Saturday, September 30, 2006

Anniversary weekend

You'd think we'd have had enough of Thai food for one year wouldn't you? Not a bit of it, in fact we discovered that the restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel was nearing the end of it's month-long Thai Food Festival, so we decided to take a bunch of friends there on Wednesday last week to celebrate our anniversary. Don't forget, Wednesday is our Friday, so this dinner marked the beginning of a long and busy weekend.
So, we began on Wednesday evening with drinks at our house before going on to the restaurant.

Everyone brought gifts (in fact I put a notice up on the front gate, "No gift, No entry." - only kidding, but good idea for next time!) and we spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting and having our photos taken by Embassy Photographer Elliot Neal (with my new camera of course).

It's probably just as well you can't hear the joke!

Karen pretending to find Paul's jokes funny

Wish I knew what this conversation was about!

We get to the restaurant and it's quite quiet, with just a few other tables occupied. That's just as well though since we're making enough noise for all the others put together. We ask the waiter to order for us with a very sophisticated, "just bring us a bit of everything", and he does, and we eat it all eagerly. No alcohol available (this is Saudi after all), so we wash it all down with a couple of pitchers of "Saudi Champagne" - a non-alcoholic punch-like mixture that was nice and refreshing (ask me about this next time you see me). After dinner and Eric - the Hotel Manager and a friend of a friend - has provided a cake for us. We have our photo taken cutting the cake (timewarp!) and the ten of us tuck in, although we can only get through about half of it - it was huge! Over coffee the evaluation forms come out. This is a common practice here in restaurants: to hand out eval forms for you to fill in while your dinner goes down. Being the end of Thai Food month we're told that any completed forms will be entered into a prize draw, with the lucky winner getting a free holiday to Bangkok. ! "That's a bit late for us isn't it!" I quip, "we just got back from there a few weeks ago!"

Thursday night is quiz night at the Embassy's Wadi Club. Organised by the newly founded Royal Society of St. George, of which I am a dues-paying member and which Karen lovingly refers to as "Xenophobes 'R' Us", the quiz is very professionally prepared by husband and wife team Richard and Wendy. Karen and I take along our BMW Quiz Winners 2003 trophy to intimidate the opposition, although at only three inches high and made of gold-coloured plastic it's about as intimidating as a water pistol. A loud but very enjoyable night ensued, with Fish & Chips at the halfway point. Our team - The Propeller Heads (thanks to Pete and Deborah for permission to use THE name) came a very respectable 3rd. At least we beat The Teachers!

Friday, and - I thought I'd never be caught saying this - we're going camping in the desert. The following Saturday (our Monday) is Saudi National Day and a public holiday, so no work or school the next day means we can camp out and drive back home on Saturday morning. Now I'm no camping fan ordinarily and wouldn't be caught dead sleeping in a field back in England, but this is the desert after all and I figure this is something we should do at least once while we're here, just so we can say we've done it if for no other reason. A couple of days beforehand we'd raided Saco World - the local DIY/Leisure warehouse, and bought a four-man tent (flippin' small men!), sleeping bags and various other items of camping parerphenalia, including a rather natty light. It's a 4ft fluorescent tube in a rugged plastic casing, that stands on a rechargeable base made of yellow plastic. So basically you charge it up before you leave and you can plonk it anywhere - including on the sand - and get, and I quote from the box, "...up to 6 hours light from a single charge" - great!

So, mid-afternoon five families set off in a 4x4 convoy to seek a suitable desert campsite. Around two hours later we're bouncing along over the dunes, stopping a couple of times to dig/tow out cars that have got stuck in the sand.

You can't stop and ask for directions here!

Finally we find a good spot in the lee of a large sand dune and start to set up camp.
Be it ever so humble...

We're feeling quite smug because us newbies have our tent erected in about ten minutes flat (we did a dry run in the lounge the day before so as not to look like idiots when it mattered), but then we turn around and look up, jaws gaping, as we see for the first time the tents the others have put up. They make our four-man look decidedly weedy and I start to wish I'd gone straight to the "Real Men's" end of the tent shelf in Saco World.

Tent envy.

We then move up to the seating/dining area at the base of the dune to set up chairs, tables, food etc., while all the time I'm working out strategies to prevent the others mistaking our tent for the outhouse during the night.

Genuine laughter - must have been one of my jokes.

Everyone has a great evening: sitting, talking, laughing, eating, drinking. Adrian builds a fire (with logs he's brought with him), and the children sit round toasting marshmallows and throwing onto the fire anything they can lay their hands on (I am hugging my camera tightly to my chest).

"Not too many now Alix - you don't want to make yourself sick, do you?"

At one point I try to follow the children climbing up to the top of the dune - just to prove I can still do it I guess. I make it, but only just, and have to sit there gasping for breath for about ten minutes before I can even comtemplate stumbling back down.

Darkness falls, and it's time to get my new light out. Some of the others have brought gas lanterns; Ha! very quaint but no match for modern technology. I proudly carry my tube light up to the campsite and plonk it down on the sand next to the food table, to various, "Oh that's a good idea!"-type remarks. I flick the switch to the On position, there's a small flash, then nothing. I flick it again, and again - still dark. This goes on for about an hour: me flicking the switch and fiddling with all the sockets on the base, but no glow. Eventually Adrian and I get our tools out and take the thing apart, but still can't find the problem. I march it back up the slope and sling it unceremoniously in the back of the car and return to the warming glow of the gas lanterns, cursing Saco World under my breath and wondering where I've put the receipt.

Bedtime begins sporadically at around 11.30, with the hard core of us staying up until around 1.30, listening to Dark Side Of The Moon on my iPod and gazing up at the most spectacular starry sky I've ever seen - you can even see the Milky Way.

Shortly after we go to bed one of the children in another tent is sick all over herself, so Karen and a couple of other Mums are standing in the desert in the pitch blackness sponging her down with cold water, while I provide moral support from my warm sleeping bag.

I have a fitful night's sleep. The floor of the tent (the sand) is very hard and the foam mat under my sleeping bag is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. I open my eyes to see light streaming in through the light-grey material of the tent (note: get a darker, thicker material next time), and emerge from the tent to find I'm the first up. Well, it is 5.30 in the morning!

Silence is golden!

I stroll around as the sun starts to peep over the top of the dunes, listening to the silence. It's not often you find yourself in a place that is totally silent, but when you do, the best thing to do is just listen to it. As time passes and others start to move about our thoughts turn to breakfast, and it's at that point where I really take in the scene and begin to see the magnitude of all the tidying up and packing away we've got to do before we can sit back in the sanctuary of our air-conditioned car.

The morning after the night before.

After breakfast and about an hour of packing, folding, rolling, and carrying, all the equipment is packed into the cars and it's time to bump and bounce our way back to the road, and home. Another child finds the rocking movements too much for his stomach to bear and is hurriedly ejected from the car before his breakfast makes a reappearance.

We get home at around 11am and, car still packed with dirty camping gear and full of sand, go straight to bed.


Anonymous said...

Our tent isn't small, it's just very far away...

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. Your observational eye and humour make this blog a real pleasure to read. Also love the liberal scattering of tips for your readers in this and other posts - forewarned by you I won't make the same mistake of buying an average-sized tent, for example!