An American Abroad | One Year in Saudi Arabia

My friend, and former co-worker, Denise has been teaching in Saudi Arabia for a year now… and I recently reached out see what she’s been up to this past year and what her plans are going forward. Enjoy!

1| Over the past year, what would you say is your favorite experience? My favorite experience of the year took place outside of Saudi Arabia. It was climbing Mount Sinai in Egypt. I have never experienced something so beautiful. Everything from seeing the stars and the Milky Way that night during the climb to watching the sunrise over the mountain, I was speechless and reverent.


2| What is the most exciting thing you’ve seen during your time there? 

The most exciting thing I’ve done in Saudi thus far is camping in the desert. To the average outdoorsy person camping might not sound all that exciting but for a stone-cold city fox like myself, just having the courage to participate in anything even remotely rustic is exhilarating. The whole event was less than twelve hours long. Our group left the compound on Friday in the late afternoon. We got to the dunes, which were about 35 minutes away, set up camp and started a fire. By that time it was already getting dark.

We had dinner, listened to music, shared real-life ghost stories and had shisha. We even met some Saudi locals whose vehicle was stuck in the sand, a regular occurrence. The guys helped them out and they gave us two huge branches to use in our fire. Without their donation of firewood our flames would have gone out way too early. Everything was basically perfect. I hadn’t been camping since I was a Girl Scout in grade school. I was really nervous about using the bathroom in the desert because I have a thing about bathrooms, but basically, you squat behind a dune and hope a fox doesn’t prance up behind you. The animals were out but they keep to themselves. I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and I saw a shooting star and a fox skipping over the dunes. The fox let me pee in peace. It was awesome!


3| Would you say you’ve adapted well to life in Saudi Arabia? I would say that I have adapted well to life in Saudi. I live in Ha’il. This part of Saudi is much more rural than the rest of the country. So the experience in this city is much different than the experience one would have in say Riyadh or Jeddah. I have adapted well to Ha’il. I still really miss a lot of things from the United States such as movie theaters, good Mexican food, going out without an abaya or a headscarf, driving, the right to speak to a man in public without getting warning looks. It’s the little things. I’ve adapted, but mostly to survive this place and I’ve been able to do so knowing that this is only for a season, not forever.

4| During your first year have you picked up more of the language? I have picked up some words and phrases but not much. Google Translate has proven to be an invaluable asset. We only speak English in class with our students and the workers in most of the places we shop speak at least some broken English; it is very easy to be here and not learn the language. Learning Arabic is a full-time job as it is a very difficult language. It’s not the same as learning German or Spanish or French. There are several guttural sounds made in the throat that are extremely difficult to acquire. I have picked up more of the language but I am far from putting together a whole sentence.

5| What has been the most rewarding experience while teaching English as a second language? I would say the most rewarding thing about teaching English as a second language, especially here in Saudi Arabia is that I get the opportunity to encourage young women. The schools are segregated by sex so I only teach women between the ages of 16 and 24. By letting them know I think they are smart, that they have a voice and what they have to say matters, and encouraging them to dream (especially in the writing classes) I am able to see their personalities bloom in the class. That is the best part.

6| Do you think you’ll continue on teaching English after you’ve finished your two years? Right now my plan is to go back into entertainment when I return to the U.S. However, one thing Saudi has taught me is flexibility. That’s the plan right now, but it could definitely change.

7| Since you first arrived in country have your formed a lot of friendships with your fellow teachers? I have formed a lot of acquaintances and a handful of real friendships. The social dynamic here is very interesting because not only do we work together but we live together and socialize together as well. Most of the time it’s fun but there are instances when we rub each other the wrong way.


8| You’ve gone through your first summer in Saudi Arabia. How did you manage the heat? 

The severity of the summer temperatures in Saudi cannot be emphasized enough. My father, who served in the first Gulf War and spent time in Saudi, tried to warn me but I wrongly assumed that there would be adequate air conditioning in our homes, schools and vehicles, the same way we have it back in the States that would counteract the heat. I was wrong. The air conditioners in the school and in our transportation are pretty good for the most part. Every now and again you’ll have a classroom where the air isn’t working well or an extra stuffy bus ride.

In our homes we don’t have central air we have box air conditioners that jut out of the wall. These devices have a tendency to freeze after thirty minutes of use so you are constantly turning them on for a little bit and then turning them off to defrost. Needless to say, you are always hot. Spring and summer last about six months. In 2015 it didn’t start getting warm until mid March. Today is February 29th and it’s been getting warm now for the last week and a half!

Fans help. Putting foil on your windows also keeps your home cooler. The most important thing for anyone spending warm months in the desert is to stay hydrated. Because the atmosphere is so dry it’s hard to know how much you’re sweating. As soon as you feel wet the air immediately dries it up. Therefore you could be dehydrated and not actually feel like it until it’s too late. I constantly carry water with me in winter and summer. I freeze it at night and carry it with me, sipping throughout the day. But yes, summer is serious. Nothing can prepare you for 110-119 degree dry heat for months on end. You just have to deal. Ha’il turns to hell real quick. But I’m told from the locals that this city it is much cooler than Riyadh. Given that information, I’m good with being in the mountains.

9| What was your favorite thing about camping in the desert? My favorite thing about camping in the desert was the conversations I had. I got to know a few new people that night. It was one of the best truly social events I’ve been to in awhile.

Thanks so much for sharing, Denise! Looking forward to hearing how your trip to Sri Lanka goes!


1 Comment

  • Reply Melinda March 14, 2016 at 1:28 am

    This was fun to read. Thanks Christa!

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