New (to us) Car

Well I honestly thought it was going to be a bit longer before we'd get to write about buying a new (to us) car.  We knew when we got home finding a car was going to be a priority especially after Steve got a job quickly; so we did what was natural, we procrastinated.  About two weeks ago we finally decided to get serious and try and find something so we could return the car we're currently borrowing.

We started with the local papers and some car websites like autotrader.com and even checked out craigslist in hopes of finding a good deal.  I hoped we would be able to skip the dealership because it sounded quite intimidating and like any new thing, a bit scary, but after viewing four or five cars from private sellers that weren't up to the quality we wanted I gave in and decided to give it a go at a nearby dealership.  And by nearby, I'm really quite serious; the dealership was right beside our apartment complex.  That's not saying too much because we seem to live right in middle of a the dealership district with no less than eight nearby.

Last Wednesday we browsed the dealership websites near us and found a Focus that would be worth perusing.  Thursday we went to the dealership to do a test drive and see if it was worth buying.  In the end it was much easier and less stressful than I thought it was going to be, and after a few rounds of negotiation we settled on a price that Steve and I both felt comfortable with.  After all the work of finding and buying a car, we still couldn't take it home because we needed to line up car insurance first.

Our new car sitting in our parking lot!

Friday morning I spent a big chunk of time talking to insurance agents trying to find car insurance that wasn't going to break the bank.  It turns out that having an insurance policy in the previous six months makes it much more affordable to get new insurance.  At this point, I thought we were a bit screwed but after some digging, it turns out my parents never took me off their policy, so in the end we did have proof of prior insurance.  This is one of the few times I'm completely grateful about slacking off on updating policies.

To top it off, we're getting a discount on our rental insurance also because we decided to stick with the same company for both policies.

Now I can officially add buying insurance and a car to the list of things that no longer seem quite as scary as they did before, and will hopefully be less stressful when we need to buy a second car.

Life Update

I was hoping to have an awesome post about our recent trip to Illinois, but instead I'm up to my eyeballs dealing with insurance and cashier's checks because we bought a new (to us) car last night!

It's exciting and a relief to be done car hunting, but I know that we'll have to do it again soon to get a second vehicle once I get a job.

Tune in Monday for more exciting blog action!

Perspective

Would you wait at the register because the cashier forgot to give you change? Would you do it if it were only 53 cents?  That's what happened to me today at the grocery.  The cashier had forgotten to give change to the guy before me, so he stood there and waited until my transaction was over (so the drawer would be reopened) to get his change.  It ended up being 2 SAR which is 53 cents.  I made the comment that he was very patient to wait for such a small amount of change, and he replied that it was enough for a tank of gas in his motorcycle.  How's that for perspective.  Sure he could have walked away and written it off as incompetent workers, but instead he waited and got his gas money back.

I probably would have waited too, but I would have done it because I was owed the money, not because I felt it was worth waiting for.

My first summer class is almost over, and hopefully when it is, that will give me enough time to get some pictures ready to share.  I haven't forgotten, I've just been swamped.

Employee Mistreatment

The other day I was shopping at Tamimi (the grocery store on campus). I grabbed two bags of tortilla chips, noting the price marked on the shelf. I have recently started doing this because, as you will read, the prices aren't always the same at checkout. For about half of the things I grab, there isn't even a price tag, so I usually end up with two or three things to price check at the register before I buy them. So anyways, I saw that the chips were 8.25 SAR ($2.20) each. Don't ask me why they price things in portions of Riyals, even though Tamimi doesn't use coins.

After checkout, while going over the receipt, I saw that the chips had rung up as 10 SAR ($2.60) each. So I went over and grabbed the tags off the shelf and took them and the chips over to the manager. The date that it was made is printed on the price tag, and I noticed that it was made the same day, so I assumed that their check out system had screwed up. But no, the price had changed. Yes, the price changes here more than once per day. The manager told me, in pretty okay English, that the person who is supposed to change the price tags whenever the price changes has had problems before and he will punish him and give me the 4 Riyals. I mentioned to the manager that they really need more staff, but he said that they were just lazy. He said that the employee would not be paid this week because he screwed up. Maybe he was trying to show me that he was doing something about it, but it really made me uncomfortable. I told him that I didn't want that, and he seemed to understand me.

