Monday, February 27, 2006

Time with the Georges

As I write it's Sunday evening, and we said goodbye to Mary, Laura & Lucas last night after their five-and-a-bit-day visit. Both Mary and Laura said that their experience of Riyadh was memorable and better than they were expecting. Lucas was his own inimitable self - those of you who know Lucas will know what I mean; he wasn't about to change just because he was visiting "Sloughdi Aradio".

So, what did we get up to? Well, you asked for it...

Day by the pool that I told you about last time

The girls don their abayas

for the first of several visits to a shopping mall (Riyadh's main family activity), the mall in question being the Sahara Mall on the junction of King Abdullah Rd. and Old Airport Rd. Sahara is quite large and is almost entirely full of ladies shops - clothes, shoes, cosmetics. Very little to interest the blokes in the group, so Elliot, Lucas and I spent the time in "FunLand".
FunLand is a mini funfair that occupies most of the upper floor in the Mall. This is quite a common thing in Riyadh, with most large malls having a mini amusement park upstairs, roller coaster, dodgems, carousel and all. All the machines are swipe card operated, so you start off by getting a plastic card and "charging" it with real money at the cash desk, then you can swipe 'n' play until your credit's gone. Some of the arcade machines give out tickets for a high score, and you collect enough tickets to trade for a cuddly toy at the Redemption desk. It's all very nice-looking and obviously geared towards smaller children, but Lucas clearly didn't get that particular memo, as he turned his nose up at pretty much every ride and machine there.
I guess maybe my expectations were too high - he is only five after all, and even small roller coasters must look pretty daunting at that age. Anyhow, with Lucas saying No to everything and me with my newly charged 50 Riyals' worth of credit, it was up to Elliot and me to spend it - as the look on the cash desk attendant's face was not that of a man used to giving refunds. Elliot and I had some fun on the machines, and we finally found a ride that Lucas liked. It was one of those big slides that are several lanes wide and have humps on the way down, and you sit on some sacking to slide down them. To my surprise Lucas shot straight to the top of the stairs and slid down - twice - without any nagging. Elliot had a go too but it gave him a sore bottom (as I'm sure he'll LOVE me telling you).
Just before our rendezvous with the girls I bought a pair of Hugo Boss sunglasses at an opticians, 75% off! Only cost around £20. The girls bought stuff but all I can remember was three handbags, Guess ones for Karen and Laura and a Radley bag for Abigail.
After lunch at home and an afternoon chilling out (and me doing some work of course!), we were back out, this time to the Kingdom Centre. The Kingdom Centre is a three-floor mall in the base of the Kingdom Tower, and after dinner at Planet Hollywood and some shopping some of us went up to the Sky Bridge, which is the cross-piece at the top of the tower and a mere 300m above the ground.

Mary doesn't like heights, so Karen stayed down with her while the rest of us got our tickets and queued up for the first lift, which takes you to the 77th floor 180m above, in about 50 seconds. Then it's out of that lift, past the entrance to Spazio's Japanese restaurant and into the second lift, which takes you the rest of the way to the 99th floor and the Sky Bridge. There's not much up here (inside), but the view across night-time Riyadh is spectacular,

and you can actually sit on the bottom of the angled windows and look straight down beneath you at the tower.

