My family moved to Saudi Arabia the year I completed the second grade. We moved back to the USA the year before I started high school. So, yes – you could say it had an impact on me.
Here are 7 short things I learned living in Saudi Arabia:
1. Dealing with less is not as difficult as you think.
We are moving where? Saudi Arabia?! And I can only take how much stuff? It is easier to realize how much stuff you have, and how much stuff you don’t need when you are forced to pack it all up and put it in storage for a large portion of your childhood. Living in Saudi Arabia we had a smaller house, not nearly as much stuff, only a shared company car, and an extremely slow pace to everyday life. And you know what? We were happy.
2. Hot tea can be comfort food.
I am a coffee fanatic, but hot tea should not be missed. Especially in the right context. You have been shopping in the souk. You are tired. All you want is to sit down and rest. You come across your 75th carpet store looking for the perfect rug. They invite you in and ask you to sit. Hot tea is poured into your small glass cup through a strainer full of sugar. You take a sip and the tea warms your throat as your legs relax for the first time in a few hours. You smile at your new friends and they relish you as their guests. As you recline back and take another sip, you wonder why hospitality is not like this everywhere.
3. Bottled water is the only water to drink.
There are 3 types of water. First, there is water for the plants that comes out of a hose. This water smells, and for good reason. It is treated sewage water. You try not to even touch it, but it sure does make the plants green. Next there is tap water. You are advised to not drink it. But truth be told, you can get away with using it to brush your teeth. Finally, bottled water. I don’t care what they say about tap water back in the USA, after a short time living in Saudi Arabia, bottled water is all I can stand to drink.
4. I love the desert.
I have said this before. But I simply love the desert. There are few unknowns. There is a peace to the solid natural tones of earth and sky. The minimalist landscape simply draws you in. In short: It is simple, survival is uncomplicated, and it is home.
5. I love to travel.
Flying back and forth around the world at least once a year at an impressionable age gave me the travel bug. I want to go and experience the new. Spending a childhood in airports is odd though, especially now. It is odd, because it is hard to convey. Most people’s minds wander at the smell of grandma’s cookies, Thanksgiving at Aunt Jane’s, and the ice-cream truck driving past the youth baseball fields. I have no greater sense of nostalgia than being rung-out, tired, and jet-lagged wandering an airport terminal in search of some decent food and a cold bottle of Evian.
6. I have no shared experience.
Very few get the way I grew up. Do you have any idea how few people understand the reality of my childhood. The way the compound snack-bar smelled. The skin rash you got from the pool sometimes. Being evacuated out of country during the first Gulf War. Camping in the desert and finally hiking that crater everyone always talked about. The way the dirt kicked up on the softball fields during field day. Bowling after school, or playing pool in the rec-center as you swatted at flies. The House of Donuts van parked by the theater on the weekend. Pancakes from the dining hall, or buying spring-rolls from one of the enterprising ladies on a folding-table in front of the rec center. Wild cats roaming everywhere. The taste of fresh Tameez and honey. Eating a shawarma with extra mayo as you walk back to your car from the souq. The smell of incense emanating from the souq stalls as prayer call begins and shops start to close. Being excited to eat at Wendy’s on your next trip to Jeddah. On the road to Jeddah, seeing thousands walk the road east toward Mecca wearing the white sheets of Hajj. Camping by, and snorkeling in, the Red Sea. Snake Road. See! Maybe less than a few thousand people on the planet have any idea what I am talking about. And most of those people experienced it as adults. People with my shared childhood though? There are probably less than 500? 600? I don’t even know. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is? And trying to explain it to my kids? I have no idea where to start.
7. You can never go home again.
It is true, you can’t. See, once you leave and come back, home is never the same. The places might be different, but the people are also different. Time has changed you too. I understand this all too well. For while many can at least drive down the old streets and point to the old buildings, I cannot. Other than a personal invite by a Saudi Prince, or the King himself, there is no way I can revisit my childhood home again.
Again, writer Rich Cohen said it best:
“Everyone has an Eden, a perfect world lost when they were small.“
–Rich Cohen, Lake Effect