Saturday, December 29, 2007

Medical Care & Medications in Arabia

The third day after I arrived in Saudi Arabia, my ear started hurting really bad. I had a horrible headache and sharp pain in my right ear. By the next day, Adnan had to take me to see a doctor. At about 10pm, we went to the Magrabi Eye and Ear Hospital, a huge, brand new, state-of- the-art, spotlessly clean specialty clinic. The place was really hopping and so crowded with patients, it was incredible. Because it was during Ramadan, the clinic didn’t open until 5pm and would be open til after midnight.

We registered at the front desk and we were then directed to the 2nd floor to the ENT Department. I was told to wait in the women’s waiting room, while Adnan, Adel, and Adam waited down the hall. I was the only woman in the crowded waiting room without a veil covering my face. Of course I was wearing the abaya and had my hair covered. After only about ten minutes, I heard a tiny Indonesian nurse call my name, “Madame Suzan Annie.” I followed the nurse to a nearby examination room. Adnan came in too.

The doctor was a man who spoke very good English. I had to remove the hijab or tarha (head covering) so he could examine my ears. He determined that my right ear was quite inflamed – likely a result from having a slight cold before I left the States, plus the ten take-offs or landings I endured over the five day period prior to leaving America. The doctor wrote me four different prescriptions – an antibiotic, a pain reliever, an antihistamine, and nasal drops. We were in and out of this crowded clinic in well under an hour. I don’t know if we received special service because I was American, but it was excellent service. Plus we were able to instantly have the prescriptions filled at the affiliated pharmacy. The doctor visit cost about $20 US and the four prescriptions cost about $25 US all together. All this with no appointment, no insurance, no co-pay!

It took several weeks for my ear to finally clear up and for my hearing to return to normal, but the pain and headaches were gone pretty quickly after I began the medication.

When I left the States, I brought with me a 3 month supply of the medications I take. I thought I better start trying to see if I can get them here, so we went to a pharmacy with my pill bottles. I was able to get all 4 of them filled on the spot. The total cost was about the same as what my insurance co-pay was back in Florida. People don't have insurance here. So, I got all my medication without seeing a doctor here, without a prescription, and without any insurance! I was amazed. I know that I wouldn't be able to afford the medication back in Florida if I didn't have insurance.

I also have since been to another clinic to have blood drawn. Again the service was stellar, and the place was immaculate. No appointment, no insurance, no problems. In fact, the nurse that took my blood was so good, I didn't feel a thing!

We also had to take my son to yet another clinic and we had amazing service there as well too. This clinic was actually closed (for prayers) when we arrived, but they immediately saw my son, gave him a shot, and then we returned there later when the clinic was open to see the doctor. And another time when my son relapsed, the clinic was closed and no doctor was in, but a guy who works at the clinic actually accompanied us to a nearby pharmacy with my son's file so we could get a refill of the proper medication!

So far I have been really impressed with the medical care here - the service is incredible and the doctors and workers are very knowledgeable. I have no qualms at all about getting sick here!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Live from Jeddah...It's Susie of Arabia!

During the month of August 2007, we were very busy trying to get ready for our upcoming move to Arabia. The decision to not sell the house before we left took a lot of pressure off. A friend of Adnan's would stay in the house, make the payments, and take care of it for us. We sold both vehicles and various household items, mainly through What remained was boxed up and put in the garage.