After hearing rumors of Tamimi and Saudi Oger not paying their employees and holding their passports hostage, I don't doubt that he would have followed through on his threat. For the most part, the workers here are really nice, and they really should be treated better.

Sadly, in Saudi Arabia this is not uncommon at all.  A large percent of the expatriates here are foreign workers from South East Asia and other Middle East countries.  These workers are primarily here to do the work that Saudi's deem below them such as maintenance, cleaning, cooking, and driving.  Many instances of abuse have made it to mainstream news, although I'm sure many more do not.  As to the passport issue, this a widespread practice here in Saudi Arabia and is used as a way to prevent workers from switching employers or returning home. The employers who are responsible for obtaining the iqama, or residence card, for the workers have also been rumored to not do so, thus further preventing workers from leaving, as they would be seen as in the country illegally.

Even here on campus, life is not rosy for domestic workers.  Some families have brought domestic worker (think nannies) with them from their previous home, and as domestic workers, they are not permitted to travel off campus without written permission from the family employing them.  So even a short trip to Jeddah, or nearby Thuwal requires a signed permission slip.

Do we continue to fight for accurate pricing, knowing that it is the responsibility of the store to honor the prices listed?  Losing 4 SAR at the store is a pittance for us; it's just over a dollar, so is the knowledge that a worker will lose a week of pay worth an extra dollar?


Undoubtedly, he needs it more than we do.

Not Throwing Good Money After Bad

Have you ever gotten a gift that turned out being a big money suck?  Well I think I've gotten one of those: my cell phone!  When we arrived on campus back in August, the university was kind enough to have Mobiliy SIM cards ready and waiting for us.  They were even preloaded with 100 SAR ($27) worth of credit; all we needed to do was go out and purchase a phone.

This has been a really good solution as we don't make many calls here and our apartment also has a land line phone which is free for local calls.  Fast forward three months and now we're running into problems.  It turns out that credit purchased for pre-paid phones has an expiration date.  This alone doesn't make sense, as it's not something that can physically spoil or go bad, it's simply a tool used by Mobiliy and other cell phone providers to increase profits for low end users.

Initially we thought purchasing more credit would be a good solution, but the amount of time the new credits will extend phone service is lack luster.  To get an additional two months of service, we would need to add 60 SAR ($16) of credit.  While this seems like an inconsequential amount of money, especially when compared to the $100+ monthly cellphone plans that aren't uncommon in the US, it is still spending money that we know won't be used.

It took me 3 months to use 40 SAR worth of credit, so why would I spend an additional 60 SAR for only two months of service?  When it comes down to it, I'm just not willing to send money to a company that won't offer the level of service I need.  And I certainly won't pay extra for what I know I won't use.

So, it looks like I'll be abandoning my cell phone in favor of the land line.  Don't worry, if it doesn't work out, the phone has two months of inactive status where the it can be reactivated for free.

Anyone else have terrible cell phone stories to share?

Changing Perspectives on Cash v. Debit

When we lived in the US there was no doubt that debit was the way to go.  Tracking the charges was relatively easy, even if the bank descriptions do get a bit crazy, they're still easy enough to figure out when you don't spend much.  So I lived out my college days with less than ten bucks in my wallet, which was only a problem when I wanted to order a pizza.

Then we moved to Saudi Arabia we couldn't get a bank account until we got our residency cards.  Since anything pertaining to the government takes an unnecessarily long time, we spent the first couple months spending cash only before we got a new bank account here with a shiny new debit card. Since it's accepted basically nowhere and we had already adjusted to spending cash, we thought nothing of it.  We live in a cash based society, and since the dollar is pinned against the riyal at 1:3.75, it's not unusual for us to have large bills on hand, especially when shopping in Jeddah.  Since bank fees make me want to punch someone, we go cash only on vacations too, so we didn't really think anything of it when we got from our "bank" 500 euro notes when we exchanged money.

I'm not 100% sure how, but somehow we realize that forking over the equivalent of a $668 in a single bill might not be the best tourist move we could make.  So we decided that when we got to Greece, we'd break it down to smaller bills.  Turns out this was a lot harder to do than we though. Each bank we went to would only break one, and the currency exchange places refused to break them.  In retrospect, it is a lot of money, but it is still money and the notion that it is somehow less spendable boggles me.  Real currency isn't spendable in Greece, but water has somehow become currency in Saudi?  It's a crazy, crazy world.

