I, the expat wife barred from having a day job, came here carrying lots of ideas of things to do to fill the time. Subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. Two notebook-size wallets of DVDs. Mental pictures of long days spent writing. Hours in the gym. Online cooking classes. Reading by the pool!
Eight months in, I don’t think I’ve unzipped the DVD cases. I’ve seen maybe two Netflix movies. I’ve finished final edits on the book I came here with, but have barely started the next. I have, however, learned the proper way to sharpen knives. Score one!
WHAT HAPPENED? My friend is right: I do NOT spend all my time shopping. In fact, I often look at the week’s bus schedule and think, “Oh, no. I need something at every one of those places and I do not have time to go out every day.”
No time? Well, for one, the ordinary business of life-maintenance is the same here as anywhere: Gym. Shower. Get a haircut. Pay bills. Wash dishes. Clean out the refrigerator. Cook. Do laundry. Figure out what’s wrong with the router. Time-consuming and easily forgotten.
But a lot of what still counts as ordinary is different here. To explain it, I have to resort to math. It’s the formula for managing Saudi life, which can be expressed in the following terms:
If a is a variable used to represent anything and all things, and if h is a variable used to represent units of time known as hours, and you are trying to calculate the number of hours required to perform a single activity that could fall under the classification of “anything” or “all things,” then after you cancel similar quantities on both sides of the equation to eliminate extraneous variables (e.g., t for traffic, d for time of day, p for prayer time closure calculations, r for route weirdness, b for bus), you end up with this:
a/h = 3
That’s it. I call it the Saudi Rule of Three.* Anything, all things, and everything will take you three hours.
*Original credit: My friend Patty first suggested that everything takes four hours. I made some careful observations of my own outings, added a few controlled coin tosses, and settled on three. She may yet be right.
It is possible to break the Rule of Three. That’s called “a victory.” Or the Rule of Three can break you. That’s called “getting Saudied.” But you know what? If you were to add up all things you did outside your own home over the course of a year, the victories and the Saudis, and the number of hours it took to do them, then divide, I’m willing to bet you still get 3 per thing.
Now, back to those variables I canceled out. They weren’t cancelled because they’re unimportant. They are, in fact, the reasons why the formula exists in the first place. But added together, they tend to come out the same no matter what. So…the definitions:
t/traffic: Riyadh traffic is terrible. Over the past fifty years, the Saudi population has doubled twice, and the population has migrated from the desert to the cities. People keep coming to the cities, then multiply when they get here. Thus, a steadily increasing number of cars on the road and in your way. (Note: Terrible driving is a constant and a subject for another blog, but the lane non-alignment of the cars in the photo should give you a hint of what’s going on.)
d/time of day: Riyadh has multiple rush hours every day. The first is early, as fathers and drivers take children to school. (Saudis of even modest means send their children to private school, so cars are going all directions across town.) At about the same time, expat office workers head to work (the Saudis will come in later). The next jam starts later in the morning, as children are sent home at midday and a lot of businesses close for the afternoon. (Most offices observe business hours, but many retail businesses close between midday and afternoon prayers.) Later on, office-employed Saudis go home. A couple of hours later, offices really close and everybody else goes home. Then by about 8:00, after the last prayer of the evening, the streets start to fill with Saudis heading out to shop, go out for dinner, go to social events. Retail businesses stay open until 11:00 or midnight. In other words, there are about three hours between dawn and midnight when it’s not some rush hour or another.
p/prayer time: Muslims all over the world manage to be observant and say their prayers within the constraints of their workaday lives. In Saudi Arabia, however, public-facing businesses are required to close five times a day, for around 45 minutes each time, for prayer. (Granted, not too many are affected by the pre-dawn one.) They’ll get fined if they’re caught with their doors unlocked or attending customers in any way. You use a prayer app on your phone to keep track of prayer times (they vary, like a tide schedule) and plan your outings so that by the time the doors slam shut you’re either finished or safely stashed inside a place where you don’t mind spending some time (at a restaurant table, wandering IKEA). Mine looks like this:
(The “sunrise” on the prayer app isn’t a sixth prayer, but the time of actual, physical sunrise.)
Even if you manage to squeeze everything in between prayer times, it still reduces efficiency. We have frequently abandoned a shopping trip to get through checkout before prayer time, turning a routine trip to the hardware store into two trips.
r/route: This is also a subject for a separate blog, for which I have not yet accumulated the photos and videos to do it justice. (Update: that post DID get written, and it’s here.) Consider this a teaser: With only occasional (and dangerous) exceptions, you can’t make left turns on thoroughfares in Riyadh. For the purposes of this discussion, what matters is just the way this complicates every route, everywhere. A McDonald’s can be visible from where you’re standing at a super-smarmy gas station on a hot afternoon–across the street, half a mile down–holding out the sweet promise of an extra-large Diet Coke WITH ICE, and take fifteen minutes and a dozen turns to drive to. No lie. Simply moving from one place to another on a list of errands can leave you two errands short of a victory at the onset of p/prayer. You just got Saudied.
b/bus: I try to take care of everything I can during the mornings, on the compound bus, rather than have Husband haul us out in the evenings to wrestle with t/traffic and p/prayer. I’ll leave my house at 8:45 to walk over to the office and get on the 9:00 bus, which may take a half hour to drive to a mall with a hypermarket because I need, say, printer ink. PRINTER INK, people. The kind of thing I’d pick up on a one-hour circuit at home that would include four other stops. No, here I’m trapped at the mall until the bus leaves at 11:30. As a nod to efficiency, I’ll at least get groceries there as well, picking up a few things my ordinary store doesn’t have, but also missing a few things it does, so I’ll still make a separate trip for the rest of the groceries in a couple of days. With midday traffic, I’ll get dropped off at my villa, with my bags, at 12:15. Printer ink and groceries, 3.5 hours. PRINTER INK. The bus schedule is fixed, so you have no way to combine errands. If you need something at one place, and something else someplace else, that’ll be separate trips on separate days, at three-plus hours each.
But then there are the delights, like this week’s trip to the old Diyirah Souk downtown, where I’d gone purely for the outing and found myself fascinated by the perfumes and colognes at the 5SAR store. The 5SAR store is roughly equivalent to the dollar store, except dirtier, and the prices may or may not be 5SAR (roughly $1.50). You have to ask. Instead, I just took pictures.
For the aspirational man:
For the aspirational woman–no, excuse me. Women. She’s incredible, but she’s not too concerned about being the only one:
I’m certainly spending my time in different ways than I did at home. In a place without ready entertainment, I’m finding new diversions. Trips to the souks, great conversations on the bus with women from all over the world, meeting up for lunch in the compound restaurant and laughing about our adventures. And yes, traveling at every opportunity to places where you CAN go where you want, when you want. So no, I don’t go shopping all the time (though sometimes it feels like it). But I almost always find a way to enjoy it when I do.