I had a few get togethers with my girlfriends before I left. One night we went to downtown Hollywood, one of our favorite haunts. There were five of us and we had dinner at a Mexican restaurant that we had gone to many times before. When the waiter who was taking our order got to me, he looked at me and said, “I know you – I have seen you on TV, right?” I had no idea what was coming, but having been on TV a couple of times in my life, I decided to go along and smiled and said yes. Then he proceeded to tell me how much he enjoyed my cooking show. Cooking show ? ! ? My girlfriends immediately picked up on this and away we went, pulling this guys leg so far I thought it would snap off. Apparently, he thought I looked enough like Paula Dean that he convinced himself that I was she. Not only that, he also managed to convince all the other employees at the restaurant too. The other waiters kept walking by our table, smiling at me, and the manager came over and introduced herself to me. She even tried to track down a camera so she could have her picture taken with me. The food and drinks were great, as usual, but it took an extraordinarily long time for the bill to come which made me a bit anxious – I just didn’t feel right about fooling the restaurant like this and them giving us a free meal for it. Finally though, to my relief, the bill showed up, we paid, said our goodbyes, and left.
Next we walked down the street and remarkably on the very next block was a Hookah Lounge. My friends were all game for sharing a hookah in honor of my departure. It was a fitting send-off. We sat at an outside table and ordered a hookah with a blend of apple and cherry sheesha. I hadn’t smoked a hookah since the early days of my relationship with Adnan when we were university students back in Arizona. The girls all took their turns, puffing on the huge pipe and passing it around. I was very proud of my somewhat conservative girlfriends. I'm sure it was a little out of their comfort zone. They gave up after only a few puffs, and I didn’t want it going to waste, so I continued puffing away on my own - until I began feeling woozy and nauseous. I excused myself and ran inside to the bathroom. Ughh! What an awful feeling. But I must say that the whole experience made for a truly memorable night that we will always remember.
On August 30th, Adnan and Adam departed for Saudi Arabia. I also left Florida that same morning, however since my visa was not granted yet, I flew to Arizona for a week to visit my daughter and various friends, and then on to Seattle to wait out the rest of the time with my family up in the Pacific Northwest. My men would fly to New York and then connect to a non-stop flight from there to Jeddah. The length of the flight is about 11.5 hours. Later when I spoke with Adam, he told me that there was a big family welcoming committee to greet them at the airport when they arrived in Arabia. It made him feel really good, “Like a rock star!” he said.
I honestly thought it might take months for my visa to be ready, but it ended up taking only a few short weeks. On Monday, October 1st, I flew from Seattle to Ft. Lauderdale. I had to gather some belongings and papers for my trip to Arabia. The next evening I flew from Florida to Washington DC because I had to pick up my visa from the Saudi Embassy. This was a frustrating experience, but one that turned out okay in the end. I managed to get my visa issued that very day, which they had told me over the phone that they could do. I also went to an Islamic Center and got a certificate saying that I was a Muslim. Adnan told me that if I had this, it would make things easier for me in Arabia, so I did.
That night, with visa in hand, I flew from Washington DC to New York. This was, in and of itself, distressing - my flight was canceled so I had to fly into Laguardia instead of JFK, got in 4 hours later than planned, meaning the airport shuttles had already stopped running. Plus my hotel was at JFK so I had to split a cab with another couple - but it all eventually worked out. Even though I was exhausted after this long and stressful day, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep at all in my super comfortable bed at the hotel.
I left the next day, Thursday, October 4, for Arabia on the long non-stop Saudia Airlines flight to Jeddah. It was the last week of Ramadan. Before take-off, the flight attendants came around with meal menus, earphones, pillows, blankets, and a nice toiletry bag containing wet wipes, a sleeping eye mask, slippers, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion and mouthwash. Within 15 minutes after take-off, we were served drinks and a snack. Since most people on board were fasting for Ramadan, the food service was especially speedy. I ordered the lamb curry with green chile, rice, salad, bread, and shrimp cocktail. The chile was just a thin slice, but boy, was it hot!
Each seat was equipped with a small screen located on the back of the seat in front. There were games one could play, movies to watch or American comedy shows like 2 and a Half Men, Everyone hates Chris, and Seinfeld. Any exposed skin, especially cleavage on women, were blurred out on these shows and there were Arabic sub-titles. There was also religious programming or music to choose from as well.
