Tuesday, February 12, 2013


"Upon landing in SA you will be given a Burka and head scarf and be shown how to wear it. Please verse yourself in culture and what to expect."

Loosely paraphrased advice for me to research our newest destination. And so the internet tells me to walk two feet behind my male company, cover my face at all times and to not speak to anyone of the opposite sex I'm not married to. Can't wait!

Walking off the plane behind the guys with this wrap over my face falling off I looked like an errant child. It wasn't fitting right and it felt north of 90 degrees with this on over my full suit. I'd been up for 24 hours at this point, not so fresh feeling after an 11 hour flight, and generally irritated and apprehensive of what kind of world we were entering. I hadn't taken more then ten steps before I hated this place. I. Hate. This. Place. I thought as I paced myself two feet behind my co-workers (co). I clenched my jaw and drudged forward. The guys would look back, see my scarf drooping past my chin and frantically motion for me to fix myself. I got it, dude...I don't like being told what to do in the first place and then perhaps I was a little bothered how quickly the guys took to the culture. Accepting my lesser role here and by proxy their sense of importance. This is shit. Bullshit. Ludicrousity! Made up words of rage! Amazing how quickly I was filled with resentment. I'd never felt this visceral sense of oppression before and I didn't like it.

As I walked in my own world across the black top I was memorized by three SA woman walking ahead in the distance. Three of them walked together in sync across the tarmac, in grace and poise, their Burkas struggling in the slight breeze. I wondered if they liked it here, what they were thinking and what they were talking about. Groceries and babysitting or royalty and jewels.

While waiting for all of us to go through customs I stood on my own unsure of how much interaction I was allowed. I was pouting. The security guards and line men were snickering at me. I didn't understand why, but felt there could have been many reasons. My ill fitted head scarf, my pouting, my pale skin.

A gentleman approached me and told me to come with him.  With a raised eyebrow and my best brat I protested, why. "Please come to my operations." Indignant: no. He walked away irritated. A few minutes later he asked again. Uh. No. Do people just out right invite to kidnap you here?! The third time he came over he asked all of us to go. Ok that's better and then I realized he was a contact of ours from the states. Oh. I'm the dick. We were led into a private room and another contact exclaims "Miss, take that off your head! You do not need that!" We are westerners and this being the capital it is a bit more tolerant of Westerners and the only thing I had to be wearing was the burka, not the head scarf.

And so the men were snickering at me because I had the damn thing on when I didn't need to. Not because I was a woman or moody or hot or fumbling with all my luggage (I told myself). Relieved and giving my company the stink eye I removed it cathartically. Freedom.

I then cleared with our contact that I was allowed to walk at same pace and speak to fellow westerners, men included, in public. Like letting loose another notch on a belt.

We got into a taxi and off to our hotel in the heart of the capital. I was dozing in and out of sleep with my phone in hand waking up intermittently and snapping photos through my drooping eyeballs. I wasn’t sure how much exploring I’d be able to do and this may be my only chance to get photographs. We arrived at our hotel, which looked nice enough from the outside, but the entrance was in an alley and not on the main street which made my colleagues uneasy. It's not that I'm laid back it's that I'm naive--and exhausted. I would have slept right there in that alley. Thankfully, after learning an alternate hotel was 45 minutes away my company capitulated and we made our way inside. I'm a zombie at this point.

Lobby was nice blah blah blah, I just wanted a bed. And a bed I got. One of the hardest beds I've ever had at a hotel but it didn't matter. I snap awake into my usual routine of expelling clothes off me, as I drop my bags and inspect the room, I stumble my way to the bed and slip into a coma. A few minutes later there was a knock at my door. I threw clothes on, and flung the door open thinking it was my coworkers and we were already leaving. Instead it was the hotel staff asking if the room was ok. What? Call me on the PHONE. “It's fine,” I said curtly to their “courtesy call” closing the door and only then thinking how dumb of me it was to open my door to two strange men. The two guys I came from the states with did not get such a courtesy call.

I returned to bed, taking in a little bit more of the room as it was the most time I’d spent with my eyes open in this country. It was modern, new, colorful. The bed was still stiff. When I woke up several hours later my circadian rhythm was spinning on its head. I was up for so long on the flight over my clock was already off and then it's a six hour time difference not to mention the clock in my room was wrong, which was just the cruelest prank ever. I finally deduced it was midnight, but I was also hungry. I didn't want to call the guys rooms in chance I wake them so I emailed them both asking if they had any interest in exploring or eating. I wasn’t sure I could leave the room, let alone the hotel, by myself and another pang of oppression hit me. I could have left the room and I didn't have to be cloaked while in the hotel, but these were two things I learned the day we were leaving. One of my colleagues was also awake and emailed me to meet him in the lobby. We ate a midnight dinner at their snack counter. The staff here, and everywhere we went really were so very nice and accommodating, acting as if whipping up sandwiches in the middle of the night was no big deal. We stayed up for a while eating silently and then chatting, mostly listening to his stories of travel and looking at photographs from places I’d never even heard of. Full and groggy we went back to our rooms and I slept for what felt like minutes before another knock on my door woke me. This time I didn’t dress, I just yelled through the door and this time it was my coworker and if I wanted to go site seeing I needed to be downstairs in ten minutes. Ten minutes, awesome, thanks for the heads up guys! I was cranky.

