The Final Reflection!

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Being state side now for a few days, I am happy to use 3G, eat peanut butter, and style my own hair.

But I am not sure if that makes up for the incredible friendships I created, the gorgeous scenery viewed and the amount of knowledge retained through kinesthetic learning.

Now that my journey is over, I would like to reflection on a few observations.

1)      Saudi Arabia is extremely different from Morocco. Religion: Islam is the same, but Morocco looks like Lady Gaga compared to her Italian native, the Pope (KSA). Other than the dress, the censorship is completely different. I was watching an episode of Modern Family and the words “Menstrual cycle” or anything related to the terms, was bleeped out. Whereas, in Morocco, you could be listening to curse words over the intercom in the supermarket from famous pop star, Rihanna. Saudi Arabians were also high tech & fashionable! Huge skyscrapers, fast cars, designer handbags, manicures, and iPhones,….but Morocco didn’t segregate genders and foreignors did not have to wear traditional clothing or the hijab.

2)      Hollywood: Flipping through the T.V. channels, I was amazed to see MTV, Bad Girls Club and other scandalous/unrealistic shows for Saudi Arabia’s viewing pleasure.

My concern: Many Americans cannot tell the difference between reality T.V. or Hollywood. How are other cultures supposed to understand the difference? As this being the case, if I were a foreigner, I would think all Americans shoot one another with assault riffles, kiss the same sex, and wear bikinis all day. As Americans, we cannot blame other cultures for viewing us this way. Even in Saudi Arabia, where censorship is at its peak, I viewed a music video of two females kissing and a man running down Sunset Blvd. in a speedo.

3)      Women & Driving: It seems the western world is so concerned about Saudi Arabian women driving. Why? Have we asked Saudi women if they want to drive? Have you ever driven in Saudi Arabia? It is crazy. There is no way in hell I would drive there. No lanes, no turn signals, speed is subjective in the eyes of the driver ect. ect. Currently, many Saudi Arabian women have personal drivers. To be realistic, I understand that not every woman can afford a driver, so maybe an effort to improve public transit is a need. I think public transportation (which is absolutely zero) needs to be considered in addition to  segregation purposes, there can be separate buses for females. Regardless, western world, let’s STOP caring about if women can drive and let us worry about if a woman can represent herself in the judicial system. Because currently, she can’t.

And women & driving also opens another thought. Is there enough room on the road? Highways are already congested and traffic accidents ranked at #4 for cause of death of the population.

4)      Segregation: Before entering KSA, I did not understand segregation. I still do not really understand segregation fully, but I can respect some aspects. In a society where arranged marriages are common, why mingle? In a country where honor and carrying the family name is extremely important, why risk bad behavior? This law is protecting life & death in some matters.

I did enjoy being segregated when it came to lines (fast food restaurants, shopping centers) . The female line goes so much faster than the male side. I also enjoyed not having to worry about my appearance when walking onto a campus. And I appreciated not being harassed by men. This certainly does not mean I support segregation but, after my visit I can honestly say I comprehend the law.

5)      Saudi Aramco. Owned by the government, it is the sole proprietor of OIL. Needless to say, it is the wealthiest corporation in the Kingdom and one of the wealthiest in the world. It hosts employees from over 50 nations and is the biggest employer of Saudis. Aramco has a gorgeous compound with enmities that allow you to never have to leave the compound. Grocery stores, private beaches, shopping centers, playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurants….. ect. ect. My complaint: Aramco workers are not corresponding with the culture or population. This compound to an extent, even has its own legal system. Aramco employees are not reaping the benefits of Saudi culture and vice versa. I think Aramco needs to reach out to the community in more ways than just passing out money.

6)      Dietary needs: When I was traveling in Morocco, I was at my healthiest. Fresh fruits and vegetables and barely any preservatives. My acne cleared up, I had muscle tone and I flat-out felt better. I suppose I was naïve to think I would experience the same health benefits in KSA. The culture has experience an influx of Western food items. Fast food, snack packs and preserved goodies filled the markets and hotel buffets. I had to remember…I am in the middle of a desert; of course imports of food come in by shipments. I found myself flourishing in fried meat, grilled potatoes with cheese and …sweet desserts galore! Western food influences can also be shown by the #1 cause of death… Coronary Heart Disease at 23.98% of the population. (Hypertension runs in at #2 or 12.24%)

7)        In conclusion, I want to discuss sustainability. KSA is building infrastructure, shopping centers, and educational systems alike faster than the population can consume. No worries, the government is picking up the tab. My question, can Saudi Arabia truly sustain this lavish lifestyle? Sure, they are shelling out oil by the billions, but when do these investments run out of steam? KSA isn’t dumb; they know oil will eventually run out. That is why the call to diversify the economy in the first place is in effect. But, did it need to come about so lavishly? How do you maintain all of these skyscrapers, mountains of marble and layers of asphalt? This is a large tab for the government to pick up in addition to paying social security, education, and health care. When do these investments start cranking out profits?