Around 10am we're off to the souqs (markets) in Deerah (sp?). There's a gold souq and other souqs selling carpets, furniture, clothes, and lots of other things. One of our friends showed us around there two weeks before and I had the foresight to program the location into my handheld GPS unit, so today we are able to drive their ourselves and find it quite easily.
The souqs are next to the Muttawa Headquarters (Muttawa are the Religious Police) and therfore also close to "Chop Chop Square", where the public executions take place on Friday mornings. We've been told by several people that you should avoid Chop Chop Square on a Friday if you're a Westerner, because the locals will push you to the front of the crowd and force you to watch the beheadings. But, this ain't Friday, it's Thursday, so I swing my new Prado (did I tell you I've got a new car?) into the car park without giving our location a second thought. The car park looks pretty empty but immediately on entering I'm being marshalled into a particular spot by an Indian man wearing blue overalls. There are several other similarly-clad Indian men sitting around too, with buckets and cloths by their feet... Oh I get it!
So it must be this particular blue-suited man's turn to "get" the next car and he's waving me into his space like a man possessed. As soon as I open the door he's offering to wash the car while we're shopping (actually, sounds just like Slough or Bracknell doesn't it?). I tell him no thanks, the car's clean (sort of), but he keeps on so I ask how much, and he says, "only 20 Riyals. I do very good job and I watch car too". I say, "I know you'll wash the car" and he says, "No, I wash, do good job, and also WATCH. No-one touch car, no bomb-bomb". Right, so for 20 Riyals he'll not only wash the car but he'll also mind it for me til we get back and it sounds like he's prepared to fight off all of Al Qaeda to earn his money, so I give in.
Our objective at the souq is to buy three persian carpets for the house. We've got a very big lounge with a tiled floor, so we've figured we need one small, one medium-sized and one large to break up the space nicely. I've brought SR3000 with me in cash (about £450), which I think should be enough for three rugs, and I've got my haggling head on too so I'm ready for action.
We go into Abdullah's carpet shop, where we'd been introduced by our friend two weeks before, and Abdullah immediately recognizes us and starts unrolling carpets on the floor.

Of course he gets the best stuff out first and I'm quite taken aback at the initial prices; the large rug is over £1000! When he gets an idea of my budget he starts bringing out the cheaper rugs, but the difference in quality is obvious (like Abdullah says, "If you want to buy gifts these are fine, but for you, only the best blah blah blah".. I'm thinking of hiring him to work in Sales at Novell).
Either Abdullah is very persuasive or I'm a man of excellent taste, because I end up spending SR3250 on just the small and medium (best quality) rugs, and decide to leave the large one for another day. It's more than I wanted to pay but these are going to stay with us for life as reminders of our time here and we're only going to buy stuff like this once, so we go for the best ones. All this time the others are watching proceedings, and at one point Abdullah disappears and returns with bottles of water for each of us. Lucas is getting admiring glances wherever we go too - he's good at that.
The carpet buying takes longer than expected so after a stop at a souvenir shop where Laura buys Lucas a toy camel (Humphrey),

we collect the rugs and head back towards the car via the gold souq, where Mary buys a pair of earrings and Elliot buys a matching earring and pendant set for his girlfriend's birthday.
Finally back at the now spotless and - thankfully - bombless car I pay the man his 20 Riyals, plus another 5 tip.
"Remember me next time" he says.
"I will, what's your name?"
"Number 17!" he says proudly, pointing to the badge on the breast pocket of his overalls.

The evening is spent at a barbeque at a friend's house in the DQ, which was very nice but Lucas and I nearly caused an incident when we went out to the wadi to look for Elliot, who was playing out there with the other children. We didn't find any of them (they were in the house the whole time!) but we did manage to get lost and our host was at the point of sending his security guards out to look for us when we finally found our way back to the house.

The ruins of the original capital Old Diryah lies just a few clicks to the Northwest of Riyadh

and is now an archeological attraction that is open every day including Friday, according to Riyadh Today (2004 edition). Upon arriving on Friday morning for a look around we find the gates locked and a sign warning that trespassers will be prosecuted; good old Riyadh Today!

There is an outer wall and mosque that we can walk around though, and we got some quite nice photos.

We set off back to the DQ early

so decide to explore it a little and try to find our way down into the wadi. The DQ is built around a large wadi (dried up river bed), and when we finally get down there we find that it has been turned into a very nice park

full of palm trees and there's even a river running through it (probably man-made, but still nice to have).

