Pages of the Oasis

Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting To Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, And The First Few Days

So here is how things went and the journey of actually getting to Saudi Arabia.

I had to submit a proposed flight plan reservation, but did not have to pay for it.

The recruiting company made and paid for my flight booking and accommodation after I received my signed and counter-signed contract.

I accepted the first flight they offered, and as a result spent over 43 hours in transit, which made for an overly exhausting journey. If I were to do it again, I would have asked for a new flight itinerary with fewer stopovers (2 not 4) from Canada to Saudi Arabia, and would ask for flights that didn’t make me get bounced through the United States since the airports, security and customs are such a hassle if you do, and since I was crammed onto very cramped airplanes across the USA. 

By the way, the international flights were much more comfortable, and the Cairo Airport was a dream of modern, friendly, clean and organized efficiency,  with inviting food courts and boutiques, to my surprise.

In the restroom in the waiting area for the flight from Cairo to Riyadh,Saudi Arabia, I put on my Abaya (the black cloak covering), since all of the women were in full cover. A very nice lady in the bathroom helped me get the hijab (hair veil) pinned correctly, and warmly welcomed me to Saudi Arabia, in excellent English, saying it was very good that I was going there.

Remember to bring some small change with you (Riyals, or SARS as they are abbreviated on money exchange boards) to tip the porter since the ATM only doles out big bills. 

A person from the recruiting company met me at the airport (about 30 minutes late, but he did show up at last). 

In retrospect, I should have called the company HQ to confirm I was enroute before leaving Cairo so there was a better chance I wouldn’t have to wait at the airport terminal.

Also, it would have been easier to call from Cairo, where many people spoke English, since once I arrived in Saudi Arabia, it was difficult to know how to use the phones to tell HQ that I had arrived since nothing was easy to understand, and there wasn`t as much English around. So I wound up paying for some food from a restaurant kiosk so I could access a wifi connection they offered in order to try to use email to alert the company that I had arrived and was waiting for a pickup.

Although many signs in the airport (and on the streets) are in English, the reality is that very few people speak and understand English, so be prepared to make your way using Arabic. 

TIP: I’d have to say that the best way to prepare to teach in Saudi Arabia is to learn as much Arabic ( the Saudi version) as you can before you arrive. It will really help ease your transition and settle into the culture.

Since I didn`t know any Arabic, I felt very isolated and powerless while waiting (and hoping) for my ride from HQ to materialize. I was extremely happy to see a smiling young Saudi man holding a sign with my name (misspelled) on it come up to me in the waiting area and boldly shake my hand, saying welcome in English. (Men nearby  were shocked and some actually hissed when he shook my hand.)

I was driven to a hotel and asked to make an appointment to go in to the headquarters to finish some paper work the following day. I was told that a shuttle mini-van from the company would come to the hotel to take me to headquarters, and that I just had to ask at the front reception desk for times. 

Little did I know that the hotel was not a temporary overnight accommodation until I was settled into the studio apartment included in my contract deal. It turned out that the hotel was to be my long term home. 

It had recently been turned into an apartment-hotel situation, and was almost completely filled with teachers working for the same company (both men and women housed in the same hotel, but not sharing rooms; only married couples roomed together). 

I was assigned a private one room suite with a makeshift kitchen  (a  strange set up with a 2 burner hotplate, drink mini-fridge and narrow counter on the way to the bathroom). The room had a big bed. There were also sofas with no legs (more like cushion pads sewn toegether to make a long seat), lining the walls. The small windows were covered in an opaque white filmy vinyl that let in light but didn`t allow anyone to see out or in. There wasn`t much of a view ( just endless sand coloured unadorned cement buildings amidst sand), so I wasn`t missing much. The air conditioner took up a lot of the window space. It made the room quite dark.

The next day I go up and wondered how one went about getting breakfast. I asked at the reception desk, and the very nice Egyptian receptionist ( who had basic English and understood more than he could say) offered to order out and get a traditional breakfast for me from a local restaurant. This was a relief.

I later discovered that this was in large part because women weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside the restaurant. Take out food is the normal way of life here.

I’ll describe the food in another post since it was unlike any breakfast I had ever had before in my life, and worthy of mention!

I phoned the recruiting company headquarters from the reception desk, and the receptionist spoke enough English that I was able to make arrangements to come in to the office later that day, and to arrange transportation.

At the headquarters, I waited about an hour before I could see someone to talk over my contract and have my official orientation.

I was asked to sign a different version of the contract so that there was a copy with two original signatures on it, and not factsimilies. I was suspicious, I admit, and combed through the two documents, the one I had brought with me from Canada and the one they presented to make sure there were no changes . There weren’t any changes.

I was offered and accepted an advance on my first paycheck to help pay for food and household necessities.  I was grateful for this since I hadn’t seen any ATM machines near the hotel, and didn’t know how easy it would be get access to money during the first month. (Turns out there were international cash machines at the mall- at every mall.)

 I was introduced to about 5 people who worked for the company, including the person I had been speaking with about my flight and Visa requirements and processing details. When asked about whether I liked the accommodation, I asked how long I would be in the hotel, and when I found out there were no studio apartments available, and that this could be long term stay, I asked if it would be possible to have a different room with a proper kitchen. The manager instantly got on the phone and made a complaint to the hotel, or so it sounded to me, since Arabic sounded quite harsh to my ears.

Whatever he said worked. When I returned to the hotel, they instantly showed me a full apartment suite, with a huge kitchen, separate prayer / living room and decent sized master bedroom.

I lucked out with my suite, since it was so big and had so many separate rooms, and also since it had quite a few windows that let in natural light  into the living /prayer room and my bedroom (covered in filmy white vinyl, but a source of natural (filtered) sunlight nonetheless).
The bathroom was interesting. It was tiled from floor to ceiling, and had a toilet, a sink, a spray nozzle beside the toilet and a shower head mounted high on the tiled wall. There was no separation or walls between the toilet area and where you stand to shower. It actually worked quite well as a shower, although everything tended to get wet until I got used to it ( the toilet sink and towels on the hooks near the door). It sure was easy to clean up, with the spray nozzle thingamajiggy.

I had been given the rest of the week, about 3 days, to get over the jet lag (which was the worst of my life, and actually lasted for 2 months.)( I’m not kidding. 

I started work on Saturday, which is like Monday in this part of the world since the days off are different.

It was very handy to have a few days  off to get oriented, buy some food and kitchen things,  find the nearest Mall and get settled in. It was easy to meet English speaking people (other teachers) from around the world by hanging out in the hotel lobby. Talking to others was the best way to find out what to do, how to get settled, and where to find things. See my upcoming posts for more tips about how to get settled into Riyadh.

 So that’s how I got to Saudi Arabia and started working there.

1 comment:

  1. First of all you actually had a very exhausting journey. I am also coming to Saudi arabia soon, i just got recruited by a will making company and i will look for less stop over flight tickets for me. Thank you for tip i am learning Arabic language it is not that hard. Shukran keep it up


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