Last Day!

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Last day in Saudi Arabia! Wow,  I cannot believe how fast this study-visit flew by. This morning we had plans to go to a desert, but our guide (the one who had a baby literally right before our arrival wanted to spend time with his family since he had been traveling the whole first week she was born.)

We opted out for a taxi ride to a nearby mall. It amazes me how closely the malls resemble American malls. American Eagle, Starbucks, Pinkberry, H&M, ….you name it and it was most likely there or had a knockoff.

I ordered some Mongolian food from the food court and sat down in the family section. Of course, the Mongolian eatery was located near the men’s section and men blew kisses at me and stared awkwardly as I passed by.

After eating I explored the corridors to find that…NOTHING WAS OPEN. Rookie mistake again, it was prayer time! One of the groups was even locked into a store during prayer time. If I were to move here, prayer timing would certainly be an adjustment. In order to waste time, I went to the bathroom.

To my dismay, I found large crowds of women hosting a tea party on the bathroom floor for their break. I have to be honest, this struck me as weird. I fixed my hijab and exited the Party.

Since shopping was a dud, we reconvened at the hotel with our Saudi Arabian guide to shop at the gold market. Arab jewelry is extremely orientate! Large pieces with diamonds and beautiful stones in-laid the gold necklaces, toe rings, earrings, rings, hair pieces and even belts. Prices weren’t bad for the quality, but I wasn’t in the market for fine jewelry. A few of the fellows bargained for great pieces of gold and spent anywhere from $200-600 USD.

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Gold!

Our very last stop in Saudi Arabia was a visit to Dr. Moody’s house. For those of you who have read my entire journey, Dr. Moody was the energetic woman who handles all orientations for incoming/outgoing Saudi Arabian students. Luckily, she arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday and invited us to her home for a traditional dinner.

And by dinner…I mean, FEAST. We were welcomed into the door with chocolate sweets, cookies, and my least favorite…Arab coffee. Surprisingly, this cup didn’t taste as bad or I was getting accustomed to the distinct flavor. Dr. Moody asked us about our trip reflections and wanted to feature the group in the next edition of the Ministry’s newsletter.

For the full course…I don’t even know if I should talk about it or just let the picture speak for itself.

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Needless to say, it was the best meal in Saudi Arabia hands down! I loved the fresh lamb, salad and hummus.

Dessert didn’t disappoint either with lots of chocolate options, my favorite :)

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After dinner, discussions of Saudi politics started. Dr. Moody and her family explained they are happy with a monarchy system because of tribal issues. Arab’s identify themselves through family or tribes whereas in the U.S., nationalism is more prevalent.  She used the example of Saudi students who come to the U.S to study. As apart of their scholarship, they are asked to start a cultural group on campus. She explains how daily, she receives complaints from other Saudi students attending the schools because their group is typically ran by cousins or friends and is not neutral or friendly. She believes the exact same thing would happen to the real government and that her people are not ready for democracy.

On the way to the airport, I kept thinking how awesome it is going to feel when I take off the abaya and hijab. After getting settled in the airport, I went to the bathroom and was stopped by a young woman. She asked if I was Muslim and I thought carefully about my answer. If I say yes, will she be mad that my hijab is lose? Or that I am showing my face? Not to mention I am lying!  If I say no, will she be upset that I am in the Islamic holy ground?

I finally said no, I was not and she placed a large smile on her face. She thanked me for wearing the conservative dress and being respectful to her culture.

No matter how uncomfortable the abaya/hijab was…it was worth it, knowing I gained the respect of Saudi Arabians and placed myself out of my comfort zone in order to learn.

Last day in Jeddah…not ready to leave!

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1/7/13 (Typed)

Today’s focus was on women’s empowerment. So far, this has been my favorite day in KSA!