Most of the women passengers on the flight were dressed in the long black abayas (robe) and black hijabs (head coverings). Some of the men passengers were wearing just the white wrap-around sheet that is worn to Mecca for the religious pilgrimage, and even more men changed into the sheets shortly before the flight arrived at Jeddah. In the very back of the plane in the middle section was a large curtained off area which was about 5 or 6 rows long and 4 seats wide. This was a carpeted prayer area where passengers could pray during the flight. The floors outside the bathrooms were sopping wet because of people washing up before prayers. All Muslims must wash their faces, hands and forearms and the feet prior to praying. I had to ask for new slippers because mine got soaked when I stepped near the bathroom door.
By the time the plane landed, I had been able to sleep for only one hour of this very long flight – I guess I was just too excited to sleep.
I arrived in Saudi Arabia two weeks before my 56th birthday. My flight landed in Jeddah at 9am that Friday morning in early October. From the air, Jeddah is huge and spread out. It appears very brown, with not much greenery. The climate is very warm and dry with very little annual rainfall. We deplaned on stairs, not a jet way, and boarded a tram to the terminal. It was only 9am, but it was already quite warm. I had dressed conservatively but comfortably for the flight, and before I deplaned, I put a scarf on my head to cover my hair.
When I walked into the Baggage Claim area, there were at least twenty guys waiting around with luggage carts eagerly trying to assist the passengers. Adnan had warned me about them. They were very pushy and aggressive, and one just latched onto me. He got my bags off the carousel and then we proceeded to Immigration. I got right through and then it was on to Customs, where every bag was scanned through a large X-ray machine. I didn’t see one bag opened up for inspection. There were so many items I had decided not to bring with me because I didn’t want to take a chance that they would be confiscated, and here it turns out that I could have brought virtually anything with me! Darn! Then we walked to the passenger pickup area where I searched the crowd for a familiar face. I was greeted by Adnan, Adam and Adnan’s brother Adel. They were all dressed in the traditional white dresses men wear called thobes and wore the red and white checkered headgear. My Arabian welcoming committee was much smaller than Adam’s had been because I arrived during Ramadan, when most people stay up all night to eat and then sleep during the day so they don’t feel as much hunger or thirst. So my arrival took the back seat to their sleep!
I couldn’t believe I was in Arabia after all these years. It was something I had never imagined.
Adnan was excited and proud to show me our new vehicle. It is a champagne colored Toyota Fortuner, a make of SUV not sold in the US. The protective plastic was still on the seats, headrests, and visors. There was practically no traffic at all on the drive from the airport to our house. Remember this was a Friday, late morning, in a city of about 2 million people! But because it was Ramadan, most businesses were closed and most people were at home sleeping. Driving through the streets, I was reminded of Mexico, just by the style of the buildings and the way they are arranged. The building we live in is a cube shape, as many of the dwellings there are. There are about 4-5 floors. There are two large open tiled lobby areas with fountains connected by the area where the elevators and the stairway are. The two elevators are small and can accommodate maybe four squeezed in adults at a time. We live on the 1st floor above the lobby, so we usually use the stairs for the exercise. Half of the entire first floor is our apartment and the other half belongs to Adnan’s mom, Tata.
Our new home is spacious and uncluttered and comfortable. I have photos of our new home posted online at:
One evening shortly within the first week of my arrival, we accompanied Adel’s family out to the Corniche, the boulevard and large paved boardwalk which stretches for miles along the Red Sea where many of the expensive hotels are and also contains many of Jeddah’s famous sculptures. There are also many shaded areas with benches. We arrived just before sunset for a seaside evening picnic. Sundown during Ramadan is when the fast is broken, so the meal is called breakfast. There were 13 of us altogether, including three small children and three maids. The maids did all the work of carrying everything from the vehicles and setting it all up. They spread out three large Persian carpets under a huge umbrella on the concrete, just steps from the Red Sea. We watched as the sun set and at the same time we heard the call to prayer from the utterly gorgeous nearby Fatima Mosque, which juts out on a small peninsula and at high tide appears to be floating in the Red Sea when the tide is in. By the time we left, it had ebbed and you could see the support posts underneath it. They all prayed and then we ate – a very typical Middle Eastern meal of dates, hummus, sambuseks (meat eggrolls), salad, and rice. There was a pleasant breeze coming off of the Red Sea which felt great, especially wearing the abaya and hijab. I really didn’t feel hot at all. Then we drove through a nearby district with really beautiful walled villas that were just gorgeous.
Another evening we all went to a huge new beautiful shopping mall, called Roshan Mall. It had a large play area for kids, which was a small amusement park with various rides. There are not many activities for Arabian women and children aside from shopping, so all the malls I have seen have a huge play area. The stores looked just like the stores in America, and there was a large food court too. Among others, there was Baskin Robbins, McDonalds, Burger King, and a huge store similar to Super Target called Hyper Panda. Just the customers look different, that’s all! The women are covered in black from head to toe and most are veiled and most of the men are dressed in their white thobes and head-dresses.
