Rookie Mistake

You know the one about the frog in a pot? How if you put a frog in cold water, then turn up the heat, the frog won’t jump out before it’s too late? Yeah, that one.

Turns out it’s true.

Diagram explanation:

Hyper-Panda (the pot): Panda is a retail chain around the Kingdom with various incarnations, not a baby animal in China who’s being too active.

Actual panda, not hyper

Panda Markets can be found all the way down to little neighborhood mini-stores. A Panda is a regular grocery store, and a Hyper-Panda is comparable to a Super Wal-Mart. Mmm…plus a little.

Hyper Panda, Riyadh

Thursday night (the fire): In Saudi Arabia, as of mid-summer 2013, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Friday is the Sabbath and Saturday is, well, Saturday. Then Sunday is Monday. Got it? It’s the U.S. weekend in reverse and advanced by one day. The workweek is Sunday through Thursday. The weekend used to be Thursday and Friday–the U.S. weekend in the same order, advanced by two days. But Saudi Arabia was alone in the region by observing that schedule, and a couple of months ago the king decreed that the Saudi weekend was going to change as of the next week to line up with everybody else’s. Caused some scrambling as employees and companies figured out how to deal with existing vacation plans, but hey–it’s a kingdom. Figure it out.

So in short, Thursday night is Friday night around here. But after that, the similarities end. On Friday night in the States, people go out to movies, clubs, bars, restaurants, concerts, theater or dance, ball games, parties. In the summer, they might sit out with friends on a great patio somewhere, or maybe take a picnic to an outdoor concert or movies in the park. In Saudi Arabia, none of those things exist. None. Zip. Zero. There are no movie theaters. No sports (there’s a Saudi soccer league, but games are for men only). No alcohol, so no bars or clubs or parties the way people usually think of them. No arts of any kind, performance or visual. No parks. No sidewalks, even. No dating. On Thursday night, if you want to get out, you have two choices:

  • Eat
  • Shop

Saudi culture is a late-night culture. Lots of business and workers knock off for a few of the hottest afternoon hours, then add the intrusions of prayer closures at (give or take) 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 8:00, and a lot of things don’t start to really happen until after 8:00. Most retail and service businesses stay open until at least 10:00 or 11:00. 

Us (the frog): On Thursday night, we wanted to get out like the next guy. Besides, since women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, there’s always a list of things we can do together that I can’t do on my own. (At some point, surely, men will realize they won’t have to spend as much time standing around outside shoe stores if the women could get out on their own.)

We intended for our route to include a stop at Hyper-Panda for a difficult-to-find battery someone suggested might be at the watch counter. A single pair of batteries. That’s it. But you know how things go at the Super-Whatever, right? They didn’t have the battery, but the household supplies I had on my list were just right there, so we started down the first aisle. And the soup pot! Into the next. And the cleaning supplies! Oh–groceries. Look! Chicken broth!

Meanwhile, Hyper-Panda s-l-o-w-l-y got fuller and fuller. With no culture of dating, when Saudis go out, they go out as families, so there are children everywhere you go. At Hyper-Panda, as the evening got later, the aisles gradually filled with white columns, black tents, wire carts, and children running and weaving around all of them. Imagine Wal-Mart on the Saturday before Christmas, and everybody brought the kiddies. At 11:00 p.m. After feeding them plates full of cookies and cups of coffee (really). By the time we got to the dairy aisle, it had become difficult to move and we started to say it was time to leave, no matter what remained on the list. That’s when we rounded the corner into the meat/fish/nut/cheese/produce department and saw this:

Hyper Panda produce department, Thursday, 10:00 p.m.

Hyper Panda produce department, Thursday, 10:00 p.m.

The camera didn’t catch all the children. They were moving too fast.

That was the abort signal. We got a spot in one of the 7 open checkout stands (not exaggerating, actually counted) out of 50 (not exaggerating, they were numbered) and fled just before the water reached boiling and we were completely cooked. Whatever else was missing, we had eggs and milk. We were going to survive another day or two. There’s a reason I don’t go to Target on the Saturday before Christmas, which I learned the hard way at some point. Here? Lesson learned again. I think we’ll celebrate our Thursday nights at home with Netflix from now on.

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