This morning was my favorite visit throughout the whole study visit. We arrived at Nafisa Shams Academy (NSA); with a large welcome. NSA is a women’s empowerment group funded by the government that allows women to learn employment skills in the field of art. The women of Jeddah produce handmade prayer rugs, prayers beads, women’s clothing, pottery, paintings, and even learn to cook. Coincidentally, a graphic designer from the all-women’s college founded it! The women showed us their kitchen for cooking lessons and the materials used to make the suede prayer rugs. I purchased gorgeous prayer beads made from crystals and black feathers in addition to coconut and almond handmade soap. It felt good to purchase for a great cause and I loved the women’s excitement as they boxed our items.

The gallery room of NSA

The gallery room of NSA

Kaylee, Shannon and myself in front of handmade artwork

Shannon, Kaylee and myself in front of handmade artwork

State of the art kitchen for cooking courses

State of the art kitchen for cooking courses

Art designed for a Saudi fashion designer

Art designed for a Saudi fashion designer

Following the arts & crafts center, we went to Jeddah’s commerce center to meet with the Women of AlSayedah Khadijah Bint Khawilid business initiative/lobby. For those of you that do not know, Khadijah was the wife of the Prophet Mohammad and was a successful business woman.

For our business meeting, we met with a woman that described the organizations goal as to integrate women into the workforce, but before that recognize the obstacles in place. Certain obstacles stated were lack of public transportation, poor English language skills, and lack of interest (it is up to a woman’s family /husband to provide ALL  financial needs). She explained that women are not seeking equality, but rather a balance. (If you read the group’s mission statement…it seems they are seeking equality but again, this could be a language barrier)

She explained they do not want reverse roles for example their husband’s raising children. I think as Americans, the fellows as a whole were taken back by this. I had to remind myself however, that in the 1950’s American’s would be the phenomena of role reversal so why should I feel that Saudi Arabia would be so open to the idea?

We reached the hotel and started packing our belongings for the airport and the arrival into the capital city of Riyadh. I was happy with our conclusion in Jeddah. I am glad I was able to see diversity in KSA along with progression. Even if in my eyes it is slow progression, it is still change.

I have now settled into the last hotel of my study visit in Saudi Arabia. We arrived around 2:00am and none of the fellows were tired so we met in the lobby to reflect and talk. We forgot how much more conservative Riyadh is and we got a few glares and snarls. We wanted to be respectful and figured we should go to bed anyways.

Jeddah #2

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1/6/2013

The first university attended was King Abdulaziz University. This university was special because first of all, the President of Ohio State University is the chair of their international board and secondly, it had a medical institute/university hospital. After touring the campus, the medical institute works with some controversial topics such as stem cell research. This prompted me to ask the question of how the university handles possible conflicts between religion and science. The Dean of Medicine explained that students can reach out to Islamic scholars before starting controversial research.

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A sign I found humorous… an obese American man modeling for Heart Disease…. Ohh my beloved America.

The second university was the most impressive in the view of a humanities major. The college, Dar Al-Hekma, was an all-women’s study who emphasized political science. This is the first university we have visited that concentrated on social sciences. The university even had a Model United Nations which is very similar to Model Arab League! We were able to exchange recruiting ideas. The college also allowed women for the first time to study graphic design. There alumni are now instructing in the U.S. and Canada and one started the first ever Saudi Arabia “design magazine.”

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Standing on the same stage Ms. Hilary Clinton stood on months prior.

The women of the university were truly motivated and inspirational. They understand their legal obstacles and are using small grass-root initiatives to empower women.  Our last activity included singing Happy Birthday to Kadiata. The women of the college found out it was Kadiata’s birthday and bought a cake from a local bakery. Just another example of the kindness we received on this trip.

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Kadiata from Georgia, receiving her birthday cake!

Next in line was to finish business at the souq. In order to not lose anyone, we broke into smaller groups. I bargained my way into a rug, a few scarves and some cooking spices. It was difficult to purchase items because all of the merchants were gone for prayer. The merchants would leave their  shops without locking anything. The idea is, no one will steal during prayer.

After shopping I joined the rest of the fellows by the pool to smoke some more Hooka. In Arabic, hooka is called “Sheesha, ” and typically women cannot smoke. But, that is what is so great about Jeddah, women have so many more liberties. The hooka was flavored lemon & mint, grape and double apple. I only liked the grape flavor and I was surprised how easy it was to smoke. I only took a few hits and I was done. Something about suffocating my lungs didn’t sit very well with me…! Haha

 

Jeddah!

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(1/5/13)

The city of Jeddah treated us very well for we were allowed to sleep in until 10:00am again!

