We’ve been in Jeddah for exactly two months now, and despite not having our things with us yet, we feel like we’ve begun to settle in to our temporary home. We’ve made certain supermarkets our favourites, we’ve sussed out some places to snack at, we’ve tried now two modes of ‘public transport’ and decided which we like best, we’re settling slowly but surely.
I am currently obsessed with trying to revive the plants we inherited in the small front yard, a hibiscus and a bougainvillea. Through a little reading, I have discovered that a magic ingredient typically found in pharmacies might just do the trick – magnesium sulphate, or otherwise knowns as epsom salts. Something I easily found in Delhi, I’m surprised that the two pharmacies we tried last week didn’t stock it. But then, nutmeg is banned here so I’m not sure what’s normal anymore.
We were pretty lucky to get nutmeg I think. I walked round and round the loose spices island at the supermarket peering at each and every box hoping to find it, but finally gave up and just asked the guy manning the station. He looked at me blankly. I said ‘nutmeg’ again and now he understood, but..quietly. As I stood there I felt everyone’s eyes boring holes in the sides and back of my head but perhaps I was imagining things or maybe they were trying to figure out where I was from or why I was wearing a kimono and don’t I understand it’s not the same as an abaya. I saw his eyes dart round before he reached under the counter for an unmarked plastic container with whole nutmeg seeds in them though by this time I wanted to back away feeling like I’d done something wrong, my ears starting to warm, but I bravely stood my ground. After what seemed like an eternity but really was only maybe 10 seconds, I chose four seeds which he bagged and weighed and quickly thanked him, beating a hasty retreat to the detergents section. At least he was helpful and friendly, he was probably from Egypt where nutmeg is probably easily available. Still, I felt really weird the rest of the day wondering. I was trying to reach into the recesses of my little brain for anything my mother might have said when they were living in Riyadh almost ten years ago. I remembered I had sent a packet of nutmeg to my mother once from Singapore (and I only remember this because she later reported to me that I sent her a bad batch as there were worms in the seeds, yoicks!), which meant wherever she was at that time, she couldn’t find the spice. I couldn’t remember what country she was in, but soon I was able to remember her complaining how daft it is to ban nutmeg because it’s considered an aphrodisiac…and the only place I can think of out of the long list of places she’s lived in that would ban nutmeg for being an aphrodisiac… is here. So. I had inadvertently bought something illegal. Who knows, maybe epsom salt is illegal too.
Our favourite supermarkets are Danube in Tahalia and at the Red Sea Mall, and HyperPanda in the Mall of Arabia. They have a fair bit of import products, the customers seem a bit more international so we get stared at less which is great and the shops are brightly lit and clean. The staff at our local Danube have begun to recognise us (which I attribute to my children’s loud voices), and always ask how I am which is unusual as generally, men don’t speak to ladies unless they’re not from here (these chaps are predominantly South Asian and Filippino). They also say thank you and smile. Ten points. We’ve been told, and noticed for ourselves too, that the fresh produce at HyperPanda appear a lot fresher than Danube, but Danube has more import products, with the Tahalia branch having an even wider variety of import products than some of their other branches. Danube at Tahalia is part of a complex of stores all facing an outdoor parking lot, ranging from sports shops, dive shops, menswear to eateries like Labeeb’s (specialising in Shawarma), Paul (boulangerie et patisserie), Dunkin Donuts, Fuddruckers, and Crave Burgers. Manuel supermarket isn’t bad either and the branch I went to near the husband’s office stocked, to my complete surprise, Habhal’s Cap Kipas Udang Kicap Manis (photos here are from Manuel)!
The first month we were here, was the month of Ramadan, and in Saudi Arabia, everything except supermarkets and pharmacies close during the day. Not one eatery open in sight. At least not until the sun sets when it’s time to break the fast, and people come out in droves to enjoy iftar, the first meal since dawn. People I spoke with, seemed stunned that we were here in the summer and during ramadan, as the general consensus seems to be that it is the hottest time of the year (ie, miserable by most accounts), and nobody is allowed to eat in public during the day (ie, miserable by any account). But seeing as ramadan for us is spent largely zombifying at home anyway and the fact that we haven’t yet got ourselves a car, it wasn’t too much of a bother. We found ourselves though in awe, even a little envious, of the local culture of eating and celebrating through the night, going to bed at 3am and sleeping through til late morning. I tried once, and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open past 11pm! We missed a lot of fun because of our inability to pig out at night and sleep in the day; during Ramadan all the bazaars and events happen at night from about 9pm til 3am!
Now that Ramadan is over, we’ve headed out a lot more, and I have on my own with the children taken a private limo service to get some errands done (just for the record, I would only choose to do this during the day, and only to places where I feel safe, maybe where international people isn’t too much of a novelty). In one of my previous posts I mentioned using Uber and feeling fairly satisfied with it (except for the random price surges), but this time thought I would try a similar service offered by a different company, Careem. What a surprise! The booking app allows us to use the map to pinpoint your exact location which is helpful in a place where street names aren’t always the norm. The drivers respond to your request for a car almost instantaneously (we’ve only ever waited 5 minutes or less) before the car arrives, and because of the map they are at your doorstep with very little confusion, or at least much less than with Uber guys. But the biggest advantage of using Careem is, because the drivers we’ve gotten so far are from South Asia, they all speak English, which makes me feel a lot less nervous. The cars have been clean, smell nice (which the kids approve of!), and the drivers also seem to know how to read maps. What whaaat! The only downside I can think of is it costs a fair bit more than Uber, a ten minute drive down the street this morning on an empty road cost us about SGD6, considerably higher than Uber, but still, about the same as it would be in Singapore. For the convenience, and apparent security of having an english speaking driver, I’d take Careem (disclaimer: let’s face it, shit happens, and we always have to be on alert anyway regardless of language or nice smelling cars, use your common sense).