I realized while putting clothes on I would be cloaked for the day so I could think even less than usual about what to wear.  Point one for the burka! We met our tour guide downstairs and took off into the city. The streets were packed with cars, dusty ones. It seems as there are no rules of the road, but our tour guide navigates it flawlessly, as if he's played hours of frogger. He is from Syria and dislikes Riyadh but here he can make money. We drill him with questions about the customs and life here. There are no bars (it’s a dry country), no movie theaters, no bowling alleys; no public places for fun. People are here to work-not to be entertained. So we go to the mall.

But first we get out of the car and he realizes my burka is on backwards so I have to take it off for him to fix. Now not only do the guys see my silly outfit, but I am about to be burka-less in the capital of SA and exposed to the general public passing us on the sidewalk. Super. Once our guide dresses me we carry on. This was not the last infraction of the day.

In the mall we walk towards a Starbucks thinking nothing of anything, Macchiatos maybe, and our even keel, soft spoken tour guide bellows out behind us "LIZ! SINGLE SIDE!!" Wtf, sir? I had wandered into the singles side of Starbucks. For single men. The place for woman and families and married men with their wives to get Starbucks was around the corner. It's not hidden, but you can't see into it from outside. This was the same situation at the food court and because I was with the guys we all had to eat on the family area. Separate but equal? Women are allowed to talk to cashiers or waiters, but not male casual conversation. Like when my co-worker turned to a lady and asked if there were any good restaurants in the mall and she gave him the coldest stare and shoulder. Our tour guide visibly flinched at his faux pas. He could have been arrested. She could have screamed in his face. We lucked out by getting our coffees and the heck out of there unscathed. There was a level in the mall for women only. The first few floors were unisex housing the normal stores, Victoria secret, SuperDry, Gap. I should have gone to the-women’s only-top floor, but I really had zero interest. There could have been amazing things up there, but what??

This is an affluent area of SA. Some ladies had blinged out designer burkas; Coach, Gucci. Some had pajama pants underneath their burkas others had leopard shoes. It was a fun factor to people watching. We did a lot of people watching.

Our tour guide had to go to his office at some point so the guys and I stayed in the mall. We walked around loitering and chatting like normal until we realized we were being stalked by a security guard. He stood uncomfortably close to us we assume because I was talking to this man openly and vice versa. Scandalous.

We walked around as trying not to touch anything or break anything or offend anyone, security keeping a close watch on us. Finally, our tour guide returned and took us to the top of the Kingdom Tower. This is the tallest building in SA built for the king from one of his sons. My camera phone had died and I have no evidence, but I don’t know what I would have posted anyway. It was a large, sprawling city covered in a reddish brown hue of sand and desert.

In the elevator on the way down from the tower a couple of men started chatting my coworkers. I sidled up next to them to see if I'd be welcomed into the conversation, but there was not even a glance my way. Topping that, when we walked outside the mall returning to the car we passed the security guard from earlier in the day. About an hour later. He'd been tailing us the entire time. This is an intense place that I'm not dying to get back to. There are a few restaurants I'd like to check out that were suggested to us. What is traveling if it’s not about food?

This is another level though. The loss of identity being cloaked in this robe and having certain rights taken away from you. I wonder how SA woman feel. They can’t work, they can’t drive, they can’t speak to certain people. Who cares, maybe. They may not hate being driven everywhere and not having to work and keeping their bodies, face and hair preserved only for her family. Not even to say that they don't know anything else because I suspect they are fully aware of lives outside their own country. The western lifestyle, but even the stark cultural differences of their neighbors in Dubai. Plenty of expats and hop over there for a weekend break or vacation. And maybe they’ve seen Jersey Shore and aren’t too impressed with a no rules, no class lifestyle. And I’m sure there are plenty of woman who think it’s crap and want to get the hell out of there too. I don’t know. To each their own.

The rest of the trip was much of a muchness (;)). We kept odd hours, ate a lot of hummus, and were filled with a new sense of appreciation for the grand 'ol USA. We can do whatever we WANT here! And it felt so good to be home. There was a brief stop in Paris for a quick airport cappuccino, but otherwise two seven hour flights and lots of water. The burka now sits in a ball underneath a pile of towels, so it knows its place. A souvenir of how great not-SA is. The next time we go back the mission is to eat at an authentic restaurant and appreciate what it does have to offer and to also never go back.

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