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This is how my hotel balcony greeted me this morning. Love the art and even the deep drilling oil wells looked majestic.

 But beyond that, today the group went boating on the Red Sea! This experience was so surreal to me. I had to reflect on all of the avenues I took to actually be sitting on a boat full of scholars, racing the waves of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia with no hijabs or abaya! Certainly a humbling moment in my life.

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Enjoying the sea! No swimsuits though

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Dancing and singing with Matt, a graduate student from Texas

The Red Sea resembled the Mediterranean with its blue waters, and multi-million dollar homes that landscaped the coast. However, the major difference was the construction. Just in my short time on the water there were at least 20 lots hosting building permits.

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Construction on the Sea.

Luckily, after speeding around we stopped to swim. And this was a rare occasion where the women could swim J our guides slipped a few extra riyals to the captains. We took off our abayas, hijabs and lifejackets (ILLEGAL!) and jumped in. I didn’t fully swim but with Jeddah’s temperatures nearing 90  degrees, I slipped my feet in. All of a sudden,  our captains starting shouting and all the group members were thrown lifejackets. Captains turned off the loud music and I placed my abaya over my chest and neck.

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Swimming in the sea

The police vessel slowly cruised by surveying the area. After a minute of awkward eye contact and silence they drove off. We wanted to get back into the water but, our captains were ready for our excursion to be over with.  We went from boat to bus and were informed that our boating activity was not paid for by the government but, out of our Saudi Arabian guide’s personal accounts. It was a great feeling to know they enjoyed our company as much as we liked having them as guides.

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Example of police vessel and beautiful real estate on the Red Sea.

Our next activity was to head to the souq.  A souq is a traditional market in the Arab World that carries food, clothing, religious items, livestock, ect. ect. I was very excited for this opportunity because I loved the souqs of Morocco. In Saudi Arabia, many of the souqs are extinct as the middle and upper class increases in volume.

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Souq chaos!

Jeddah’s souq was similar to a Moroccan souq from the exterior; crowded alleyways, garbage, men loitering and stray cats looking for table scraps. The inside was different as it was mostly men doing the shopping. Prices were also different! The same item I could buy in Morocco cost at least 2-5 dollars more in Saudi Arabia. This was my observation within 15 minutes because we ended up losing a group member.

Being lost in a souq can be intimidating. Especially, if you cannot speak the language such as this person! The rest of the group searched for Matt. None of us had a cell phone….reminds you how important those suckers can really be J After a half hour of searching we left the market area and stopped at “Al Baik” (pronounced-à “Al Bake.”

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Anthony Bourdain actually did a special on the Saudi Arabian chicken fast food. I was a little hesitant to try the food because I do not like fried chicken! We arrived at the eatery, the group was separated into male and female counters. For once, I was happier to be separated because the line was shorter! I ordered the 4 piece “Al-Bakr” which came with two drumsticks and two thigh pieces. Al Bakr is also known for its special garlic dipping sauce included with its fries. Best part, the meal only set me back $4.00 USD and the chicken was incredibly juicy and had a unique blend of spices.

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Ladies counter, frosted glass to the left separating the two genders. The head in this photo shown here is a young male child with his mother. No worries, no law breaking here J

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My dinner

Tomorrow we are set to visit two universities, return to the souq, celebrate a fellow’s birthday and partake in Arab traditional water smokes.

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Myself and Davis from South Carolina hogging the grape flavored tobacco.

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(1/4/13) Today is the last day in Dammam and first day in Jeddah! I woke up this morning around 10am. A true heaven sent as the jet lag was starting to catch up with us. We took the morning slow and then loaded the bus to drive on the “bridge way” or isthmus rather, to the country of Bahrain. We didn’t actual go into the country because of passport/visa issues, but we enjoyed the beautiful view of the Arabian Gulf (worried KSA wouldn’t let us back in!) Arabs get really offended if you call the body of water the “Persian Gulf.”

The area was also nice because the ladies could take off their hijabs (head scarves)! It was great to feel the warmth beating down on my scalp and the wind in my hair. I will never take that feeling for granted again. The coastline was covered with rock barriers and barbwire fencing to keep illegal immigrants from sneaking into either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

Arabian Gulf

Arabian Gulf

Kaylee and Shannon!! I have really grown attached to them!

Kaylee and Shannon!! I have really grown attached to them!