*Catch up on our entire Athens adventure by checking Our Travel Page, or our Greece tag.*

Currency Exchange

Riyals are the currency here in Saudi, and for all intents and purposes 1 dollar is about 3.75 SAR (Saudi Riyals) and the exchange rate has been fixed since the mid 1980s.  However money here works just a tiny bit differently than it does back home.  Do you know those seemingly crazy Americans that think we should get rid of the penny?  Well that's kind of how it is here, only instead of not having pennies, there are no coins used here.  Sure they exist, 100 halalas are in one riyal, but to say they aren't widely used is an understatement.  Now you might think that since coins aren't used here, they wouldn't price things at fractions of riyals, but of course they do.  So after checking out at the grocery store, it's pretty common to owe something like 18.30 or 20.80 etc.  If your lucky, it'll get rounded down and you saved yourself a tiny bit (yay) or it'll get rounded up, you'll pay more than you owe, and your compensation is a little bottle of water.  As if the bottle of water makes up for a lack of coins.  Only in the desert does water become a legitimate unit of currency.


The mentality we have when spending money here is really different, both Steve and I have noticed it.  Since one riyal is worth so little compared to US dollars, it takes more to buy something so if you just glance at prices at a store, everything seems much more expensive.  We'll look at something like milk, which is 7 SAR, and think, gee 7 is a lot, milk must be expensive.  But really it's about $1.80 for a 2 liter.  It's even worse with clothes.  I bought a sweatshirt in Jeddah a few weeks ago and nearly died when I saw the price, 99 SAR.  But really it's only about $26, which isn't terrible.  We've gotten accustomed to dividing by four to decide if we think something is overpriced.  If anything the larger numbers make us pause and reconsider purchases, so it isn't all bad.

I think this is really a more ideal situation.  If we were in Great Britain where a British Pound is about $1.60 USD, buying a 5 pound item would really be around $8.  So smaller purchases would be larger than they initially seemed.  When we go to Egypt next week, the exchange rate will be even more in our favor, about 1 USD is 5.7 Egyptian Pounds.

Another unique aspect of money here is that this is almost completely a cash based economy.  When they say it hurts more to spend cash rather than put it on a debit or credit card, they are right.

Hungry ATM

Steve and I had to go deal with the bank again.  He tried to get money from the ATM on campus and it told him that his card had been reported as stolen and for his "convenience" it would keep the card.  This seemed pretty fishy since neither Steve nor I reported either of our cards as stolen, but whatevs a trip to the bank would be necessary to straighten it out.  But the bank here is only open until 3:30, which is pretty inconvenient if you ask me.

Apparently the problem wasn't that the card had been reported as stolen, but that Saudi law had changed a few weeks ago so that a single bank account could only have one debit card issued.  I'm really not going to go into why I think that law came to be, if you're interested in my opinions we can chat offline.  Somehow our joint account had been mistaken for a single account and since Steve is the joint owner, his card was invalidated by the law. Hence the hungry ATM.

Maybe it needed a cupcake?  With Winnie the Pooh?

From what they said at the bank, the branch on campus was trying to get an exemption to the law, but it didn't pan out so cards were getting invalidated.  To top this off, it'll take about five business days (so probably six or seven) to get a new card because it will have to be authorized in Riyadh.  Wewt bureaucracy.  Thankfully my card still works so we weren't up a creek just irritated.  The bank's online banking system is also rife with irritation; it really makes me appreciate excellent banks like ING.  Having one password to login online isn't enough here, after you "login" with your password, the bank sends you a text with another password that you need to fully login to their system.  While this does add a second interesting layer of security, it is just irritating, and the only way out is to pay extra money to "authorize" your computer.

One of the most interesting sites while we were at the bank was the incredibly long line for the ATM.  Today was pay day for the construction company that works on campus and all of the workers were withdrawing their paychecks.  This was around lunch time so I figured that was why it was so busy, but the bank guy said it had been like that since 7am.  This is kind of bewildering to see twenty plus people in line for an ATM machine.  It strongly reminded me of pictures when banks were failing and people would line up trying to withdraw money.  I don't know if it was a lack of trust in the bank, incredibly low pay rate, or some other reason that every worker was withdrawing money, but from what I've read, it's good to know that they are at least actually getting paid.