Try pressing buttons and wait to feel the effect!

 

The three most candid smiles I have received around the world

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is Smile.

If you travel, and are friendly to people, it is not difficult to receive a lot of heart-warming smiles. More effortful is to get a visual memory of them: I am not so good at asking people for a photo.

If I do have a photo of them, it’s often because the encounter was so emotionally rewarding that it was worth pushing my limits to get the shot.

Fergana, Uzbekistan, September 2012

I have rarely seen friendlier people than the Uzbeks. And many have these golden teeth which makes their smiles not only uplifting, but also delightfully exotic. This woman, who was selling cucurbits of all sorts in the Fergana market, was clearly enjoying her day.

Guča festival, Serbia, August 2010

Guča’s festival of Balkan trumpet madness is the opportunity to go crazy, and I love walking around and watching the happy and feverish people in the streets of the village.

There is quite some post-war testosteron in this festival, but a lot of Balkan-style human conviviality too. That year, it was the third or fourth time that I bumped into this guy, and that we’d shared a laugh, so I thought I should take a visual memory of him.

Guča festival is such a cheerful affair that I have a lot of photographic smiles; and although I thought this man with orange witch hat (and beer belly, perhaps worth noting) was the one for this post, I couldn’t resist but add this picture of a man who was building a pyramid of local beer cans, because his I’m-having-such-a-great-time smile is so communicative.

I’ve already used this pic in this post about Guca. I loved this dude who was in my campsite in 2014.

Somewhere not far from Dunhuang, Gansu (China), June 2007

I hesitated before choosing this picture. It’s one of the best and worst travel memories of my life.

We were in Western China, in Central Asia, and wanted to enter in contact with the autochthonous population. A local Chinese travel agency arranged a driver and a “guide”; this turned into a disturbing, if insightful, experience.

Our “guide” knew nothing about the local Kazakh, Muslim people. He hardly knew where to find them, and to say the least, he didn’t have much interest or respect for them.

I have been the witness of racism, discrimination, and cultural arrogance too often in my life, and this has been one of those many occurrences. Since our “guide” was feeling uncomfortable amongst this ethnic population, behaving contemptuously and clearly unable to make contact, we decided to take a step ahead.

When we came close to a house, we left the car, asked the “guide” to stay in, and approached a family, with a cordial smile.

And what happened was such a humanly rewarding experience. This family had no reason to meet us, they were busy with their lives. But they welcomed us, invited us in their small shelter, offered us a drink and a snack, and shared a moment with us.

A friend came by and played a song with a guitar-style string instrument. We sang a French song in return. A kid was playing outside with the baby goats.

IMGP3708

They were a displaced family: originally nomads, who had been settled, then converted to semi-nomads by the Chinese authorities who now found it best for them to herd in winter and farm in summer. This was their summer home.

We had to use our narrow-minded Chinese “guide” as an interpret, who was feeling awkward in this Kazakh home, which made the situation a bit uneasy, but we made the best of it.

I didn’t write a blog at the time, so was not paying attention to details as I am now, and I regret that I don’t remember their names nor where exactly we found them.

We had a lovely time, and it was hard to leave, knowing we’d probably never see these people ever again. The picture I took of the father and son was spontaneous and authentic; and if you ever see this family during your travels, please, hoping that they may remember us too, give them a very warm hug from me.

 

Vlad, the Siberian dog who thought he protected us from brigands

This week, WordPress challenges us to tell a story with photos.

In October 2010, I visited Baikal Lake for the first time, and was overwhelmed by its beauty. Settled on Olkhon Island, we rented bicycles to go around and explore.

Just as we left the little village of Khuzhir, we noticed that a dog was following us.

I am always very uneasy with dogs; they terrify me. But it didn’t take long before I realised our dog wasn’t trying to attack me, but rather to protect us.

At the beginning on the road, whenever the occasional car was passing us, the dog was barking at it until it disappeared out of sight, as if it was a real danger for us.

When we left the road, the dog was frolicking in the nature around us. Every time we stopped, it also stopped and was sitting or lying quietly.

We decided to give it a name, and it became Vlad.

I liked to imagine what was going on in this little head; and whether Vlad was picturing he was our protector, keeping us safe from harm and brigands on our long Central Asian voyage.

After a few hours of a wonderful ramble in the Siberian landscapes, we finally got back to the village. I was wondering what would happen with Vlad. Would it beg for food as a tip?


But Vlad was just our friendly companion for the day. As soon as we reached the village, he left us and took another direction, without saying goodbye