One day we drove down to Old Jeddah, which is southwest from where we live, about a 45 minute drive away in good traffic. Many of the buildings are over 500 years old or more. I was surprised to see many poor women and children there begging for money. Arabia has its poor people too. This is proving to be a land of many contrasts and contradictions. I saw the area in Old Jeddah where Adnan was born (his grandmother’s house), and the old house where he grew up, that his mom still owns and is trying to sell. I saw where Adnan went to elementary school and where his dad is buried. The streets were narrow and crowded with parked cars and pedestrians and the hustling and bustling of activity, and the traffic was a nightmare. It’s almost comical seeing the bumper to bumper traffic with all men drivers talking on cell phones and dressed in their traditional garb behind the wheel of the latest models of SUVs or other expensive cars, honking constantly.
We parked and walked into Bab Makkah (means Gate to Mecca), an enormous outdoor open air market meandering down one closed-to-traffic street for blocks on end. Bab Makkah has many shops and street vendors selling all sorts of food items, cooked or uncooked, like dry goods, olives, dates, fresh produce, and meats like lamb and chicken. There are many other items for sale as well, like clothing, shoes, watches and other jewelry, luggage, toys, sports equipment, and just about anything you can name. The place was incredibly interesting, but also very hot with that black abaya on! It was almost surreal. At times, I felt transported way back in time to Biblical days, until I was jolted back to reality by the nearby honking traffic. There is a link to an album with my first photos of Arabia in the left hand column of my blog. This album contains some photos of the market.
I can honestly see why women aren’t allowed to drive here, especially in a place like Jeddah. It is absolute madness! There is no way I would ever WANT to drive here. First of all, there is virtually no traffic enforcement to speak of. (Adnan calls it "freedom!") In heavy traffic, cars are bumper to bumper, literally inches apart with far too many narrow misses for my blood pressure! Drivers totally disregard any semblance of traffic lanes, and they have to be very aggressive. Going the wrong direction on a clearly marked one way street is common. Even on divided streets with a median down the middle, it is not unusual to encounter cars going both directions on each side of the median. Many times cars will turn left from the far right lane in front of all the other lanes of traffic! One time on a busy street, we saw a car ahead of us go into reverse, backing his way through the lanes of oncoming traffic! It is absolutely crazy. Half of the time I have to cover my eyes because it is so nerve wracking. Amazingly there are very few accidents which I find astonishing. Somehow it works.
I kept bugging Adnan to get me a map of Jeddah, and finally one day his brother Adel pulled over while we were driving and bought me a map. The only problem was – it was all written in Arabic, so it really didn’t do me much good. I finally got a map in English, so I am trying to learn my way around, although when you're not the driver, it is harder to pay attention to the streets and how to get somewhere. And there is always something interesting that catches my eye and distracts me.
So far, I have found that the language barrier really is a non-issue. Almost everyone speaks some English and many people speak it very well. It is taught in the schools here. I haven't felt it is a problem at all, but it has made me lazier about trying to learn Arabic! The pronunciation is difficult with many guttural sounds that are not used in English. I did get a good laugh out of everyone one day shortly after my arrival, when instead of saying, “I need the bathroom,” I said, “I am a bathroom!” I still get kidded about that. Another thing that makes it a difficult language to learn is that inanimate objects are male or female, as in Spanish. But in Arabic this affects the verb form that ones uses. Adnan's family has been really good about making Adam and me feel included, but there are times when they tend to speak more in Arabic and I don't have a clue what they are talking about. I can pick up a few words here and there, so sometimes I can figure out what they are talking about, but many times I can't.
I have been in Arabia for almost three months now, and so far the experience has been incredibly interesting. Granted, marrying a man from an entirely different culture and religion is not an easy thing to do - and making it work is even harder. The decision to leave my country, my family, my home, my religion, and many of my freedoms was not an easy one to make. What has made the transition easier is how warmly my son and I have been welcomed into Adnan's family. Their generosity is overwhelming. The people here are warm and friendly, and women here are treated with great respect. My husband has become more relaxed and seems more content to be back home now. It is plain to see how well-loved and respected my husband is here. Our lives have definitely slowed down in Arabia. My son has probably had a harder time making the adjustment than I have - he is, after all, a teenager. But he is coping and hopefully he will look back on this time as a great experience and opportunity in his life.
I have a lot more to tell you, but I will save that for my next episodes, which hopefully will post sooner than it took me to get this done! Stay tuned!