There's also a garden centre and a riding school down here, so we've made quite a find. There's a red&white pole style barrier across the road entering the park but it's in the up position and there's no-one manning it, so I figure it's OK to drive in. We park up and I take advantage of the nice surroundings to take a show-off photo of the Prado

- nice isn't it? Lucas is fast asleep in the car so Mary's hovering by it in case he wakes up, but the rest of us are strolling around, spotting wildlife

(beetles and toads) and taking photos

when out of nowhere appears a Saudi policeman on a motorcycle. He very politely explains that this parking area is for security vehicles only, and understands when I say I'm from the British Embassy and there was no sign or person to tell us we shouldn't drive in, but nevertheless it's time to go.
We still have an hour to kill before lunch (Fish 'n' Chips at the Embassy's Wadi Club!), so we decide to explore the escarpment, which is a large hill at the entrance to the DQ, with a stone staircase punctuated by floor lamps winding it's way to the top. We trudge up (Lucas gets carried) and enjoy the view.

We can see the DQ security checkpoint from here so I tell Elliot to be careful where he points my camera. We've only been up here a few minutes when blow me down but the same policeman appears out of nowhere on his motorbike, right on top of the hill!
"Not you again!" I said jocularly. He laughed.
It turns out the checkpoint have spotted us and radio'd him to see us off, which he does. As it happens it's nearly lunchtime now so we're not too bothered, but it did make me wonder why they provide the illuminated staircase and seats at the top if people aren't allowed to walk up there.

Finally it's lunchtime, and a catered lunch of Fish, Chips and mushy peas by the pool - lovely!

We end up hanging around the pool most of the afternoon woth some other families

and the children entertain themselves by shooting each other with BB guns.

It's the last day of the George's visit and the first day of our working week, so while the children go off to school and Karen to work I entertain our guests by - yes, you guessed it - taking them to another shopping mall. This time it's the turn of the Granada Centre, a huge new mall with Carrefour Hypermarket attached, and also the mall where I bought my skates.
Once again I leave Mary and Laura to their shopping while I entertain Lucas in the Fun Oassis on the upper floor by the food court. I know by now that there's no point trying to persuade him to go on the rides, so we charge up a card and head towards the other amusements. The tickets-for-prizes system seems to be working here (At FunLand earlier in the week it was publicised but no actual tickets were forthcoming from the machines), and Lucas and I soon rack up a grand total of 24 tickets from a combination of video fishing, basketball, and "whack the shark on the head with a hammer". Our efforts are wasted however. The smallest prize available at the redemption counter costs 57 tickets, so I tell Lucas we need to save the tickets up for another time. He doesn't seem too bothered by this, probably because he had no clue what the system was about in the first place, and that was probably because I didn't explain it to him. All I revealed to him was that tickets were good and we should collect them. We leave the Fun Oasis and do a bit of shopping, including buying an inline skate rucksack so that I can take my skates with me to Salt Lake City next month. I'm still learning the whole shopping philosophy here; the assistant tells me the bag costs SR155, to which I respond, "I'm from the British Embassy - can I have a discount?", and he immediately gives me 15% off. It seems that all prices are discountable and to get the discount all you have to do is ask. I'm sure I'd still have got the 15% off if I'd omitted the British Embassy bit. Still... bargain!
Lucas and I have a little row at this point; he's asking for a basketball and a Batman scooter and I'm saying no, because he'd not stayed in bed the night before (he's still learning the whole daytime awake, nighttime asleep thing), and our agreement was that he would only be bought something if he did.
We rendezvous with Mary and Laura at 11.30 and go to Starbucks for coffee and very nice, very large, very fattening cakes, just getting out and back to the car as midday prayers start.
In the early evening we try out Scalini, which is an Italian restaurant actually in the DQ, so not only is it walking distance from home but also the ladies don't need to wear their abayas.
The dinner is nice, quiet - we're the only people in the restaurant, and uneventful, aside from Lucas eating uncharacteristically well and me embarrassing myself by asking the waiter to put the music back on during prayer time.
Back home, the Georges' flight takes off at 0155 on Sunday morning, which means we need to leave for the airport around 11.30pm. The children have school the next day and Karen has a teambuilding event, so they say their goodbyes at home and I drive the Georges to the airport, arriving around midnight. I demonstrate my intimate knowledge of King Khalid International Airport by walking them into the wrong terminal, but we still get to the bmi check-in desk in plenty of time and I wave goodbye at passport control.
The following morning we find Lucas' wash bag including tootbrush, and teddy bear still in the house; they always leave something behind for us to remember them by.

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