I’M AN ESL TEACHER who happened to come upon this job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I never imagined that I’d live in an Islamic country with no movie theaters, clubs, or bars. About nine out of 10 workers in this country are expats, and we have to be creative in finding ways to have fun.
5 Places To Escape the Compound in Riyadh
1. Hike with the Hash.
I came here with the expectation of having absolutely no fun, but on my first day of work was told about the “Hash.” This is basically a huge group of foreigners that drive out to the desert for a weekly hike. We do stuff that we all took for granted before moving here — like walking and running in the fresh air, publicly wearing shorts, talking to the opposite sex, and playing music. And since I’m covered in an abaya and scarf much of the time, I’m actually slightly shy to be showing off a little skin.
Some of the hikes and climbs can be quite challenging, and the landscape is different at almost every location — soft red sands, black cliffs, and rocky wastelands. I’ve stumbled across hieroglyphics, roaming camels, and even a desert diamond. We always finish off with a barbeque, sitting in the sand and watching the sunset. And sometimes we get chased away by a sandstorm.
These outings make for nice therapy and are a good way to make contacts around the city. Most expat events are shared by word-of-mouth, so connections are everything. When I’m sick, I call my American nurse; when I want a real four-course meal, I call the French guys; and when I need my mom, I can turn to the older ladies in the group.
*Location: Changes weekly.
*Price: 10 SAR/week. (1 SAR ~ 25 cents.)
2. Scrub up at the hamam at Direm Beauty Center.
Once you get over the fact that an old lady — a complete stranger that you won’t be able to talk to unless you speak Arabic — is bathing you like a child, the hamam will become a relaxing experience. The treatment takes place in a wet sauna, where the woman massages you with black soap. And you’ll get the best body scrub of your life, especially if your attendant takes exception to your tattoos and tries to scrub the ink off!
You’ll find soon-to-be Saudi brides and curious expats alike getting this treatment done. It reminded me of the body scrubs in Turkey, and the jjimjilbangs of South Korea.
*Location: Take Exit 5 at China Mart / Carrefour. Make a U-Turn. Then get onto the service road, but be careful not to enter the highway on the right. Direm International Instititute de Beaute is a white building on the right.
*Price: 230 SAR.
3. Eat at Najd Village.
This place is like an old fortress, and makes me imagine “ancient Saudi Arabia.” It’s rich with colors, patterned doors and shutters, and stone ledges holding golden Arabic antiques. In the center of the restaurant is a lawn of plush green grass, one of the things I miss most about home.
Every group is given a private eating room with wrap-around floor seating. The meal starts with the traditional Saudi dates and tea. I went there for a birthday party, and we all shared different dishes. This was my first taste of camel. What camel tastes like depends on who you ask. My chunk was around 80% fat, so I’m not a huge fan. But the waiter seemed to have a crush on my friend, who received edible chunks instead of the hump, and really liked it.
*Location: On the corner of King Abdullah Rd and Abo Baker Rd. Across from Prince Sultan University.
*Price: Ranges from 10-135 SAR
4. Hang out in the Diplomatic Quarters.
The Diplomatic Quarters are similar to the compounds that we live in, but on a grander scale. Rules such as the full gender segregation in public — including separate restaurant sections and entrances, separate lines at the bank, and a women-only level in the mall — are dropped here, and these mini international neighborhoods are neutral ground where mostly Western norms apply. It’s hard for me not to view them as the “expat’s road to freedom.”
The different embassies put on events like outdoor movie showings and BBQs, and will throw festivals at holiday times. There are also a few walking trails, where I can almost forget what country I’m in. I’m a runner, but since you have to wear an abaya outside in the 110+ degree temperatures, and are viewed as an oddball if you venture out without a male chaperone, I’m pretty much confined to the “dreadmill.” In the DQ I can run outside almost as if I’m at home.
*Location: The outskirts of Riyadh.
*Price: Depends on the event.
5. Climb and dine in Al Faisaliya Tower.
If you’re looking for a fancy night out on the town, The Globe restaurant at the top of Al Faisaliya Tower can be fun. I went with some British friends, who kept going on about the necessity of going to high tea — an expensive combination of teas, sandwiches, and desserts. I’m American (and from the South, at that) so the only tea I really care for is sweet tea. But I gave it a try.
Il Terrazo restaurant, the all you-can-eat Brazilian barbeque next door, is more my taste. It’s open air, yet misted to counteract the heat, and not only plays music — which is absent in most public places — but is also a mixed gender zone.
Once the sun sets and the temperature drops a little, you can step out onto the observation deck for a 360 degree view of the city, surrounded by desert.
*Location: Major landmark on King Fahd Rd and Olaya St.
*Price: Ranges from 100-200 SAR at The Globe, and 200 SAR for Il Terrazo.