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Once photos were completed we crossed the street to McDonalds. To our dismay, they were closed! It was lunch time!! However, we forgot that the call of prayer takes place during lunch. As an American, it is weird to see McDonald’s closed.  We decided to leave because prayer length is subjective and can last anywhere from 10- 30 minutes. Also, MCD is segregated by families and single males. Instead we hopped back onto the bus and bee-lined it for the lunch buffet and then to our rooms to pack for Jeddah!

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Jeddah is the city I am most looking forward to. It has a unique blend of rich cultural history in addition to being titled “Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city.” I first learned about Jeddah in a fifth grade history class. Never in my life did I think I would enter the city gates! I am looking forward to seeing the art, Jeddah is known for it!

However, before getting on the flight we ran into problems. We were missing a boarding pass for one of the fellows. Luckily, our Saudi Arabian guides bribed the staff and we all got onto the plane. Security was tight and women get a full body pat down whereas men just walk through metal detectors.

Before the flight, a prayer used by the prophet Mohammad before travel appeared on the television screens. On the flight, I was placed in the middle seat. I was all by myself but of course, just as the plane was getting ready to take off….my seat partner joined me. He was a traditional Saudi Arabian man, probably in his 40’s. I knew he was uncomfortable sitting next to me, and didn’t want to engage in any type of conversation to tell me his feelings. I thought about sliding over to the window seat, but  I worried I would offend him. Finally, half way through the flight I moved a seat over. Needless to say, we were both relieved :)

This flight in particular was very unique because many Muslims fly into Jeddah in order to reach the Holy City of Mecca. Many of the men on board were wrapped in “Mecca attire” or as I like to call it…”Getting out of the Sauna.”  The wardrobe requires two white plush towels wrapped almost like a toga. Women wear very conservative black abayas and usually face coverings. Because the flight is used to reach the holy city, half way during the travel time, an announcement was made prompting people to start the beginning ritual prayers before traveling to Mecca.

Once we arrived in the airport, a medium size party bus was waiting to whisk us off to the city. Traffic was spread out for miles because Friday is like an American;  Saturday . It was nice being in the bus and being able to view all of the gorgeous art the city had to offer. We also saw families outside on the beach around 2am! Women without hijabs, boys racing cars and bright colors everywhere. The city is incredible and so different from the others visited.

We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel for this visit.  The location was great, right next to the world’s tallest fountain. And only a few miles away from the city center which means… souq shopping!!! Souq’s are neighborhoods of handmade crafts and imported traditional items. I love the bartering that takes place before the purchase.

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I need my rest so I can be prepared for great bargains :)

Royal Commission & Aramco

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Typed 1/3/2012

First stop on today’s trip was to the Saudi Arabian Royal Commission of Jubail & Yanbu. The organization formulates trade and labor agreements within international business. In addition, they focus on higher education, job force training, language immersion, and economic development. The goal is to diversify the economy. The commission gives corporations/industries free land, tax breaks, and employee compounds for expatriates. The organization shared their expansion plans and then provided a bus tour of the whole city. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed. I did however, find a brief video explaining the city.

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After the bus tour, the commission hosted a beautiful outside picnic with the best food yet, in KSA!

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The hospitality continued with dessert and “surprises” which consisted of framed handmade Bedouin jewelry for the ladies and traditional head dresses for the gentlemen. Both genders received a group photo and informational CD. The commission stressed that we apply for jobs within Saudi Arabia and that they would pay for all of our living expenses, moving expenses, and future travel. If graduate school doesn’t work, I may have to look into that! ha ha!2013-01-03_00-16-57_292

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Following the Saudi Arabian Royal Commission, was a visit to Aramco. As mentioned before, Aramco is the world’s largest oil company ; and is owned by the Kingdom. Again, photos were not allowed, but the facilities were unlike anything I had ever seen. As students, we were able to use the drill simulator and pretend to operate a  deep ocean drill rig. A cave simulator also communicated the differences between oil, natural gas and vast volumes located within the rock.

As for the evening, the ladies went shopping for new abayas! I had my heart set on a pearl abaya because I had seen a woman in one; at one of my university visits. After much debate and travel, I found it! In less than 10 minutes, it was tailored to my body.

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My new abaya purchased for $42.00. It has pearls, silk, and lots of bling :)

desMore pearls but the quality was questionable and the store representative wouldn’t bargain. A complete deal breaker!

Tomorrow, we will fly out to the city of Jeddah, our last city during the cultural study visit. I have been looking forward to Jeddah the most because I have heard stories of how liberal the city is with its bright colors and tight fitting abayas. I am excited to compare the different cities. Also, there is a large pearl and gold market present :)