The culture here dictates that women be very dependent on the men in their family, be it their father, older brother or husband. It seems they cannot leave the country without a man’s permission, women cannot drive (even if little boys can??!), women must wear an abaya to cover their form (an abaya is a shapeless robe, but can also resemble a wizard’s coat if that’s what you’re after),
and it’s preferred that women don’t wear make up, don’t attract attention and are not photographed in order to protect them and their modesty. Going out you’ll see how much they try to keep mingling of the sexes to a minimum, with separate entrances for families and ‘singles’ (singles being men without any women with them, and families meaning..well, families), men or groups of men being told they are not allowed into malls at certain times or days of the week, and shops with signs in their windows stating ‘families only’ or ‘ladies only’. And yet, all drivers of taxis and limo services are men, and most shopkeepers are men (even if they sell lingerie or make up, which is what I saw years ago, but now, I see this has changed. In jeddah anyway). All this anxiety about men and women being together and the fear of sex could explain why when at cashiers, if served by a saudi, money wouldn’t be handed to me, it might be tossed on to the counter for me to pick up, to minimise physical contact with a man. It might explain why people don’t smile at each other or say thank you, as it may be construed as flirtatiousness. Admittedly, it can be a culture shock whether one is Muslim or not, but you know what. Who
cares. I’m happy I get to eat in the Families sections, with who else but my family, in great lighting, no walls put up around me (other parts of Saudi Arabia do this), and clean food that actually tastes good and doesn’t make me sick. Sure I have to wear an abaya, but mine isn’t black and it’s cotton, and I’m not too fussed about clothes personally, if I don’t look down, I still feel the nice clothes I have on under the abaya are on the outside! And I can go without saying thank you and making eye contact with men for the time being, I’m not really missing much anyway.
The only thing that gets me worried out here is the safety for myself and for my children, even for my husband. A quick google search will turn up a lot of bizarre shit about this place, and also stories that people tell you themselves of things that happen to people they know. And then how the system decides who in a crime, are the victim and the perpetrator, and sadly things get even murkier. So we try to play it safe as much as possible, stay as alert as we can, and sticking to each other like glue. And finding things to do at home (like this blog!). So if you’re new to Saudi, and you happen to be reading this, do not be disheartened. Every country we live in, even our own, will have drawbacks, it’s like a friend of mine said, these postings at home or away, are all about what we make of it. Wise words.
Places we’ve been to so far
For gardening supplies:
Sultan Garden Centre off of Arafat street in Al Hamra
For Indoor plants, and a huge variety of flowers:
Gardenia on Arafat street in Al Hamra, and other branches
For a snack after visiting Gardenia, try Breaking Bread (@breakingbreadksa on Instagam) right next to it, a little deli with only four bar stools facing a huge window out on to Arafat Street for freshly made, un-fussy sandwiches. Don’t expect to be blown away by american style sandwiches, these are dainty in comparison but the ingredients are fresh, and the sandwiches are only assembled on ordering. Buy little jars of homemade spread or bottles of olive oil to bring home.
Counter Burger (@thecounterksa on IG) is one of many American burger chains found in Jeddah. Families section is on the ground floor, and rowdy, unscrupulous bachelors get herded upstairs out of the way. The ground floor is large, spacious, and in the day naturally lit because of the massive shopfront windows and oodles of sunlight streaming in. At Counter you can order a burger from their menu or create your own with the help of a little form and check boxes. Milk shakes are huge, as are the burgers (to me at least), and this place is child friendly, they provide paper with puzzles and pictures for kids to scribble on and crayons. Bonus, the baby chairs are CLEAN.
Counter is at Etoile Mall on King Abdul Aziz road, one of the shops facing the main road so it’s hard to miss, also because the mall is one of those pretty ones. Etoile Mall sits right next to another uppity mall called Stars Avenue which also has a Manuel Supermarket.
Bestest most favouritest pharmacy is Noura (@noura_pharmacy) with three branches in Jeddah. I love the store, it has everything! Except epsom salts. The branch at the corner of Prince Sultan and Tahalia Roads also sits next to a bubble tea shop (that I’ve not tried..yet) called Bubble Nation. I’m reminded of the bubble tea shop in Sarojini (Delhi) that we all enjoyed so, until it unexpectedly closed and disappointed an entire office of Singaporeans missing bubble tea.
The thing about shopping in Jeddah is it’s hard to find the good ones as there are no online directories that anyone can find and no districts where similar items are bunched together, it’s all located rather randomly. Much is shared through word of mouth, and this is my mouth. Also it’s worthwhile getting on Instagram, even make up like Anastasia Beverly Hills, and Lime Crime, and Sigma or even designer abaya are sold through IG.