Red Book - Saudi Arabia

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

When I was about five, my dad finally agreed to bring the rest of the family to where he was working, which was Saudi Arabia. Until then, I did not really have any traveling experiences and the only things I knew about Saudi Arabia, I learned in Aladdin. Let's just say if you're a kid and you're going to some place strange, the last thing you'd want to use as reference is a cartoon about a street kid being chased by huge arabic people with funny looking moustaches and large swords.

That was Saudi Arabia for me. Lots of sand and scary people.

I guess being focused on getting piss scared about where I was going to live completely made me uncaring about my first plane ride, which was a grueling 9 hour affair. Nowadays we get on-board entertainment devices that play movies on demand to keep us from going insane. Back then you were lucky enough if your radio was working, and your only hope of entertainment is running back and forth the aisle, which the stewardesses did not really support. It was either that or looking outside the window and staring at nothing but skies, clouds, or darkness.

My ever-knowing sister was nice enough to enlighten me that if I took a single step outside and my foot touched the clouds, I'd gain sandals and wings and be stuck in "heaven" forever. I thought it was entirely reasonable, and that maybe going to heaven wasn't such a hard thing to do too.

Those were the simpler days.

In Saudi, we came to live in the southeastern side called Al-Khobar. The town wasn't very different from every other city in the kingdom, in a sense that there's sand and arabs everywhere. The place was nice enough to have malls, fastfood, and even a mini amusement park half-run by Filipinos (who we convinced into giving us free rides). There were also toys-only department stores akin to Toys-R-Us that we wouldn't see in the Philippines until 1997 when the first Toy Kingdom was established. Toy Town and Toy Land, as they were called were awesome stores, and one of them even featured a small ice skating rink - but since ice wasn't exactly the best thing to work with in the middle of a desert, they had to settle with wax. So it's more like wax skating. I'll let you take the time to let that sink in.

There were no cinemas to speak of. All the movies we watched either came from the state television or through rental betamax/VHS. I remember accidentally watching my first porn after getting interested in a title called "Franken Hooker", which I thought was Frankenstein's monster who killed with a hook.

There were people with funny mustaches too, but they didn't chase me, or wield the swords I saw in Aladdin. I think that was the time I learned that cartoons can't always be believed - unless they're about Flying Houses and Jesus.

I found our lifestyle in Saudi funny, being immersed a foreign culture built around life in the desert. In Saudi, for example, being a night creature wasn't a bad habit. It was a survival strategy. Stores didn't open up until late in the afternoon and people didn't go about their lives until late in the evening. Even television programming didn't start til 3pm. I was probably in the only country in the world where it made more sense to stay up late and wake up late.

Women were not allowed to drive so we had to wait for our dad to come home and take us around town. I was young back then so I didn't really find the discrimination revolting. My sister and mother always wore black clothing called "Abayahs" around their bodies whenever they would go out and there's always yet one other story of a woman who disobeyed this policy and got slapped in the face - legally, by the holy police. Had I learned that much later in my life, I probably would've found it in me to protest - and probably get beaten up myself so I guess it wasn't such a bad thing, being young in Saudi I mean.

Families and women always had different sections of the restaurant or pretty much every place in the kingdom. Think of the MRT policy applied on a nationwide scale. Every Salah (or prayer time), all establishments were required to close, and even if you were eating, you'd have to go outside. Other friendlier more modern restaurants just closed their counters instead. I think that's the on reason why I started liking KFC. It's also because of this policy that any shop that says it's open 24/7 is a goddamn liar.

Speaking of food, the food in Saudi is always awesome, and to this day, I regret having to be so finicky as a kid. My family loved the shawarmas - real ones that contained real beef and made by real, sweating arabs. As a general rule of thumb, the sweatier the guy who makes shawarmas, the better they taste. Don't ask, I don't know either. We also enjoyed broasted chicken with pita (unleavened bread, just like how Jesus enjoyed his) and garlic sauce, which I can still taste at the tip of my tongue today. If ever I can think of a reason to go back to Saudi now, it will have to be the golden broasted chicken.

One other cool thing I found in Saudi as a kid were the beaches. Every now and then we'd take road trips to those places, wonderful untouched beaches that you don't really expect in the Middle East. In some beaches like the Half-moon beach, the beach is separated by a stretch of asphalt road from the desert. Here, Filipinos often hung around, catching fish, crabs, and shellfish. Shellfish buried under the sand was so abundant, even with my tiny feet i could go twist my feet a bit and I'd find "halaan" buried beneath. I later learned we could actually roast the shells so the flesh would open up and we can eat them with only sand as salting. It was also in the beaches where my sister and me started to learn how to drive. It was a good way to learn driving because at the worst, you'd only hit pieces of wood, or maybe get buried in quicksand - and living in a world where sand is already omnipresent, that can't be much worse.

One thing that I can happily say about Filipinos in Saudi Arabia is that they will always be the best kind of Filipinos you will ever meet. Unlike those bastards in America, these people don't see their stay in Saudi as an achievement, rather a sacrifice. Because of that, you will rarely hear boasting that's so damn prevalent in people in America who "made it". And being in a very persecutive environment, you'll see the best of the Filipino spirit to come together and help each other even at great risks even if they're strangers. If you're Filipino, you're good as family.

I remember one time, a husband and a wife came knocking at our door in our apartment seeking shelter after they ran away from their cruel masters who held their passports. Without thinking of the consequences of harboring stowaways, my parents accepted them. It was also a good thing, because it was through this experience that my mom learned to actually cook. Tita Cory, as we fondly called the wife, turned out to be a very good chef.

We ended up smuggling them across the Arabian desert using my dad's company car, with every passed checkpoint a very high risk encounter. As a kid I didn't really realize that, but it was through later retellings of my mother that I knew the dangers we faced. The husband and wife finally reached the nearest Philippine embassy through our help. We ended up traveling some 400 kilometers for it, but I'm sure it was all well worth the effort. (400 km is roughly the distance between Ilocos Norte and Manila)

If ever I tend to judge the attitudes of Filipinos in other countries and look at them with disdain, that's because I grew up seeing only the best of our race - sticking together and helping each other at all costs -

and occasionally throwing secret sessions of cockfighting.

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