What's a girl to do?
It's hard to believe that I've been in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years. For most of that time--partly because I was stubborn about my "right" to get around in OUR vehicle (meaning that DH had to drive me), and partly because of my nervousness about going out on my own--I have felt really trapped here. There is no public transportation system, so a woman can either rely on her husband to drive her, hire her own driver, or take taxis. My feeling trapped might sound really obvious when you learn that women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but I know many women who come and go here pretty much as they please.
I suppose seeing all these "free" women has to do mainly with the demographic of girls and women I generally interact with. Most of my colleagues at the college have been here for 10+ years, and either have their own drivers, or have a system in place to get around the city. My students, too, make it seem as though getting around is easy. I'd estimate that, the majority coming from wealthy, upper-class families, 90% of them have drivers and possibly their own cars. Getting to and from the college, restaurants, malls, friends houses etc, etc is accordingly easy for them.
For the past week and a half, our SUV has been at the mechanic. Accordingly, DH and I have been sharing a taxi to get to work and back each day. We usually do our groceries on Friday mornings (our "Sunday" mornings because the weekend in KSA is Thursday-Friday), but the past two weeks, we couldn't be bothered with getting a cab, especially in the 45+ C heat we're now constantly being immersed in when we step outside! We made do the first week with what was left in the kitchen cupboards...and then, last Sunday, I decided that after a little trip to the mall with some work friends, I'd pick up some groceries and come home. On. My. Own. No, not in MY own car, driving myself. I'm not THAT bold as to break the law!!! In a cab. BY myself. So, I set out to work for the morning to hold my office hour (I don't have classes on Sundays in the summer term), and then headed to the mall with two colleagues. (NB: Most malls here in Jeddah have a big chain grocery store). After buying some nail polish and sampling perfumes, I headed to Hyper Panda and raced through the aisles to grab the items on my list before the store closed for salat / prayer. (You may recall from previous posts that stores close 4 times a day for prayer). So, I ran around and managed to get everything, and successfully checked out.
There are men who bag the groceries, and one accompanied me downstairs and I had him put the bags in the taxi. I told the cab driver, "Mafi Arabi" (no Arabic), but then proceeded with a feeble attempt to ask if he knows the landmark by my house. "Enta tarif Balubaid signal?" "Aywa," (yes) he replied. "Enta tarif Masjid Rukaia?" ("Do you know the Rukaia Mosque") I *confidently!!!* continued. "Aywa." YES!!! I could get home by myself. I knew enough Arabic to say "left" and "right" and "straight" to direct him the rest of the way.
The final hurdle was managing to get all the groceries out of the trunk on my own in the 45 degree afternoon sun. But I managed and made it up the two flights of stairs to our apartment, beaming with pride. Mission accomplished!! I had successfully restocked our cupboards for the week. I tore off my abaya (which had, of course, made me all the hotter in the 12 o'clock noon sun!), and collapsed on the couch to cool off under the cranked A/C.
As ridiculously mundane as my story might sound to you, it was a BIG victory for me! If I had a driver, the whole ordeal above would have been much simpler, of course, but I'm here in Saudi Arabia to save money and pay off my HUGE student loan before I move back to Toronto in a month. (And, YES, I'm on the verge of accomplishing that goal, too!) No point in paying $700-800 a MONTH + accommodations for a driver when my goal is to spend as little money as possible.
So, for a year and a half, I'd resigned to feeling stuck. Trapped. Resentful of my DH who could come and go as he pleased. (Though most men HATE driving on these crazy roads and insist that being able to drive isn't a freedom at all!). But last Sunday, I changed my mindset. I CAN DO THIS!!! And I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me here in Jeddah.
|Al-Andalus Mall, Jeddah|
So why’d I wait?
I started this post with my excuses. I couldn’t get around Jeddah because I wanted DH to drive me. I contribute to the upkeep of the car, after all, so why should I be the one who had to take a cab? (Maybe I sound snobby, but that's how I felt). I was also a bit scared. We have all heard scary cab stories, and living in a foreign country I didn't want to take a risk--at least not until I felt more comfortable, especially with the language. I don’t know much Arabic, though I DO know how to get home and give directions to where I live. It’s funny, but many of my female friends are surprised when I can give clear directions to my house.
|Map of Jeddah|
Two weekends ago, I went out for brunch and a shopping date with my lovely British friend, S. She’s married to a Saudi man, and for the longest time he wasn’t comfortable (if I have the story straight?) with her taking cabs around the city. Recently, though, she has begun going out and taking taxis, and she sounded SO much happier. Sure, she agreed, sometimes she’d get a stinky cab, and the driver might be a little odd, but nothing bad had ever happened. A less than perfect cab now and then is worth it in exchange for the ability to get around!
For the longest time if DH couldn’t drive me, I’d been relying on part-time drivers that DH knows... And while that’s all nice and safe, it can be SO annoying to have the driver not be free to come and pick me up and take me home when I want to go. I once had to wait for FOUR HOURS for one to pick me up for a short little 15 minute trip from the mall to my house. So I ended up staying at home, feeling trapped, bitter, and resentful.
|Shopping date at Stars Avenue Mall|
DH was like S’s husband for the longest time, feeling that it wasn’t a good idea for me and my Canadian whiteness and lack of Arabic to go out alone in taxis. But when it became necessary (we need food, after all!!!), he figured it couldn’t hurt for me to be out and find my way home in broad daylight. And I was fine. And when she went, S was fine, too. In fact, she was kind of my inspiration to insist to DH that I should go out and find my own way, too! So thank you, S!! J
There’s such FREEDOM in knowing that you can have the liberty to come and go as you please...and to not have to wait for a driver who may never show up! Once I'm back in Canada, I will never take the ease and freedom of coming and going--even if I have to wait for a BUS--for granted again!!!
Oh, the irony...
When I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that a month before I’m moving back to Canada I’m finally feeling comfortable getting around Jeddah on my own. But c’est le vie, n’est pas?! At least now when I come back two or three times to visit DH over the next year and a half (in December, May / June, and possibly once more), I’ll be able to hit up the shops and catch up with friends while he’s at work. So in the end we all win! J
One small step for me, one victory for all brave women in the desert! lol